“Applejack.” Rarity said with a quick nod.
Applejack tipped her Stetson and smiled. “Rarity.”
At least their fillyhood status as barely acquaintances still stood. Not that that lessened the shock of seeing five mares in total huddled around the fire, shivering: two pegasi, two earth ponies, and one unicorn. Rarity stood before them, next to Spike, and noted the oddly symmetric group she’d joined. The addition of her made two members of each pony tribe, and six ponies in total. Curious.
A ‘welcome to our home’ was probably in order, but she didn’t have the stomach for it. Running for her life felt pleasant and normal compared to having five pairs of eyes fixed on her for reasons unknown. This felt more like an intervention than a rescue attempt. “Hello… everypony. I’m—”
“That’s Rarity, that’s Spike.” Rainbow said. “Lay it on ‘em, Twilight. We can’t stay in here freezing our tails off all day.”
Rarity gave an indignant huff. “Really, Rainbow. You’re more than welcome to take something from my personal wardrobe if you’re cold. That goes for the rest of you, too; I have more than enough warm winter clothing to share.”
Her magic brought garment after garment forward, and a quick glance sorted them into piles before the ponies that they’d suit best: a green scarf for Applejack, a cabled sweater for the yellow pegasus, a stocking cap for the pink earth pony, and so on. Each offering made her smile a little more brightly; clothing ponies should have been her life. This act brought her craft full circle: dreaming up designs, creating clothing, and then seeing the joy on the new owner’s face.
She stopped her imaginings then and there, not wishing to wander into another depressing round of what-if-life-had-been-different. Life had its shortcomings and its triumphs, and her time with Spike definitely fell into the latter category. But what would happen now? For the first time in she didn’t know how long, the future loomed large and uncertain. Moving closer to Spike and holding her breath was all she could do.
“Ooo, cozy!” The pink earth pony exclaimed as her stocking cap covered her ears and then her eyes. “Thanks, Rarity!”
“I’m sorry it’s somewhat oversized, but you’re quite welcome, Miss—?”
“I’m Pinkie Pie! And that’s Twilight, that’s Fluttershy, that’s Applejack, and that’s Rainbow Dash. Except you already met Rainbow Dash and Applejack, so that’s Twilight and that’s Fluttershy!”
Rarity could barely follow Pinkie’s train of thought, let alone her rapid pointing to the ponies surrounding her. “That’s… fascinating. It’s a pleasure to meet all of you.”
Spike stood up a little taller and cleared his throat. “Maybe I should go get more firewood, just in case anypony’s still cold. Oh, and I can get us all some breakfast. I’m starving.”
Rainbow grinned. “Now you’re talking! You’re my kind of dragon, Spike.”
“That’s a wonderful idea, but…” Rarity didn’t know how to say “please don’t leave me with all these strange ponies” with any measure of politeness.
Fortunately, Spike didn’t get far before the yellow pegasus blocked his path to the door. She inched forward, her wide eyes fixed on him. “Excuse me, but… you’re really a d-dragon? I thought all dragons were giant, and scary, and mean.”
Her voice barely qualified as a whisper.
Spike looked to Rarity, as if to ask if she’d caught all of that too, and held out a hand. “Yeah… I’m really a dragon. Nice to meet you?”
The pegasus backed away before waving hello. “I-I actually really love animals, b-but… d-dragons scare me.” She looked away, ashamed.
He dropped to his knees, reducing his already modest height, and smiled. “I swear I’m not scary or mean. And I really like ponies, but not to eat or anything if that’s what you’re worried about.”
Her ears shot up. “Oh I know you don’t eat ponies. That’s just a common misconception, something that all creatures face. My friend Harry the bear used to have the hardest time befriending smaller animals, but…”
She smiled brightly. “Wow, you’re right; you’re not scary at all! I’m sorry I assumed you’d be mean. I’m… My name is Fluttershy.”
“Nice to meet you.”
Applejack leaned over to Rarity and whispered. “Can’t say I’ve ever heard that much from Fluttershy in one go.”
Rarity smiled. “Spike is a very special dragon, but that’s his story to tell, not mine.”
“Speaking of stories,” the purple unicorn said, “I think it’s about time I explain why we’re all here.”
“Indeed,” Rarity replied. “I presume you’re the Twilight Rainbow Dash mentioned?”
The unicorn nodded, her expression strangely neutral despite all the smiles surrounding her. “Yes, I’m Twilight Sparkle. I’m originally from—”
Rainbow groaned. “Canterlot, libraries, an hour of other boring stuff… Can we skip to the important part?”
“It’s all important!” Twilight shouted. “We might’ve stopped Nightmare Moon before she ever took over if—”
Applejack stepped between them. “Ease up, Sugar Cube. I think what Rainbow Dash was trying to say, right up until she forgot her manners, is can we skip to the practical bits?”
“Okay, okay.” Twilight replied, an angry glare still fixed on Rainbow. “We’re trying to stop Nightmare Moon using a set of magical artifacts called the Elements of Harmony. We need six ponies to make that happen, ponies that embody each element of friendship.”
Twilight paced in front of the others, nodding to each one of them. “Applejack here represents honesty. Fluttershy is kindness, Rainbow Dash is loyalty, Pinkie Pie is laughter, I’m magic, and that just leaves you: generosity.”
Rarity scanned the room’s occupants a second time, unsure if she’d heard Twilight correctly. “I’m not sure I follow. How can six normal ponies possibly stop—”
Rainbow groaned again. “Here we go with the boring part, same as last time.”
“I’ll try to keep it short,” Twilight muttered while she massaged her temples. “I used to conduct research for the Royal Canterlot Library, and a couple days before Nightmare Moon showed up I met a pony called Moon Dancer. She said she was Princess Celestia’s personal student, she was looking for any information she could find on the Elements of Harmony, and that the fate of Equestria was at stake. Everypony who works a reference desk near the School for Gifted Unicorns hears an ‘I’m friends with royalty’ story once in a while, especially when it comes wanting to check out obscure reference books right before exams, but—”
“Moving on?” Rainbow murmured.
“Sorry, sorry. I found the book she wanted the next day, just before Nightmare Moon took over Canterlot. Moon Dancer was onto something, and ever since then I’ve been traveling to libraries all over Equestria, trying to piece everything together so—”
Pinkie peeked above Twilight’s shoulder, grinning. “And that’s how she met Fluttershy in Ponyville!”
Twilight’s puckered her lips and stared at the ceiling. “Can I continue?”
Pinkie nodded before zipping back to her previous spot by the fire.
“Ponyville’s library is where it all came together. That’s where I realized I needed to find ponies, not just magical artifacts—” she held up a hoof to stop Pinkie in her tracks “—and yes, that’s when I met Fluttershy. After months of trial and error, I perfected a spell that locates the elements and the ponies that can use them. It turns out Nightmare Moon scattered the Elements of Harmony to the far corners of Equestria, just to keep ponies like us from bringing them together.”
“But we are!” Rainbow shouted, pumping her hoof in the air. “We’ve been all over Equestria, kicking tail and digging up elements, and you’re last on the list, Rarity!”
“And it’s not just you,” Twilight added, “the actual element of generosity is here too, in The Pit. I guess Nightmare Moon figured nopony would be crazy enough to come looking for it here.”
Old terrors brushed against Rarity’s conscious mind, making her shiver. “I suppose that makes sense, considering what the rest of the world thinks happened to me. Do you really mean to say that we can save Equestria, as Rainbow put it?”
Spike jumped up at down with excitement. “And Celestia too?”
Twilight nodded. “I hope so.”
Spike marched to the door, his brow furrowed and his steps resolute. “Then what are we waiting for? Let’s go find the lost element and save the Princess!”
Purple light shrouded Twilight’s horn and two compass needles made of blue light sprouted from it, one pointing directly at Rarity, the other meandering around the entrance to the cave. “I'm right behind you, Spike.”
Spike led the charge out into the snow with Twilight and the others in pursuit. Rarity watched them go, torn between excitement over this whole ‘saving Equestria’ business and the apparent loss of her and Spike’s own little world. She should’ve spent the morning in bed, lost in a tangle of warm limbs without a single want or worry. The notion that she might get to pursue a career in fashion after all couldn’t replace that simple bliss. Nothing ever would.
Rarity jumped. “W-why Rainbow Dash, I thought you followed the others, and…”
Rainbow regarded the snow by the entrance and tugged at the scarf wrapped around her neck. “Nah. It’s freezing out there, and I kind of wanted to hang with you for a sec.”
“Very well. I have more clothing to choose from, if you like. I happen to have a spare jacket that would go quite well with your coat color, or if you like you’re more than welcome to the shawl I’m currently wear—”
“So you and Spike…”
Rarity’s mouth hung open, her unfinished sentence lingering on her tongue and her mind momentarily frozen. Finally she cleared her throat. “I suppose I should’ve seen that coming. In fact I suppose I should get used to hearing it.”
Rainbow’s ears lay flat and, unless Rarity was mistaken, a fresh shiver traveled down her back. Was that a chill or revulsion? “I get that you’ve been stuck in here for a long time, but—”
“But what?” The words came out with a ferocity Rarity hadn’t felt since the palace, edged with new boldness. “Whatever you’re wondering about the two of us, just assume the answer is yes! Assume we’ve done every romantic and lascivious thing you can imagine! It isn’t as if we ever expected to see anypony again, much less somepony fit to marry us properly… assuming somepony would, considering how uncouth it must seem for a dragon and a p-pony to—”
She turned away as her eyes began to water. All her indignation, elation, and stress were turning to gall in her belly and lead in her chest. And over what? Was this tiny provocation, this perfectly reasonable question about her and Spike really all it took to upend her emotions? You’re so pathetic, Rarity. Pathetic, fragile, and wholly unsuited for life among ponies. But that's where your headed. The Pit isn't your home anymore.
Rainbow drew closer, her voice quiet. “Hey—”
“I’m not embarrassed, if that’s what you’re thinking.” And she wasn’t, but was it worth explaining? Could Rainbow or anypony else understand what she’d gained and lost, that she’d traded social rank and nearly every creature comfort for a life and life partner as unorthodox as they were uncomplicated? Would anypony ever understand that she'd willingly make the same trade all over again?
A foreleg fell across Rarity’s shoulders, but the modicum of comfort the gesture imparted vanished when Rainbow’s hoof covered her mouth. “Cut the drama, already. Sheesh, I forgot how you good you are at that. What do I care if your guy has hands or hooves?”
“No, and nopony else will either. Did you think that’s why I hung back? Asking about Spike was supposed to be the icebreaker.”
She pushed Rainbow away, her indignation on the rise once again. “Plenty of ponies will care, I assure you.”
“Nopony that matters!” Rainbow shot a foreleg to cave entrance. “I didn’t hear everypony else shout ‘eww gross’ the second you two walked in. And don’t say ‘they just didn’t notice’ because that takes like two seconds. I’m surprised Pinkie didn’t already throw you two a party or something. She does that. A lot.”
A minute passed in silence. Rarity’s gaze remained fixed on the fire pit for fear of spying something else upsetting, which at this point could range from Rainbow’s unfavorable expression to an unfolded blanket. “You really don’t care that we—”
“Then why… What else do the two of us possibly have to discuss?”
Silence answered, finally prompting Rarity to turn to her. She found Rainbow sitting by the entrance again, staring out at the snow and seemly lost in thought. In ages past she would’ve considered brutish ponies like Rainbow incapable of thinking much of anything.
“Do you remember—” Rainbow sighed “—the night when… you know… Nightmare Moon threw you in here?”
Rarity shivered. “Do you think that’s something one forgets? Did you think I’ll ever—”
“I was there.” Rainbow’s voice descended into a yelp. “I-I hid when they took the other palace guards away, and I hid when they took you, too. I acted tough back then because I was scared. I only ever looked out for myself and… I’m sorry, okay? I wish I could take it back. I wish I could take a lot of stuff back.”
“Please don’t burden yourself with what happened to me. I can hardly blame you for Nightmare Moon’s actions."
“It wasn’t just you! Bad stuff happened to all sorts of ponies back then because I didn’t help them, but not anymore: after I heard what Nightmare Moon did to you, I swore I'd never walk out on a pony in need again. Ever. That’s when I ran into Fluttershy and Twilight, and I haven’t looked back since. I don’t know why, but having good friends like them changes everything. It's like I'm a better pony, like they helped me figure out how to be… I dunno…”
“True to yourself?” Rarity offered a knowing smile. “I’m a better pony now, too, Rainbow. No matter how you might view my supposed last day in Equestria, I for one wouldn’t change a thing. And whether or not you have reason to apologize, I most certainly do. I’m so very sorry for my conduct before, for the cold, haughty pony I used to be. It took being thrown in here with a dragon for me to rediscover my special talent, not to mention my generosity.”
Rainbow smiled back, her earlier bravado and more recent guilt nowhere in sight. Perhaps, Rarity thought, they were effectively seeing each other for the very first time. “Friends?”
Friends? Rarity studied the word out in her mind. Certainly they were on good terms now, but did that push them beyond the realm of acquaintances? She didn’t have a lot of experience with the concept, despite her proclamation of being better pony. “I suppose we could be, but…would you really want me as a friend? The two of us couldn’t be more different.”
“Heck yeah I do! Look, I don’t care if you’re into making clothes, or living in caves, or hanging out with dragons. The best thing about friends is they can be totally different from you and still be accepting and aweso—”
A snowball streaked through the cave entrance and pelted Rainbow in the face. Pinkie’s laugher echoed through the air a moment later. “Better hurry up before we find that element without you, Dashie!”
Rainbow wiped the snow off her brow with a groan that quickly became a laugh. “Let’s get going, Rarity. We’ve got an element to find, and a snowball fight to win!”
Rarity trotted after Rainbow, a smile on her lips and her troubles far away. “I don’t suppose I can say no to that.”