It was just after 3 A.M. in Ponyville. Twilight Sparkle was still awake---heavy bags under her eyes and a disheveled mane that was popping out in all directions---writing onto a sheet of paper with her levitated quill. Spike paced back and forth just behind her, struggling to remain conscious. He actively awaited any orders that Twilight might give him, such as to fetch her another quill once the one she was using inevitably snapped, or to replenish her inkwell, which appeared to dry up too frequently. However, as unpleasant as it was, as much as Spike longed to be sound asleep at the moment, it was by his own choice that he was still awake.
The library was in a state of disarray that was practically common whenever Twilight went overboard with her studies. Several potion-related books were strewn about the floor, readily open as a means of quick reference. Loose paper was scattered everywhere as Twilight had sifted through them looking for a sheet containing a list of unique potions that Zecora had given her, and a small pile of broken quills lay stiffly beside her.
"And...done!" Twilight proudly exclaimed, lying down her quill. After three days of nearly non-stop book-hitting and quill-snapping, running on little more than a fierce determination, she had just put the finishing touches on a sixteen-page research paper over obscure and unorthodox potions.
"Finally!" Spike's legs ceased to move and he collapsed with exhaustion.
"Well, this was quite the informative endeavor," Twilight yawned as she stacked the papers neatly and placed them onto her working table. "Thank you so much for all your help, Spike. Now, please get some rest. I'm still not sure why---"
The sound of snoring reached Twilight's ears and she spun around to find Spike wholly knocked out on the floor. She chuckled and magically lifted him up the stairs and into his bed, tucking him in. Twilight figured that there was no harm in getting some shuteye herself, especially since she had only managed to get, at most, four hours of sleep over the last three days. The mess in the library could wait. She plummeted onto her bed and, without even taking the time to tuck herself in, drifted asleep almost as quickly as Spike had.
Twilight was awakened about seven hours later by the light of the mid-morning sun. Her thoughts instantly trailed to her research paper, and it felt amazing to finally be finished after three lengthy, sleep-depraved days. Her mind was now brimming with all new knowledge of potions learned while conducting research, and that, she felt, made the entire thing worthwhile. Then she suddenly remembered that the library was still in shambles, and it wasn't just going to clean itself.
She took a moment to brush her disheveled mane and rid all signs of drowsiness from her face, reverting back to her pre-paper state. It took her a while to notice that Spike was not in his bed. Highly unusual, not only because she was normally awake before him, but because he also hadn't managed to get much sleep over the last few days and Twilight had almost expected him to be sleeping for most of the day. When she walked downstairs, she was pleasantly surprised to see that the library was nearly back to normal. Spike was collecting the last of the loose sheets of paper; he had already put away the books and discarded the broken quills.
"Morning, Twilight," Spike beamed at her presence.
"Wow, Spike. What's with you this morning? You're almost never up before I am, and now this?"
"You got even less sleep than I did these last three days," Spike explained as he placed the papers back where they belonged. "I wasn't just going to let you wake up to a messy library. Not as long as I'm still your Number One Assistant!"
"That you most certainly are!" Twilight smiled affectionately. "And I think my Number One Assistant deserves a little something for all his help these last few days. Something like....Sapphire Gem pancakes for breakfast?"
Spike's eyes widened and mouth watered at the very thought of such a succulent meal. There was only one restaurant in Ponyville that served it: The Cordon Rose. "Y-you mean it?"
"Of course! You've earned it. Let's go."
Spike hopped on Twilight's back and they were off.
It appeared to be another seemingly ordinary day in Ponyville. The weather was only partly cloudy, just as the pegasus ponies had intended. The next bout rain was not for another few days. Unfortunately, Derpy perceived this to be some kind of scheduling error and attempted to coax some precipitation out of some thin, cirrus clouds while nearby pegasi looked on with a mixture of disdain and pity. Twilight noticed a pair of high-class unicorn mares wearing Ruby-encrusted headdresses that Rarity had designed. She suddenly remembered Rarity telling her that two journalists from Effervescence, Manehattan's premier fashion magazine were come to Ponyville to interview her. Twilight made quick a mental note to visit Rarity today and find out how it went. Though there was nothing particularly special about this morning, being shut in for the last three days made Twilight realize how much she had missed taking these kinds of trots around town. But she missed her friends more than anything. Naturally, she had been far to busy to spend any time with them over the last few days. She made another mental note to schedule an afternoon picnic.
"Should we send your paper to Princess Celestia when we get back?" Spike asked eagerly as Twilight continued to trot to the restaurant. He was eager to finally be rid of the thing that had so cruelly deprived them of sleep.
"Oh, that can wait until later. She's not even expecting it until next week."
"WHAT?!" Spike said incredulously. "I thought you said that the deadline was today!"
"My own, personal deadline was today. I wanted to have it finished at least a week early," Twilight said with partial conceit.
Spike sat in place, stunned. Twilight had always been overly studious, but as far as he knew, she had never deliberately denied herself sleep to complete an assignment a full week before it was due.
"B-but why?" Spike asked.
"I've advanced in my studies, Spike. That means that Princess Celestia is going to be expecting more from me than ever before. I don't intend on falling behind."
Spike sat silently for a minute. He couldn't truly be surprised by this. It had been about two weeks since Twilight had passed her test at the Crystal Empire, and ever since then she had been overdoing herself on every assignment, every lesson that Princess Celestia had been sending her.
"I don't know, Twilight. I don't think she really wants you to overwork yourself like that," Spike said, knowing that his words would fall on deaf ears.
"She wants to know if I've reached my limit. I'm going to prove to her that I haven't," Twilight stated confidently.
Spike let out an exasperated sigh. He knew there was no point in trying to convince her. Although Twilight's perceptions of Celestia's less-than-merciful nature had been proven false time and time again, she still stubbornly believed that she was only one small mistake away from being permanently dismissed as her student.
"Is something wrong, Spike?" Twilight asked, responding to his sigh.
"It's nothing..." Spike replied.
"You know, you didn't need to stay up with me. I could have gotten my own quills and---"
"Yes, I did!" Spike said so loudly that Twilight nearly stopped in her tracks. He looked off to the side, so as not to meet her gaze if she turned to look at him. Twilight was taken aback, unsure how to respond.
"....Okay, then," she said the only thing that really came to mind. She was now clear that something was bothering Spike, but he probably wasn't going to come out with it at the moment.
"We'll go visit Rarity later. I'm eager to find out how her interview went," Twilight said, hoping that this would help to lift his spirits.
Spike cracked a smile, but said nothing.
The rest of the trip was silent. Twilight waved to her various Ponyville acquaintances as she passed them by. It appeared as though just about everypony was trying to enjoy the perfect morning while they still could, before the skies would become cloudier in preparation for the upcoming rainfall. As they neared The Cordon Rose, Twilight resolved to get Spike to open up over breakfast.
Twilight and Spike arrived at the restaurant a few minutes later. They sat down at an outdoor table to continue enjoying the weather and environment. After having their orders taken, Spike attempted to avoid eye contact with Twilight. He looked down at the table, lightly scratching it with a claw. An uncomfortable atmosphere seemed to form between them, as if they were sitting in the middle of the Everfree Forest, unable to move, with a hoard of ravenous creatures charging their way. Spike knew it was inevitable; this atmosphere simply could not persist.
"Are you ready to talk now?" Twilight asked him.
Spike nodded and slowly raised his eyes to look at her. There was no point in prolonging it.
"Don't you remember how unprepared I was when Princess Celestia told me that she was giving me a test? I can't let that happen again, at any cost. And I have to show her that I can handle it. I mean, it's bad enough that I didn't even pass the test in the way that she expected, so I can't---"
Spike grunted with irritation. A pit began to form in his stomach, nullifying his hunger.
"You still bring that up! Do you blame me or something?" he asked, diverting his green, glaring eyes away from her.
Over the last few weeks, Twilight had not been particularly shy about expressing her disappointment that she had not been the one to save the Crystal Empire.
"No, no, of course I don't blame you. Not at all. It's just.....I kind of wish it had turned out differently," she said with an affectionate tone.
This didn't appear make Spike any happier. He shifted his glare back over to her.
"Hey, if you hadn't come with me, I wouldn't have passed at all. And even worse, Sombra might have gained control of the Crystal Empire again," Twilight reminded him.
"I know. But you did pass, Twilight. Isn't that good enough?"
"You don't understand, Spike. I couldn't do it on my own. I was so foolish. I charged right ahead without really thinking, and that nearly cost the crystal ponies everything. Not to mention Cadence, Shining Armor, and the rest of our friends."
"And stressing yourself out, shutting yourself away from the world for three days, and denying yourself sleep is going to make up for that?" Spike asked inquiringly.
Twilight was stunned by his response.
"It's done, Twilight. It might not have turned out the way you expected, but everything still worked out in the end. Just let it go," Spike said.
Twilight was suddenly irritable. She couldn't just "let it go"---not just like that.
"I won't let that happen again. I can't!" Twilight firmly pounded a hoof on the table.
"Fine, then!" Spike threw his claws into the air. "Just resolve yourself to do better next time. There's no point beating yourself up over it, especially when you still passed."
Twilight's irritability grew at Spike's lack of understanding.
"There won't be a next time, Spike!" Twilight groaned. "I don't even think Princess Celestia is going to give me a test of such magnitude again, considering how close I came to failing!"
"You think that sending her your paper a week early will change her mind?" Spike asked.
"Uhh....umm...well, it would be a start!" Twilight stated indignantly.
They were speaking so loudly that some ponies seated at nearby tables had turned to look at them. Feelings that Twilight had been repressing ever since leaving the Crystal Empire were finally being unleashed like a parasprite on a bushel of apples. She suddenly remembered that she had only initiated this talk to get Spike to open up, yet somehow she was the one who had been thrown wide open like a book. How did that happen?
Twilight sighed and pressed her face into the table. A few silent minutes passed, during which time a waiter delivered them their breakfast (Twilight had ordered blueberry oatmeal). However, neither of them were particularly hungry at the moment. The atmosphere between them had seemed to worsen. The trees of the Everfree were ominously closing in around them and the air was thinning, stifling. Malicious growls could be heard everywhere between the trees; they were surrounded by all manner of beasts, casually lying in wait.
"Why do you do this to yourself?" Spike asked, initiating the conversation again.
Twilight slowly raised her head and looked at her dragon assistant with half-open eyes. "Do what to myself?"
"Expect the worst of everything with no good reason to? Maybe you could try being more optimistic? Maybe one day you can just accept that nothing will go wrong....and maybe nothing will," Spike said.
Twilight just stared at him.
"I mean, sometimes it's really funny to see you just completely freak out over nothing. But....other times I really worry about you," Spike explained.
"You don't need to worry about me, Spike," Twilight sighed.
Spike glanced sideways at her.
"Really? This coming from the pony who enchanted a doll and caused nearly all of Ponyville to lose their minds with the sole intention of creating problem that she could solve herself, and then write about it in a letter to Celestia?"
Twilight lowered her head and closed her eyes, a somewhat vain attempt alleviate humiliation.
"Okay, okay, you don't usually take it that far," Spike said as an apology for bringing up a matter that Twilight had been struggling to forget.
"I still don't want you to worry about me," Twilight stated, raising her head back up. "I usually figure things out, one way or another."
Spike looked down at his pancakes. They were still just sitting there, waiting to be eaten. He wanted so desperately to dig into them, but the pit he felt in his stomach simply would not allow that.
"When we left the Crystal Empire, and you were so afraid that you were going to fail the test, I wasn't sure what to do. If you had failed, you would have been completely inconsolable, and it would have been my fault because I was the one who had returned the Crystal Heart, not you. You don't know how relieved I was when you told us that you had passed. I thought that it was finally over. But it's not. You still think that you didn't deserve to pass, and.......I still feel guilty."
Twilight felt numb. There was no way she could formulate a sufficient response. Fortunately, Spike did not wait for her to.
"So, yes, I worry about you. I worry that your irrational fears about everything will make you lose yourself again, only you won't come back as easily."
Twilight was at a complete loss for words. It was highly uncommon for Spike to unravel his feelings like this. Everything in the Everfree had suddenly stopped moving. No more growls could be heard---no more ominous screeches. An exuberant, beaming light in the distance directed them towards the way out. Spike had regained the ability to move, but Twilight was still rooted to the ground.
Spike looked deeply at her, as if awaiting some reassurance.
"....I'm so sorry. I never meant to make you feel that way."
Spike nodded. "I know, Twilight, I know. That's why I never brought it up."
"Well if you had, I wouldn't have kept mentioning it. Gosh, Spike! I must have brought up the test more than a dozen times since we got back and I had no idea how it was making you feel. You should have told me!" Twilight exclaimed. Spike's feelings of guilt had just transferred to her.
"Yeah, I guess so," Spike nodded gently.
"You have no reason at all to feel guilty. Besides, I'm the one who told you to get the Crystal Heart to the fair. How could I possibly blame you?"
"I don't want you to just stop mentioning it. I want you to get over it. Princess Celestia would not have passed you if she didn't think that you handled the situation well. And besides, would you really want to take another test whose outcome will determine the fate of an entire civilization?"
Twilight thought about it for a minute. "No, not really. You're right, Spike. I should just let it go."
Spike grinned. He was now feeling well enough to eat. He grabbed his fork and lunged it headfirst into the stack of pancakes, prying away a large, gem-covered mouthful. Twilight still wasn't hungry, especially now that she had just been hit with a wave of guilt, but finally accepting what had happened at the Crystal Empire was like an enormous boulder (at least three times the size of Tom) had finally been lifted off her back. There was something she now wanted to know.
"Spike, why did you want to stay up with me these last three days?" Twilight asked.
Spike gulped down the mouthful of pancakes and set down his fork.
"You've really been overworking yourself lately. I just figured that I could help you out more."
"I truly appreciate it, Spike, but I would still prefer it if you didn't lose sleep."
"So would I," Spike said. "But how can I just let myself sleep when you're under so much stress?"
Twilight cocked her head and squinted her eyes at him. "Okay, I would really like to know what happened to my Spike, because I have no idea who is sitting across from me right now."
Spike shrugged. "Maybe I'm trying to prove something....like you."
"I'm not sure."
Spike once again dug into his pancakes and Twilight figured that it was time for her to eat as well. Impossible as it was to believe, the Everfree was backing away. The trees shrunk in size, the beasts had scurried off. Everything was surprisingly calm. Twilight was no longer rooted to the ground; it was now time to make their way out. But not just yet....
"Hm?" Spike responded, mouth full of pancakes.
"Why exactly did you want to come with me when I went to go look for the Crystal Heart? I told you that I had to do it on my own; that you couldn't help me. But you still wanted to come. Why?"
Spike swallowed and looked down.
"I needed to make it up to you."
"Make what up to me?"
"The wedding. You were so convinced that something was amiss with Cadence, and you were right. You needed support and you didn't get any from me, because I thought you were wrong. I felt like I let you down. That's why I felt that I had to go with you. Even if I couldn't help you find the Crystal Heart, it would have been enough for me to show you that I had your back."
"You didn't let me down. I don't blame you for thinking I was wrong. Everypony did, even Princess Celestia."
"I still should have known. Because.....when are you ever wrong?"
"I'm wrong far more often than I'd like to be," Twilight replied. "But like you just told me, it's done. Just let it go."
Spike nodded in understanding.
They finished off their breakfast and paid the tab. Spike lamented to himself that a more succulent breakfast would not pass his lips for a good, long while.
"I think I know what I'm trying to prove," Spike said, standing up.
"And what's that?" Twilight did the same.
"That maybe you can start trusting me more."
Twilight was utterly bewildered. It was as though Spike had undergone some kind of metamorphosis recently and was now an entirely different dragon. What in Equestria had happened to the Spike who did nothing but scarf down ice cream for days while she had desperately attempted to avert a non-impending, non-existent crisis?
"Oh, Spike. You've got to stop growing up on me."
Spike blushed and smiled. There was no longer any need for them to find their way out of the Everfree. It had faded all around them; it was gone. Peace was kindled.
Twilight and Spike hugged each other. With their repressed feelings finally on the table, it was as though they were meeting again after being apart for a very long time.
"Maybe we should do this more often?" Spike said casually.
Twilight chuckled. "Or maybe you can start actually telling me when something is bothering you instead of just keeping it bottled up?"
"Yeah. That sounds good," Spike nodded.
"Come on, let's go pay Rarity a visit," Twilight said.
"And your paper?"
"We can send it off today, or we can wait a few days. Either way is fine with me."
Spike shrugged and hopped on Twilight's back, and they made off for Carousel Boutique.