Hi all, first pony fic for a while! This is a bit... different (uh, to put it nicely), I wrote it to explore a few concepts about the show that intrigue me. It was originally one big chunk, but because I don't know when (or how) to be succinct, I'm chopping it up into chapters. It should end up being five parts all told. I hope you enjoy!
Note: I am not American. I don't use American spellings. So, jewellery, not jewelry. Colour, not color. Humour, not humor. Sorry if it's jarring!
Not mine, no money, no sue.
At first it was amazing, being back together again. But as time dragged on, it became incredibly boring. There was darkness and tedium for what seemed like forever, though in truth it could have been anywhere between a few days and a few millennia. There was simply no way of telling. One by one they joined her in the Dark, and together they laughed and gossiped and bickered and sighed and squabbled. Something was missing, but as the Dark ate them away it became harder and harder to pinpoint what - or who. Memories shrank to a vague nagging feeling, until eventually even that faded. There was no touch, no taste, no sight, and no sound except for the other five voices suspended in nothingness.
They drifted in the void. They dwindled in the Darkness. They forgot.
And then there was colour.
"Twilight! Oh my gosh, Twilight!"
It was possible to get a sort of pseudo-privacy by 'pulling' one's consciousness as far from the others as possible. It wasn't much, but it was all they could manage. Their senseless womb was limitless as far as Twilight could tell, but the six of them were always and forever connected. There was no way of truly escaping one another at any time.
Twilight sighed - somehow - and brought her attention back to the here-and-now... though 'here' was a question she had never been able to answer to her own satisfaction, and 'now' was a complete mystery. "What is it, Rainbow Dash?"
Dash sounded excited. Her connection to Twilight buzzed with anticipation and amazement. “I dunno... but it was weird! There was, like... colour, all of a sudden!”
Twilight frowned. Well, she thought about frowning. It was the best she could do. “Colour? Yeah, right.”
Applejack’s Self was drawing closer, and Twilight could feel the others approaching as well. Great, just great, she groused. She loved them, she always had and always would, but even a disembodied personality drifting in a blank world of nothingness needs quality Alone Time.
“Colour, you guys!” Rainbow said enthusiastically. “Remember colour? Well, guess what I just saw!”
Twilight prepared to draw away from them again. If she’d had a head, she would have shaken it. “Rainbow, you’re going crazy. There aren’t any colours. Just the Dark, like always.”
“I swear,” Rainbow insisted. “It was just a flash, but it was there! I promise!”
Another insubstantial sigh, and Twilight resigned herself to losing her semi-solitude. She obviously had to deal with the mental breakdown of one of their number first. She moved herself closer to Rainbow’s Self. “Look, Rainbow. I know we’ve been here a long time...”
“An’ have you finally figured out just how long is long, Twilight?” said Applejack rather tartly.
“For the last time, I don’t know how long it’s been! I’m just as in the dark as you!” Twilight snapped.
“In the Dark, good one!” Pinkie Pie giggled.
“Hilarious,” Twilight said flatly. She didn’t actually say anything, of course. That would require the use of a tongue and teeth, of vocal folds, lungs, larynx and a million other things she didn’t in fact have anymore. Voices here were a matter of will and choice. She chose to use hers now. “Come on, we’ve been over this, girls. I don’t know where we are, and I have no idea how long it’s been. I don’t know why you keep looking at me to tell you!”
“Well, you’re the clever an’ ever-so-magical one, ain’t you?” Applejack said.
“It doesn’t work here,” Twilight said, controlling her temper with an effort. “If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times! I don’t have my magic, and I haven’t had it since we came here!”
“An’ there’s another question I want answered,” Applejack continued doggedly. “Where in tarnation is here?”
“Darling, we don’t know any more than you do,” Rarity snapped. “Now do shut up.”
“I just reckon we oughtta know how long it’s been, is all,” said Applejack stubbornly.
“So what set Applejack off again?” asked Pinkie.
“Guys, if you’d just listen for a second!” Rainbow Dash exclaimed. “I. Saw. Colours!”
“It was bound to happen sooner or later,” said Rarity. “All this gloominess and Darkness, one of us was bound to snap eventually. I never suspected it would be Rainbow Dash, though... I always thought it would be Twilight or Pinkie, personally.”
“Oh, so did I!” chimed in Pinkie.
“What kind of colours do you think you saw, Rainbow?” asked Fluttershy wistfully. “I wish I could remember colours.”
“There were two blurs!” Rainbow sounded utterly elated. “There was a big white blur, and a little dark blur!”
“White an’ black?” Applejack sounded very put-out. “Couldn’t your imagination come up with any real colours? Even hearin’ about ‘em would be better than nothin’.”
“It wasn’t black!” Rainbow Dash was frustrated. It sang through their connection like a horde of buzzing bees. “It was... another colour. Um. Starts with P.”
“Pink!” Pinkie Pie said.
“Nope, wasn’t pink. I remember pink – don’t think I’ll ever lose that one thanks to you, Pinkie Pie. It was close to pink, though... sort of darker...”
“P... p...” mused Pinkie.
“Parsnip?” said Fluttershy.
“Was that a colour? The colour parsnip?” Dash wondered.
“That don’t sound quite right t’ me,” said Applejack dubiously.
Twilight concentrated. “Could it be pur... p-purpose? No, that’s not it. Um. Was it... puh... purple, by any chance?”
“Uhhh.” Rainbow Dash seemed to be thinking very hard. “Purple. Pur...pul. Yeah, I think it was. Hey, cool, I saw the colour purple!”
“Oh, I remember that word,” said Rarity with a little hitch in her voice. “My... thing on the head, the hair thing... that was purple.”
“Mane?” offered Applejack.
“Mane! That’s the... thing that hops, eats, er, canaries? No... carts? No, no, gracious, no... um, carrots...?”
“Pinkie Pie? She hops. Hopped.”
“No, that’s not it.”
“Bunny,” Twilight ventured.
“Yes, precisely, thank you dear. I’m certain my mane was puh-erple. Purple. Purple. What an enjoyable word. I do wish I could remember what purple was. I’m sure it was spectacular.”
“I wonder what a bunny looks like,” mused Fluttershy. “I’m sure I used to know.”
“I wonder what a bunny is,” said Pinkie. “Does it bun?”
“Maybe I saw a bunny!” Rainbow Dash said challengingly. “Maybe bunnies are purple, huh?”
“An’ maybe that’s a bunch o’ hooey, RD,” said Applejack.
“Look, you can’t have seen colour,” said Fluttershy kindly but firmly. “I’m so sorry, Rainbow Dash, but there’s been no colour at all for ever such a long time.”
“I know,” Dash said. It sounded like she was speaking through gritted teeth. Twilight wondered how she was managing it. After all, she was working with something of a handicap in that department. “Jeesh, don’t you think I know that? But I’m telling you, I saw colours! And it wasn’t just the big white blur or the little purple one, either... there was sort of... stuff around them. It all looked crazy familiar.”
“Sugarcube, you sayin’... you remembered somethin’ new?” Applejack said incredulously.
“Oh, how wonderful!” said Fluttershy.
“Nonsense,” said Rarity. “It must be some sort of hallucination. Nopony here has remembered anything in, in... oh, I wish there was some way to tell how long it’s been!”
“Join the club,” grunted Twilight.
“What’s a club?”
“Urrrgh, I was trying to be alone, you guys,” Twilight growled. “Seriously, I can’t hear myself think - and that means a lot more than it used to! It’s been a very exciting game, Rainbow Dash, and you’ve stirred us up and all. Lots of fun, hooray and whoopie, and now we all remember the name of the colour purple even if we can’t remember the colour itself. That’s great progress. But can we please forget all this nonsense now? I mean, come on, you didn’t actually see anything. It’s completely impossible.”
“Hear, hear,” said Applejack.
“Oh, I quite agree,” said Rarity.
“Dashie?” Pinkie said. “You’ve gone all wibbly on your end of the connection there. I’m sure Twilight didn’t mean to be a big meanie-pants and hurt your feelings or anything. You okay?”
“Oh my gosh,” said Dash suddenly.
“Dashie...?” Pinkie repeated. She sounded a little apprehensive.
“Oh my gosh,” Rainbow Dash said once more, her voice tight. “It’s happening again... guys, come here, come see this...!”
“You just cain’t handle bein’ wrong, can you?” Applejack said.
“Good gracious, some ponies,” Rarity sniffed.
“I’m serious!” Rainbow barked. “Quick, come here! Guys, all of you!”
“If I do, will you please, please, please drop it? You know, after you’ve been proved completely wrong and I am once again proved totally and incontrovertibly right?” said Twilight wearily.
“Twiiiiiliiiiiight, get over here!” Rainbow gasped. “It’s... it’s pulling!”
Twilight gave a mental shrug, and moved herself closer to where she could feel Rainbow Dash’s presence. She could feel the other four converging as well, though Applejack was grumbling sceptically and Rarity was flat-out disbelieving. Rainbow enfolded them in her Self, and they waited.
“Well, Rainbow Dash, do enlighten me on the purpose of this exercise, because I don’t feel any pulling,” said Rarity pointedly.
“Me neither,” said Fluttershy.
“Haaaaaang... oooon,” said Rainbow Dash, her Self tingling with anticipation.
Twilight sighed. “Rainbow, there’s no colour. There’s no pulling. This is a total waste of--”
The Darkness broke.
The brightness was devastating. The kaleidoscope of colours stabbed relentlessly at Twilight’s mind. She could feel the screams of her friends about her. Their pain was hers as well, amplified sixfold and echoing through the caverns of her Self.
“WHAT DID YOU DO?” she screamed.
“I sort of... grabbed onto where the pulling was!” Rainbow yelled back through the swirling overload of sights and sensations.
The sheer intensity of it was agonising, and Twilight screamed again, trying to tear herself away. She could feel the others doing the same, reaching futilely for their cool, safe, dull Darkness. But they were still enveloped in Rainbow Dash’s presence, and could not escape. Not even Twilight could break free with all her vaunted magical gifts. For some reason, Dash was stronger than she’d ever been before.
“What in...!” Applejack hollered. “Rainbow, you let go o’ me this minute, y’hear, or so help me I’ll give you a kickin’ you ain’t gonna ferget in a hurry!”
“Jeez, get a grip, AJ,” Rainbow Dash said. She was obviously striving for her renowned coolness, but the trembling of her voice and the acid taste of shock in her aura betrayed her.
“What... is it?” asked Fluttershy in a tiny voice.
“I... don’t know, darling,” Rarity quavered.
It was... Twilight struggled for the words.
“Room,” said Pinkie abruptly.
“That’s right!” said Applejack. “Now, how in the world could I have forgotten that? Room, it’s a room!”
“The same way we all did, Applejack,” Twilight said, getting herself under some semblance of control. It was tentative at best, but at least the effort made her feel a little better. The pain had receded, and the brightness was gradually becoming bearable as she adjusted. “We don’t know how long we’ve been in the Dark, but I’ll bet it was a long time. Forgetting is something that happens to everypony.”
“Us more than most, I’d say,” said Rainbow. “Is it just me, or is the... ruh... room... really... big?”
“You’re right!” Pinkie said brightly. “It’s an extra super-duperly enormous room! And it’s got an extra super-duperly enormous chair in it!”
“Chair!” they all chorused in awe.
“Oh, chairs! I’d forgotten chairs!” said Rarity with a little catch in her voice.
“Chairs were great!”
“Yeah, chairs were--”
“I suppose they never need polishing. Hah, y’know, I’ve worn that one. The red one. Didn’t work, but I still got to have a go - for once. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen them. They’re still beautiful.”
The new voice startled them out of their euphoria, and they cried out in shock. It was somehow invasive to hear another voice, a seventh when it had forever been six, only six! Twilight frowned – or at least thought ‘frown’ as hard as she could. She bolstered her courage and pressed her Self forward into the crushingly detailed room, tugging at Rainbow’s grip. As she took in their surroundings her mind began shrieking memories and words. Dais. Scarlet. Equestrian flag. Velvet. Helmet. Armour. Rope pulley. Tray. Hoofbeats. Crown.
Wait. Back up. Hoofbeats?
Another voice spoke, smoother and richer than the first, and Rarity, Fluttershy and Twilight all yelped once more, whirling to where the new sound was coming from. How, how could there be yet another voice? An eighth voice?
There was a soft gasp of recognition from Rainbow Dash.
“The white blur!” she said triumphantly, relaxing her chokehold upon their Selves. “I told you! That’s the white blur!”
“Okay, Rainbow, you’ve made your point,” Twilight said in a strangled voice. “You were right, I’m sorry. Now let’s... investigate.”
“What did the white blur say?” hissed Pinkie.
“I don’t know, I missed it,” Twilight said, trying to squash the sensation of her heart racing – a sensation that would make a lot more sense if it weren’t for one tiny but crucial detail.
“How can I protect them?” she heard the first voice say. It was young... and old. She didn’t know how to describe it exactly. It was definitely a child’s voice, a little boy’s... but it was as weary as that of an old, old man. It was coming from a small purple blur. And it was strangely familiar. It boomed around her brain, carving trenches in her reason. Eight voices! Was this real? Were they all going mad?
Her thoughts were reeling, struggling under the influx of awakening memories, swamped with words and ideas and sensations. The colours... she knew the colours... there was white, and there was purple. That was what purple looked like. She had been purple once, hadn’t she? Perhaps that’s why she’d remembered the name so well...
...and then she staggered once more as yet another flood of words surfaced in her already strained mind. That was called a throne, a special kind of chair, and that colour was called gold, and that was a wing, that thing on that pony’s back... and she had been a pony once, she’d had one of those things, the pointy thing that did magic. Horn. That was it. Horn. Unicorn. Pegasus. Earth pony. Ali--
The tall pony-shaped blur with the horn was speaking, answering the question.
“It’s time,” she said softly.
Twilight’s heart leapt in her chest – or it would have, if she’d had a heart or a chest. Time, the answer to that maddening question...
How long have we waited in the Dark?
She could feel the yearning of the others through their connections. Their shock and amazement was transmitting to each other, amplifying their confusion.
The little purple blur jerked away from the larger white blur. “Please,” it said, almost begging. “No.”
“You’ve put it off long enough,” said the white blur. “You’re over five hundred years old, my friend.”
The other figure said nothing. Slowly, details grew clearer, and Twilight’s mind rang with a million names. Floor, marble, spear, guard, buttress, window, sunlight, sky, clouds, curtains, wall, tapestry...
“It’s time you grew up,” said the white figure sadly. There was some sort of waving cloud – with such colours! – for a mane and... and tail, that was it. It was called a tail.
“You must protect them,” continued the white figure. “You must use them. I do not mean to belittle you as you are, Professor, but it is too much for a child to wield all six, even one so old as you. It would drive you mad, or incinerate you. Besides, we are far past the need for a diplomat, historian or negotiator. We need a warrior. We need a great defender. We need what only you can give us.”
“Find somepony else,” said the small purple figure. He was gradually coming into focus as Twilight adjusted to what was, to her, utter blinding brightness, though her wildly shrieking memory was telling her that it was in fact a rather overcast day. She wanted to shy away from it, wanted to cringe and squint and shield herself. Though she had no eyes, it seemed that something deep inside her wished to play by the body’s rules. Bereft of a body, Twilight would take what she could get. Besides, the impulse staved off the panic for a few seconds more.
To distract her attention from all the oppressive details and the painful brightness, she began to study the small purple being. He was covered in hard plates of something chitinous-looking, shiny and glossy. They looked thick and heavy – far too heavy for the little figure. Twilight brought herself closer without even thinking about it, drawn to him for no reason she could explain. She knew the name for those overlapping plates, she was sure of it. Yet though a myriad of other words rose in her overcrowded mind (carpet, shoe, necklace, saddle, scroll, greaves, claws, quill, blade, fang, ribbon) for some reason the name simply would not come to her.
The great horned and winged figure spoke again, and her rich voice was grim. “There is nopony else. You know he is on the loose again. You and I and Luna are the only ones who know what is at stake.”
“No,” choked the small purple shape.
“I know what you fear,” said the white pony. “But you are wiser now. It will not happen again, I promise you.”
The purple blur had green tinges along it (green! Oh, to see green again, and know it to be green!), and Twilight’s reeling, overtaxed memory screamed a word.
“I’d rather not risk it, thanks,” the small dragon said. It turned away from the pony and hobbled over to look out of the window. It had to stand on tiptoe. Its eyes were distant, sorrowful and fearful.
“That’s a dragon,” said Twilight in a whisper.
“A wha?” said Applejack, her voice dazed.
“They can’t see us or hear us,” noted Pinkie. “Hey Dashie, we could play some totally wicked pranks!”
They could feel Dash straining, and then she said, “no good. I can’t move anything.”
“Shhh!” said Rarity. “That’s... I know them, I know them both!”
“Me too...” said Twilight slowly. “They were... important...”
“So... five hundred years...?” said Fluttershy. “If we knew them... and if that baby dragon is that old...”
“Then we’ve been in the Dark for five hundred years,” said Twilight. The idea was too huge to really take in. She felt numb. “We waited for five hundred years.”
“Felt longer,” grunted Applejack.
“It’s a baby?” Pinkie said.
Fluttershy sounded bemused. “I somehow... well, Twilight said dragon, and all of a sudden I knew that it was a baby one.”
“Yeah, it’s not very big,” said Rainbow critically.
“Would you kindly be quiet!” Rarity snapped.
The dragon was speaking again. “Why me?” he asked, staring out at the sky. “Why is there nopony else? There must surely be ponies that embody them.”
The great winged unicorn was still for a moment. “They do not respond,” she said finally. “They will not work for anypony at all. They haven’t for five hundred years.”
“Not even you?” the dragon said, eyebrows rising.
The pony’s mouth twisted. “No. Nor Luna either, to answer your next question. Not that that is an option at the moment.”
The dragon snorted bitterly. “Indeed.”
“Luna...” murmured Twilight. “Sounds...”
“Familiar,” finished Pinkie.
“They almost work for me...” the pony said, her tone heavy with disappointment.
“But not quite,” the dragon said, turning back to her with stiff, careful movements.
She sighed. “No, not quite. It is as though they sleep. They do not recognise me anymore... I am a stranger. It has been millennia since I last wielded them and that was before they chose their true avatars. I should not be surprised. I think they need somepony they know well, somepony to wake them. Somepony who knew and loved them, who recognises them, and yet embodies all of their special traits...”
“And you think that pony is a dragon,” he said with heavy bitterness. “Excuse me your Highness, but you must be mad. This war has turned your wits.”
“I have never been surer of anything,” she said, her chin rising proudly.
The dragon continued, stony and relentless. “You have no idea whether they’ll even work for me at all.”
“I don’t exactly embody Laughter at this point, do I?”
Twilight’s memory rang with a wicked little chortle, and she whispered without quite knowing why, “you did once.”
Almost as though she were hearing Twilight, the great white pony smiled.
The dragon was as still as a carven statue. “I haven’t laughed in thirty-eight years. I’m not your guy. Find somepony else.”
The pony tilted her regal head, the coloured cloud rippling behind her. “You are the most loyal creature I have ever known. You are unflinchingly honest, and you are always, always kind. You were born through magic, and you have the mighty magic of dragons in your very bones should you ever grow large enough to use it. You are unfailingly, almost self-destructively generous. You knew them and loved them, and they in turn knew and loved you. No, you are the only one who can end this... you are the only one who can wield them. You have simply forgotten how to laugh.”
“These are not times for laughter.”
The dragon fell silent, and his claws pressed together. They moved stiffly, making a noise like stone rasping against stone. Then he sighed gustily, two small jets of fire rising from his nose. “Princess,” he said, “you know what I’ve had to go through to stave off the hunger. The greed. You know what I’ve sacrificed, and what I’ve lost. You know how long it’s been. And now you would have me throw all that away, all that work, all that control, all that,” he paused and swallowed. “All that. To guard them? Use them? I could become a monster. With their power, I could become a greater horror than he could ever be.”
“Princess!?” Twilight gasped.
Rarity also gasped. “Oh my, of course! Princess Celebrity!”
“Pretty sure that ain’t her name...”
“You could never be...!” the Princess burst out. “You? Listen to yourself! You have been devoted to this nation for half a millennium. You could never become this horror that you fear. You deny yourself for no reason! My friend, there is no need for this emotional starvation!”
“Your memory is shorter than I thought, Celestia,” the dragon said, moving towards her. His limbs moved with a curious rasping noise, slowly and stiffly, but his eyes were full of fire. “I succumbed once when I was young, but she was alive in those days and able to bring me back. I still destroyed and plundered everything in my path, and worst of all, I almost killed four ponies. I can never forget that. I must never forget it. No, I’m better as I am. It’s my duty.”
“And so you will deny your duty in the name of duty?” cried Celestia angrily. “You will continue to live in the past with your sorrow and deny yourself a real life, deny everything that you could be, everything you could do to save my little ponies?”
Twilight gazed at her Princess, her mentor, the memories smashing through her mind like a ball through window glass. “Dear Princess Celestia...” she murmured. The great white alicorn blinked, her brow furrowing a little, before she shook her head and took a few steps closer to the dragon. Her face was flawless, Twilight thought, and the knowledge felt both new and old at the same time. But her beautiful lavender eyes were dancing with panic, and Twilight wondered who ‘he’ could be, and why the Princess seemed so afraid. What threatened Equestria? What did she need that dragon to guard?
“My duty is everything to me. It’s all I have left,” the dragon said, his gaze steady.
“It is all you allow yourself. You could have lived instead. Please, please listen to me! You are allowed to want things! You are allowed to wish for things, to hope and to need! You are not saving Equestria with this noble denial, you are killing yourself! You cannot stay this way!”
The dragon’s jaw tightened. His youthful face was thin and tired, and lines of deprivation and loneliness were drawn around his eyes and mouth. Twilight knew that face, knew that mouth, knew those eyes. She could almost hear that bubbling, mischievous little chortle.
He wasn’t chortling now. “I can stay this way,” he said wearily. “I must. Nothing I do can be for myself. The alternative is to become a mindless beast, ravening and destroying everything in sight. All I own is the knowledge in my head, and that is for Equestria. All for Equestria. Duty is everything, and that way I stay small, I stay sane, and I stay myself.”
“You won’t last another ten years this way,” said the Princess desperately. “Your scales are too old and hard for your little body. They will only get thicker, and eventually you will be trapped. They’re already too thick, aren’t they? You need help to bend your knees as it is. How many fingers still flex? Three? Two? You’re becoming a shell, a statue, and you know it. You need more size to support those scales if you’re going to live. And for the stars’ sake, live! Find love, find joy, find friends again! You must learn to want things for yourself once more. This is the only way to save your life and to save Equestria! If all your duty is to her as you say, then as her Princess, I order you! Equestria needs a champion, and she needs one now! You’re my last hope! Please, Professor!”
He closed his eyes. “I don’t even know if I can want things anymore.”
“Oh, poor thing,” said Fluttershy sadly.
“I don’t get it,” said Rainbow Dash.
“He’s still a baby, after five hundred years,” said Fluttershy. “He’s stopping himself from growing up, somehow. He’s very afraid.”
“I can sorta remember somethin’,” said Applejack. “It was about dragons, an’ growing. Cain’t rightly put my hoof on it, but I’ll bet it was important.”
The information slotted into place with a jolt that was close to pain. “Dragons grow through greed,” said Twilight. “The more they get, the more they want, and the more they grow.”
“But he owns nothing. He just told the Princess,” Rarity pointed out in a soft voice.
“Do you want to guard them?” came the Princess’ voice, coaxing and low. “They would want you to.”
The dragon turned back to look at an open casket on the steps before the throne.
Dragon, casket, steps... scales. So many words, so many things, after so long in the Dark with so few! A blazing torch was being shone into the shadowy corners of a long-abandoned house, only to discover that what had seemed empty was in fact crammed full. Twilight wrestled with her overwhelmed mind, and wrenched it back to the dragon, who was looking at the casket with the faintest suggestion of tears in his eyes.
“I want to do what is right,” he whispered. “They’d want me to do what’s right.”
“Then take them. Grow to your true greatness. Save your life and save my little ponies. Please.”
“Or take them, grow into a monster, terrorise and murder your little ponies. Even chance, Celestia. I’m afraid to take it. So there’s my choice – lose my mind and become a horror, lose the small size that permits me to stay amongst ponies, or become fossilised by my own aging scales.”
The Princess bowed her head. “I am sorry to have been so harsh, but you know it is true. You’re dying, Spike.”
Twilight choked as the name slammed into her with the ferocity of a stampede.
“Spike!” howled Rarity.
“Oh my goodness, oh my goodness!”
“I remember!” Rainbow Dash hollered. “He grew... and there were the Wonderthings, and he kicked their flanks!”
“He meant me!” Rarity sobbed. “He was talking about me! I brought him back! Oh, my little Spikey-wikey!”
“Twilight...?” Applejack said tentatively. “You okay?”
She wasn’t. “He’s. I...”
She was falling to pieces, her mind pulling apart at the seams. She wanted to scream. She wanted to cry. “Spike...!” she managed. “Oh, that’s Spike, my Spike! How, how did I forget?”
“His face is so tired,” mourned Fluttershy. “He looks so lonely.”
“He’s... a professor?” said Rainbow Dash in utter disbelief.
“Looky at his little legsies, he can barely move!” Pinkie said in a stricken voice, and Twilight felt herself dissolving. What had happened to him, what had happened to her dear little assistant, her cheerful little friend?
“I know I’m dying,” Spike snapped. “You don’t need to rub it in.”
The Princess lowered her eyes.
“I don’t want to lose myself,” he said unhappily. “So what is right? What is my duty? I have to protect them... that’s a duty. But if I do...”
“Do. You. Want. Them?” the Princess asked. Her voice cut like a knife.
Spike’s tired eyes flickered over to her, ancient in his young face. “I want them back,” he snarled, and then his face crumpled in sorrow and he bowed his head. “I want them back,” he repeated, as though he could hardly believe it himself.
“Oh my gosh, you guys,” said Rainbow urgently. “Did you feel that?”
Applejack snorted. “Sugarcube, we’re feelin’ things we ain’t felt in five hundred years. Don’t rightly think I can separate it all out at the moment.”
“No, it’s... another pulling,” Rainbow Dash said. “Ow!”
“Dashie, I can see you, I can see you!” Pinkie suddenly squealed. “Oh, I’d forgotten what you looked like!”
Twilight tore her attention from the slumped form of her number one assistant, and sure enough Pinkie was right. The faint outline of a pony could be seen shifting in the air. It was less than the suggestion of a shape. It was as insubstantial as breath in a breeze, but it was there. The pony was small and lithe and light, her wings held proudly and her ragged mane tossed back. She was a young mare in the prime of her life, with athletic limbs and a cocky set to her chin.
She was Rainbow Dash.
“Can they see you?” said Rarity, and Dash gulped. Then she waved a trembling hoof before Celestia’s face. The Princess’s expression of regret didn’t change one bit, and her eyes never left the small, forlorn figure of Spike hunched over on the marble floor.
“I’m thinkin’ that’s a no,” said Applejack.
“Can I... d’you think I could touch...” Rainbow faltered, her eyes wide. Her hoof reached out, and brushed at Spike’s little head. It passed through his spines without pause, and Rainbow Dash slumped. “Nope.”
“Wait,” whispered Fluttershy. “Look!”
Spike’s neck straightened. His face gradually relaxed and grew calm, and Twilight thought for a moment that he looked far less tired, far less old. He could almost pass for the same little dragon he had been five hundred years ago. His brow had smoothed out, though he was obviously deep in thought.
“I want them back,” he said slowly. His eyes were clouded with concentration. “I want... that.” His arm reached for the casket, his elbow straightening with a noise like scraping stones.
Abruptly he stopped himself with a visible effort, and looked back up at the Princess. “Do you think that would work? Wanting something impossible?”
“It might work. If the focus of your greed can never be fulfilled... then perhaps you will not seek the belongings of others. Such baubles could not ever meet your needs,” the Princess said, and then sighed. “Oh, my dear friend. You would be trading one loss for another. Yet more pain, yet more yearning without end. Will you never allow yourself to be free?”
“But I’ll be able to be Equestria’s Champion. You need a big dragon, not a little one,” he said, awkwardly shrugging one shoulder with a raspy noise. Then he asked plaintively, “I’m really the last hope?”
The Princess set her jaw. “It is our only chance. Even if I was able to make them submit to me and then used them against him, there is the chance we could obliterate the world. It cannot be me. Luna is captured. It must be you, and it must be all you can be...”
He took a deep breath and looked back at the casket. “All I can be, huh?” His eyes darkened. “Let’s hope I’m still me afterwards.”
The Princess closed her eyes again in relief and dread. “You will do it?”
“I’ll try,” he said in a heavy voice, before giving her a rueful smile. “All for Equestria. Duty is everything. The only thing left that could make me agree. You’re a sly old thing, Celestia.”
She smiled once more, though her glorious eyes were still filled with sorrow. “I’m so sorry, Spike.”
“Will they be enough of a hoard to start the process, d’you think?”
“The six most magical, powerful and important items in the world? I should say so,” the Princess said with a sad little laugh.
He blew out another sigh, a little cloud of smoke rising from his lips. “I promised myself I’d never do this,” he said wryly. “I swore on their graves. What does that make me?”
She gazed back at him, her eyes shiny with tears. “Please, Professor. For me. For Equestria. For their memory.”
“You must promise me,” he said in a rush, “if I lose myself, you must end it. You have to. Nopony would be able to stop me otherwise, not if I’m using them. Only you have the power.”
She sucked in a sharp breath. He held her eyes with his, implacable, stony, and impenetrable. She eventually bent her head once more.
“I promise,” she said in a low voice.
“Then I will have them.”
Twilight was being ripped to shreds. Her little Spike, her little friend...
He took the casket in his creaking claws, and looked back up at the alicorn.
“And I will hoard them,” he said, fire leaping in his slitted eyes.
“No,” Twilight breathed.
“You have always been loyal to Equestria,” said the Princess softly. “I do not believe that will change. You will not lose yourself, I know it.”
Spike looked down at the glittering Elements of Harmony nestled in the velvet-lined casket. “I hope you’re right,” he said, and closed his eyes.
“What’s he doing?” moaned Rarity. “Spikey-wikey, oh, my sweet little dragon...”
“He’s wanting something...” whispered Fluttershy. “He’s finally wanting something so that he can grow up.”
“But you heard him!” Applejack said. “He don’t want anything! He’s given everythin’ up; He can barely remember how to want things at all!”
“’I want them back’,” said Pinkie thoughtfully. “That’s what he said. ‘I want them back.’ Did he have the Elephants of Huggity before, then?”
“He wants us back,” Twilight said in dawning realisation. The idea was tinged with horror – an emotion it seemed she was all too ready to rediscover. “He wants us... something he can never have. Something impossible.” Her nonexistent heart constricted. He must be so, so lonely.
“So he’ll hoard the Elements instead?” said Fluttershy. She sounded devastated. “But that’s... that’s a substitute. He’ll just be hoarding misery! He’ll never have what he really wants!”
“He wants the impossible, so that he keeps his mind and doesn’t start getting grabby again,” Rarity finished in a breathless whisper. “Oh, the clever little darling. Oh, the poor lonely thing.”
“And why am I still like this?” Rainbow demanded, stomping one of her barely-visible hooves.
“Loyalty,” said Twilight after a pause. “The Element of Loyalty. That’s why Rainbow was so strong before; He invoked loyalty. To us and to Equestria.” She let a bitter snort escape. “I guess he really was the new Rainbow Dash.”
“What?” said Fluttershy.
“The new me? No way, he’s nowhere near as awesome! He needs to be, like, twenty--”
“Rainbow Dash, do be quiet!” hissed Rarity.
“But if he can invoke th’ Elements...” began Applejack.
“The Elements,” Twilight mumbled, and then froze as the notion struck her like lightning. No, no it couldn’t be... but it fit. Though it was impossible, she was immediately convinced that it was right. There was no other explanation.
“...does that mean he’ll be able to use ‘em?”
“The Princess said he was the only one who could,” said Rainbow Dash.
“He’s gonna look pretty silly wearing five necklaces and a tiara,” Pinkie sniggered.
It was mad... but it was right. She knew it, deep inside her Self. Twilight pushed all their babble away from her mind, and took a moment to come to grips with it. Then she said, as steadily as she was able, “Girls. I’ve just figured out where we’ve been.”
Their chatter trailed away as one by one it hit them in a unanimous moment of sudden, awful realisation.
“No,” said Rainbow blankly.
“Y-you don’t mean...” Fluttershy stuttered.
Twilight paused once more, before taking a deep breath. “We are the Elements of Harmony.”
“Well shoot, no kiddin’, Twilight! We’ve always been the... the... you mean, we’re the... we’re the... holy horseapples.”
“Wha-a-a...?” Pinkie spluttered.
“But... but...” Fluttershy said, sounding utterly lost.
“You mean I’ve been a necklace for five hundred years?” shrieked Rarity.
Twilight ignored the commotion that started amongst her fellow Elements, staring at her little dragon friend. His face was twisted with longing. The casket containing the jewelled necklaces and the headpiece was clutched tightly in his knobbly, arthritic-looking claws. Only two fingers were actually wrapped around the box. The others stuck straight out, too stiff to bend. “What did you do to yourself, Spike?” she murmured. “Look at you, you’re a walking statue.” The memories flooded her, filled her to bursting. “Did that birthday scare you so much that you were afraid to grow up at all?”
“I never wanted to disappoint you,” he breathed.
Twilight’s thoughts snagged in shock, and she bent her concentration on him even more. “Can you hear me?” she said in a voice that was barely more than a breath.
“Twilight... I miss you,” he mumbled. His inflexible claws rasped around the casket and his eyelids fluttered as a sob racked his little body. “I’m so alone. I’m just so alone now. It’s been so long. I want you back, you and the pony gang...”
“Spike...” she said, her urgency rising inside her like bile. “Spike, can you really hear me...?”
“I’ve tried to make you proud,” he continued, his head bowing creakily over the box. Gold and jewels glittered in its dark velvet depths. “I’ve tried so hard...”
“You silly dragon,” she cried, heedless of whether he could hear her or not. “My silly, wonderful little boy, I have always been proud of you! Always!”
“I want you back,” he repeated, and his body twitched. “I want you back...”
Twilight’s senses, such as they were, began to howl.
“Guys...” she said, keeping a wary watch on the slumped head of the baby dragon.
“...means I’ve been an accessory for five hundred years, which is utterly intolerable!” Rarity finished her rant, her voice rising impressively at the close, before she took the equivalent of a deep breath and adopted a far more controlled tone. “What is it, Twilight?”
“I think something’s happening,” she said uncertainly. “I can feel magic. A lot of magic.”
She could feel their attention turning to her immediately. “You’ve got magic again?” asked Fluttershy.
She concentrated as hard as she could, but nothing happened. “Nope, doesn’t look like I can use it, but I can feel it again,” Twilight said, her voice tight and urgent. “It’s Spike. He’s starting.”
“Will this big throne room hold him, d’ya think?” asked Rainbow.
“Only just,” said Rarity. Her distress was pouring through the connection in waves. “He was around that size last time... the time I... oh, the selfless darling.”
“He doesn’t look any bigger,” said Applejack critically.
“He’s completely saturated with magic,” Twilight said. “He’s brimming with it.”
“Spike, take a letter,” Spike murmured in a voice that throbbed with longing.
Twilight pulled towards him with all her might. “Spike,” she said, hoping against hope that somewhere deep inside he could really hear her and that it hadn’t been her imagination before. “Spike, I believe in you. You can do this, I know you can.”
His lips parted in a soundless sigh.
“The Princess is backing away,” said Rainbow Dash, pointing with a whisper of a wing.
“I think I’ve figured out why,” said Pinkie weakly. “You guys, I’m thinking that little Spikey-wikey’s not gonna be so little anymore.”
Spike was growing. He hadn’t moved a muscle, still bent over and clutching the casket to his chest, but as they watched he doubled in size, then tripled. The rate was ferocious. It was a smooth, continual process, without any stopping or starting. The air around him was shimmering like sunlight on water. He never seemed to stay the same size for a second, but steadily continued to grow and expand. His eyes were squeezed shut, and he was murmuring constantly to himself. Occasionally Twilight could make out a word or two... and they always seemed to be very familiar names.
“Did he just mention... me?” asked Applejack.
“I think he’s remembering the Falling of the... something, things on trees... the Leaves,” said Twilight quietly. “He mentioned Pinkie and Rainbow and the balloon and being the announcer...”
“I’d forgotten,” said Applejack in wonder.
“I was... a something pony, Ironic Pony,” said Rainbow, wrinkling her forehead.
“Iron,” said Pinkie. “Though I like yours waaaaaay better.”
“Look at him,” Rarity said, awe and shock radiating from her in alternating waves. “Oh, just look at him!”
“He’s already taller than the windows,” said Fluttershy in a soft voice.
It was alarming and amazing and breathtakingly magical to watch. The dragon grew and grew, bent over the Elements of Harmony, his lips moving ceaselessly. In total silence he began to shoulder through the air, bending further and further over the casket, which was becoming toylike in his increasingly massive claws. A tear escaped his clenched eyes, and slowly slid down a snout that gradually elongated, prolonging its journey before it finally dripped off the end of a nose that was pushing into a point. Spike grew and wept and grew, all in that eerie silence. His body thickened and lengthened with shocking rapidity; the growth of an oak in seconds. His spines grew wickedly sharp and pointed, and his inaudible murmurs were made around a set of increasingly horrifying fangs. His neck stretched and stretched, arching into the air with a swanlike grace even as his chest began to deepen and broaden.
“He’s gotta stop sometime, don’t he?” Rainbow said in a weak voice.
“Cos he’s sorta running out of extra super-duperly enormous room,” Pinkie added.
“I think...” Twilight said as his head touched the roof, “he... he wants us back... that much.” Her absent heart constricted once more. “Oh, Spike,” she whispered.
“I’m guessin’ he ain’t done,” Applejack said, as a buttress came crashing down to the marble floor. “Whoo-ee, that’s gonna take a bit o’ work t’ repair.”
“He had better not crush that casket,” fretted Rarity.
“He’s... not quite the same,” said Rainbow Dash thoughtfully.
“Now, what makes y’ say that?” Applejack said with heavy sarcasm. Rainbow haughtily flipped her wings onto her back as another buttress came crashing to the floor. The two guards looked at each other, and then bolted.
“Oh ha ha, genius, I mean he looks different to how he was when he grew up that other time.”
Twilight pulled back her focus to study the still-growing dragon. It was true. His body and face were less ungainly, much leaner and somehow more elegant. There was no denying that he was again a massive hunter, a predator with gargantuan claws and fearsome jaws, but he was not the monstrous, gnarled lizard he had once been. He hadn’t developed the lumpy, ugly form and twisted limbs of so many years ago. His head was nobler and broader than she remembered, tapering smoothly to a fine pointed muzzle. His eyebrows had thickened, but they were precisely the same shape she had always known. She had no difficulty finding her little friend in that face. His vicious-looking green spines had grown long and thin and they curved under their own weight, drooping over his forehead at an almost jaunty angle. The fins beside his head had become pointed, and they swept upwards into jagged spikes. His tail coiled in gentle loops as it lengthened, and his limbs were straight and smooth. His feet and claws were impossibly huge. They gave the impression of being too large even for him. His body was a slender, sinuous column all the way from his deep chest down to tightly muscled haunches, limber-looking and agile for all its enormous scale. He was a collection of long, clean lines, all with a deadly purpose.
“He’s beautiful,” said Fluttershy reverently.
“He’s... bustin’ through the roof,” said Applejack. She gave an unsteady laugh. “Anypony else think this day’s had a few too many surprises?”
“Why didn’t they do this outside?” wondered Pinkie.
It seemed he would never stop growing, crouched over a now-miniscule box clenched between two claws each as long as a spear. His mammoth head soared majestically into the overcast sky – clouds, birds, the sun, oh, the sun! - his eyes still clenched.
“I’m guessing he missed us a lot,” said Pinkie with a weak giggle.
“No kidding,” Rainbow said, her ghostly eyes wide.
His head was level with the tallest of the palace towers when he stopped growing. He was larger than the mind could fathom - larger than any dragon Twilight had ever seen or heard of. His eyes finally blinked open and looked down at the devastation his growing had caused. She met his gaze with dread. Had he become what he most hated? Was he the monster he had feared?
There was only grief in those clear green eyes.
“He’s himself!” Twilight shrieked. Around her she could feel her friends hollering and yelling along similar lines. She wrapped her Self around Applejack in a hug. “He’s himself!”
“I knew he could do it!” crowed Pinkie. “Yeah, dragon power!”
The Princess spread her wings, soaring through the angry grey sky and settling on the splintered roof. “Spike...” she said hesitantly. “Spike, can you hear me? Spike?”
He blinked once more, and then focused on her. Twilight fell silent immediately, on tenterhooks to hear his answer.
“Celestia.” His voice boomed and thundered, and he started at the sound, before sighing like a gale. “I’ve kept my mind, but oh... oh ponyfeathers, look at me. This is not what I am.”
“This is what you should have been for nearly four hundred years now,” she said gently. “You do not feel the greed?”
“Oh, I feel it,” he growled. The sound was spine-chilling, and Twilight tensed. “I don’t think I will ever stop feeling it. It’s out of the cage now. But it’s reaching for something that can never be mine. I don’t feel the need to nick your palace to soothe the ache, if that’s what you mean.”
Celestia smiled sadly. “I understand, Professor.”
He looked down at his giant clawed feet, far below. “I don’t think I’ll be taking any classes from now on. I guess I’m not a professor anymore. I think I’m going to miss my students.”
“Professor means teacher,” corrected Celestia, and laid a hoof on his colossal snout. “You will always be that, Spike.”
A fleeting smile crossed his lips, his fangs glinting before they were hidden once more. “I’ve got a job to do first, though,” he said.
She nodded. “Yes. But... just look at yourself, Spike. Really look. You are not what you feared, what you once became. All your denial was keeping you from this. You are the best a dragon can be, a lion amongst mice. You can defeat him, I know it.”
He looked down at the casket pinched between his claws. “You know what the worst part is?”
She looked sympathetic.
“None of my suits will fit.”
Celestia looked amazed that he had said such a thing at such a time, before she smiled broadly. Pinkie burst out laughing. Twilight’s thoughts skipped a beat, and she chuckled despite herself. He’d always had a gift for saying exactly the wrong thing at the wrong time. “You stuck your foot in it again, Spike,” she whispered.
He blinked again, and looked down, almost to the exact spot where she was concentrated. A wild hope rose in her. “Don’t close the box, Spike,” she said then, louder and more urgently. “Never close the box. We’re here. We’re all here. You’ve got what you want. I’m here, Spike, Twilight’s here...”
“Twi, he can’t hear you,” said Applejack.
“But I think he can almost hear us,” Twilight said, her attention still fixed on Spike. He was frowning, his giant brows beetling. “Look, it’s like he’s listening! And he answered me before, I know he did!”
“Uh, guys?” Rainbow said.
“We can’t touch anything,” Rarity said. “Even Rainbow Dash can’t touch anything after being... uh, invoked. Why would he hear us?”
“He’s my friend!” Twilight practically wailed. “He always heard me, even if he didn’t always do as I asked!”
“Guys, you might wanna pay attention...” Rainbow continued, her voice very unsteady.
“If we really tried, I think he could hear us properly,” Twilight said urgently. “He wouldn’t have to be so lonely anymore. He wouldn’t have to endlessly mourn us because he can’t have us back. He could be happy...”
“Only, I can sort of see Pinkie,” Rainbow said.
Twilight whipped around, and just as Rainbow had said, the shimmering outline of Pinkie Pie hovered in the air like vapour. She gaped.
“Two of you?” she choked.
“Well, he cracked a joke, didn’t he?” said Pinkie, waggling her hooves. Like Rainbow, she was young and strong, her mane as curly and her smile as wide as ever. “Boy oh boy, is it nice to have feet again! Whee!” And she began to bounce around the ruined throne room happily.
“Still random after five hundred years,” commented Dash, shaking her head.
“Well, how am I not all... corporeal?” asked Rarity. “If you ask me, the darling boy has been more than generous. He’s been a near-martyr!”
“An’ he’s honest as they come,” Applejack declared. “There weren’t a word of a lie in any o’ that, I could tell.”
“He just used magic, too,” Fluttershy said.
“I don’t know,” said Twilight after a moment. “Maybe we’ll find out.”
“Can you... hear something?” said Spike, still frowning. His new voice rumbled like a thunderclap, and he seemed embarrassed by it, ducking his huge head. Yet for all its intimidating volume, it was still recognisable as Spike’s voice. It had his inflections, his intonations. It was still her Spike speaking.
“Oh my gosh,” Twilight breathed, before hollering at the top of whatever passed for her lungs in this half-life. “Spike! Spike, it’s us! Spike, don’t close the box! It’s us, we’re back, we’re here!”
Celestia cocked her head. “I thought... no. No, I can’t hear anything.”
“Arrgh, call yourself a goddess?” Twilight raged. “Spike! It’s me! Spike, so help me, if you don’t hear me, I will ground you for a month! And you’ll have shelving duty for two months, and I won’t help you with magic in any way! Spike! Spike!”
“Don’t need help. And I’ve always done all the shelving anyway,” he grumbled. Then he looked rather confused.
“Consarnit,” Applejack said, stunned. “I don’t believe it. He can hear her!”
“He must be hearing me at the subconscious level... maybe he can hear all of us,” Twilight said, stifling a scream of frustration.
“This is becomin’ a very weird day,” said Applejack.
“I’m just pleased there is a day,” Fluttershy said dreamily. “Oh, I missed seeing the birds and the leaves...”
“...and the dragons taller than a palace...” Rainbow muttered.
“Shut up, Rainbow,” Twilight snapped, her attention riveted to the dragon.
Celestia was giving Spike a very strange look. “Are you... all right?”
He ducked his head again.” Uh. Yeah. It’s like something just out of ear-shot... it’s probably nothing.”
“Nothing? Nothing?! How dare... that’s it mister, five hundred or not, you are so grounded!”
“The greed?” asked Celestia delicately.
Spike blinked very hard for a couple of seconds, eyelids the size of doors squeezing shut. Then he straightened a little. “It’s not the greed, I know how the greed feels. No, it’s something else, something... weird.”
Then he bit his lip, looking around at the huge amount of damage he had caused. Gigantic fangs glittered. “Maybe we should have done this outside.”
“That’s what I said!” yelled Pinkie, waving her insubstantial hooves in exasperation.
“Well, if you had grown to an average dragon’s adult size, you would have fit in the throne room,” Celestia said archly. “I should have remembered that you were always one to stand out amongst the crowd.”
Spike snorted. A massive plume of thick black smoke rose from his nostrils, and the sound bounced from Canterlot Mountain. The echo was deafening. “Hah. Now I am a crowd. Where can I go, like this? Where will I live?”
“There is a cave in the mountains above Ponyville...”
A smile flitted over Spike’s vast, sad face. “I remember it. Fitting. Let’s hope nopony scolds me out of it.”
“They have other things on their minds right now, like struggling to survive. The refugees are still pouring into Hoofington, and the last dispatches report that Fillydelphia has been hit. They don’t have much time, Spike.”
“I know,” he sighed. “I know. I don’t understand why Ponyville is still standing.”
“I think he is saving it for last. Who knows why he does anything?”
“I’ll bet you can guess. You know him better than anypony,” Spike said, and shifted slightly on his haunches again. “This is sort of tight. How can I get out of here without destroying the whole palace?”
“I will teleport you to Canterlot Mountain, outside the city.”
“Good idea. I don’t want to start a panic.”
Celestia beat her wings and soared with weightless elegance to alight on Spike’s huge, muscular shoulder. “The ponies of Canterlot will have seen you by now. But you will not start a panic, Spike. You are something of a legend.”
Spike wrinkled his snout. “A legend. Me.”
The Princess gave him a sidelong glance as she settled on the smooth purple scales. “Oh, you think you’ve gone unnoticed, do you? Yes, my friend, you have almost as many tales surrounding you as I do.”
“Is it? They’ve been whispering about you for centuries. The dragon scribe of Ponyville! The dragon who knew the Six! The scholar, arbiter, diplomat, teacher and historian; the one who judges nations. Negotiator of the Bridling Peace Accords, hero of the Griffon Magewar Crisis, the one who solved the Bay of Serpents fiasco, and the one who made Dragonsdorf cease their raids into Equestria. There will be enough ponies in the know to tell them that they are in no danger from a purple dragon named Spike.”
“He did what?” blurted Twilight.
“They know me as a baby dragon,” Spike boomed unhappily. “And Bay of Serpents was in 152AL - almost three hundred and twenty years ago.”
“They know you as a dragon, first and foremost. A dragon that has lived his whole life in the service of Equestria,” she said firmly. “They know you are a magical creature. And they can see me with you. You will give them heart, and hope. They desperately need it.”
He pulled a face, before looking back down at his claws through the hole in the ruined roof. “This isn’t me,” he said quietly. “I don’t know if I have the power to reverse this. I’ve finally allowed myself to want them... and now that I have I don’t think I’ll ever be able to stop.”
“You were always meant to be this, my friend,” said Celestia. “You are no monster. You are utterly glorious. You are astounding.”
“Spike the Astounding,” he said grimly. “Hooray for me.”
She tapped his scales with one hoof in admonishment. “All this bitterness never did suit you. Besides, you are forgetting. You will not die this way. Your scales will not mummify you. You will be able to move. Haven’t you tried it yet?”
He lifted one paw, holding it close to his chest to avoid ruining more of the crumbling roof. He tentatively folded his fingers and they bent with ease, claws flashing in the muted light. “I can move,” he said with dawning wonder. “I can move my toes. Look, Princess, they bend!” His narrow face was filled with a sort of bemused astonishment. “Oh, that feels...”
“I did warn you,” she said gently. “You came very close to being completely immobile, Spike.”
“I didn’t like the risks,” he said, still watching his paw flex with that expression of amazement. “I still think I’m lucky to have my mind.”
“I have been around for a very long time,” said Celestia, tipping her head. “Credit me with a little wisdom. I knew that you of all dragons would never again allow your mind to be lost in the greed.”
“I’ll listen next time,” he said, and put his paw back down to the throne room floor. Then he raised the other, regarding the Elements of Harmony still clasped between his claws. The casket looked like a pea in his grip. “How do I... use them?”
“It is different for everypony,” she said. “You must study them and work it out for yourself. I have faith in you.”
He raised one eyebrow. “Oh, don’t overwhelm me with details or anything. Do you think that reference guide would still be knocking about?”
She smiled. “Possibly.”
He looked at the Elements for a moment more, before nodding his head. “Let’s do this.”
Celestia stood upon his shoulder. “Very well. Hold still, and I will teleport us.”
“Need a hoof? You can tap my magical core, if you like.”
“I have enough power to spare, Spike.”
“But the Zone--”
She gave him a rather smug little smile. “I am the Guardian of the Sun. A mere teleport – even one with this much mass displacement – is no great trial.”
Spike rolled his eyes, huge glittering pools of green. “Showoff.”
“You are becoming less despondent, I see.”
“I don’t know,” Spike said thoughtfully, holding himself very still as Celestia’s horn began to glow. “It’s like... wanting them so much has brought them closer. I can almost hear them. It’s... nice.”
“Spike!” Twilight screamed. “You can hear us! Spike, we’re here!”
Celestia smiled. “I am glad. Hold tight.”
Spike nodded. “Right. Don’t want them to fall out, hang on.”
And he closed the casket before Twilight could call out again.
Not mine, no money, no sue.
Light. Colour. Sound. Sensation. One timeless moment they were absent, and then with tearing, ripping abruptness they were there, stabbing relentlessly and with painful accuracy into their lulled minds. Twilight could feel the others screaming around her as they were once more pulled into the world outside the casket.
"Which one of you...?" asked Pinkie shrilly.
"Wasn't me!" Dash howled. "Wasn't me this time!"
"Rarity?" Twilight whirled her attention to where her friend's presence quivered and shook.
"Not me either, I assure you!" came Rarity's frantic voice. "I wouldn't even know where to start!"
"Uh..." said Fluttershy.
"Fluttershy?" Rainbow Dash exclaimed.
"Well, you said there was a pull, and there was this pulling, and so I thought, just maybe, if I tried to pull back like you had..." said Fluttershy wretchedly.
"No, guys, guys this is good!" Twilight called over their clamouring voices. "We're out of the box again, we're out!"
"I cain't hardly bear it, Twilight!" Applejack said. "I cain't see, it's so bright. How's anypony s'posed t' be able to think after bein' squeezed through that tunnel o' light?"
"Calm down," Twilight said, trying to sound more in control than she felt. "Everypony, just calm down and get adjusted. We'll get used to it eventually."
"I think it's fun!" said Pinkie brightly.
"You would," muttered Applejack.
"Let's just take a moment to get our Selves under control, and then we can start to figure out where we aaaaaAAAAAH!" Twilight's voice swooped upwards into a scream as she saw the massive shadow, the giant claws, the teeth. Then she scolded herself. It's Spike. Of course it's Spike.
She didn't think she'd ever get used to seeing him like this.
"Easy, sugarcube," Applejack said.
"He's a bit much to take in, isn't he?" said Rarity with gentle understanding.
"Y... yeah," said Twilight, gazing up at her little assistant as he gradually came into focus. He seemed to be coiled around himself, his tail wrapped neatly around his side as he lay on his belly on a grey gravel surface. The place was in fact quite dark, though the pale cool light of the moon was spilling in from somewhere and etching all the shadows in deepest black. The walls and roof were also grey stone, broken and ugly. A cave then, Twilight surmised. Smashed and shattered rocks littered the ground.
Spike barely fitted into the place at all, and Twilight had the somewhat bizarre thought that he must have crawled in on his elbows. The Elements of Harmony twinkled up at him from within the casket before his feet. It looked ludicrously small.
He seemed to be talking quietly to himself. The rumbles could be felt as a trembling of the air.
"Where are we?" wondered Dash.
"I think it's that cave the Princess was talking about," said Fluttershy, edging closer to the mammoth dragon. "The one over Ponyville."
"Nothin' doin'," Applejack said. "Spike'd never fit into that cave. Heck, a normal-sized dragon found it a bit on th' cosy side."
"I think he redecorated," said Rainbow Dash, nodding her head towards the piles of broken boulders. "Looks like he smashed his way in."
"Simply love what he's done with the place," said Rarity with a nervous giggle.
"I remember that dragon. He had absolutely NO sense of humour," said Pinkie. "Oooh, I wonder if Spike snores?"
"He does," Twilight said absently. "Or at least he did."
"Aaaaaaand cue the smoke problem all over again," said Rainbow Dash.
"No. Nopony tells my Spikey-wikey to leave Ponyville," said Rarity firmly.
"Not exactly the most pressing issue right now, you guys," Twilight snapped.
"Yeah, why was Fluttershy the one who got pulled here?" asked Pinkie.
"The box is open," said Applejack. "Any one o' us coulda been pulled."
"Element of Kindness, remember?" said Rainbow Dash with an impatient lilt in her voice. "Last time, I got pulled because he was being all loyal, right? So is he being kind now or what?"
"Is he alone?" asked Rarity.
"Cain't tell, there's dragon as far as the eye can see," said Applejack after a beat.
"He's just looking at them," said Fluttershy. "Just looking at them and talking."
"No, there!" Twilight said suddenly. There was a tiny, ant-like figure on Spike's paw not far from the glowing casket. It crossed her mind that it would have been much easier to see what was going on had their presences remained in the Elements – which was a ridiculous thought. As before, their Selves had materialised a little way from their velvet-lined prison.
"Is that a pony?" whispered Pinkie.
"Reckon it could be, it's pretty small," said Applejack. "C'mon, let's get closer."
Together they moved towards the dragon's head. Twilight had to repress a jolt of fear. Even though she knew this was Spike, her Spike, she had never seen or heard of any living being that could even come close to how titanic he had become. He was built using the same scale as geography, not creatures. It was difficult to convince herself firstly that such a giant could be real, and secondly that he truly meant no harm. She could feel the others quailing a little as well. She got a hold of herself. This was Spike, the dragon she'd hatched and raised from infancy. He'd never hurt anything that wasn't gem-flavoured.
She led them onwards. Spike's voice rumbled through the walls of the cave, his words slowly becoming more distinct as they came closer. Pebbles on the cave floor bounced with the subsonic vibrations.
"... so shy, but you didn't want to cross her," he said in a half-whisper. "She could stare down a photograph when she was mad. She loved animals. She would have loved you. I can say that from experience, you know. I've got previous. She was very beautiful, very kind. They all matched their cutie marks, you know. See the little sparkly butterfly? Hah, that's right, it's flying over your head. Whoosh! Aaaand whoosh! Can you catch the butterfly?"
"Are we being... shown off?" said Rainbow. "Awesome."
"Did you hear a reply?" Rarity said.
"No," said Twilight. "If he's talking to somepony, they're not talking back."
"Well, that's extremely rude," huffed Rarity.
Fluttershy pulled them near and hushed them. "Um, I think I've figured out why I was the one pulled through," she whispered.
"Don't just yank like that, Fluttershy," Applejack began, but she was quickly interrupted by another sharp 'shh' from their usually meek friend. "What in tarnation has gotten into you?"
Fluttershy was practically glowing with delight. "I also think I might have worked out why he's the only one talking," she added. "In his palm. Look."
Twilight turned her attention to Spike's claw – and gaped.
"It's so sweet," Fluttershy crooned.
"Oh wow, do you think it's his?" gasped Pinkie.
"How could it be?" Twilight said, staring at the little thing curled up in Spike's paw. "He stayed a baby himself for five hundred years!"
Nestled in the hollow of Spike's palm and yawning owlishly was a brightly coloured little dragon. It was only slightly larger than Spike himself had been at his hatching, with rounded spinal spikes and a blunted tail. Spike's paw stretched out all around it in every direction, reminding the stunned Twilight of a kitten sitting on a double bed. It wasn't even as big as the single purple scale it rested upon.
The baby was a burnished coppery orange, with royal blue spines and a sweet and sleepy face. The features were soft and unfinished, with a snubbed snout and round, dimpled cheeks. The underbelly was a slightly paler orange, and the head-fins which were yellow-green on Spike were the perfect blue of oxidised copper on the little infant. It yawned again as Spike delicately stroked the tiny back. It wriggled once and laid its head down, watching with half-lidded bright blue eyes. Then the little thing opened its toothless mouth and began to fuss loudly, wailing and wriggling.
"I know," said Spike, still in that carefully quiet voice that nevertheless made the walls shudder. "You miss them. I know, I'm sorry. Shhh, I've got you. Look at the shiny gems and gold, little one. Look at how they sparkle. That's it. Shhh."
"He's... turned us into a baby's mobile," said Rainbow flatly. "Well. Slightly less awesome than I was expecting."
Spike stroked the baby's back again with the smooth curved topside of one claw. His foreleg rippled with strain- the only indication of the immense effort he was making to keep his newly-grown paw under control. The tiny dragon curled up under the touch and whimpered, before wailing uncomfortably. Spike sighed.
"I'm not allowed to stop talking, huh?" he said wryly. "You like the noise."
The baby gave a loud cry that was half-protestation, half-laugh. Spike hummed tunelessly for a while until it settled again. Then the humming turned into soft words once more, whispering through the cave like a gale.
"I'll bet your mum and dad talked to you a lot. I'm sorry I wasn't there sooner, little one. The way I am now, maybe I could have done something. Heck, if I could figure out how these things work, I might even have been able to stop him. But there's lots of children without parents around Equestria these days."
Spike broke off and sighed again. The baby pushed itself up onto its soft little forepaws with a cross mewl. It was obviously not grown enough to support itself properly, and its hind legs dragged, kicking petulantly. Its head bobbed and wobbled on its neck, and Spike eased it back down onto his palm.
"Sorry, sorry, I'll keep going."
He began to hum once more, but this time the tune became words after only a couple of bars. "You haven't got the hang of this sleep business just yet, have you? All you know is that you're tired and unhappy, and that somepony took your mum and dad away. I'm just a lonely old dragon who smells all wrong, not much of a substitute for a mum or dad. Well, at least I can keep talking." The claw, innumerable times the size of the infant, kept stroking it with infinite care.
"An orphan," said Fluttershy in a hushed voice.
"Yeah, I managed to get that," said Rainbow Dash, rolling her eyes.
"I've got you, little one. You're safe now," Spike said in the gentlest voice imaginable. It was astonishing to hear it coming from this fierce-looking behemoth. He smiled self-deprecatingly. "Little one. Would you listen to me. It hasn't even been two days. I think I'm getting too used to this whole being big thing. It's too easy. I suppose that's for the best, though it would have been nice to be able to hold you... or anypony else for that matter. Oh..." His gigantic eyebrows rose in concern as the infant wriggled unhappily once more. "Oh, I think I remember. I'll bet I know what the problem is..."
Twilight almost fainted – though Celestia only knew how she would have managed that – when Spike pursed his jaws and blew a thin stream of fire over his palm and the baby. Curling green flames flickered through his fingers, and she tried to stop herself from gasping in fright, but couldn't.
"That's better, isn't it?" Spike rumbled, his palm ablaze.
"What did he do?" screeched Rarity.
"Spike! Just killed! A baby!" Twilight shrieked, her mind a fizzing hive of panic and horror.
"Wait," said Fluttershy, an intent look on her face. "I think I can see it... it's... sucking its paws."
"It's... not bursting into flames and turning into a cute smudge of charcoal?" Twilight said.
"Apparently not," Rarity said. "It's just rolled over. I think it's finally falling asleep."
"Hang on..." said Pinkie slowly, her brow furrowing. "Dashie... he told us once. I can't exactly put my hoof on it. But he had the hiccups and there was a Griffon and it all ended with Pin-the-Tail-on-the-Pony..."
"Oh yeah! Fireproof!" said Rainbow Dash, whirling to point a hoof at Pinkie. "Dragons 're fireproof!"
The relief was staggering. "Fireproof!" Twilight echoed. "I'd forgotten."
Fluttershy smiled at the tiny little shape curled up comfortably inside a bonfire. "It looks ever so much happier now," she said, before spreading her insubstantial wings and fluttering over to peer into the raging green fire. "Whoozawoozums! Whooza sweet widdle dwagon? You are, yes, you are!"
"Always sounds like she's hit her head when she sees somethin' small an' cute, don't she?" asked Applejack rhetorically.
"Thought that'd do it. I used to get so cold when I was real little," Spike said, relaxing his long neck and watching the fire dissipate harmlessly in his palm. The coppery dragon was sizzling a little, but it seemed quite content as it stretched and cooed inside the flames. "They used to have to bundle me in insulation blankets. I looked like a spacepony in a silver suit. At least I can keep you warm like a dragon should be kept warm, with proper dragon fire. Yeah, you liked that, didn't you? Nice and toasty."
"He did look like a spacepony. I had photos. He was adorable," Twilight said, her soul lurching at the memory. "He'd shiver until I thought he'd shake his bones loose, and he used to crawl under so many covers I thought he'd suffocate."
"Oh," Spike said, following the sparkling blue eyes back to the casket. "Interested in them again, are you? Okay, we talked about that one. How about this one? This one was for the happiest pony in the world. She made everypony just as happy as she was, just by being around. She could do amazing, impossible, totally random things and she could be really, really freaky on occasion. I've never seen anypony eat like her. I think I was the only one who could even come close to keeping up, and that's only because I had the ol' dragon stomach advantage. See the blue? It's a balloon, that's right. Same colour as your eyes, little one. No, no, no, not for eating. Claws off these, no grabbing. These are special. That reminds me, I'll have to get you some limestone or sandstone to chew on when you start growing teeth. Oh, hey, give that... oh, drat."
The miniscule dragon curled up around the Element of Laughter, and promptly fell asleep.
Spike snorted ruefully, and began to ease the necklace from the infant's tiny but determined grip.
"Aw, let it keep me!" Pinkie said, nuzzling at the baby's head. "We can have adventures! Pinkie and the dragon! You and me, kid!"
"Oh, isn't it just so precious?" Fluttershy said, her face soft and fond as she peered over Pinkie's shoulder.
"Er," said Rarity.
"Y'all 're seein' what I'm seein'?"
"I know," said Twilight tersely. "Three of them now. Rainbow Dash, Pinkie Pie and now Fluttershy."
Rainbow Dash regarded the two other ghostly ponies with a sullen expression. "Don't forget, you guys, I was first," she said. "Because I am totally the best."
Fluttershy eagerly looked herself all over, her wings rustling, before she caught sight of Rainbow Dash's face and ducked behind her mane with a squeak.
"Why not us?" said Rarity indignantly. "I want hooves again, no matter how see-through!"
"So once we're... invoked, we stay invoked," Twilight said, her mind churning as she stared at the faint outlines of her three friends.
"Got you," Spike said, finally tugging the necklace free. It only just looped over the tip of his pinkie-claw. He laid it back down into the casket with an awkward tilt of his paw, and then gave the Elements a long, troubled look.
"How do I use you?" he muttered.
"I mean, taking in a foundling is more than generous," Rarity continued, unwilling to let the subject go. "Why, I would go so far as to say it is the most generous thing I've ever heard of!"
"But I'm not sure he thinks of it that way," Twilight said. "Maybe he thinks of it as the right thing to do, as opposed to the generous thing to do."
"Hang on, I think Twi's on to somethin' here," said Applejack.
"I think it's the only thing to do," Spike rumbled.
Twilight froze. Spike was looking puzzled again. He had a lot of face to look puzzled with.
"We've gotta get through to him!" Rainbow Dash hissed. "Twilight, Rarity – you guys were closest! Talk to him! Get him yappin' again!"
Spike blinked, before he roughly shook his head. "I've got to face him, and soon," the dragon continued muttering to himself, laying his head down on the cavern floor. His eyes, each a glittering green pond, continued to stare at the Elements with worry flickering in their depths. "But I've got no idea how to use you. Why did Celestia give you to me? Why turn me into this when I don't even know the first place to start?
"Since when do you call the Princess by her first name, Spike?" said Twilight, moving herself towards him. His teeth were taller than any pony, and she shuddered in the deep, secret places of her spirit.
"Since I stopped a war between Griffony and Equestria," Spike retorted. Then he tried to look at his own mouth in astonishment.
"Holy guacamole," breathed Dash.
"Holy guacamole," echoed Spike.
"I'm gonna flip any second now," announced Pinkie.
"Am I... imagining things?" Spike said, his eyes now impossibly wide. His head lifted slightly as he swept the empty-seeming cave with his glance, searching every corner. "I knew I could feel something. I knew it. You're... here, aren't you?"
"Yes!" Twilight shouted. "Yes, Spike, it's us, we're all here!" Around her she could hear the others calling similar things, begging their last friend to hear them.
"Did I call you?" Spike wondered, reaching out his free paw. It hung in the air for a moment, reaching for something he couldn't ever obtain, before sweeping through the cave from left to right. It swept straight through the misty figure of Pinkie Pie, and she let out an unsteady little 'oo-oo-oo-ooh!' Her image rippled as though underwater.
Spike lowered his paw and stretched his neck out into the musty air of the cave, his whole body tensed and his breath hitching slightly. "When I wanted you so much... did I wake you up? Did I bring you here?" he whispered like a gale. "Or is the... the greed finally driving me mad?"
"Oh, you dumb dragon!" Rainbow hollered. "It's the Elements, we're in the Elements!"
"Guys," Spike said, and broke off on a sob. "Oh, Luna, I don't care if I'm crazy or not. I've missed you. If you can hear me, I missed you..."
"If we can hear you? You sound like a thunderstorm when you whisper! How could anypony not hear you?" Rainbow Dash stomped her hooves angrily.
"It's like a hole in the world. Like a crack running through the middle of me. I can't even come close to describing how much I've missed you. I don't know how you can be here," Spike continued. His eyes were suspiciously shiny, though his face was carefully, rigidly calm.
"El! Em! Ents!" Dash yelled.
"What?" Spike's head jerked a little and his eyebrows lowered in concentration. Rainbow's eyes lit up, and she flew right up to his eye-level.
"Listen up, ya big doof, I said, El! Em! Ents!" she begged.
He blinked. "What's the alphabet got to do with anything?"
"No, the Ele- oh, I give up," Dash said and dropped to the ground in a pile of defeat.
"Spike, it's me," Twilight said. "Can you hear..."
There was no doubt that he had heard her. His breath stopped, and he began to tremble. "T-twi..." he said through a mouth that appeared to have gone numb with shock.
"He heard you," said Rainbow, before her head thudded onto her hooves. "After I did all that, he heard you. Oh, that is so, sooooo not fair."
She ignored Rainbow Dash's moaning and moved even closer to her little dragon – now such a vast creature, but with the same earnest soul. "Spike, I'm here. You're not alone. We're all here."
"You..." Spike said, before he bent his head. His colossal shoulders were now shaking uncontrollably, and Twilight knew another brief moment of fear. Now that the focus of his greed was fulfilled, would it make him begin collecting again?
The moment passed in a flash as Spike's head lifted slowly to search the cavern. His eyes were now brimming, but doubt was suffusing his face. The moonlight made his scales gleam silver. "I can't see you."
"We're not physical, Spike," Twilight said gently. "But we're still here with you."
"ELEMENTS!" Rainbow howled.
He blinked again. "Elements? Oh, the Elements of Harmony?"
"But I don't know how," Spike said. "I didn't even manage to fill in for Rainbow Dash. Twilight was the one who did all the fancy magic, I was just a secretary!"
"You gigantic jerk, I didn't say use the Elements, I said we're in theElements!"
"You were never just a secretary!" Twilight fumed. "You're my number one assistant!"
He grinned even as a tear cut a track down his cheek. "I can sort of feel you being angry, Twilight... sorry. I know I was more than a secretary." His expression grew soft and wistful. "I wish I could see you."
"You and me both," Twilight said, moving her Self closer to him. "Though I'd settle for being heard right now. What do you have to fight, Spike? Why is this dragon an orphan? Why is the Princess so scared?"
"Yeah, I'm scared," Spike said after a pause. Then he wiped at his shiny eyes with his paw, and sighed. "I'm terrified, actually," he admitted.
"He... didn't answer the question," said Applejack.
"But he could understand 'scared'," Pinkie put in.
"He's only picking up parts of what we're telling him, I think," said Twilight, gazing up at her little boy who had grown up. Who had rather overdone it on the growing up, in fact.
"Aw, lame!" Dash groaned. "Maybe if I fly up there and shout at him again?"
"Fly...? That's gotta be Rainbow Dash! Nah, I didn't get wings," Spike said with a wry smile. "I suppose I just don't get them. Sorry, Dash. Guess we'll never go flying together... not that I could keep up."
Dash tipped her head back in frustration. "No, no, no, who is this big bad guy? Who? WHO?"
Spike raised an eyebrow. "Oh no. Seriously? Owloysius is there? You're kidding - right?"
Dash screeched in frustration and stomped her intangible hoof. "This is completely impossible! He knows I spoke, but he can't understand what I said! Rarity, he'll listen to you, get onto it!"
"Rainbow Dash, some decorum, please," Rarity said, her voice shaking slightly. Twilight could feel her presence moving near, drawing up close to the dragon's head.
"Spike?" she said. "Spike, dear... it's me."
Spike's eyes instantly filled with tears once more. "Milady," he breathed.
Twilight could feel her friend's emotions veering wildly. She pulled her essence close and held her tight. "It's okay, Rarity," she said, trying to squash her own surge of feeling. "It's okay."
Spike gave his mammoth forelegs a glance, before his head bent in shame. "I never wanted you to see me like this again," he said in a voice that dragged like broken glass over stone.
"Spikey..." Rarity said helplessly.
"It's not the same," Twilight said in her sternest and most parental tone. "You know it's not the same."
"But Twilight, I gave in," he said. "I promised on your graves that I would never..."
"No you didn't," Rarity said. Her voice rang with conviction. "You used the greed, instead of it using you, as t'were. You didn't give in - You faced your fears and sacrificed yourself for the good of others. It was a brave, noble and generous thing to do, and you're an absolute hero, darling. You're still my hero."
He paused, before his glossy eyes warmed. "Oh, milady," he whispered. "You never did let me finish what I was going to say."
Rarity's sudden burst of love and guilt buffeted them like a storm.
"He can hear you too," said Rainbow Dash blankly. Then she leapt into the air and whooped. "Aw, yeah!"
Spike jerked back. "What was that?"
"Flipping. Any... second... now..." said Pinkie, her eyes very wide and her pupils tiny dots of shock.
"Rainbow Dash, do stop behaving like some uncivilised ruffian," Rarity said in a trembling voice.
"This is really difficult," Spike said, swallowing hard. "I don't quite know what you just said. I don't think it was pointed at me. I'm not actually hearing you at all, so you know, not with my ears at least. It's in my head. I can sort of feel that you're here, and I can sort of feel what you mean to say. I'm guessing that I'm getting a lot of it wrong. I'll get better at it."
"How can he do that?" asked Pinkie.
"How should I know?" said Twilight. "Talk to him, that might make it clearer. Let's practice for a little while. Girls, try to keep the babble and the bickering to a minimum, okay?"
Spike's lips twitched, and to their amazement he began to chuckle. "Aaaaaand I remember that feeling. Twilight just told everypony to get into line, didn't she?"
Applejack began to laugh as well. "He's got you there, Twi."
"Was that Applejack?" Spike said eagerly, rising a little from his curled position.
"Careful of the baby!" Fluttershy scolded.
"Whoops, sorry Fluttershy." Spike glanced back down at his upturned palm, before freezing stock-still. "Ohmigosh, Fluttershy?"
"Eeep!" Fluttershy squeaked.
"He heard that too!" said Pinkie.
"This is incredible!" Twilight said, staring up at the shocked dragon. "There's never been anything like this before. We've broken the boundaries of magic as we know it! Oh, I wish I could get to my library. I need to look this up! Maybe there's something in the..."
"Is... Twilight having a research moment?" Spike said, his body still frozen.
"Give the dragon a prize," Applejack drawled. "What was that about keepin' babble to a minimum, Twilight?"
Twilight ignored her with lofty disdain. "Spike," she began, and hesitated as she looked up into those eyes, those big, puzzled, familiar green eyes. They gazed right past her with wordless longing.
He swallowed again. "Twilight."
Twilight couldn't think of how to say it all. Her mind had drawn a complete blank. Her heart was too busy breaking and demanding the impossible: that he should look down and see her. "Um..." she faltered. "Well, I know it's been a long time... and, uh..."
"Oh, in the name of everything nougat...!" Pinkie exclaimed. She took two very determined bounces to land before the dragon's nose, and fixed him with a glare. "Right, Spikenator! Listen up and listen good! We're in the Elements of Harmony! We don't know how you use 'em either, although Twilight might have some idea because she's Miss Magicky-Wagic. The baby is real cute. You're real big and it's sorta-kinda-a-lot freaking us out, but it's all okay and we're not angry or anything. You're actually lookin' pretty sharp there – as well as extremely spiky and dangerous. Did I mention big? We missed you – well, actually we didn't because we'd forgotten EV-ER-Ything, but once we figured it out, then we missed you. We're fine, except three of us seem to be ghosties and three of us are disembodied minds just zipping about. If you could do something generous, honest and magic toot sweet, that'd be just superly fantabulicious. Oooh, and also, if it's not too much to ask, could you pleeeeeeeease with hot sauce on top tell us what the big Equestria-annihilating threat is? Plus the Dark is boring, so don't close the box. This flip-out has been brought to you by Pinkie Pie courtesy of the Elements of Harmony. The End."
Spike looked bewildered. "That... was Pinkie Pie, right? Being extra, super Pinkie Pie."
Twilight groaned. "Yes."
"Uh huh," he said, before the faintest trace of a rather familiar, cheeky smile crossed his face. "Pretty sharp? Y'think?"
Twilight pulled herself back from all the teeth, teeth, teeth. "Well, that's... one way of putting it."
"You look marvellous, darling," said Rarity staunchly.
His eyes glimmered. "Thanks, Rarity."
"I think he's getting the hang of it," said Rainbow Dash, peering up at him.
"So... you're ghosts?" Spike's gaze flickered over the moonlit cave. "Three of you? Did I get that right?"
"I don't know about ghosts, exactly," Twilight admitted. "But Fluttershy, Rainbow Dash and Pinkie are sort of... visible to us. The Princess couldn't see them though, and if anypony could, she could."
He rocked back in shock. "The P-Princess? You saw all that?"
"We're in the Elements, Spike," said Applejack wearily. "He's a bit slow for a Professor, ain't he?"
"It's a bit of a shock to find out that your childhood friends, dead for centuries, are suddenly talking inside your head from inside a bunch of necklaces and a big crown thingy," Spike retorted. "Cut me some slack."
"Well, either he's got the hang o' it, or he can tell when he's bein' insulted," said Applejack. "Sorry, sugarcube."
"S'okay, Applejack. So you were there when I..." Spike trailed off. Then he bit his lip.
Rarity's presence trembled for a moment. "Yes," she said.
There was a very uncomfortable silence. Twilight could only imagine how Spike must be feeling, knowing that his dead friends had seen him as a five hundred year old child turning slowly to stone. Then arguing with the Princess. Then growing to the height of a castle...
"Are you... okay?" she asked softly.
He scratched for a moment at the rocky ground with his empty claw, and then slumped. "No, not really. This is too much, and I'm... I'm frightened."
"Tell Twilight," she murmured.
"Tell Twilight, and the troubles go away," he recited the old and comforting phrase, and smiled sadly. It faded too quickly, and he heaved a great sigh. Smoke gusted through the cave, eddying in billows and creating strange shapes in the moonlight. He studied his claws for a long moment in silence, before his mouth opened and he began to speak in a soft monotone.
"Well. I'm scared about what I have to do. I don't know if I'll ever get the Elements working. Before, I didn't care so much if I didn't make it, but what about Equestria? What about the little one here? She has nopony of her own any more. And now you... you're here. But what if you're not here, and I'm just going crazy? Or if you are, and I have to give up my life to defeat him? I'd be leaving you. Again. Not to say that I'm not happy you're here, I so, soooo am, you have no idea, it's just... hard to believe." He stopped, breathing deeply for a moment, before continuing in a voice that faltered even as it boomed. "I kind of... need you. It's sort of the reason I'm like this now. You're the focus of the whole thing. I need you in order to be whole, you see. Well, you know that if you saw. I don't know if I can believe that you're here – and what happens if I do? Does the greed take over? Do I go mad? I... I'm almost more afraid to believe it than not."
There was a short, tense silence.
Spike broke it with a wry little huff. "Oh yeah... and finally, I'm worried that it feels so natural to be so big." He shifted a little on the gravel floor of the cave, before looking down at the claw that held the baby. "I was really as little as her when I hatched, wasn't I?"
"You were even littler," Twilight said, the memories welling up within her (doll, basket, bottle, chortle, blanket, toy trains, gems, soft afternoons spent sleeping in a warm huddle, tiny claws in her fur, tears that stopped when she gathered him up in her embrace, little arms clasping around her neck, the smells of powder and linen and smoke). "You were so tiny I could put you in Smarty Pants' clothes. You hated it."
"Wherever did you find the little darling?" Fluttershy asked.
"On the edge of Celestia's Zone, not far from here," Spike said heavily, still looking at the curled shape of the infant. It was sucking on one of its paws again, and it twitched a little as it dreamed its baby dragon dreams. "I took the long way home from Canterlot so I wouldn't scare anypony, and I came across her parents' bodies just outside Froggy Bottom Bog. He must have overlooked her - I almost did, she's so tiny. I very nearly didn't hear her crying."
"Will you... keep her?" asked Rarity.
"How can I?" he said, stroking her tiny back again, before looking up and around at what was to him a seemingly-empty cave. "I can't promise to be there for her. I could die, remember."
Rarity pulled Twilight's Self towards hers, and enmeshed her so tightly it was painful. "Oh, my Spikey-Wikey..." she moaned. "You mustn't. You can't!"
Spike smiled again, the same sad little smile. "Not even to be a hero, milady Rarity? Not even to save Equestria?"
"Spike," Twilight said gently. "I can promise you one thing, at least. We are really, truly here. You're not crazy. We've been in the Elements of Harmony all this time. You called us out of the Darkness. You're not alone, and we'll help you in any way we can."
The huge green eyes widened, before slamming shut. Spike tucked his chin against his chest and held very still for a long moment. He didn't say anything, but Twilight understood.
Eventually he raised his head and wiped at his eyes with the heel of that gigantic hand. "So," he said crisply before clearing his throat. He was obviously trying to bury his emotions with briskness. The great voice was thick with suppressed tears. "Alright, I'll act as though I believe that. How did I call you out?"
"You were being loyal," Twilight said, going along with the change of pace for his sake and adopting a businesslike tone. "And that invoked the Element of Loyalty. That pulled Rainbow Dash out of the Darkness, and she dragged the rest of us along too. My theory is that because you kept being loyal it strengthened Rainbow even further until she could regain a sort of physical form. When you made a joke despite how sad you were – a really bad joke by the way – Pinkie was able to do the same. And when you opened the casket to entertain the baby..."
"...I was being kind," Spike said slowly. "But... I wasn't really... I was just doing the right thing."
"The right thing was the kind thing, Spike," said Fluttershy, brushing a wing over the sleeping baby's head. "Oh, she's soooo sweet. What's her name?"
Spike's eyes clouded over, and he looked down at the tiny little dragon with an oddly protective expression. "I don't know. I guess I'll have to give her one."
"She likes me," Pinkie said with a toss of her curly mane. "You should name her after me!"
"Pinks, we can't call her Pinkie, she's not pink!" pointed out Rainbow Dash. "See, she's like, orange."
Spike rolled his eyes. "Well, we should name her after Applejack then."
"Y' said what? I was orange?"
Pinkie was evidently rather taken with the idea of naming the little orphan after herself. "Pinkamena!" she declared, waving her shadowy hooves. "See? She even looks like a Pinkamena!"
"An' that's just another way of naming her Pinkie," said Dash with exaggerated patience.
"Besides, I wouldn't saddle anypony with a name like Pinkamena," said Spike.
Pinkie's ears flattened. "And what's wrong with Pinkamena?"
"Well..." Spike gulped and began to backtrack like a pro. "Er... it's just so... individual? Th-there can be only one P-pinkamena?"
Twilight watched with a sinking feeling as a little pink ghost bullied a giant among dragons into stammering like a foal, and wished fervently for her body. She'd never felt such a strong urge to facehoof before.
Pinkie looked mollified, but only just. "All right then, mister, I'll let that one slide. This time. How about Pie?"
"Pie the dragon? She'd be a laughing-stock! Absolutely not," Spike vetoed. Then he flinched. "Don't throw anything!"
"Uh," Fluttershy said. "Diane?"
Spike looked down at the sleeping baby again. "Diane. That could work."
"Fine, Diane it is," Twilight said with a touch of impatience. "Now, please tell us who is it that killed Diane's parents? What is the Princess so worried about?"
Spike's mouth became a tight, flat line. "Can't you guess? Who did the Elements defeat?"
Pinkie bounced eagerly. "Oooh, Black Snooty?"
"Sort of," Spike said, and turned his head away. "And who else?"
"Discord," said Rarity slowly.
"Right," Spike said. "It's Discord. But it's not just Discord."
"The Princess said that... somepony had been captured," Fluttershy said, ducking under her long mane again and peering out with one large frightened eye.
"Right again. Princess Luna. Somepony freed Discord, but instead of immediately creating chaos like last time, the first thing he did was capture Luna." Spike's low voice dripped with anger and grief. "He fed her lies, crazed her mind with illusions and built up her resentment until..."
"Nightmare Moon?" whispered Twilight.
"Yeah. But it didn't stop there. Somehow he stripped her of Nightmare Moon's power, the ultimate manifestation of her resentment and jealousy, and then took it into himself," said Spike. His gigantic muscles bunched in fury, though his voice remained quiet. "She's in his palace, we think. He can't kill her, so he's imprisoned her."
"Nightmare Discord?" blurted Rainbow Dash.
"He was already a nightmare! He didn't need help!" exclaimed Rarity in pure horror.
"But he was just a sort of powerful trickster!" Twilight said. "He never seemed to want to actually hurt anypony, just create mayhem and have some silly laughs!"
"Not anymore," said Spike. "Nightmare Moon needed to dominate and control, right? She wanted to eliminate all competition, and become the sole ruler of her domain, the sky. She was prepared to kill anypony in her path with any trick she could muster. Well, he's inherited those traits. He still laughs, sure, but usually while he's knee-deep in blood. Chaos must rule, and there can be no challengers. There's no chocolate milk rain this time. No upside-down buildings or funny cotton candy clouds. Instead, there's what happened to Trottingham."
Twilight was afraid to ask, but she braved it anyway. "What happened?"
"It's now at the bottom of a brand new sea. He didn't bother evacuating it."
Fluttershy's hooves clamped over her mouth, and Rarity choked.
"Appleoosa has been on fire for three months now, and not even rain can put it out." Spike snorted bitterly. "That's assuming it gets normal rain, of course. No pegasus beyond Dodge Junction has dared to do any weather duty for half a year. Celestia has managed to keep central Equestria free of his powers, but everything beyond that is under his control. He even manages to get inside Celestia's Free Zone every now and then, when she grows tired from repelling him and maintaining both the sun and moon. We've had rains of poisonous snakes, rains of acid and rains of rotting meat. And that's not even the worst of it."
"I don't want to hear," gasped Fluttershy. "Oh, no, please stop!"
Spike's great head turned back to them. "I'm sorry, Fluttershy," he said quietly.
"What's happened to Ponyville?" cried Applejack. "What about our home?"
Spike drew his outstretched palm towards his face, and regarded the little dragon sleeping within it. "That's what's so strange. Nothing's happened to it yet. Celestia's protecting it, as I said, and I've been here of course. I think he has plans for it. Discord won't have forgotten Ponyville in a hurry."
"Guards? The army? The Wonderbolts?" Rainbow asked desperately.
He pulled a rather sardonic face. "The latest Wonderforce is currently under the impression that they are sparrows, and he used the army to grit his drive, I believe," he said. "The Canterlot Palace guard are all that's left, and there's not many of them in the first place. Do you really think they could stand up to the combined power of Nightmare Moon and Discord?"
"Splat," said Pinkie.
"Splat," Spike agreed.
"So that's why it's all up to you," said Twilight.
"Yeah, all up to me." Spike sighed and stroked the baby's back. His claw moved with utter tenderness. "Getting colder. S'cuse me." He blew another gentle stream of fire over the tiny dragon, which didn't even stir from its slumber.
"A fully-grown dragon armed with the Elements of Harmony," Twilight mused. "I can see why the Princess thought it would be a good idea..."
"Except the dragon in question has no idea how to use them. Everything I've tried has done absolutely zip," he said, flames playing around his teeth and tongue as he spoke. "Can you remember anything about how they worked?"
She concentrated. "Magic made them complete. The others are dormant without it. I gathered the power of the Elements together with my magic, and funnelled it through myself."
"It gave her spoooooooky eyes!" Pinkie said. "Spooky eyes with bad-guy-smashing powers!"
"I just focused like crazy on my own Element," offered Rainbow. "Loyal to the max, that's me."
"I did the same," said Applejack. "Just thought about bein' honest hard as I could."
"But... I don't use magic," Spike said, looking lost.
"The Princess said you had the magic of dragons in your bones..." Twilight began, but Spike was shaking his head.
"I know, I know, as a dragon I do have magic... but it's inherent magic. It's like the intrinsic magic of Earth ponies or pegasi. It's in my body and my fire, not my mind. I can't consciously direct it like a unicorn can."
"Since when do you use words like 'inherent' and 'intrinsic' in normal conversation?" said Twilight, taken aback.
Spike quirked an eyebrow. "Professor Spike, Dean of Ponyville University and Extremely Senior Lecturer in Equestrian History, International Politics and Law speaking."
"Whoa," breathed Rainbow Dash. "Twilight, he's a bigger egghead than you ever were!"
He shrugged. "I had to do something with five hundred years, and I live – lived - in a library. So I started a university."
"Oh, Spike!" Twilight exclaimed, wonder and shock bubbling up inside her. "You... you...!"
He looked a little embarrassed. "Yeah, well. After the Bay of Serpents fiasco, it seemed appropriate. I like books and writing, I'd just made Equestrian history happen, and as for law, I've always been interested in what's fair. I was working on my fourteenth doctorate before all this happened."
"I am..." Twilight managed, "so proud right now. Really. I may explode."
Spike's shoulders straightened, and he smiled bashfully. "Thanks, Twi."
"It's your university?" breathed Rarity.
"Well, no, I started it, but it's not my university anymore. I handed over the Chancellorship two hundred and seventy-three years ago, which wasn't soon enough for me. I hate administration; it's like hell, but with filing, reporting, budgeting and tacky desk ornaments. They insisted on making me Dean in perpetuity about eighty years ago. That's okay though; I like the extra contact with the students, I like teaching, as much as I can like anything these days. I get why you tried to stuff my ungrateful head with facts now, Twilight. Oh, guess what, the Magic Faculty named the main research building after you. Neat, huh? The Twilight Sparkle Magical Research Facility. And the Horticulture and Agriculture departments have been staffed by whole branches of the Apple family for years now. We should just call 'em the Apple Faculties and leave it at that."
Applejack sounded utterly floored. "Now, ain't that somethin'!"
Spike's last words pierced Twilight's mist of astonished pride, and it was with a cold shock that she realised that none of them had remembered their families. Nopony could even remember their old age- or their manner of death. It was as though they had been encased in amber in their young adulthood.
She couldn't even frame the question. There were some things she simply couldn't bear to hear.
"Spike, that is extraordinary," Rarity was gushing. "Simply extraordinary!"
"Extremely Senior Lecturer?" said Rainbow Dash.
He actually flushed. "The Vice-Chancellor gave me that title, said it was fair. And I'd just turned four hundred and ninety-six."
Pinkie gasped, her intangible hooves rising a clear foot from the ground. "Spike! Your birthday! We've missed so many, oh, it's a tragedy, a disaster, no - it's a national emergency! Arrgh, quickquickquick, where's my party cannon, where's my party cannon!" She whirled like a top, her eyes spinning as though expecting to see an ethereal cannon suddenly appearing out of nowhere, all the while singing 'Happy Birthday' at the top of her lungs.
Spike threw back his head and laughed. The walls trembled and shuddered as though there were an earthquake, and he stuffed his paw into his mouth in a futile attempt to keep the noise down. "Oh, Pinkie!" he gasped between great heaving laughs, his voice distorted around his claws. "I missed you Pinkie... I missed you all so much!"
"Loud," groaned Rainbow Dash, her hooves over her ears. "Way too loud!"
The sound had woken the baby. Twilight privately thought that it would have woken a corpse. Apparently when a dragon released thirty-eight years worth of pent-up laughter in one go, it was an awful lot.
The little dragon's eyes fluttered and she kicked her legs feebly with a whimper of protest. Spike immediately sucked in a breath and held it as the booming echoes of his laughter died away.
"You woke up Pinkie Junior," said Pinkie accusingly.
"Well, sorry," he hissed back. "I'm not used to having lungs the size of houses, so excuse me if I need a little while to adjust! And her name is Diane!"
"Shhhh, little one," Fluttershy soothed. "It's all right. It's all quite all right. Spike, I think she would like her head rubbed. And perhaps you could warm her up again. She seems very tired still."
His eyes softened as they landed on the baby, and he nodded. Then he blew that thin stream of fire over the tiny coppery dragon. Her forepaw twitched absently as she was bathed in green flames.
He then picked up a boulder (it looked like a peanut in his claws) and held it under the fire for a good few seconds, before placing the glowing, sizzling rock down beside his palm. "There," he said, stroking her head with extreme delicacy. "There should be enough ambient heat from that for a while. Don't want to put it in my hand: it might roll over and squash her."
The little dragon stretched like a sleepy cat, yawning with a tiny toothless mouth. Then she rolled over and curled up into a tight little ball. Twilight melted at the familiar sight. Spike had slept like that for years, his nose wrapped in his paws and his tail encircling the lot.
His yawn obviously surprised himself as much as it did them. He belatedly covered his mouth, but Twilight had caught a glimpse of that cavernous maw, filled to bursting with bloodcurdling teeth. She shuddered. "Spike," she said in as reproving a tone as she could muster.
"What?" he said. "Yawning's contagious!"
"Oh," said Rarity in surprise. "I'd forgotten. You need sleep and food and things, don't you..."
"Sorry," he said, and yawned again. The view was indescribable. Twilight steeled herself.
"Quite all right, darling," Rarity said. "We'll be here when you wake up."
"I just hope..." Spike said muzzily as he laid his head down on the cavern floor again, "... this isn't... some sort of dream."
"Tell you what, Spike," said Twilight, watching the huge eyes begin to flutter closed, "I'll wake you up. Just like old times, what do you say?"
"Just like... old times," he mumbled, and began to snore.
"I missed you too," she said softly. "I missed you too, even if I didn't know what I was missing."
The six of them drew together and held each other close as they watched over the sleep of their last lonely friend. The moonlight bounced from his scales and from the Elements in the open box. Jewelled motes of light twinkled through the night air.
Sorry for mega-long wait, everyone. But look! More!
Not mine, no money, no sue.
“Spike! Wake up!”
“Fi’ minutes, Twi,” he grunted. Then his head snapped up, an expression of awe and disbelief on his face. “Ohmigosh, Twi!?”
“No, you didn’t dream it,” she said, laughing at his gobsmacked expression. “We’re really here.”
Spike glanced down at the Elements of Harmony, glinting in the morning sunlight. “Oh.”
Diane was awake and sitting up. She was amusing herself by kicking her hind feet into the air and rocking backwards along her back. Every now and then she was able to grasp one little foot, and she would immediately stick it into her mouth and gum messily all over it. There was drool everywhere. Spike regarded her with a slightly dismayed expression. “Well isn’t that dainty.”
“Don’t bathe her,” Fluttershy instructed in a capable tone quite unlike her normal manner of speaking. “You won’t be able to hold her properly, you’re simply too big. Wipe her down with a damp cloth. She’s hungry too.”
Spike shook his head. “You see any damp cloth around here? Nah, dragons do it like this.” He blasted the baby with another short burst of fire and she giggled, grabbing at the flames with jerky, uncoordinated movements. When the fire cleared, the drool was gone and her scales were perfectly clean.
“You dragons, that’s your answer to everything,” said Applejack with a chuckle.
Spike smirked and slowly stood, gently depositing the infant onto his snout. He couldn’t quite straighten his legs without bashing his spine and head against the cave roof, and had to half-crouch. He looked rather comical with a baby sitting upon his nose peering about curiously. “Right,” he said, before stifling a yawn. “Food. I’m starving.”
“How are you going to manage that?” Rainbow asked.
He shrugged with a wry quirk of his mouth which inadvertently displayed several feet of overlocking fangs. “I’ll scrounge something together.”
“How about Diane?” asked Fluttershy.
“Ah, got something for her at least,” he said, and began to crawl out of the cave into the sunshine. He dislodged a few more boulders as he squeezed out onto the ledge where, once upon a time, Fluttershy had made a cranky red dragon burst into tears.
The day was cold and crisp, though the sun was shining. It had that dusty, papery feel of cold mornings that Twilight had always loved. Below them, the valley stretched out and Ponyville dozed in the thin dawn light. It was bigger than she remembered and none of the buildings were familiar. However on the opposite rise, just where they had always stood, she could make out rows and rows of apple trees. The air was so peaceful. It seemed impossible that beyond those mountains, unspeakable chaos was ripping the world apart.
Spike was only just able to stand on the ledge. His hind and forefeet were skirting the edges; if he rose up onto his hind feet, his head would be level with the mountain’s summit. There was no possible chance that he hadn’t been spotted by the ponies far below. With a jolt of amusement Twilight saw that his hind feet were still slightly pigeon-toed, just as they had been when he was little and primarily bipedal.
“Ooooh, that’s better. I’ve got a kink in my back,” he groaned with a catlike stretch. The pop of his bones sounded like the firing of heavy artillery. Then he sat back down onto his haunches and neatly curled his tail around his feet while his eyes scanned the ground. “Now where are they...”
“What do baby dragons eat?” Pinkie wondered.
“Just about anything, in my experience,” Twilight said. “It’s getting them to stop that’s the trick.”
“Ha ha, very funny Twilight. Aha! Here we go,” he said, triumphantly flourishing a branch that had obviously been torn from a tree. It was laughably small in his claws. “Found them growing wild on the way here. They should be all right for a while.”
“Apricots?” said Applejack dubiously. “Ain’t she gonna have a problem with the stones?”
“She could choke,” said Fluttershy, worry in her eyes.
“That’s why I’m gonna help,” Spike said patiently. “I fed her twice yesterday. We did okay.”
“How...” began Twilight, but she was silenced as Spike cleaned off a surface with a quick blast of fire and shook the branch vigorously over the warmed stone. Apricots fell and bounced, and he squinted down at them, before nodding.
“Should be enough. I wish I could get some milk into her, she needs the vitamins. She’ll get her teeth soon, though. That should make feeding her a lot easier.”
“Listen t’ you, you’re a total expert,” said Rainbow Dash.
Spike pulled a face, before squishing the apricots to mush with one press of his thumb. The pips were left standing in the orange pulp and he bent his head close, squinting, and flicked them out one by one. “I’ve seen a lot of generations come and go. You pick up some stuff.”
“No matter how girly?” teased Twilight.
Spike snorted. “Yeah, yeah, yeah. The way I see it, there’s nothing tough about letting a baby cry when you can do something about it.”
“That’s a very mature attitude, Spike,” said Rarity, surprised approval radiating from her.
“Five hundred and twelve, last birthday,” Spike said absently as he lifted the baby off his snout with care and put her down in front of the pile of apricot mush. The baby launched into the mush like a fox attacking a henhouse. Her little paws immediately reached out and she crammed a double handful into her mouth. Well, the initial target was her mouth. In practice, the stuff ended up on her face, spines, fins, feet and belly. The little dragon romped happily in her breakfast, thoroughly smearing her just-cleaned scales. Then Diane craned back to babble enthusiastically at Spike, who smiled down at her with such gentleness that Twilight felt her imaginary heart stop. “There we go, Diane. That’s better, isn’t it?” he rumbled.
“I’m sorry, Spike darling, I didn’t mean to be offensive,” said Rarity. “I keep forgetting how old you are. It just... doesn’t seem quite real.”
Spike cautiously scooped apricot gunk off Diane’s head. “No offense taken. And in case you’ve forgotten, I’m probably the largest dragon alive and you’re the invisible dead pony talking in my head from inside a magic golden necklace. I could probably write a book on what doesn’t seem real.”
“What are you gonna eat?” asked Rainbow. Her face was dubious, and Twilight couldn’t blame her. Where in Equestria was there enough food to feed a creature as immense as Spike?
He shrugged. “Don’t know. I’ll wait until she’s done before I go find something, and then we can start working with the Elements. Maybe now that you’re here I’ll have more luck.”
When Diane had finished eating, she was cleaned, burped (producing a decent flame maybe two inches long, which according to Spike meant that she was cleaning out her flame-ducts) and set to playing in the mouth of the cave. For about ten minutes the two dragons were absorbed by a game that seemed to involve a big tickling claw and a lot of giggling on Diane’s part. Spike even chuckled a few times when the little thing flopped inexpertly onto his claw in what was unmistakeably a novice pounce, wrapping her paws around it with a little ‘rawr!’ and gumming messily all over it.
“Easy, tiger,” he murmured, the bass rumble of his chuckle drifting over the valley.
She looked up at him with the jewel-like eyes of a dragon, her little mouth locked on his claw. Pinkie crowed with delight.
“Yeah, you show him who’s boss, Pinkie Junior!” she cheered.
Gently extracting his claw, Spike replaced it with a gnarled branch of the apricot tree that had provided her breakfast. Diane examined it thoroughly for a few seconds, before flopping over it and beginning to wrestle it into submission with her jerky, uncoordinated baby movements. Despite the gravity of the situation she looked so adorably serious that Twilight couldn’t help but laugh. Fluttershy was almost swooning. When Spike made to pull away, Diane made a warbling noise that was faintly querulous. He leaned down to carefully press the side-most tip of his snout against her little ridged back and blew eddies of smoke around her. Discarding the branch, Diane rolled over and grabbed at the smoke, cooing excitedly before beaming at Spike with toothless glee. She then returned to studying the branch with infant fascination, and Spike turned to the business of feeding his newly vast self.
It turned out that Twilight’s banter earlier had been more correct than she knew. Apparently dragons really could eat just about anything. She watched from the cave mouth in astonishment as Spike stripped several scrubby mountain trees of their leaves (prompting a rather vivid flashback to when he had once done the same to Applejack’s beloved farm), ate several dozen boulders (apparently granite was extremely boring but filling – the draconic equivalent of bran), demolished a cliff-face looking for gems (no luck), and spent the next few minutes picking his teeth with a gnarled branch (a chilling sight, if Twilight was honest with herself). Finally he threw the remains of the branch down into the valley below and licked his lips.
“Well, that was the worst breakfast ever,” he said. “I could sure do with that gem-finding spell of yours, Rarity.”
“I didn’t know you could eat all that,” said Twilight.
“I didn’t know either until I went to Dragonsdorf for the peace treaty,” Spike said, standing once more and shaking out his neck. “It wasn’t in any of my books, and nopony in Equestria really knows all that much about dragons. That trip was a real education, though most of them despised me because I refused to grow up. That became the thesis of doctorate number seven, actually. Ungh. I wish it hadn’t been granite, bleagh. Shale’s way better. More crumbly.”
“It’s a far cry from cake,” said Pinkie.
“Oh, don’t be mean,” he grumbled. “Unless they make ‘em eight feet across, I’m gonna miss out on cake from now on.”
He struggled back into the cave (dislodging some more stones around the entrance) and returned with the open casket. “Okay then,” he said, placing it down on the ledge and sitting back on his haunches. His neck snaked down to peer at the gold and jewels glittering in the sun. “Um. Hate to say it, but they look really tasty.”
“Spike! You are not eating the Elements of Harmony!” Twilight barked.
He scowled. “Of course I won’t! What do you think I am?”
“A dragon who just ate rocks for breakfast, that’s what!”
“Twi,” he grumbled. “I’d never eat them. Leaving aside the fact that you’re somehow tied up in them, they’re the Elements of Harmony!”
“You ate my dad’s wedding ring,” she said pointedly.
“I was two!”
“And my mother’s heirloom diamond choker,” Twilight remembered.
He huffed and rolled his eyes. “Give me a break here! I wasn’t even old enough to talk when I ate that!”
“I was going to inherit that one day!”
“How was I supposed to know it was special? It was right there in the kitchen where you usually gave me my gems!”
“It was in a locked velvet box!”
“Come on, Twilight! It’s been five hundred years, don’t you think it’s time to drop it?”
“Nopony’d think you two had ever been apart, the way you’ve gone right back to your teasing,” Dash muttered. “You still snark at each other just as much as you always did.”
Spike coughed as Twilight harrumphed rather uncomfortably. “Right,” he said. “Well. Uh, shall we get started?”
“Yes, okay, so... Elements,” said Twilight, gratefully seizing the diversion. “What have you tried so far?”
Spike tipped his head, staring thoughtfully at the jewels. “Not that much. I can’t get them over my fingers, so I can’t wear them--”
“—so I tried holding them in my paw and concentrating. It didn’t work, obviously.”
“Hmm,” said Twilight, thinking hard.
“What else have you tried?” asked Rarity.
“Well,” he said, clearly uneasy with what he was about to say. “Promise me you won’t get angry?”
“Spike,” said Twilight warningly.
“What did you do?” asked Applejack.
He took a deep breath. “Well, you know how my magic’s in my body... and my... f-fire?”
He winced. “I... sorta blew fire on them. It didn’t hurt them!” he added hurriedly.
“You WHAT?” yelled Rainbow Dash, and Spike jerked backward against the mountain, causing a slight tremor as his back slammed against the rock and dirt.
“It didn’t hurt them,” he repeated in a more defensive tone. “The gold didn’t even get hot. What was I supposed to do, sit on them? It was the gentlest flame I could produce--”
“Spike, we’re in those things!” bellowed Applejack. “Y’ coulda killed us!”
Spike scratched his face. “Um...”
“Well, fine, not killed exactly. But you know what I mean!”
“I didn’t know you were in there, did I?” he tried to say, but Applejack was having none of it. She was pawing at the ground with one hoof, her head tossing and snorts of anger coming from her nose.
“Don’t you ever do somethin’ like that again!” she said, eyes flashing. “Consarnit, if I could get my hooves on you, I’d whip twelve types of tarnation outta your sorry hide, dragon or no!”
“AJ?” said Rainbow Dash conversationally.
Applejack whirled. “What now, Rainbow?” she snapped.
Applejack rolled her eyes. “What in Equestria is that supposed t’ mean?”
“It means nice hat,” Pinkie supplied. “Because your hat is nice!”
“Why not me?” Rarity wailed. “Oh, this is the worst, the very worst! Possible! Thing!”
“Y’ mean,” Applejack began, and then she looked down at her hooves. Her eyes widened.
“Those’re mah hooves, then,” she said in a very shaky voice. “Hey there, little darlin’s. I missed you.”
“And I don’t even have a chaise longue!” Rarity continued in a tragic voice.
“Honesty,” said Twilight, trying to be glad for her friend. “You told the truth, even though you knew it would make us upset.”
Spike looked a little lost. “Am I following this right? Applejack’s made it to Ghost Level?”
“That’s right,” Pinkie chirped. “Because you were honest with us!”
He carefully unplastered himself from the mountainside, and held one paw over Diane’s little head to stop the shower of pebbles and dirt from landing on her. “Well, that was a lesson from a long time ago,” he said. “Be honest and don’t mess about with owls, for they are subtle and quick to point out what an idiot you’re being.”
“Y’ still tried to melt us,” said Applejack stubbornly. She was trotting on the spot, watching her feet move with every sign of enjoyment.
“I didn’t, I promise,” Spike said, the fins either side of his head lifting earnestly. “I was really careful. That flame wouldn’t have melted chocolate!”
“Chooooooclaaaaate,” Pinkie said with a long, wistful sigh.
“Spike, I command you to do something generous!” Rarity said imperiously.
“Oh brother,” Twilight sighed.
Applejack reared forwards and bucked at thin air. “Yeee-haw, now that’s a feelin’ I’ve missed!” she cried, and did it again.
“This isn’t getting us anywhere,” said Twilight with barely-suppressed annoyance. Her friends were appearing all around her, and now it was only herself and Rarity without some sort of physical form. Though she knew it could hardly be blamed on Spike, she was beginning to feel upset with him for not invoking her first, and even a bit jealous of the others.
Spike cringed a little. No doubt he could hear her irritation – he’d always had that ability. “Twi?”
She sighed. “Let’s just concentrate on the Elements again, shall we?”
“What else can we try?” asked Rainbow, pulling a face at her own ruby necklace.
“Can you put them on your spikes?” asked Fluttershy. “They look... uh, really pointy.” The last word was squeaked rather than said.
Spike almost went cross-eyed trying to focus on the razor-sharp length that hung over his forehead. It had been the highest and largest of his baby spines, and remained the longest now. It curved out above his brow nearly to the length of his snout. “Won’t they fall off?”
“Let’s try,” said Applejack. “Ain’t no harm in trying.”
Twilight squashed her surge of annoyance.
Spike carefully lifted out an Element and pinched his spike between two claws. He was so clever with his forepaws, Twilight mused. Those huge claws could lift a tiny necklace and soothe a baby, as well as rip stone from a mountain and uproot whole trees. His penmanship had always been neater than hers, too. More fine motor control than even her magic, she supposed. It seemed there was something to be said for opposable thumbs.
The Element slid over the tip of the green spike a little way. He slowly exhaled, and very gently released the spike.
“Looks like it’s staying put,” said Rainbow Dash.
Pinkie took one look, and broke into hysterics. Spike scowled.
“Ignore the comedian, Spike. D’you think you could use it?” asked Applejack, her head tipping as she squinted up at the tiny necklace surmounting the giant.
He grimaced. “I’ll try. Which one was it?”
“Kindness again,” said Applejack after a brief frown. “S’pink.”
Spike closed his eyes and his eyebrows knitted together as he concentrated. The necklace seemed to shine a little brighter in the morning sunshine, but no beam of light came from the jewelled butterfly.
“Stop, Spike, it’s not working,” said Twilight. There was a sinking feeling where her stomach should be.
He blinked open. “Nothing?”
“Nada, zilch, zip, zero, bugger-all, diddly-squat, Sweet Fanny Apples,” Pinkie said cheerfully.
“It looked a bit shinier, but that’s it,” said Rainbow.
“Maybe Fluttershy should be up there?” said Rarity.
“Up... there?” said Fluttershy, her voice fainter than her outline.
“Doesn’t look like she’s jumpin’ fer joy at that idea, Rarity,” said Applejack.
“Well, it’s just... so high,” the pegasus said, trembling a little and ducking behind her hair. “And... Spike is... a vry bg drgn...”
His face fell a little. “Oh.”
“Now, I’m sure Fluttershy isn’t afraid of you, Spike dear,” said Rarity loudly, before hissing, “Fluttershy! You’re hurting his feelings!”
“No, no, I understand,” Spike sighed, carefully unhooking the necklace. “Fluttershy’s afraid of dragons... and now I’m probably the biggest one ever.”
“I’m not scared of Spike,” Fluttershy said, making herself even smaller. “It’s just an awfully big change.”
Pinkie nodded. “Awfully big everything.”
With an internal wince Twilight thought back to the many times she had been afraid, taken aback or simply shocked by Spike’s new and fierce appearance. “Look, it’s just something we’re going to have to get used to,” she said in as comforting a voice as she could manage. “You’re still our Spike.”
“Is it just the size thing, or is it the... the teeth?” Spike asked in a neutral voice. “Or something else?”
“Allofit,” mumbled Fluttershy.
“Well, I’m not afraid of you,” announced Rainbow Dash. “Hah, as if! Fish out my necklace and let’s do this thing!”
With a sigh so small Twilight almost missed it, Spike laid the Element of Kindness back in the casket and drew out the glinting Element of Loyalty. “Do I have to put it on my head too?” he asked a little plaintively.
Pinkie bounced happily, giggles escaping her as she chanted, “Do it! Do it, do it, do it, doitdoitdoitdoit...”
“Pinkie,” Rarity snapped.
“But it looks so funny...”
Spike sat back onto his haunches and arranged the necklace on his palm with deft strokes of a claw. “Okay,” he said, sweeping what was to him an apparently-bare rocky shelf with his gaze. “Maybe you can just sit in my paw with the Element? We’ll see if that works...”
“Worth a try,” Applejack agreed.
“I can’t see you, so tell me when you’re there,” he continued, lowering his upturned paw to the ground. Rainbow Dash gulped at the sight of that ring of huge claws, and set her jaw. Her wings spread, and she flew with unusual caution to settle in Spike’s palm. Her feet gingerly alighted on his scales.
“Okay, I’m in,” she said.
“I can’t feel a thing,” he said, staring intently at his palm.
“I’m standing right here,” she said, and stamped her hoof twice. Then she let out a yelp as the paw began to rise into the air. “I’m okay, I’m okay, just lost my balance...”
“How come his paw ain’t passing right through her?” wondered Applejack.
“Does it look like I know?” said Twilight, watching as Rainbow rose higher and higher without twitching a feather. He brought his forepaw up close to his face, and Twilight stifled a nervous giggle. It looked like a scene from a fairy tale – a fairy tale turned upside down and inside out.
“Now what?” Spike rumbled.
“Let’s both concentrate on it,” Dash suggested. “Maybe it’ll take both of us.”
“Okay then.” His eyes slid shut again, and his brow creased in thought. Rainbow Dash lowered her head and placed her forehooves either side of the Element of Loyalty, giving it a determined scowl before her eyes also closed in concentration. Twilight held her breath – no mean feat. Considering.
“Anything?” Pinkie whispered.
“I cain’t see,” Applejack whispered back.
“Shhh!” hissed Rarity, her Self buzzing with anticipation.
A minute passed.
“How about now?” Pinkie whispered once more.
Disappointment washed over Twilight. “I suppose that didn’t work either,” she said, trying to keep the frustration out of her voice.
Spike’s eyes opened, and he regarded the Element glumly. “Guess not.”
“Look, we’ll just keep trying,” said Rainbow, lifting her head to smile at Spike. She jerked back with a slight gasp at how near the giant face was, looming over her like that. The smile faltered for a moment, but she bolstered it quickly and it became a grin of challenge. She tossed her mane. “There’s no way some dopey little necklace is gonna defeat us! It’s just no match for our awesomosity!”
“Maybe...” Rarity said, as Spike lowered his paw to the ground again.
“Well, it’s just a thought, but perhaps the reason we can see Rainbow Dash is because she’s not entirely in her Element anymore? She was... what was that word you used, Twilight dear?”
“Invoked,” Twilight replied, not sure where Rarity was going with this.
“Precisely, invoked, thank you Twilight. So when you invoked her, could it be that you called her into the world and completely out of the necklace... and so your connection to the actual Element of Loyalty was lost?”
“Unlike us!” Twilight finished. “Great idea, Rarity! Spike, try it with the Element of Magic!”
“Oh, fine, Magic or Generosity,” she said sullenly.
Spike shifted a little on his haunches, his eyes trained to his palm. “Is she off?” he asked nopony in particular.
“Yeah,” said Rainbow, flying the last few feet from his palm to the ground. “I’m off.”
“Spike?” asked Twilight.
“Look, I’m sorry, Twilight,” he said, picking up the Element of Loyalty and putting it back into the casket. He kept his eyes fixed on his fingers as they moved. “I want you to make it to this Ghost Level too, you know I do...”
“But you’re choosing Rarity,” Twilight said, rather hurt and trying (unsuccessfully) to sound practical and unaffected.
“No!” He lifted his head and gazed past her, his face imploring. “I want you both back. I’m not playing favourites, and it’s got nothing to do with the torch I’ve carried for Rarity all these years. You’re the closest thing I’ve ever had to a family of my very own - my mother, my sister and my best friend all in one – Twilight, do you honestly believe I could ever choose anypony before you?”
She looked up into his eyes. They were filled with that yearning again, and perhaps it was her imagination but she thought she could see a touch of fear.
“I just can’t use your Element, Twi,” he said, and his claw brushed over the star-surmounted tiara. “I can’t touch my magic the way you can.”
He was still for a moment, the claw hovering over the crown.
Then he tapped the purple necklace. The amethyst chimed under his clawtip. “But I know how it feels to be generous,” he said. “That, I can do.”
“Spike, I didn’t mean to...” Twilight began, now feeling a little bewildered and extremely upset.
“Sorry, no, that was my fault,” he said, roughly shaking his head. “I said that badly. I’m too used to missing you, I guess. This still seems so unreal and I keep thinking that it’s all in my head, or that you’ll just disappear. Not that I can see you anyway, but...”
“We’re really here, I promise...”
“I want to believe that, I want that so much. I don’t wanna be that crazy guy who talks to himself all the...”
“I just want to have hooves again. A face, a body, eyes... I know that might not seem like such a big deal when you can’t see any of us at all, but...”
“No, I get it. After all, look what happened to me. I’m not myself anymore, and it feels both wrong and right...”
“I guess you do understand it at that... I just - I suppose it felt like you were deliberately choosing against...”
“I would never do that, never. Not to anypony, and especially not to you, Twilight...”
“Were there ever two ponies as bad as you at gettin’ to the point?” Rainbow cut in.
“Spike’s a dragon, not a pony,” Pinkie said helpfully.
“Hah, um,” Spike said, rubbing the back of his neck. His eyes darted to the left in embarrassment. “Oh, look at that, Diane’s falling asleep, be right back!” he exclaimed, and turned to where the baby was nodding and yawning. The six of them were abruptly presented with his side, a huge expanse of purple that effectively hid his face.
There was a silence.
“Did he just say--” Rarity began.
“Yes,” said Fluttershy, eyes enormous.
There was another silence.
“So he’s loved me for--” Rarity started once more.
“Uh-huh,” said Applejack.
The emotions now flooding from Rarity could have flattened mountains.
“I didn’t know,” she whispered.
“Horseapples,” Applejack retorted. “Y’ always knew how he felt.”
“Well yes, but I didn’t think he’d...” she said, but her voice faded away. Then she pulled herself together (figuratively) and said, “I never thought to look beyond... I didn’t think that, after I was gone, he would still...”
“Oh my,” said Fluttershy soulfully. “He’s loved you for five hundred years. Oh, Rarity, how romantic!”
“Romantic!?” Rarity almost shrieked. “It’s horrible! I didn’t want him to pine forever! I didn’t want to hurt him! I didn’t want that!”
“He’s a dragon, Rarity,” said Twilight, looking up at the vast scaled wall before them. She was trying not to see it as a metaphor, really she was. “I didn’t think of it either. What they have, they keep. They’re not exactly famous for letting go.”
“And what he had – no, has – is love,” murmured Fluttershy. “He never had hope, but he had love, and so he kept it. For you, for all of us. No wonder he’s been so lonely. He can’t move on. Everything he is simply won’t let him.”
“An’ so it’s still there, ain’t it?” Applejack said. “He’s still got all those old feelin’s, even covered over with centuries o’ denial. He kept them safe. Landsakes, now, that’s why he was able t’ grow up, ain’t it? Wantin’ something with no hope o’ ever gettin’ it.”
“But we’re here!” burst out Rainbow Dash.
“Don’t matter,” Applejack said, pushing her hat back on her head. “We’re here, an’ yet we’re not. Five hundred years is a long, long time. He’s missed us an’ loved us, but he ain’t let himself want us, not ‘til he opened that there casket and burst through the roof. No wonder he thinks he’s goin’ dolally, hearin’ us but not seeing anypony at all. He just let loose five hundred years o’ wishin’ without hope. I’m thinkin’ that’s a special sort of torture.”
“Oh, and not to mention that he was afraid of losing his marbles and going totally stark-staring building-stomping pony-chomping ca-RAY-zy,” Pinkie said, her ears drooping.
“An’ there’s that too,” Applejack agreed. “I’m thinkin’ that he don’t trust his own brain since he grew. He’s too afraid o’ last time.”
Rarity was unravelling, her sadness and guilt and admiration and astonishment (and something very much like reluctant love) flying through them like knives. “No!” she said angrily. “No, no, no, no, NO! Oh, that is the very limit! The darling lonely thing, hasn’t he given up enough? He can’t give up hope too. He shan’t. Rainbow Dash, I am somewhat amazed that I am about to say this... but you were right! We are going to make him see us if it is the last thing we do!”
“He can hear us,” Rainbow Dash pointed out, frowning at Rarity’s choice of words.
“Maybe seeing us is the next stage,” said Twilight.
“We have to make him believe,” Rarity declared. “He can’t give up hope. He simply can’t!”
“Rarity,” Fluttershy said, looking down at her hooves. “He might be giving up his life.”
Rarity’s burst of anger and denial sent them reeling before they were hit with shockwaves of her despair.
Then they became aware of a low, rumbling noise and Pinkie pursed her lips. “Is that... a lullaby?”
“Oh,” Rarity said with a little gasp, her voice snapping from outraged and tearful to soft and nostalgic in the blink of an eye. She’d always had the ability to change emotional tracks as fast as thought. Twilight rather envied that ability. Rarity was exuding a longing so deep and natural that it spoke to them all on the most fundamental level possible. “My mother sang that to me... I remember,” she said softly.
“Me too... and I sang it to Spike,” Twilight said. Memories, sweet and childish, rose unbidden: of a tiny soft claw wrapped around her hoof, of scales nuzzling against her fur, of big green eyes full of regretful tears as a beloved toy merrily burned, of a little body that clung trustingly to her when the night was too big and scary to understand. Through them all she could hear that puckish little chortle. “I sang it to that giant dragon there - half a millennium ago. Isn’t that just completely incredible?”
If she’d had a throat, it would have been blocked by her heart.
“Hush now, quiet now, it’s time to lay your sleepy head,” Fluttershy sang under her breath, and Applejack gave a little laugh.
“Aw, now, Apple Bloom loved that song,” she said. “One o’ her friends could bash it out like nopony’s business, but she liked it the way Granny sang it, all soft an’ sweet an’ crackly. Apple Bloom...” Applejack trailed off, and then took a huge breath of realisation. “Oh Celestia, mah sister, Apple Bloom! G-Granny, Granny Smith. Mac--”
“Squirt,” said Rainbow, her tone faintly wondering.
“It was my Sweetie!” Rarity exclaimed. “When mother sang it to Sweetie Belle, she learned it in two shakes of a pony’s tail! Oh, I must know, I must! What happened to my darling Sweetie Belle?”
“Twilight?” said Pinkie curiously.
“No? ‘No’ what, sugarcube?”
“I think we should steer clear of this topic,” Twilight said in a voice of steel. “I can’t remember anything that happened a few years after moving to Ponyville. How about you?”
After a few puzzled glances, it was determined that they were all in the same boat. Despite the return of many of their memories, they couldn’t yet remember beyond a few years after Twilight and Spike had taken over the Library. Beyond that was all still a yawning blank.
“Girls, listen to me. I know you’re remembering your families now, but think about it. Whatever happened to our families, do you really, really want to know? What if it was horrible? We can’t do anything about it now, and knowing will only torture us unnecessarily. Also, I don’t know how I died. None of us do. Anything could have happened to them. Anything could have happened to us. If it did, could you bear to hear it?” Twilight paused for a breath she didn’t need to take. “I’d rather have them alive in my memory than hear about their deaths. And I don’t want to hear about how I left hi-them.”
“Easy fer you to say, Twilight, your family’s sittin’ right there, larger than life!” Applejack said furiously.
“An’ life’s never been larger,” said Rainbow Dash dryly.
“Oh, really? My mum? My dad? My big brother?” Twilight snapped back. “You see them here? No! No, we should let Spike decide. He’s the one who knows.”
“They ain’t his kin!”
“But he knows us, and he’d know what we should hear,” Twilight said. “I trust him to do what’s best for us.”
“But Spike’s just... well, he’s...”
“He’s five hundred and twelve years old. It’s been a long time since Spike was truly a baby,” Fluttershy said quietly. “His judgement is likely to be more measured than any of ours. I agree with Twilight.”
Spike turned back to them, his body moving silently but inexorably, like an iceberg. “Shh, guys,” he whispered. “I just got her to sleep.”
Pinkie blew a disdainful raspberry. “So? She can’t hear us, can she?”
“Spike,” Rarity began.
“Yeah?” He sat back down and rubbed at his eyes. His hand stopped as he registered the tone of her voice. Concern flew over his features. “Wait, are you okay? Is something wrong?”
“We have two questions,” Twilight cut in.
His brows began to lower. “Oh...kay?”
“First one,” she said shortly before Rarity or Applejack could interrupt, “do you really and truly believe that we’re here? And second one,” she forged on, ignoring his brief intake of breath, “we can’t remember anything beyond a couple of years after you and I moved to Ponyville. We can’t remember what happened to us or to our families. If there was something you could tell us,” she paused and looked up at him, “would you?”
He was silent.
“Spike?” Fluttershy ventured.
He was as still as the mountain behind him for a long moment, and then his shoulders gradually straightened – as though preparing for a confrontation. Yet he remained silent, breathing deeply as he thought. Smoke curled from his snout and created wild and elusive patterns in those iridescent dragon eyes.
“I don’t know if you’re here,” he finally said. “Sometimes I think you are, and sometimes I think I’m crazy. I don’t know if letting myself believe will force the greed out of control. I don’t know if what I did in order to grow up drove me mad. It could have. We’re not the most stable of creatures, dragons.”
“But darling...” Rarity said anxiously. He raised his chin and spoke right over the top of her protests.
“I’m not telling you a thing about how you... how you died,” he said evenly.
“Good,” Twilight said. Her natural curiosity shrieked at her, but she squashed it with grim determination.
Spike looked down at his paws. “If you’re really here to hear it, of course,” he added with such consummate bitterness that it took Twilight’s breath away – in a purely metaphysical sense.
“We’ll find a way to convince you,” she said, ignoring the trembling of her voice.
He snorted softly, darkly. “Ah, but Twilight, what if that’s the last thing you should do?”
This - this was what five hundred years had done to her little friend. Turning to stone was a mere trifle compared to this, the true heart of him, the very barest bones. The cynicism in his voice was devastating. Applejack’s perceptive words kept echoing through her mind.
He was the one who loved without hope and was left behind.
His head lowered a little more as he began to speak. “Sweetie Belle was a singer,” he said. It sounded like he was reciting from a script in his head. “Jazz, mostly. She became famous for her big throaty numbers. She had a long full life, married twice, had three foals. She was happy. Apple Bloom was a handymare. She and her partner, Candlelight, adopted a pegasus called Shooting Star. Star was a nice little filly who later took on the name Star Apple. Big Macintosh married, had a whole boatload of children. The Apple Family is still the biggest in Equestria – even after what happened to Appleoosa. Scootaloo was a stunt-flyer for Canterlotian Pictures, best in her field. She got married to a famous director - no foals though. She didn’t want kids of her own. We used to joke that I was everypony’s uncle and she was everypony’s auntie. She stayed my friend until the day she died, and never left Ponyville. The memories were like old friends, she used to say.”
As he spoke, Spike’s voice fell into the rhythmic, dreamy cadences of somepony who had escaped into memories. With growing concern, Twilight realised that he felt more alive there than in the real world. To him this was not a recitation of his friends’ lives, but the list of those who had left him behind.
In the real world, everypony was dead.
It was little surprise he was having difficulty believing them.
“The Cake Twins both produced more Cake Twins, who produced yet more. Pumpkin named her daughter Laughter Cake. There’s a suburb in Ponyville called Caketown now, and the family is full of entrepreneurs in hospitality and event management of the first order. You’d be proud, Pinkie Pie. Oh, also Pinkie, the rock farm is now in the hooves of Blackbird Pie, who is descended from Inky. His cousin Custard Pie runs a little joke shop in Ponyville proper. Fluttershy, the animal sanctuary now covers forty hectares east of the Everfree Forest, and has the largest rabbit colony in the world. Your mum and dad and sister ran it after you ... left, in your name. Your sister started the Animal Hospice program in your honour. Twilight, your mum and dad passed away peacefully at a ripe old age and within five years of each other. Your brother married his true love and they had a wonderful bond. It was the sharing of equals, the kind of real-world day-to-day warmth and comfort that is so rarely seen. He lived his life to the utmost, loved her to the fullest. She didn’t stay for long after he died. And that’s all I’m going to say.”
The silence that fell was as thick and suffocating as a shroud.
“Th...” Twilight said, and then bolstered her courage. “Thank you, Spike.”
Applejack had her hooves pressed over her mouth. Rainbow Dash was wide-eyed and open-mouthed. Pinkie was smiling through her tears, and Fluttershy had her head bowed and her face completely hidden from view. Spike looked like the stone he had so nearly become, his face fixed and impenetrable. The four insubstantial ponies and the great beast were completely still. To Twilight, it looked like a photograph at a funeral.
She was slowly beginning to understand what he had undergone after their... their departure, she decided to call it. She hadn’t understood such soul-deep loneliness before this. Oh, perhaps she had been lonely before Nightmare Moon and Ponyville but she hadn’t really known it, so perfectly content with her books and her studies and her little dragon companion. She was now convinced that what she had felt was a mere puddle compared to the depths he had plumbed. After hearing the roll-call of all that had left him, two things were made abundantly clear: that he had never really moved on (though she hardly needed more proof of that), and that she couldn’t really begin to fathom it. She couldn’t even consider the deaths of her parents and BBBFF with any real clarity. It was too distant, too abstract, too unreal for them to be dead. For Spike, it had been all too real. Worse, it had remained real through the long, lonely centuries that had followed.
“How is he even sane?” whispered Pinkie, as though hearing Twilight’s thoughts.
“So if that’s over with, let’s get back to the Elements,” said Spike, his face carved in stone and his eyes flat.
“Darling,” Rarity said miserably. “Please believe that we’re here with you. We won’t ever go away without you ever again, I promise.”
He inhaled slowly, and then exhaled a long, smooth stream of smoke. “The Elements,” he reminded her.
“The Elements,” Twilight repeated dully. She felt hollowed out, peeled and cored. She wanted to rage at the scepticism with which he was protecting his sanity, and at his stupid self-destructive martyrdom. She wanted to shatter the loneliness that was eating away at him, bite by savage bite. She wanted to hold him tight and feel his little arms fling around her neck with that clumsy, joyous abandon one more time.
Maybe Spike wasn’t the only one lost in the swirl of memories.
She wanted his eyes to part the layers of whatever magic was separating them, and see her.
Spike fished in the casket, and drew out a gleaming Element of Harmony. He studied the amethyst for a few seconds, before laying it gently in his forepaw. “Come on then, milady,” he said in a voice so full of resignation that it almost made Twilight howl. “Let’s think about generosity.”
So, uh.... sorry? About the long absence? I just finished another degree. I have been working my butt off. Huzzah, more qualifications, more debt, and no more butt!
It wasn’t working.
Spike had concentrated on the necklace in his palm for what seemed like hours, and they’d tried hooking it over every bit of his enormous body they possibly could. It had even enjoyed a small sojourn on his tail before they finally gave up.
“Impossible!” Rarity declared in despair.
Spike ran a hand over his spines. “I guess that’s not the answer, then,” he said.
He was still speaking in that carefully neutral tone that made Twilight want to scream. Rainbow Dash trotted over to peer into the casket and scowl at the heaped jewels inside.
“Stupid things,” she muttered. “C’mon, get workin’ already!”
“What else should we try?” Spike asked.
“What haven’t we tried?” Twilight said, frustration with herself and the Elements and even with Spike’s eternal loneliness all fusing together to form one great lump of irritation and guilt.
“I know you probably...” Spike said, only to be interrupted by a belch and gout of flame at least sixty feet long.
Rarity screamed, Fluttershy made a noise like a squashed kitten, and Twilight had to quell the instinct to bolt. Where would I run to, without feet? she asked herself sarcastically, even as she belatedly recognised the signs of a letter exchange.
The fire formed into an enormous scroll, and Spike grabbed it from the air with deft claws. He unrolled it and his eyebrows rose as he read, his eyes skittering across the parchment. Then he slumped back, staring into the distance. “Oh no.”
“Uh-oh,” said Rainbow Dash darkly.
“What’s happened?” asked Pinkie, hopping nervously from hoof to hoof. “That was from the Princess, right? Did Nighttime Disco do something?”
He raised a foreleg absently, not really paying attention to anything at all, and began to rub slowly at his temple. “That’s it then. We’re out of time.”
“What is it?” asked Applejack.
He refocused on the letter, and his eyes turned flinty. “Hoofington. Hoofington’s been hit.”
Rainbow’s ears lowered even as her pupils shrank in fear. “Hoofington? But that’s...”
“...just west of Ponyville and Canterlot,” he finished. “I know. He’s pushing the border of the Zone again. It won’t be long.”
“Hang on, you guys, didn’t all those Fillydelphia refugees go to Hoof...ing...ton...” Pinkie said, trailing off in the face of their fierce glares. She closed her mouth and sat down with a thump. “Um. Just ignore that.”
“Did the Princess say what happened to it?” Rarity quavered.
He looked grim. “She did.” He didn’t elaborate. He didn’t need to.
Fluttershy was in tears. “Oh, those poor ponies,” she said.
“Are there any survivors?” Applejack said. Her hooves were planted firmly, and her jaw was set. She looked like she was ready to go buck Discord in the face all by herself.
“They don’t know,” Spike answered. Then he squeezed his eyes closed, rubbing at his temple some more with a grimace on his face. “We can’t wait anymore. We don’t have time. I have to go.”
“But Spike, you’ve got no way of using the Elements yet; you’ll lose whatever advantage you have...” Twilight said through the sudden, icy shock of fear. Her frustration fled as the implications hit her. She simply couldn’t lose him, not after forgetting him and not after finding him once more. That bleak roll-call had brought the past smashing through the warmth of their strange little reunion, and now reality was threatening to demolish the splinters.
“Doesn’t matter,” he said distantly. “The longer I wait, the bolder he gets and the more ponies die. Trottingham, Appleoosa, Salt Lick City, Manehattan, Bitsburg, Fillydelphia... and now Hoofington. Where next? No, I’ve got to find him and stop him, or die trying.”
“Spike!” Rarity exclaimed in horror.
“No, no, no, no, no...” Twilight began to moan.
“You’ll be killed!” said Applejack, stamping one hoof. “Spike, this is suicide!”
He was as calm as still water as he replied. “Maybe,” he said. “But I took on the duty, and duty has been my life for so long that I just can’t seem to kick the habit. I’ve got to try, and I’ve got a better chance of success than any of the ponies in his path. Better me than them.”
“At least work with the Elements for a bit longer,” begged Rarity.
“Rarity, it isn’t working, anypony can see that. Who knows? Maybe they need danger to activate. If not, well, nopony’s going to miss a dusty old dragon academic anyway.”
“We will,” Twilight tried.
The corners of his mouth turned up the slightest bit. “Thanks, voice in my head. Good to know.”
“What will it take for you to believe us?” she growled, made fierce by her fear. “We’re here, Spike, and you’ll be missed. So, so much. You can’t just walk to your death like this!”
“You’ll forget me again, Twi,” he said, lifting his head and staring out into the aching blue expanse of the sky. “You won’t remember how to miss me.”
Twilight recoiled as around her the others loudly gasped.
Well. He had certainly learned to hit where it hurt.
She couldn’t bear the idea of forgetting him all over again. The Dark grinned in her memory. She hated it more than Discord.
Spike hauled himself to his feet, as ponderous and inexorable as tectonic plates shifting. “First things first. I’ve got an errand to run,” he said, peering over the rocky shelf at the valley below.
“Whatcha gotta do?” Pinkie asked.
He jerked his head towards the sleeping Diane. “I’ve got friends... well, not exactly friends...” he said, and then sighed as he crumpled the letter in his claw. “More like colleagues. They’ll take her in. I hope.”
“You’re leaving her behind,” stated Rainbow Dash.
“Yeah, you all should recognise how that goes,” he said tartly. Then he sighed again, wincing. “Sorry, I’m sorry. That was uncalled for. I want to take her and keep her, of course I do. I could love her easily, I think. She’s so... new. She’s brand new and fresh and innocent and full of wonder. I need a bit of that in my life.”
“But she’s only a baby,” Twilight interrupted, looking up at his pained eyes. This world outside the casket seemed intent on stabbing her in the heart. Really, she was fortunate that she didn’t have one. “You want to keep her with you, but you’re afraid she’ll get hurt – or worse. Where you’re going is no place for a child.”
He was still for a moment, and then gave a short nod. “I’m glad she’s too young to know it. It’s no fun, being left behind.”
“Just you watch,” Twilight said, and then laughed despite herself. “She’ll have her own adventures without you. You won’t be able to stop her. It’ll drive you crazy.”
He smiled. “I’m sure it will.”
They both knew that for the lie it was.
“Right then,” he said, and turned to the sleeping baby. Diane was sprawled on her back, all four paws in the air and her stubby tail flung loosely to one side. It looked awkward, but she seemed perfectly comfortable. A little orange flame danced on her lips every time she exhaled, and her left hind paw twitched in her dreams. Spike chuckled at the sight, before tenderly scooping the little thing into his paw and depositing her back onto his snout. “Well, time to go scare everypony out of their minds.”
“But the Princess said you wouldn’t make ponies scared,” Pinkie said, her head tipping.
He glanced down at the Elements of Harmony, and frowned. “She was being kind. You think I haven’t heard your little gasps, the way you sound strangled when I yawn or smile? You all almost had conniptions when that letter came through. Fluttershy’s simply the only one who can admit to it.”
“Now, that ain’t true, Spike,” Applejack said, her eyes narrowing. “I don’t know what’s happened over the last five hundred years t’ turn the happiest l’il feller I knew inta such a gosh-darned pessimist, but you listen up and listen good. I ain’t scared o’ you. None o’ us are, I’ll wager not even Fluttershy. She’s scared o’ dragons, but not you. Yer always gonna be Spike first an’ a dragon second to us, an’ don’t you ferget it. You’re a bit much t’ take in, I’ll admit, but you’d never hurt a fly an’ we know it. An’ from what the Princess said, so does everypony else in Equestria!”
“Even if you would, how could you? We’re all ghosties!” Pinkie laughed, waving her hooves mysteriously. “Whooooo!”
Spike jerked back. “Uh...” he faltered. “Not that I don’t appreciate the sentiment, but is this really the time?”
“You can believe anythin’ else you like, sugarcube, but you ain’t goin’ out there t’ save the world thinkin’ yer some sort o’ monster,” Applejack said firmly. “Not if I can help it.”
“I said you looked marvellous, darling, and I meant it!” said Rarity in a ringing voice.
“It’s one heck of an awesome wicked look,” Rainbow chimed in. “I might even go so far as to say it’s radical – but hate to break it to ya, you’re not quite at Rainbow Dash-levels of radicalosity. Sorry, big guy.”
“You’re actually very...um, beautiful,” Fluttershy said, smiling timidly. “I said so back when you were in Canterlot. I suppose I just need a little time to... adjust.”
Spike was opening and closing his mouth like a fish out of water.
“For goodness’ sake, Spike,” Twilight said with a blend of exasperation and fondness that felt as familiar as breathing. “You never did listen to me the first time. Remember, I said we just needed to get used to it. And we will. You’re still our Spike, and you’re always going to be. Don’t you dare think otherwise just because you’re all grown up now.”
“But Twi...” Spike mumbled. The slightly-panicked, slightly-shy expression on his face was priceless, and she dredged up a laugh from somewhere.
“Give ponies some credit, Spike,” said Rainbow Dash. “So they’ll be a bit shocked at first. Big deal! They’ll get over it.”
“Anyway, don’t tell me you’ve forgotten what Fluttershy does t’ things that scare her? She stares ‘em down until they run home cryin’ fer their mamas,” Applejack added.
“Ah, well,” Spike said, fidgeting with his claws like a bumbling teenager. His mammoth size, his bashful face, the fidgeting and the baby draped over his snout made him the most incongruous sight Twilight had ever seen. “I, er, don’t think I’m likely to be doing that...”
The tension was gradually lifting as Twilight watched her friends cajoling Spike into having some faith in himself and in ponykind. He was visibly sheepish as they wheedled and declared and reassured and berated – a very different reaction to how he’d once responded to praise. To her surprise she found that she almost missed his proud grin and ridiculous preening.
She shoved the possibility of his death out of her mind. That just couldn’t happen, despite all his certainty and calm fatalism. The universe could not be so cruel as to give them back to each other and then rip them apart. She refused to dwell on it any longer.
To distract her mind from it, she tried to see a bright side. After a brief struggle she told herself that no matter how bleak things were, at least they had just made some definite progress reconnecting with Spike. The tenseness generated by their previous topics had not quite dissipated, but the atmosphere was definitely lighter. No doubt there were a million more sore spots yet to be prodded, but at least they’d cleared one major hurdle and identified several more. Centuries, she reminded herself. He’d had four whole centuries alone to remember all the conversations left unfinished, words left unsaid, actions never taken. He was harder and older and colder than the Spike she knew, but her Spike was truly still there, buried under layers of loneliness and brokenness, waiting to be uncovered. It would take time.
But then, everything worthwhile always did.
He was beginning to blush as Pinkie made up one of her impromptu songs for him. The chorus was along the lines of “A great big dragon with a great big heart!” His cheeks darkened to that so-familiar shade of violet, and Twilight’s laugh bubbled up with far more ease. Celestia only knew how long it had been since he’d blushed like that. She loved it intensely.
“Guys, stop,” he said, cringing. “I get it. You can stop now. Please.”
“There’s my Spike,” she said, letting all the love she felt for him at that moment infuse her voice. Her Spike, hoarder of the Elements of Harmony, Champion of Equestria, Dean of Ponyville University, ambassador to the world and five hundred and twelve years old (last birthday) – blushing like a schoolfilly after her first kiss. What other dragon would do that?
Pinkie concluded her song with a boisterous dance routine, belting out the high note with gusto. Spike tried to glower, but there was a lightness in his expression that hadn’t been there before. The scowl didn’t quite have the impact he was obviously hoping for. “Leave off, guys, come on.”
“We’ll have no more o’ this nonsense, then?” Applejack said sternly. “Hold that head up, kiddo. You’re a dragon. Be proud that yer the best one there’s ever been, would you?”
Spike forced a smile, and his back straightened stiffly.
“A bit better,” Rainbow said, wrinkling her nose.
“That’s not a real smile!” Pinkie said, her face outraged. “You think Pinkie Pie doesn’t know a fake smile when she sees one? Quit with the phoney-baloney, Spikester! Oooh, don’t you make me bring out the big guns! There’s plenty more songs where that one came from!”
He actually laughed out loud, a rich and rolling noise, and Pinkie clapped her hooves together.
“That’s it! Now you got it!”
He leaned back against the cliff again, grinning. “Okay, now I understand all the gasping and scared noises. You’re just jealous you don’t look this good.”
“Actually, yes,” said Rarity tightly, her aura pulsing with irritation.
Spike’s face fell a little, but he rallied magnificently. “I don’t really see how I can keep the casket open while I travel,” he said, changing the subject. Sensible move, Professor Spike, Twilight thought in amusement.
“Not the Dark again,” Rainbow groaned.
“I don’t want to put you back in,” he said. “Any ideas?”
“Maybe you could hook the necklaces over a branch and carry it,” said Fluttershy.
“What about the big crowny thing?” Twilight said. “That’d fall off.”
“I’ll just carry them,” Spike said. “It’ll be awkward, but I think I can do it. Let me know if I drop any of them.”
Tipping the casket out into his paw, he closed his fingers around the Elements and tucked his fist against his chest. Then he began to clamber down the mountain three-footed, clinging with his free forepaw and gouging huge furrows in the rock. As his head drew level with the rocky shelf, Pinkie bounced over and landed on the top of his head beside the foremost green spike, before turning and beaming at the others.
“Come on, you guys!” she hollered. “Or you’ll miss the dragon!”
Rainbow Dash perked up and flew over to land on his shoulders, followed by Fluttershy (who had her eyes closed and nearly overshot him). Applejack seemed a little hesitant at first, but eventually charged with her head thrust forward to land with a mighty jump on his snout and skittering straight through the sleeping Diane who was sprawled bonelessly on his scales. Spike didn’t even blink as the farmpony scrambled in front of his eyes up onto the top of his head. Pinkie grabbed her forehooves and she pushed herself up the rest of the way with a mighty thrust of her strong hind legs.
“And what about us, might I inquire?” Rarity said haughtily.
She was answered by a yank as Spike drew further down the mountain. Twilight and Rarity were sent hurtling through the air as their mysterious connection to the Elements reached its outermost limit. The sensation was similar to the ‘pulling’ their Selves were able to use in the Dark, only this particular pulling made Twilight feel extremely queasy. She looked down at the ground far below as she began to float above Spike’s industriously climbing body, and had to suppress a squeal of alarm. The valley opened up underneath her Self like a hungry maw.
“I shouldn’t have asked,” Rarity moaned. Twilight pulled her close, and they drifted steadily downwards at Spike’s rate of descent.
“It’s okay,” she said, trying to keep the nausea out of her words. “Just don’t look down.”
“A little late for that, darling,” Rarity said in a green sort of voice.
After reaching the valley floor it took Spike no time at all to reach the unfamiliar wood that now bordered Ponyville. His long legs ate up the miles as though they were nothing. Ponies scurried through the streets below like ants as he approached, and he began to slow as he entered a grove filled with hummingbirds and wildflowers. Then he lay down on his belly and sighed.
“What?” asked Pinkie, bouncing from his shoulder to his foreleg and trotting around to peer up at his face.
“I’ll just wait here,” he said. “I don’t want to try going into town. I’ll start a panic, and besides I don’t think I can make it through the streets without causing serious damage. They’ll send somepony out to talk to me, I’m sure.”
It was with a shudder of relief that Rarity and Twilight finally caught up with him. Floating through thin air without free will was somehow sickening. “Thank heavens that’s over,” Rarity said shakily.
“I hear that,” Twilight muttered.
“This is the outermost part of the animal sanctuary,” Spike said, waving his closed fist to indicate the grove. The jewelled hummingbirds flitting through the sunshine gave it a dreamlike, almost fairy quality. It suited him, Twilight thought reflectively. His glittering scales and pointed features made him seem as otherworldly as his surroundings. Even his size didn’t seem out of place in this sundrenched grotto – rather, he could have passed as one of the dragon-kings depicted in the ancient tapestries hung on the Palace walls.
Spike carefully lifted Diane from atop his snout and laid her gently amongst the nodding flowers. As he began to draw his forepaw way from her a sleepy smile crossed her face, and she wrapped all four paws around the tip of one of his gigantic claws. His intake of breath was very loud.
“Stay strong, sugarcube,” Applejack said quietly.
Spike froze as the baby dragon rubbed against the claw with slow, lazy strokes of her head, and then she curled her tail around it as well, huddling into a little ball. His eyes grew warm and sad.
“I knew wanting things was a bad idea,” he whispered.
“Guys? Can you hear something?” asked Rainbow, frowning. She stood up on his shoulder, her head cocked and her body tensed and ready.
“Oh dear,” quavered Fluttershy.
The sound of twigs crackling underhoof was coming from the trees before them, and with a muffled curse and a stumble a pair of ponies came crashing through the tree line. The stallion was a pale blue unicorn with a dark blue and white striped mane and tail cut quite short. Square-rimmed glasses covered a pair of purple eyes, and his flank was adorned with a strange cluster of starbursts and numerals. The mare was a small but angular earth pony, with a cherry-red coat and a dark purplish-red mane the exact shade of ripe blackberries. Her eyes were a startling yellow, and her cutie mark was a pair of beribboned masks, one smiling and the other crying.
The stallion halted at the sight of the dragon and the mare crashed into his back, sending them both tumbling across the meadow. Spike’s mouth twitched.
“Get off me,” the mare hissed.
“I would, oh light of my life, but you’re standing on my tail,” the stallion hissed back.
“Well, why didn’t you say so?” the mare snapped, and tried to move her legs. It wasn’t the most effective of techniques, and the pair fell into an even more complicated jumble as they tried to extract themselves.
“Need a hoof?” Spike asked dryly.
The stallion tore to his feet with a mighty wrench and smoothed back his mane. He was visibly trembling, but he was standing tall. Behind him the mare painfully got to her feet. “Ow,” she said grumpily.
“Uh...” the stallion said. His pupils had completely shrunk in terror. “Mr... D-dragon...”
“Oh, shove over, Pothy dear,” the mare said brusquely, shoving the frozen stallion to one side. She marched up closer to the recumbent giant and squinted up at him. “Professor Spike? That you?”
He nodded. “I was hoping they’d send you two. Yes, it’s me.”
She didn’t move a muscle, but somehow the tension bled out of her. “Thought so,” she said, nodding her head. She then jerked it at the stallion, who was regarding her sulkily. “This one didn’t believe me when I said so, though.”
“Well, how was I to know?” the stallion said defensively. “Professor Spike’s a little fellow, quiet as a mouse, barely moves, never leaves the library. It didn’t make any sense! Still doesn’t!”
“Oh, for pony’s sake,” the mare sighed. “Aren’t you a scientist? How can you not know anything about a dragon’s maturation? The professor wrote the seminal work back in 478AL- didn’t you read it?”
“I’m a magical scientist, not a biologist,” the stallion retorted. “Anyway love, the Arts have even less to do with it, so how would you know?”
“Did you even see the Drama Faculty’s production of ‘The Apple Orchard’ last year? The whole final act is about the Professor and the accident! I won three Golden Haystacks for my portrayal of Cheerilee! Honestly sweetheart, you could try to pay a little attention to my work,” she said, before turning back to Spike with the dignity of a queen. Rarity herself could not have matched her. “Why the sudden change of heart?” she asked.
Spike watched this exchange with a sort of amused tolerance. “I need a favour, Star Quality,” he said, ignoring her question.
“You want us to move every book in your library up to that mountain you’ve been sitting on for the last two days?” asked the stallion with dry sarcasm. “You’ve sent the whole town into an uproar, you know. There’s all sorts of mad theories.”
“You’re the expert on mad theories, Hypothesis,” said Spike with a little smile.
The stallion, Hypothesis, jerked backwards. “Whoa. That’s... one heck of a smile, Professor.”
Star Quality frowned, her face growing suspicious. “Actually,” she said slowly, “I’ve never seen you smile before.”
“I haven’t had a lot to smile about,” Spike said.
“Maybe Hypothesis has a point,” Star Quality continued, her eyes narrowing. “Professor Spike never smiles. He’s famous for it. It’s historical record that he swore on the memory of the Six that he’d never grow again - and you need your own postcode. Besides, the Professor doesn’t have a monopoly on purple and green. How do we know you are who you say you are?”
Spike’s eyebrows shot up.
“Are you crazy?” Hypothesis whispered urgently. “That’s a dragon, the biggest damn dragon anypony’s ever seen! If you make him angry he’ll eat you alive! Do you want to leave Dawnie without a mother?!”
Star Quality shook the stallion off and gave Spike a challenging look. The little angular pony held herself still and proud, an ant challenging the anteater. “Well? Some proof would be nice,” she said politely but firmly.
Spike seemed a little flummoxed, and he blew out a gusty sigh of resignation. “If that’s what you want. Uh... My name is Spike Sparkle, I’m five hundred and twelve, I’ve lived in the Library since 1AL and I’m the Dean of Ponyville University. I was once your student advisor, Star. You had a problem with your voice tutor and asked me to mediate. You also applied for extra time to finish your final assignment because a touring company had asked you to join them in a production of ‘The Merry Mares of Windsor’. I had to refuse, but I allowed that your performance could count towards your Practical mark.”
Star Quality’s mouth fell open.
“Sparkle?” Twilight blurted.
“Was that all true?” Hypothesis hissed.
She closed her mouth and nodded dumbly.
“He is Spike, then?” Hypothesis pressed.
“Yes,” she said. “Please shut up, sweetheart.”
“I need a favour,” Spike repeated.
“Why did you do this?” Star Quality asked.
Spike’s mouth bunched in frustration. “If I tell you, would you let me finish?”
“Sure,” said Hypothesis, stepping on Star Quality’s hoof before she could open her mouth. “Um, she’s very sorry. Go on, Professor.”
For answer, Spike opened his clenched fist. Gold and jewels glittered in the sunlight, sending dazzling reflections around the fairy glade.
Hypothesis gaped. “Are those...”
“Yes,” Spike said.
“What I wouldn’t give to get my hooves on them!” he breathed. “The actual Elements of Harmony! The most magical items in the world! Oh, I’d kill to get them into the lab...”
Spike growled under his breath. Uncomfortable harmonics bounced from the nearby mountains. Hypothesis froze.
Star Quality rolled her eyes. “Ignore him, Professor, you know how he gets.”
Spike closed his fingers around the Elements again. Twilight loosened her chokehold on Rarity’s Self. She hadn’t even realised she was holding on quite so tightly.
“The Princess gave them to me,” rumbled Spike, before lifting his head and looking towards the west. “I have to use them.”
“Against the... the Nightmare Chaos?”
Hypothesis swallowed. “Oh my word.”
Star Quality just looked up at him with open mouth and wobbly knees.
“So what’s the favour?” Hypothesis continued, nudging his partner sharply.
“It’s this,” Spike said, and carefully raised his other forepaw, unhooking his claw from Diane’s grip. The tiny dragon had been hidden from the two newcomers’ sight by Spike’s mammoth paw, but now she glinted in the sunshine like polished copper.
“She’s an orphan I found near the edge of the Zone a couple of days ago, hidden in the bushes beside the bodies of her slaughtered parents,” Spike told them. “She’ll need somepony to look after her. She doesn’t have any teeth yet, so only mushy foods will do. After they come in, she can eat anything and everything. Oh, lock up your jewellery, or she’ll snack on it. Gems are like sweets to a dragon. Careful of rubies – if she eats too many she’ll get hyperactive. She likes being talked to and sung to sleep. Until she’s about four months old she’ll sleep most of the time; I think she’s about two months old at the moment. When her teeth come in, remember to give her sandstone to chew on. It’s soft enough for her to digest, but hard enough to give her gums some relief, ‘cos believe me, teething for a dragon is no fun at all.”
Twilight remembered that with a little lurch. He’d cried piteously as his fangs grew in, sharp and unbelievably hard and bigger than his little mouth could handle. It had been a year before he’d grown into them. She wished she’d known about the sandstone trick.
“We’re cold-blooded, so she’ll need a lot of warmth,” Spike continued, looking at Diane with soft, sorrowful eyes. “Until her internal fire’s big enough to keep her warm she’ll get cold really easily. She’ll have a fire talent eventually. All dragons do, like my translocation-fire. Hers is orange, so I expect it has something to do with sight. Maybe farsight, who knows.”
“You want us to take her?” blurted Star Quality.
“Yes,” Spike said, his breath catching in his throat though his face was unchanged. “I want you to take her.”
“Now that there was a lie,” Applejack whispered.
“But, Professor...” Hypothesis said, eyeing the dragonette dubiously.
“Please. Take her,” Spike snapped. “I can’t. You’re the only two I can think of who can do it. You’ve done a great job with your own daughter. Dawning Wonder is a happy, clever, well-adjusted little filly. And you wouldn’t treat Diane any differently just because she’s a dragon.”
“Diane?” asked Star Quality with gentle enquiry as she trotted closer to the baby dragon, who was beginning to wriggle uncomfortably, reaching out with her little arms for Spike’s claw.
Spike was silent for a second, and then he lowered his paw again to stroke the baby’s tiny back. “I don’t know her real name, so I named her Diane. That was Pinkie Pie’s middle name.”
“Laughter,” Star Quality said, her expression shrewd.
Spike nodded, and then turned his head away. “After all she’s been through, I hope she finds reason to laugh,” he said.
“I don’t know the first thing about dragons,” said Hypothesis blankly.
“You’ll do fine,” Spike said, still stroking Diane. She was almost fully awake, her eyes blinking and her little legs beginning to kick. “Twilight didn’t know the first thing either, and she didn’t muck me up too badly.”
“Hey!” Twilight said indignantly.
“That was Twilight Sparkle, the Element of Magic,” said Hypothesis. “I’m not her! I’m just a normal unicorn!”
“Twi was a child when she hatched me,” Spike said. “All Diane really needs is somepony to care for her.”
“But... the fire?” Hypothesis said, a little wild around the eyes. “Keeping a dragon? Professor, I don’t know...”
“She’s not just a dragon,” Spike said with a little edge to his voice. “She’s a personality. She’s an individual. She’s young, but already she’s curious and intelligent and a little bit bossy and very affectionate. Just be kind to her.”
“Well, naturally, but I don’t...” Hypothesis tried to say, but Spike cut him off.
“Check the guide I published late last century for anything you’re really worried about, otherwise just use your common sense. She’ll set a few things alight, but she won’t have enough flame to do any real damage until she can handle it. She’s just a baby. Look at her.”
“Oh my,” said Star Quality as Diane’s blue eyes opened completely - iridescent dragon eyes as bright as gemstones. The baby gave a little grunt and rolled onto her belly, pushing herself up onto her forepaws and blinking. She burbled as a hummingbird flittered past her eyes, and then craned back to look at Spike and her face lit up with the uncomplicated and joyful smile of all infants everywhere.
“She is just a baby, isn’t she,” Hypothesis murmured. “A baby like any other.”
“And she needs what any baby needs,” Spike said, and smiled back down at the little face, his own poison-green dragon eyes glimmering.
“Mummy?” came a voice from within the trees, and four ghostly ponies, two disembodied minds, two university academics and a giant dragon jerked in surprise. “Daddy? Where’d you go?”
Star Quality whipped around to Hypothesis. “That’s Dawning Wonder! I thought you told her not to follow us!”
“I did!” he said, shaking his head in exasperation. “But you know what she’s like with adventure!”
With dainty steps a little filly crept out into the clearing, her purple eyes wide as she gazed up at Spike. “Uh, Mr Dragon?” she said in a small, piping voice that nevertheless didn’t shake in the slightest. “Have you seen my mummy and daddy? Toffee Nose said they came in here, but he was just teasing me, wasn’t he? Or did you eat them? I’ll scream loud enough for your ears to fall off if you eated them, just so you know, and then I’ll magic you good.”
“Twilight...?” whispered Applejack. “Mah memory might be a bit wonky still, but that l’il filly reminds me a lot of...”
“Her cutie mark, just look at her cutie mark!” whispered Fluttershy.
The little unicorn filly’s coat was purple, the exact mix of her father’s pale blue and her mother’s bright red. Her long loose mane was as purplish-black as her mother’s but with a streak of bright red through it, and her large eyes were clear mauve.
On her flank, a red star shone.
“Hello there, Dawning Wonder,” Spike said. “Your mummy and daddy are here, safe and sound.”
“Oh, so you didn’t eat them!” she said, deflating in relief, before her face brightened. “Mummy, Daddy, you’re all right! Look, Mummy, I made it frough the woods without getting a single burr in my coat! I didn’t trip at all, and neither did Clever Clogs! Look!” She held up a doll which, as advertised, had rather large hooves.
“That’s lovely, sweetheart,” Star Quality said soothingly, shooting a glance at her husband and then up at Spike. “You were supposed to stay behind though, remember? Daddy told you. You broke your word and disobeyed Daddy, Dawnie, and that means no dessert and an early bedtime tonight.”
“You know the rules, young lady,” Hypothesis said.
“But there’s a dragon and Toffee Nose was teasing me and I was all jumpy that it had eated you and I was getting reaaaally nervous and so was Clever Clogs and then I thought I could help!” she said, skittering over to her mother and pressing lovingly against her. “I wouldn’t let you get eated, promise! I’d do the magic to make it stop. I’m a big pony, and I can do big pony magic. Promise!” She threw out her little chest proudly.
“I know, my poppet,” said Hypothesis, smiling. “But everything’s okay. This isn’t the kind of dragon that eats ponies. This is the nice kind.”
“Oh, good, I’m nice too!” Dawning Wonder said, rounding on Spike and giving him a bright and energetic smile filled with innocence. “I’m glad you’re not a mean dragon. I don’t like screaming, it makes my head hurt. Are you going to stay and be friends?”
“Ah, I’m actually leaving, Dawning Wonder,” Spike replied. “I’ve been Ponyville’s friend for a long time, though.”
“Wow, wish I was friends with a whole city,” Wonder said, looking up at Spike with owlish envy.
“This is Professor Spike, poppet,” said Hypothesis. “You’ve met him before.”
Dawning Wonder gave him an unimpressed look. “No,” she scoffed. “Prof’sor Spike is all little, and this is the biggest of big dragon. You’re mixing them up, Daddy.”
Hypothesis opened his mouth to try and explain, and shut it again as his wife giggled at him.
“Woweeee! She looks just like you, Twilight!” hissed Pinkie Pie.
“But she acts sorta like you, Pinkie,” Twilight said, wondering if the little filly really resembled her that much. She was ashamed to admit that she couldn’t remember.
“Except she seems to have a touch of Rainbow Dash’s more... foolhardy tendencies?” said Rarity delicately. “She did come to challenge a dragon, after all.”
“The squirt’s got guts,” Rainbow Dash said with grudging admiration.
“Why d’you have to go, nice dragon?” Dawning Wonder asked, before noticing the bundle of scales batting at the flowers and making their heads bob and sway. “Whoa, a baby one!”
“Well, that’s torn it,” said Star Quality wryly as her daughter tore over to the dragon cub and bent her head close. Blue eyes met purple, and Diane reached out with one forepaw to bat experimentally at her mane.
“Oh,” said Dawning Wonder in a stunned voice. “She likes me.”
“Torn what?” Spike asked, watching the youngsters with a bittersweet expression.
“Nopony can change Dawnie’s mind once it’s made up. Oh, look at the pair of them, thick as thieves. Well, I guess that’s that.”
Hypothesis gave his wife a faint look of surprise. “We’re adopting the dragon?”
“We’re adopting the dragon,” she said firmly.
Spike closed his eyes and took a couple of long, deep breaths. “Thank you,” he said eventually. His voice was rather faint and raspy.
Hypothesis studied Spike for a moment. “You’ve really become attached, haven’t you? I’d never have believed it. The Stone Professor and a baby.”
Spike’s eyes snapped open, and he met Hypothesis’ eyes for a second. Then his gaze slid away. “You’ll understand more when you read the guide,” he mumbled.
Star Quality’s face became thoughtful as she looked between the baby dragon happily playing with her daughter amidst flowers and butterflies, and Spike’s closed-off, forbidding expression. “Oh, I remember,” she said softly. “It’s that special way a dragon’s greed works. You want to keep her.”
Spike’s eyes grew flinty. “It’s not about what I want. It’s about her. Besides, I probably won’t come back.”
“Professor, I’m sure that’s not...” Hypothesis began, and then he sighed.
“Don’t,” Spike said, and heaved himself to his feet. “There’s no use pretending otherwise.”
The two ponies took an involuntary step backwards as the dragon rose to his full, awe-inspiring height. “All our hopes go with you, Professor,” said Hypothesis, pulling himself together.
Spike didn’t answer, but his eyes landed on Diane with an expression more telling than words. “Can I just have a...” he said, and then checked himself.
“Take all the time you need,” said Star Quality with an understanding glint in her yellow eyes. “Dawnie, the Professor wants to say goodbye to the baby.”
Dawning Wonder looked up from a game that seemed to involve poking the baby’s soft little belly and then giggling together. “The nice dragon? He’s not staying?”
“I have to go, Dawnie,” he said, and then slowly extended his empty paw towards the filly. “Could you give me Diane for a moment?”
The filly didn’t seem the least bit afraid of the spear-long claws or the foot that dwarfed her entirely. Instead she gave a solemn nod and gently laid Diane on Spike’s open palm, before backing away with careful, respectful steps.
Spike brought the baby dragon up to his face, and smiled as she wobbled about, trying to focus. Her eyes met his, and then she made an indistinct noise of triumph and lunged for his face. Her soft claws caught on the scales of his nose, and his breath hitched as she purled affectionately, nuzzling against him.
“Be a good girl, Diane,” he said quietly. “You won’t remember your parents, and you won’t remember me, and that’s for the best. Have a good life. Be happy and clever, and don’t make my mistakes. Remember, you were named for laughter.”
Diane cooed and burbled, patting at Spike’s nose and talking back in some baby language only she could understand.
Spike curled a finger around to stroke her head the way she liked, and she blew a bubble of contentment. “Be good for your new family, little one,” he whispered like the breeze brushing the flowers. “I wish it could have been otherwise. I wish you could have been mine, but there’s a bright little filly down there who wants to love you, and even a doll called Clever Clogs, and maybe one day there’ll be a basket and books and a library.” His eyes flicked down to the filly standing below, and a faint melancholy smile crossed his lips. “Amazing, the way history repeats itself.”
He held her there for a beat more, before lowering her down. Diane’s soft little claws couldn’t hold onto his scales and sustain her weight, and so she was rocked backwards in his palm as they lost their grip. She let out a mewl of protest that became an angry wail as Dawning Wonder picked her up in her forehooves and held her close. Spike lifted his chin. His face was unreadable.
“Well,” he said. “I’m off.”
“This is unbearable,” Rarity choked. “I can’t watch this.”
“We’ll tell the city, Professor,” said Star Quality, and she bowed her head in profoundest respect. “We’ll tell the whole of Equestria. You’ll be remembered.”
“Look after her,” was all Spike said as he began to turn away.
“Professor Spike!” Hypothesis called after him. “We’ll look after her, I promise! I swear it on the Six!”
Spike hesitated before taking his next step. He half-turned his head back to them and nodded once.
Diane was struggling in Dawning Wonder’s embrace, her little arms reaching for Spike as he began to walk away. “Shhh, baby,” the filly said. “It’s okay. The nice dragon’s got to go be a grown-up and do somethink important, but I can look after you now.” She rubbed her furred head against Diane’s scales as the baby began to sob and hiccup. “You can be sad, baby, that’s okay. I’ll be here. I’m Dawnie. I’m gonna be your big sister, Diane.”
Spike bit down upon his lip hard as Diane’s wails rose in pitch, but still no expression crossed his face and his pace continued without pause. With his head held level and his eyes dry he left the sundrenched fairy grove without looking back. Twilight’s worry competed with the sudden lurch of nausea as she and Rarity were ignominiously jerked through the air yet again (and she wanted to have a word or two with whoever was in charge of this ridiculous half-life. How could an entity with no stomach or internal organs get nauseous?).
Once she had adjusted – reluctantly – to the feeling, she peered up at Spike’s impassive face for a clue as to how to comfort him. His eyes were beginning to shine, but other than that it was carefully, rigidly blank.
Behind them, voices were slowly fading.
“Do you think we can live up to this responsibility, love?”
“We have to. Look at what he’s done for Equestria, and what he’s about to attempt. This is all he’s asking of us in return. I’m going to go speak to the Chancellor and the Mayor the minute we get back - it can’t ever be forgotten. Besides, just look at the pair of them, Pothy.”
“I see what you mean. So, our dragon daughter, huh? She looks sort of sleepy still, even though she’s crying.”
“He said she likes to be sung to...”
“Oh, Mummy, can I? I know a good song.”
“In a moment, Dawnie. Give her here and I’ll rock her, and you can hold Clever Clogs. Careful with her little neck as you pass her, she can’t quite hold her head up properly yet. Nice and gentle, that’s it. Babies are fragile. Oh, she’s so soft! Pothy, pat her head, see?”
“Oh wow, she is. So soft and smooth. Somehow I thought she’d be hard, like the Professor was.”
“She’s brand new, Pothy, and the Professor was aging unnaturally. I’ll show you the script of the play when we get home. Oh, would you just look at those dimples. You are a little cutie, aren’t you Deedee?”
“Well, Pinkie Pie’s middle name or not, you can’t call a cute little scrap of adorableness like her by a big haughty name like Diane. My babies get nicknames as sweet as they are. Don’t they, my little Deedee? Oh shhh, little one, shhhh. Dawnie, stroke her head a little. Her eyes are blinking a lot, see? That means she’s tired.”
“Ohhhh. Like this?”
“Good girl, my poppet, Daddy’s very proud of you. You’re going to be such a wonderful big sister. Oh, the poor little thing, she just won’t stop crying. There, shhh, there’s a girl, there’s my new little girl.”
“Well, she’s lost her parents and her new parental substitute within a few days. I’d be howling a lot louder than her, believe me. Ready, Dawnie?”
“Pat her scales, that’s it. Gently does it.”
“Hush now, quiet now, it’s time to lay your sleepy head. Hush now, quiet now, it’s time to go to bed. Drift off to sleep, there’s another day behind you...”
“Did they just diss my name?” Pinkie whispered indignantly.
Spike reached the end of the little wood and the lullaby was lost amongst the birdcalls of the morning. His eyes were brimming.
“Spike,” Twilight said miserably, dragged along behind him like a balloon on a string. “I’m here for you. Talk to me.”
“So am I,” Rarity said in a weak little voice.
“She’ll be fine,” said Fluttershy, standing up on Spike’s shoulder and turning back to try and see the new and strangely assorted little family through the trees. “They seem like nice ponies. They’ll look after her.”
“No, I mean I’m here,” Rarity said somewhat louder, and it was with a shock that Twilight realised that her Self was no longer wrapped around the nebulous sense of Rarity’s Self but around a barely-perceptible unicorn with elaborate curls and thick-lashed eyes.
“You’re here,” she said blankly.
“It would seem so,” she said. Her beautiful face was unhappy.
“Oh hey, Rarity’s got legs!” Rainbow exclaimed, peering over Spike’s haunch to gawk at the unicorn skimming along in thin air.
Applejack joined her and then whistled low. “Whoa there, Rarity. I clean fergot how frou-frou that mane o’ yours was.”
“I would very much appreciate it if I could climb up onto your shoulder, Spike dear,” Rarity said in a stiff voice. She was keeping her eyes averted from the grass passing beneath her immobile hooves.
Spike stopped as he reached the foot of the mountain, and flopped down onto his haunches. “Where are you, milady?” he said, scanning the ground.
“I seem to be stopping by your left forehoo – uh, paw,” she said as the nauseating ride slowed, “the one holding the Elements.”
“Uhhhh,” Twilight said, her grip on Rarity tightening. “I hate that flying thing, I hate it. Rainbow Dash, you’re insane. Nopony should do that, nopony at all.”
With glacial slowness Spike leaned forward and reached out with his empty paw. “On you get,” he said dully.
“Well, you got yer wish then, Rarity,” Applejack said, trying to lighten the mood. “You’ve got yer feet back.”
“I didn’t want to get them back at Spike’s expense,” Rarity muttered as she stepped lightly onto the broad palm, still wearing Twilight like a metaphysical fur. Then she looked up at his huge, blank face with anxiety in her large eyes. “Darling, what can I do?”
“Nothing. There isn’t anything you can do,” he answered, raising his hand level with his neck and holding his paw still as she clambered out onto his scales. After a few moments he asked, “are you off yet?”
“We’re all on your shoulders, Spike,” said Fluttershy.
“‘Cept me, I’m on your head,” said Rainbow proudly.
“There must be something I can do,” Rarity fretted.
“We’re ghosties,” Pinkie said. “Remember?”
“Everypony except Twilight, that is,” corrected Applejack.
“Yeah, everypony except me,” Twilight grumbled, feeling horribly selfish for complaining about such a thing when Spike’s heart was breaking in front of them, and yet not being able to stop herself for a sackful of bits and the original manuscripts of Star Swirl the Bearded. She wanted to be real – or as real as she could be – and despite being the Element of Magic she was the one lagging behind.
“Girls,” Fluttershy said, her face serious as she shook her head and beckoned them close. The five insubstantial ponies and Twilight gathered together and bent towards her. Fluttershy glanced nervously over at Spike for a moment, before bending even closer. “Don’t you see what’s happening?” she whispered in a voice that even Twilight had to strain to hear. “Every time one of us has become, well...”
“Corporeal?” suggested Rarity.
“Not quite,” whispered Librarian Twilight. “But let it pass.”
“It’s always come at an emotional cost to Spike,” Fluttershy continued, ignoring the interruptions with unusual determination. “We first saw Rainbow Dash when the Princess called on his memories of us, which must have upset him terribly. Then Pinkie Pie – he was already hurting after what he had to do to grow, and so he made a joke to hide his feelings...”
“And you, Fluttershy,” interrupted Rainbow, “he knew he’d have to give up Diane, but he let himself get close to her anyway ‘cos she needed it after her parents died...”
“Me,” said Applejack in blank realisation. “He ‘fessed up about blowin’ that fireball on th’ Elements, even though he knew we might hold it against him.”
“And he just gave Diane the chance for a good life when he wants to care for her himself,” said Rarity in a low voice. “The selfish thing to do would be to keep her, but he let her go instead.”
Twilight turned her attention to Spike, hunched forlornly beneath them. His great head was off to one side of their little huddle rather than above them, and Twilight realised that it was bowed - in acceptance or anguish, she couldn’t tell. There was a lurching where her stomach should be, and just one thought flew through her mind.
She couldn’t be the cause of yet more pain for him.
“I don’t want to be a ghost,” she said abruptly, directing her attention back to the huddle and filling herself with as much determination as possible. “I’ll stay like this forever. I don’t mind.” She forced herself to believe it, despite the fact that she’d been complaining only two minutes earlier.
“Twilight,” Applejack said in a sympathetic voice, moving to where Twilight’s Self hung in the air like a faint scent. “I understand where you’re comin’ from, but maybe...”
“But nothing,” Twilight said curtly. “I won’t hurt him. He’s my son and my brother and my best friend and he’s already in the kind of pain I can’t even begin to imagine. I’m not going to add to it. He already half-believes that he’s going mad. Celestia only knows how he’s stayed so strong.”
“He was always mighty stubborn,” Applejack said. “But have y’ thought that maybe all o’ us need to be out o’ the Elements invoked-like before he can use ‘em?”
“I don’t see why,” Twilight said. “We never had to.”
Rainbow shook her head. “Yeah, but how’s he gonna use Magic, huh? Like he said, it’s...” she wrinkled her nose, “in-herent? That right?”
“Inherent,” Twilight confirmed.
“Listen,” Fluttershy said.
“He’s a draaaaagon,” Pinkie drawled, rolling her eyes with theatrical exaggeration.
“Y’ don’t say,” Applejack deadpanned.
Pinkie blew a raspberry at her farmpony friend. “So he said he’s got magic of the body and fire,” she elaborated, waving a random hoof for emphasis. “Yeah?”
“But we’ve tried the body, and he tried the fire,” Twilight said, frustrated.
“Listen,” Fluttershy said.
“I dunno if just hooking them all over him is really tappin’ into his body’s magic,” said Rainbow.
“It was a hoot, though!” Pinkie added.
“Well, can you think of anything else?” snapped Twilight.
“Well, if you weren’t takin’ out yer frustrations on us, maybe we could!” Applejack snapped back.
“I’m worried about Spike!” Twilight yelled.
“We all are!” Applejack shouted. “I get that it’s personal fer you, Twi, but there’s no need t’ bite mah head clean off!”
“Listen!” Fluttershy yelled.
They turned to her. She shrank back a little, and then steeled herself.
“You were getting a teensy bit loud there, girls,” she said, and then turned her head with a significant glance. Twilight followed her gaze to see Rarity standing high on Spike’s collarbone. His head was still downturned, but his neck had arched back towards her in spite of himself. None of them had noticed her leaving. She was talking softly to him, one hoof trying unsuccessfully to stroke the shield-sized purple scales. Spike had his eyes closed, and his expression was one of hopeless regret.
Twilight was suddenly incredibly ashamed of herself.
“I’m sorry, Applejack,” she said quietly.
“Me too, Twi,” Applejack sighed. “Me too.”
“I don’t want to fight,” she said. “I just want him to be okay, and...” She couldn’t finish, but the rest of them could hear her unsaid words.
Rainbow Dash gave the space her Self was occupying a doubtful look that needed no translation, before turning back to where the faintest suggestion of a unicorn tried to comfort a dragon with more issues than the Equestrian Inquirer.