There had been times in those halcyon days in Ponyville when Spike had felt overlooked, even superfluous. Like nopony would've cared or even noticed if he'd just disappeared.
“It’s awful, Your Great-and-Honorableness, just awful!”
He couldn’t help but think of those times as he walked into Castle Canterlot, royal guards milling around him and shouting over one another. He found himself split between wanting to reassure his younger self and telling off the foolish whelp. Oh, ponies definitely noticed when he wasn’t there these days. Spike sighed, sending a smoke ring up to the ceiling of the entrance hall. “I figured that much. I wouldn’t have rushed back from the Badlands if it weren’t. Now can one of you stop panicking long enough to tell me what’s awful?”
The three guards gibbered unhelpfully, but a voice on the stairs said, “It’s Princess Twilight, sir.”
Spike spread his wings and went over the fearful guards, grabbing their spears as he rose before they hurt themselves. He passed the weapons to the speaker once he got closer. “What are we dealing with, Gallus? Code Heliotrope?”
The griffon shook his head as he led Spike further into the castle. “Code Ultraviolet if I’m any judge, sir.”
“Oh, brother.” Spike had arranged the code system with the guard shortly after the accession. More severe Twilight freakouts corresponded with more purple warning levels.
“She could certainly use one, sir." Gallus let out the faintest suggestion of sound as he breathed out. Between that and his stiffer-than-usual posture, it was the most emotion Spike had seen him show while on duty. "She’s been holed up in the royal quarters for almost two days now.”
Spike held back his wince. Between staff and more composed guardcreatures, they had a continual audience en route to Twilight, one that would eagerly spread news of Sir Spike himself looking worried. “Well, at least she’s been moving the sun and moon. Has she been eating?”
Gallus shrugged his wings, making the spears held under one clatter. “She’s been refusing meals, but the kitchen staff has reported missing stock. Mostly—”
“Daffodils, daisies, and white bread?”
Spike nodded, suspicions confirmed. “Okay. Not as bad as it could be.” Twilight raiding the kitchen for comfort food was definitely better than neglecting herself completely.
That prompted the slightest twitch of Gallus's beak. “Permission to speak freely, sir?”
“Gallus, I’m not even in the Guard.” Spike held up the medal of office he wore around his neck. “I’m head of the Diplomatic Corps; I’m literally the opposite of the Guard. You can say whatever you want to me, especially where Twilight’s concerned.”
A touch of Gallus's adolescent snark found its way back into his voice. “If it were as bad as it could be, Canterlot would be a smoking crater and Midnight Sparkle would be ravaging the countryside.”
Spike nodded with a grin. “Exactly! You’ve got to look on the bright side."
"The bright side," Gallus echoed flatly.
"Someone has to while Twilight’s doomsaying." They stopped before a door decorated in swirls of gold and silver, six-pointed stars a recurring motif. "And on that note…" Spike knocked on the heavy portal. "Twilight? You okay?”
One moment, he stood in front of the door to the royal quarters. The next, he was blinking fuchsia sparks out of his eyes on the other side. Spike took in the room as he regathered his bearings. It was like stepping back in time to the day before a big test at the Gifted School: unmade bed, bread crumbs and loose petals in the carpet, the barnyard smell of unwashed unicorn heavy in the air. The size of the room, added sourness of unpreened feathers, and discarded regalia were just variations on the theme.
Granted, the last time Twilight had been like this, Spike had been small enough for her to cuddle like Smarty Pants. Now as she latched onto him and wept, he was able to stay standing, if barely, as he combed his claws through the tangles in her ethereal mane. “Yeah, you’re not okay. Wanna talk about it?”
After a few moments, Twilight calmed down enough to get out, “Oh, Spike, it’s awful. Just awful.”
With her face still buried in his chest, Spike let himself roll his eyes. “That’s what your guards were saying. I told you we should’ve screened the recruits for any of the Flower Trio’s relatives.”
That coaxed something out of Twilight. Spike wasn't sure if it was chuckling or sobbing. “I’m serious, Spike. I don’t know how I can fix this." She looked up at him with puffy, bloodshot eyes. "I don’t know if I can fix it!”
“Well, I’m pretty sure the solution isn’t hiding in your room and living on flower sandwiches." Spike managed to extricate himself from the embrace and moved to the bed. He sat on the mattress and tented his claws. "But I can’t know for sure until you tell me what’s wrong.”
“W-well…" Twilight took a few shaky breaths and began pacing about the room, magically flicking away anything in her path with no conscious sign of doing so. "I was… curious. And I actually had a hole in my schedule. They’re doing some fascinating things with divination at the School for Gifted Spellcraft. It takes five different creatures in a twelve-node arcane matrix arranged—”
“Twilight. You’re magibabbling.”
She stopped midstep and frowned at him. “Well it’s better than thinking about what I actually saw." Twilight shuddered at the memory, then redoubled her pacing. A blank scroll floated out of the rack by her bed, along with one of the ballpoint pens Spike had finally talked her into using a few moons ago. "We’ll have to push up the timetable for Luster’s ascension immediately, if not sooner. It may already be too late—”
“Twilight." Spike got up and snatched the growing checklist out of the air, shooting her a hard look. "Just because you sent her to Ponyville doesn’t mean she’s you. We don’t know if she can become an alicorn, we don’t know if she’s fit to rule, and you probably don’t get to duck out after just one generation.”
That got a snort as Twilight lit her horn again. Her crown emerged from a pile of hayburger wrappers in a corner of the room and settled on her brow. “I’m still the princess. I get to make that call.”
Spike licked a claw and started working the dried ketchup stain out of the gold. “Don’t you think forcing some poor filly who’s nowhere near ready on the throne might cause whatever disaster you're worried about?”
Twilight held her glare for a few seconds before her ears folded back and her gaze hit the floor. Quietly, she said, “How do we know that didn't already happen?”
“Hey now." Spike knelt down and gave her a one-armed hug. "You were ready, not just for disasters, but day-to-day administration. Luster’s barely been in Ponyville for a year.” His cheeks bulged as a familiar bloated feeling welled up in his stomach, and he turned away as he belched up a scroll sealed with a rising sun. He held it up with a smirk. "See what I mean? Still sending friendship reports."
“I see your point. Still, given all the examples in both myth and corroborated history of fulfilling prophecies by trying to avert them, I figured the safest thing to do was nothing at all. Beyond maintaining the day-night cycle, anyway.” Twilight gasped, eyes wide. “I’m so sorry! Somecreature must have torn you away from the buffalo-changeling border dispute just so you could get me out of this funk.”
Spike smiled and tousled her mane. “Hey, you’re always my top priority. I was keeping you steady long before I started resolving interspecies incidents.”
Twilight sighed, sitting on the floor and poking a hipposandal. “And we see what happens when I don’t have my emotional support dragon on hoof.”
“Look, I’m not saying those first few years on the throne weren’t rough." Spike sat next to her and put an arm over her withers. "But you’re through your adjustment period. You know what you’re doing, and if you asked any creature on the street, they’d agree with me. Shoot, this is the biggest freakout you’ve had since Flurry Heart's seventh birthday!”
“Yeah, I’ve gotten pretty good at pretending to be sane and rational and the kind of pony anypony should let anywhere near the crown.” Twilight brought a hoof to the headwear.
Spike grabbed her by the fetlock with one claw and gently turned her head with the other until she was looking at him. “You’ve led Equestria into a golden age unlike any point in history. You could’ve taken over the world three times by now, and you’re smart enough to not want to.”
“But nothing. Not until you at least tell me what you saw.”
Twilight bit her lip, looking everywhere but at Spike. “Well…”
He raised an eyeridge. “Well?”
She teleported out of his grip, making him fall over. Judging by the sound of the hoofsteps as Spike got back up, Twilight had moved out to the balcony. “It was vague, okay? All I got were a few glimpses and general impressions. But even that was horrifying!”
“Why?” he asked as he dusted himself off.
“There was no magic!”
Spike took a few moments to think about that. “What, none? At all? How does that even work? The sun, the seasons, life itself…”
“I don’t know," said Twilight, shaking her head. "All I know is that Equestria had forgotten Harmony and friendship. The tribes had segregated themselves again, isolated by distrust and suspicion. And magic’s absence meant there were no windigoes to urge them back together. No need to depend on one another for essential things like moving the heavens or providing good weather." She looked back, horror clear in her eyes. "It will be worse than the Three Tribes Era.”
“Ah." Spike cleared his throat, imagining an unforgiving wasteland of bitter ponies on the edge of survival. "So. Dark age?”
Twilight frowned, wings shifting as she thought. “Actually, the clearest image I got was a young earth mare in a modern bedroom.”
That fractured the mental image nicely. “What.”
“I can still see it clearly. Plastic, electronics…" Twilight's head tilted as she considered the memory. "I think there were a few things we’re still working on bringing in from the human world.”
“So not a dark age.”
“Technologically, no. Harmoniously? Absolutely.”
Spike thought about everything he'd picked up from his considerable experience with chronomancy. “You’re sure this was the future? Our future?”
“I did consider the possibility that I was seeing a parallel worldline, or maybe pre-Exodus Girthshire. There are theories that the Three Tribes Era was much more advanced than we believe. I never could get a straight answer out of Star Swirl there." Twilight sighed and shook her head. "But I know it was Equestria. That was one of the strongest impressions the spell gave me. And the earth mare I saw, Sunny Starscout, she was Luster’s age but didn’t have a cutie mark.”
“And the plastic I mentioned?”
Spike blinked, next question forgotten as he took in Twilight's haunted look. “Yeah?”
“There were six figurines on Sunny’s nightstand. The girls and me." Twilight shook her head. "They still remember who we are, Spike, but they don’t care.”
“Do you know what Sunny was going to do? Will do? Will have done before you looked?" Spike groaned. "I hate time travel.”
“Reunite the tribes and rediscover the magic of friendship." After a moment, Twilight added, "And magic in general.”
The earlier objection came back to Spike's mind. “Never mind that there was enough magic for you to see that future.”
Twilight just rolled her eyes. “Okay, so there may be some latent background energy like in the human world before Sunset and I unbalanced it. But my point still stands!”
“A Skylight Lightword will save the day. Business as usual. What’s the problem?”
“The problem is the tribes will divide and magic will be lost in the meantime." Twilight swept a foreleg across the view of Canterlot and beyond. "The problem is that this so-called golden age of mine will collapse. The problem is that everything I’ve done, everything I’ve fought for…" She slumped, head and wings both drooping. "It’s not going to matter. It’s not going to last.”
Spike tried to stop it. He really did. But the chuckle got out all the same.
Twilight glared up at him through her everflowing bangs. “Seriously?”
“Sorry. I just remembered a joke Ember told me once.”
Her mouth worked silently for a few moments. “How? How can you think of jokes at a time like this?”
Spike shrugged. “It’s pretty relevant. You know what the difference is between dragons and ponies?”
Twilight sat and gave him a flat stare. “No. What?”
“Dragons think a thousand people is a big crowd. Ponies think a thousand years is a long time.”
After a few moments, Twilight shrugged her wings. “I don’t get it.”
“Torch fought Flash Magnus, Twilight. Before Flash went into Limbo. From a dragon’s perspective, there isn’t much ponies can do that can last.”
"I am immortal. That fiasco with the Red Bull proved it."
"Yeah, but you can still get banished to the North Star for a thousand years or something," said Spike. "That's not my point."
Twilight rolled her eyes. “Then what is your point? Should I embrace the transience of existence, immortality or not, and accept the inevitable loss of everything I worked for as part of entropy’s slow, inexorable consumption of all things?”
Spike shook his head, still grinning. “No. I’m saying that you should do everything you can to make that glimpse of the future as wrong as possible. Do what you do best and put together a couple dozen workarounds and backup plans." He managed to marshal his expression, kneeling before her. "But just in case it happens anyway, if you want a contingency that will last until it can get to this Sunny Starscout, you should ask a dragon for help.”
There had been times in those halcyon days in Maretime Bay when Sunny had felt overlooked, even superfluous. Like nopony would've cared or even noticed if she'd just disappeared.
Given how they'd thrown her out on her orange rump for harboring a unicorn, she was probably right. But Izzy Moonbow had been and still was one of the most interesting ponies Sunny had ever met... even if it wasn't always in ways that made sense.
“You know you can take off the tennis ball whenever you want, right?”
The fuchsia mare looked up at the ball, still impaled on her horn since one of the Maretime Bay guards had stuck it there. Izzy shrugged as best she could while they moved along an overgrown forest trail. “I like it. It could be the next big thing in accessories. I’ll definitely lose fewer pillows with it on.”
A cleared throat from up ahead drew their attention to Hitch Trailblazer, still living up to his name and still treating Sunny's quest for tribal integration like a military operation. “Uh, girls?" said the yellow earth stallion. "Could we maybe focus on the lost ruins we’re supposed to be finding?”
"Right." Sunny frowned in thought. "I'm still not sure how trying to promote tribal integration led to some epic quest for forgotten something-or-others."
"Hey, you heard the flying Pomeranian."
She gave Izzy a sidelong look. "Are you sure that thing was an oracle? And that it said 'the ruins on Ponehenge'?"
"Well, my Old Nhorse is a little rusty, but—"
“Hey guys!” All three jumped and craned their heads up to see the fourth member of their party waving her pink forelegs almost as fast as her wings. "I found something! Hang a left!"
“Um. Right. Sure,” Hitch mumbled.
As Izzy raced ahead, Sunny gave him a hip check. “Be nice, Hitch. Pipp’s a pony like you or me.”
He leaned in close and hissed, “She’s a pony flying in the air like some kind of witch!”
Sunny closed the debate with a raspberry and cantered to answer the call. She shot out of the woods and into a clearing, with strange monoliths arranged in a circle where Izzy stood, looking around. “Yeah, Izzy?”
The unicorn approached one of the standing stones and tilted her head. “I’m no earth pony rocktologist, but is Ponehenge supposed to be green?”
“Uh. Hmm…” Sunny considered the odd, tapering behemoths. "Now that you mention it..." She leaned in close to one. It wasn't moss or some other growth; the material itself was green. "Maybe it's algae?" She poked it.
The earth began to shake beneath her hooves.
Hitch had walked within the circle just before the tremors started. He reared up, eyes bugging out, and cried, “We gotta get out of here!” The moment he turned around, something erupted from the earth, cutting off his escape.
"Hey, quick check," Pipp said from above. "Is this a problem for you wingless types?"
Hitch scowled up at her and stomped a hoof. “Did you plan this?”
“Plan it? I don’t even know what’s going on!”
A sound like thunder captured everypony's attention. Sunny watched the thing move back and forth, clumps of soil falling off and gouts of smoke puffing out of fissures on its front. Eventually, she realized what it was, and why she hadn't before.
Nothing that big should be a head.
Hitch trembled in place. "D-d-d-d-d..."
"Dragon!" cried Izzy, sounding far too pleased at the situation.
Great eyelids folded back. The slit-pupiled eyes within were narrow on the behemoth, but still bigger than any of the ponies. It leaned close, and Sunny was too terrified to move away. After a few moments of not eating her, it pulled back, lips unfolding to reveal an uncomfortable number of uncomfortably sharp teeth. A voice scarcely different from the quake said, “Well. Sunny Starscout, I presume.”
Everypony's gaze turned to Sunny. She looked back and forth between them, and that soon gave way to just shaking her head. “Don’t look at me! I don’t know what’s going on either!”
A low, repeated grinding sound came from the dragon. It would take Sunny several hours to realize it was laughter. “Don’t worry. I was sent by somepony who did.” It stared at her, lingering on... Well, it was hard to tell with something that size, but Sunny though it might have been her satchel. “Somepony who, hopefully, still does.”
Sunny swallowed. She was going to make the world a better place, she told herself. World-improvers didn't throw up in front of ponies. “Wh-who’s that?”
More clumps of soil fell to the ground as enormous lips—did dragons have lips?—curled up at the edges. “I’m not sure you’d believe me if I’d told you. But I am here to help.”
Everypony shared a few uncomfortable glances at that. “I’m just trying to bring ponies together," said Sunny. "I want to change the world, but not in a way that needs a dragon." She cleared her throat and tried to still her shaky knees. "Um. Sir. No offense?”
That enormous head swung from side to side. “None taken. And I’m not offering my services as a dragon.” The dragon leaned back, and with another tremor, a great limb emerged from the ground. Around a claw longer than Hitch was wrapped a ribbon, and to the ribbon was tied a bit of glittering gold. The dragon brought it close enough to see in detail, and Sunny saw it had the same six-pointed star design as her satchel.
The symbol of a mare everypony thought was a myth.
The dragon grinned again, and Sunny found herself getting used to it. “My little ponies," it said, "I’m offering my services as an ambassador.”