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.