After the anesthetic spell had gone into effect, it had been easy enough to tend to the filly’s broken leg, with the exception of when Twilight had to figure out what to use in place of bandages.
She wasn’t going to miss the index of Arcanodynamics 101. Those forty-three pages had gone to a good cause, and an index was unnecessary when Twilight knew where every relevant term was located anyways.
Knowing these things didn’t stop her from wincing every time she saw the cast on Fate’s leg. She could still make out the text under the plaster.
By the time Twilight had finished with that whole ordeal and left the library, the sun had already begun to set. The rain had subsided in that same time, leaving the skies clear and the warmth of sunset unhindered to spread across the sky.
The birds were beginning to come out again, letting their songs be heard so easily in the absence of the droning of the rain, spreading their wings and soaring around the ruined skyscrapers above in lazy spirals. The ponies might have been gone, but the city was still very much alive.
Twilight didn’t often fly. She was no Rainbow Dash, and most days the alicorn was perfectly content to stay earthbound, where she was free from the worry of losing control and being reacquainted with gravity’s usual effects. Yet, at the sight of the birds in the sky, Twilight found herself aching to spread her own wings, to let them carry her into the free air, to feel the currents between their feathers. For one sinful moment, she imagined herself flying into that sunset and never returning, chasing after the sun, forever basking in the warmth of the almost-evening.
She felt the weight shift on her back and remembered that Fate was still there.
Twilight quickly dismissed the fantasy, though a part of her resisted more than she was comfortable with. There was no way Twilight was going to fly when she had Fate with her. What if she dropped her? What if the filly woke up and had a heart attack from the stress of being exposed to flight for the first time? The very thought of flight right now…reprehensible.
Twilight tore her gaze away from the birds above, keeping her eyes firmly on the street below her hooves as she made her way through the city. As she walked further, the buildings around her became smaller. Concrete gave way to the more traditional construction materials of brick, mortar, and wood. Subsequently, the farther Twilight got from the center of the city, the further the city fell into disrepair. The weaker, squatter buildings could not withstand the forces of nature, and most found themselves consumed by various intensities of overgrowth, if their foundations hadn’t already collapsed entirely. Relentlessly, the trees spread themselves, their roots slithering through the road like wriggling parasites, their trunks bursting out of roofs. The foliage grew thicker and thicker until there were no buildings left to speak of, thusly demarcating the point where Twilight had left the city and entered the wilderness proper.
Twilight continued to walk, long after the sun had set, before Fate finally spoke up.
“Where are you taking me?”
“Wh-huh?!” Twilight’s voice shot up two pitches. She turned her head in Fate’s direction and nearly walked headfirst into a tree when she wasn’t looking. Flustered, Twilight asked, “Fate—How long have you been awake for?”
“I think the sun was still up when I woke up. Where are you taking me?”
“Well—you know—Just past there. Out here.” Twilight exhaled sharply. “There’s a clearing where I’ve been staying. I couldn’t stay in the library all day and I wasn’t going to just leave you there alone either, so I’m bringing you there. If you’ve got a problem with that, I’m sorry. Can you give me a little more warning next time you decide to speak up?”
“What are you going to do with me there?” Fate said, not acknowledging Twilight’s request whatsoever.
Twilight cocked an eyebrow at the filly, her curiosity overtaking her irritation. “What do you think I’m going to do with you there?”
Fate hesitated. “I-I don’t know. I’ve never been with an Outsider before. I’m not even supposed to talk to them.”
“Anypony who isn’t my mom, my dad, or my brothers is an Outsider. ‘A pony you know, good to go. A pony who’s strange, run far away.’” She recited the mantra as if she had done it many times before. “Most Outsiders just get angry and yell at us, but then we go away, and they leave us alone. You aren’t anything like that, though.”
“I can promise you, Fate, that I have no ill intent in giving you free medical care.” She looked upwards and saw that the moon had just barely moved past its apex. “It’s too late to be doing much else. I think I’ll just have you stay with us for the night. You can show me where your family lives in the morning, and I can bring you back then.”
“I don’t know where my family is, Twilight.”
“In that case, we can probably just go to your house or whatever you live in and wait for them to come back home. If they’re not back already. Nothing to be concerned about.”
“It’s not that easy.” She muttered the last part as an aside. “It’s been a…really long time since I last saw them.”
Twilight frowned. “How long is a long time?”
The filly helplessly shrugged and said nothing more after that, falling once more into a morose silence. Twilight didn’t push it.
The two emerged from the forest into a meadow. Given the aggressiveness which the forest had displayed in spreading, the willingness which it parted for the space was nearly inexplicable, the size of the space equally as baffling. The meadow stretched far enough in all directions to be able to comfortably stroll around, hills gently rolling across its diameter.
It was certainly a pleasant place, but Twilight had primarily chosen to reside in the meadow because it was big, and it was open. Spike was no longer the baby-gaited dragon assistant she had known for her early adulthood, and he needed the room if he was going to be comfortable.
Spike was resting in the center of the meadow at that moment. A campfire flickered dimly by his side, casting shadows across his broad features as he stared into it. His chest heaved with each breath, drawn roughly into his lungs as if each were his last. His silhouette seemed to ebb and flow with the movement of the flames.
“Hey, Spike. How are you feeling?” Twilight greeted the dragon as she approached, throwing into the campfire a few choice pieces of wood she had picked up in the forest.
“Stale.” He rasped, in a deep rumbling baritone that Twilight could feel in her chest.
“Is that…better than before?”
Spike gave a wheezy chuckle, nearly snuffing out the campfire as he did so. “The same. Did you bring the painkillers?”
The bottle from the hospital rattled as Twilight took it out of her saddlebags. Spike reached a trembling claw towards it, but the alicorn yanked it away. “Just for the record, I only got these for you because I had to be at the hospital anyways. You don’t really need these.”
“No, but I also don’t need to feel my organs slowly deteriorating. I’m already dying. A few doses of whatever is in that bottle isn’t going to make things worse.”
“Don’t be melodramatic. You’re not dying, Spike. I’ve done the diagnostic spells. You just need more rest.” Twilight stated, with steel in her voice that surprised even her. Though, it really shouldn’t have. It was true, after all, and the sternness that Twilight put through her voice was simply reaffirming the reality to Spike with the proper amount of force.
She floated the bottle over to Spike anyway. In his claw, the bottle seemed barely larger than a thimble, and it seemed even smaller when he dumped the entirety of the contents into his mouth, which opened to thrice Twilight’s height. He swallowed it all in a single gulp.
Twilight’s expression softened. She moved a comforting hoof down his side, trying to ignore the cracked purple scales that had never healed, or the dust between them that never seemed to scrub off. “…So, are you feeling better now?”
“Give it a few minutes, Twi. Weren’t you the one who always told me to be patient?” He chortled, which sounded of grinding cobblestones. “While we’re waiting: who’s that on your back?”
Twilight dragged a hoof across her face when she realized that she had forgotten Fate, again. She offered a slew of profuse apologies to Fate, who was still on her back.
Twilight eventually gave up on apologies once she felt her throat going raw. “—introductions, yes. I… suppose I should start on those. Spike, this is Fate. She’s a filly—yes, a filly, a real pony, not an animal—that I found in the library. She broke her leg when I met her, so I decided to let her stay with us until we find her parents. She may be an orphan. Erm, sorry, not my place to say.
“Fate, this is Spike. He’s my…” He’s my what? My number one assistant? My best friend? My adoptive son? “…number one son.” She recovered from the stumble before any expletives could follow. “Err—my only son, actually. I hope you two are delighted to meet each other.”
“Fate.” Spike paused, mulling over the name in his head. “Rather grim name. Is she always that pale?”
Twilight turned to look at Fate, who was still on her back. The filly’s whole body had gone statuesque, and her pale coat had lightened several shades. Her golden mane resembled wheat especially well in that moment, with the way Fate had composed herself like a plant.
“Twilight… you did warn her about me, didn’t you?”
The alicorn turned back to Spike, cocking her head. “No, of course not. Is that a problem?”
“If I were younger,” Spike pressed his index talon into his chest to emphasize, “I wouldn’t appreciate being introduced to a dragon the size of a house without warning.”
“Spike, you are a dragon.” Twilight deadpanned.
“Yes, but I appreciate not being eaten or roasted alive as much as the next pony over. Speaking of which, have you even gotten the poor thing anything to eat?”
Twilight stifled a sigh, remembering exactly why her friends never asked her to babysit. “I can fix that.” She assured him.
It took well over an hour for Twilight to make good on her promise. Rummaging through her saddlebags had yielded nothing but a small packet of saltine crackers, which at that point had been smashed into unappetizing bits resembling flakes of paint. She didn’t need the glare from Spike to motivate her to find something better.
After consulting a guide to edible plants that she had procured from the library (Why were acorns poisonous? Weren’t they just oversized nuts?), Twilight had managed to gather enough wildflowers and berries to just barely constitute a meal, which Fate eagerly dug into nonetheless, her previous fears forgotten at the sight of food. It was probably better than whatever she had been eating in the city.
Fate gave her thanks to Twilight for the meal, though she still avoided looking at Spike whenever possible, stealing glances when she thought he wouldn’t notice. She fell asleep soon afterwards, the events of the day finally taking their toll on her.
“So, she’s an orphan?” Spike rumbled.
Twilight shook her head. “I don’t know, Spike. She was alone when I found her, and she claims she hasn’t seen her parents for a long while. What that tells me, I can’t say. I have my theories, is all.”
“Hmph.” The dragon poked the campfire with a talon, sending embers drifting upwards, into the night. “Let’s say she is, then. Say we can’t find her parents. What then?”
Twilight opened her mouth to speak, but hesitated. Her first instinct was to say that Fate could stay with them indefinitely, but given that she had nearly brained the filly with the arcane equivalent of a brick when deciding how to anesthetize her, Twilight wasn’t so sure she was equipped for the task.
Leaving Fate with another family only raised more concerns. Primarily, finding one. It had taken centuries for Twilight to find a single pony in all of Equestria. Where was she going to find a whole family?
In the end, Twilight couldn’t give a straight answer. “I guess we’ll figure it out as we go.”
Spike sighed, his brow furrowing into a solid line. “Just don’t get too attached.”
Twilight’s tail lashed in annoyance behind her. “The first pony you see in years, other than me, and that’s all you have to say about the matter?”
Spike’s eyes met hers, his pupils narrowed to slits. “Maybe I know what’ll happen to you if she dies. Am I the only one who remembers what happened after Ponyville?”
Twilight spotted the sleeping form of Fate in the corner of her eye, the sight being the only thing that prevented her from raising her voice. “Maybe I feel like we’re capable of preventing that outcome, if we’re diligent. What would you have us do? Just abandon her?”
“Yes. I would. You’re not obligated to help her, Twilight.”
“Of course I’m obligated to help her, Spike!” She stamped a hoof into the ground. “Morally obligated. We have a responsibility, here. Hundreds of years of sitting around, accomplishing nothing, and as soon as we finally get the chance to help somepony for once, you would just throw that all away?”
The dragon waited for a coughing fit to wash over him before responding. “My priorities lie with you, Twilight. Not for some kid you just met. She’s been living in that city alone for who knows how long.” Spike growled. “First pony she’s probably seen in years, and the first thing she does is break her leg. Way I see it, that kid’s just one bad day away from falling over dead. It’ll be less painful if you leave it now.”
“I can’t believe you, Spike.” Twilight felt her knees fail, felt herself collapse onto the grass. “Sickly or not, she’s alive now. If she would have died in that city alone, doesn’t that mean that she has a chance to live now that she’s with us? Doesn’t that mean anything to you?”
“No, it doesn’t. Not when I know what this is going to do to you. You’ll be devastated no matter how this goes. She won’t be around forever, Twilight. Even if you somehow, miraculously save this filly, one day, she’ll be gone.” He hung his head lower. “One day, I’ll be gone too. Who’s going to tell you to care for yourself when I’m gone? You need to start considering your wellbeing.”
“Spike, I told you, you’re not dying. You’re going to live forever. I’ll find a way. You know I will.” The words sounded silly even in Twilight’s head, but she said them anyways.
He broke away from Twilight’s glare, returning his gaze back into the dwindling campfire, which was barely more than glowing charcoal. Twilight found herself panting and took the opportunity to catch her breath.
The meadow was completely silent, save for the combined breathing of the two, mother and son. One in desperate gulps, as if she were drowning. The other, like the last gasps of a bellows. Not even the grass swayed.
Spike finally responded. “I’m just worried for you, Twi. If this is really what you want…” He rolled the words over on his tongue before whispering, “…I’ll respect your decision. Just… be sure.”
Her breath finally steadied enough for her to talk. “I’m sure, Spike.”
The last of the embers in the campfire faded, and Spike’s entire body seemed to sag. His bones protested loudly as he relaxed his body on the grass. “G-good night, Twi.” He weakly intoned.
“Good night, Spike.” Twilight said.
Twilight watched Spike as he drifted off into unconsciousness, leaving her alone in the darkness. She moved her gaze upwards. It was a clear night. The space above the meadow swirled with stars, the full moon bathing it all in white light. Twilight’s wings began to ache once more. She looked down at the sleeping forms around her and felt only a twisting in her stomach.
One flap. Another. Her hooves left the ground.