Clouds drifted by as the chariot began its descent. Breathtaking scenery passed by below them, from barren fields and forests bursting into leaf, to towns and cities overflowing with cheering, reveling ponies that shouted and waved in jubilant thanks. Even Canterlot, fast approaching ahead of them, had lost the dismal shade that Rarity’s memories usually painted it with. The castle’s spires, once a daily sight on her walks through the uptown, had become a dreamlike sight. Everything old, even the bright blue sky, was new again.
Behind her, her five new friends were lost in conversation with the two alicorns, who seemed to take in everything from Twilight’s reverent questions to Pinkie’s high speed babble with unfaltering smiles. They stood mere inches apart, and seemed to smile at each other just as much at their audience. That, Rarity surmised, was what granted them such perfect composure immediately after the ordeals they’d faced: each sister had the one they cared about most right next to them. Hopefully that was enough. Hopefully love and friendship could get them through the incalculable tasks that lay ahead; righting all the world’s wrongs would take more than sunlight and smiles.
This new alicorn certainly resembled her elder sister, save for coat and mane coloration. Her posture held that ineffable air of regality, even if her rare additions to the conversation included a thousand-year-old affectation, and were often interrupted by self-conscious glances at her sister.
Rarity sighed to herself as she gazed over the railing. “I suppose even princesses can feel out of place.”
Her mind and gaze wandered further, settling for a moment on the two pegasus stallions pulling the chariot through the sky. She’d never considered herself particular about pegasus wings or unicorn horns, but something about watching those two ponies work, wings pumping, tails swishing, and sweat glistening, made her legs feel weak. When was the last time she’d seen a stallion of any kind, let alone these paragons of masculinity?
“Did you say something?” Spike asked.
“It was nothing, dear. I’m just… thinking a tad too much, I suppose.” Thinking so much that she’d started to blush, in fact. Spike didn't seem to notice, thankfully.
“You’ve been over here by yourself since we took off. Don’t you want to talk to somepony? Haven’t you always wanted to talk to Princess Celestia?”
Rarity smiled politely, but shook her head. “In ages past I would’ve given anything to be on a private chariot with the Princess, as we are now. I’d dream of bending her ear to my fashionable causes, and perhaps even securing myself a place at an upcoming social event beyond my modest connections, but now—” she looked at the royal sisters, as she realized she and everypony else would have to start calling them “—I see a pony, not a crown. Both of them must be exhausted after being banished and possessed for so long. Who am I to pepper them with questions and comments at a time like this?”
Spike chuckled. “You did kind of just save Equestria.”
“We all did our part, thank you. I might not be the dragon here, but greed and superfluous accolades still do me no favors.”
Something gold glinted at the edge of Rarity’s vision. She looked and found Spike holding up the remains of her sewing needle, which had bent horribly. “Does that mean you don’t want me to fix this?”
Smiling, this time with great affection, she patted his shoulder. “I would be honored if you did, Lord Spike the Gentledragon. Honored and forever grateful.”
She almost pulled him into a hug. Almost. Her foreleg wouldn’t cooperate for some reason, and once she saw Princess Luna approaching she immediately dropped to a bow. “Your Majesty.”
“You are Rarity, are you not?” Luna’s voice wasn’t that of Nightmare Moon, but only by virtue of its calm tone.
“Arise, please. Thou art familiar to us. We are not privy to all that our… darker side did, but thou wast greatly wronged for our pleasure, we are certain. For that, we plead thine forgiveness, and extend our hoof in thanks and fellowship for all that thou hast done.”
Rarity rose slowly, a modicum of calm chasing away her latent fear. “I-I… All is forgiven, your majesty. I know what it’s like to have one’s worst side take over, and what a difference a good friend can make.”
Princess Luna nodded, a hint of a smile crossing her lips. “Then we shall consider thou and thy friends to be ours, if we may.”
“Everypony,” Princess Celestia began, “I know there’s much more that needs to be said, but we're about to land in Canterlot, and once we do things are going to be very busy for Princess Luna and I. Please excuse us for the remainder of the day as we see to our royal duties; I’d like to speak to each of you tomorrow morning. In the mean time we’ll ensure rooms are made up for you in the castle.”
Applejack cleared her throat. “That’s mighty generous of you, Princess, but I don’t know if I could spend another night away from my family back in Ponyville. I haven’t seen hide nor hair of ‘em in an awful long time. They’ve gotta be wondering what happened to me, now that the sun’s up.”
“Then I’ll have this chariot take you there immediately and collect you in the morning. The same goes for each of you, if there’s somewhere you’d rather be.”
“Back home.” Spike muttered.
Rarity shushed him. “We’ll be fine, Spikey.”
He shrugged and looked at his feet. “I guess, but… never mind.”
There was that troublesome word again: home. The vast Canterlot cityscape rolling by below didn’t embody that word in the slightest. She took a deep breath and pulled him close. His scales were so warm, almost uncomfortably so with the sun beating down on them. “We’ll be fine. We’ll be fine.”
Seeing Canterlot through a fourth floor guest suite window in the castle was an ominous sight, more so than seeing it from a chariot’s stratospheric heights. The view from the chariot changed unceasingly, and was far enough removed from the ground to obscure all but the largest of features. Little things, like smashed windows, garbage strewn across the streets, and dirt-caked ponies hobbling around on bone-thin legs were invisible from the air and unmistakable from Rarity’s current vantage point.
Canterlot, the heart of the aristocracy, the shining pillar of sophistication and class, had been reduced to a slum, a last refuge for those who hadn’t conformed to Nightmare Moon’s totalitarian rule. It had been more comforting to think that the city was completely abandoned, as the Queen had often insisted. Somehow Rarity processed that idea as Canterlot being encased in glass, lifeless and preserved, until the world righted itself.
The stark, stinking reality hadn’t fully struck her until she’d trotted into her appointed room and unwittingly began this vigil. Surely the sight of it all was less of a shock to her friends, what with their traveling across Equestria and likely witnessing far worse living conditions. Hopefully Applejack and ponies like her were planting fresh crops to feed the starving multitudes. Hopefully ponies like Fluttershy were caring for the sick while ponies like Pinkie brought a smile to their faces. Ponies like Rainbow Dash would bring nourishing rain to compliment the sunlight, and ponies like Twilight would ensure everything happened in an orderly fashion.
That just left Rarity. She rubbed her neck, finding fur instead of the Element of Generosity. She’d surrendered the necklace to Princess Celestia for safe keeping, but the feeling it embodied would forever linger, the feeling that at this moment insisted she should be doing something more useful and generous than standing here, gawking at those less fortunate.
It didn’t help that the bread line was outside her view, despite its stretching from the castle gates to the train station. The ponies out there wouldn’t stay hungry for long, thanks to Princess Celestia and her uncanny ability to muster a loyal workforce no matter the circumstances. In a matter of weeks, Rarity told herself, Canterlot would begin to look like its old self again. Streets would be swept, shops would be reopened, and every resident would be given a fresh start. The same renewal would doubtless spread everywhere, starting with the chariots laden with food and supplies that were already dotting the sky. The worst was over; every pony out there would get what they needed most.
Again, that just left Rarity: unneeded, unless somepony required a fashionable piece of clothing. She forced her eyes closed and turned away from the window. No more of that. No more thinking too deeply for her own good. Princess Celestia herself had insisted that she rest and see to her own needs, which was precisely what she would do; generosity didn’t preclude taking care of oneself. The princess had said as much herself.
After a deep, cleansing breath, she dared to examine her accommodations. A four poster bed dominated the spacious room, ornate furniture lined the wall by the door, and gorgeous wallpaper stretched all the way to the vaulted ceiling. Truly she’d arrived at the height of luxury, the level of importance and class that she’d only ever dreamed of. Merely mentioning her stay in the castle as a personal guest of Princess Celestia would undoubtedly unlock more doors than all her previous accomplishments combined.
She stepped through the room, noting for the first time how impossibly soft the carpet felt, and how everything smelled of fresh pressed linen. Princess Celestia had been serious when she claimed that she’d turn down the sheets herself if necessary. Everything here seemed exactly as a suite in the castle ought too, right down to the quiet bustling of ponies in the hallways. Guards trotted by the closed door, and other ponies called out directions to tidy rooms, sweep floors, and stoke the fires. The castle was simply buzzing with activity, almost as if its entire staff had gone into hibernation the instant Princess Celestia went missing all those years ago.
Her master steward days were long since over, but she could still appreciate the anxious activity that had gotten her room and countless others so presentable within a matter of hours. She trotted toward a slightly ajar door in the corner, suddenly eager to make use of any and all the modern conveniences she’d learned to live without, particularly the bath.
Her pace accelerated as she thought of it: soaking in warm water, smelling of lotion instead of sweat, and coifing her mane and tail with actual shampoo and conditioner.
The clop of her hooves on the marble floor echoed through the expansive bathroom, and her giddy laugh did the same moments later as she took every decadent sight in: the stack of clean towels, the recessed bathtub, and the legion of hair products in glass bottles. Never had reality so thoroughly lived up to her wildest dreams. She turned in a circle, dancing a silly and thoroughly unladylike dance.
And then her laugh became a scream. A horrific apparition stood before her, a mass of grey and black fur topped with brown, vaguely purple hair. She’d discovered the full length mirror.
Her hooves couldn’t decide which way to go; two of them made for the bath while the others went for the door, and moments later she was staring at the same awful sight in the polished floor while Princess Celestia’s exact words to her, that she “take a few hours to focus on her own needs” took on new meaning. The ponies in the slums outside were cleaner. They were better fed too, considering number of her own ribs on display. “I’m… I’m hideous!”
The bath-wanting hooves won out. She crawled into the bathtub and pressed the hot and cold levers with all her magical might. The cold porcelain rumbled slightly as water rushed through the pipes and finally poured out the faucet.
Water would help; hot water a dozen bars of soap would have the worst of this cleaned up in no time. And what did it matter if she’d lost an unhealthy amount of weight? Perfect cleanliness and ample portion sizes were secondary priorities when living in a winter wasteland. She’d chosen not freezing to death over bathing, and had choked down as many leaves and flowers per meal as she could stand.
Warm water pooled around her, the feeling’s pleasantness ruined by the dark grey torrents swirling around the open drain. Soap would fix that. Her magic grabbed a hefty, white bar that smelled strongly of apples and went to work on her right foreleg, scrubbing vigorously. She’d daydreamed about this exact moment, oh so long ago: excising every trace of The Pit from her body and mind. She’d settle for body alone; somehow she’d happily lived in utter filth and borderline malnutrition, but no more.
Within an hour her coat would shimmer like silk, within two hours her hair would be brushed and curled in the highest of Canterlot styles, and within a month her svelte form would be the envy of every mare she met. Then she’d be worthy of her current abode and newfound social status.
Those comforting thoughts vanished as she swished her soapy foreleg through the water: the grime wasn't coming off.
Growling, Rarity inspected the groove she'd worn in the bar of soap and went back to work. “Come out, curse you! I’ll scrub all day if I have to!”
The suite’s door opened with an click that echoed through the bathroom’s steamy air, and a moment later Spike cleared his throat. “Rarity? I can come in, right?”
Rarity raised an ear, but continued to scrub. “Of course, Spike. I could use your help, actually.”
“Sorry I’ve been gone so long; I started showing Twilight around, and every guard we went by didn’t believe I’m staying here at all, never mind with one of the… you know… hero ponies.”
“Hmph. You’re just as entitled to that title as we are, and if anypony asks I’ll gladly tell them so.”
The suite door closed, and a moment later Spike’s claws clinked against the bathroom’s marble floor. “Whoa, you’re—”
She sat up and thrust a scrub brush into his hands. “Yes I’m bathing, and yes I know how awful I look, thank you. Could you start on my back, please?”
“Um… I… really?”
Rarity rolled her eyes and leaned her head back. “Fine, say it if you must: I look atrocious. I’m surprised anypony can even recognize me under all this dirt.”
“I still think you look good. ”
“By Pit standards, perhaps. Now if you please?”
Spike slid into the soap suds, brush in hand. “Ooh, it’s so warm. I haven’t had a bath since—”
“I’d prefer not to know, if you don’t mind.”
“Heh, fair enough. So… where do I start?”
“If you see dirt, scrub until it’s gone. It’s as simple as that.”
The brush bristles tickled slightly as they traveled up her back, like a softer version of the dragon claws resting on her shoulder. “Oooh, yes. Just like that! That feels wonderful.”
Everything seemed to fade away in the steam, save for Spike. The brush continued its slow and surprisingly alluring motions, and Rarity closed her eyes to better focus on each delicious sensation. She'd never bathe alone again, if this was all it took to drive away all her worries, if this brought back the endless tranquility that they’d once called home.
Spike cleared his throat. “So…”
“Yes?” That would be her enthusiastic answer to whatever he was about to suggest.
“What've you been up to?”
Her ears flattened. “Oh… well I…. Nothing of consequence. I trust the others are settling in?”
“Oh yeah. Applejack is off doing family stuff, Fluttershy is talking to animals in the royal garden, Pinkie is helping the cooks feed everypony and singing a song about it—don't ask how either of those works—, Rainbow Dash is telling anypony that’ll listen about how we defeated Nightmare Moon, saved Princess Luna, Princess Celestia, you, me, and basically everyone else.”
“With great humility and tact, I'm sure.”
“More like with two mugs of cider.”
That mental image brought a smile to her face, as did the notion that all her new friends were in their element. She’d find hers soon enough; surely she could locate some thread and fabric in the castle, something to put her talents to use. For now she'd content herself with this luxurious bath and leave the rest of the world to her friends. “At least they're all happy. Thank you for helping Twilight get her bearings; no doubt she's just as lost in the castle as I am.”
“I don't know about that. When she said she wanted me to show her around, I thought she meant the touristy stuff like the throne room, but then she asked about the royal library, and why there’s carpet in some of the hallways but not others, and the story behind each of the stained glass windows… It probably would’ve gotten annoying if she wasn’t so… I dunno. Seeing her excited gets me excited. She’s kind of fun to be around, now that she isn’t obsessed with saving the world. You should hear her talk about Princess Celestia—”
Rarity shifted until Spike’s brush nearly slid off, and a faint chill swept through her. In her mind she played out a dozen versions of what to say next, from heated accusations to forced pleasantries to uncomfortable silence. None of that would do; he and Twilight were just friends. No matter how little she knew her, she knew Spike through and through.
Or at least she knew a version of him, the lonely dragon that had been forced to share a tiny cave with a pony. Where would his interests take him now that their mandatory cohabitation was at an end? He and Twilight were merely friends, but would some pony far more attractive and compatible than herself, or some dragon for that matter, eventually whisk him away?
Their shared lifetime in The Pit was over, as was Nightmare Moon’s reign. Who knew what would end next. “I suppose we should get out, before we catch cold.”
Spike’s hands stilled. “I could always heat up the water again, if you want. I could keep scrubbing your back.”
“That’s quite all right. We can’t stay in here forever, after all.”
He sighed. “I guess so, but… Rarity?”
She met his gaze for the first time since he’d joined her in the bathtub, and the worry in his eyes mirrored her own. “Yes?”
“If you want me to spend less time with Twilight or something…”
She shook her head, smiling slightly. “As generous as that offer is, I can’t possibly accept it. I should be happy that you’re making friends so quickly, Spikey. It’s me that needs to change, not you.”
He held up his hands. “Whoa, don’t put this all on you. If you need me to be around more, or less, or… I don’t know… to be six inches taller, just tell me. Twilight’s my friend, but you’re… you.”
Her slight smile became a wide grin. “Indeed. I’ll keep your ability to spontaneously change size in mind, should the need ever arrise. That’s hardly what I—”
A loud thump on the door set Rarity’s fur on end. Was it one of their friends? Surely it wasn’t Princess Celestia. She scrambled out of the bathtub, loudly calling out “just a minute!”
Spike draped a pleasantly hot bathrobe across her shoulders. “What me to get that?”
Rarity touched a hoof to the robe, relishing the unexpected heat. “How did you—?”
He blew a quick jet of flame and winked . “Everything in the castle’s been fireproof since the first time I sneezed.”
Giggling, she headed for the door. “Now that’s a dragon ability that I could find a use for.”
Spike ran ahead of her and turned the handle. “Who is it?”
A bespectacled stallion in a white uniform stood in the hallway, smiling brightly. “Could I speak to Lady Rarity, please?”
His lovely accent alone made her blush. If only she were wearing an elegant gown and expensive makeup instead of a bathrobe. At least she wasn’t in one of her own dirty, drab creations; she needed to find new fabric and an up to date fashion guide as soon as possible. Tossing her damp hair as best she could, she smiled and curtsied. “I am Lady Rarity, good sir.”
He bowed in return. “It is my pleasure to cordially invite you to join your friends at the chef’s table in one hour’s time. The royal kitchens are hardly producing the elegant cuisine we were once known for, but serving a respectable meal is the least I and the other staff can do for the mares who saved our beloved princess.”
Rarity’s heart sang, and her mouth nearly did the same. “I-I… Of course, and thank you! We’ll be there promptly. Thank you ever so—”
Spike cleared his throat. “Yeah, thanks. Bye!”
The door slammed shut, and Rarity’s mouth fell open. “Spike! How could… I can’t begin to describe how distasteful and rude… What were you thinking?”
Her voice was growing steadily louder; the ponies on the streets outside would be privy to her outrage in short order.
Spike stood up tall, which made little difference, and matched her glare. “It’s because I’m just a dragon, isn’t it?”
“I don’t know what you mean. Being a dragon is no excuse for being so rude, and in Canterlot Castle of all places!”
“Yeah? Then what’s your excuse for checking out every stallion you see?”
“I-I have not! I’ve noticed them, but I certainly haven’t outright stared—”
Spike held up his fingers to count. “The two pulling the chariot, the guards by the door, the butler that told us all where our rooms were, the cook just now… You’re practically drooling! It’s like I’m not even here.”
Rarity flushed deep red and bit her lip. “Perhaps on the chariot I… and the guards… Oh dear.”
Spike turned away, arms crossed. “So you admit it.”
“To staring a bit more than I should have, I suppose I do. You must realize it’s been a very long time since I’ve glimpsed a male pony, and now that we’re surrounded by so many… Well what would you do if our roles were reversed, and we were surrounded by females of your kind? I’m sorry that I haven’t adapted to the… change of scenery as well as I thought I had, but do you expect me to spend the rest of my life wearing a blindfold?”
He wrung his hands and stared at the ground. “No, but… I know I overreacted, but can you blame me for being nervous?”
“Hmph. Being blatantly overprotective is a better way to put it. Don’t I deserve the same level of trust around ponies that I’m giving to you?”
“Of course you do! And I promise I’ll do better, but…” After a moment’s tense silence, Spike walked over to the bed and collapsed on it, face down. “This must’ve been what it was like for you.”
Perplexed, Rarity sat next to him. The mattress was so soft that she briefly wondered if it was going to swallow her. “Would you care to explain?”
Spike rolled onto his back. “The Pit was my home for a really long time. It was our home. Canterlot might be where you really belong, but I don’t. I used to, but now I… I just don't belong anywhere.”
“You belong with me, of course.”
“Are you sure?”
Rarity paused. Was he asking for her assurance, or her permission? Surely he didn’t have the same worries about their long term prospects that she did. “Did you have any doubt?”
“I know being the princess’s personal guest is a dream come true for you, but… this is her house. Where’s ours? Where’s home? Please don’t say Canterlot.”
She prodded the impossibly soft bed with her hoof; the longer she sat, the more she wondered if she’d be more comfortable on the comparatively rigid carpet. She rested her hoof on Spike’s chest instead. “I honestly don’t know what comes next, Spikey, beyond our joining the others to eat. Things have changed so quickly that I confess I haven’t given the future much thought. Just this morning the only thing I had to worry about was what kind of fabric dye to try next, and there’s so much to see, and to do, and to discuss… I don’t know where to begin.”
Her hoof traced a circle, silently skidding across each shining scale. Even if their world was doomed to come crashing down, it needn’t do so right this second. “Surely all this worrying can wait. We have an hour all to ourselves, and a bed bigger than our entire previous home. For the moment couldn’t we just enjoy each other’s company?”
Spike’s hand closed around her hoof, and he smiled. “Deal.”