[Morning of Day 16]
Derpy Hooves awoke in the gentle warmth of the sun's rays that shone down from the round window at her bedside. She turned her sensitive eyes away from the bright glow to the conical spiral pattern cut into the wood of the ceiling before sitting bolt upright and taking in a deep breath. Upon wakening, the Pegasus mare had expected the usual pungent smell of burnt muffins to greet her; instead, the enticing aroma of cinnamon wafted through the air, beckoning her to leave the peace of slumber behind and become a part of the day's sunlit glory. Derpy happily obliged the impulse, casting the blankets aside and giving a light stretch to her limbs before rolling to the side and promptly falling out of the bed.
"Derpy?" Twilight's voice sounded from the room beyond. "You okay?"
"Yeah," Derpy called back as she picked herself up off the floor. She'd told the truth; only her ego had been bruised. She made a mental note to remember that she wasn't sleeping on the floor anymore before opening the door to the library's spacious atrium. Her eyes scanned the chamber and quickly found the source of the wonderful smell.
Sitting atop the linen-draped table across from the kitchen was the morning's repast. Derpy could not remember the last time that she'd seen such a spread for a simple meal like breakfast. A small tower of oatcakes and cinnamon toast rose from the large plate at the center, accompanied by a wooden bowl filled with sliced apples just to the side. A ceramic sauce-boat filled with honey sat next to the butter dish while a light frost danced across the nearby glass pitcher of milk, indicating the effect of a mild cooling spell. Aside from the food, the table's only occupants were Twilight Sparkle and a stack of file folders to her left. The unicorn sipped at a bowl of milk and brushed back her slightly disheveled hair before turning to Derpy.
"Good morning," Twilight half-yawned. "Did you sleep well?"
"Yeah!" Derpy replied enthusiastically as she trotted up to the table's side, her eyes positively aglow at the sight. "How 'bout you?"
Twilight rubbed a bit at the dark spots underneath her eyes. "Sure, why wouldn't I?"
Derpy failed to notice the contradiction and stared hungrily at the meal before her. "Can I have some?"
Twilight smiled faintly. "Help yourself; I told you that Spike would make extra."
Derpy gave a small squeal of delight as she set about preparing a plate made exclusively of cinnamon toast drenched in butter and honey. It wasn't until she'd already wolfed down two sugar-laden slices that a further question occurred to her. "Where is Spike anyway?"
Twilight rolled her eyes and pointed to the front door. "Outside with Rarity."
Puzzled by the lavender unicorn's reaction, Derpy got up from the table and took a gander through the wide kitchen window. Her eyes first fell onto Rarity, the white unicorn mare whom Derpy remembered as the owner of the Carousel Boutique. The fashionista tossed her stylized violet hair and batted her eyelashes at the young dragon across from her as she spoke, though Derpy couldn't hear the conversation for herself. Spike rocked back and forth awkwardly as he responded, his face tinged slightly red as he gazed into Rarity's deep blue eyes. It was then that Derpy noticed the small bouquet of roses that Spike held at his back, skillfully hidden from Rarity's view.
"No way," Derpy gasped.
Twilight rose from her seat at the table and looked out the window with Derpy. She giggled. "Yeah, they've been doing this little dance for a while now."
Derpy turned to Twilight in shock. "I had no idea!"
Twilight raised an eyebrow. "Really? It's only the worst-kept secret in Ponyville."
The gray Pegasus returned her gaze to the window, shaking her head slightly. "It doesn't make any sense, though."
Twilight sighed. "I've been trying to tell him that for years. Spike's never even gotten up the nerve to-"
"Why would Spike want to eat flowers for breakfast?" Derpy interrupted. "I mean, I thought dragons liked gems and stuff." Her voice and expression became indignant. "And there's even a really good breakfast right here! What's wrong with him?"
Twilight placed a calm hoof on the pegasus mare's shoulder. "I think we'd better have a talk, Derpy."
[Four Hours Later]
Twilight Sparkle looked up and gave Derpy Hooves a cock-eyed stare. "That's not possible."
Derpy shifted in place next to the round table in the middle of the library. "But it's true."
The unicorn gave Derpy's posterior another cursory glance before turning back. "You can't get a Cutie Mark in your sleep."
Spike stood on a chair behind Twilight and craned his neck for a better view. "Maybe you've just never heard of it happening before."
"I'm a student of history and biology; I'd know," Twilight replied without turning around. "Also, quit staring at Derpy's butt, Spike."
The young dragon pulled a face, his fangs showing as he did so. "What gives? You're doing it."
Twilight turned her gaze to Spike, more to resist Derpy's infectious smile than for effect. "I happen to be a female professional and not a hormonally-imbalanced male dragon. Sit down, Spike."
Spike complied by whirling around and dropping himself onto the wooden seat unceremoniously. "Yeah, professional female student."
Twilight's eyes narrowed. "Last nerve, Spike."
"Roger that," the dragon answered with a wave of his clawed hand. "Shutting up."
Twilight turned briskly back to Derpy only to find that the pegasus mare's smile had widened. She backed off slightly from her position at Derpy's side, unable to keep the corners of her own mouth from turning up in response. "In any case, you're telling me that you don't even know what it means?"
"Nope," Derpy replied cheerfully with a flick of her tail. "I just woke up one morning and there it was - a buncha circles." She raised an eyebrow. "Am I supposed to know what it is?"
Twilight sighed and began to pace toward the opposite side of the table. "Yes, and you should have learned about this in primary school."
Derpy lifted herself onto the seat next to Spike and smiled apologetically. "I wasn't very good at school."
Twilight sat across from her, laying a hoof upon a large scroll of parchment. "That's okay, Derpy; we'll take this one step at a time if we have to." She cleared her throat. "Getting your Cutie Mark is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It's supposed to happen at the moment that you realize the form of your special talent. Everypony is born with a talent for one thing or another, so having an epiphany about your own is basically the moment that you understand your purpose in life." She tapped a hoof on the table. "It's one of the most important events in any pony's life, and your mind has to be engaged for it to happen. Even if we were to suppose that you had a really intense dream where you came to understand your talent, you'd know it when you woke up. Do you see why there's no way to get a Cutie Mark without understanding what it means? You have to be thinking about its meaning to even get one."
Derpy shuffled back and forth in discomfort. "I'm sorry, Twilight. I don't know what else to say. It was just there one morning."
Twilight put a hoof to her chin. "Okay, let's try it this way. What does your mark look like to you?"
Derpy's eyes drifted for a moment before she responded. "Circles?"
"That's too indistinct," Twilight muttered mostly to herself. "What would that even mean?"
"Looks like bubbles to me," Spike offered as he put his legs up on the table.
Twilight's brow furrowed when she caught sight of the young dragon's feet. She leaned forward with a scowl and opened her mouth, but her eyes darted to the side in the next instant. She froze in place for a moment before returning to a normal sitting position and refocused her gaze on Derpy with a bright smile. "Spike might be onto something, Derpy. What do you think? Have you ever tried anything with bubbles?"
One of Derpy's eyes turned upward in thought. "No, I don't think so."
"Not even a bubble bath?" Spike queried with a sideways glance. "You could be really good at them."
Twilight lowered her eyelids halfway and placed a hoof on the scroll once again. "Puerile fantasies aside, I think I've got just the thing to help you find out what your talent is, Derpy." She unrolled the parchment in a single sweeping flourish. The intricate diagram inked into the white paper nearly glowed in the light from a window above.
"Plan?" asked Spike in a slightly insecure tone. "When did you-"
"Wow," Derpy gasped, placing both hooves on the table and leaning forward over Twilight's handiwork. "You did all this for me?"
"Well," Twilight elaborated. "A lot of the details still need to be worked out, but I came up with this plan so that you'd have a chance to try different jobs and find out what you're good at." She smiled broadly. "It works out pretty well, huh? If we focus on things that resemble your Cutie Mark, we're bound to find out what it means sooner or later."
Derpy's smile drooped as she examined the parchment. "There's a lot of ponies on here. Do they all want to help?"
"Of course!" Twilight chirped. "Once they realize that one of Ponyville's own is in trouble, I'm sure that anypony would lend a hoof."
Spike eyeballed an entry about halfway down the chart. "Fluttershy? Really?" He looked up at Twilight. "Good luck with that."
Twilight returned his statement with a mischievous grin. "I might have to twist an arm here and there, but I've built up plenty of favors over the years. Speaking of . . ." She touched a hoof to the top entry. "We're starting with the one who owes me the most. You're up, Spike."
"EH?!" Spike gasped, nearly falling out of his seat. "Why me?!"
"Bubbles, remember?" Twilight answered in a mockingly soothing voice. "What if they're soap bubbles?"
"Oh," Spike groaned, sitting as far back as the wooden chair would allow. "Oh no . . ."
"Oh yes," Twilight remarked as she began to roll up the parchment. "For the next week, Derpy will be Assistant Number Two with a focus on cleaning duties." She turned to the mare in question. "That okay with you, Derpy?"
"Yeah, boss!" Derpy barked, throwing what she hoped was a smart salute. The noise that followed resembled that of a wooden plank striking a hollow jug. "I'll do my best!"
"Boss?" Twilight repeated with a peculiar fascination.
"You're not supposed to brain yourself when you do that," said Spike.
[Morning of Day 17]
Derpy pulled open the flaps of the cardboard box before her and squinted at the contents. Her pupils slowly dilated as they adjusted to the darkness inside the closet. Piles of magazines lay within the box. She cocked her head to the side and tried to wrap her perception around the words and images on the covers.
"Sexy servants," she whispered as one eye scanned to the right. "A short skirt goes a long wa-"
"Derpy!" Spike shouted from the main library. "Are you upstairs?"
"Yeah!" Derpy called back in her chipper voice. She closed the box and shut the closet before trotting over to the second story interior balcony and poking her head over the edge. "What's up, boss?"
Spike stood in the center of the library with his toned and sinewy arms held akimbo. "'What's up?' she says." He sighed. "You're up, Derpy." His eyes narrowed. "As in 'upstairs'—you know—where the work isn't." He held out a clawed finger and made a beckoning motion. "Get down here already. We've only got an hour left 'till we're open for business."
"Roger!" Derpy replied with a bob of her head. She rushed for the nearby staircase and tripped on the very first step. Her mouth dropped open in surprise as she tumbled forward head over hooves. Her wings expanded reflexively to stop her descent but they only managed a moment's glide off the stairs before giving out letting her plummet to the floor.
Spike stepped forward casually and caught the pegasus mare in his outstretched arms.
"Wow," Derpy exclaimed, her hooves held tight against her body and her face very close to Spike's. "Thanks again, Spike!" Her smile persisted under the dragon's withering gaze. "You're getting pretty good at this!"
"It only happens every time you use the stairs," Spike intoned with heavy sarcasm. He deposited Derpy onto her own four legs and snorted. "Who's training who around here anyway?" He pulled a checklist and quill from the nearby table. "Okay, please tell me that you at least cleared the used candles out of the study."
"Yep!" said Derpy as she opened her wings and began testing the joints.
Spike raised an eyebrow and lowered the list. "Really?"
Spike waved the quill a bit. "And nothing caught on fire?"
Derpy stopped surveying her wings and returned her gaze to the young dragon. "Nope." She smiled. "Aren't you proud of me?"
"I am," Spike replied with genuine awe. "I really and truly am." He brought the checklist back up and scratched on it with the quill. "Still, this wouldn't even be on the list if Twilight would pick up after herself once in a while." He turned about and began to walk toward the towering bookshelves.
Derpy Hooves followed after with a spring in her step. "Hey, Spike?"
"Why does Twilight leave in the morning and not come back 'till the afternoon?" Derpy's cheerful voice contained only the barest hint of actual curiosity. "I thought she was the librarian."
Spike froze in his tracks. "Well, she . . ." There was a long pause. Spike cleared his throat and turned about to face Derpy, his long tail swishing about on the floor behind him. "She's got a lot of work to do on this job training project, you know?" He gave a half-hearted smile. "I mean, you saw all the ponies on that list, right? That's pretty hard to organize."
Spike gulped. "Y-yeah. Plus, she's still working with the Sheriff's Department on"—he winced and gave a false cough—"you know, something or other."
Derpy's expression went blank for a moment before returning to a bright smile. "Oh, okay! That's pretty cool." She gave a slight tilt of her head. "So, what's next on the list?"
Spike let out a quick sigh before looking back at the parchment. "Let's see, there's only a couple of things left to do. First of which is . . ." The corners of his mouth turned down in a grimace of despair. "Upper shelf dusting."
"Ooh," said Derpy. "That sounds fun."
Spike set the checklist down and grabbed a feather duster from the nearby rolling ladder. His eyes darted back and forth for a moment between Derpy and the object in hand. "Look, I really don't need anything falling down and knocking me out right now. You wanna just hold the ladder steady?"
Derpy's ears drooped. "Okay."
Spike clambered up the wooden ladder, his movements becoming more careful as he neared the top of its three-story height. Derpy latched her hooves around the third step and stared upward with a carefree grin. Her stray eye glanced instead at the roses in a vase on the library's center table. She twitched visibly.
The dragon leaned forward to extend the duster into the depths of the bookshelf. "Yeah?"
"Why do you buy flowers sometimes but not give them to Rarity?"
The duster hit a deep pocket of dust bunnies, sending a grey plume of particulate into Spike's face. He shut his eyes just in time, but he still had to cough his way around the offending mess to reply. "I know. Pretty silly, right?"
"It is?" asked Derpy with a tilt of her head.
"Totally," Spike replied. "It's so easy for me to get pumped up, buy some flowers, and make all kinds of plans." His shoulders slumped. "Still, when it comes time to actually do something I'm always wussing out."
"Why? Don't you want Rarity to know that you have a crush on her?"
Spike leaned back and cast a sideways glance at Derpy. "Does anypony not know about that at this point?"
Derpy blinked and beamed a smile back at him. "Twilight said I was the last one."
Spike groaned and returned to dusting. "Then there's your answer. Rarity's got to know what's up by now. Heck, I practically blurted it out myself about a year-and-a-half ago." He slid the duster about with greater force. "If she was interested, you think she'd bring it up at some point. You know, drop a hint?" Spike stopped his movements and stared at the books. "Saying it out loud like this makes it all sound so stupid. I've gotta stop kidding myself." He took a step down on the ladder. "A guy like me doesn't even have a chance."
Derpy's nose caught a whiff of burning pastries. Her brow furrowed. Her smile vanished. "Why not?!" she barked, giving the ladder a sharp knock with her hooves.
Spike yelped and gripped the ladder tightly. "Derpy! Watch what you're doing!"
Derpy blinked hard, the muscles in her face relaxing as she did so. "Oh. Sorry, Spike."
Spike sighed and motioned with the duster. "It's not a big deal. Could you move the ladder to the right a bit? I'm done here."
Derpy slowly walked the ladder to the side on its squeaking wheels. "What I mean is, why don't you just tell her how you really feel?" She put a hoof to her chest. "If somepony gave me flowers and said that they liked me . . ." She blushed and stopped short of her destination.
Spike raised an eyebrow at her.
Derpy glanced up at Spike and began waving her outstretched hoof wildly. "Well, I'd be surprised, but I'd be really happy too! You shouldn't give up before you try!"
Spike gave a dry chuckle and turned back to the shelves. "That's just it—I've been trying for a long time now. And I'm getting tired of not seeing anything change."
A sudden image of Silver Cross with his own sword held against his neck flashed through Derpy's mind. "Then try something new!" she half-shouted, giving the ladder a mighty shove.
The force of the direct impact caused the climbing implement to bounce outward with a clattering jolt, throwing Spike from the top and out into open air. Derpy watched in horror for the brief moment that passed before the young dragon's tail reflexively wrapped around the top step. He swung back, reaching behind with his forearms to prevent himself from hitting the ladder bodily.
Spike's palms hit the sides with a thud. He looked at Derpy scornfully from his upside-down position. "Okay, we're finishing this another day."
Derpy turned her gaze downward and pawed a hoof at the wooden floor. "Sorry, Spike. I just don't know what went-" She winced. "I'm sorry."
The dragon slid to the ground and sighed. "Apology accepted. Just try to think about what you're doing a little more and—you know—about what I'm doing a little less."
Derpy brought her head up swiftly, flipping her mane to the other side of her face in the process. "Seriously though, if you want something to change, then you should do something new." She smiled. "That's what I'm doing."
Spike looked upward. "Huh, I guess that telling Twilight about your problems was something new for you."
Derpy shook her head. "No, I did something new just 15 minutes ago."
Spike looked hard into Derpy's eyes. "What? You were here 15 minutes ago."
Derpy nodded. "Yep! I was upstairs."
Spike's eyes began to widen. "In the study . . . cleaning out the used candles." His irises had narrowed to pinpricks. "What did you do?"
Derpy rolled one of her eyes. "Well, I figured that she could still use those candles since they aren't melted all the way yet and I wondered why you'd want me to throw them away anyhow." She began to prance in place. "Then I remembered that Twilight wants everything in the library to be really clean. The candles were kinda dirty, so I'm cleaning them."
Spike shivered. "How?"
Derpy brought her hooves to a standstill and leaned closer, her voice descending in volume to a half-whisper. "I was kinda confused about that at first, but the candles are about the same color white that the toilet is, right?"
Spike's mouth fell open. "Oh no."
Derpy nodded proudly. "So, I'm letting them soak in some toilet cleaner for a while. They should come out good as new!"
Spike grabbed Derpy's shoulders and shook her. "Where? Where did you-"
Spike looked around Derpy to see a plume of white gas erupt from the kitchen sink. Bits of wax bounced to the floor. Two seconds later, the decorative curtain on the window above the sink caught fire. Calm and cool, Spike took his hands from Derpy and walked across the room to the fire extinguisher.
Derpy turned about. "Something went wrong, didn't it?" she asked in a sullen voice.
Spike's voice sounded in a carefully measured tone as he unlatched the safety device from the wall. "Take a break for an hour or two, Derpy." He cast a baleful look back at the downcast mare. "Take it somewhere that isn't here."
[High Noon of Day 18]
Rainbow Dash whistled loudly. "Wow. Twilight gets you out of one mess and two days later you're stepping right into the middle of another one." She flashed a toothy grin underneath her work goggles. "Smooth, Derpy."
"It's not a mess," said Derpy with a frustrated hooftap. "Spike wants Rarity to be his 'very special somepony.' Rarity might like that—no, she should like that." She pushed out her bottom lip in a furious pout. "I think it's simple. He should tell her how he feels."
The hot sun beat down on the two ponies from high overhead as they worked to repair the damaged third story of the Ponyville Town Hall. Two of the ten exterior walls stood in raised positions, held fast to the structure by temporary support beams. Two more lay finished on the plywood floor along with various pieces of lumber and the assorted contents of Rainbow's toolbag. Both ponies wore safety goggles and had towels draped about their necks.
Rainbow Dash giggled. "Very special what? It's pronounced 'marefriend', Derpy." She waved a hoof and began digging through a pile of tools on her left. "You're talking like a foal again . . . and you're thinking like one."
"Am not!" Derpy exclaimed with a forward lean. The motion caused a trickle of sweat to run down her face. She used her towel to dab the offending rivulet away as she continued. "Spike is a great guy. Anypony would be happy to have him for a very special-" She stopped and looked to the side. "Um, marefriend."
Rainbow Dash pulled a hammer from the pile with her teeth and fitted it into a tool harness on her right hoof. "Okay, let's roll with that for a minute." She leveled the hammer at Derpy with a cocky grin. "Let's say that Snips confessed to you. Would you be really happy and want to be his marefriend?"
Derpy laughed. "Snips wouldn't do that."
Rainbow groaned and waved the hammer. "This is pretend, Derpy. I'm trying to teach you something; just play along."
Derpy considered this for a moment with a hoof to her chin before voicing her thoughts as they came. "I'd be really happy that he felt that way, but . . ." She gave a light shake of her head. "I wouldn't want to be his marefriend."
Rainbow Dash brought the hammer's head close to one of the nails on the support beam base in front of her. "Now why is that? Is it 'cause he's fat?"
Derpy's eyes narrowed at the question. "No."
Rainbow raised the hammer, not looking up from the nail. "Is it 'cause you think that you're a better pony than he is?"
Rainbow Dash brought the hammer down on the nail with a resounding thump. She looked up at Derpy. "Is it because you have nothing in common with him?"
"No," Derpy answered with only half-confidence before slumping her shoulders in the next moment. "Well, kinda."
"Now isn't that interesting?" Rainbow intoned with a raised eyebrow. She selected another nail from the pile and began to work it into the base with a sure hoof. "Keep that in mind while I tell you a little bit about Spike." She tapped the nail lightly to set its position. "He hasn't just been fawning over Rarity for the past year—he's been working himself to the bone. He pulls long shifts at the library so that he can save up bits to take Rarity on dates. He does all of Carousel Boutique's landscaping by himself. He practically works there part-time with all the labor he puts in on Rarity's gem hunts. That's free labor, in case you didn't know."
Derpy's eyes widened a bit more with each addition.
"He's Twilight's live-in maid and personal chef," Rainbow continued. "And ever since that . . . whatever it was happened five months ago, he's gotten even busier. He does physical training with Iron Will on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. He trains with a freaking sword on every other day. Last but not least, he's got something like a social life to manage on top of all that."
Derpy Hooves took a slow breath. "Holy cow. What happened five months ago?"
"Weirdness, that's what," Rainbow Dash muttered dismissively as she hammered down another nail. "The short version is this: everything went pear-shaped, Rarity got hurt, and Spike blamed himself." She put the hammer down and removed her goggles. She toweled the sweat away from her face and looked directly into Derpy's eyes. "That's not the important part though. What's important is, out of all of those things that Spike does, which ones have anything in common with Rarity or her plans for the future?"
"I dunno . . . all of them?" Derpy replied hopefully.
"Try 'none,'" Rainbow deadpanned. "Rarity designs dresses. She's in love with high society. She wants to have a picture-perfect life in Canterlot with a dashing Prince Charming where she doesn't have to worry about all the little things like sales and marketing anymore." She leaned forward. "That 'prince' has a name too. He's called 'Fancypants.'"
Derpy lifted one of her forelegs in apprehension. "What're you trying to say?"
Rainbow leaned back with a sly grin. "I'm saying that all those 'consulting' visits that Fancypants makes to Ponyville ain't got nothin' to do with business, at least not the way you and I understand it." She reveled in the blush that arose on Derpy's face for a moment before continuing. "I'm also saying that Spike missed the boat a long time ago and he's missing the point even now. If you're rooting for him, then you're missing it too. Spike may want to be Rarity's man, but he's just a confused kid at heart and he hasn't got a prayer. It's sad for sure, and I'm positive that Twilight's been trying to help him get over it." She pointed an accusing hoof. "What you're doing is trying to get Spike back on track for some heartbreak, and that's only gonna make a big mess in the end." Rainbow gave a shrug. "I rest my case."
Rainbow Dash's words landed heavily on Derpy's heart. She'd come to work on the town hall today with vigor and verve. She'd imagined herself a fixer of buildings and perhaps a helping hoof in a budding relationship. Tears welled up in her eyes. Was she still the same hopeless pony who'd let her entire life fall apart around her?
"Derpy?" asked Rainbow Dash. "You okay?"
The multi-hued mare's voice sounded distant to Derpy's ears. Another voice, familiar and masculine, sounded much closer.
I lost faith, Ms. Hooves.
Derpy's expression went blank.
As large as Feather's doubts had become, mine were deeper still.
Derpy sniffed and blinked away the wetness in her eyes.
I'd overlooked something terribly important.
Derpy Hooves stood straight up and frowned at her companion. "You're a jerk, Rainbow Dash."
The pegasus mare in question face-faulted. "What?"
Derpy removed her goggles. "Isn't Spike your friend?"
Rainbow Dash glanced to the side. "Yeah, but-"
"But nothing!" Derpy interrupted. She stamped a hoof down on the plywood. "Spike is working hard on something, and all you can talk about is how he doesn't have a chance. If you're his friend, then you should help him instead!"
"Derpy," Rainbow groaned. "Sometimes 'helping' really doesn't help."
The voice in Derpy's head spoke once more.
I spent a long time looking for the land of miracles, only to nearly ignore the little miracle that practically fell into my lap.
The wall-eyed pegasus mare smiled. "It helped Cross." Her smile grew wider. "I think I know what to do now."
Rainbow Dash tilted her head. "Who's Cross?"
Derpy backed up a bit and spread her wings. "Sorry, RD. I've gotta run an errand." A powerful flap lifted her hooves from the plywood. "I'll help out some more tomorrow, okay?"
"Wait a minute," said Rainbow. She rose from her sitting position and nearly tripped over a piece of lumber. "What're you gonna do?"
Derpy bolted off across the rooftops of Market Square, faltering a bit and knocking a few bricks loose from a chimney as she did so. The white towel trailed behind her neck like a scarf in the wind.
Rainbow Dash stood at the edge of the third story and put a hoof to the side of her mouth as she shouted after the departing mare. "You're just gonna screw things up again, Derpy! Don't say I didn't warn you!"
The violet door of the Carousel Boutique received the full brunt of Derpy's momentum, bursting open and jangling the bell above with fierce clamor. The pegasus mare skidded to a halt on the polished floor and flashed a brilliant cockeyed grin. "Hi!" she barked enthusiastically.
Rarity whirled about from the center of the storefront. Her curled bangs fell over one eye, but the other went wide to match her hanging lower jaw. The look of surprise only lasted for the briefest of moments before a practiced smile took its place. "Welcome to Carousel Boutique, darling." She squinted a bit. "You're . . . Miss Derpy Hooves, isn't that right?"
"Yeah," Derpy replied, here gaze dancing across the racks of clothing. "Except for the 'Miss' part." She turned one eye back to Rarity. "I can see how you'd make that mistake, though. It's a really popular first name."
"I-indeed," Rarity stuttered as Derpy trotted forward. The fashionista brought a hoof to her nose as the sweat towel-bedecked mare passed by. "Good gracious, dear. Do be sure to have a shower before you come in next time. I can't have the boutique smelling like a . . ." Her voice trailed off as Derpy neared the back of the store. "Like a . . ." Her eyebrows went up as Derpy passed behind a black curtain. "Now wait just a minute, Miss Hooves!"
"'Derpy Hooves,'" the pegasus mare corrected as Rarity rounded the corner.
Rarity's smile faded. "Derpy, this part of the store is sectioned off for a reason. I think you'd be much more interested in-"
Derpy pointed strongly at an article of clothing just past Rarity's face. "I want that one. How much is it?"
Rarity's uncertain eyes darted back and forth between the outstretched hoof and the item in question. "How old did you say you were again?"
Rarity's eyelids fell halfway. "I know, dear. How old are you?"
"Nineteen*," said Derpy. "Why?"
Rarity looked at the dress and swallowed. "No reason."
[Afternoon of Day 19]
Spike strode briskly from the treeline at Ponyville's eastern border, sword and scabbard clattering lightly against his green dorsal spines with every step. He drew the strap across his chest a bit tighter and took in a deep breath of the crisp pine-scented air. The muscles in his arms burned slightly from the exertion he'd put them through over the past hour, but the rest of his body felt loose and limber. Perhaps most importantly, the daily training regimen had cleared his mind of the stress that the library's newest resident now caused him on a daily basis.
Even so, Spike gave a sigh as he left the soft grass for the dirt road of Stirrup Street. He'd imagined that dealing with Derpy Hooves would be no trouble at all compared to his experience in raising Peewee, the phoenix chick that he'd rescued from his own kin over a year ago. The first few weeks of rearing the adorable feathery bundle had quickly soured Spike's initial optimism. His cleaning duties had become split between things defecated on and things burned to a crisp. Every squeaky cry just a few notes off-key had torn Spike away from his comfort zone and had him worrying for hours. The bird's cute face and soft feathers had been little recompense for all the trouble he caused.
A pair of lanky unicorn stallions traveling toward the outskirts of town drifted close to Spike on the roadway. "Can you believe that Books & Branches carries stuff like this?" one of the two marveled as he waved a magazine about with his magic.
Still, Spike mused to himself. Things got better. Peewee benefited from the rapid maturation rate shared by all phoenixes, and within just three months' time, he'd become a glorious and regal bird fit to rival even Celestia's pride and joy. The weeks that followed had been a time of great elation and fulfillment for the young dragon. He smiled broadly at the memories that even his pet's tearful departure back to the wilderness could not dim.
Spike passed by an outdoor cafe on the corner of Stirrup and Bale as he turned toward the library. Among the various patrons, an overweight earth pony stallion gesticulated wildly to his friends across the table. "I'm telling you guys; it's all about the absolute territory! That hallowed ground between the skirt and the thigh-highs . . . it's too much!"
"Too much to be an accident, you mean," commented one of the others. "Best to keep it in your fantasies, man. Girls who dress like that are massive teases; I don't care how innocent they . . ."
Spike frowned as he drifted out of earshot. His thoughts returned to Derpy Hooves—impossibly innocent, hopelessly naive, tremendously clumsy . . . and a full-grown mare. Spike leaned back as he walked and stared at the open sky. Peewee was different, he thought. Between Fluttershy and Princess Celestia, I had all the help and advice I could ever need. When it comes to Derpy . . . The unyielding brightness of the blue sky began to hurt his eyes. I might be the first guy to ever deal with something like this. He squinted. Well, at least she didn't blow anything up yesterday. That's progress.
Spike brought his gaze back down to see the library directly ahead. He came to a complete standstill one second later. A crowd of stallions had gathered around the door and at every ground-floor window. They seemed to be intently observing the interior and making awestruck observations that were hard to make out at this distance. Spike frowned hard enough to expose his fangs. Jinxed it, didn't I?
The young dragon ventured forward with a confident stride. He cleared his throat loudly. "Okay, guys. Comin' through." Spike put his hands out to part the crowd and found himself immediately bounced back by the tightly-pressed bodies. "Hey!" he exclaimed. A whooping cheer from beyond the open doorway drowned out the sound of his indignant voice. Spike snarled and pantomimed the action of rolling up a pair of shirt sleeves. "So that's how it's gonna be, huh?" The stallions failed to notice him.
Spike gathered his resolve, hunkered down on his hands and knees, and began his journey down the low road into the library. The tight spaces between the stallions' shuffling hooves made navigation difficult. The overpowering scent of body odor threatened to obliterate his senses. He held his breath as much as possible and continued onward. He lost that breath when a familiar sight passed before his eyes. "MILFy Maids #39?" he gasped. The magazine exchanged hooves in front of him and was soon lost to view. Still, there were others. Spike's eyes darted back and forth as he saw the covers of his prized collection—his stash—drifting through the crowd. His blood ran cold. His throat dried up. His muscles surged with power and propelled him through the last of the ever-shifting cavern. Spike exited the last set of legs with a pop and came to a rolling halt near the library's center table.
A cheery voice that carried just a hint of boyishness rang out over the din. "Oh! Hey there, Spike!"
The stallions began to laugh. Spike looked up from his prone position. Derpy Hooves waved the feather duster at him from the top of the three-story rolling ladder. Spike's gaze drifted from the duster to the mare herself. What he saw caused the most peculiar physical sensation—he felt as if he'd started to fall through the floor and into a cold, dank abyss. White lace. Black satin. White apron. Black thigh-highs. A heavenly headband. A buxom bustier. And ribbons . . . ribbons everywhere. Spike gulped in stupefied horror only to be rewarded with a feeling akin to his Adam's Apple getting lodged in his windpipe. He coughed mightily and lost control of his facial muscles. The sudden absence of tension left behind something resembling a lopsided grin.
Derpy squealed with delight and spread her wings wide. "He likes it!" she cried.
"HE LIKES IT!" the crowd shouted in response before dissolving into chuckles.
Spike clambered to his feet and stared at the impossible sight above. His mouth moved as if to form words but sound refused to issue forth.
Derpy turned herself back toward the ladder, the folds of her short skirt swaying with every movement. "Hang on," she called out above the racket. "I'm coming down!" With the utterance of the word "down", she slipped and lurched forward to maintain balance. The back hem of her skirt flew up in dramatic fashion.
A chorus of "oohs" and "aahs" arose from the crowd. A pair of flashbulbs went off outside the windows.
"Derpy!" Spike shouted with a mixture of anger and concern.
"Whoa," said Derpy as she swung back again with a bit too much force. Her hooves left the ladder entirely and she plummeted earthward with a startled yelp.
Spike stepped forward with automatic ease and caught the frilly bundle, straining a bit this time with his tired arms.
A thunderous round of applause blasted forth from the crowd along with a few encouraging whoops.
"Thanks, Spike!" cheered Derpy with a clap of her stockinged hooves. "You're just awesome at this!"
The dazed dragon prepared to vent his rage and confusion only to have the words die in his throat. Derpy's eyes had centered for the first time since he'd met her. Unable to meet her focused gaze, Spike glanced instead at the next thing that caught his attention . . . her ponytail. His eyes widened. Derpy had tied her normally unkempt blond mane into a well-groomed ponytail with a black velvet ribbon. The gorgeous amber eyes and enticing ensemble hit Spike with their full effect. He dropped the pegasus mare like a hot potato, his face burning red with emotions that he dared not evaluate.
"Woohoo!" cried Derpy as she landed awkwardly on her hooves. She turned to the crowd with a toss of her mane. "Isn't Spike the best, you guys?"
"YEAH!" came the deafening answer.
"Derpy!" shouted Spike as he pointed an accusing claw. "Where did you get that dress?" His left eyelid twitched. Stupid question, he thought. Why did I focus on the maid outfit?
"This?" Derpy replied with a shake of her rump. The satin skirt billowed in response. "Well, I didn't have enough bits to buy it, so I just rented it for this afternoon."
Sympathetic "awws" rang out from the stallions. Charitable golden bits began to rain down on the center table.
"Cut that out!" Spike bellowed. He waved his hand in a great sweeping motion. "Never mind about the dress." His eyes narrowed. "Where did these . . . these magazines come from? Why do they have them?"
Derpy cocked her head to the side. "You told me to put any books that I found lying around back on the shelves. Can't anypony borrow the library books?"
"They were in my closet!"
"Yeah, I know," said Derpy with a nod. "I figured that you must really like them, so I thought I'd dress up like the mares in the magazines." She presented Spike with a demure smile. "How about it? Do you feel more sure of yourself yet?"
Spike stood slack-jawed. "W-what? I don't even . . ."
Derpy turned to the crowd in a whirl of lace and ribbons. "Hey, guys! Spike's not sure if he should ask Rarity out on a date or not!" She raised a hoof high in the air. "Who thinks he should give it a try?!"
Spike nearly choked in surprise. He fought for air and looked about wildly as a powerful chant began to build all around him.
"Ask her out. Ask her out."
Spike drew in a deep breath. Derpy began pumping her hoof up and down.
"Ask her out! Ask her out!"
Spike noticed an alarmingly familiar and feminine voice join in from just behind.
"Ask her out! Ask her out!"
Spike turned about and found himself staring into the grinning visage of Twilight Sparkle.
"ASK HER OUT! ASK HER OUT!"
"AAH!" Spike screeched at a higher volume than the chanters. He recoiled several feet from the librarian's position.
Silence fell over about half of the stallions present at the sound of Spike's panicked cry. The rest became increasingly quiet as they began to notice Twilight's presence. Within less than a half-minute, the room was devoid of any sound save for a light shuffling of awkward hooves.
Twilight Sparkle's grin continued in spite of the change in atmosphere.
Spike held up a shaky open palm. "Twilight, I know you're mad; but before you say anything, I just want you to know that this is not my fault."
A copy of Homegrown Hotties #42 slipped out from the crowd and landed at Twilight's hooves.
Twilight smiled wider. "Why would I be mad?" she mused in a singsong voice. "This kind of thing is great publicity for a library managed by an apprentice to the crown."
Spike dropped his arm. "You mean that?" he asked, his voice full of cautious hope.
Twilight's left eye twitched ferociously. "Not so much." She gave a fearsome scowl to the crowd and her voice rose to thunderous bellow. "EVERYPONY CLEAR OUT! WE'RE CLOSED!"
The grumbling mass of stallions pushed toward the doorway like mildly perverse molasses sliding through a wooden funnel. Spike's entire body slumped in embarrassment and defeat. Derpy Hooves cast worried glances back and forth between the room's occupants.
Twilight Sparkle frowned and looked down her nose at the young dragon, floating the magazine before her into the air with a pinkish magic aura. She waited until the last stallion had closed the door behind him before speaking. "First of all, I am very disappointed in you, Spike. I've expressly forbidden the presence of this sort of . . ."—she gave the magazine a look of utter disgust—"inappropriate literature in my library." An ethereal light burst forth from her glowing horn and reduced Homegrown Hotties to a smoking pile of ash. Twilight turned her disapproving grimace back to the downcast Spike. "I want every one of these that's still on the shelves disposed of. We won't be accepting any that are brought back, and you will write a personal letter of apology to every single parent who complains that their children got a hold of one of these today. Is that clear?"
"Yes, ma'am," Spike replied with utter resignation.
"Wait, Twilight," Derpy exclaimed. She trotted between the two, taking a wide stance suggestive of protecting a vulnerable target from dire threat. "Spike's telling the truth; this is all my fault." Her throat tightened up and took her volume down a notch. "I'm the one who put those weird books on the shelves. You should punish me instead."
Twilight Sparkle opened her mouth to speak but left it hanging open instead. Her eyes widened as she took in the full effect of Derpy's ensemble. She shook her head and continued in a confused tone. "Derpy, I don't even know where to begin. I can sort of understand the part where you decided to stock the shelves with Spike's 'secret stash,' but . . ." She reached out and tossed the end of the lace ribbon on Derpy's armband. "What is this about?"
Derpy bit at her lower lip before responding. "I wanted to give Spike some confidence."
Spike raised his head and gave a quizzical stare. "What?"
Derpy backed up to her right so that she could face the room's other two occupants at the same time. "Spike, you sounded so sure that Rarity wouldn't go out with you, but you can't know that. You said that you were tired of nothing changing too, but I don't think that's right either." She tapped a hoof down, her voice growing more confident with each statement. "I think that you've worked really long and really hard to be a great guy for Rarity. It's just that you've been working so long for such a far-off dream that you forgot what it's like to get something back." She gave the satin folds of the dress a demonstrative shake. "I know that it's not really me you want to see dress like this."
Spike's face turned stark crimson. He suddenly found it difficult to meet Derpy's gaze.
The pegasus mare gave a warm smile. "But I figured that if you got a bit of something that you really like, then you'd start to believe that your dreams can come true again."
Twilight nodded sagely. "I think Derpy's actually got a really good point here, Spike. You've come a long way in the last year or so, too long of a way to indulge in"—she grinned awkwardly—"juvenile fantasies while you moan and groan about your chances with the mare who got you this far." She crossed one arm in front of the other and gave her head a tilt. "Just hearing you complain about your feelings moved Derpy so much that she went out and did something crazy for your benefit."
"I'm sorry I got you in trouble, Spike," Derpy added in a sheepish tone. "But you really do have a chance. Don't say you know how it's gonna turn out. You never really know until you try."
The emotional roller-coaster ride of the last hour had rendered Spike's expression thoroughly blank. His gaze drifted uncertainly between the two mares.
"Well," said Twilight in the soothing manner of a big sister. "Clumsy expression aside, what do you think, Spike? Are you going to waste Derpy's sentiments?"
Spike's attention focused squarely on the satin-clad pegasus mare. Gone were the initial shock at Derpy's appearance and the uncomfortable arousal that had followed. In place of both now stood a deep sense of gratitude and obligation. He dropped his gaze to the floor, swallowed hard at the knot in his throat, and brought his head back up with a confident smile emblazoned upon his reptilian visage. "No," he answered. "No, I'm not."
[Evening of Day 20]
The trimmed blades of grass outside Carousel Boutique stirred and swayed in the cool breeze, their verdant green painted indigo in the fading light. The stark silence of the time between the workday's end and the nightlife's dawn drained all sense of reality and presence from the world; neither the birds fluttering back to their nests nor the golden light from the ornate building's windows could stave off the dream-like pall that had descended over Ponyville. A young violet-scaled dragon stood at the door that shared his primary hue. With his left hand he held a bouquet of a dozen roses, their ardent red undimmed by the sun's departure. With his right, he gave a gentleman's knock to the varnished wood. He took in and released a deep breath at the sound of trotting hooves within the boutique. Here we go.
The door swung open to reveal Rarity's stylish countenance. She greeted the sight before her with a brilliant smile and a coquettish bat of her long eyelashes. "Spike, dear!" she exclaimed. "What a pleasant surprise! Whatever brings you over to the boutique at this hour?" Her azure eyes drifted down and rose up again to meet Spike's in the breadth of a half-second. Her smile widened. "Are those for me?"
A sarcastic response came to the forefront of Spike's mind. He gave it a vicious mental kick and reached instead for the simple truth. "Absolutely," he intoned, bringing the crimson flowers forward and up.
A magic aura of cornflower blue issued forth from Rarity's horn and lifted the bouquet underneath her muzzle. She sniffed deeply. "Oh my goodness, they're wonderful." She moved the flowers to the side to give the young dragon a view of her best sultry gaze. "Thank you, Spike. I hope you'll forgive me for asking, but what's the occasion?"
Spike locked his hands behind his back to keep them from fidgeting. He did his level best to return Rarity's playful expression in kind. "I didn't think I needed an occasion to see you smile, Rarity."
The barest hint of pink arose on the unicorn mare's white cheeks. Rarity recovered with a wave of her hoof and a toss of her violet mane. "Someone's working on a silver tongue to go with all that scaly muscle I see." She leaned forward and gave her companion a quick peck on the cheek. "Careful, Spike," she chided. "You'll turn a young filly's head with talk like that."
The brief physical contact threw Spike's train of thought about ten feet off the rails. He managed to keep his physical composure, but found himself wrestling with the potent mental stimulus. This has happened before, he thought. Don't go googly-eyed. You came here to do something new, didn't you? Is this really as far as you want to go?
Rarity turned about with a flourish of the coil in her tail. She floated the bouquet ahead of her as she stepped back through the open door. "You're in luck, you know," she said over her shoulder. "I've got just the perfect vase for these. Why don't you come inside and visit for a while?"
Spike remained standing in the doorway and drew a pair of colorful paper slips from his dorsal spines. "Actually, I came here to give you an invitation."
"Truly?" Rarity remarked as she lowered the thick stems of the flowers into a hoof-blown glass receptacle. She shook her head reprovingly and trotted back toward Spike. "Whatever has Ponyville's mail service come to that you should have to deliver an invitation by . . . hand . . ." Her voice trailed off. She blinked hard and stared at the shiny slips of paper in Spike's outstretched claws. "Spike," she gasped. "Where did you get these?"
The pair of tickets reflected the store's lamplight and cast glittery golden sparkles in Rarity's eyes. The dragon's heart skipped a beat, but he flashed a toothy grin anyhow. "I've got my connections."
"Two reservations for La Bouchée Désir," Rarity observed, all pretense gone from her expression. "One of the most scenic and expensive restaurants in Canterlot." Her gaze met with Spike's. "One of the most exclusive as well. It caters only to the nobility, and even they have to make reservations weeks in advance."
Spike flushed with pride. "I thought you'd be familiar with this place."
"I've never been," Rarity whispered with a hoof over her mouth. Her eyes darted to the side. "I've always wanted to . . ."
The powerful chill of adrenaline began to course through Spike's veins. He'd done it; he'd never seen Rarity this unguarded before. When he next spoke, he did so in a suave and masculine tone that—for the first time in his life—he felt comfortable using. "The reservation is for next Saturday, a table for two on the River Terrace." One last bit of icy hesitation clawed at his resolve. Spike proceeded to put that feeling in its place. "Rarity, will you go there with me as my date?"
The question that had been on Spike's mind for the last year came out more even-toned than the young dragon had thought possible. His heart fluttered with anticipation in the few seconds that he waited for Rarity's answer. The unicorn mare's slight blush turned redder than the rose bouquet. Her eyes grew moist; the corners of her mouth turned up in a warm smile. Spike's heart soared.
"I'm sorry," said Rarity with a crack in her tone. "I'm so sorry, Spike. I can't."
Spike's confidence shrugged off the blow. "Oh, are you already doing something next Saturday?"
Rarity shook her head slowly. "No. No, I'm not. It's just . . ." She brought her hoof back to the floor. "If we go there together, there'll be no walking it back. Everypony in Equestria will think that we're a couple."
Spike still felt as if he were on the verge of success. He decided to go for broke. "I don't mind that, Rarity. Ever since the first day I came to Ponyville, I've only had my eyes on you." Thoughts of his long struggle to attain masculinity for her sake entered his mind. I'm not here to put a burden on her. He pushed them aside and continued. "You probably know that already, but you knowing it isn't the same as me saying it." Spike clenched a fist to boost his resolve. He stared directly into Rarity's wavering eyes. "I know that I'm a dragon, but the only thing I've wanted to be for the past three years is your stallion."
Silence followed. Spike had imagined many potential responses to that statement ever since he'd first thought of it; the soundless bewilderment that had overtaken his chosen mare was one of the worst. After a time that felt far too long, Rarity sat back on her haunches with a heavy sigh. Spike waited patiently with a knot in his throat so large and painful that it threatened to choke him.
"Spike," Rarity began at last. "I don't want you to misunderstand me. You have grown up to be a wonderful young gentleman." She tapped a hoof. "You are the kindest, bravest, strongest, and most under-appreciated bachelor I know. You are going to make some young lady so happy someday that she won't know what to do without you, and you deserve every bit of the love that she'll have for you." Rarity hung her head low. "It's just that . . . I'm not that mare, Spike. I can't give you what you want . . . what you deserve."
A terrifying numbness eclipsed Spike's sense of touch. He felt completely disconnected from the physical world. "You already have a stallion," he guessed in monotone.
"No," said Rarity as she looked into Spike's unnervingly dry eyes. "No, I don't. You'll think I'm terrible, but I've known how you felt about me ever since you gave that fire ruby to me on your first birthday in Ponyville." Her own eyes teared up. "I should have spoken with you about it before now. I shouldn't have let you try so hard for my sake, but every time I gathered the nerve to say something . . ." She paused and bit at her soft lower lip. "I was scared, Spike. I am scared of losing one of my best friends." Rarity made a visible effort to read the young dragon's expression. "The longer I delayed, the harder it became. In the end, all I can say is that I'm sorry." A single tear streamed down her right cheek. "I've failed you, Spike. It's all right if you hate me for it."
In the void left behind by Spike's hopes and dreams, a consummate professionalism rose to the fore. Swallowing back every last emotion, he put on a practiced smile and opened his palms wide. "Rarity, you're being silly. I could never hate you." He bumped a fist to his chest scales and winked. "As long as you want this weirdo dragon for a friend, you'll have him."
Rarity wiped her tear away and gave a small smile. "You really mean that, don't you, dear?"
"Absolutely," said Spike with the very same inflection that he'd used when he first arrived. He gazed up at the sky to see that night had finally arrived. The golden streetlamps were coming to life in the distance. He looked back at Rarity and smiled in a manner that hurt his face. "And I think I've absolutely wasted enough of your time this evening."
"You've done nothing of the sort," Rarity corrected. She walked slowly forward and—after a moment's hesitation—put a single arm around Spike's neck in a brief, stilted hug. "I know how much this meant to you," she said as she backed away. "If there's anything that I can do to make it up to you, anything at all . . ." Her volume drained to zero as she realized that the smile on the young dragon's face hadn't moved. Worry entered her tone. "Will you be all right, Spike?"
"Yeah," Spike's voice said for him. "I'm sure I will be."
A pair of eavesdropping ponies watched Spike turn to leave from their hiding place behind a building across the street. Twilight Sparkle's horn glowed faintly with the last of a hearing augmentation spell. She frowned and whimpered sympathetically. "It's not like I didn't see this coming, but all the same it's . . ." She struggled to find the end to her thought before giving up with a sigh. The young dragon has disappeared from view. "Poor Spike. Even I didn't know how serious he really was."
Derpy Hooves stood just behind Twilight, her hair still held in a ponytail by the black velvet ribbon. Her eyes itched terribly, only becoming worse if she rubbed at them. Her throat had dried up and swelled painfully. She breathed through her nose to avoid antagonizing the sensation and nearly wretched. The oppressive and acrid smell of burning muffins hung thick on the night air. A faint ringing noise like that of an alarm clock began to sound in the far corners of her mind. An impulse burst out from that strange place and caused her hooves to move.
Twilight's expression widened in alarm as she watched Derpy launch into a brisk trot toward the boutique. "Derpy?!" she barely managed to avoid yelling. "What are you doing?! Don't!"
"Rarity!" Derpy barked at a volume that shattered the silence all around her.
The unicorn mare in question looked out from her open doorway with wide eyes and a lifted hoof. Her expression normalized as Derpy came into view. "Oh my. Miss Hooves, was it?" she called out in polite greeting. "I'm terribly sorry, dear, but we're closed. You'll have to-"
"My name is 'Derpy,'" the gray pegasus corrected as she slowed to a halt just a few feet from the entryway. "Why do you keep getting it wrong?"
Rarity sighed. "It's an honorific, Derpy. You put it before someone's name when you're trying to be polite."
Derpy's brow tightened. "Was what you just did to Spike polite too?"
Rarity's mouth moved soundlessly for a moment before her eyes narrowed. "W-were you eavesdropping?"
"I didn't drop anything," said Derpy with a shake of her head. "But I saw what happened." The light from inside the boutique danced in her eyes. "Why did you hurt Spike?"
"Hurt him?" asked Rarity, her voice indignant. She waved a hoof at the distraught pegasus. "Spike is not a child anymore, Derpy. It's better that he knows the truth now. All he needs is some time."
"What about the time he lost already?!" Derpy snapped. A hazy image of books falling from a white tower flashed through her mind. She bit her lip and looked away from Rarity. "He gave you all kinds of presents. He even spent a really long time making himself into a really nice present for you." Her gaze turned back and once again captured the flickering golden light. "You didn't even give him a chance."
Rarity raised an eyebrow and turned her nose up at the pegasus mare. "Not that it's any of your business, but a chance to what? I admit that my own procrastination made this worse than it had to be, Derpy. However, I've known for quite some time now that things between Spike and I simply wouldn't work out in the end."
"You don't know that!" Derpy shouted. "And you never did!"
Rarity recoiled in the doorway. "What are you-"
Tears of frustration welled in Derpy's eyes. "I keep hearing everypony say that they know what's gonna happen. It's so stupid. Even if you could know, who'd want a world where you'd never be wrong?" The lights in her pupils resembled flickering candle flames. "It's just a lot easier to say that what went wrong was gonna happen anyway, isn't it? That way, it's not your fault, and you don't have to do anything about it." Several images whirled about behind her eyes. Derpy frowned deeply. "I didn't want to admit that my life sucked because I made it that way. Cross didn't want to say that the real reason he wasn't going to see the Green Pastures was because he was giving up. Rainbow made fun of Spike's chances because Spike having a chance would have made her a bad friend for not doing anything." Derpy spread her wings out and touched the grass with the tips. "You just don't want to have to explain anything to Fancypants. Spike's not so important when he gets in the way of what you want, is he?"
The pause that came afterward lasted nearly a minute. Ponies leaving work began to file into the streets on their way to their homes or the pubs. A blue magic aura wrapped around the door of the Carousel Boutique. Rarity positively glowered at the pegasus mare on her doorstep. Her words came out in a deep and deliberate tone.
"I think it would be best if we didn't speak to each other for a while, Miss Hooves."
"That's fine by me," Derpy barely managed to get out before the oaken door slammed shut just inches from her face. She blinked as the breeze from its impact tousled her hair. "And quit screwing up my name!" she shouted at the wood. In the relative silence following her outburst, the nervous energy drained from Derpy's body. She trotted back to Twilight's position at a slower pace.
The unicorn's mouth hung agape. Derpy lowered her head in response. "I messed up again, didn't I?"
Twilight Sparkle's expression slowly transitioned into a knowing grin. "That's . . . debatable." She pawed at the dirt. "I mean, don't get me wrong. That was way over the top but . . . well, who knows?" She touched her front-right hoof to one of Derpy's. "Maybe Rarity really needed to hear something like that."
A breeze took hold of Derpy's ponytail and tossed it to the other side of her body. Her head came up swiftly. "Where did Spike go?" she blurted out with an odd degree of urgency.
Twilight retracted her hoof. "What? Why is that-"
"I've gotta find him!" Derpy interrupted, her hooves moving up and down.
Twilight sighed. "I wouldn't push your luck on the whole 'barging in headfirst' thing anymore than you already have, Derpy. We'll be there for Spike, but he probably wants some time to himself right now."
Derpy's face scrunched up in frustration. Her dancing about grew frantic.
Twilight stepped back, suddenly aware of the emotional bomb about to go off right in front of her. "On the other hoof," she added with a nervous cough. "I might know where he is . . ."
In a forest clearing just beyond the eastern border of Ponyville, a tranquil pool of water reflected the moonlight across its verdant surroundings. Enchanting patterns of faint turquoise wound their way across the rustling leaves of the trees and over the smooth faces of granite boulders that bore the scars of blade strikes. Small wooden logs hung from the branches of the trees by thick ropes and drifted lazily about in the gentle wind. The tiny stream that fed the pool gurgled peacefully, its impact on the water's surface casting barely a ripple.
Derpy Hooves took in a deep breath of the crisp air, the mischievous light playing about on her delicate features. "Spike?"
The dragon whose name she'd invoked sat with his back to her on a short cliff overlooking the pool. His dorsal spines shifted visibly at the sound of her voice. "Derpy?" He rubbed at his face with a tired forearm, but did not turn to face her. "How did you find this place?" he asked in a quiet voice.
Derpy moved slowly from the edge of the clearing. "Twilight told me where to go."
Spike shook a bit as he gave a forced laugh. "Secrets are for chumps, I guess." He paused. "Derpy, I really want to be alone right now."
"I'm sorry, Spike," said Derpy as she shuffled through the grass. "I thought I was helping you out, but you got hurt instead."
The dragon's form remained still. "Don't worry about it. You couldn't have known." He sniffed. "It was my decision to make, so don't beat yourself up or anything." He raised his head to look at the trees. "I'll be fine. You should head on back to the library."
For a long moment, the only sound was that of the gently flowing water.
Derpy Hooves reached over Spike's shoulders and draped her forearms across the front of his sullen form. Before the young dragon could react, she sat with her legs on either side of his and pulled him back. His spines folded instinctively as he met with the soft fur of Derpy's chest. The warmth of her body flooded into his own and silenced all protest therein. Her neck and muzzle rested alongside his own. The sound of her breathing filled his right ear. The embrace continued in silence as the two closed their eyes and felt the pulse of each others' rapid heartbeats.
It was Derpy who spoke after more than a minute had passed. "I said that a lot when I was little. I told other ponies that I wanted to be alone, but it was never true."
Spike rested against her wordlessly, neither resisting nor returning her gesture.
"What I really wanted was for somepony to just be with me, you know?" she half-whispered in a low voice. "Somepony who wouldn't laugh or tell me to get over it." She hugged the young dragon a bit tighter. "I wanted somepony to hold me like this and just stay with me, even when I was sad and no fun at all."
The light chirping of crickets sounded from the trees. The stream continued to gurgle in peaceful cadence.
Derpy's eyelids rose just enough to allow her to see. "Is it weird?" she asked in total innocence. "Do you want me to let go?"
A pair of wet teardrops fell against her arms. A clawed hand rose to hold them in place.
"Maybe in a little bit, okay?" Spike whispered, his voice and body shaking with repressed sobs.
Derpy said nothing. She closed her eyes once more and nuzzled the forlorn dragon, determined to stay by his side and—in a small way—happy that he needed her.
[Morning of Day 21]
"Ugh," Twilight groaned, her forehead resting on the edge of the wooden table. "This is killing me."
Derpy Hooves finished sipping down a bowl of goatsmilk and looked up at the librarian with a brand new cream mustache. "You're gonna die?"
Twilight cuffed the giant stack of file folders to her left with an irritated hoof. She brought her head up, sweeping her long mane back in the same motion. "If I have to read through the inventory records of one more hospital, then it's a very distinct possibility."
Derpy smiled and wiped the whiteness from her upper lip. She pushed the large bowl of sliced fruit at the table's center toward Twilight. "Sounds bad. You should just have some apples instead."
Thick clouds obscured the sun outside in preparation for the scheduled rainstorm later that day. The light that filtered through the library's windows cast the interior in various shades of pale blue. Twilight Sparkle and Derpy Hooves sat at the table across from the kitchen where Spike labored away on the morning's repast. Sliced apples and a pitcher of goatsmilk had been laid out to tide the hungry ponies over in the meantime.
Twilight absentmindedly floated an apple to her lips and opened another folder from the stack. "Thanks, Derpy. All this work for the police on top of organizing your training program is getting to me a bit."
Derpy fidgeted nervously. "So, how am I doing on that?"
"Training?" Twilight asked around a mouthful of fruit. "Well, you've put five days in as Spike's apprentice so far." She flipped open a large scroll on her right, scanning the information within. "And he reports that whatever your talent is, it has nothing to do with cleaning."
Derpy's ears drooped. "That bad, huh?"
Twilight swallowed and looked at Derpy over her red-rimmed reading glasses. "Not bad, actually." She tapped a hoof on the parchment. "Spike reports that you're a very hard worker and that you have a penchant for what he calls 'creative problem solving.'" She tipped her glasses down. "Sounds about right to me. Besides, we shouldn't have expected the very first thing we tried to work out." Twilight took a sip from her own milk bowl. "I think you'll like what I've got lined up next, and you'll especially like the pony that you're . . ." She looked up from the bowl to find Derpy observing the contents of one of the file folders. Her eyes darted to the now-lopsided stack on her left and back again to the curious mare. "Derpy!" she exclaimed, lifting the documents from the pegasus mare's hooves with her magic. "I had all of this very neatly organized."
Derpy Hooves shuffled in her seat. "Sorry, Twilight."
The folder opened in midair to allow the unicorn to examine its contents. "Where did you pull this one from?"
Derpy shrugged. "Somewhere in the middle."
Twilight set the folder down in front of her. She'd looked over the pages for only a second or two when her mouth fell open. She stayed like that for some time.
Spike walked up beside Derpy, cleaning flour from his hands on his pink apron. He gave the mare's ponytail a playful toss. "So, you're keeping it?"
Derpy pulled the length of hair and its black velvet ribbon and gave it the same hug that a filly might give a stuffed animal. "Yeah, I think it's pretty. Don't you?"
The young dragon only smiled in response. He nodded toward the flabbergasted unicorn. "What's up with Twilight?"
Derpy looked back toward Twilight's frozen expression and cocked her head. "I think the inventory just killed her."
"Not good," Spike replied lazily before shaking his head and turning back to Derpy. "Wait, what?"
"Dear Sweet Celestia," Twilight exclaimed. "She found it, Spike."
Spike placed a hand on his hip. "Found what?"
Twilight pushed a thumb-sized cylinder of brown glass across the table. "This is the bottle of Ventium that the police found in Room 208. I've been trying to match the inventory number on the label with the records from all the hospitals that received it, but none of the filing systems matched." She took off her glasses and looked at the two across the table with wide eyes. "It's Ponyville Memorial's system. They never received the drug, but the numbering system matches perfectly." Twilight put a hoof to her forehead. "It's such an obvious place to check, the nearest hospital to the scene of the crime. Why didn't I think of this earlier?"
Spike grinned and began to walk back toward the kitchen.
Derpy sheepishly drew a circle on the table with her hoof. "Did I help?"
Twilight tossed the folder on top of the stack and flashed a brilliant smile. "Of course you did, Derpy! Now we're one step closer to finding out how this bottle ended up at the inn!"
"Hooray!" Derpy cheered with a clap of her hooves. "That's good, right?"
"Absolutely," Spike called out from the kitchen. "And I've got just the thing to celebrate." Both ponies at the table looked back to see the young dragon nearing the table with a steaming tray bearing some sort of baked goods. The savory smell of wheat wafted through the air. Spike placed the tray at the edge of the table.
Derpy's mouth fell open. "Is that . . .? Are those . . .?"
"Blueberry bran muffins," said Spike. "I heard from Pinkie Pie that you were really into muffins, so I've been learning how to make them." He took one of the steaming treats from the tray and set it on Derpy's plate. "How do they look?"
Derpy raised a hoof to her mouth and looked at the muffin with uncertain eyes. "They look great, Spike. It's just that . . . well, the last time I had a muffin was pretty awful."
Spike folded his arms. "You're a pro at this, so I'd really like to hear your opinion on these." He glanced to the side. "But really, this is more my way of saying 'thank you' for last night."
Derpy swallowed hard. Would this muffin taste like the one she'd had back at the apartment? Her gaze drifted to the smiling faces of her friends. No, she thought. This is their present to me, and I don't know what it will taste like. Derpy put her hoof down on the table, leaned forward, and bit decisively.
"So, any good?" Spike asked as Derpy began to chew. His voice sounded flippant on the surface, but it carried a strong and dedicated undertone. If it isn't, I'll keep trying until I get it right, it seemed to say.
Derpy gulped down the savory morsel. Her eyes sparkled. A giddy smile exploded on her face. It had tasted wonderful. She really hoped that her unintelligible squeal had gotten that across.
Amethyst 2A: "The Ward"