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A silvery fanfare abruptly split the air, and Spike jerked away from Twilight in surprise. In the doorway appeared the slim, willowy figures of the two heavenly princesses side by side, their manes streaming in an otherworldly breeze.
"Their Royal Majesties, the goddesses of Day and Night, Princesses Celestia and Luna!" boomed a pony with a slicked mane and a fussy moustache, standing beside the door.
The Princesses began a slow, poised walk into the ballroom, their heads nodding graciously to the bowing and curtseying guests. Celestia looked a little tired of all the formalities, though her usual benevolent smile was still firmly in place. Luna looked as distant as the moon, her face impassive and her head held high.
"Please, my friends!" Celestia called in a clear, carrying voice. "No need to stand on ceremony!" She clapped her hooves, and the orchestra obediently began a waltz. Ponies tentatively straightened from their bows and edged back to the dance floor. A light chatter resumed.
Luna made a beeline directly for Spike, nodding elegantly to the ponies that greeted her on her way. "I saw the ambassador," she said in a low voice once she had reached them. "I don't think you have a gift for diplomatic speech, Spike. I have never seen a wyvern so furious."
He smiled sheepishly. "He didn't much like what I had to say."
Her lips quirked. "That was obvious."
"He was faaaaantastic!" said Pinkie. "He sure showed that slinky little guy what for!"
"It was very dragony around here for a while," Twilight said, her hoof still resting comfortingly on Spike's face.
"I did try to explain." Spike attempted to defend himself, but it was weak and he knew it. He wrinkled his snout. "Well, I didn't really try to make him feel better about it, I suppose."
"There was a distinct lack of appeasing the angry ambassador going on," Twilight agreed, but as she spoke her hoof absently stroked his cheek.
"I might have expected your pride would take a hoof," the Princess said, her eyes sparkling with mirth. "You may be a very different sort of dragon, but you are still a dragon."
"No, really?" Spike snorted. Then he realised with a start that he had been flippant at the Princess, and sucked in a breath. "Uh."
Luna chuckled. "Did you not hear my sister? No need to stand on ceremony. Especially you, my friend."
"Manners, mister." Twilight tapped him admonishingly. He gave them all a crooked, rueful smile.
"Sorry... guess I'm just not in the greatest of moods right now."
"We understand, Spike," Fluttershy said sympathetically.
"Well, the night's not over yet!" Pinkie declared, before wolfing down a few more of the dainty nibbles from the platter. "Mmmph, uh, ohyeahsogood," she mumbled, before standing up straight as a ruler, blue eyes bright. "It's still gonna be Spike's best night ever! So what if there's googly gawkers and angry ambassadors and posh ponies who dance with Rarity? We gotta get this party happening!"
Twilight froze. "Um, Pinkie... last time..."
Pinkie blew a disdainful raspberry, before stooping to peck up a few more canapés. "Unnnmph," she said, munching blissfully. Then she swallowed, and popped back upright. "Later! I'm off to find Rainbow Dash; now there's a pony who knows how to party!"
She was gone in a flurry of crumbs.
"So is she always..." Luna began.
"Yes," sighed Spike, Twilight and Fluttershy in unison.
"I... see." Luna blinked a little, before cocking an eyebrow. "Laughter suits her."
"That's our Pinkie Pie." Twilight nodded, her face alight with fond amusement.
Luna gazed in the direction the party pony had disappeared for another moment, her face bemused, before shaking herself slightly and turning back to Spike. "It seems that Celestia's other purpose in inviting you has been well and truly achieved," she said. "You have been meeting very important ponies all night, I believe. Many have spoken to us about you, and reported their favourable impressions."
"Oh good," Spike said in relief. "There were so many, I was nervous I'd forgotten somepony's name or something. That would have been embarrassing."
Luna smiled. "They are very taken with your friends' outfits as well."
"That I know," Spike said with a mixture of sadness and pride. "They look great, huh?"
Her flawless face creased with concern. "Something is wrong?"
Spike shuffled a little. "No," he said eventually. "Just something ending."
Luna gave him a long, searching look, before nodding. "Endings can also be beginnings, my friend," she said gently. "I am testament to that."
Twilight's hoof twitched on his face as her head span towards the slender goddess. She stared at her, before saying tentatively, "Princess?"
"Twilight, you're sort of smooshing my face," Spike managed. Twilight glanced back at him to see his cheek squashed beneath her hoof. She jerked it away with a self-conscious little laugh.
Spike rubbed at his cheek a little with the back of one forepaw. "So what else did all those posh ponies say?" he asked.
"They are curious, as you might expect," Luna said, turning her head to view the swirling dancers pensively. "Several have been back and forth from the ballroom all night. Some even went so far as to ask for some sort of demonstration."
"From me?" Spike blurted.
"I did not think it would be suitable," Luna said. "It is a ball, after all. Perhaps in the gardens later?"
"I don't know," Spike said, picking at his claws again. "Lots of ponies get a bit freaked out by my fire."
"I don't think the animals would like it either," Fluttershy put in.
Luna's head inclined politely. "Then we shall not suggest it. No doubt our sister would announce it immediately to increase our little ponies' acceptance of you."
"Uh, Luna?" Spike murmured, "you're using the Royal 'we' again."
"Oh." The princess rolled her eyes. "All those guests. Greeting each one with full ceremonial protocol does tend to get repetitive."
"I remember," Twilight said with an irritable twist of her lips.
"So what else has been happening in Ponyville since I last saw you?" Luna asked, her horn flaring and a small hors d'oeuvre levitating towards her.
Spike hummed a little in thought. "Well, you know about..." he faltered, and then sighed. "This morning Razorfang decided it would be a great idea to stomp on over to Ponyville. I still haven't figured out why."
"The whole of Ponyville saw you stand up to him, Spike," said Twilight.
"They saw me yell at him. A lot," he said ruefully. "Him being there just got me so mad, and so soon after the harpoon, I guess I just sort of... snapped. A little bit. A snap-ette? A snapino?"
"He was trespassing, was he not?"
"Yep, blatantly." Spike scowled. "Who knows, maybe he was just trying to make me feel the way he did when I was a baby and ate his gems. Like I haven't got the point already! Anyway, Fluttershy made him shut up long enough to listen."
Luna looked with astonishment at the meek yellow Pegasus, who ducked behind her mane at the sudden attention.
"She has experience," Twilight said with a short laugh.
"Oh, I got another letter from Just too," Spike remembered. "He might have found out something about Huffy – she was the assistant to the Great and Powerful Trixie. He's in the Brumby Bushlands right now, looking for her. If I don't hear from him tomorrow, I have to inform everypony of where he's gone."
"Another examination dragon," Luna said, leaning forward. "Another pony-raised dragon living in Equestria."
"Right." Spike nodded. "But Trixie's no Twilight."
"Spike," Twilight said, half-pleased and half-embarrassed.
"I found 'em!"
Pinkie came bouncing towards them, the many frills and ruffles on her dress flopping about comically. She gave them all a bright smile, before looking back over her shoulder. Rainbow Dash and Applejack were walking somewhat unsteadily behind her, and Applejack had a hoof over Rainbow's shoulder as she lurched a little unevenly.
"Is Applejack... drunk?" Fluttershy asked incredulously.
"No, don't be silly, of course she's not drunk." Pinkie waved a hoof airily. "She's plastered."
"Am not," Applejack said stubbornly, her green eyes focusing and unfocusing. Then she frowned, swaying, and turned to Dash. "Tell y' what, them fancy... drinks don't even touch th' sides... ain't a patch on Granny's shider... shider... cider."
"Your granny doesn't make cider," snorted Dash, also weaving a little on her hooves. "Callin' it cider is an insult t' perfectly drinkable ciders everywhere."
"You insultin' mah granny?" Applejack glared at Rainbow Dash's ear.
"I'm just sayin' I like a drink that don't.. evap..o... evap... turn into fumes in my mouth," Dash said, patting Applejack's shining green-clad back.
"You two are really out of it, aren't you?" Twilight said, her face stern but her eyes dancing with laughter.
"Who says?" Applejack thrust out her jaw pugnaciously. "I'm as raring t' go as ever I was... just you come over here an' say that, y' two wobbly Twilights!"
"I'm not the one wobbling," Twilight said.
"Well, at least there's only one o' me," Applejack retorted, leaning more heavily around Dash's neck.
"Hey AJ," Dash guffawed, "check out the Princess' face!"
Applejack raised her head groggily, before she started chuckling as well. "Hoo-ee! That's the funniest thing I ever did see!" she hooted, before lurching over to Luna and hooking her other hoof over the alicorn's slender neck. "You're all right, y' know that, Princess? You sure do pull the funniest faces... sorta wish you'd stick with jest one head though, it's makin' me queasy..."
Rainbow Dash had ended up before Spike when Applejack yanked her over to the Princess. "How come you guys all look so down in the dumpsh?" she demanded, peering at one face and then the next. "What's happened? Where's Rarity?"
"Oh, I saw her dancin' with three fancy city ponies," Applejack said. "There were three o' her too, so nopony got left out. I think that's real nice, don't you?"
Rainbow Dash evidently wasn't quite as incapacitated as Applejack, because she gave Spike a piercing look. "That so," she said.
Spike swallowed, before setting his jaw. "It's fine, Rainbow Dash," he said quietly. "She's happy."
Her fuschia eyes suddenly brimmed, and she flung herself against him, her wings flopping about drunkenly. "He's... soo... grown-up..." she gasped, and yanked his head down to give it a fierce headbutt. Stars rotated before his eyes. "You are... you are," she said intently and indistinctly, "you're so awesome it totally and completely and totally and totally boggles my mind. You boggle. Boggle. Best dragon ever. EVER. You. You're... You're the best..." she bawled, her hoof hooking around his neck. He stood a little to brace her when she suddenly slumped, dangling from his neck like a colourful tie. "You're the besht."
"Maybe we should think about calling it a night," Twilight said, as Dash blubbered proudly over Spike and Applejack began to nod onto on the Princess' shoulder.
"Bit of help?" Spike asked.
"Seconded," Luna said, her face a conflicting mixture of perturbed, alarmed and amused.
"Here, Rainbow Dash," Fluttershy said in a soothing voice. "I think I should get you some water."
"Pfft, water," Dash said scornfully, before the foreleg she had hooked around his neck suddenly gave way. She landed in a messy pile at his feet. "Whoops," she said blankly, before breaking into raucous laughter.
That roused Applejack. She jerked away from Luna's shoulder with a start and a grunt, before reeling away with a, "sorry 'bout that... Hey, what you doin' on the floor, RD?"
"Sittin'!" Dash grinned.
Applejack threw her head back and laughed as well, though this upset her balance and sent her careening across the marble. Spike carefully and slowly halted her stumbling with a forepaw, and she rocked back to sit heavily next to Dash. The pair of inebriated ponies giggled and guffawed nonsensically, and Spike couldn't help but chuckle at the picture they made.
"Don't encourage them," said Twilight reprovingly, though her lips were twitching.
"Jeesh, lighten up, egghead," Dash complained.
"Nopony better be sick on the ride home, or I'm making you walk," Spike warned.
"I ain't... gonna be shick," Applejack said crossly. "This stuff... take a lot more t' get me tipsy. I'm fresh as a duckie. Daily. Daisy. I said that th' first time."
"Sure you did." Twilight raised an eyebrow. Then she turned to Luna. "I'm sorry for my friends, Princess," she said.
"I ain't! I got the best friends in the whooooole o' Equestria!" Applejack said happily, hugging Rainbow Dash around the neck tightly.
"... air!" Dash croaked.
"It is quite all right, Twilight Sparkle," Luna said, a small smile on her lips. "It is a party, after all. At least there are two ponies here that are enjoying themselves."
Pinkie rolled her eyes. "You said it."
"I can't believe they both got drunk," Twilight sighed.
"Hey," Rainbow Dash said unsteadily, shaking her hoof at Twilight with the solemn seriousness of the completely tanked. "Hey. Hey. If I wasn't drunk, hey listen, if I wasn't drunk? Then I've totally wasted all that soneyhuckle wine."
"That'd be a real darn shame." Applejack nodded owlishly.
Spike tried valiantly to hide his chortles, but he was fighting a losing battle. Eventually they burst out of him in a bark of laughter, a plume of smoke rising above him as he laughed uproariously at them. "You guys..." he panted weakly between chuckles, "are priceless, you know that?"
Pinkie also began to laugh at them, doubling over and leaning against Spike. "Oh, oh, oh I know!" she gasped, "we've got Rainbow Splash!"
"Appletanked," Spike countered.
"Dash of Spirits!"
Spike blinked, and then shrugged. "I got nothin'."
"Appletini works again," Pinkie pointed out. Spike harrumphed.
"I was trying for new material," he said loftily.
"I think it's time to go home," Twilight said, shaking her head. "I'll go tell Rarity."
"Could you please thank your sister for inviting us?" Spike asked Luna.
She nodded. "I will see you in a few days, Spike," she said. "We will both be there."
Spike swallowed, before nodding back. "Right. Okay. See you then."
Luna gently pushed her head under his, the touch of her cool, strange mane making him shiver once more. "Be strong and stay safe," she told him, before bowing her head to Pinkie, Fluttershy and Twilight, quirking her lips at the two ponies now singing off-key from the floor, and then walking away into the crowd.
"Seeya later, alligator!" Dash called after her, before joining Applejack in another loud, slurred chorus of 'Full of Fire.'
"Okay, now I know we've got to get out of here," Spike said, wincing.
"I'll be back in a moment," Twilight said. "Fluttershy, do you think you could get some water into those two haybrains?"
"Who're you callin' a haybrain!" Dash retorted. Applejack nudged her.
"RD, stick with it, yer makin' me do all the singin' here," she said.
"Oh right..." Dash raised her voice once more. Spike cringed as they warbled, "Cos' I got a heart under these scales that's beatin' only fer home, an' at the end o' the day I don't wanna be alone... An' I'm tellin' y' true, I'm not so different from you, why can't y' hear me saaaaaay... I'm full o' fire t' staaaaaay!"
"Pinkie, Fluttershy," he begged.
Pinkie snickered, passing water to Fluttershy. "With their mouths open, it's easier to get the water in," she said wickedly.
"I'll sit on you," Spike threatened, but Pinkie just laughed some more.
Dash swallowed around a mouthful of water hurriedly, before bellowing, "Soooooaring above my sorrooooows, flying on wings of hoooope, I'll never give up the baaaaattle, 'cos I belong, and I'll be strong; I'll push on up this slippery slooooope!" Applejack raised her voice as well on the last long high note, and the two of them tipped their heads back to holler it at the ceiling. Several of the fancy ponies nearby sniffed in disapproval before moving away, their heads held high.
"How can y' go on denying me," Applejack sang, her hooves conducting erratically.
"I'm just like you, ooooh, can't you seeeee!" Rainbow Dash bawled, eyes screwed shut.
"Why can't you heeeeeear," they bellowed in unison, reeling about, "meeeee saaaaay..."
Sucking in a huge breath, they howled the ending to the ceiling once more. "I'm full of fire to STAAAAAY...!"
Spike sighed in relief as the stupid song ended. Fluttershy patted his paw comfortingly, though she was biting rather hard down on her lip. Pinkie was unabashedly in hysterics, the hoof holding water for Rainbow shaking with the force of her laughter. "Encore!" she squealed, stamping her hind hooves in glee, "encore!"
"You dare," Spike growled.
"I do say, it is so lovely to hear somepony who appreciates my work," said a drawling, self-satisfied voice, and Spike raised his eyes with a certain dread to see none other than Sapphire Shores, fantastically made up and dressed in a risqué number bedecked with feathers. Her slanted golden eyes lingered over the two inebriated ponies curiously. "Now what is that fabulous material their gowns are made... of..."
She stopped as she spotted Spike's claw behind the two singers, and her gaze travelled up and up until she was looking into his face. "Well then," she breathed. "Heard you were here, but oh, you know how it is; you get to signing autographs and suddenly poof! Your whole night's a write off. So many fans, so little time."
Spike sat back down, wishing that the roof would cave in or the floor open up. "Uh, I guess," he mumbled. Sapphire beamed.
"Daaaarling. You have been such an inspiration to me," she cooed, sashaying up to him and fluttering her glitter-encrusted eyelashes.
"So... I hear," Spike said, leaning away from the deadly eyelashes. Sapphire Shores gave him a sultry smile.
"I hope you enjoyed my little, ah, homage," she said, tilting her head to the most attractive and photogenic angle. "Everypony else has, you know, and OW! It has gone double platinum in no time flat! Se-e-ensational or what, baby?"
"Spike's not a baby," Pinkie scoffed.
"Hey, you got yourself an admirer, huh?" Sapphire nudged Spike brazenly. "You work fast, kid," she said, and winked.
"Pinkie's a friend," Spike said, brow beginning to furrow.
Sapphire nodded absently. "Uh huh, that's great, I hear ya – so anyway, you gotta tell me," she said, leaning close to Spike and dropping her voice to a dramatic whisper, "who designed their amazing outfits? Those are your scales, right? Cos' they'd be the perfect costumes for my new upcoming 'SAPPHIRE ON FIRE' Equestrian tour! There's a lot of money in it for the right pony..." She paused, and slowly smiled, "... or dragon."
"Rarity made them," Fluttershy put in, trying to get Applejack to drink some water.
"Rarity of Carousel Boutique, huh?" Sapphire barely glanced at Fluttershy, instead giving Spike an arch look. "I did read something in Clotheshorse about her and dragonskin..."
"She's getting my old scales," Spike said shortly, beginning to get annoyed with the pushy, flamboyant pony. "You can speak to her about it; she'll be getting them next time I shed too. That'll be next winter. Ish."
"Darling, that is simply too far away!" Sapphire declared, her intricately bound hoof rising to her mouth. "My tour starts in two weeks! I can't possibly wait that long! No, I'll have to offer for your..." she glanced down at the lolling Rainbow Dash and Applejack, and her eyebrow twitched, "friends' dresses. Surely selling them to me for such a fa-a-abulous use is better than letting them hang in some old closet in Whatsitville."
"Ponyville," Spike, Pinkie and Fluttershy chorused.
"Gesundheit," Sapphire said.
"Mine's not for sale," Pinkie said with uncharacteristic seriousness, her brows a straight line across her eyes.
"Neither is mine," Fluttershy piped up, before meekly stepping back into Spike's shadow. "Um, I mean..." she faltered, "I'd rather not..."
"Somepony wantin' our Gala dresses?" Rainbow Dash looked around blearily, before spotting Sapphire Shores. "Hey, look AJ! It's Sapphire Surely!"
Applejack snorted, and rolled over. "It's Shores, yer silly filly," she mumbled.
"Oh, whoops," Dash bit her lip apologetically. "Sorry, Miss Surely."
"Shores," hissed Applejack.
"That's what I said!" Rainbow said with wobbly dignity. "Your ears are drunk."
"Mah ears ain't drunkerer than your mouth," Applejack snapped.
"What did she want again?" Rainbow Dash peered back at Spike and the others, who were staring a little helplessly at the trainwreck that was a drunken Applejack and Rainbow Dash in front of an Equestria-renowned pop star.
"She wants to buy your Gala dress," Pinkie explained. "She wants to buy them all."
"Huh," Applejack said dumbly, before beaming up at the fancy Canterlot pop star. "Well missy, that's a mighty fine offer an' once upon a time I might even have taken y' up on it, but this 'ere shiny green suit is as special t' me as the very first dress Rarity made me, an' so I'm afraid I have t' say - no deal."
"I'll make it worth your while," Sapphire entreated.
"Still no deal," Applejack said cheerily. "Now quit wavin' yer money about, it ain't gonna do no good. This suit's stayin' with me."
Sapphire frowned in surprise, and turned hopefully to Rainbow Dash. "How about you?"
"Nope, I'm not giving up my dragon scales either," Dash declared with the solemn emphasis of the very drunk. "These're special dresses. These are my friend's scales sewn by my friend into a dress for me, who just so happens to be their friend... an' the only way you're gettin' 'em is outta my cold, dead hooves. So there, lady!"
"Rainbow Dash!" gasped Rarity's shocked and appalled voice from behind them.
"Did I say somethin' wrong?" Dash swung her head this way and that searching for Rarity, her expression thoroughly puzzled.
"You came on a bit strong there," Spike murmured to her, and she huffed.
"Well, I'm not gonna sell your scales," she said, looking wounded.
"Gathered that," Spike answered, a little smile creeping across his face. He honestly hadn't realised that their dresses meant that much to his friends, and Rainbow Dash's blunt explanation had warmed him to the core. It was so like her to defend him, even when he didn't need it. Drunk or not, she was the most loyal friend a dragon could wish for. "I think half the ballroom gathered that."
"What," Twilight said, appearing behind the horrified Rarity and rubbing at her forehead, "has been happening? This time," she added with well-honed sarcasm.
"That, Twilight," said Rarity in a tight voice, "is Sapphire Shores, the pony of pop, and I believe that ruffian Rainbow Dash has just insulted her!"
"Miss Rarity, a pleasure aaaas always," Sapphire drawled, "and no, there's no harm done. I was just asking whether I could buy your friend's remarkable ensemble for my upcoming 'SAPPHIRE ON FIRE' Equestrian tour. She... doesn't seem all that keen on the idea. But maybe you could whip me up six outfits just as glaaaam-TASTIC? OW! With the dragon scales, of course..."
"Oh," Rarity said, momentarily nonplussed, before she drew herself up straight. "I'm afraid that there's very little of the scales left for this year, and only the purple ones at that," she said in a business-like way. "I could probably only get one outfit out of it, and even then the scales would be more in the nature of an accent rather than the main feature, as with ours."
"Darling, we're ponies of the world here," Sapphire said, smiling. "You're a business pony, and I'm doing business. Surely you can see to selling me your dress, at least? That purple dazzler would be just fine for the big number about the big guy here." She gave Spike an ingratiating look.
Rarity set her mouth, and Spike could almost see the bit-signs flaming in her eyes. "Mine's not for sale either," she said.
Sapphire gaped at Rarity for a moment, before turning to Twilight, eyes imploring.
"You think I'd sell my brother's scales?" Twilight asked her coolly.
"You ponies do not know how this is meant to go," Sapphire exclaimed. "I am Sapphire Shores! The Pony of Pop! I'll make you famous!"
"I don't need to be famous," said Twilight. "I'm a librarian."
"Hey, I am famous," Rainbow Dash waved her hoof breezily, before burping loudly.
"So am I," Rarity said, swallowing hard. "And I am afraid, Miss Shores, that the material in question is seasonal stock and very limited. I can make you the outfit I described before; a genuine haute couture Carousel Boutique gown of the very finest quality, fit and fashion. It will be decorated with Spike's scales, but not encrusted. As for buying ours, well, these dresses are too important to each of us to become mere costumes."
Sapphire looked from one to the next, her eyes wide with indignation. "Well!"
Turning on her heel, she sashayed haughtily away. "There goes a whole month's profits," Rarity sighed.
"She'll come to the Boutique," Twilight assured her. "She's got that song about Spike, after all... even an outfit with some scales on it would be better than one with none."
"I can't believe you guys all told her no," Spike said, staring after Sapphire in shock.
Pinkie hauled Rainbow Dash to her feet. "Of course we did, silly billy Spikeface!" she said, grinning, "these are only the bestest and most importantest dresses that Rarity's ever made for us!"
The others nodded, and he smiled. "I don't know what to say, guys. It means so much that you wore my scales in the first place... and now this..."
"Don't say anythin', sugarcube," advised Applejack as Fluttershy propped her onto her hooves. "T'ain't nothin' you should say, anyhow."
Spike heaved in a huge breath, and released it, before turning to Rarity. "I hope you had fun out there," he said carefully.
She smoothed a hoof over her coiffure, mussed from dancing, "it went... satisfactorily," she said modestly. Then she giggled light-headedly, her hooves doing an excited little trot on the spot. "He's coming to see me this week," she gasped. "In Ponyville!"
He swallowed again, and his heart unclenched. "Wow, nice one, Rarity!" he said, as everypony either congratulated Rarity or shot him worried sidelong looks.
"It's just a date," she said with badly concealed delight.
"Rarity's got a coltfriend..." Spike sang out mockingly, ignoring the little lurch inside. It would fade.
"Oh, stop!" she said, her face reddening.
"So, if he's not good to you," Spike said, suddenly serious, "you know to tell me, right? I'll sort him out."
Twilight concealed a smile. "Dragons," she said in answer to Rarity's staggered expression.
"I see," Rarity said with a weak smile. "Is this the possessiveness you were warning me about, Twilight?"
"No, this is your... your good friend speaking," Spike said firmly. "You'll know when it's your dragon speaking."
"It's late," Fluttershy said, "and everypony is beginning to leave."
Spike rubbed a forepaw over his face. "Right, that's it. The Spike Express is leaving for Ponyville in ten minutes. Let's get outside."
He stood once more, leaning back on his heels and stretching his legs out, before beginning a slow, careful walk across the ballroom floor. Luckily he was hard to miss, and everypony mostly got out of his way, though a fairly inebriated Soarin' had to be tapped on the shoulder twice before he moved.
"Well, it wasn't the disaster that last time was," said Fluttershy with relief as they entered the nearly deserted great entrance hall, Applejack's hoof slung over her shoulder.
"That's debatable," Twilight said with effort as she helped Pinkie with the lolling Rainbow Dash. "These two sure wiped themselves out."
"You should really... lighten up," Dash said, swinging her head to Twilight's side and almost knocking their skulls together.
"Suuuure," Twilight said soothingly. "Come on, Rainbow Dash. I'm sure you'll be after a hangover cure in the morning, so come by the library, all right? Did you hear that, Applejack?"
"Wha...?" Applejack's head jerked up from drooping against her chest. "Oh, right, library," she mumbled, and her head dropped back down with a thump.
"I see you ponies had a fine time," came a gruff voice, and Captain Falling Night stepped forward, followed by his platoon.
"It was... mixed," Spike said wryly.
"We'll see you home, boy," Night said with a nod. "You didn't drink, did you? Can't abide drunk-fliers."
"I'm underage, Captain," Spike pointed out.
"Doesn't answer the question," Night said, eyebrow lifting. Spike rolled his eyes as they moved into the still, cold night.
"No, I didn't," he said exasperatedly.
"Got to check. Those are the rules." Night shrugged. "Well, get that harness on, and let's get going."
"I can't wait to get home," Twilight muttered to him as she levitated the harness to his back. Spike stood obediently still as it settled around him, the buckles and straps tightening and cinching.
"Me neither," he said, blinking back up at the brightly lit castle, before turning his face resolutely for home.
Spike, we were right. It's Huffy...
...n't leave the Brumby Bushlands for very l...
...will arrive in Ponyville at three...
...has agreed to fly us, though reluctantly. I can certain...
...I hope you can arrange...
...isn't very trusting of ponykind. I am cautiously optimistic that you can change her opinio...
See you tomorrow (or today)!
"What do you mean?"
"Just what I said," Twilight said patiently, the corona of energy surrounding her horn fading. "No pony sent this note to you, Spike. This was sent by another dragon."
"That's Just's hoofwriting." Spike frowned. "Why's it all burnt up? I don't burn them up when I send them."
"Assuming it was Huffy who sent this to you, I expect she's a little out of practise." Twilight handed him back the charred and barely legible letter. "Have you organised anything yet?"
Spike frowned at the letter. "No, not yet. So I'm right about what it says? Just is bringing Huffy here?"
"Are you going to go all territorial on her?" Twilight asked, levitating her coffee and taking a sip.
He shrugged. "I don't know. I might not be able to help it, you realise."
"Try," said Twilight, nudging him. "If the very first dragon she meets tries to chase her away, I'm sure we'll have no chance in convincing her to rejoin Equestria."
"I'll do my best," he assured her, "but if she hurts anypony, all bets are off."
"I doubt she will." Twilight leaned back against the library's front door, black rings of exhaustion under her eyes and her dishevelled mane coming out of last night's elegant knot in wisps. "She was a baby dragon amongst ponies, just like you."
"Yeah, but her Twilight Sparkle was Trixie," Spike said. "I don't think that made her all that well-disposed towards ponykind."
"Just wouldn't bring her here if she was going to hurt anypony," Twilight said logically. "He clearly says that she doesn't trust us, and doesn't want to be away from the Brumby Bushlands for very long, but that she's coming anyway."
Spike wrinkled his nose. "It's going to be weird, another dragon that isn't Razorfang around. I sure hope she's not as short-tempered as he is."
"Didn't Just say she was impatient?"
Spike wrinkled his snout. "So she'll be around to watch the challenge, I guess?"
Twilight was still for a long moment, before her hoof crept over to touch him softly on the paw. "I guess she will."
He glanced down at her hoof, seeing it shake a little. Then he raised his head and nudged her with his snout very, very carefully. "I had a good time last night," he offered.
She smiled a little sadly. "I'm glad. You know, I'm very proud of you, Spike."
"You were such a grown up last night, what with the ambassador and the situation with Rarity and Fancy Pants and all those posh ponies and even Sapphire Shores... I was sure you'd take her to task for that song, but you just let it slide."
He shrugged one shoulder awkwardly. "It's not worth making a scene about." Then he snorted. "Rainbow Dash and Applejack took care of that for us."
Twilight laughed. "I wonder what time they'll wake up," she mused. "I have the spell ready for when they come by – if they come by. I'll bet Applejack doesn't remember a thing."
"At least nopony was sick on the way home," said Spike.
"But Rainbow Dash kept sliding out of her seat," Twilight said with irritation. "I had to hold her there with my magic in the end."
"I didn't notice that," he confessed. "I was too busy concentrating on getting home."
She rolled her eyes. "You were as single-minded as a buzzsaw. I think you could have flown through a mountain and not have noticed."
"Oh, I'd have noticed that," he said archly.
She giggled a little, before taking another sip of her coffee and looking up at him pensively. "Are you going to write to Trixie?"
He cringed, and then nodded. "I hope she's like her letter and not like she was before," he muttered.
"Give her a chance," Twilight advised.
"I am, I am."
"Did you say Trixie?" came an excited voice from the square.
Spike and Twilight turned in surprise to see Snips bouncing excitedly next to his slow friend Snails, his ginger mane as spiky and his nose as upturned as ever. The small teen had become a small stallion, but his boundless enthusiasm was completely unchanged. By contrast, Snails had shot up like a well-watered weed, losing most of his lankiness and putting on quite a bit of bulk as he reached adulthood. Now he was a gentle giant amongst Ponyville's stallions. One thing that hadn't differed, however, was his intellect. He was still the last pony in Equestria to understand a punchline.
"Oh no," Spike groaned under his breath. "Those two."
"Be nice, Spike," Twilight admonished him, before raising her voice. "That's right," she told the pair. "We have some important news for Trixie. She may decide to visit Ponyville again."
"Should we put her up in the library?" asked Spike reluctantly.
"She might have her wagon with her," Twilight said. "We'll cross that bridge when we come to it, okay?"
"Wow, the Great and Powerful Trixie!" exclaimed Snips, his black eyes wide with bubbling anticipation. "It's been years and years and years! I can't wait to see what cool magic tricks she's got this time!"
"Yah, cool magic tricks!" Snails agreed, an amiable grin plastered on his brown, freckled face.
"I bet she's got even more awesome fireworks, and fancy rope-tricks," Snips continued. "I bet there's Catherine wheels, and spinning whizbangs, and wait, Snails! You thinkin' what I'm thinkin'?"
"Why do they call it disgruntled when you can't get gruntled?"
"Yeah! What – no!" Snips gave his big slow friend an exasperated look. "I reckon we should throw a biiig Welcome Back G-and-P-T Party Celebration Extravaganza! That'd be..." He stopped when he caught Twilight's sardonic expression. "Maybe that's not such a great idea," he finished a little weakly.
"I don't think anypony in Ponyville would be interested after the whole Ursa Minor incident," Twilight said dryly, "and I'm willing to bet that it's the last thing Trixie herself will want. She's going to have her mind on... um, bigger things."
"Bigger things?" Snips echoed in awe, before beginning to jump up and down excitedly. "Like, bigger magic things? Oh, wow!"
"Like dragon things," said Spike. "Seriously, guys, didn't you learn anything from that whole mess?"
Snips shrank back a little, his dusty blue face darkening. "Sure we did. We learned that Ursa Minors are super scary, and you shouldn't go wakin' 'em up."
Twilight tapped a hoof impatiently.
Snails blinked a little, before adding humbly, "an' we shouldn't believe what everypony says or go takin' things like that into our own hooves ever again."
"Just you remember that, guys," Spike told them.
"Oh, hey Spike?" Snails said after a moment of sheepish embarrassment, "so how you gonna fight that dragon?"
"Oh yeah, I've been wondering that too!" chimed in Snips at breathtaking speed. "Are you gonna swoop around him and get him all dizzy, huh huh huh? And maybe – zap bloowee! – go all ninja on him, or oooh, rain fiery death from above?"
"Fiery death from above!" echoed Snails, nodding slowly.
"Um." Spike glanced sidelong at Twilight, whose hoof had once more reached out to touch his paw. "I haven't figured it out yet, you guys. But I will!" he added hurriedly, watching Twilight's face. She showed no change of expression, though her hoof trembled on his forepaw slightly.
"You'd better shake a hoof, Spike!" said Snips, his thick brown brows beetling. "You ain't got much time to think up an awesome way to defeat the dragon."
"The early birdie catches the worm," Snails told him, his face utterly sincere. "That's what my mamma says, and she's right: I seen them birds catching worms and they're always earlier than them little birds missin' out. Sometimes by only a few seconds!"
"Uh, thanks for that, Snails," Spike said, his eyebrow raising.
"No problem at all for my good friend who is a big dragon!" he beamed, displaying the gap between his front teeth.
"We're makin' flags, cos' we know you'll come up with something," Snips said, his round little face earnest. "Not something boring, but something cool - something amazing! Cos' you're like, the best Ponyville dragon ever!"
"I'm the only Ponyville dragon ever," Spike pointed out. Twilight hid a snort behind her coffee cup.
"You are gonna vanquish that dragon so hard," declared Snips, ignoring Spike's words. "It is gonna – be – awesome!"
"Yah, vanquish the dragon!" Snails cheered.
"Thanks guys," Spike said weakly, wondering whether these two really understood the situation at all.
"So that was a no on the G-and-PT party, wasn't it...?" Snips ventured, and Twilight tipped her head, giving him a flat stare. "Right, so that's a no."
"C'mon Snips," Snails said in an exaggerated whisper. "We gotta get goin'. Barber shops don't open 'emselves, though it'd be like totally majorly awesome if they did."
"Right, uh-huh, okay," Snips replied, giving Spike and Twilight a last look. "See you later, guys!"
"See you," Spike called after the odd pair, and then shook his head. "Those two."
"Are you sure you want them as your ponies?" Twilight asked, and Spike laughed easily.
"Yeah, they're mine. Even if I sometimes want to knock their heads together."
"There's an interesting idea," Twilight mused, and catching Spike's look, laughed as well. "Only kidding."
Just has found Huffy. His letter is a bit burnt up, but from what we can gather, everypony's fine.
Huffy is coming to visit me in Ponyville this afternoon. She'll be here from three.
I'll be there.
Thank you so, so much.
"Everypony, calm down!" the Mayor shouted into her megaphone. "This dragon has been isolated for a long time and is very scared of ponykind, so if you don't have business here today, please take your gawking elsewhere!"
"A bit rude," Spike commented.
The Mayor shrugged. "You're the one who insisted that we shouldn't crowd her."
"I suppose. What's the time?"
"Just on three," she said with a cursory glance at the clocktower. "Is everypony ready?"
There was a small group gathered in Ponyville Square outside the library. All six of Spike's friends were there (a couple looking decidedly seedy, even after Twilight's magical hangover cure) plus Big Macintosh, Apple Bloom, Scootaloo, Sweetie Belle, Mayor Mare and Zecora. A barrel of water and a cart full of apples sat ready and waiting to welcome the dragoness of the Brumby Bushlands. The last of the gawkers quailed under the Mayor's stern look, and scurried off.
Spike could feel strange butterflies hopping about in his stomach. He was about to meet another dragon just like him, one with little to no understanding of their own hereditary customs and immersed in Equestrian culture. "Do I look okay?" he hissed to Fluttershy.
"You look fine," she assured him, her large aqua eyes kind. "You're still very smart from last night."
"Please," said Rainbow Dash in a green sort of voice, "don't mention last night."
Spike smiled fleetingly at that, before a shadow crossed over their faces. Nervously, he tipped his head back to behold a purple and white dragon circling the square, her wings held out gracefully as she banked and turned.
His first thought was, she's so big.
The second was, holy guacamole, she sure can fly!
Huffy was approximately six years older than Spike himself, and had quite obviously begun her second great growth spurt. She was maybe a head and neck taller than he was, and her tail was far more snakelike, curling delicately through the air with liquid grace. Her wings were edged in the same shimmering white scales that adorned her belly, and the fins either side of her head were broader and more lacelike than his, almost like a pair of glittering white fans. The purple of her body wasn't quite the same as his. He was definitely darker, while she was more a pale mauve. He gaped a little as she swooped in to land, her long neck outstretched and her hind claws extended. She looked around at the small assembly with clear apprehension, her face filled with fear.
Just and two other ponies, all with packs strapped to their backs, slid down from Huffy's back. Just looked careworn and dirty, his white coat streaked with grass stains and stuck all over with burrs. "Spike," he said, and nodded wearily at him.
"Hi there, Just," Spike said dumbly, still staring at the dragon before him. She was eyeing each pony anxiously, before her gaze travelled back to Spike.
"This," said Just, his voice ringing even through his exhaustion, "is Huffy."
Spike simply stared at her.
"Say something!" Twilight hissed.
Spike gaped some more. She was...
"Spike!" Twilight nudged him sharply, and he snapped out of it, his eyes blinking rapidly and his breath returning in a gush of smoke. He stepped forward, an absurd mixture of shyness and exhilaration battling in his mind.
"Hi Huffy," he stammered.
Huge, black-lashed cerise eyes locked onto him. "You're Spike," she said, and oddly her tone was just as shaky.
"That's me." He nodded awkwardly. "Uh... have a good flight?"
"It was... okay," she hedged. Her voice was light and sweet, for all that she was bigger than him.
"That's uh..." He searched his mind desperately. It stubbornly refused to help him. "Well," he mumbled.
She shuffled her claws nervously. "Thanks for..." she began, and stopped.
"Apples!" Spike blurted, and had to physically restrain himself from smacking his face with his paw. Idiot! "I mean," he said in a calmer voice, "we got you some apples, and some water... if you're hungry. Or thirsty. Which, you know... it's a long flight..."
"That'd be nice," she said shyly, before her gaze dropped to her feet.
Spike wrestled with the numbing weirdness of the moment. He was speaking to somedragon – somedragon! – like him! Then he registered the slight trembling of her lip.
She must be so scared, he realised with a rush of sympathy. She must be so afraid. But here she is anyway.
He shook himself sharply and then squared his shoulders, lifting his head. "So, anyway," he said into the yawning silence. "I'm another dragon raised by ponies."
He took another step forward, before holding out his paw. "And Huffy, it is so good to meet you," he said sincerely.
She looked a little stricken and a lot confused, before she drew in a harsh gasp of pure distress and stepped forward as well, grabbing blindly for his forepaw and holding on tightly. "I never thought I'd ever meet another dragon, not one like me," she confessed in a breathless voice, her larger paw engulfing his. Her white throat convulsed as she swallowed. "I thought I'd be alone forever and ever," she continued in a rush, as though her words had built up over the years and were now exploding out of her. "I thought I was the last one, the last examination dragon, and nopony would ever understand me and I'd have to stay hidden and alone in my Brumby Bushlands always. I haven't spoken to anypony in years..."
Her paw was dry and smooth and warm to the touch. Spike sat back on his haunches and wrapped his other paw as far around hers as possible. "It's okay," he said, looking up at her earnestly. "Shh, Huffy... it's all right. You're not alone. I'm the last examination dragon. I'm just like you, Huffy. We're not alone. Everything's okay now."
She sniffed, her cerise eyes beginning to teem with tears. "I never thought..." she said again, her voice hitching. Then her long, snakelike neck wrapped around him tightly, her other forepaw hooking over his shoulder to hold him close.
Spike froze in shock, before tentatively snaking his own neck as far around hers as he could. It wasn't easy, but it was possible. He kept one claw in hers, but slipped the other foreleg around her, stroking her shoulder comfortingly.
It was incredibly strange to touch another dragon. He'd never touched another dragon, not in his whole life. She radiated the same heat that he did, her scales the same hard, smooth plates, her limbs the same mixture of ropy tendon and flat flight muscle. Even her boiling tears, smoking down her muzzle to steam on the earth, were the same. It had been a long time since he had been held; he was simply too big now for any pony to fully embrace. But Huffy could hug him - could hug all of him. She was at once utterly unknown and yet strangely familiar to hold.
She sniffed loudly, before pulling back a little, wiping her muzzle roughly with the back of one forepaw. "Sorry," she mumbled.
"Don't be," he said gently, and smiled at her.
She smiled tremulously back, her eyes glassy. "You know, somehow I thought you'd be taller," she said, laughing a little through her tears.
He gave her a mock-offended look, squeezing her shoulder playfully. "You saying I'm not dragon enough for you?"
She giggled damply. "So you live here?"
He nodded. "This is my village," he said, full of possessive pride. She tilted her head, her eyes doubtful.
"Why..." she began, before pursing her lips. "I think I'd probably go crazy if you landed in the Brumby right in front of me. Shouldn't you be angry at me for being here?"
He jerked in surprise, frowning. "Actually, yeah. But I'm not. That's weird. I was furious when Razorfang came calling..."
Her cerise eyes widened. "You know another dragon?" she said.
"Yeah," he said, still focused on the territory issue. "I wonder... you know, it's probably because I had something to do with bringing you here. So it's kinda like an invitation!"
She stared for a moment, before smiling once more. "Thanks for the invitation," she said.
"You're welcome." He smiled back.
Her gaze darted either side to the ponies surrounding them. "Don't you feel sort of..." she hesitated, "big, living here?"
He laughed. "You bet. All the time. But I'm not leaving. Dragon of Ponyville Village, that's me."
"I don't like being this far from the Brumby," she said uncomfortably.
"I can understand that," he agreed. "I had to go to Canterlot last night. It's not that far, but it made me feel sort of itchy. I kinda raced all the way home."
Huffy's long-lashed eyes hardened in determination. "I said I'd stay for a few days," she said. "I can do this."
"If you need to dash home for a few hours, don't hesitate," Spike said gently. She let out a shaky breath.
"Maybe I can invite you," she offered. He brightened.
"Hey, that'd be great!"
She glanced again at the ponies who were avidly eavesdropping on them. "Um," she managed, "The... p-ponies. Maybe you should introduce me?"
"Oh," Spike suddenly realised how rude he had been to ignore the others for all that time. But talking to Huffy was strange – like being in a room all alone together. "Sorry, you guys. Well, here's Apple Bloom..."
"This is her brother, Big Macintosh, and this is her sister Applejack..."
"Sorry fer not standin' up right at this minute," Applejack said with a sickly smile.
"This is Pinkie Pie... and she'll probably throw you a party tonight. You've been warned."
"Sure am!" Pinkie beamed. "It's gonna be a doozy!"
"Here's Scootaloo, Rainbow Dash, Fluttershy and this is Mayor Mare..."
"It is a pleasure to welcome you to Ponyville, Miss Huffy," said the Mayor, and Huffy coloured slightly, her pale mauve face darkening to purple.
"Um, thank you," she said timidly.
"This is Zecora, and this is Rarity and her sister Sweetie Belle."
"Darling, I just adore your colouring," Rarity gushed. The white and purple dragon smiled uncertainly at the white and purple pony.
"And this is my sister, Twilight Sparkle," Spike finished.
Twilight looked up at the nervous dragon, smiling reassuringly. "Hi there," she said.
Huffy gave him a startled look. "Your sister? You mean your owner?"
"Nope, I mean my sister," Spike said.
"He's my little brother," Twilight confirmed with a toss of her mane. "How many times must I repeat that..."
"That's... wonderful," Huffy said, her face wistful. "You're so lucky."
He glanced down at Twilight, and nudged her with a forepaw. "Nah, she's the lucky one," he teased, prodding her side repeatedly. "Such a handsome and famous brother..."
"With such a vast ego," she countered, prodding him back, before grabbing onto his forepaw and smirking. "Got you now."
"Oh yes, I am at your mercy," he deadpanned. "Oh woe is me."
"Do you conc-eeeeeede!" Her voice swooped upwards into a yelp as he raised his leg into the air with her still gripping it. Her back legs flailed wildly as they dangled in mid-air. With a flash she teleported back to the ground, fixing him and the giggling Huffy with a very put-out look. "Oh, very clever," she groused.
"Okay, now I believe..." Huffy chuckled, only to be interrupted by another blinding flash of light. She looked sharply at Twilight, who held up her hooves in innocence.
"What was..." Spike began.
"Where is she?" A high, histrionic voice rang out, cutting through the confused crowd. "Where is my little Huffy? Where..."
Huffy's pupils shrank in remembered hurt and shame. "No... not..." she whispered in horror.
The powder-blue unicorn that barrelled into view was far less polished than she had been the last time Spike had laid eyes on her. Gone was the purple spangled cape and hat, and her ice-blue mane was mussed.
Her purple eyes widened as she took in the two dragons – at the larger of the two. "Huffy...?" she managed in a barely-audible voice. Her face filled with awe. "You can't be my little Huffy..." she gasped. "You are. You're my... oh, Huffy..."
Huffy was trembling again; her whole body shaking violently as she regarded the pony who had made her life such a misery that ten years in hiding had been preferable to staying one more day. "Trixie," she breathed, and Spike leaned against her, trying to impart comfort.
"Just listen to her," he said quietly, stretching up to her ear.
"Why should I listen to her?" Huffy demanded, whirling on him. "She wasn't a sister like your Twilight, oh no! I was a thing to her! Just a thing!"
"That's not true!" Trixie wailed.
"Yes it was!" Huffy snapped, and suddenly Spike could see why Just had called her impatient at times.
The Great and Powerful Trixie gazed at her former assistant with helpless sorrow and shock. She sat back down on her hindquarters, her head craning to take her all in. "Look at you. You're so big, you grew up..." she choked.
"Yes," Huffy said, a steely note of anger in her quavering voice. "I did. Without you."
Trixie buried her face in her hooves. "Trixie has been..." she rasped.
"Still talking about yourself, I see." Huffy's eyes narrowed. "You never change."
"Tri... I did," Trixie faltered. "I did change. I..."
"Too late for me, wasn't it, my owner?" Huffy spat.
"I wasn't ever your... look, I never should have said that where you could overhear me, Huffs..."
"Don't call me Huffs," Huffy said icily. "Perhaps you should have said it behind my back then? My servant, Huffy! My slave, Huffy! My pet!"
"I'm sorry!" Trixie burst out, her hooves slamming to the ground either side of her, lifting her tear-streaked face. "I'm so sorry! Huffy, I loved you and I never told you and I did nothing but humiliate you and I've missed you so, so much and I still love you! I'm sorry!" She petered out into sobs, repeating "I'm sorry!" between gasping, dragging breaths.
There was a long, incredulous silence.
Then abruptly Huffy lurched to one side as her legs wobbled, amazement and disbelief written all over her face.
Spike lunged to brace her with his back, his smaller body propping her up. "Too many shocks," he grunted to Twilight.
"I think you're right," she said worriedly. "Maybe we should have planned that better."
"You... think?" he puffed, trying to push the woozy Huffy upright.
Trixie raised her blotched, anguished face and scrambled from the ground. "Is she all right?" she demanded of everypony and anypony, her voice shrill with worry. "She'd better be all right, or the Great and Powerful Trixie will perform such great magic upon you that you'll have to squelch everywhere from now on! Fix her! Make her all right! Huffy? Huffy? Huffy!"
"Trix... be quiet," Huffy mumbled, pushing herself off Spike. She still looked quite light-headed.
Trixie immediately shut up.
Huffy seemed to be staring through her former unicorn, rather than at her. The silence dragged on and on as Huffy stared at Trixie. Then she nodded, as though approving something that only she could see. "Okay," she said finally.
"What do you mean, okay?" asked Just, his dirty brow wrinkling.
She turned to him, and took a deep breath. "I'll rejoin Equestria," she said evenly.
Trixie sobbed once in joy, and made to run for her former assistant, but Huffy held up a claw. "No, just wait a moment," she said. "Trixie... I need more time. I can't forgive all in one go. I've been alone for too long. I've nursed my hurts for too long. I'm willing to try and be friends, and I guess I accept the apology... but... I am never going to be your assistant again."
Trixie's eyes filled once more, and she bowed her head. "I understand."
As the unicorn turned to go, Huffy said softly, "I didn't stop loving you, either. Even when I hated you the most. You insufferable egotistical stuck-up bigmouthed showpony."
Trixie span back around, her face slowly filling with hope. Then she ran like the wind into Huffy's open embrace.