• Published 17th Jan 2012
  • 39,984 Views, 958 Comments

It Takes a Village - determamfidd



Spike only wants things to stay the same. Time, however, has other ideas. He's going to need help...

  • ...
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Chapter 12

Chapter Twelve

Perhaps it wasn't all that long, or perhaps he had become more patient as he grew older (which was highly unlikely), but the wait outside Carousel Boutique didn't seem to drag on and on to Spike this time around. He picked idly at his lustrous claws and watched the sun slipping slowly towards the western horizon. His seated harness lay beside him, shining with elbow grease.

He was deliberately not thinking about the events of the last two days. Razorfang and harpoons and protests attempted to dance through his mind, but he methodically and stubbornly squashed those thoughts before they could consume him. He had to be calm and determined in order to get through the Gala. He had to hold it together.

He could occasionally make out the voices of his friends inside the Boutique, and what he heard was intriguing. "Do you think he'll like it?" he heard Rarity say anxiously. "I do hope it doesn't come across as presumptuous... or worse, tacky."

"I think..." he heard Twilight's voice, before her voice became too low to make out.

"He's had such a horrible day," sighed Fluttershy.

Now he was really curious. He pushed himself up onto his elbows and leaned his ear against Rarity's fanciful door.

"It's been a horrible month," Twilight said acerbically.

"That hasn't stopped him yet! He just keeps pickin' himself back up again." Rainbow Dash sounded very proud of him.

"Well, we can make tonight the most funnest night a dragon ever had in the history of ever!" Pinkie declared.

"At the Grand Gallopin' Gala? Pinkie, you do remember last time, don't you?" Applejack asked.

"Pfft to last time! This has got to be his Best Night Ever!" Pinkie continued. "Everypony's got to be their very smiliest for him, okay? No being all mopey and angry, got that, pony-who-may-or-may-not-be-Twilight?"

"Hmmph."

"I just hope he doesn't think it's... icky," said Rarity, her voice apprehensive.

"Ain't no different to wearin' feathers, t' my mind."

"I think it's totally awesome!" Rainbow Dash announced. "He's gonna be over the moon!"

"Some ponies might find it a bit... macabre..." Rarity fretted.

"I agree with Rainbow Dash," said Fluttershy meekly. "I think he'll be so very pleased."

"I do hope so," Rarity sighed. "Well? Everypony ready? Let's go show him!"

Spike hurriedly yanked his head away from the door, just in time. It opened to reveal his six friends dressed to the nines, their manes and tails expertly coiffed and their coats combed and curried to perfection. They walked out of the Boutique in a line, each eyeing him surreptitiously for his reaction.

"Wow, ladies," he said, impressed. "You look beautiful!"

"Ahem." Rarity coughed.

"He hasn't noticed," Twilight said, shaking her head. Her mane was twisted into an elegant knot at the base of her neck, held in place by a clasp covered in the same shimmering purple material of her gown.

"Noticed what?" Come to think of it, he mused, most of his friends were wearing purple. Or green.

"You don't recognise it?" Rarity's eyebrows shot up.

"Boys," Twilight sighed, a smile quirking into place.

"After all, he only wore it for a whole year," Rainbow Dash snorted.

The bit finally dropped. Spike's heart skipped momentarily and his eyes bugged out as he stared at them - at their shining, glittering, familiar gowns. "That's..."

"Dragon scales," confirmed Twilight. "Your old ones."

He could feel his mouth hanging open like an utter foal.

Rarity, Twilight and Pinkie Pie were all wearing elaborate dresses adorned with his dusky purple scales; Rarity in a slinky jaw-dropping number accentuated with feathers around the hem and shoulders, Twilight in a darker, more severe gown with a slight scooped train and Pinkie in pleats and ruffles so fantastical that Spike could barely believe it. Fluttershy was wearing the lighter, more delicate greens of his chest and belly, the scales affixed to a floaty gauze that drifted about her like mist. Applejack was looking unusually chic in an elegant pantsuit made entirely of the darker green of his spines, a high-collared shirt, and a golden tie affixed with an apple-shaped ruby tiepin. Her customary hat had been enhanced by a thin, glistening green scaled band. Rainbow Dash was clad in sparkling purple and green stripes with bright gold accents at her throat and mane, the asymmetrical skirt cut to one flank and falling sleekly and stylishly to the other side.

"Do you like them?" Rarity asked nervously, one perfectly sculpted curl dripping over her forehead.

He gaped at them a little more. "How..."

"Well..." Twilight raised her eyebrows, "you did say you wanted to give your shed skins to Rarity... and I'd kept the one from last winter..."

He blinked. "You did?"

She looked a little embarrassed. "Yes. It was a bit big to fit in the storage cabinet, so it was up in the attic for a while."

"Why?" he said, staring at them all dressed in his scales.

"I wanted... well, you see..." she said, her purple-bound hooves glinting as she shuffled them. "I forgot to keep any of your baby scales..."

"Anyway darling," Rarity took up the tale, "once you'd told that reporter about giving me your old scales, Twilight had quite the idea. She gave it to me to make into dresses so that I didn't have to wait until next winter. It would have been an absolutely fabulous PR coup for both of us, you see. I could have used it on any part of my upcoming summer range for Hoity Toity, but..."

"But then Princess Celestia invited you to attend the Grand Galloping Gala again," Fluttershy said shyly, her hoof scratching at the ground in absent nervousness. "So Pinkie Pie suggested we turn it into our gowns..."

"As a statement of sol–id-arity!" Pinkie said. "See? I've even got fins in my mane, just like yours! Only yours are green and mine are purple, and I have a mane and you don't!"

Spike's eyebrows were threatening to crawl up over his forehead. "Buh..." he managed.

"You... don't like it?" Rarity said with a dawning horror. "It's offensive? It's... gauche? Oh no!"

"No!" he yelped. "No," he repeated in a calmer voice, a silly grin starting to stretch his mouth. His friends were wearing dragon scales. "Rarity... it's amazing."

Rarity's head whipped back up, a smile beginning to creep over her face. "Really?" she said with uncharacteristically shy pride. "Oh, I was so worried!"

"How... how did you sew it?" he blurted.

"Well, it's a shed skin, Spike," Twilight said, rolling her eyes. "It's not the whole scale, just the top layer. You know that."

"A little transparent and quite a lot thinner," Rarity mused. "Not that it was entirely a picnic to get a needle through it – thank goodness for industrial sewing machines is all I can say. It was quite the challenge trying to find appropriate linings to match your colouring and ours, Spike dear."

He shook his head, trying to clear the dazed wonder from it. "Those are my..." he said dumbly.

Applejack pushed back her hat and cocked one forehoof over the other, boots glinting green. "Yup, sugarcube, we're in yer scales." She grinned.

"You could say..." Pinkie giggled, "you've got us under your skin!"

He couldn't find enough words to tell them how grateful he was at such an overt and public gesture of support, so he just beamed at them hugely, his heart swelling inside his chest.

"I think he likes it," said Rainbow Dash dryly.

"Well, we should get your harness on," Twilight said in a business-like manner, before looking up at his face once more. "Oh, Spike," she said then in her old, affectionate way. The very familiarity of it made his heart leap with joy.

"You're wearing my scales, Twilight," he said, grinning foolishly.

"I did notice," she said, smiling herself. "They're lighter than I thought they would be."

"Flying creature," he said smugly.

"Well then, flying creature, we need to get this harness on you," she said, and her horn blazed with a corona of magic, the harness lifting into the air.

Spike was still so astonished at his friends' choice of material that it took twice as long to get the harness on him; he kept swinging his head back and forth to examine each gown. Twilight exhaled in irritation.

"Hold still, Spike, I can't get this buckle done up," she complained.

"There's ruffles on Pinkie's," he bubbled. "And Fluttershy's is all green!"

Pinkie giggled. "You betcha!"

"Here they come." Dash nodded to the sky. "Is everypony ready?"

Driving through the air was a platoon of approximately twenty Palace Guards, their golden livery turning a dusky rose in the sunset. They flew in two rows in an ordered phalanx shape in absolute unity, every pair of wings beating at the same time. At the head of the phalanx was a dark, graceful silhouette that Spike recognised instantly.

"Luna!" He half-stood in welcome, his face upturned. Twilight swore under her breath as the harness' buckles slipped out of her reach once more.

The Princess of the Night smiled faintly as she touched down to the ground before them with the delicacy of a petal alighting on water. Behind her, the Palace Guard flipped their wings to their backs in unison, their hooves clicking together sharply.

"Good afternoon, Spike," she said, inclining her head. "You look well."

"Thanks," he said bashfully, glancing down at his shining scales and burnished claws.

Her brow furrowed. "You are all right?"

He looked up again, and his happiness dimmed a little. "I'll be okay," he said in a slower voice, "I'm still pretty shaky, but I have to keep going... to endure, like you said."

The corners of her mouth turned upwards the tiniest bit, and her eyes grew warm and approving, though she said nothing. Then she turned to the others, eyebrows rising as she took in their glittering gowns.

"Twilight Sparkle," she greeted the unicorn. "It has been some time since I last saw you. Congratulations on your last Doctorate."

"Thank you, Princess," Twilight said, bowing her head.

Luna then looked around at the others. "Applejack, Rarity, Pinkie Pie, Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy, it is good to see you once more."

"Good t' see you too, Princess," Applejack said, touching her hat.

Her eyes flicked to the sky. "Are you ready to depart?"

"Al...most," Twilight said absently, her horn flaring. The harness' straps were cinched around Spike's waist a little more abruptly than he was expecting, and he made a strangled noise of protest.

"There," Twilight said in satisfaction. "Ready now, Princess!"

Luna hid a smile behind one silver-shod hoof. "I see."

"You didn't have to do that!" Spike hissed at Twilight.

"You simply weren't staying still long enough for me to do up all the buckles, Spike." She shrugged.

"Oh," he said, looking sidelong back at the Princess. She looked amused. "Sorry."

"Well, we'd best get this show on the road," Applejack said, pushing back her mane.

"This is gonna be weird," Rainbow Dash said, wrinkling her nose. "Being flown."

"It's fun!" Pinkie nudged her. "You're gonna love it, Dashie!"

"Are you good to go, Spike?" asked Twilight, her hoof resting on his side. Her eyes were still tight with tension, though she was obviously trying to put on a cheerful face for him.

He nodded, and crouched down so that his friends could climb over his knee and into the seated harness. As they clambered aboard and strapped themselves down, he took a deep breath. This was it.

"This is going to completely ruin our manes," Rarity said in sudden dismay.

"I'll fly slow," he offered.

"Where's the fun in that?" Dash scoffed.

Spike stood carefully, very aware of his precious burden, and turned his head expectantly to the Princess and the guards. To his amazement, one of the impassive soldiers actually gave him a sly wink.

"Night...?" he asked incredulously. "Is that you?"

Sergeant Falling Night's face was too well trained to show any emotion whilst on duty, but the bat-winged grey Pegasus gave a slight nod.

"Sergeant Night!" Twilight exclaimed. "I haven't seen you in years!"

The sergeant coughed uncomfortably, still standing to strict attention. "Permission to speak, ma'am," he asked Luna formally.

She rolled her eyes skywards. "How many times must I tell you, Night, there is no need for that when it is only myself."

"Got to observe the regulations, ma'am," he said stubbornly. She sighed.

"Permission granted."

"Hello there, Spike m'boy, and Miss Sparkle," Falling Night then said in a far more conversational tone, though his posture never changed. "Good to see you too."

"It's been ages!" Spike took an eager step towards the old Palace Guard. Once, when he was very young, he had spent ten minutes pulling the most appalling faces he possibly could in front of the on-duty Night, trying to get his expression to crack. Instead he had found himself swept out into the Canterlot Gardens and deposited into a plant-pot on his scaly little rump. Since that day, Sergeant Night had always been a particular friend amongst the Palace Guard. "How's everypony else in the Fifth?"

"Do you still patrol the gardens outside the library?" Twilight asked, leaning over Spike's shoulder.

"Yes, they're all good, send their regards, and yes," he said gruffly. "Heard you two had settled here, but haven't seen hide nor hair of you since the Princess here made her first visit to Ponyville."

"He's now Captain of my personal guard," Luna told them. "Though why an alicorn needs a personal guard is still something my sister cannot answer to my satisfaction..."

"Wow, congratulations!" Spike and Twilight said in unison.

"Thank you," Night said, his stern face softening a little. "And ma'am, without trying to sound rude, not even an alicorn can foresee everything that might come her way. Best to be prepared."

"Well, you haven't changed," Spike said, smiling.

Night looked amused, craning his neck up to Spike exaggeratedly. "Can't say you have either," he said, smirking.

"Oh, ha ha," Spike snorted. "Yes, Spike got big, and he's going to get bigger. Is that out of the way now?"

"We should be off," Luna said sternly, though laughter was dancing in her dark eyes. "It is good to see that your spirits are not dampened, Spike."

Spike crouched a little, the muscles of his hind legs bunching as he readied for the take-off. "You should have been around earlier," he said. "You could have cut the air with a knife. A butter knife."

Twilight's hoof poked between his shoulder-blades in response.

Luna gave him a long penetrating look, before her curling wings spread. "Captain," she said. "If you would..."

"Squad," barked Night, his head jerking up and his chin jutting out. The platoon of soldiers stepped out of attention, kneeling slightly in readiness. Wings opened in unison with a snapping, rippling sound.

"Whoa," Applejack said, impressed.

"Utterly unnecessary," Luna said peevishly.

Night moved to the front of the phalanx and gave his troops a steely glare. "First division to take the lead! Privates Monsoon, Waterwings and Zig Zag to take the flank along with me! Rest of you, fall in behind! We fly at Spike's pace, understand me?"

"Sir!" the soldiers barked in unison.

"On my mark," Night said, his wings opening as well, knees bending in order for the first spring into the air. Then he looked back at Spike with exasperation. "Get them things open, boy," he hissed.

Spike blinked and rushed to comply. The gust of air as his wings flung open blew the soldiers' manes back, and a few eyes widened. Spike smiled a bit weakly.

"Now!" Night snapped.

Spike took a deep breath and leapt into the sky, his hind legs thrusting from the ground as he brought his wings down in a great stroke. Beating them steadily, he climbed into the blushing late afternoon sky as around him the Palace Guards fell into position. Luna flew beside him, her long neck stretched towards the purple onset of night on the horizon.

Behind his ear, he could hear his friends beginning to chatter. Rarity was fussing over her mane, whilst Fluttershy and Pinkie were peering over his sides. Rainbow Dash was comparing him to a big old cloud that she didn't even have to move around.

On his other side Falling Night flew with dogged endurance, his perfectly polished armour turning the colour of fire in the sunset. His coppery eyes scanned the ground below tirelessly. "Heard about that situation of yours," he grunted, never halting his roving search.

"Yeah?" Spike said. "Which one?"

"That dragon challenge," Night answered. "You done any training?"

"Has he ever," Rainbow Dash muttered.

"Lots," Spike puffed as they reached the zenith of their ascent. A warm afternoon breeze belled under his wings, and he locked them for a moment, coasting gently.

"Good," said Night, approval in his rusty voice. "All the lads are on your side, you know. What's that down there?"

His armoured hoof pointed down at something metallic ensconced in the midst of the trees. Spike squinted. "It's... a signpost, I think."

"That all?" Night dismissed it brusquely and began to scour the ground again.

"I got the note," Spike said after a small silence. "Thank you – and if I can't do it tonight, could you thank the others for me?"

Night actually looked up at Spike at that. "Boy, we didn't do it for thanks," he said. "I've seen soldiers when they're beaten down by things, fightin' something they think is too big for 'em. Seen it too many times. All soldiers complain – hell, that's what soldiering does to you. But when complainin' becomes silence, and silence becomes hopelessness, well... the battle's lost before it's even begun. You gotta keep morale up."

"So... it was for my morale?" Spike asked.

Night turned back to the ground, his eyes flitting over the trees and little villages below. "Known you since you were high as my knee, pullin' those faces at me in the corridor," he said gruffly. "You could say that."

Spike fell silent for a moment, touched to the heart. "I..." he began, and paused. "I didn't think of it that way," he confessed. "Is that what I am now? A soldier?"

"A soldier? You?" Night snorted. "From what I remember, you don't get up early enough to be a soldier, boy."

"I get up early now," Spike said indignantly. "Sunrise on the dot. You try sleeping outside for a month and see if you don't."

"You are fighting, are you not?"

Spike glanced over at Princess Luna. "Well, I'm going to be in a fight..."

"No, I do not mean the challenge." She shook her proud head. "You are fighting. You fight for your right to live your life as you wish. You fight to stay with your friends. You fight against those, both draconic and equine, that do not accept your choice. I believe that is what Captain Night is trying to say."

Spike blinked a bit, and then focused on the nearing city of Canterlot clinging to the side of the mountain, its spires and turrets brightly lit and welcoming. "I don't know," he said. "It sounds pretty cool when you put it that way. It's not really like that, though. There's a lot more horribleness and embarrassment involved."

"Always is," said Night darkly.

"Those who seek to hurt and humiliate you," Luna said, her eyes never straying from the onset of her velvety night, "are trying to trap you in a prison of your own making, Spike. They are trying to make you unhappy, afraid and ashamed."

"I've been there," Spike sighed. "I don't want to go back."

Twilight's hoof on his back pressed down harder.

"There is no point in rewarding them with success," Luna continued, her mane a floating, star-flecked cloud behind her head.

"Is this some sort of weird pep talk to prepare me for the Gala?" he asked suspiciously.

Luna laughed. "Perhaps."

"Almost time for our descent," Night said, nodding to Canterlot.

"Are you ready for the best night ever, Spike?" asked Pinkie enticingly.

"Is Pony Joe's still open?" Spike asked Night.

The captain chuckled, before regarding the pegasi in front of them with a keen eye. "First division, prepare to descend!" he barked. "Make our landing on the drawbridge, in spear formation! Cloudbank Rush to take point! In your own time, gentlecolts!"

Their necks stretching, the leading division of ponies began to lean forward and down towards the bright lights of Canterlot. Spike hurriedly followed suit, causing his passengers to yelp as they were jerked forward.

"Coulda warned us," Applejack grumbled.

"Captain Night was shouting it," Spike said innocently, extending himself and angling his wings to stop his dive from becoming a plummet.

"Oh, why did I bother styling it at all!" Rarity despaired.

Spike backwinged carefully to land behind the semicircle of Palace Guards, who were all standing to impressive attention within seconds of touching down. The drawbridge rattled alarmingly as it took his weight, and he held his breath. "Perfect landing!" Rainbow Dash praised him.

"Thanks, Dash," he said, straightening up. Beside him, Princess Luna and Falling Night alighted and scanned the arriving guests.

Most were goggle-eyed at the sight of him, but one or two of the more aware ponies registered the elegant Princess at his side and sank into a deep bow. The rest of the crowd soon caught on and knelt amidst a flurry of silk and feathers and sibilant whispers.

"Rise, my ponies!" Luna boomed. Spike winced. The Royal Canterlot voice was hard on the ears. "Your Princess thanks you for your greeting, and welcomes you to the two hundred and eighty sixth Grand Galloping Gala!"

"Yeowch," muttered Applejack.

"D'you think she ever gets a sore throat?" Pinkie Pie whispered.

"Shh!" Twilight hushed them. "Come on, let's go in. Can you hold out your knee, Spike?"

Spike complied, eyeing the gathered ponies warily, who eyed him just as cautiously right back. Nopony seemed ready to start a fuss, so he relaxed a little as his friends dismounted.

"Well, that was a nice change," Fluttershy said, smoothing down her starry scale-flecked gown, "I've never been flown before."

"You're welcome," he said, still keeping an eye on the crowd as Twilight unbuckled his harness and floated it to a guardhouse.

"Is it a total disaster?" Rarity asked him anxiously, one hoof hovering over her elaborate coiffure. He squinted.

He shrugged. "Doesn't look any different to me."

"It's fine, come on," said Rainbow Dash, rolling her eyes. "The Princess is already starting to go in."

They began to enter the Palace behind the stately Luna and surrounded by Captain Night's platoon. The great entrance hall opened up before them, full of grandly dressed fillies and gentlecolts all waiting to enter the ballroom. Rich tapestries hung from the high ceilings which were crisscrossed with bright silk bunting. There was colour and movement everywhere, and it was all lit by the soft golden glow of great candle-filled chandeliers hanging at intervals over the central red-carpeted walk.

They were greeted by gasps, and the level of noise dropped sharply. Captain Night barked a few commands into the silence, and with a jingling trot the Palace Guards lined the walls. Night nodded to Spike once, bowed to the Princess, and disappeared into the dizzying array of colours and ponies.

Spike steeled himself, setting his shoulders straight and holding his chin up higher. He was what he was, and there was no denying it. Fortifying himself with the memory of his reflection in the dam, he stepped as proudly as he could after the slim, elegant figure, ignoring the murmurs and whispers that followed. As the Princess passed, ponies bowed respectfully to her, resembling nothing quite so much as colourful flowers bending in the wind. As he passed, however, gazes turned from the floor to peer up at him in a mixture of alarm and avid curiosity.

"Well, nopony's screaming," Twilight murmured up to him wryly.

"Give it time," he replied, just as wry. "The night is young."

"Spike!"

He raised his eyes to see Princess Celestia half-rising from a throne on one side of a stunningly-appointed double dais. She stood as he approached, her glorious lavender eyes filled with concern. A line of ponies were arrayed before her, but she moved past them with an eager tread to meet him. "Are you all right?" she asked with worry in her melodious voice.

"I'm fine," he said, smiling down at her. "It's... well, it's been a long day, but I'm okay."

"There is no need to put on a brave face with me, my dear dragon."

He ducked his head a little. "I know, Princess... I'm sort of not thinking about it at the moment. If that makes sense."

She smiled back. "It does. I am so very glad to see you, my friend."

"You too, Princess," he said shyly. She raised her hoof gracefully, and he took it with trembling caution and bowed over it. The whispering rose to a hissing storm.

Luna stepped beside her sister, dark eyes warm. "I told you I would see him here safely, sister," she said with a note of smugness in her voice.

Celestia raised an amused eyebrow at her sibling. "Did I ever express any doubt?" Then turning to Twilight, she smiled fondly. "Good evening, my faithful student. I like your choice of attire."

Twilight glanced over at Rarity. "It's all Rarity's doing, Princess."

Rarity gave a weak little smile.

"Spectacular," Celestia congratulated her. "You all look wonderful, and of course nopony will miss the meaning behind it, especially with Spike right here for comparison."

Rarity's smile grew a little more satisfied, and she drew herself up, her head tossing proudly. "That was the idea," she said modestly.

"You seem tired, Twilight Sparkle," the Princess said then, her head cocking and her insubstantial mane rippling with the movement. "Is everything all right?"

Spike stepped in hurriedly. "Um, it's mostly me again," he said with a sheepish bob of his head. "She's been worried out of her mind for the last two days."

"Goin' clear 'round the twist," Applejack agreed.

"I had reason," Twilight muttered.

"You have the best of reasons," said Celestia gently.

"I'm okay, promise," Spike said, his brow wrinkling. "Right here, can't miss me."

The unfortunate choice of words made Twilight's breath hitch. Spike flinched. "Aw shoot, sorry, Twilight," he said humbly. "That was a stupid thing to say."

"Twilight Sparkle," Luna said gently, "to fear the future is just as poisonous as mourning for it."

"My sister has always been good at thinking long, deep thoughts," Celestia said, her eyes twinkling. "It is the smaller, day-to-day thoughts that confuse her."

"Tia," Luna growled.

Spike snickered a little, and then pulled on an innocent face when Luna rounded upon him, her expression suspicious. "Well, let me welcome you once more to the Grand Galloping Gala," Celestia said. "I do hope you intend to liven up the festivities again."

"Well, we haven't made any plans to," Applejack said with a deprecating little laugh, "but those sort o' things do tend to follow us around."

"You said it, AJ." Spike rolled his eyes.

"I will be some time, I fear," the Sun Princess said with a small sigh, glancing back at the line before her dais. "I must greet all the guests – and little sister, I would very much appreciate your help."

Luna pursed her lips. "If I must," she said with reluctance.

"I trust Pinkie Pie remembers the ballroom." Celestia turned back to them. "I am afraid, Rarity, that my nephew is once again attending this year. Unfortunately we have not had the foresight to lay in an apple cake for you."

Rarity went pink, and then her eyes hardened. "Oh, a lady can always make do," she said with grim satisfaction. Spike felt a little sorry for the odious Prince at that point.

"The Wyrmstadt ambassador is also in the ballroom," Celestia continued more seriously. "He is still very angry about the incident yesterday, and no doubt will wish to speak to you almost immediately."

Spike gulped. "Right. Okay, not a problem. I'll talk to him about it, Princess. And I'll hold fast to my convictions, like you said."

She smiled up at him. "I never had any doubt of that, my dragon," she said. "We will join you when we have finished greeting our guests."

"So, possibly a thousand years, maybe two," Luna added sardonically.

Bowing to them once more, Spike and his friends moved away from the dais and towards the ballroom entrance. Spike had never been so grateful for high ceilings and ceremonially large doors before. The doors in question were flung wide to a scene of swirling dancers and spectacular dresses, long white-clothed tables covered in intricate, delicate dishes and sparkling glasses of honeysuckle wine, bustling waiters in dapper ties and waistcoats with hors d'oeuvres on trays, and the elegant chamber orchestra playing from the familiar raised stage.

"Wow, it's a lot prettier than last time," mused Pinkie as she regarded the scene of her prior humiliation at the hooves of the fancy party ponies.

"You okay, Pinks?" Dash asked.

Blue eyes rolled. "Ha, as if those snooty party-poopers could keep me down! Don't be silly, Dashie! Now, what do we do first? Do you wanna try every single one of those teeny weeny posh nibblies, or do you wanna dance? Personally, I'm in favour of doing both at the same time."

Spike met Twilight's eyes, and they both began to giggle. "Pinkie, you're the greatest," Spike chuckled. "Come on, everypony, let's go in. I could use a sit-down first. After all, I just got us all here."

"Puh-lease," sniffed Dash, "that was no distance at all!"

"You ever tried it carrying six ponies?" He raised an eyebrow at her.

"You've carried way heavier things than us," she scoffed.

Spike shook his head and began to step into the ballroom. "But I didn't carry them for so... so..." He trailed off. A deadly silence had spread through the room at his entrance.

"Head up, sugarcube," Applejack murmured.

The sound of his claws on the polished marble floor resounded loudly in the hush as they walked through the gaping crowd. Spike lifted his chin once more. It seemed this was to be a pattern for the night; enter a room, shock everypony in it into silence.

Well, the hay with that, he told himself sternly. He wasn't going to pay it any more attention than it deserved, and he certainly wasn't going to stop a conversation with a friend. He turned his head back to Dash pointedly. "As I was saying," he said with a slight edge to his voice, "I didn't have to carry Tom or any of the basalt blocks for my house nearly so far – and I wasn't flying at the time."

His voice echoed through the cavernous ballroom. Surely these ponies coudn't be that shocked, Spike thought scornfully, not if the Wyrmstadt ambassador was in here as well.

"Are you saying we're as heavy as Tom?" Rarity said indignantly. "Spike! It is very rude to speculate on a lady's weight!"

"Oh, I'd never try and be rude to you, Rarity..." Spike backtracked.

"Where do you want to sit?" asked Fluttershy, her eyes darting around the ballroom.

Spike raised his head once more and squinted about. "Uh, near the stage?" he suggested. "There seems to be a sort of place I can fit in that corner over there. I won't be too near the food or the dance floor, and there's no doors or anything so I won't be stopping some poor waiter from doing his job..."

"Right." Twilight nodded. "I see it."

"I'll go get us some food!" Pinkie exclaimed, eyeing the tables and rubbing her hooves.

"Hey Applejack, I need to find Spitfire and the others," Rainbow Dash said, looking around at the now-whispering crowd. "You wanna come with?"

"Sure thing."

"I must be seen with Hoity for some part of this gathering, I suppose," Rarity sighed. "Such a bore. Fluttershy, would you like to come along?"

"I'll stay with Spike," said Fluttershy, creeping closer to his side. "The fashion industry and I... don't get along so well."

"Okie dokie lokie, you guys! See you in the flashiest of flashes!"

The murmurs once again grew in volume as they split up. Spike, Twilight and Fluttershy made their way to the corner, and by the time Spike lay down on his belly with a slight stretch and a groan, the noise level had tripled from what it had originally been.

"I could really use a drink," Twilight muttered. "My throat's dry from that flight."

"Go on, you two," Spike said, folding his forepaw over the other. "Go get a glass of that honeysuckle wine or something. No need to babysit me."

Twilight gave him a hard look, but relented when he raised his eyebrows meaningfully at her. "Fine," she capitulated. "I'll talk to the kitchens about getting you something as well. Fluttershy, could you give me a hoof?"

Fluttershy eyed the now loudly-exclaiming guests with trepidation. "I suppose," she mumbled.

"Come on, Fluttershy," Twilight wheedled. "I don't want to be the only pony in sight wearing dragon scales!"

"Well, when you put it that way..." she said resignedly. "I just hope nopony thinks I'm offering to model again."

The pair moved out into the crowd once more, Twilight depositing a final pat on his forepaw before disappearing amongst the swirling silks and deafening chatter. He could make out Rarity's spectacular coiffure in the centre of an admiring audience, and there was no mistaking the line that led to where Spitfire, Soarin' and Rainbow Dash were talking. He noted proudly that Dash was talking to each pony individually, keeping the line moving.

He couldn't see another dragon at all.

That made him both disappointed and relieved. The Wyrmstadt ambassador didn't appear to be here, despite Princess Celestia's warning. He'd been apprehensive about meeting another dragon, especially one that was angry with his home and his chosen land - but at the same time it would have been nice to not be the only dragon for once. Perhaps he could have learned something. As it was, his only examples were himself and Razorfang, and Razorfang wasn't very forthcoming. Understatement of the century, he snorted to himself, and several of the nearer ponies jerked away at the noise, before turning back to their shouted conversations.

"Well, that's torn it," said the cello player from the stage sourly. "We can't be heard over this racket."

"Sorry," Spike said meekly. The dark-maned pony looked startled at having been overheard.

"Oh," she said. "Well, I suppose it isn't your fault. Technically." She laid her instrument down and began to resin the bow. "It isn't like you asked to be a dragon."

"It's not all bad," he replied, his claws fidgeting a little.

The cellist leaned back on her stool. "If you say so," she said with a bored shrug. "I suppose you don't know much about music?" she asked, and her dry voice was a little hopeful.

"Actually, I used to be a pianist," he said proudly. Then he looked down at his claws, and pulled a face at them. "Then I outgrew the piano."

She blinked, and then barked a short, dusty laugh. "I can see how that would have been annoying," she said. "Any favourites?"

He shrugged one shoulder. "It's all music to me," he said. "I pretty much like it all."

"I like Beethoofen," she said, as though placing down a challenge. He grinned.

"Nice! But I like the choral stuff way more than the symponies," he said. "They kinda bore me."

Her eyes widened, and then lit up with the glee of a true fanatic. "What do you think of his chamber music?" she asked.

When Twilight and Fluttershy returned, they found Spike in deep conversation with a dark-maned grey Earth pony. "No, no, no." said Spike as he shook his head. "Tales of Hoofman is a better duet. Claws down."

"How can you say that?" the grey pony asked, throwing her hooves in the air. "The one from Bridle of Figaro is a million – no, a billion times better!"

"The Pearl Seaponies."

"The Magic Hoof."

"Okay, I like all of them too," he said grudgingly. "Let's say they're equally awesome."

"What about ballets?"

"Huh, maybe Tchaichoofsky? Nah, probably Prokhoofiev."

"With you on Prokhoofiev all the way. Wow, you have good taste, I'd never have believed it. You must have hated that song."

"We. Don't. Mention. The song."

"Spike?" Twilight said, her eyebrows high. "Who's your friend?"

Spike lifted his head to her, his eyes bright with excitement. "Hey, Twi! This is Octavia!"

"Hi," the grey pony said in a dry sort of voice. "You must be Twilight Sparkle."

"That's me," Twilight said, holding up a hoof to the stage to shake Octavia's. "This is Fluttershy."

Fluttershy mumbled a greeting under her breath.

"So... you've been talking music ever since I left?" Twilight asked Spike, her mouth quirking.

"Yeah, and hey, Twilight, Octavia likes Marehler more than jazz! Isn't that weird?"

"It would be if I knew who Marehler was," she said.

"Do you think we could magic me up a piano someday?" he asked a little wistfully. She laughed.

"Spike, I'll try my horn off. Now, the kitchen is going to bring out some food for you. Apparently Princess Luna told them about you first, and then Princess Celestia, so they've had plenty of advance notice."

"Did they know that I don't eat what a dragon normally..." Spike trailed off, looking sidelong at Octavia.

"Vegetarian all the way, apparently," Twilight confirmed.

"Live and learn," was Octavia's only comment.

"Thanks, Twilight," Spike said.

"Thank the Princesses," Twilight said, smoothing down her gown. "The poor head chef looked like he was about to burst into tears at yet another pony asking about your food."

"Huh." Spike rubbed the back of his neck.

Octavia glanced back to the stage, where her fellow musicians were beginning to ready themselves again. "I better go," she said, picking up her bow once more. "Spike, it's been a nice surprise and a real pleasure. I'll talk to you again soon, okay?"

"Come and see me anytime you're in Ponyville!" he replied. "I still have to convince you about rock 'n' roll."

"You're on." She smiled faintly, before turning to her music.

"She seems nice," Fluttershy offered, and Spike grinned.

"It was great talking about music again," he enthused. "I haven't played piano in years. I wonder if Pinkie still remembers the song we wrote together..."

"Of course I do!" Pinkie's voice came from underneath a large platter piled high with dainty little dishes she had pilfered from the white-clothed tables. "Anypony hungry?" she asked cheerily.

Spike carefully took the tray from atop her head, and Pinkie beamed up at him. "Phew, thanks, Spike!" she said, wiping a hoof across her forehead. "That thing was heavy."

"I don't think all six of us can eat that much, Pinkie," Twilight said dubiously.

Spike lowered the platter to the ground, and delicately pinched a little roll of something fancy. "Suppose I'll have to help out," he said, grinning.

"Dragon of Ponyville Village, I request audience."

Spike started a little at the unfamiliar voice and the strange phrasing. "Uh..." He looked around. "Hello?"

"Here," came the gravelly voice once more, and a most astonishing being stepped into his line of sight. The newcomer was definitely reptilian, but so small – not even reaching to Twilight's shoulder. It had two legs rather than four, and bronze wings covered its back like a cloak. Its skin was a coppery green with bronze highlights, and its eyes were the colour of topaz. A golden torque around its neck glinted with precious stones. "I speak for She of the Wyrmstadt," he said with a sinuous bow. "I request audience."

Spike blinked for a moment at the remarkable creature, before hurriedly swallowing the tiny little canapé. "Uh, hi," he said uncertainly. "Audience... granted?"

The small being swept his wings behind him, trailing their edges along the ground in a peculiarly submissive sort of way, before he looked up at Spike with eyes full of anger. It was the only outward indication of fury concealed beneath a cool, diplomatic exterior. "News of you has reached my mighty mistress," the gravelly voice rasped. "The Wyrmstadt is not pleased with how you have been treated by the hooves of ponykind, Dragon of Ponyville Village. She Who Lives Longest wishes to remove you from danger."

"I've heard about that," Spike said, "and all due respect to the Lady of the Wyrmstadt, but isn't it up to me to decide? Well, I'm choosing to stay. My home is Ponyville and all my friends are there. Nopony and nodragon can drag me out of it."

"None gainsay She of the Wyrmstadt," the little ambassador growled. "You would do well to remember that, Dragon of Ponyville Village."

Spike's brow furrowed. "Do you have to call me that every single time?"

The being looked taken aback. "So it is true," he said, "you do not know your own customs."

"Hey, I know that one," Spike said. "I'm not supposed to hand out my name, yadda yadda yadda, but 'Dragon of Ponyville Village' is one hay of a mouthful. Besides, it's my name. Can't I decide who to give it to?"

The little creature looked faintly bemused. "I... suppose."

"Good," Spike said firmly. "I'm Spike."

The ambassador hissed quietly between his teeth. "You are young and foolish," he muttered.

Spike shrugged. "Young, yes, but I don't think this is foolish."

"There has been an attack on your life, Dragon of Ponyville Village," the ambassador continued.

"Do tell." Spike snorted.

"You would be safest amongst other dragons," the strange being said, lifting his sharp chin.

"But I wouldn't be happiest," Spike said. "Look, I know, okay? I know the arguments you want to use. You're going to bring up the challenge and the protests and the stupid harpoon again. I've heard it before. But running away from my problems would be just as useless as hiding from them. It wouldn't solve anything, and it would put my home in danger."

"You could carve out another territory," the ambassador persisted.

"No I couldn't," Spike answered bluntly. "It'd just be a place. It wouldn't be home."

"Why stay?" the ambassador challenged, eyes flashing, "why stay when there are protests and petitions against you? Why stay when the treaty has been violated and your life endangered?"

Spike huffed smoke through his nostrils in irritation. "How much have you heard about me?"

"I have spoken to the Great Sun Pony," said the ambassador stiffly. "She tells me that you insist on staying for ridiculous, sentimental reasons."

"She's right," Spike said, ignoring the 'ridiculous, sentimental' part. "I was brought up by ponies. My sister is a pony, my family, my friends. I can't be what you and Razorfang seem to think a dragon should be. I belong here, not in a cave somewhere."

The ambassador looked shocked. "The Dragon of the Everfree Forest gave you his name?"

"I don't think it's his name, actually," Spike mused. "I think he just gave me something to call him. Something meant to intimidate me."

"Nevertheless, he gave you a name." The ambassador frowned. "This bears thinking about."

"Is that important?" Twilight asked.

The ambassador glanced at her. "It may be," it answered evasively.

"I hope this isn't rude," Spike began hesitantly, "but I've never seen anything quite like you before."

The ambassador's bronze eyebrows rose. "I am a wyvern, cousin to dragons, basilisks and cockatrices. No true dragon would ever leave their territory to undertake an ambassadorial role, and so She Who Eclipses The Sun employs my people for the task. I am the twenty-third such ambassador."

"Bit rough on you, though, isn't it?" Spike tilted his head. "Being away from home for so long?"

"She of the Wyrmstadt has protected us for millennia," the ambassador said, his voice ringing with pride. "It is my honour to serve."

"Ask him about Razorfang," whispered Twilight in Spike's ear. He cleared his throat.

"Anyway," he said, "as I said before, I don't actually know all that much about dragon customs, and Twilight hasn't found very much in her books. It looks like dragons don't willingly give out that information. Is it normal for a dragon to hate... well, explaining anything?"

The ambassador's wings twitched. Then he burst out into sibilant, hissing laughter.

"What did I say?" Spike asked, lost.

The ambassador composed himself hurriedly, smoothing back the spines over his sleek head. "Ah," he sighed in his gravelly voice, "now I truly believe you were brought up by ponykind."

"So they do hate explaining anything," Spike said.

The wyvern gave him an amused look. "It is customary to learn through example," he explained. "To explain oneself is to not only insult your pupil's intelligence, but also to hand a potential enemy tools with which to harm you."

Spike's brow furrowed. "Seems a bit cold."

"It is traditional."

"I don't think that'll work for me," said Spike doubtfully.

The ambassador looked perplexed and a little frustrated. "You are a dragon," he stated.

"Ten points for observation," Spike said, eyebrow raised. "I'm a dragon, raised by ponies, who likes explanations and wants to stay in his home."

"Your egg was..."

"Was stolen," Spike finished, "almost a hundred and twenty years ago. All the ponies responsible are dead."

"Protests and assassinations are only the beginning," the ambassador said, his cool diplomatic exterior beginning to crack. "Soon the egg-stealing will begin again. A harpoon has already been thrown!"

"They're only a small section of Equestria," Spike said, starting to get a little cross. "These protestors are mostly afraid – and they probably wouldn't be if dragons weren't too proud to explain themselves once in a while. The whole of Ponyville wants me to stay. Look at my friends! They're wearing my old scales to show how much they support me!"

The ambassador regarded Pinkie Pie's ruffled, gleaming outfit with some surprise. "They are."

"See?"

The ambassador shook his head. "That aside, it does not negate the threat to you and to dragonkind. You are incensing the pony population with how visible you are – you will become a rallying point. It would be better for you to keep a lower profile."

"Tell that to the reporters who follow me around," Spike said. "I didn't ask for it."

"Protests will become riots," the ambassador said in a steely voice, "and riots will see your death, and from there it shall not stop. The killings will begin all over again – the black times will be upon us once more!"

"If you think the Princesses would let that happen, you're loco in the coco." Spike snorted.

The ambassador's needle-like teeth bared. "The treaty..."

"Has been broken, yes," Spike interrupted. "By one pony. These protests and harpoons... they don't change anything."

"They could kill you, Dragon of Ponyville Village," the ambassador growled.

"They might," Spike allowed, "but they might not. And the chance to stay with my friends is something I'm willing to fight for."

Luna's words, in his mouth. They felt right.

The ambassador glared at him, his reptilian face twisted with outrage. "I will be at the challenge," he grated. "I will see that it is carried out in pure draconic tradition."

"Look forward to seeing you," Spike retorted.

The ambassador stalked away, his wings trailing along the marble floor. Spike released a gusty, smoke-laden breath, finally registering how tense he had become during that exchange. "Phew, that was edgy," he said under his breath.

"I don't think you convinced him," Fluttershy said.

"I don't think he listens to anything anypony ever says to him," Spike said with aggravation. "Stubborn, proud, short-tempered little..."

Pinkie Pie stifled a snicker. "You were just as bad, you know, Spike," she pointed out with a grin.

"Stubborn, proud, short-tempered, not-so-little," Twilight recited, before smiling impishly at him. "For a dragon who insists he isn't much of one, you're sure ticking all the right boxes."

He paused, before wrinkling his nose. "But I explained myself, right?"

~**~

A veritable platoon of aproned waiters brought out a great golden cauldron full of fruits and cakes, and there was even a smaller basket full of aquamarines and rubies. They were some of the most delicious gems Spike had ever tasted, and he wondered if they were of a higher grade than he was used to eating.

He'd met famous pony after famous pony, their names and faces and cutie marks all blurring together in his mind. Even Prince Blueblood had deigned to greet him, his supercilious sneer in place. Rainbow Dash joined them once more after speaking to all the Wonderbolt hopefuls, her face wreathed in a satisfied grin. "Best part of the job," she declared contentedly.

"The being admired part?" Twilight said dryly.

Rainbow poked out her tongue at Twilight, before smoothing back her mane. "Right! Well, I'm gonna go find Applejack." She grinned once more. "I think I saw her bending somepony's ear about dragon-assisted harvesting techniques..."

Pinkie nodded. "All good advertising!"

Rarity returned from her group of admirers, her eyes sparkling. "Oh, darlings!" she said happily. "Fancy Pants has just asked me to dance! Me! Oh, it's so exciting... now, does my mane look all right? Is the bustle straight on my gown? I mustn't be mussed – oh, but I mustn't look unapproachable either. Has my mascara run? He's gone to get me some wine. I hope I remember all the steps. His assistant is just so glamorous; I can barely breathe in front of her without feeling like some silly country filly. What if I tread on his hoof? I'd be the laughing-stock of the Gala! Oh, girls!"

"You're lovely," Twilight assured her.

"You'll be fine, Rarity," soothed Fluttershy.

"Oooh! Has Rarity finally found her Prince?" Pinkie said with a sly smile. Rarity flushed prettily.

"It's only a dance," she said with scarcely-hidden excitement. Then she tipped her head back and let out a squeal of joy. "Eeeee! Fancy Pants himself wants to dance with meeee!"

Spike swallowed painfully. "That's... great, Rarity," he said with false heartiness. Twilight shot him a sharp look. "Have fun!"

"Oh, Spike, he's coming over here," Rarity said with a flustered smile. "He's terribly impressed by your scales, you know... Everypony was asking me questions about them; I've never had so much interest in a design before..."

"Miss Rarity?" a cultured voice interrupted. Rarity froze, eyes glowing.

"Fancy," she said with trembling poise, "do please call me Rarity."

Fancy Pants, monocle and urbane expression firmly in place, levitated a glass of wine over to her. "Of course, Rarity," he murmured smoothly. Rarity giggled, her face turning a delicate shade of pink, and took a large gulp.

"Fancy, you remember my friends Pinkie Pie, Twilight Sparkle and Fluttershy?"

"My dear ladies," Fancy said politely with a graceful bow, before giving them all an utterly charming, handsome smile. Spike absolutely hated him. "You all look divine. Your work, dearest Rarity?"

Rarity dropped her long lashes modestly. "Well... yes."

"Stunning," Fancy murmured.

Rarity fanned herself with one hoof. "Very kind of you to say so," she said warmly. "But they wouldn't be half what they are without the scales... and on that note, Fancy, let me introduce you to my good friend, Spike."

My good friend, Spike...

"Pleasure to make your acquaintance," Fancy Pants said, bowing to Spike before standing straight and smiling once more. "I've heard so much about you, dear fellow... but the tales certainly don't do you justice. Your coat is simply astonishing, and in the talented hooves of our lovely Rarity, why, it's going to completely revolutionise fashion as we know it."

"Well, she's amazing," Spike mumbled in response, his heart heavy in his chest.

"Truer words were never spoken," Fancy replied, giving her a sidelong, smouldering sort of look. "I hope you don't mind, ladies, good sir, if I monopolise your lovely friend for a time longer? The band is playing divinely, and I would be a scoundrel indeed if I did not accompany such beauty to the dance floor."

Rarity quivered, before coquettishly laying an hoof in his.

Spike watched the handsome, sophisticated pony escort Rarity amongst the dancers, and sighed longingly.

"Are you all right, Spike?" Twilight asked him.

He nodded, before closing his eyes. "I suppose it was going to happen someday," he whispered.

"She'd never intentionally hurt you," Fluttershy said, her wing brushing his forepaw.

"She's just so excited it's bubbling out everywhere," Pinkie said.

"She's a pony," Spike said, quietly and unhappily. "And I'm a dragon."

Twilight pressed her head against his face. "I love you," she said. "We all do."

"Rarity too," added Pinkie. "I suppose it's just not in a mares-and-stallions sort of way..."

"It was never going to happen, was it?" Spike asked of nopony in particular, and then rubbed one forepaw roughly over his eyes. "It was just a dream..."

"Dreams hurt when they break," Pinkie said distantly. "But then you dream another one."

Spike clenched his fangs, and looked out over the dance floor, where elaborate purple curls bent close to an elegant blue mane. "She's so beautiful," he said hollowly. Then his mouth quirked in a wry, pained smile. "She's so small."

Twilight chuckled. "We all are, compared to you."

Spike took a deep, shuddering breath. "I guess I've known it for a while," he said. "She knew, after all. And... she never said anything..."

"It doesn't mean she cares for you any less, Spike." Twilight pulled back to look him in the eye. "It's only a dance, after all."

"It doesn't mean she can care for me any more either," he replied, before pursing his lips. "My good friend, Spike," he quoted ironically.

"Oh, poor thing," Fluttershy said sadly.

"It's just a silly foalish crush," Spike shook himself, trying to will himself into believing it. "Just a crush."

"This can't be easy for you," Twilight said with concern in her luminous purple eyes. "You've had a crush on her forever."

"For-EV-er," Pinkie repeated owlishly.

"Yes, thanks, Pinkie," Spike said testily. Then he swallowed against the huge lump in his throat. "She's a pony," he repeated with resignation. "And I'm... a dragon."

"I'm so sorry, Spike," Twilight nuzzled his cheek once more, her ears drooping in sympathy.

"The first time I saw her, I thought she was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen," he remembered, smiling nostalgically at the memory. Then he sighed once more. Despite all the times he'd told himself otherwise, it did matter, and he'd always known it. He'd always love her, his first crush, but it would be some time before the sting faded. He bade a bittersweet farewell to the Rarity in his memory, the Rarity of his childhood.

He gave that dream-Rarity a final wistful look as she twirled radiantly around the dance floor on the hoof of the handsome, charming stallion. She looked so happy. She would always be special to him. She'd always be the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen.

His heart squeezed painfully as she giggled at something Fancy whispered to her. He turned his eyes away for a moment, before pulling himself up straight and setting his chin firmly. "She," he choked, "she looks so happy."

"She's one of your ponies, and always will be," Fluttershy said.

Spike's eyes narrowed on Fancy Pants, and he growled. "He better be good to her," he said darkly.

Twilight pulled back from him, her eyes surprised and wondering. Then she laid her hooves either side of his face and squeezed with sudden intensity. "I am so..." she said forcefully, "so proud of you, Spike."

He gazed back at his tiny big sister, and gave a short, melancholy laugh. "I'm pretty proud of me too."

~**~

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