Where We Belong

by BlazzingInferno

First published

Eternal night shrouds Equestria, and an even worse fate awaits Rarity. Or so she’s been led to believe.

In the wake of Twilight’s escape from her kingdom, Nightmare Moon sentences Rarity, her palace steward, to a terrible fate: bound in gold and priceless gems, she’s to be thrown into an ancient dragon prison to be messily devoured.

Except the prison isn’t what it seems, nor is its sole occupant. Rarity just might find her life instead of losing it, and alter the course of Equestrian history in process.


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Falling

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“Did Queen Nightmare say why she wanted to see me?”

Rarity stole nervous glances at the silent, brutish guards escorting her through the empty throne room; they hadn’t said a word since loudly announcing their presence outside her private chambers. These were the gruff military ponies that carried Queen Nightmare’s flag across lands savage and disobedient, not the regular palace guards that bowed politely and wore silver armor polished to a mirror shine. She hadn’t seen a palace guard since the latest purge started.

Perhaps they were all gone. Perhaps whomever had been sleeping on the job when that terrible purple pony and her dragon slave strolled through the front gate without facing so much as a “who goes there” had doomed the entire palace regiment.

A loyal servant such as Rarity was above such accusations of treason and sedition, of course. Questioning and detaining intruders was a job for the guards, not for the mare who kept the palace running smoothly and cared for its artwork. Every staff pony was her servant, every hallway was her office, and every decoration was her charge. Nopony save the queen herself commanded as much respect inside these stone walls.

Still, she merely commanded respect. The queen commanded the world.

Rarity noted the vacant throne and cleared her throat. “And where might we be meeting Her Highness this evening? I’m hardly dressed for the… Not that I’d dream of keeping her waiting, of course, but—”

The double doors at the far end of the throne room burst open, the bang of wood striking stone heralding the queen’s arrival with the suddenness and authority of a trumpet blast. The guards and Rarity came to a stop as Nightmare Moon, queen of all Equestria, strolled towards them with her jaw set and her eyes ablaze.

“Rarity.”

Rarity dropped into a bow, quivering at the sound of her own name rendered by the queen’s deep, booming voice. “Y-yes, my—”

“Rarity: palace steward, aspiring aristocracy, and royal servant.”

She dared glance up as the queen drew closer, willing that awful smile to leave her lips and for this all too familiar game to be called off. How many times had she stood beside the throne or in an entryway while some other pony professed their innocence while Nightmare Moon calmly read off their name, rank, crime, and punishment. Sometimes the crime wasn’t even mentioned, and the hapless pony wound up in the dungeon or worse for no discernible reason besides the broad grin that inevitably crossed the Queen’s visage.

And now Rarity was on the cusp of begging for mercy just as every other pony did, the act that she’d considered pointless and uncouth while watching from the sidelines. “M-my Queen, I swear I never intended to aid that—”

“Silence!” Nightmare Moon bellowed. “You dared talk to the pony that tricked me! You dared consort with her dragon! I’d sooner blast the castle into a thousand pieces than relive such humiliation every time I enter and see your vapid, traitorous face!”

Rarity flattened herself against the floor, mouthing the apologies and pleas that she didn’t dare voice aloud. What would her fate be? Would she be exiled to a distant outpost, condemned to a life of drudgery, or simply thrown into a cell and forgotten? The shame of leaving her lofty position in the palace was horrific enough.

“Have you ever heard of The Pit, my former servant?”

Rarity’s blood ran cold, and Nightmare Moon’s sneer turned into wide, wicked smile. A tapestry depicting the legendary defeat of Celestia hung behind her, the first of many great feats that remade Equestria in her image. Everypony knew of Celestia’s banishment to the moon, just as everypony knew of the one fate worse, the punishment rarely threatened and never carried out. “The Pit? But I… Please, your majesty! Please reconsider! Throw me in the dungeon! Throw me off the tallest tower! Not The Pit!”

Nightmare Moon trotted away. “Bind her as I instructed, and then bring her to the chariot.”

One of the guards knocked Rarity down, and untold minutes passed in a mixture of sobs and protesting limbs. Chains of jewel-encrusted gold snaked around her legs and tore through her satin uniform. A sapphire brooch the size of an apple found its way around her neck, and ruby bangles were tied to her tail. She was wearing the royal treasury. Priceless valuables that could’ve elevated whole villages out of poverty were instead going to be her funeral garb.

---

The wind howled in Rarity’s ears as she fell. Her tears rocketed upwards as she did the opposite, plunging tail-first towards oblivion. Queen Nightmare’s chariot was already a distant spec in the cloudy skies above, and yet her fall had only just begun.

The wind whipped her around in the air, and suddenly she was diving headfirst towards the swirling vortex of white clouds waiting at the bottom of the canyon. Ponies lined the ridges, most of them clutching their loved ones as she sped by. They knew the fate that awaited her. Everypony knew. Mothers whispered it to their bickering children, schoolteachers repeated it to wayward foals, and the condemned shivered at the mere thought of it. No retelling of the legend could measure up to the Queen herself repeating the tale as they rode through the sky.

“Dragons once roamed these lands,” Nightmare Moon had said, “and they had only one punishment for those that defied their king. One punishment so terrible that only the worst of their kind dared disobey.”

The whirling mists burned Rarity’s wet eyes, but the wind no longer bothered her. Instead she simply heard the Queen whispering in her ear: “the worst dragons of all time were thrown in The Pit, a prison with no escape, no comfort, and no food. Let’s hope they’re still hungry. Let’s hope they don’t mind eating a little pony with their gems.”

The world vanished, but not into darkness. Snowflakes peppered her face, and the tops of leafless trees broke through the clouds of blinding white waiting below.

At the last moment, as her screams of terror mixed freely with the memory of the Queen’s laugher, her eyes snapped shut. This was the end. All her years among the nobility and her faithful service to crown and castle boiled down this: a grave with ravenous, fire-breathing dragons.

And then she landed in the snow, sinking for over a minute through the seemingly bottomless drifts before finally coming to a stop somewhere cold and dark. The suddenness of being still, of not tumbling over and over in the wind, bordered on otherworldly. Time had stopped, and yet somehow she was still breathing.

“I’m… alive? Dear moons I’m—” sweet elation turned to deepest horror in a heartbeat “—I’m in The Pit, waiting to get torn apart by… by…”

The ground shook.

Her back, pressed down against the snow, shivered in response.

She strained against her bonds as the next impact came, a dull thud that felt decidedly closer than the last one. Perhaps it was just her own thundering heart, and all the dragons had either escaped or starved centuries ago. Surely a quiet, respectful end awaited her here at the bottom of this snow drift.

“Oh please, please don’t let it be—”

Light burned her eyes as something brushed the snow away. Fresh snow rained down from the calm, cloudy heavens above, quite unlike the roiling storm of The Pit’s outer surface. A dark shape hovered over her, cast into sharp relief by the bright sunlight. She hadn’t felt the sun’s warmth since the eternal night began, a small comfort for her last moments of life.

She couldn’t scream anymore. She couldn’t think. Her palpable fear dissolved into a single simple thought: what a waste, eating precious gems. No wonder the Queen exiled all dragons from her realm. No wonder they were all but extinct.

A claw that looked the size of a cart wheel blotted out the sunlight, and suddenly her fear was back. “Please don’t come near me! Please don’t!”

Her words were barely intelligible in her panic, but still the claw paused.

A deep, male voice broke the silence. “But then you’ll freeze.”

Rarity blinked. She didn’t hear mindless hunger in that voice. Still, dragons were glutinous monsters that breathed fire and ate gems. “B-better to f-freeze than to be eaten b-by…”

Her teeth were chattering. The golden chains were now ice cold, and melting water was soaking through her torn clothing and unkempt mane. If she could distract the beast long enough, she’d lose consciousness before he thought better of taking advice from his dinner.

The clawed hand blotting out the light touched her protruding leg and slid along its length, snapping chains, sending gems flying, and yet feeling no sharper than knitting needles against her skin.

Her latest scream died in her throat once her legs could move. As soon as she felt the comparatively warm air embrace her, as soon as her newfound freedom of movement registered, she was on her hooves and running. She ducked behind a tree, each panting breath a cry of relief mixed with horror. The beast had touched her. The dragon had freed her, but why? Did he expect her to run so he could hunt her down like an animal? Was she going to be the consolation prize for the other, less punctual dragons lurking in the woods?

Steadying her nerves as best she could, she leaned around the tree trunk to get a better look at the monster that dared toy with her dignity.

A purple, scaled body the twice the size of Nightmare Moon was hunched over the snow drift, calmly sweeping the gems and gold into the crook of its arm. “Are you hungry?”

Rarity ducked behind the tree again. Surely the beast was talking to himself, or to another dragon waiting to pounce.

“I’ve got plenty of flowers and leaves to share in my home.”

She nodded, despite being completely hidden by the tree. She hadn’t eaten in well over a day, thanks to the long chariot ride parading her across Equestria. Just thinking about the royal kitchens made her stomach rumble. Were there any cooks left, or had this latest purge of ‘traitors’ cleared out the entire palace?

The snow crunched under the dragon’s enormous feet as he drew closer. Her heart pounded, but she didn’t bolt. Surely she had enough self control left to stand her ground in the face of this curious yet completely unwelcome advance. She set her jaw and turned up her nose. “Is this a game, dragon? Am I to be your plaything before you or one of your kind eats me?”

The dragon’s laugh echoed through the woods, loud and yet devoid of menace. “Look, pony, I don’t know why you’re down here. Maybe you fell, maybe some jerk pushed you in, but let’s get things straight: dragons eat gems when we can, and plants when we can’t. The worst thing that can happen to you down here is freezing to death, and that’d be a shame. I haven’t had anybody to talk to in… How many moons has it been? Is Torch still the dragon lord?”

Rarity relaxed by the slightest of degrees, her hind legs losing some of their bowstring tension. “Queen Nightmare Moon rules the Dragon Lands.”

“Who?” The dragon’s warm breath blew across her ear.

She screamed and fell sideways into the snow. Seconds later she glared up at the sleek, scale-covered head peeking around the tree. “Don’t touch me, you… you beastly, disgusting monster!”

Her tone was venomous, an outpouring of every slight and outrage she’d been made to silently bear for fear of upsetting Her Majesty. She needn’t keep quiet now; better to force the dragon to end her ruined life now than to continue this pointless game.

The dragon frowned. He paced around the tree until he was in full view, offering his two clawed hands, palm up, in what almost looked like contrition. “Sorry. I don’t want to upset you, and I only eat plants and gems, remember?”

Her glare was colder than the snow.

The dragon shrugged and turned away. “You can come with me if you want. I’ve got a cave and some food to share. If not… well that’s up to you. Follow me for shelter and a warm meal, or wander the woods and freeze.”

Her shivering redoubled, now that the adrenaline boost from his latest insult to her person was abating. She picked herself up and tried to adopt a dignified pose, or at least as much of one as a pony who’s been ceremoniously dumped into the snow in the most compromising of positions can. “Very well. I am indeed cold and hungry. I suppose I could impose upon your… hospitality.”

The dragon turned back with a smile, exuding kindness rather than deceit or malice. “I’m Spike. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Miss…?”

She watched him bow until his snout touched the snow. This couldn't be a dragon, or at least not the kind of fearsome legend. “Rarity.”

Cold Comfort

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No birds sang in the trees, and no animals rustled the bushes. Silence ruled the forest, save for the crunch of snow underfoot and the quiet rustle of settling snowflakes. Rarity would’ve called it picturesque, if the circumstances were different. Now wasn't the time to relax and admire the scenery.

Dizzyingly high cliffs peeked between the tree branches on every side with no sign of even the narrowest of passages. She supposed that’s how such a pleasant-looking valley functioned as a prison. If falling from the sky was the only way in, that left little chance of escape for a unicorn and a wingless dragon.

A snowflake landed on her nose, prompting a fresh shiver that reminded her just how cold she was. The tattered remains of her uniform were soaked through. Leaving it behind would’ve been a smart move, but she couldn’t do that, not yet. She’d worked so hard carve out her place in the world, from leaving backwater Ponyville for sophisticated Canterlot, to constantly keeping her manner of dress in vogue, to throwing herself into the service of a tyrant just to keep her place among the socialites. She’d worked so hard for so long, and yet here she was in some sort of magical prison valley, trapped forever, and possibly on the cusp of being eaten.

There was a chance the dragon was telling the truth, of course. She’d never heard a good thing said about them, not even in the basest of company. Still, that didn’t mean her precious social circle was all-knowing. By every reasonable account she was supposed to have been torn to shreds before reaching The Pit’s floor of bare rock and bubbling lava.

She sniffed the air, noting its complete lack of sulfur and brimstone. “This is awfully… pleasant-looking, for a prison.”

“Depends on who you talk to,” Spike replied, “most dragons aren’t into pretty forests. Dragons care about this stuff.”

He hefted the bundle of gold and jewels in his arms, producing a chorus of clinks and rattles.

Rarity nodded. At least some stories about dragons were true, then. Just so long as the bits about eating ponies weren't. “Is it much further to your home? I don’t see anything ahead of us except more trees and—”

At last she saw something new. The valley’s edge lay ahead, and directly in front of them was a jagged gap in the rugged cliff face, a dark cave entrance not much larger than Spike himself.

Spike ran forward and held out a welcoming hand, spilling his cargo in the process. “Come on in. I’ll put some more wood on the fire and get us something to eat.”

While Spike stepped inside, his huge form melting into the shadows, Rarity’s pace slowed until she stood at the cave mouth all alone. “Why are you stopping, Rarity? It’s a miracle you’re alive. You’re also cold, wet, and starving. This is hardly the time to focus on how… rustic your new home is. Or how dirty. Or what manner of creature you’re sharing it with.”

Sullen step by sullen step, her hooves left the snow-covered ground for the cave’s rough stone. The sudden feeling of warmth and a subtle, earthy aroma demanded that she pick up the pace. The garish sunlight gave way to a dim but welcoming scene. A fire crackled merrily in a small alcove, casting flickering light on a high-ceilinged living space lined with shelves and makeshift curtains. This certainly wasn’t the royal palace, but she detected thoughtful touches all around her, from the chimney carved into the ceiling, to the curtains dividing the cave into rooms, to the neat bundles of herbs and twigs filling the shelves.

She settled herself by the fire, relishing the scent of warm embers more than the finest vintages of cider sitting in her personal stores back at the palace. What would become of her possessions? Would the Queen have her fine dresses and furniture burned? She might as well set fire to the entire palace, considering how much of a hoof Rarity had in its decoration and daily upkeep.

Not that any of those things mattered now, she supposed. She’d been more than exiled. She’d been made on example of, cast into the legendary Pit to be devoured by dragons.

Spike appeared from behind one of the curtains and set a stone bowl of greens before her. “Hungry?”

Rarity’s stomach wouldn’t say no. Decorum barely won out over her desire to bury her face in the bowl instead of nibbling each leaf politely while thinking of the royal banquet hall she’d never dine in again. “Thank you.”

“It’s no trouble. Nobody’s been down here in ages. I used to keep track of the days, but I ran out of room to count.” He gestured to a bare wall covered in tick marks from floor to ceiling.

“Ponies say dragons condemned the worst of their kind to The Pit. What horrible thing did you do, to earn such a fate?”

Spike’s smile vanished. He stood facing the fire, unmoving. “That’s not how… it’s a dragon thing. You wouldn’t understand.”

She retuned her attention to her meal, this time allowing herself to munch leaves and flowers whole. So much for holding onto her table manners, not that her present and future company was likely to care. “We have all our lives to talk. You might as well tell me. If I can master the intricacies of Canterlot social graces, I can learn to understand your… dragon things.”

Whole seconds passed before he let out a long, low sigh. “Okay.”

Her eyes followed him around the room, first to the cave entrance to pull a curtain across it, then to a shelf to retrieve a few herbs and another bowl, and finally to the fireside to sit down next to her. Her fur stood on end as his colossal, scaly form came within mere hoof-breadths of her own. Still she sat, unwilling to move further away from the warmth for dignity’s sake alone.

He stirred his bowl’s meagre contents with a clawed finger, his gaze distant. “The Pit’s not really a prison. It’s more like… It’s like a funnel.”

“Pardon?”

“The ancient dragon sorcerers built it a really long time ago. Dragons kind of have a problem with treasure.”

Rarity thought back to the jeweled chains she’d crash-landed in. It hadn’t crossed her mind for a moment when Spike scooped them up rather than leaving them in the snow, and yet here he was eating greens like her instead of gems. What had he done with them? “I can’t say that I’ve ever heard of dragon sorcerers before. I didn’t know dragons had magic of any kind.”

“We used to. Dragons love finding gems, and hoarding them, and eating them. When we get greedy, we get bigger, and when we get bigger we get dumber too. The sorcerers built The Pit for the greediest dragons of all, the ones that gave us all a bad name… the ones that eventually took over.”

“But you said it wasn’t really a prison?”

“When a dragon gets over their greed, they get small again. The Pit was supposed to be a place where you’d put dragons that needed to work out their greediness. There aren’t any gems, and everything’s enchanted: you can’t climb, fly, or dig out, it’s always a snowing but never buries this cave, the plants grow back really fast… stuff like that. When a greedy dragon finally goes back to normal, they’ll fit through the exit.”

Rarity gasped. “There’s a way out?”

Spike nodded pointed a finger. “Right there.”

Her magic lifted the curtain he was pointing to. Beyond it lay a passage shrouded by darkness, despite the fire’s glow. Staring into that abyss of black chilled her to the bone. “Is it… safe?”

“Probably.”

She turned back to him, ears folded back and her best glare in full effect. “Probably?”

“I’ve helped a couple other dragons calm down enough to fit through, but never me.”

“Ugh, so that’s what’s keeping you here? That’s why you tracked me down, so you could add my jeweled chains to your precious hoard just as soon as I trot through the ‘probably safe’ exit? How exceedingly noble and kind!”

Spike stood with such speed that the rush of air nearly blew out the fire. “I’m not like that!”

She sat there, stunned to silence, while he stormed through a curtained passage and, judging from the thump that traveled through the ground, collapsed onto something soft. For a moment she’d forgotten what manner of creature she was talking to. The dragon had a name and a voice, but he was still a dragon; pony-eater or no, he wasn’t anything like her. He was big, dangerous, and apparently driven by greed. He and Nightmare Moon would’ve gotten along splendidly. “I suppose I’ll be going, then.”

He didn’t reply. Perhaps he didn’t even hear her. No matter.

Standing took her longer than it should have. A brief rest and small meal hadn’t come close to undoing their long trek through the woods or all the horrors that preceded it. “Well… perhaps I’ll go tomorrow morning, if you don’t mind. I don’t suppose you know where the exit actually lets out? I can’t risk running into Queen Nightmare.”

A fire ruby the size of a hoof bounced through the curtain, tinkling softly against the hard stone before coming to a stop at Rarity’s hooves. Spike’s quiet voice followed it a moment later. “I don’t know where the exit goes. Maybe having something valuable to trade will help out there. I have more. You can take as much as you want.”

Rarity stared down at the enormous, heart-shaped jewel with wide eyes. It’d make an exquisite centerpiece in a brooch or necklace. “That’s… awfully kind of you, Spike.”

“Don’t call me that.”

“That is your name, isn’t it? Would you prefer that I call you ‘dragon’ or ‘beast?’ ”

“Dragons aren’t supposed to be kind!” Anger edged into his dejected tone.

Rarity shut her eyes, if only to take her eyes off the gorgeous gem. She needed a saddlebag to carry it in. Perhaps she could fashion one out of her ruined uniform. She’d tried her hoof at clothing design once or twice, before moving to Canterlot. “Very well. I’ll just sleep here by the fire. Good night.”

“Night.”

Curious Company

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Morning came all too quickly for Rarity’s tastes. It came without warning, and without any of the niceties she’d come to expect. Gone were her sleep mask, feather bed, and monogrammed sleepwear. There weren’t any servants talking just beyond her oak door about the daily tasks that lay ahead or if Master Steward Rarity’s morning tea was running late. Instead she woke up on a startlingly hard floor, her cheek caked with rock dust and her back aching. The tattered remnants of her palace uniform still clung to her sides, and wisps of her ragged mane hung about her ears and eyes with all the grace of a bird’s nest.

She took a deep breath of icy air and shuddered. Even if she left The Pit this minute, her old life was over. The palace was lost to her, as was her place in high society. She’d done the impossible after Celestia fell, clinging onto social rank by the barest of threads while swaths of nobility faced exile or worse. Somehow she’d secured a lofty position in the new royal court, thanks to her celebrated artistic eye and organizational prowess. All of that was over. Bare floors were all she could hope for now, in The Pit or out.

Blinking didn’t work as well as it should have. Dragging a foreleg across her eyelids dislodged layer upon layer of spoiled makeup and dried tears. She didn’t recall crying last night, but it didn’t come as much of a surprise. One learned to cry secretly while in the employ of Nightmare Moon.

“You’d best get used to this, Rarity, being destitute, hungry, and—” ‘cold’ was the next item on her list, but that didn’t ring true at the moment. The floor was cold, but she wasn’t. She glanced back and found a tattered blue and purple blanket draped over her.

She definitely didn’t remember that. Was this another ‘gift’ from the dragon that swore he wasn’t kind? She couldn’t help smiling slightly. They were nothing alike, but at least he had a gentlemanly air about him.

“Spike?”

When no reply came, she rose, folded the blanket, and approached the curtain he’d vanished behind the night before. Pulling it aside, she discovered a grotto lined with blankets. She frowned at the blanket’s Spike-shaped depression and at the jewels scattered around the cave’s edges. Nothing evoked the classic notion of a greedy dragon more than a bed filled with treasure. No wonder he was too big to escape.

“Spike?”

Silence answered her. Perfect, unnerving silence.

She trotted to the cave mouth, her ears listening intently to her own hoofsteps, first loud against stone and then muted against snow. The valley was just as she’d left it: a wintery picture postcard, and an impossible one at that. Nopony had seen or felt sunlight in years, save for the wretched creatures stuck in this bizarre place. Had Spike been down here for years, or even decades?

A tree branch creaked somewhere in the distance. Rarity scanned the horizon until she spotted a puff of white engulfing a copse of trees, and a purple shape mostly obscured by branches. “Ah, there you are.”

She trotted, walked, and then pressed her way through the increasingly deep snow. By the time she could clearly discern him, dangling halfway up a tree with his tail wrapped around the trunk, her legs were nearly buried and entirely frozen. “I don’t suppose you have some warm winter clothes in that hoard of yours?”

Spike spared her a brief glance before returning to his work, whatever that was. He seemed to be having a staring contest with the branch nearest to him. “Cold?”

“Quite.”

He leaped to the next branch, catching it by claws first and then tail. “I have lots of blankets. Turn one into a cloak or something.”

She wrinkled her nose at the thought of his sleeping nook and its dragon-scented blankets. “Or something… I’ll just have to find ways to keep myself busy. Surely you don’t just sit in trees all day.”

Spike blew a jet of flame at the lower branch he’d just vacated, severing it from the tree trunk. The branch tumbled through the air and landed next to Rarity with a muted thud. “This is how I get firewood.”

Rarity eyed the branch’s still-smoking end and nodded slowly. Fire breath was slightly more elegant than breaking the limb off with his bare hands, she supposed. It still didn’t bode well for her longevity. The exit’s dark abyss was looking better and better, but that was for later. She couldn’t venture out there now, so soon after her apparent execution and with no supplies or idea of where to go. Such an undertaking also called for a hearty breakfast. “I don’t suppose you’ve eaten yet?”

“No. I didn’t want to wake you.”

“How very ki—” his scowl stopped her. Dragons were strange and sensitive beasts indeed. “Thank you. And thank you for the blanket.”

Spike rubbed his neck and looked away. “It was nothing. So… are you sticking around?”

“For now, yes. But I’d very much like something to do; I’m not a pony that can sit around twiddling her hooves.”

He landed in a crouch beside the felled branch and lifted it up. “Well there’s plenty of stuff to do just to stay alive around here. This firewood needs to get carried back to the cave, for starters. Want to do that?”

Rarity’s face fell. “Do you have any chores that are less physically taxing and more… emotionally fulfilling? My real talents lie in fashion and fine art.”

Spike laughed, showing off an impressive set of fangs in the process. “This isn’t Canterlot, Rarity. We haven't got any art exhibitions or fancy dress balls. After the firewood, there’s finding food, storing water, cleaning the cave…”

He threw the branch over his shoulder and started into the forest. Rarity followed after him, ears lowered and eyebrows knit into a scowl. He didn’t need to be so flippant about it; not every creature could be sated by mindless, manual labor. “What could you know of Canterlot, anyway? I wouldn’t think dragons would be so familiar with Equestria of old.”

“Heh. I was born there.”

She stopped cold. “You’re joking.”

He looked back at her and winked. “Nope.”

“I’ll have you know I spent most of my formative years in Canterlot, and I never encountered a single dragon. Not one.”

“Can’t say I’m surprised. Canterlot’s not the greatest place for non-ponies. I think I'm the only one that didn't go back to the Dragon Lands right after being born.”

With a great effort, Rarity caught up to him and studied at his blank expression. Surely he was lying. Dragons would never be welcome in the old heart of pony society and sophistication. “Where precisely in Canterlot, hmm?”

Spike sighed and looked down at the snow. “In Princess Celestia’s school. Hatching a dragon egg is part of the entrance exam for the advanced students.”

She stifled a small gasp; ponies rarely uttered that name aloud anymore, especially not in Nightmare Moon’s presence if they valued their freedom. The urge to check over her shoulder for watching eyes and listening ears still gripped her. “Oh. I can’t say I stayed up to date with the goings-on of the school.”

“Celestia told me that dragon mothers come to her with eggs that won't hatch, and she throws her best students at them for a little magical boost. Except I didn’t have a dragon mom to go back to. Some pony found my egg, some random student hatched me, and then Celestia raised me in her castle.”

Each casual mention of the Princess’s name shocked her, but not as much as that last statement. Her open mouth was admitting in snowflakes en masse, and yet she couldn’t think clearly enough to close it. “You mean you were… by the Princess… in Canterlot Castle?”

Spike nodded, smiling a little. “How’s she doing, anyway? She was really sad when I left on the dragon migration. She acted happy for me and everything, but I could tell.”

Again Rarity came to a stop. ”Spike, you… you really don’t know? I suppose if you’ve been stuck in here long enough, but…”

He stopped too and stared at her, eyebrows raised. “What?”

She inched closer to him and, after a great deal of hesitation, touched his leg with her hoof. Hopefully he’d take that as a comforting gesture. Hopefully. “Many years ago, a legendary monster called Nightmare Moon banished Princess Celestia to the moon and now rules as the queen of Greater Equestria. Canterlot is all-but-abandoned now.”

The tree branch fell from Spike’s hand. He stared off into space, mouth open and expression blank. Telling him was a mistake. What if he flew into a rage and tore the forest apart, or set fire to it? She’d be caught in the middle with only herself to blame for provoking the beast within him.

Instead he touched a clawed finger to his eye and flicked away a tear. “Oh no. I… I wish I could’ve… Oh.”

He sank to his knees. Tears fell from his snout and hissed in the snow. “What happened?”

Suddenly Rarity wasn’t talking to a fearsome dragon anymore. She moved her hoof to his chest and felt a thumping heartbeat beneath his warm, smooth scales. So much for brutish, unchecked rage. “Nopony knows how it happened, exactly. Some ponies still fight against Nightmare Moon, while others… ponies like myself have just had to find ways to get by, however we’re able. Nopony likes it, but that’s the world we’re forced to live in.”

Spike gave a great sniffle, and twin trails of condensation puffed from his nostrils. He curled his lips back, as if he was holding back a sob, and nodded quickly. “She would’ve wanted everypony to be as happy as they could, to go on living. Sorry I’m being so… so—”

He blinked, looked away, and stood. His voice became stoic. “Dragons aren’t supposed to be like that anyway, sorry. Let’s go get some breakfast.”

Rarity watched him carry on walking, her hoof still raised in comfort for this curiously inscrutable being. “But… Spike—”

“The longer we stand here, the colder we’ll get. Come on.”

---

Rarity held her tongue as they crossed the valley, second-guessing herself and her companion continuously. Merely mentioning poor, lost Princess Celestia briefly brought Spike to tears, but daring to pay him the smallest of compliments was verboten. Something didn’t add up, and that something was probably her repeated attempts to treat a dragon like a pony. He wasn’t an evil creature, obviously, but their similarities only went so far. His royal upbringing hadn’t done away with his insatiable greed, considering where his own kind had imprisoned him.

“Are you tired?” he asked, bearing no sign of his earlier grief.

She took a forlorn look at the tracks they'd made: hoof prints for her and clawed footsteps plus a tail line for him, all of which vanished into the forest’s depths. “I’ll be fine. Is there a reason we’ve walked so far?”

Spike pointed to the base of the nearest cliff, where the snow gave way to a narrow band of brown soil dotted with green sprouts, shrubs, and an occasional flower. “The snowfall isn’t as heavy on this side of the valley, so more plants grow.”

Hunger carried her the rest of the way. She stopped just short of the snowless ground and sniffed a green, succulent leaf. The socialite in her cried out in protest as she took a large and decidedly unladylike bite. Being that prim and proper required a full stomach, in her opinion. “Mmm. It’s certainly not palace fare, but…”

Spike scarfed down a fistful of leaves and gave her a questioning look. “But?”

Her ears drooped as the past once again threatened to sour the present. This wasn't gourmet cuisine, or even small town home cooking. Still, it was food. She wouldn't starve in here. The same couldn't be said for the wild, uncivilized world beyond The Pit. She might even become a meal herself for a manticore or a less discerning dragon. Eating like a homeless vagabond was still eating. “Nothing, nothing. I’m sure I'll get used to it. To all of it.”

He studied her paper-thin smile for a moment and then resumed plucking leaves. “Make sure to grab a few flowers, too. After this there's some damp spots we need to check for mushrooms.”

A bushel of leaves came away in her magic. “Leaves and mushrooms… lovely.”

“Did you used to be somepony important, or something?”

Rarity bristled and huffed at his use of the past tense. Nothing fueled anger quite like lingering anguish. “For all you know I was sightseeing and slipped off my private airship’s balcony.”

“Heh, funny. Did anybody… help you slip?”

Her scowl could’ve melted ice. “Why yes. Queen Nightmare herself decided I was to blame for the latest insult to her royal person and condemned me to being eaten by the likes of you.”

Spike let out a long, low whistle. “So that’s why you were wrapped in gold and gems. That must’ve been some insult.”

“One that I had absolutely nothing to do with, I’ll have you know. The master steward of the royal palace doesn’t go around ‘assisting traitors’ or whatever the charges were, no matter what the master steward might think of Her Majesty. Tyrant.”

“What about before, when… when Celestia was still around?”

His quiet, melancholy tone gave her pause. She set her bundle of leaves on the ground and studied his barely-hidden frown. “She must have really meant a lot to you.”

He nodded. “Yeah. I can’t believe she’s… she’s been around forever! Some evil monster can’t just… I asked about you. Let’s talk about you. Please?”

Rarity sighed and returned to her work. “I was never on a first name basis with Princess Celestia, despite my best efforts. My special talent is having an eye for fine art. I organized and curated art exhibitions, wrote critiques of fashion shows… that sort of thing.”

“Oh. That must’ve been fun.”

“You would think so, wouldn't you? What could be better than living the glamorous Canterlot life? The hollow, friendless, skipping-meals-to-afford-gala-tickets Canterlot life… I sometimes wonder if I would’ve been happier if—” Rarity glanced at him and bit her lip “—if I’d gone through with my other dream.”

“Which was?”

“I’d rather not say.”

Spike turned to face her, his jaw set and eyebrows low. Rarity couldn't hold back a giggle in response; there was nothing even remotely menacing about a dragon holding an armful of flowers. Still he kept up the serious act. “Is this because you still think I’m a pony-eating monster?”

“Nonsense, or so I’ve been led to believe. Whenever anypony asks where I’m from, I mention Canterlot and change the subject. The rest of it is… well the truth wasn’t about to get me anywhere in high society. Let's leave it at that.”

A flower landed on Rarity’s head. She gave Spike a glare and popped it in her mouth. “How terribly uncouth.”

He grinned. “I can keep throwing them, or you can keep talking.”

“Insolent dragon.”

“Snob unicorn that talks with her mouth full.”

Rarity gulped the flower down as best she could, coughing a few times in her haste. “I’d never mention this in polite company, but I was actually born in an insufferably small and unsophisticated town called Ponyville. I came very close to opening a boutique and starting my own line of dresses, that is until I sold everything I possessed to move to Canterlot. That's all I have to say on the matter, at least on an empty stomach.”

Spike held up his armful of flowers. “This should be plenty for now. Let’s go make some breakfast.”

“At long last. I trust these flowers taste better cooked?”

He looked down at his load, picked a flower out, and roasted it with one smokey breath. “You tell me.”

She took the flower in her magic and gave it a nibble. “Mmm. Indeed. As the former master steward of the royal palace, I hereby place you in charge of all cooking.”

“Hah. Of course, m’lady.”

“Just Rarity, thank you. This isn’t Canterlot, Spike.”

She ate the rest of the flower in two bites. And thank goodness for that.

---

The fire crackled merrily that evening, much to the relief of Rarity’s aching hooves. Heat did nothing for her dirty, sweaty fur, of course. “Is every day going to be like this?”

Spike didn't respond, and considering how deep he’d buried his face in his dinner bowl, it was probably for the best. An occasional, heart-rending crunch of a gem punctuated the rustle of cooked greens, prompting her to feel for the fire ruby tucked into her blanket again and again. She’d save one precious stone from such a barbaric fate, so help her.

Averting her eyes from his mannerless gorging didn't leave her much to look at. Staring at her own mostly uneaten dinner wouldn't make it any more appetizing, not after eating nearly identical fare for breakfast, lunch, and presumably every future meal. Instead her eyes wandered to the fluttering curtain at the back of the cave and the darkness that waited beyond it.

“There's a spa, somewhere out there: a spa with baths, steam rooms, professional masseuses, and an endless supply of hot towels.”

Spike empty bowl clunked on the stone floor. “There's also an evil queen, and monsters, and—”

“I'm well aware of the dangers, thank you.” She stood and stepped toward the exit’s curtain, doing her best to ignore how staring into that uncertain void made her hair stand on end. “I’m merely… considering all possibilities.”

“No you’re not,” he muttered, “you’re thinking about risking your life over a hot shower, even though you’ve got everything you really need right here.”

Rarity whirled around. “My own sanity is a need as well, and I don’t how I’m going to maintain it here!” She stomped closer, staring him directly in the eye thanks to his reclined pose. “I can live without showers. I can live without palaces. What I can’t live without is purpose, something to make life’s daily struggles worthwhile! What’s the point of living if nothing excites you, if nothing inspires you to drag yourself out of bed every morning besides the need to eat?”

Her legs were shaking now. She sank down on the floor, wet eyes focused on the fire. “In Canterlot I had high society to consort with and art to tend. Under Nightmare Moon I had an ornate palace to maintain and a staff to look after. What inspiration and higher purpose can I ever possibly have in a place like this? How can… how can I ever have one again?”

For a minute, only her own shallow breaths answered her. Nightmare Moon had destroyed her after all: pit or no, she’d never again be part of an art scene or aristocracy. She’d never be anything more than what she was now: a hallowed-out shell of a pony who had yet to stop breathing.

Finally Spike let out a deep sigh. “I’m sorry.”

“I fail to see what you have to be sorry for.”

“For forgetting that it’s barely been a day since you got here. I’ve been stuck for a really long time, and talking to you has been so easy it’s like we’ve been doing it for weeks and… Can you give me just one more day?”

Rarity raised an eyebrow. “Pardon?”

“I get that this isn’t the life you want. It’s not really what I planned on either, but… but it’s way better with somebody to talk to. Please just give The Pit one more day, and if you still want to leave then I’ll fix you a big going away meal, and pack some supplies, and whatever else you need. Deal?”

She took another look at the exit. In the darkness beyond she could almost see Nightmare Moon’s wicked smile looming over her own fantastical hopes. Rarity had chosen the uncertain road before, abandoning podunk Ponyville for sophisticated Canterlot. A day with Spike was far from the most miserable part of that choice. Daring to step outside could indeed make The Pit seem like a summer holiday, such as if she were discovered and brought back to the palace.

“Rarity?”

A blink and a cough brought her back to the present. Opposite the foreboding exit was her proverbial cell mate: a mostly tame dragon currently wearing a look of silent loneliness that she’d grown up seeing in the mirror. That same dragon had shared his home, his food, and his company just when she needed them most. Surely replaying a bit more of his generosity was the first order of business.

“Yes, Spike. Yes, I’ll give it another day. It’s the least I can do.” Another month or year might follow, for all she knew.

Spike smiled with the warmth of the noonday sun. “Thanks, Rarity. I promise you won’t regret it.”

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Pushing her blankets aside, Rarity admitted daylight into her tiny cocoon of warmth and darkness. Her dilated eyes could just make out Spike’s tremendous form silhouetted against the cave entrance. “Ugh. Is it morning already?”

“Yeah,” he replied. “But you can sleep in if you want. I’ll go get started on the firewood.”

She held back a well-deserved “you’re too kind” and pushed herself to a sitting position. It would be so much easier to take it easy if he could tolerate pleasantries like “kind” and “generous.” The very thought of trekking across the snow-covered valley again made her hooves ache anew.

Trekking across the valley is exactly what she’d do, of course, because that’s what living here required. Along the way she'd regale him with tales of Canterlot and, if pressed, her humble beginnings. Never would she bring up thorny subjects like Celestia or his imprisonment here in The Pit. Dragons were such fussy, confusing creatures. That didn't excuse her from pulling her own weight, of course. Even princesses had duties that couldn't be ignored.

With a great sigh and an even greater act of will, she joined him by the cave entrance. “I certainly can't let you do all the work, even if all I'm fit for is picking and carrying produce.”

“I’ve got a different idea.”

Rarity blinked repeatedly, wishing for the thousandth time for a shower, or even a comb. Not having a mirror was probably for the best. “Oh? Did you want to be adventurous and gather the food before the firewood?”

“Not exactly.” He held out his clawed hand, revealing a tiny golden sliver that glinted in the light. “I thought you'd like this.”

Rarity took the tiny, slender object with her magic, turning it over and over. “Where did you find a sewing needle?”

“I made it out of some… uh… spare treasure.”

She studied the needle’s imperfect yet functional eye and point. What possessed him to give her this, of all things? “Thank you, I suppose. It's not that I don't appreciate gifts, mind, but why a sewing needle instead of a comb, or a bath, or… well if I get started I'll name every modern convenience known to ponykind.”

Spike laughed. “Look, Rarity, I can handle doing the chores on my own; I’m good at that stuff, and it’s actually a lot nicer when I know somebody else is depending on me. What I don’t have is anything new to look at. I grew up in Canterlot Castle, and these awful curtains are the best decorations I’ve got.”

Rarity hid a grimace behind a smile. “They’re not awful, Spike. They’re merely… rustic… torn… patchy…”

“Yeah, yeah. They’re awful. They're just old traveling cloaks I found in the forest; they keep the cave warm, but that’s about it. So what do you say? You said you wanted to be a dressmaker before, so how about giving sewing another shot?”

Rarity studied the sewing needle again. She hadn’t used one of these in ages, not since leaving Ponyville. “I suppose I could reduce my ruined palace uniform to thread and try my hoof at it. Are all the curtains at my disposal?”

Spike leaned forward and pulled the curtain to his bedroom aside, revealing his treasure-laden nest. “Just try to leave me one blanket to sleep with. Take the rest. Take some gems, even. Make us some curtains, make yourself some winter clothes, make whatever you want.”

“But… your blankets… your gems… are you sure?”

What happened to his greed?

He lumbered towards the entrance, waving with one hand. “See you around lunch time, Rarity. Have fun.”

And then she was alone in the cave, listening to his heavy footfalls fade into the distance. “Well if you insist… I don’t see why not.”

Her magic made quick work of the curtains, first pulling them down and then removing the ancient stitches holding the patches together. In any other situation she’d throw the lot of it in a wastebasket and trot over to the nearest fabric store, or to the nearest clothing store if she were being honest with herself.

Still she worked, pulling the curtains apart, unraveling her old uniform, and sorting the blankets by color and size. The only sounds were those of the rustling fabric and, a few hours in, her own contented sighs. When was the last time she’d spent a morning in total silence and relaxation? Nightmare Moon didn’t believe in vacations, breaks, or mercy, and in that sense she was the living embodiment of high society.

At one time Rarity had thought the galas, art exhibitions, and fashion shows would never stop. Fashion and art evolved constantly, and pausing for a breath meant missing the next new thing, the latest development that would surely catapult her career and lifestyle to new and exciting heights if she could merely catch that wave and hang on tight. And then Canterlot of old ended as abruptly as Equestria’s final moments of sunlight.

The sewing needle darted in and out of the fabric, mating a faded red with an off white and dusting off long-unused corners of her mind. She could feel the cool metal of her old sewing machine, smell the corkboard she’d hung on the wall behind it, and glimpse the quaint dress designs she’d once considered gorgeous. Best of all, she could feel herself smiling, both in the past and present.

Clothing designs, from the functional to the bold to the brash, rushed through her head as she stroked the fabric floating before her. Her supply constraints were extreme, but so was her free time. “Anypony could make something beautiful with enough silk or cashmere, but this—” she lifted a few more hole-riddled scraps to meet her needle “—deriving beauty from the likes of this fabric is a real challenge. A challenge worthy of the fashionista I once proclaimed myself to be.”

Saying that word made her giggle. For a moment she shut her eyes and laughed to herself, swallowed up in a rush of happiness born of creativity that felt more natural than breathing and more fitting than her own cutie mark. Cave or mansion, summer or winter, silk or scraps, she was home again.

“Thank you, Spike. Thank you ever so much.”

---

Rarity absentmindedly tugged at her new jacket’s collar. Perhaps she should've erred on the side of breathability versus attempting to seal in warmth, at least in regards to the neckline. No matter. The rectangles of fabric laid out before her represented a tremendous improvement on her first design of pure, survivalist necessity. Now that she wasn’t freezing, other, larger tasks could be seen to.

A fire-blackened stick suspended in her magic retraced the charcoal sketch she'd made on the floor, rubbing out one straight line and adding a sloping one in its place. “Yes, that's much better. Think now, Rarity. Would his green spines be better complimented by the periwinkle fabric or the maroon?”

Spike’s familiar and completely unexpected voice answered. “I kind of like purple.”

The stick flipped through the air as she gasped in surprise. He caught it with one hand, grinning. “Having fun?”

Once the shock wore off, Rarity gave Spike her warmest smile, one she hadn’t had reason to use in ages. “I can’t describe how illuminating this morning has been, Spike! It’s as if I didn’t even understand my special talent until now. I would’ve been better served earning my cutie mark in a rock-infested gorge than… well that’s another story. The important things to say now are: thank you ever so much, and I do hope I guessed your measurements correctly. I have so much more work to do this afternoon!”

“You’re welcome, but—”

The unstitched fabric pieces left the ground in a blue glow and positioned themselves around Spike, encircling arm, leg, and torso in turn. At each step of the impromptu fitting, Rarity scratched lines on the fabric with her charcoal stick while she hummed to herself. “Hmm. I seem to have overestimated your stature by nearly a hoofspan. I used to have such a good eye for this, too. Still, this is why one measures twice and cuts once, isn’t it?”

He flushed red the moment she looked at him. “W-what are you talking about? I’m as big as I was before, and—wait, why are you measuring me anyway?”

“I’m making you a jacket, of course. Something functional and yet dashing, or at least as close as I can manage with the supplies at hoof. After seeing to my own immediate needs I found I had just enough spare fabric to outfit you as well.”

“Wow, that sounds great! But you don’t have to—”

The fabric froze, and so did Rarity. She fixed her eyes on his, staring into them with the same determination that’d gotten her through her own jacket’s conception and construction in mere hours. “I do, Spike. No other act can possibly convey my thankfulness for reminding me that my greatest joy lies in the creation of art, not the curation or consumption of it. If I had the proper supplies at my disposal, I’d fashion you a complete wardrobe in the finest of Canterlot styles. Ah, speaking of which—”

She raised a foreleg and turned in a circle, hanging the new curtains as she did so. “I’d also like to present you with a little taste of home!”

Seeing Spike’s jaw drop made her smile all the more; pleasing someone else with her talents warmed her heart more completely than a winter jacket and warm fire ever could. In his wide eyes she could see her own creations reflected: three curtains that, though formed from the same fabric scraps as before, were now stitched in elaborate patterns that depicted the outlines of Canterlot’s castle, uptown shops, and train station. Tiny gem fragments made the appliqué windows and streetlights sparkle, as if the sun was just rising.

“Do you like it?”

Spike took his time moving, not to mention breathing. Finally he reached out and touched each curtain in turn, first the exit tunnel, then forest entrance, and finally his nest. He poked at the little Canterlot castle now guarding his nest, smiling more and more. “Wow. I… I—” he sniffled “—I never thought I’d see the castle again!”

Rarity stepped forward and placed a hoof on his side, her previously chipper voice growing solemn. “I can’t promise that I’ll stay forever, you understand, but I intend to make the most of however long I am here. Once your jacket is finished, I’ll scour the forest for a new source of thread, and failing that I’ll find another creative outlet to occupy my time and to beatify our modest surroundings.”

“It can’t get any better than this! Only… why’d you choose Canterlot?”

“Why ever not?”

“Because of how bad you said it was, how much you hated living there.”

“I didn’t hate it, but would you mind terribly if we continued our conversation over lunch? I’m hungry enough to strip one of those flower beds bare, and I haven’t had the chore-laden day you have. You must be starving.”

Her own tone caught her by surprise. Of course Spike deserved her kindness and generosity; he’d more than earned them. That didn’t quite explain this sudden rush of empathy. Was that just part of having a good friend, for a change? The other palace servants hardly counted, nor did all of her old Canterlot acquaintances. Did any of those ponies, wherever they were now, bat an eye when Nightmare Moon carried word of her fate across Equestria?

A pleasant smell suddenly drew her attention. Spike had set out a selection of leaves and flowers by the fire and, to her surprise, was sprinkling something white on top. “Surely you’re not putting snow on our lunch?”

He glanced her way and grinned. “You mean our dinner?”

Her gaze darted to the cave entrance. She pulled the newly hung curtain aside with her magic and gaped at the evening twilight. “But… why are you back so late?”

“I came back and made lunch, but you were too busy sewing. When I asked if you were hungry, you said something about being ‘in the zone’ and told me to come back later.”

Rarity touched a hoof to her aching, empty stomach. “In the zone, you say?”

He nodded, but kept his gaze on his work. “Hungry?”

She trotted to the fire’s edge and sat in the only free spot, mere inches away from him. At the moment she’d sit on his spine-covered head if the experience included a decent meal. “Starving, famished, ravenous, et cetera. Now what is that your doing to our precious rations?”

Her magic caught a few of the white granules he was sprinkling over their meal and brought them closer. Were they tiny bits of ice?

“Try some.” he said with a chuckle.

Seeing that he was dusting both potions of food equally, Rarity cautiously stuck out her tongue and a second later nearly inhaled a cloud of it in a great gasp. “Salt? How in Equestria did you find salt in this accursed, seasoning-free valley?”

A whole flower sailed into her mouth, and a quiet moan soon escaped. “A little salt does wonders! Where did you find it, and how? Please tell me you also found roses and soap!”

Spike laughed so hard he ended up coughing. The whole cave seemed to shake with the rumbling sound, and Rarity couldn’t help laughing too, despite a worrisome realization forming in the back of her mind: a sewing needle had become her most prized possession and salted wildflowers her new favorite meal. She wasn’t the pony who’d set off for the big city at far too tender an age. She wasn’t the pony who’d presided over a royal palace with authority second only to the crown. She wasn’t even the pony who’d nosedived into The Pit. Who was she becoming, and would she someday look back on her current self with hopeless longing, just as she’d done from her lavish palace residence and from her minuscule Canterlot apartment? Life always managed to take a turn for the worse, somehow.

As his laugher finally ceased, long after Rarity’s had soured into silent despondence, Spike passed her another flower. “I was on my way to the garden this afternoon, thinking about how wrapped up you were sewing and wishing I could make dinner extra special just for you, and…”

Rarity stared at him. “And?”

“I almost fell on my face. I thought I tripped on a tree root, but when I looked back I saw this.” He reached towards the cave entrance and picked up a white, crystalline rock that fit neatly into his large palm. “It’s pure salt. I’ve never ever found salt before, but I guess since it’s all white it’s really easy to miss out there in the snow.”

She stared at the miraculous salt block, unwilling to accept it as mere coincidence but more than happy to eat the results. “Indeed… Indeed. Well whatever the source, thank you for thinking of me. This certainly does make dinner special.”

He started eating too, mouthing something about it being almost as good as gems in the midst of a colossal mouthful. She frowned at this poor form, but only slightly. Finally, after swallowing, he cleared his throat and glanced her way. “So… you don’t hate Canterlot after all?”

She shook her head. “No. I have a number of grievances with the place, but—” her face fell “—I only have myself to blame for them, to be honest.”

The cave grew silent, save for the crackling fire. Still she could feel Spike’s eyes on her and sense his next question long before he voiced it.

“Why?” he asked.

“Because… Because no matter how much I’d like to, I can hardly blame Canterlot for failing to live up to my wild fillyhood imaginings. I can’t blame high society for not welcoming in a naive filly with the most basic understanding of culture and etiquette. I can only blame myself for not realizing I'd need to start on the bottom rung of the socioeconomic ladder, and have to work my hooves to the bone to achieve the smallest levels of notice and notoriety.”

Spike’s warm, giant hand settled onto her back, a gesture that might’ve been comforting, if he wasn’t an enormous, scale-covered dragon. Still she bore it rather than shying away. He cared that she was upset, and that in and of itself counted for something. Generosity felt as wonderful to receive as to give.

“Just take the fabric for my jacket and make new curtains,” he murmured. “Make some that aren’t going to make one of us sad.”

“I suppose that rules out depicting the Dragon Lands?”

He remained silent, his face impassive. She wasn’t sure what she’d expected to get out of him with that remark; aside from a change in subject. Sighing, she willed herself to raise her head, stare into the fire, and consider better times. “The curtains are fine; if they weren’t I wouldn’t have made them. I had plenty of happy moments in Canterlot, I'll have you know.”

“Yeah?”

“Yes.”

After a moment’s silence, his clawed fingers drummed against her side with soft impatience. “Such as?”

She rolled her eyes. At this rate she'd be quoting pages from her childhood diary within a week. Couldn't he be satisfied with vague pleasantries, for once? “Such as… ballroom dancing. There was a lovely studio on a hill overlooking downtown where I… well I meant to take lessons there at some point, given the time and funds. My devotion to art and need to earn a living took precedence.”

Spike’s hand left her back, much to her relief. He rose to his full, formidable height, and bowed down on one knee. “Then would you care to dance, Lady Rarity?”

Rarity stared at his outstretched hand, the hand big enough to swallow her whole foreleg, and wrinkled her nose. “And how do you propose to do that?”

“Just take my hand. I studied under royalty, remember?”

“I don't recall the Princess being known for her dancing forte, but… why not?”

Touching her foreleg to his palm was all it took. Two fingers closed around her hoof, and a moment later he'd gently raised her to a two legged pose, guiding her hoofsteps left, right, and left again. Two fingers of his other hand touched her back, leaving only as he spun her with surprising grace.

“How’s this?” he asked.

Their differences in size bordered on absurd. Princess Celestia would make a better dance partner for a dragon of Spike’s size. Rarity was closer to being a toy ballerina swaying in a music box than an elegant lady gliding across the ballroom floor. Still she found herself replying with a smile. Beneath the absurdity and the awkwardness she felt another kindness being offered her, and once again a special joy soon followed.

As the imaginary music accompanying her hoofsteps fell silent, she returned to all fours and bowed to him in kind. “That was lovely, actually. Thank you.”

“No problem. Pardon me for not kissing your hoof.”

She laughed. “Thank you for that as well. And with that I bid you a good night, Lord Spike the Gentledragon.”

To her relief, Spike grinned and did another quick bow. “Goodnight, Lady Rarity.”

She smiled and waved as he retreated to his curtained nest. That title he'd given her, which she'd never officially earned in the eyes of the pony aristocracy, felt strangely appropriate. Perhaps she could be a lady of a different sort: an artist of old cloth, a connoisseur of seasoned wildflowers, and an ambassador to the kindest of dragons. Perhaps she could even remain as happy and content as she felt now.

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The snow crunching under Rarity’s hooves didn’t bother her in the slightest. Her new jacket might as well have been a suit of armor, deflecting the twin onslaughts of falling snow and freezing temperatures with aplomb. Leaving the path carved by Spike’s enormous tail still presented a challenge, of course. The valley’s snow cover ranged from mere inches to twice her height at seemingly random intervals. Worse still, no hoofstep or tail track they left survived the night; the path she was trodding right now would be an unblemished snowdrift by morning, despite how little snow actually seemed to fall in the course of a day.

She pushed through a relatively shallow patch on her way to a nearby tree, muttering to herself. “A snow shovel. A snow shovel and wool-lined rubber boots.”

Spike’s reply floated down from his perch in the trees above. “Some yellow topaz, and a bubble bath.”

“A weekend at the spa, all expenses paid.”

“An hour Celestia’s private study with a couple mugs of hot chocolate.”

“A hundred more of these!” Rarity held up Spike’s latest discovery: a bulbous flower whose name she couldn’t recall, but whose raison d’être couldn’t be clearer. Its petals enclosed a white, fluffy substance that might as well have been called seedless cotton. Finding a steady supply of these plants meant spinning new thread, and new thread meant giving the fabulous ideas in her head physical form. “I’ll have a warm hat within a week, so help m—oof!”

Once again she’d found a deep spot in the snow, this time sinking well past her hind legs. She groaned with annoyance rather than panic; being buried three times in as many hours wore away the sense of danger, but not the stinging indignity. Sighing, she waved the tip of her tail, the only part of her still exposed, and waited for the inevitable.

Spike landed nearby with a distinct thump. “Now where did Rarity go? Hmm.”

Rolling her eyes, she extended her foreleg towards the sky. “Just kindly pull me out again, thank you.”

His hand sank through the snow, gripped her around the middle, and lifted her clear of the snow as well as the ground. A moment later she was eye to eye with his insufferably smug smile. “There’s my little pony.”

She blew a strand of her mane out of her face and scowled. “Unhand me this instant, impudent dragon, and do so gently!”

Still smiling, he set her next to the tree she’d been headed for and lumbered away. “Sorry, and you’re welcome.”

“I’m perfectly capable of digging myself out, you know.”

“And risk hurting your precious jacket? No way.”

She turned in a circle as she checked her jacket from all angles. “It’s no worse for wear, despite your rough handling. I’ll expect you to treat your own jacket with more respect, once I’ve finished it.”

He glanced back at her and saluted. “Understood. I’m sorry I didn’t grab a bunch more of those cotton flowers this morning when I found them. Just keep checking around the trees and you’ll spot a big patch. It's right around here somewhere.”

“You've been saying that for an hour,” she muttered as she pushed snow away from the tree trunk.

Her latest dig site proved to be just as empty as all the others. How had Spike stumbled across the object of her utmost desire by accident, while all her efforts yielded nothing but tree roots and dirt? She gave the barren ground a scowl before staking out her next target: another tree a few dozen hoofsteps away.

“I’m taking the firewood back to the cave,” Spike called, “are you okay out here?”

“Perfectly, Spike. I’ll dig out every tree in the valley if I must.”

“Hey.” His voice lost its friendly mirth and instead grew somber. “I’m serious. Are you sure you can dig yourself out if you get caught in another snowdrift? I can stay here and help if you want.”

Rarity nodded without sparing him a glance. “During my foalhood years, my well-meaning, inattentive parents were known to… misplace me on our winter outings, what with my pure white coat blending in to the snowdrifts that I tended to fall into. I could dig myself out then, and I can do so now should the need arise.”

Spike chuckled. “Okay, okay. I’ll see you back at home.”

Her voice dropped to a whisper as he continued on his way. “How sweet of you to worry. You truly are a kind and generous soul, despite your occasionally boorish manners.”

Falling snowflakes were the only reply, which was the best she could hope for. “Curse your fussiness about accepting compliments, Spike.”

Undeterred, Rarity trudged over to the next tree without a single mishap and began to dig. It wasn’t a glamorous activity, but almost immediately her frustrations seemed to melt away, along with her mental list of Spike’s faults. Imperfect as they both were, her debt to him couldn’t be repaid with a single article of clothing, she feared. “What can I possibly do to make you happy, Spike? It’s high time that I make a selfless discovery or two, like finding some of those elusive little mushrooms that you and you alone love so very much. Surely that would bring a smile to your—”

Her hoof touched something soft, but not soft enough to be the cotton-like plant she desired. Instead, ten grey mushrooms lay at the bottom of the hole, growing along the tree trunk and defying Spike’s insistence that these little delicacies never grew in clusters. She prodded the curious bounty, half-expecting it to vanish in a poof of smoke and peal of evil laughter. “What in Equestria…”

Pragmatism took over. Her magic plucked the mushrooms with ease and dropped them into her pockets. Spike would be overjoyed, his happiness would enrich her own, and little else mattered. She could live with that.

---

“Where’d you find them, again?” Spike asked in between mouthfuls of leaves and fresh mushrooms.

Rarity rolled her eyes, but kept her focus on the fabric suspended in her magic rather than her own untouched dinner. “How many times must I say ‘beneath the snow,’ hmm? I found the mushrooms almost immediately after you left with the firewood, end of story.”

This time Spike didn’t bother swallowing before speaking. “I find maybe one of these a week!”

She fanned away his earthy breath, smiling all the same. “My pleasure. I don’t suppose you’ve found any more cotton flowers, have you?”

Spike shrugged. “Not yet, but that’s my first priority tomorrow, I swear. Maybe we should start our own garden right outside the cave.”

“With a sizable portion of it reserved for mushrooms, I presume?”

“Yeah!”

A sharpened rock, Rarity’s substitute for scissors, severed the last of the stray threads. She ran her hooves across the expanse of fabric, basking in the special happiness that accompanied finishing a big project. Knowing that her latest feat was destined for Spike’s shoulders and not her own made the happiness richer, somehow. If this feeling could be bottled and sold, all of Canterlot would’ve been hers to command.

Spike cleared his throat. “Is it ready?”

Beaming, Rarity rose to her hooves and motioned for Spike to do the same. “Would you like to try it on?”

Spike stood, and a moment later his finished jacket rose to meet him. The odd pattern of purples, blues, and reds hardly belonged in a Canterlot shop window, but practical items rarely did. She’d make him something fancy later, provided they could find enough cotton.

“Wow,” Spike murmured. He’d slipped one arm in and stopped to stare at the length of sleeve obscuring his hand.

“You are familiar with how jackets work, aren’t you?”

Matching her wry smile, he slipped in his other arm and tugged at the collar, his fingers barely peeking out of the cuff. “This feels great! How do I look?”

Rarity’s eyebrows shot up. Why was the sleeve so long? “Do that again.”

“What, this?” He tugged at his collar again, grinning.

She grasped his elbow with her magic and moved his arm to a neutral pose, groaning loudly. “Of all the… I suppose I’m even more out of practice than I thought. Clearly I need to take in the sleeves.”

Spike scratched at his ear, prompting her to reposition his arm again. “I kind of like them long. I’ll be warmer that way.”

“It’s the principal of the thing, Spike! I can hardly call myself a seamstress, much less a fashionista, if I can’t size a garment properly in the first—” she looked down and screamed “—it’s not just the sleeves!”

Calling her creation bathrobe would’ve been more appropriate. Her carefully measured and fitted stitches hung from his shoulders with all the form and fit of a limp towel draped over a tree branch. Her trembling hoof reached for the bottom hem, which dragged on the ground, and ended up wiping away a tear instead. “Am I really that awful at this, that I… that I—”

“Rarity—”

“Don’t move! Don’t move an inch until I can figure out where everything went wrong!”

Rarity circled him like a shark, counting stitches, estimating lengths, and crosschecking every bit of needlework against the perfect design she’d sketched in her mind. The grand epiphany brought on by rediscovering sewing, her total reevaluation of her special talent and reason for being, depended on resolving this glaring discontinuity between design and product. “No. No. No! This isn’t possible! I measured you just the other day, and—”

She froze and, after a moment to collect her frenzied thoughts into a coherent series of words, looked up to stare into his perplexed expression with stern and unshakable conviction. “You were bigger yesterday.”

Spike gasped. “What? No way. I’m exactly the—”

“Given a proper measuring tape I could prove it, I assure you.”

He shook his head, frowning. “No.”

She nodded, her horrific self doubt and frustration morphing into relief-tinged joy. “Didn’t you say greed is what causes dragons to grow to such enormous sizes? Clearly you’re on your way to becoming normal again, thanks to your repeated acts of generosity. Isn’t that wonderful?”

Spike peeled off the jacket, his arms shaking as he did so. “I’m already normal! And don’t ever say that about me!”

In an instant her frustration came roaring back, this time directed at a far less intimidating target than her own ego. She stood on her hind legs and thrust a hoof at his distant nose, wishing she could stand tall enough to glower at him properly. “Generosity! Kindness! You’re both of these things, and I’m through pretending you aren’t! If you weren’t so busy pretending to be a hopelessly greedy dragon, then perhaps I could actually pay you a decent compliment!”

For Rarity, the cave vanished under a tidal wave of fabric amidst thunderous roar. She found herself half-buried under his discarded jacket while his mighty footsteps shook the stone under her.

“Take it!” Spike shouted, dropping a pile of gold in front of her. “Take it all! Take the treasure, and the curtains, and the cave, and everything!”

Whole seconds of silence passed before Rarity found her voice, now quiet and contrite. “Spike… Spike I’m—”

Only then did she realize how total the silence was, broken only by the crackling fire and her own breathing. “Spike?”

Finding her way out of the blanket pile took several seconds more, her wayward hooves scattering piles of gold and gems as she did so. Standing at last, she found the curtain to his sleeping nook torn down and depression where he’d kept his treasure empty. Snow and frigid night air drifted in through the cave entrance, and the curtain that normally kept both out lay on the floor.

Rarity stood in the midst of the now vacant, treasure-filled cave, surrounded by material wealth and yet feeling poorer that she’d ever imagined possible. “What have I done?”

She ran out of the cave before her heart could answer.

Special Dances

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Snowflakes stung Rarity’s wet eyes. The cave’s firelight flickered somewhere behind her, and ahead awaited nothing but darkness. The Pit’s perpetually cloudy sky, which shone brightly during the day, offered no moon or starlight. Naked tree limbs reached for her out of the blackness, and the snow swallowed more of her legs with each step. “Where are you, Spike? Please come out.”

The exit leapt to the forefront of her mind, the foreboding passage back to the normal world. If only she’d strode down it immediately without a thought or backward glance. Doing so might’ve gotten her eaten by a monster, but at least she wouldn’t be stuck wandering around in the frozen dark with her heart aching for so many unbearable reasons.

“It’s your fault.” she muttered to herself. “You’re a horrible, egotistical, selfish pony who doesn’t deserve anything at all, much less a friend! You, Rarity, are the real beast!”

Her steps slowed until she was still, save for the shivers brought on by the snow collecting on her back. “Beast or no, you need to find him. You need to find him before he freezes. You are to find him, apologize, and plead for forgiveness. Oh please let me find him! Please let me help him!”

A tiny, flickering light answered her. Gasping, she charged forward through the snow, not worried in the slightest about maintaining a sure footing. If she ended up hopelessly buried in a snowdrift, then perhaps that’s what she deserved.

Minutes sailed by and, little by little, the tiny flicker grew into a tower of flame. From the looks of things, Spike had set a whole tree on fire to keep warm, rather than take the time to cut it down.

She paused at the edge of the firelight, panting hard yet unwilling to wait to catch her breath. “Spike!”

A massive shadow shifted across the trees opposite the fire, and Spike’s tearful reply carried through the cold. “Go away!”

Gritting her teeth so they wouldn’t chatter, she pressed on through the snow. “I’m sorry for what I said. I—”

“I said go away!”

She stuck up her nose, having finally found a productive outlet for classic Canterlot snobbery. “Absolutely not. I intend to apologize to you for my awful behavior, and to see you back to the warmth and safety of the cave before you freeze. And after that—” her face fell “—perhaps I’ll take your place out here in the cold. You should’ve left me chained up when you first found me. Doing so would’ve saved you so much trouble and heartache.”

When he didn’t reply, she took another step toward the fire, thankful for its abundant heat. “Please forgive me for treating your feelings so shamefully. I’ll walk through the exit this very night and never trouble you again, if that’s what you want. Then you can go back to being… whatever kind of dragon you wish to be.”

“I don’t want to be a dragon,” a surprisingly small voice said, devoid of Spike’s normal, rumbling depth.

Rarity pressed forward again, glancing around. Was this another trick of The Pit? “Where are you?”

“I hate being a dragon. I hate being greedy, and tough, and… and everything else dragons are supposed to be.”

“But… surely that isn’t all there is to being a—”

The massive shadow moving across the trees shrank as he came closer, and the creature that finally stepped into the light wasn’t the dragon she knew. This dragon was no bigger than she was, despite retaining every pound of woe that he’d left the cave with. “Look at me! I’m a runt! I—” he turned away and sat in the snow, hugging his tail “—I’m an insult to dragons everywhere. That’s what they told me.”

She blinked again and again, unable to equate this strange little being with the immense dragon she’d grown so accustomed to. “Is that really you?”

“Yes!” he shouted, throwing up his hands. “Now you know. I thought I was keeping things together too, sleeping on gold, hoarding gems, reminding myself how big and tough and greedy I was… I guess I couldn't even do that right.”

“But… why keep this from me? Why keep yourself larger than—”

He turned his head just enough to glare at her, and in that brilliant green eye she saw the dragon she knew, or rather the darker side of him that she'd done her best to avoid. “Because real dragons aren’t tiny, or generous, or kind! I found that out over and over when I got to the Dragon Lands. I worked hard to fit in, to be just greedy and mean enough to stay the right size, so they’d stop treating like… like a pony.”

“And what’s wrong with being a pony?” She’d drawn close enough to whisper now, and possibly to rest a hoof on his shoulder should the inspiration strike.

“I’m supposed to be a dragon! That’s what I am… except I’m not.”

Her gaze dropped to her hooves, her chipped, dirty hooves. How many hours a day had she once devoted to polishing them to a mirror shine, all in pursuit of the next rung on the social ladder? “I know all too well what it’s like to not fit in, even in the place you expect to be welcomed. That’s why you’re in here, isn’t it?”

“I’m not greedy and mean enough. That’s why they dumped me in here. That’s why I’m never leaving.”

“Even though you could fit through the exit, in your current state?”

He hunched forward, sulking. “You know where I learned about The Pit? Princess Celestia had tons of books on ancient dragon history and culture, but that’s not how things work anymore. Greedy dragons get put in charge now, and the worthless ones get thrown in The Pit if they cause trouble. Why should I leave, if I’m good for nothing?”

After drawing in a deep breath, Rarity stepped in front of him and held out a foreleg. “May I have this dance?”

He didn’t move. She couldn’t tell if he was even looking at her offered hoof or just at the ground.

And so she asked again, this time with a proper Canterlot affectation. “May I have this dance, Lord Spike the Gentledragon?”

“Why?”

“I believe you studied under royalty, did you not? Surely you wouldn’t deny a lady.”

She took in his every move, from a slight quiver of his claws, to rising to his feet, to finally meeting her gaze. He bowed, she beamed, and, at long last, claw met hoof.

Staying on four legs was a must, given his new, diminutive stature. Perhaps doing so wasn’t proper ballroom form, but that hardly mattered on a snowy night in the woods. Her magic directed his hands to her sides, but that was all. Giant or no, he led the way left, right, forward, and back with such fluidity and finesse that she could almost hear music. All the while his gaze drifted across her smiling visage, as if he was seeing her for the first time. In a way they both were: all pretense had gone, leaving nothing but two imperfect creatures waltzing in the snow. “You’re a wonderful dancer, Spike. You're wonderful in so many ways.”

He gulped audibly and glanced at his feet. “Even when I’m… uh… not as tall?”

“Because you’re being you, inside and out.”

“But I’m bad at everything that’s important.”

She cocked an eyebrow. “Oh? Is dancing really that trivial?“

His hands tensed, but didn’t leave her sides. At least this dance mattered to him, much to her relief. “I’m just bad at being a dragon, okay? That’s why they threw me in here. That’s why I don’t fit in anywhere else.”

Rarity nodded. “Neither do I. Ponyville was always too simple for my worldly ambitions, and I was too simple for the big city. If I’d stayed home a few years longer…”

She bit her lip and joined him in staring at the ground. This was supposed to be a rescue mission, not an excuse to burden him with even more of her personal failures. “What I meant to say is this: I'm sorry for being so insensitive and rude. Dragon or pony, you’re the friend I didn’t even know I needed, and certainly not one I deserve. Princess Celestia would be so proud.”

Spike blushed. “Thanks.”

When they came to a halt, Rarity leaned down and kissed his trembling hand. “Thank you, Spike. Thank you for being you.”

His arms folded around her neck in a hug, which felt every bit as gentle and soft as a pony’s embrace would, scales and claws notwithstanding.

She held up her foreleg, ready to return the embrace and yet unsure if that was wise, given the line of spikes running down his back. Merely standing here while Spike did all the hugging wasn’t an option either, considering all she’d just said about friendship.

Biting her lip, she touched the edge of her hoof to his scales and gently prodded the nearest spike.

“They’re not sharp, if that’s what you’re worried about,” Spike whispered.

Blushing furiously, Rarity threw her foreleg around him, nestling it between two spikes which did indeed prove to be completely blunt and pleasantly soft. “I-I wasn’t worried. I was merely… considering how much I need to take your jacket in.”

“You mean ‘a lot’ ?”

As they shared a quiet laugh, the warmth of his scales seemed to chase the night’s chill away.

Special Understandings

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Rarity took in a deep breath of frigid morning air. The magic sunlight emanating from the cave entrance seemed even more out of place after spending half the previous night traipsing around in near-total darkness. Eternal night still scourged everything beyond The Pit’s artificial sky, a fact that this little world she currently called home made easy to overlook.

“Home,” she mused. Could that truly be where she was? She’d inadvertently said as much last night, and rightly so: she didn’t belong anywhere else. Ponyville was a childhood memory, Canterlot a poor substitute, and the palace a waking nightmare veiled in what she'd once considered happiness. All those places were lost to her now, as were all the ponies that she'd known.

“Home.” she whispered again, trying the word on for size. “It's certainly not fancy, fashionable, or even comfortable. Really, Rarity, why would you ever call someplace so cold, hard, and dirty your—”

Spike twitched next to her, sleepily murmuring something.

Her ears folded back as she regarded the small dragon curled up precious few inches away, the reason she’d been able to sleep without relighting the fire. Calling Spike warm was a tremendous understatement; he radiated more heat than a hot water bottle.

Still she shifted further away for dignity's sake. Their needing to keep warm after an exhausting hike eased the general uncouthness of this impromptu communal sleeping arrangement, but only just. Today they'd get a proper fire going again and reestablish normalcy. His jacket wasn't going to decrease by fifty or more sizes all by itself, after all.

Standing, she made her way to the back of the cave where Spike’s enormous jacket lay in a heap. It would’ve made an excellent blanket, if either she or Spike had thought of it last night. No matter. Today she’d begin transforming this oversized mess into a new jacket, followed by a pair of scarves, and then perhaps a series of hats. Saving a few scraps for actual blankets wouldn’t be a bad idea either.

“Morning, Rarity!”

She gave Spike a warm smile, and then returned her attention to the project at hoof. “Good morning, Spike.”

“Hey, so…”

The unfinished sentence hung in the air, finally demanding the whole of Rarity’s attention. She turned and regarded his textbook nervousness: arms clasped behind his back, gaze fixed on the ground, and reddening cheeks. Apparently his confidence had gone the way of his greed. “Yes?”

“Could you come help me with the chores? I know you want to sew and stuff, and I hate pulling you away from that, but—” he held out his arms “—I kind of need some help, now that I’m… you know.”

“Not a hulking, fire-breathing, colossus?”

“Heh heh. Yeah.”

After giving the fabric one final appraising look, she trotted to the cave entrance with Spike following closely behind. “Shall we start with breakfast?”

“Perfect!”

Rarity stepped into the sun, blinking away its brightness while the snow chilled her hooves. A little exercise would soon warm her up and, with any luck, get the proverbial creative juices flowing. If they worked quickly, she’d be sewing again by lunchtime.

Assuming, of course, that her companion would start moving. So far he’d done nothing more than glance from the valley to her and back again. “Well?”

Spike shrugged. “Aren’t you going to go first?”

“What? Why should I push my way through potentially neck-deep snow when I could just follow in your enormous footstep—” the realization hit her like an icy wind. She stared at the pristine valley before them, as picturesque as it was snowbound. Gone were the days of walking down a path carved by his huge tail. “This is going to take all day, isn’t it?”

“Not all of it, but…”

Sighing, Rarity started forward with her ears low. “And I suppose melting a path is out of the question?”

“Not unless you want to carry everything back yourself. Breathing fire gets really tiring.”

“Lovely.”

Spike pressed ahead, the tip of his short tail flicking through the air behind him rather than dragging on the ground. “How about I go first for now, and you can take over later?”

Nodding, she fell into step behind him. “I suppose that’s only fair.”

“And when we get to the garden, we can try gathering enough food for a couple days instead of just one.”

“How will we carry that much?”

Spike came to a stop and Rarity nearly ran into him. “Oh. Can’t you just levitate everything with your unicorn magic?”

“Certainly not everything! My magic has its limits too, just like your fire.”

“Great.”

Rarity took a forlorn look at the cave mouth behind them. “Of all the days to be stuck in a world without tea.”

With a heavy sigh, Spike started forward again. “I was always more into hot chocolate. Hot chocolate and donuts.”

She kept as close as she could, relishing the modicum of his body heat that survived the trip through the chilly air between them. His tail was no help at all; the tip of it flicked back and forth just below her eye level, whisking cold air her way and capturing her attention like a hypnotist’s swaying pocket watch. There was a certain beauty to his scales when observed this closely, like seams stitched with an impossibly fine needle. Such lovely precision merited further study.

“Did you ever go to Pony Joes?”

She jolted back the present, blushing first for her incredibly inappropriate staring, and then for realizing what view awaited Spike when she took the lead in their march across the valley. No doubt her filthy, unkempt coat and tail had never looked worse. Not that she needed to look her best for him, of course; the very idea defied reason. “Um… pardon?”

“There was this little donut place called Pony Joes. I guess you probably wouldn’t have ever gone there, since it wasn’t artsy or exclusive.”

The diner’s name flashed through her mind, plastered on an otherwise respectable-looking street corner in the uptown near the castle, followed by oft-repeated gossip that Princess Celestia herself had been seen there on multiple occasions. “I… might have heard of it.”

“Well Pony Joe—he’s the stallion that owned the place—he made the most amazing donuts. The hot chocolate was pretty good too, so long as you put in a bunch of marshmallows.”

Now that she’d fixed her gaze, and her mind, on the trees in the distance, Rarity managed a good-natured chuckle. “I can’t recall having hot chocolate since I was a filly. In my adult years I’ve been determined to eat and drink whatever my, shall we say, preferred social class is known to consume.”

“I’m shocked.”

“It wasn’t all bad! I’ll have you know I discovered a great many delicacies that would have otherwise escaped my notice. Words can’t describe the exquisite taste and texture of a well-made risotto, or a persimmon-glazed rice pudding.”

“Or a fresh donut covered in chocolate and rainbow sprinkles.”

An undignified snort escaped her lips, followed by a small smile in spite of herself. “Clearly we were never meant to cross paths, at least not in polite society.”

Spike snapped his fingers in mock disappointment. “Darn. Does that mean I should stop pulling you out of snow drifts?”

“Oh?” She looked his diminutive frame up and down and stifled a laugh. “I think those days are long past us, considering your… current stature.”

Hopefully that wasn’t too harsh. She couldn’t presume such subjects were fair game after one brief heart-to-heart chat.

Spike flexed his short arms and threw out his chest. “Pfft. I’m not that little. I bet I could still lift your whole ego.”

Indignation shot through her like a lightning bolt, and all at once her jaw clenched and her hair bristled. “Why I never! You… You insufferable—” a better thought crossed her mind, and she promptly threw herself sideways into the snow.

Suddenly she was swathed in near-darkness with only her hooves protruding into the open air. Affecting her best Damsel in Distress voice, she flicked a foreleg ineffectually and cried out. “Oh, woe is me! I’ve tripped and fallen! If only an oversized, musclebound gentle-stallion or dragon was here to assist me! Whatever shall I do?”

“My ego indeed,” she whispered to herself. “I suppose we’re done tip-hoofing around any and all subjects, if this is what we’ve descended to—”

And then she was back in the sunlight, staring into Spike’s eyes while he held her aloft, each arm curving around her back with a gentle strength that he’d lacked before. Or perhaps she’d merely overlooked it in the past, given her reticence to nearly all physical contact with an enormous dragon. In any case, she regarded her unlikely champion’s self-satisfied smile, felt the warm, steady press of his hands upon her coat, and realized she was blushing. So much for trading barbs over his being tiny and weak; he was neither, by her current reckoning. In all the right ways, he’d always be a giant.

Spike’s smile faded a bit as he met her gaze. “Aren’t you going to say… I don’t know… Unhand me, vile beast?”

Rarity gasped and nodded as she remembered her faded indignation. “Oh, yes, yes. Our repartee. Um…”

The slight tickle of his breath on her cheek seemed to sweep all words from her mind, save two. Tilting her head towards his, she touched her lips to his cheek. “My hero.”

For a moment she felt weightless, and a moment after that she landed at Spike’s feet.

Spitting out a mouthful of snowflakes, she shot him a glare while he rubbed his cheek where she’d kissed him. “Do you make a habit of dropping appreciative ladies, or am I the first lucky recipient?”

At least she’d regained her wits. Spike seemed to be lost in the trance she’d just escaped from. He stared off into space while she righted herself and dusted the snow from her jacket.

“Why’d you do that?” he finally asked.

Rarity sighed and pressed ahead through the snow. She didn’t care what he stared at; so long as her own view remained clear. Perhaps that would help clear her head, too. “Why indeed. I for one would rather not dwell on it, especially on an empty stomach. Let’s pick up the pace, shall we?”

Whole seconds passed before she heard him hurrying to catch up with her.

---

Of all the things Rarity could’ve been cursed with, it had to be a dragon. Nightmare Moon couldn’t lock her in a dungeon, or send her off to a labor camp; she’d sentenced her to an eternity with a mindless, pony-eating beast who’d actually proven himself more noble and kind than a great many ‘civilized’ ponies. Of all the creatures Rarity could’ve been given as a cellmate, it had to be Spike.

She dared to glance up from her own hooves, spotted his swaying tail, and bit her lip. And of course now she was smitten with him. She was smitten with Spike, a miniature dragon. How absurd and sickeningly inevitable. Given exactly one possible choice for a mate, she’d found something to admire, to long for in spite of all reason and good taste. Ponies didn’t spend their time among dragons, much less court them. Not in Canterlot. Not in Ponyville. Not in all of Equestria if she had to guess.

“What if we make breakfast into a picnic?”

Startled by Spike’s voice, she cleared her throat and nodded. “Very well.”

“Then we don’t have to walk all the way back until later.”

“Indeed.”

His voice sounded far too pleasant. Ignoring these base impulses of hers would be so much easier if he was more of an oafish brute.

“I”m sorry I don’t have any salt with me. Oh! I could still cook stuff with my fire breath. That’ll help, right?”

And he was far too considerate and accommodating! “Thank you.”

“Whoa, is that a huge pile of silk?”

Rarity jumped a foot in the air, her gaze dashing across every inch of their surroundings while her heart did backflips. “Silk? Where? Did—”

At last she caught sight of his smirk, which she met with a withering glare. “Spike! Must you… play with my desires, so?”

His casual shrug lacked the soul-searching contrition she’d secretly hoped for. “Sorry. You’re just being so quiet.”

“Is that a crime? Must I entertain you every hour of the—” she took in a deep breath, which promised to be the first of many. “Please excuse that outburst. I… That was uncalled for.”

Spike didn’t resume walking. Instead he crossed his arms and stared her down, thankfully with raised eyebrows instead of a glare. “What’s bugging you?”

Rarity looked from Spike, to clearing ahead of them, to the ground. “We’ve almost reached the garden. Would you mind terribly if we ate first? That should give me time to collect my thoughts.”

Dreaming up more reasonable thoughts was of far greater importance, something bland and in no way embarrassing. She could rise above this awful cliché: developing feelings for her one and only companion on a proverbial desert island.

The final minutes of their journey passed in silence, both in the physical world and within Rarity’s mind. No fresh thoughts would come, bland or otherwise. If she did stoop to telling the truth, which seemed more likely with each hoofstep, how could she possibly word it? Inquiring if there was a Mrs. Spike sounded on par with asking for a bucket of ice water to dunk her head in.

She couldn’t do this. She wouldn’t. But she had to say something. They were seated at the garden now, and Spike was facing away from her, dutifully roasting one of her favorite kinds of flowers.

“Is it so wrong to desire companionship?” she blurted. That was it, then. She’d chosen the truth. The cliché-riddled, baser-instincts truth.

Spike tossed her the flower and plucked another, fully focused on his work. “What do you mean?”

“I mean… What do you imagine happening between the two of us? We’re a pony and a dragon, yes, but we’re also two creatures trapped with no one but each other for conceivably the rest of our lives.”

Jets of flame turned Spike’s next flower into a cinder. After coughing a few times, he glanced at her over his shoulder, eyebrows up in surprise. “You mean… you and me… like together? Together together?”

She studied her toasted flower’s curled petals, nodding softly. “Yes. I suppose I do.”

At last Spike turned to her, looking just as shocked as when she’d asked him to dance the previous night. He stared at his hands, as if he didn't know what to do with them now that he wasn't cooking, and finally set them at his sides. “Have you… um… ever been… together together with someone before?”

“I fail to see what that has to do with—” she blushed and bit her lip. It had everything to do with everything. “I’ve… had prospective suitors, none of whom caught my eye. It wasn’t that they weren’t good, honest ponies. One was quite handsome, actually, but…”

“He wasn’t a prince?” Spike’s nonchalant, unsurprised tone stung worse than the words.

Rarity winced, then nodded. “Just say it. Say I’m an awful pony for choosing social ambition over family, friends, and love.”

“I wasn’t going to say—”

“Well you're thinking it!” Her voice cracked, and her façade of composure wasn’t far behind.

He stood, which thanks to her sitting meant he could once again tower over her. “No I’m not! I’m thinking you chose Canterlot over you.”

Rarity thought back to her recent moments of quiet revelation with a sewing needle and a few scraps of fabric, moments that eclipsed her old life’s greatest triumphs. “I suppose that’s fair.”

“And I’m thinking that the real you isn’t so bad! I like the Rarity that sews, and jokes around with me, and makes pretty stuff because that’s what she loves doing. And I really like that that’s the pony I get to spend forever with. You're even… um—” he looked away amid a deep blush “—you’re beautiful. Like, Celestia beautiful.”

All Rarity could think of were the legions of twigs and dirt clods lodged in her mane.

Spike took another deep breath and started to pace. Apparently he wasn’t finished. “And I’m sorry I asked about if you’ve ever had anypony before. I just asked because… because I haven’t, okay? I don’t know what I’m doing, and the couple times I tried getting close with other dragons it turned out really, really badly. You're beautiful, and I'm just… me. A little dragon like me isn’t supposed to have chance with a pony like you, or… or anyone.”

“Do you really think I’m beautiful?” Somehow she’d stumbled even further into a cliché, and couldn’t care less.

He paused, mid step. “Well yeah. Who wouldn’t?”

Canterlot, for one. To be beautiful by its standards would require a week in a shower and more clothing, accessories, and beauty products than the Queen’s treasury could buy.

Clearing her throat, she stood and fixed her eyes on his, her cheeks reddening and her heart pounding. “I'll ask again: is it so wrong to desire companionship, to want to belong somewhere… with someone? I think… I think we’ve both spent a good portion of our lives attempting that, in one way or another.”

Spike gulped audibly and nodded. “And in all the wrong places. And with all the wrong ponies and dragons.”

She could feel his warm, rapid breaths. He smelled like a freshly used hearth. “But this place is safe, isn’t it? We’re not being pressured to be anything other than ourselves. We could decide together what, when, and how our relationship should be. There isn’t a single dragon or aristocrat to tell us otherwise.”

He nodded again, and then again. “Right. Right, we can. So—” he turned away, took a deep breath, and turned back with a slight bow and an outstretched hand “—would you care to dance, Miss Rarity?”

Giggling, she offered him her hoof and a warm smile. “Why my dear Spike, I thought you’d never ask.”

---

Happiness could be entirely relative, Rarity concluded. She sat at the back of the cave gathering up Spike’s enormous jacket while he got a fire going and prepared their lunch. Nothing about the current situation met with the standards of happiness she’d once prescribed to, and yet everything felt so extraordinarily perfect.

Surely some of that was the wonderful dance she and Spike had shared, followed by brunch, followed by a surprisingly enjoyable time collecting firewood. They’d done all of those activities before, but not like this. Not with the notion that something besides a shared interest in survival bonded them together. Perhaps this feeling wouldn’t last the week. Perhaps she’d wake up tomorrow filled with revulsion for even entertaining the notion of a relationship with a dragon. Perhaps Spike would somehow turn into the possessive brute she’d once presumed him to be. Or perhaps this sense of bliss would last forever. For the moment, she’d gladly take that chance.

She lifted the enormous jacket with her magic and trotted to Spike’s treasure-laden nest. “Undoing this mess can wait. At least I’ll finally have enough fabric to make myself a hat, and perhaps a…”

Her train of thought came to a crashing halt.

The fabric bundle wouldn’t fit. Confused, she folded the jacket nicely rather than balling it up, and gave the nest a long stare. The gold and jewels covering the ground seemed to mock her; here was treasure enough to cement her place in high society or to bankroll a dressmaking business, and the most it would ever be used for was feeding and entertaining a small dragon.

She gave the folded jacket a much firmer shove, first laying it on the treasure and then folding the excess material over again and again until it all laid flat, just as it had been before she’d sewn it all together.

Except it looked nothing like before. The layer of folded over fabric was nearly as tall as she was; it looked like she’d put twice as much material into the nest as she’d originally removed.

“Spike?”

This couldn’t be real. She felt for the neckline of her own jacket, half-expecting to find a fancy ballroom gown or something else equally impossible. The same dirt and sweat-stained stitches that she’d worn ceaselessly for days met her hoof.

“Spike!” she spoke his name at a shout, as if she was reprimanding a palace servant. All the while she backpedaled through the cave, never taking her eyes off the paradoxically plentiful fabric until sunlight hid the cave’s interior from sight and snow coated her hooves.

“Hey Rarity, what’s wrong?” Spike ran towards her from the forest, holding a handful of small tree limbs. “I figured I’d grab a little more firewood to keep the cave extra warm, and—”

Rarity directed an accusatory foreleg at the cave. “There’s something wrong in there!”

“Huh?”

“The cave! Y-your nest! I tried to put all the fabric I removed back, and—” suddenly she thought of her long hours sewing, of pulling blanket after blanket from the nest to complete her gift to Spike, only to run out when she turned her attention to making herself a scarf. Then she thought of his finding a lump of salt to liven up their meals and cotton to save her craft, and her finding his favorite kind of mushroom immediately after setting her own wants aside.

“Rarity?” The firewood lay on the ground, and Spike’s hand rested on her shoulder.

She took in a deep breath, her mind buzzing and heart thundering. “What was the first thing you ever wished for me?”

“Huh?”

“You said you found the salt while thinking about making dinner special for me, didn’t you? That was true, wasn’t it?”

Spike stared at her, his eyes clearly searching her expression for some clue as to what she was on about. Finally he nodded. “Yeah… so?”

“Have you wished anything else for me? Anything at all?”

“Well…”

Rarity placed a hoof to his shoulder and shook him as gently as she could manage, given the torrent of excitement rushing through her. “Well? Out with it!”

“A s-safe landing! When I saw you falling into The Pit I-I hoped and wished you’d land on something soft, so you’d be okay.” He’d started trembling under her interrogative stare. “Why are you acting like this? What’d I do?”

Smiling, Rarity pulled him into a hug, squeezing hard and savoring the press of his claws as he did the same. It was the least should do for sending him into a panic. “You, my thoughtful and generous dragon, might have just explained why I found mushrooms, and you found salt.”

When she pulled away, Spike stared at her, dreamy-eyed and clearly more interested in a second hug than an explanation. She’d oblige him later. For now she leaned in close to whisper in his ear. “I know how The Pit works! And I know how we can make it the home we’ve always dreamed of!”

A Rude Awakening

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Row upon row of dull green thread hung before Rarity’s scrutinizing gaze. Droplets of dye slid along the strands, coalescing into rivulets before falling into the stone basin at her hooves. The color was far from bad, but could still use some fine tuning. Perhaps she’d alter the leaf ratio again, or introduce a new kind of root. Her next dress design called for no less than three distinct colors, not including the natural white of her cotton thread. It looked to be an ambitious project, just what she needed after so many scarves and hats.

A hand ran along her her back, ruffling her knit sweater.

Giggling, she leaned towards Spike as his fingers caressed her mane and his lips met her cheek. “Good morning, Spikey.”

The thread slid back into the dye basin as she turned her attention to far more important things, like the dragon currently massaging her shoulder just the way she liked.

“How long have you been up?” he asked.

It hadn’t been more than an hour, by her admittedly lackadaisical estimation. Save for sunrise and sunset, notions of time’s passing were relics of the outside world. Perhaps a month had passed since she’d been thrown in The Pit, or perhaps a year. Such distinctions hardly mattered. “Oh, not long. I trust you slept well?”

Spike stifled a yawn. “Yeah. I still wish you’d wake me up in the mornings. I could help you with your projects.”

“I happen to like my solitary mornings just as much as our shared afternoons and evenings, thank you. Although I suppose… if you’re in an especially generous mood—” she touched a her nose to his, grinning mischievously “—we could get an early start on breakfast.”

His own grin dissolved into eye roll. “Yeah, yeah. Sure.”

Rarity rose from her place by the fire, her eyes drinking in Spike as he sauntered out into the daylight, and her mind buzzing with the various ways she could get him smiling again.

A shawl, scarf, and jacket leapt from a stone shelf in the corner, glowing with her magic. The shelf’s small complement of clothes hardly merited the title ‘wardrobe,’ just as the great mass of blankets in the alcove could only be called a bed by the loosest of definitions. Such distinctions mattered even less than time’s passing. What mattered was the smile that crossed her face whenever she looked around her modest home, or at the dragon she shared it with.

Once enough layers of cotton stood between her and the morning’s bitter cold, she stepped outside, taking care to leave all dressmaking thoughts behind. She’d return to such tasks later, when Spike ventured off to work on his own projects. Or she might follow along and help him, or he might stay behind and do the same for her.

Naked tree trunks guarded at the cave’s entrance, some in neat piles and others nearly buried by snowfall, the raw material resulting from Spike’s recent declaration to ‘build a home fit for a princess.’ He’d succeed eventually, she knew. Their whole lives stretched out before them, largely uncomplicated and yet ripe with creative possibility.

After a few minutes of trotting, when the cave lay in the distance and trees loomed overhead, Rarity came to a stop and closed her eyes. She thought of Spike, how much she cared for him, and how very happy he’d be to feast on a plate of fresh mushrooms. The idea of giving him that gift welled up inside her until her own desires melted away and her heart practically burned with generosity’s warmth. All at once the snow’s chill left her, and she knew it was time to dig.

A dozen mushrooms were waiting there, growing on a tree root a few feet beneath the surface. Rarity tucked them into the fold of her shawl, humming as she did so.

Generosity changed everything. Obtaining items that one could reasonably expect to find in a forest, like mushrooms and cotton flowers, only required a heartfelt wish on behalf of another. Other things like exotic fabrics and assorted gems remained out of reach. Not having a limitless supply of gems was probably for the best, considering how much roomier the cave was without a greed-stricken dragon consuming half of it. Granted, his physical transformation was perhaps the least significant change to come over either of them. Generosity changed everything.

She continued humming as she approached the cave, her heart floating, and her stomach anxious to know what Spike had wished into being for her own breakfast. “Spikey dearest, are you back yet?”

A thunderclap answered her. Casting a startled glance over her shoulder, Rarity saw lightning flash through the ever-present clouds, which were turning a menacing black. “W-what’s happening?”

“Rarity!” Spike’s voice cut through her rising panic like a knife. His purple form flashed between the trees, punctuated by bursts of flame as he melted his way through snow drifts.

“I’m over here! What’s hap—”

A tree exploded in the distance, the lightning’s afterglow illuminating the flaming branches now rocketing through the air. Stricken by awe as much as panic, Rarity stood her ground as the flaming debris began to rain down.

And then another lightning flash arched through the angry storm clouds, prompting panic to take over completely.

Pegasus wings.

Somepony was up there, in the lightning storm. Some pony, or some nightmare. “No. No. Not here. Please not here!”

Spike practically crashed into her, scrambling onto her back and flattening himself into a shield against the falling debris. “Run for it!”

Her legs heard him, even if her mind didn’t. They were running now. The cave lay ahead, and behind them the forest was burning. The forest that gave them every material thing they needed to survive was burning, and whether or not it would magically grow back had been rendered irrelevant.

Spike’s arms wrapped around her, holding on tight as she galloped the last few yards to what suddenly felt like their soon-to-be-former home. “She found me.”

“What?”

In her mental haze, Rarity hadn’t felt Spike dismount or seen the rapidly growing pile of supplies forming on the floor. Her sturdiest set of saddlebags lay open, one side brimming with leaves and thread, the other with their last few gems.

“It’s over.” Rarity whispered. “Nightmare Moon found me. My… Our life is over.”

---

Rarity trotted down the exit tunnel as fast as she dared, the ragged opening behind them glowing faintly with firelight, and the path ahead steeped in darkness. Spike walked beside her with a hand against her side, his breaths rapid and his claws pressing into her coat with far more pressure than necessary. She couldn’t blame him, nor would she tell him to be more gentle; this slight discomfort merely meant he was still there, walking this unknown road alongside her. Panic and fear were afterthoughts, so long as that remained true.

“How much further do you think it is?” she whispered.

“Hours… days… I don’t know. I-I never tried coming down here, and… and no dragons ever came back.”

“They made it through without incident, then.” Rarity said with authoritative certainty. “They made it through this dark, foreboding tunnel to someplace better.”

“There’s no place better.” Spike muttered.

“On the contrary, Spikey. To the typical dragon, The Pit was a horrendous punishment. To creatures like us… I’m sure we’ll get by, wherever we emerge.”

“Even if we’re in the middle of the Dragon Lands?”

“No dragons live there anymore, if that’s what you’re worried about. Night… the Queen saw to that.”

“I guess that’s a relief, but—” his grip on her slackened, and in response she nearly lost her balance. Had she been leaning against him this whole time?

She didn’t dare ask what was wrong. What if he’d heard somepony behind them? What if this was their last moment together?

“Do you feel hot?” he asked.

An emphatic ‘never’ was on the tip of her tongue, but she bit it back. “Spikey, need I remind you how many layers of clothing I wear each and every—” and then she felt it: a current of startlingly hot air from whatever lay ahead. “What in Equestria… Could it be the end of the tunnel? How can the outside world be so scalding with no sunlight?”

“I think I see something! We made it!”

Rarity sped up, her eyes searching for any ray of hope, be it sunshine or even candle light. Instead, a faint red glow appeared ahead, cast on a rock face by an unseen source around a corner. A low, churning roar ate up the silence, and sulfurous fumes stung her nose. “Spike, I… I don’t think…”

She couldn’t finish the sentence. Whatever well of confidence she’d plumbed to make it this far was nearly dry, and the sight that greeted them next burned away its final remnants.

After a sharp turn, the tunnel ended in a wide chasm awash with fiery light and searing heat. A river of lava rushed by before them, bubbling and splashing with all the vigor of water and the heat of a furnace.

Rarity’s knees wouldn’t stop shaking. “But… the exit… this is supposed to be an exit!”

In her eyes, the harsh light turned Spike into a silhouette. He sat by the chasm’s edge, his head hung low. “I guess it is… for dragons. I could jump in there and swim downstream, no problem.”

“Then you should.” She forced the words out before she could lose her nerve. “If you can escape, then don’t let me stop you. There’s still time for you to get away, to be free of all the horribleness I’ve brought upon you.”

Spike sat there, unmoving. “No.”

“But you must! Once Nightmare Moon finds her way down here—”

“Then she’ll find us both, because I’m not leaving you behind! I wouldn’t do that even if you still hated me!”

Rarity gasped. “I-I never hated you, Spike. Never. Early on I certainly didn’t know what to make of you… or of myself, for that mater, but—”

“The point is, I’m staying. I’m staying because…”

“You don’t need to say it.” Her tone turned soft and quiet. She inched closer to him and draped a foreleg over his shoulder. Words were immaterial, if these were going to be their final moments.

Spike took a deep breath. “Rarity, just in case we don’t make it, I—”

Her hoof met his lips, and she gazed at him through wet eyes. I know.

A final kiss from her beloved was all she needed to withstand whatever horror came next. Instead, a gust of cool air and an exasperated sigh startled them both.

A blue pegasus mare touched down behind them. “There you are! Sheesh, Rarity. Couldn’t you just stay put and let us rescue you already?”

Spike tensed and, before Rarity could protest, got to his feet and stood between her and this new pony. “Who’re you?”

Rarity wanted to know that as well, but her mind still hadn’t gotten past the word ‘rescue’. “Did… Did you say—”

The pony rolled her eyes. “The name’s Rainbow Dash. Look, dragon, I’m just here for Rarity, so stand aside and nobody gets—”

Rarity gasped. “Rainbow Dash! From the palace! I didn’t recognize you without your armor. I must say, having a longer mane suits you.” She couldn’t help smiling; she’d had no idea how much she missed seeing other ponies. Perhaps this was the pegasus she’d glimpsed in the skies before.

Rainbow offered a half-hearted salute without breaking her stare-down with Spike. “That’s me. So can we go already, before fire-breath here gets any ideas?”

Before Spike could so much as clench his fists, Rarity’s forelegs were around him, holding him close. “Please, Rainbow. There’s no need to be rude. This is Spike, and I have no intention of going anywhere without him.”

She could feel Spike relax at her touch. Clearly this was going to be a long road, acclimating him to ponies and ponies to him. No matter.

Spike cleared his throat and held out a hand to shake. “Um… Hi, Rainbow Dash. I’m Spike.”

Rainbow stared at them, eyebrows up and mouth agape. Rarity could feel her gaze traveling from her, to Spike, to the forelegs she’d pressed against him. Finally she bumped Spike’s hand with her hoof. “Hi… So… Spike, mind if we get moving? We’ve kind of got some ponies waiting for us.”

Spike sighed. “Okay. Sure. But… I hate to break it to you, but this—” he gestured to the river of lava “—this is the only way out of The Pit. We’re all stuck here now.”

Rarity squeezed Spike a little tighter as her spirits sank. Certainly she and Spike had made a home of this place, and a comfortable one at that, but that impossible word, rescue, still made her heart flutter. How many of these new ponies where there? Where were they all going to sleep? She couldn't let them all freeze.

Rainbow turned and led the way back through the tunnel. “We’ve got that covered, don’t worry.”

Rarity surged forward, pulling Spike along with her. “What? How?”

“Twilight can fill you in, right after she covers saving Equestria.”

---

“What do you mean, saving Equestria?” Spike asked, long before Rarity could work up the nerve, let alone contemplate such an impossibility.

Spike hadn't seen Nightmare Moon for himself, or witnessed her terrible power. No amount of her relating the dire state of the world beyond The Pit could properly convey just how hopeless a fight that was. Or so she assumed. Rarity recalled Rainbow being brash and headstrong, but not stupid. Surely she had some sort of plan, something to pledge her loyalty to.

“I mean we’re gonna kick the Queen back to the moon and stop the eternal night!” Rainbow replied. Despite the tunnel’s low ceiling, Rainbow seemed incapable of staying on the ground for whole seconds at a time. She hovered alongside Spike, gesturing enthusiastically with her forelegs while Rarity brought up the rear of the procession.

This wasn’t the gruff, all-business Rainbow Dash Rarity remembered. They’d last crossed paths just before the final purge, when all the palace guards were led away in chains and she did her best to be somewhere else, not wishing to lock eyes with the condemned. How foolish and arrogant she’d been, to consider herself immune to Nightmare Moon’s suspicions and wrath.

“What about Celestia? We’re going to rescue her, right?” Spike’s enthusiasm turned the question into a near shout.

Rainbow pumped a hoof in the air. “Heck yeah we are! Twilight’s totally obsessed with making sure we get Celestia back.”

At last Rarity cleared her throat. “And who is this Twilight you keep mentioning?”

“Some egghead. We’ve stuck with her for a while now. She’s not exactly fun, but she gets stuff done.”

“We?” Rarity asked. “Just how many of you are there?”

Another pony stepped into the light at the end of the tunnel, the silhouette of their head obscured by some sort of hat. “Rainbow? That you? Did ya find anypony?”

The voice’s deep-throated twang froze Rarity in place. That couldn’t be who it sounded like, not unless she was walking backward through time, first running into a pony from the palace and now one from her school days. Doing such a thing couldn’t be possible, and on the off chance it was she’d go no further. Primary school was as far into Ponyville as she dared to tread. “Don’t tell me that’s—”

“I’ve got her, Applejack!” Rainbow shouted.

Rarity’s hooves were stone, solid and immovable. Rainbow surged forward, oblivious to her plight. She’d never gotten an answer to her question. How many ponies were up there? Were there any more surprise ponies from her past? What was she supposed to say to them after all this time?

Spike paused long enough to look back. “Come on, Rarity, let’s go! We’re safe after all! We’re going to rescue Celestia!”

She nodded. “Yes, of course, dear. I’m just a little… overwhelmed by it all.”

He ran back and clasped her foreleg, leading her onward. “It’ll be okay. I know they keep saying ‘rescue,’ but who cares? We can help fix Equestria, and then come right back home.”

“Do you really think so?” It wasn’t really a question, but Spike’s continued tugging on her suggested he hadn’t noticed.

A Meeting of the Minds

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“Applejack.” Rarity said with a quick nod.

Applejack tipped her Stetson and smiled. “Rarity.”

At least their fillyhood status as barely acquaintances still stood. Not that that lessened the shock of seeing five mares in total huddled around the fire, shivering: two pegasi, two earth ponies, and one unicorn. Rarity stood before them, next to Spike, and noted the oddly symmetric group she’d joined. The addition of her made two members of each pony tribe, and six ponies in total. Curious.

A ‘welcome to our home’ was probably in order, but she didn’t have the stomach for it. Running for her life felt pleasant and normal compared to having five pairs of eyes fixed on her for reasons unknown. This felt more like an intervention than a rescue attempt. “Hello… everypony. I’m—”

“That’s Rarity, that’s Spike.” Rainbow said. “Lay it on ‘em, Twilight. We can’t stay in here freezing our tails off all day.”

Rarity gave an indignant huff. “Really, Rainbow. You’re more than welcome to take something from my personal wardrobe if you’re cold. That goes for the rest of you, too; I have more than enough warm winter clothing to share.”

Her magic brought garment after garment forward, and a quick glance sorted them into piles before the ponies that they’d suit best: a green scarf for Applejack, a cabled sweater for the yellow pegasus, a stocking cap for the pink earth pony, and so on. Each offering made her smile a little more brightly; clothing ponies should have been her life. This act brought her craft full circle: dreaming up designs, creating clothing, and then seeing the joy on the new owner’s face.

She stopped her imaginings then and there, not wishing to wander into another depressing round of what-if-life-had-been-different. Life had its shortcomings and its triumphs, and her time with Spike definitely fell into the latter category. But what would happen now? For the first time in she didn’t know how long, the future loomed large and uncertain. Moving closer to Spike and holding her breath was all she could do.

“Ooo, cozy!” The pink earth pony exclaimed as her stocking cap covered her ears and then her eyes. “Thanks, Rarity!”

“I’m sorry it’s somewhat oversized, but you’re quite welcome, Miss—?”

“I’m Pinkie Pie! And that’s Twilight, that’s Fluttershy, that’s Applejack, and that’s Rainbow Dash. Except you already met Rainbow Dash and Applejack, so that’s Twilight and that’s Fluttershy!”

Rarity could barely follow Pinkie’s train of thought, let alone her rapid pointing to the ponies surrounding her. “That’s… fascinating. It’s a pleasure to meet all of you.”

Spike stood up a little taller and cleared his throat. “Maybe I should go get more firewood, just in case anypony’s still cold. Oh, and I can get us all some breakfast. I’m starving.”

Rainbow grinned. “Now you’re talking! You’re my kind of dragon, Spike.”

“That’s a wonderful idea, but…” Rarity didn’t know how to say “please don’t leave me with all these strange ponies” with any measure of politeness.

Fortunately, Spike didn’t get far before the yellow pegasus blocked his path to the door. She inched forward, her wide eyes fixed on him. “Excuse me, but… you’re really a d-dragon? I thought all dragons were giant, and scary, and mean.”

Her voice barely qualified as a whisper.

Spike looked to Rarity, as if to ask if she’d caught all of that too, and held out a hand. “Yeah… I’m really a dragon. Nice to meet you?”

The pegasus backed away before waving hello. “I-I actually really love animals, b-but… d-dragons scare me.” She looked away, ashamed.

He dropped to his knees, reducing his already modest height, and smiled. “I swear I’m not scary or mean. And I really like ponies, but not to eat or anything if that’s what you’re worried about.”

Her ears shot up. “Oh I know you don’t eat ponies. That’s just a common misconception, something that all creatures face. My friend Harry the bear used to have the hardest time befriending smaller animals, but…”

“What’s wrong?”

She smiled brightly. “Wow, you’re right; you’re not scary at all! I’m sorry I assumed you’d be mean. I’m… My name is Fluttershy.”

“Nice to meet you.”

Applejack leaned over to Rarity and whispered. “Can’t say I’ve ever heard that much from Fluttershy in one go.”

Rarity smiled. “Spike is a very special dragon, but that’s his story to tell, not mine.”

“Speaking of stories,” the purple unicorn said, “I think it’s about time I explain why we’re all here.”

“Indeed,” Rarity replied. “I presume you’re the Twilight Rainbow Dash mentioned?”

The unicorn nodded, her expression strangely neutral despite all the smiles surrounding her. “Yes, I’m Twilight Sparkle. I’m originally from—”

Rainbow groaned. “Canterlot, libraries, an hour of other boring stuff… Can we skip to the important part?”

“It’s all important!” Twilight shouted. “We might’ve stopped Nightmare Moon before she ever took over if—”

Applejack stepped between them. “Ease up, Sugar Cube. I think what Rainbow Dash was trying to say, right up until she forgot her manners, is can we skip to the practical bits?”

“Okay, okay.” Twilight replied, an angry glare still fixed on Rainbow. “We’re trying to stop Nightmare Moon using a set of magical artifacts called the Elements of Harmony. We need six ponies to make that happen, ponies that embody each element of friendship.”

Twilight paced in front of the others, nodding to each one of them. “Applejack here represents honesty. Fluttershy is kindness, Rainbow Dash is loyalty, Pinkie Pie is laughter, I’m magic, and that just leaves you: generosity.”

Rarity scanned the room’s occupants a second time, unsure if she’d heard Twilight correctly. “I’m not sure I follow. How can six normal ponies possibly stop—”

Rainbow groaned again. “Here we go with the boring part, same as last time.”

“I’ll try to keep it short,” Twilight muttered while she massaged her temples. “I used to conduct research for the Royal Canterlot Library, and a couple days before Nightmare Moon showed up I met a pony called Moon Dancer. She said she was Princess Celestia’s personal student, she was looking for any information she could find on the Elements of Harmony, and that the fate of Equestria was at stake. Everypony who works a reference desk near the School for Gifted Unicorns hears an ‘I’m friends with royalty’ story once in a while, especially when it comes wanting to check out obscure reference books right before exams, but—”

“Moving on?” Rainbow murmured.

“Sorry, sorry. I found the book she wanted the next day, just before Nightmare Moon took over Canterlot. Moon Dancer was onto something, and ever since then I’ve been traveling to libraries all over Equestria, trying to piece everything together so—”

Pinkie peeked above Twilight’s shoulder, grinning. “And that’s how she met Fluttershy in Ponyville!”

Twilight’s puckered her lips and stared at the ceiling. “Can I continue?”

Pinkie nodded before zipping back to her previous spot by the fire.

“Ponyville’s library is where it all came together. That’s where I realized I needed to find ponies, not just magical artifacts—” she held up a hoof to stop Pinkie in her tracks “—and yes, that’s when I met Fluttershy. After months of trial and error, I perfected a spell that locates the elements and the ponies that can use them. It turns out Nightmare Moon scattered the Elements of Harmony to the far corners of Equestria, just to keep ponies like us from bringing them together.”

“But we are!” Rainbow shouted, pumping her hoof in the air. “We’ve been all over Equestria, kicking tail and digging up elements, and you’re last on the list, Rarity!”

“And it’s not just you,” Twilight added, “the actual element of generosity is here too, in The Pit. I guess Nightmare Moon figured nopony would be crazy enough to come looking for it here.”

Old terrors brushed against Rarity’s conscious mind, making her shiver. “I suppose that makes sense, considering what the rest of the world thinks happened to me. Do you really mean to say that we can save Equestria, as Rainbow put it?”

Spike jumped up at down with excitement. “And Celestia too?”

Twilight nodded. “I hope so.”

Spike marched to the door, his brow furrowed and his steps resolute. “Then what are we waiting for? Let’s go find the lost element and save the Princess!”

Purple light shrouded Twilight’s horn and two compass needles made of blue light sprouted from it, one pointing directly at Rarity, the other meandering around the entrance to the cave. “I'm right behind you, Spike.”

Spike led the charge out into the snow with Twilight and the others in pursuit. Rarity watched them go, torn between excitement over this whole ‘saving Equestria’ business and the apparent loss of her and Spike’s own little world. She should’ve spent the morning in bed, lost in a tangle of warm limbs without a single want or worry. The notion that she might get to pursue a career in fashion after all couldn’t replace that simple bliss. Nothing ever would.

“So…”

Rarity jumped. “W-why Rainbow Dash, I thought you followed the others, and…”

Rainbow regarded the snow by the entrance and tugged at the scarf wrapped around her neck. “Nah. It’s freezing out there, and I kind of wanted to hang with you for a sec.”

“Very well. I have more clothing to choose from, if you like. I happen to have a spare jacket that would go quite well with your coat color, or if you like you’re more than welcome to the shawl I’m currently wear—”

“So you and Spike…”

Rarity’s mouth hung open, her unfinished sentence lingering on her tongue and her mind momentarily frozen. Finally she cleared her throat. “I suppose I should’ve seen that coming. In fact I suppose I should get used to hearing it.”

Rainbow’s ears lay flat and, unless Rarity was mistaken, a fresh shiver traveled down her back. Was that a chill or revulsion? “I get that you’ve been stuck in here for a long time, but—”

Revulsion, then.

“But what?” The words came out with a ferocity Rarity hadn’t felt since the palace, edged with new boldness. “Whatever you’re wondering about the two of us, just assume the answer is yes! Assume we’ve done every romantic and lascivious thing you can imagine! It isn’t as if we ever expected to see anypony again, much less somepony fit to marry us properly… assuming somepony would, considering how uncouth it must seem for a dragon and a p-pony to—”

She turned away as her eyes began to water. All her indignation, elation, and stress were turning to gall in her belly and lead in her chest. And over what? Was this tiny provocation, this perfectly reasonable question about her and Spike really all it took to upend her emotions? You’re so pathetic, Rarity. Pathetic, fragile, and wholly unsuited for life among ponies. But that's where your headed. The Pit isn't your home anymore.

Rainbow drew closer, her voice quiet. “Hey—”

“I’m not embarrassed, if that’s what you’re thinking.” And she wasn’t, but was it worth explaining? Could Rainbow or anypony else understand what she’d gained and lost, that she’d traded social rank and nearly every creature comfort for a life and life partner as unorthodox as they were uncomplicated? Would anypony ever understand that she'd willingly make the same trade all over again?

A foreleg fell across Rarity’s shoulders, but the modicum of comfort the gesture imparted vanished when Rainbow’s hoof covered her mouth. “Cut the drama, already. Sheesh, I forgot how you good you are at that. What do I care if your guy has hands or hooves?”

“You don’t?”

“No, and nopony else will either. Did you think that’s why I hung back? Asking about Spike was supposed to be the icebreaker.”

She pushed Rainbow away, her indignation on the rise once again. “Plenty of ponies will care, I assure you.”

“Nopony that matters!” Rainbow shot a foreleg to cave entrance. “I didn’t hear everypony else shout ‘eww gross’ the second you two walked in. And don’t say ‘they just didn’t notice’ because that takes like two seconds. I’m surprised Pinkie didn’t already throw you two a party or something. She does that. A lot.”

A minute passed in silence. Rarity’s gaze remained fixed on the fire pit for fear of spying something else upsetting, which at this point could range from Rainbow’s unfavorable expression to an unfolded blanket. “You really don’t care that we—”

“Nope.”

“Then why… What else do the two of us possibly have to discuss?”

Silence answered, finally prompting Rarity to turn to her. She found Rainbow sitting by the entrance again, staring out at the snow and seemly lost in thought. In ages past she would’ve considered brutish ponies like Rainbow incapable of thinking much of anything.

“Do you remember—” Rainbow sighed “—the night when… you know… Nightmare Moon threw you in here?”

Rarity shivered. “Do you think that’s something one forgets? Did you think I’ll ever—”

“I was there.” Rainbow’s voice descended into a yelp. “I-I hid when they took the other palace guards away, and I hid when they took you, too. I acted tough back then because I was scared. I only ever looked out for myself and… I’m sorry, okay? I wish I could take it back. I wish I could take a lot of stuff back.”

“Please don’t burden yourself with what happened to me. I can hardly blame you for Nightmare Moon’s actions."

“It wasn’t just you! Bad stuff happened to all sorts of ponies back then because I didn’t help them, but not anymore: after I heard what Nightmare Moon did to you, I swore I'd never walk out on a pony in need again. Ever. That’s when I ran into Fluttershy and Twilight, and I haven’t looked back since. I don’t know why, but having good friends like them changes everything. It's like I'm a better pony, like they helped me figure out how to be… I dunno…”

“True to yourself?” Rarity offered a knowing smile. “I’m a better pony now, too, Rainbow. No matter how you might view my supposed last day in Equestria, I for one wouldn’t change a thing. And whether or not you have reason to apologize, I most certainly do. I’m so very sorry for my conduct before, for the cold, haughty pony I used to be. It took being thrown in here with a dragon for me to rediscover my special talent, not to mention my generosity.”

Rainbow smiled back, her earlier bravado and more recent guilt nowhere in sight. Perhaps, Rarity thought, they were effectively seeing each other for the very first time. “Friends?”

Friends? Rarity studied the word out in her mind. Certainly they were on good terms now, but did that push them beyond the realm of acquaintances? She didn’t have a lot of experience with the concept, despite her proclamation of being better pony. “I suppose we could be, but…would you really want me as a friend? The two of us couldn’t be more different.”

“Heck yeah I do! Look, I don’t care if you’re into making clothes, or living in caves, or hanging out with dragons. The best thing about friends is they can be totally different from you and still be accepting and aweso—”

A snowball streaked through the cave entrance and pelted Rainbow in the face. Pinkie’s laugher echoed through the air a moment later. “Better hurry up before we find that element without you, Dashie!”

Rainbow wiped the snow off her brow with a groan that quickly became a laugh. “Let’s get going, Rarity. We’ve got an element to find, and a snowball fight to win!”

Rarity trotted after Rainbow, a smile on her lips and her troubles far away. “I don’t suppose I can say no to that.”

A Cold War

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Laugher echoed across the frozen ground and snowballs flew over it. Rarity trotted this way and that, gleefully trading fire with whomever happened to be closest. Every so often she’d pause to study the forest to confirm that the minor fires set off by the lightning storm were continuing to dwindle, to gape at the purple hot air balloon peeking over the trees, and to see where Spike was. Finding him and Twilight took anywhere from seconds to minutes, but the glimpse of them that she’d eventually catch would always be the same: Spike talking animatedly while Twilight meandered nearby with her horn aglow. Not once had they asked for help or even looked her way.

“Twilight doesn’t mind that we’re essentially playing while she works, does she?”

Applejack heaved a snowball toward Rainbow Dash and laughed. “Mind? Truth be told I’m surprised she hasn’t told your dragon to skedaddle and leave her be. When Twilight gets to using magic, or thinking hard about magic, or thinking hard on much of anything, it’s best to just stand back and let her do it. She’ll round us up when she’s in a talking mood again, or if we can help. Besides, you’re havin’ fun, right?”

Rarity tried and failed to dodge the next onslaught from Pinkie and Fluttershy. “Well yes, but—”

“Good. See, there’s another part to this whole Elements of Harmony bit that Twilight can’t ever seem to mention up front.”

“Which is?”

“We’ve all gotta—” what could best be described as a snow cannonball dropped onto Applejack’s head, knocking her flat.

Rainbow’s laughter rained down next. “Just try and top that one, AJ!”

Fluttershy joined her in the sky a moment later, her kind smile gone and her timid voice an authoritative rebuke. “Rainbow Dash! That wasn’t a very nice thing to do!”

Rainbow rolled her eyes. “Oh, come on. Applejack’s fine. Not every friendship is all tea parties and touchy-feely stuff, Flutter—”

A second snow cannonball plastered across Rainbow’s face, literally throwing her for a loop. Applejack zipped by Rarity with a snowball balanced on her hoof. “Come down here and I might go easy on ya!”

As the pair raced off, trading fire and retorts, Fluttershy floated down to Rarity’s side. “I worry about the two of them, sometimes. Aren’t friends supposed to be nice to each other?”

Rarity shrugged. “I would think so, but I suppose Rainbow might have a point as well, that some friendships are a bit more… combative than one might expect. Still, I for one would prefer a tea party and a trip the spa.”

“Oh, I’d love to go to a spa someday. There’s one in Ponyville and everything, but… but I’m too shy to go by myself.”

Rarity held back a groan. Another Ponyville resident, albeit one that she’d never met before. Perhaps Fluttershy moved there after she left for Canterlot. “You just need a friend to accompany you, dear. I certainly would, given the opportunity.”

Fluttershy smiled. “Really? That sounds wonderful.”

Pinkie burst out of a nearby snowdrift, grinning from ear to ear. “Did somepony say party? Because it’s been waaay too long since I've gotten to throw one since we’ve been traveling all over Equestria and I’ve got this biiiig list of parties that desperately need throwing as soon as Nightmare Meanie goes back to the moon.”

She produced a small pad of paper and quill from her curly mane and flipped through its pages. “The Welcome Back Celestia party stays at the top of the list, but then there’s New Friend parties for Twilight, Applejack, Fluttershy, and now Rarity and Spike too! And we need a big Friends Forever and Ever party because that’s what saved Equestria. Oh, and a Yay Our Two New Friends Make a Super-Cute Couple party!”

Pinkie cocked an eyebrow. “What kind of cake do you want? How about white chocolate and sapphire with grape jelly?”

Rarity somehow managed to feel embarrassed and hungry at the same time. “A party… or several… would lovely, Pinkie. Thank you.”

Pinkie fanned herself with the pad and sighed in relief. “Phew, good. Maybe after I get through my backlog, we can talk dresses and balls and other fancy stuff. I just know you’re gonna make amazing, knock-everypony’s-horseshoes-off clothes someday, and I wanna be there when it happens.”

“Yes, yes, I—” Rarity stared at Pinkie with new fascination, unsure when or how she’d transitioned from loud and hyperactive to calm and reasonable “—do you really think so?”

Pinkie circled Fluttershy with a strut worthy of a bridleway, turning her head from side to side to show off her stocking cap and shawl. “I know so! You made all this nifty stuff with your bare hooves in a cave.”

Fluttershy nodded, lifting a foreleg to examine her sweater sleeve. “Pinkie’s right. I know a little about sewing, and this stitching is amazing. I’m surprised you don’t have a sewing-related cutie mark.”

Inwardly wincing, Rarity glanced at the three diamonds adorning her flanks. “Yes, well… I suppose a cutie mark can have… many interpretations, don’t you think? As a filly I often dreamed of going into fashion, but it wasn’t until I found myself here that… well that’s a rather long story. I don't suppose you know what Applejack was about to tell me? She mentioned there was some other condition to saving Equestria besides finding the Elements of Harmony.”

Fluttershy looked down and ground her hoof into the snow. “Oh, right. It's not anything scary or bad or anything, b-but asking new ponies about it makes me nerv—”

Pinkie threw one foreleg across Fluttershy’s shoulders and grinned. “We've all gotta be friends!”

In a very small, nerve-wracked voice, Fluttershy added “will you please be my friend, Rarity?”

Rarity blinked, sure she'd missed something. “That's all?”

Pinkie nodded with a big grin, Fluttershy with a pitiful whimper.

“Well, to be perfectly honest, ladies, you’re the first ponies I’ve carried on a pleasant conversation with—”

“And a snowball fight!” Pinkie added.

“Yes, yes, and a snowball fight. What I mean to say—”

Spike’s voice carried across the snow. “And that’s why everything in the School for Gifted Unicorns is fireproof.”

“That can’t be true, Spike,” Twilight deadpanned. “I’m sure the library has some hefty protection spells, but all the classrooms? What about the tapestries, and the table cloths, and the towels in the bathrooms?”

“Heh, don’t get me started on the bathroom towels.”

Rarity glanced past Fluttershy and spied Spike and Twilight skirting the forest’s edge, the closest they’d been to her in hours. One of the compass needles orbiting Twilight’s horn was still pointed directly at her while the other drifted in lazy circles. “Spikey?”

Spike’s face lit up as he met her gaze. “Hey, Rarity! How’s everything going?”

Rarity trotted through the snow to meet him, and pulled him into a hug once she did. “Splendidly. I’ve just been—” she glanced back at the others and raised her voice so it would carry “—spending time with my new friends.”

Twilight walked past them both, staring fixedly at her horn. “This spell keeps going haywire. Spike and I have been all over the valley, but it’s like the Element of Generosity doesn’t want to be found!”

Spike tugged on Rarity’s mane and whispered in her ear. “She’s not kidding. We’ve checked just about everywhere, and you want to know the worst part? She didn’t smile once! She barely says anything that isn’t related to saving Equestria. I got her to open up a little once we started talking about Canterlot, since she’s from there too, but she’s… I dunno…”

“Like I used to be?” Rarity replied.

“What? No, no… Maybe? It’s kind of different: Twilight just doesn't seem interested in anything. She’s too… focused.”

Rarity watched Twilight march on through the snow, following her seemingly faulty compass with the same lock-step certainty that she herself once gave to every new fashion trend and artistic fad. “I might have an idea of how to help. Just a moment.”

She turned to Fluttershy and Pinkie, both of whom where watching Twilight with sullen expressions. “Am I correct to presume Twilight doesn’t take much enjoyment from everyday life?”

Pinkie’s own grin vanished. “Twilight’s kind of… prickly sometimes. She gets super excited when we find a new element or pony, but…”

“Other times,” Fluttershy murmured, “it’s easier if we just give her lots and lots of space. She really wants to fix everything, no matter what. Sometimes… Sometimes it feels like she barely notices we’re here at all.”

Rarity nodded. “I see. Spike, would you be a dear and throw a snowball at Twilight?”

A collective gasp shook the ground. Fluttershy looked on the verge of hyperventilating. “S-snowball… at… Twilight? While she’s doing magic? Are you crazy, Rarity?”

By then Rarity had already crafted a snowball of her own. “Only about Spike and fashion, darling.”

Twilight yelped as a pair of snowballs smacked against her side. Her locating spell vanished, and she shot a heart-stopping glare at the apparent perpetrators. “Who did that?”

Rarity stepped forward, deftly combining a stern gaze and a smile. “Twilight, darling, Applejack tells me there’s another prerequisite to our saving Equestria. Would you care to enlighten me?”

Twilight’s glare lessened for the barest fraction of a second. “We all have to be friends to use the elements, but that can wait! We’re so close to—”

A third snowball landed in Twilight’s mane.

“PINKIE PIE!”

Rarity stepped between Twilight and the others, keenly aware that Spike had hidden behind her too. She couldn’t blame him in the slightest. If anything she was amazed that these five ponies had traveled together for so long and so far with their leader in such a state. “Twilight Sparkle, I promise you that friendship can’t wait a moment longer.”

Twilight turned to face Rarity head on, her horn emitting angry red sparks. “We’re trying to save Equestria, Rarity! We’re trying to rescue Princess Celestia! If you think that just being friends is going to—”

Rarity met Twilight’s glare with all the authoritative will she could muster, her years of service in the palace coming to bear with surprising ease. “Stop right there! If you think you can come here and make demands of Spike and myself without so much as smiling, then think again! You can either submit to genuinely befriending the ponies you’ve dragged to the back of beyond, or leave our home and take your hopes of righting the world’s wrongs with you!”

Her words echoed off the cliffs and in everpony’s ears. Twilight’s legs wobbled and then gave out. She sat there, ears back and mouth agape, while Rarity continued on in a much gentler tone.

“You’ve surrounded yourself with wonderful ponies, Twilight; their willingness to come along on this perilous mission for Equestria’s sake is proof of that. Take an hour and join in their snowball fight while Spike and I carry on your search. I happen to know a gem finding spell, which at least has a chance of working on magical artifacts.”

A tear trickled down Twilight’s cheek. “I-I… I just wanted—” she looked away “—I’m not any good at that kind of stuff. I know magic, and I know books, but… friends?”

Fluttershy inched past Rarity and extended a hoof. “I’m not either. But… maybe we can try together? Please?”

Pinkie bounced around them, nodding. “Betchya can’t get a snowball in my mane, Twilight! I’ll triple-diamond-dog dare ya!”

Twilight looked to each of them in turn, her wide-eyed distress fading as she studied each hopeful smile. “Well… I don't know…”

Rainbow glided through the skies above, her mane glittering with snowflakes. “What the hay is going on over here?”

Applejack wasn’t far behind, or any less snow-covered. “What happened, everypony? What’s wrong?”

Rarity flashed them a smile. “Nothing at all. Actually, I believe Twilight was about to show you all a thing or two about the art of snowball fi—”

The first barrage came with no warning. Huge tracts of snow glowed magenta and formed into grids of snowballs, all of which quickly lobbed themselves at one unsuspecting pony or another.

“Flank left, AJ, I’ll take the right!” Rainbow Dash shouted.

“Whee, you can’t get all of us at once, Twilight!!” Pinkie screamed.

A smile spread across Twilight’s face. “We’ll see about that.”

Rarity tapped Spike on the shoulder and tilted her head towards the forest. “Let’s go.”

---

“Do you really know a gem finding spell?”

Rarity ducked behind a tree, smiling as five pony’s combined laughter echoed across the valley. “Pardon, Spikey?”

Spike took once last glance at the snow massacre they’d just escaped and pointed to her horn. “You told Twilight you know a gem finding spell.”

“Indeed, and I do. I’ve tried it out here countless times, with no luck.”

Spike sighed. “Figures. I still wish you’d told me, though. You having magic like that is kind of…” he arched an eyebrow and blushed.

Rarity giggled. “I’ll keep that in mind for later. For now we need to stick to the matter at hoof: saving Equestria.”

“How are we supposed to do that? Do you really think the two of us can do better than Twilight’s spell?”

“Yes, considering how adept the two of us are at finding the things we need most around here.”

Spike’s eyebrows shot up. “You mean… but it can’t be that easy. You’re saying we can just sit here and wish the Element of Generosity into our hands?”

“Why not? I imagine obtaining something this rarified will take the combined efforts of all seven of us, but… well there’s something else, too. Doesn’t it strike you as suspicious that a magical artifact called the Element of Generosity is somewhere in a valley that grants wishes one selflessly makes for others?”

“Well yeah, it’s almost like—” the realization froze him in place. “You don’t mean—”

Rarity nodded, the unspoken thought burning inside her: what if the Element of Generosity was the source of The Pit’s wishing magic? What would happen if it was removed?

Spike drew in a sharp breath, and then another. His facial expression remained strangely neutral to Rarity’s eyes, as if this notion of sacrificing their home to save the world hadn't fully registered.

She studied him, from head fins to tail, for what felt like minutes on end. How would she convince him abandon the first place he’d felt happy and safe since leaving Princess Celestia’s care? Would she need to beg and plead, assuming she could bring herself to do anything of the sort under such circumstances? Perhaps they’d just sit here and cry together, mourning the loss of their private kingdom until the others tracked them down.

“Okay.” Spike said.

Rarity blinked, certain she’d misheard him. “Pardon?”

He stood and clasped her foreleg in his hands, his grip strong and his gaze solemn. “We’ve got to give up The Pit. Celestia needs us. Equestria needs us too. I know it hurts and it’s scary, but… do you think you can handle it?”

Flushing red, Rarity nodded. “Perhaps it would help if you led me by the hoof just as you’re doing now, Lord Spike, the gentledragon?”

“My pleasure, Lady Rarity.”

They walked forward, foreleg in arm, to meet their destiny. This time there was no desperate need to run for their lives, and the future didn’t look nearly so bleak. For the moment there was only Rarity and her dragon, who despite his short stature seemed to her to be ten feet tall.

Thank goodness he wasn’t, of course. Prancing around Equestria next to a dragon would draw enough stares as it was. Would his brave face survive the outside world? Would hers?

A Final Wish

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“You’re kidding, right?” Rainbow folded her forelegs while she looked down on Spike in every possible sense. “So all we’ve gotta do is say ‘I wish Rarity had the Element of Generosity’ and we’re done?”

Spike nodded. “I know it sounds crazy, but… yeah, that’s about it. That’s how Rarity and I survive down here.”

Rarity laid an affectionate hoof on his shoulder. “We’ve progressed far beyond merely surviving, in my opinion. The clothing you're all wearing now is proof of that.”

Applejack paced around them backwards, inspecting her own hoof prints in the process. “Take it from an earth pony, Rainbow, this ain’t no ordinary soil under our hooves; it’s got more funny stuff going on in it than a month-old apple.”

“Wow, you’re right!” Twilight’s voice bordered on bubbly, compared to her previous stoicism. She’d leaned down to touch her glowing horn to the snow. “I’ve been so focused on casting my own spell that… I should be taking notes for a research paper!”

Rainbow groaned. “After we save the world, right?”

“Right, right. Good idea.”

A circle of six ponies and one dragon quickly formed, and wishes ranging from “I wish Rarity had the Element of Generosity” to “I wish we could save Equestria” were spoken aloud. Rarity glanced around the circle, conscious of each pony’s well-meaning contribution as well as the disharmonious cacophony of the sum total. So much for easy victories.

Spike left his position beside her and ran into the circle. “That’s not how it works, everypony. Think about somepony you want this for, and nothing else, got it? You’ve got to feel so generous that you’re not thinking about yourself anymore.”

A glance in her direction was all it took for Rarity to start the process. “I wish, with all of my heart, for Spike to have his adoptive mother and mentor back.”

“Fluttershy?”

“I wish for all my animal friends to get to see the sun again.”

“Applejack?”

“I wish for the crops all over Equestria to start growing again, so nopony goes hungry.”

“Rainbow Dash?”

“I wish for Nightmare Moon to not be the queen anymore, so everypony can be free.”

“Pinkie Pie?”

“I wish everypony could have a birthday again, because those are way, way more fun than just having birth-nights.”

“Twilight Sparkle?”

Twilight drew in a deep breath. “I wish all of the elements of harmony were back together, so everypony else’s wishes could come true!”

“And I wish—” Spike wrung his hands “—I wish that… that Rarity—”

Warmth shot through Rarity, as sudden as a lightning bolt and as welcome as the embrace of a loved one. A quintet of gasps sounding in her ears made it clear that the others had felt it too, but she kept her focus on the ground before her, where Spike had already started to dig. “I believe we’ve found it, everypony.”

Twilight stumbled forward, her legs unsteady and her horn sputtering. “Wow. That’s… something all right.”

“I’ve come to think of it as pure generosity, darling.”

“Hey, if one Element of Harmony can turn a little selfless wishing into that, then… maybe this crazy plan actually can work.”

Rainbow was in the air next, checking on the quickly deepening hole and grinning broadly. “Of course it’s gonna work, Twilight. Nightmare Moon’s history!”

Rarity eyed the two of them with raised eyebrows. “Honestly I expected the two of you to be on opposite ends of that argument, for Rainbow Dash to be the skeptical one when it comes to all things magic.”

“Oh no, I absolutely think the Elements of Harmony are powerful enough,” Twilight replied, “what I’m skeptical about is how we’re supposed to use them.”

“And how is that?”

Rainbow punched the air. “That’s the best part! All the books and stuff Twilight read say we just have to trot up to Nightmare Moon with the elements, and bam!”

A conspicuous eye roll was the kindest comeback Rarity could muster.

“I-I’m still hoping for someting… safer.” Fluttershy whispered between fearful shivers. “M-maybe we can use the elements from really, really far away. Wouldn’t that be nice?”

Twilight approached the ever-deepening hole Spike had disappeared into, her horn aglow with the locator spell. At long last, the second compass needle had found its mark, somewhere below her hooves. “How’s it going down there, Spike?”

His voice was distant, and regularly interrupted by labored breaths. “You and Rarity have… unicorn magic. Applejack and Pinkie… are super-strong… earth ponies. How come… I’m doing… all the digging?”

Rarity joined Twilight at the hole’s edge and smiled down at her beloved. Spike had systematically burrowed through the snow and into the black soil beneath it. Clumps of dirt were piled on the hole’s opposite side, along with wisps of thin tree roots. “We all owe you a debt of gratitude, Spikey.”

Applejack took a whiff of the excavated soil. “Careful now, Spike. You’re right on top of a whole mess of tree roots. It’d be mighty good of you to avoid doing too much damage.”

Spike paused for a moment to glare at her. “Seriously? You’re taking the tree’s side?”

“Us super-strong earth pony farmers tend to, sugar cube,” she said with a wink.

Chuckling, he turned back to the knot of roots beneath him and went to work, peeling back layer after layer. “Hey, I think there’s something here! I think I found it!”

The others crowded around the hole as the dull groan of disturbed roots gave way to the glassy clink of dragon claws on crystal. Rarity’s breath caught in her throat when she saw it: a bright purple jewel so brilliant it seemed to glow of its own accord. Dirt and debris slid away, and moments later Spike was holding the sizable gem above his head in triumph. “I’ve got it! I’ve—whoa!”

Twilight had Spike out of the hole in seconds, but when her magic refocused on the Element of Generosity clasped in his claws, he held on tight. “Uh, Twilight? Is it okay if I—”

The magic aura surrounding his hands grew stronger. “Come on, Spike. That’s not some gem you can munch on. We need it to—”

Fluttershy nudged her with a wing, smiling a knowing smile. “He knows how important it is, Twilight. It's okay.”

Twilight gasped. Her magic vanished and her gaze sank to the ground. “I'm sorry, Spike! I-I didn't mean to imply that just because you're a… or that you're not…”

Stepping forward, Spike hugged her with his one free hand. “Don’t worry about it. I get how hard it is to make friends, trust me. I just wanted to give this to Rarity myself since… well… I don’t get a lot of chances to give her stuff. It’s not like The Pit has a gift shop or something.”

Twilight returned the hug, a relaxed smile visibly overtaking her grief. “You're a great friend. All of you are.”

Rarity cleared her throat, touched by the friendship forming before her and, to her surprise, slightly unnerved by another mare draping her foreleg over her dragon. No matter. She’d gotten used to The Pit; she could get used to these new friends too. “Shall we, then?”

“Bust out the full set, Twi!” Rainbow called. “Let’s do this right.”

Nodding, Twilight produced a wooden box in a purple flash. “Gather round, everypony.”

Before Twilight could undo the box’s clasp, Rarity turned her attention to the dragon walking toward her. The purple gem he held was a sight to behold, as was the adoration in his eyes. “You’re going to help save Equestria, Rarity. I always knew you could do amazing things.”

Batting her eyes, Rarity waved her hoof at him dismissively. “Says the dragon who showed me every possible kindness when I deserved none at all. As far as I’m concerned, this our victory, Spikey, not mine.”

The purple gem, the Element of Generosity, began to glow as it came closer. Rarity couldn’t help staring into its sparkling depths, and as she did so the glow increased from a mere flicker to that of a roaring fire. “What’s happening?”

As if in answer, the brilliant light faded away. Her ability to breath quickly followed. The huge gemstone was gone, and in its place Spike held a beautiful necklace wrought in gold with a purple, diamond-shaped stone in its center.

She’d seen necklaces before, of course. Once or twice she’d even taken long, wanton looks at pieces in the Queen’s treasury, to say nothing of all the jewelry stores to grace Canterlot. Was it the magic that made this one different, that made the necklace before her put the crown jewels of Equestria to shame? Perhaps it was a change within herself, or merely who she was facing.

Whatever the reason, her heart backflipped as Spike’s hands slid around her neck and fastened the clasp. The necklace didn’t feel heavy, or even cold. The metal seemed to melt into her skin, and the gem it held was an extension of her being rather than a simple accessory. The generous feeling she’d grown so familiar with had taken on a physical form.

“Oh my. This is… it’s—”

“It’s awesome!” Rainbow shouted as she zipped through the skies with a necklace of her own glinting in the sunlight.

Similar necklaces adorned every pony Rarity turned to, each one holding a gemstone that resembled the wearer’s cutie mark, and each one glowing with the same ethereal energy that she felt flowing through her.

“Uh, Twilight?” Spike asked. “Where’s yours?”

Rarity’s eyes widened as she too pondered Twilight’s suspiciously bare neck. “Twilight, darling… When you briefed us on this plan I was under the impression that you had found all the Elements of Harmony, save mine.”

Twilight nodded quickly, a little too quickly in Rarity’s estimation. “It’s… complicated. The sixth element is shrouded in mystery, but according to what I’ve read… once we have the other five…”

“Out with it!”

“This is why we have to be friends.” Twilight mumbled, the wooden box vanishing along with her smiling façade. “The sixth element is said to appear when you have the other five, and when… when you have the spark of true friendship. It seems like you all have that. I just hope I can too, someday.”

Applejack pressed her hat to her chest. “Shucks, Twilight, it ain’t that bad. We had some fun today, right?”

“I guess so, but that can’t be enough.”

Pinkie landed between Applejack and Twilight, and wasted no time in pulling them both into a bone-crushing hug. “Of course it is, silly! We’re bestest buddies forever now, right?”

Twilight smiled and rolled her eyes. “Best buddies forever, huh?”

“Yeah!”

“First you gotta let me breath!” Apple wheezed through Pinkie’s inadvertent headlock.

Rainbow tilted her head to the hot air balloon looming over the trees. “So we can go now, right? Playing in the snow is fun and all, but nighttime out there is way warmer than noon in here.”

“Do you two need a minute?” Fluttershy smiled at Rarity. “I wish I’d gotten one before I left my home in Ponyville.”

Rarity nodded. “That’s very kind of you, Fluttershy. Spike and I… We’ll meet you at the balloon. We shan't be long.”

The others made their retreat quickly, glancing back every so often, and always flashing a warm smile when they did. Rarity did her best to return the gesture, despite the contrary thoughts swirling in her head. Her escape was finally at hoof, the moment she’d once thought impossible and eventually deemed unnecessary.

Spike took a deep breath. “We can still go back for your saddlebags. What do you want to put in them? I don’t think we can get all of your clothes in there.”

“Oh? And what of your possessions, Spikey? Are you really willing to part with your blankets and gold?”

Spike shrugged. “It’s not like we have a big set of luggage. We’ve got to leave something behind, and I can live without my stuff.”

Rarity turned her back on the balloon, opting to face the cave instead, and draped her forelegs across his shoulders. “In all honesty… I can live without mine as well, save this.”

Her magic plucked her prized possession, the golden sewing needle, from the tangled curls of her mane. “It’s not that I don’t treasure our modest possessions, but… How do I put this: I was forced to make an entirely fresh start when I landed here, and became a much better version of myself as a result. Don’t let me stop you from retrieving anything you like, but—” she gave him a squeeze “—I have everything I treasure most with me already.”

That truth resonated through her with seemingly unshakable conviction. She didn’t need an extensive wardrobe to face down Nightware Moon. What happened after that remained frighteningly uncertain, but her rustic, quaint excuses for fashion likely wouldn’t help there either. Of course, being out of style might be the least of her troubles, what with her having a dragon for a mate.

“Is something wrong?”

Startled, Rarity met Spike’s gaze and managed a brief smile. “I certainly hope not.”

Rising Up

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The hot air balloon ascended slowly, replaying one of Rarity’s worst memories in slow motion reverse. Picturesque, snow-capped treetops stretched from one end of the valley to the other, broken only by the occasional open expanse of white. The small hole near the cave where Spike had unearthed the Element of Generosity stood out like a pockmark.

Would the valley retain any of its generous properties? Rarity hoped it would, if only for the sake of whatever poor soul found themselves lost in its depths next. At least that creature would find a selection of warm blankets and a few other comforts.

The only items in her and Spike’s possession were the jackets they were wearing, a heart-shaped fire ruby, and all the gold. That last selection, Spike insisted, was purely to stop a greedy dragon from being able to return to their natural size, should The Pit ever find itself with another inhabitant.

Heat washed over her as Spike’s fire fueled what promised to be their triumphant return to Equestria, both to save and to dwell in for the rest of their lives. Rarity gripped the basket’s wicker walls all the tighter as those grand ideas made her feel as if she was falling all over again.

The artificial sky darkened as Twilight’s horn lit up. “Hang on, everypony.”

Lightning crackled and thunder rumbled, but only in the distance. While a storm ravaged the far away clouds, those directly above the balloon seemed to be dissolving into the deep black of the actual sky: Nightmare Moon’s eternal night.

“Ooh, this is so much harder than last time.” Twilight murmured, her magic flickering and sputtering. The basket rocked from side to side as the winds grew stronger.

“Back up, ya’ll,” Applejack shouted, “give her all the space she needs.”

“No! I-I mean thanks, but—” Twilight gave them all a wide-eyed look “—I don’t want you further away. You’re… my friends. I… I need you. I care about you.”

Fluttershy came forward and gave Twilight the world’s most timid, gentle hug. Her necklace’s gem glowed brightly as she did so. “You’re our friend too, Twilight.”

They all joined the hug, each one multiplying the glow from the elements as well as Twilight’s horn. The group embrace’s warmth bested that of any campfire or sewn garment, in Rarity’s opinion. These were her friends. She and Spike weren’t alone in the world, and never needed to be again.

“It’s working!” Spike shouted over the wind. “I think… I think we’re though!”

Rarity opened one eye, which didn’t make much of a difference. A black void awaited beyond the basket’s walls. Her eyes would adjust to the darkness, she knew, but even that would do little improve the view. If memory served, she’d only see the remains of the Dragon Lands: a scorched wasteland that hadn't improved under Nightmare Moon’s iron hoof.

“Phew!” Twilight’s horn extinguished, ushering in the true darkness of eternal night. “Thanks, everypony. Maybe this can really work. Maybe the magic of friendship really is all we need.”

Pinkie giggled. “Told ya!”

Phantom shapes materialized out of the darkness as Rarity’s eyes began to adjust. Looking over the basket’s edge, she could just make out the swirling clouds that guarded The Pit receding below, wind-worn canyon walls beside them, and the stary sky above. What had seemed like a slow, leisurely ascent when they’d first left the ground felt so much faster now, as if Equestria itself was hurrying them along in their nobel quest. If only her nerves were that idealistic.

“I don’t suppose you could slow our ascent ever so slightly, Spike? I’ve never considered myself afraid of heights, but—”

Rainbow groaned. “We’re saving the world, not going out for brunch or something. Step on the gas, Spike!”

Applejack shushed them both. “Y’all hear that?”

Rainbow cocked her head. “What?”

A moment later, they all could: a low moan devoured the silence, rising and falling in an otherworldly cadence that chilled more than a night breeze ever could. The open skies above the canyon were calling to them, and not in welcome.

Fluttershy shook so violently that the balloon started to sway. “What if it’s N-Nightmare M—”

Rainbow jammed a hoof to her mouth. “Then don’t let her hear us! Even though that’s totally just the wind. I’m eighty percent sure that’s just the wind.”

Applejack held a hoof up to her ear. “Yeah… but what if it ain’t?”

“Do an invisibility spell, Twilight! Or teleport us!” Pinkie whispered.

“Wait,” Twilight replied. “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Rainbow Dash, can you scout ahead and see what’s up there?”

Rainbow gave a quick salute and rocketed into the open air.

Twilight paced through the basket, pointing to each remaining passenger. “We’ve got about a minute before we clear the canyon. Spike, be ready to take us up fast if I tell you to. Got it?”

Spike gaves a thumbs up. “Got it!”

“Fluttershy, if Rainbow Dash comes back with bad news. I need you and her to pull the balloon away from the canyon. The last thing we want to do is fall back into The Pit instead of landing on solid ground. Okay?”

Despite her heavy shivering, Fluttershy nodded. “O-okay, Twilight.”

“Applejack and Pinkie, if we have to land, anchoring the balloon is your job. We need to be prepared for anything, even running for it.”

“Can doodly-do!” Pinkie replied.

“Darn tootin’ we can.” Applejack added.

Rarity held her breath as Twilight faced her. “And as for me?”

“How much magic do you know?”

“Magic? Not much, I’m afraid. I don’t know the first thing about invisibility spells or teleportation, if that’s what you have in mind.”

Twilight grinned. “But can you act like you do? Shoot some fireworks off or something to keep everypony distracted. I’m not sure I could teleport all seven of us, but being able to concentrate would definitely help.”

At last Rarity could see what had kept this band of ponies together for so long: Twilight really did have leadership qualities, buried underneath her friendship troubles. “We’re all at your service, Twilight.”

Moonlight lessened the darkness as they crested the canyon. Barren ground stretched from the canyon’s maw to the horizon in every direction, uninterrupted by hills, plants, or ponies. The emptiness of it all took her breath away, partly for its distinct lack of snow-covered trees. This was the real world, in all its desolate glory.

Only the wind spoke, shifting pebbles along the expansive nothingness that was the Dragon Lands and extracting a chilling moan from the canyon mouth. The moon and stars illuminated the cloudless sky, a sight that had lost its beauty and wonder years ago.

Spike sighed. “I wish I could say it’s nice to be back.”

Fluttershy circled the basket, scanning the skies. “Um… I guess it really was just the wind, but where’s Rainbow Dash?”

A brilliant flash lit up the sky, and a thunderclap shook the world around them to pieces. Barely conscious of her own screaming, Rarity tumbled through a chaotic mess of flailing legs, severed rope, broken wicker, and torn fabric; the basket was kindling, the balloon a rag, and in moments she and the others would be no better.

The ground rushed up to meet her, but not with the deadly speed it should have. A tingling, purple glow spread across her body, and her hooves touched down as gently as if she’d taken a graceful leap. Her screaming took a second longer to stop, and Fluttershy’s took longer still.

Blinking away spots from what she could only guess was a lightning strike, Rarity stumbled forward through a shower of smoldering fabric, past one disoriented friend after another. Finally she fell in the midst of them, heart pounding, head spinning, and lungs empty.

Groans overtook screams, Twilight’s the loudest among them. “Is everypony okay? I-I caught all of you… right?”

Applejack shambled past Rarity and snatched her hat from the debris. “What in tarnation did that?”

Spike sank to the ground by Rarity’s side, one of his shaking hands coming to rest on her mane. “Whoa… Did we… is that—”

Deep purple clouds swirled in the previously clear skies above. Lightning crackled through the air again and again until its sizzling, booming flashes lit the sky like the midday sun. The center of the clouds parted, and a dark silhouette appeared on a backdrop of stars. “And so we meet at last, my little ponies.”

Fluttershy voiced the scream that Rarity couldn’t, not with the Queen’s wicked smile fixed upon her. Nightmare Moon hovered above them, girded by cold starlight and black magic.

The balloon was a flaming wreck, Rainbow Dash was missing, and the final Element of Harmony still eluded them. Every brutal fact raced through Rarity’s mind in a ceaseless loop. There was no escape, and she knew first hoof that there would be no mercy. “We’re done for.”

“Where’s Rainbow Dash?” Twilight shouted.

Nightmare Moon descended toward them, each flap of her enormous wings renewing the wind’s moaning cries across the canyon mouth. As her armor-shod hooves thundered against the ground, Rainbow Dash appeared next to her, wrapped from shoulders to haunches in glowing chains. “You mean this hapless palace guard that deserted her post? She’s exactly where she belongs! Thank you for gathering the six most troublesome ponies in Equestria, Twilight Sparkle. Tracking you has saved me a great deal of trouble.”

Nightmare Moon sneered at Rainbow, whose chains immediately tightened. Rainbow’s tail flicked defiantly, the only appendage still she could still move freely. “I’m not scared of you, you big—”

Another set of chains encircled Rainbow’s mouth, complete with an enormous padlock. Nightmare Moon stepped toward Twilight, and Rainbow crashed to the ground precious inches from the canyon’s edge.

Gasping, Rarity steadied Rainbow with her magic. No friend of hers was going to experience that horrific drop if she could help it.

Nightmare Moon walked among them, taking time to sneer at each pony in turn. “I don't know how you survived The Pit and its dragons, but that hardly matters. Your little plan to free Celestia is over. Give up the useless trinkets you’ve collected, and I just might let you and your friends go. Otherwise…”

Rainbow’s chains tightened again, eliciting muffled groans from her and cries of protest from everyone else.

“P-please!” Fluttershy begged. “Please let Rainbow go!”

Nightmare Moon grinned in the horrible way Rarity knew all too well. “Abandon your quest, surrender your necklaces, and I shall.”

“Don’t listen to her!” Twilight shouted. “These are the Elements of—”

The swirling purple clouds flowed around Nightmare Moon, lifting her into the air and endowing her with a voice of thunder. “You will do exactly as your queen commands! You’re still missing the sixth element, and without it you’re powerless before me!”

Rarity shivered anew as Nightmare Moon’s voice rang in her ears, but not with the uncontrollable panic of their last encounter. Spike was here this time, his comforting hand nestled in her mane and their all too brief lifetime together fresh in her mind: he’d rescued her ages ago, simply by being her friend. Hadn’t they begun the same process for Twilight, igniting the fires of friendship within her heart? What more of a spark could the final element ask for?

“Take this,” she whispered to Spike. The sewing needle slid out of her mane and dropped into his free hand. “Go pick the lock on Rainbow’s chains. I’ll distract Nightmare Moon.”

She could feel as well as hear Spike’s gasp of horror. “Distract her? But—”

Rarity stood and strolled forward, every step bringing her closer to her former overlord as well as her old, impossibly haughty self. She fixed a hard, disapproving stare at Nightmare Moon and tossed her mane dismissively. “She’s lying, of course. We’re a grave threat to her rule, not to mention her sense of fashion… or lack thereof, as the case may be.”

“You insolent foal! When I’m finished with you—” Nightmare Moon roared, but Rarity wasn’t finished.

“Perhaps you miscounted, your majesty; we have the sixth element already! Twilight Sparkle, count the friends surrounding you! Count them, and count on them!”

Twilight gasped, and as she did so Rarity noticed a glint in her eye. “I… Of course I can count on all of you. You embody all the elements of true friendship: kindness, honesty, laughter, loyalty, generosity… You’re… You’re my friends, and friendship is magic!”

Rainbow swooped overhead, her necklace glowing brilliantly. She landed between Applejack and Fluttershy, whose necklaces immediately grew in intensity.

Whether by subconscious design or chance, all five of them had positioned themselves around Twilight, and the combined glow of their necklaces had Nightmare Moon backing towards the canyon’s edge. “No. No! Stop!”

Everything within Rarity’s sight and mind faded to white, save for Nightmare Moon’s cries of horror.

---

Bright light shone through Rarity’s closed eyelids, brighter than firelight and hotter too. “Ooh, what happened?”

A chorus of similar statements followed, ranging from Twilight’s “my head” to Pinkie’s “worst sugar crash ever!”

In the midst of it all was the quiet scrape of dragon feet against the rocky ground. “Is everypony okay? Fluttershy? Applejack? Rarity?”

Spike ran up and shook her gently. “You’ve gotta see this, Rarity!”

And see it she did. Opening her eyes invited in an unbearably brilliant light, the kind that could only belong to the long-absent sun, the sun that was rising at last. She closed her eyes again as they grew wet. “The night’s over. The eternal night’s finally over!”

With Spike’s assistance, Rarity returned to her hooves and dared to look at the first morning Equestria had seen in years. Sunlight alone did wonders for the view: the barren Dragon Lands looked more picturesque than The Pit’s snow-covered trees ever could, to say nothing of the brilliant shine of Spike’s scales and the other’s coats. A new day had dawned in every possible sense.

“Golly, Twilight. That ain’t no necklace,” Applejack said.

“Oh my, she's right!” Fluttershy added.

Rarity gasped when she saw the crown sitting atop Twilight’s head and the brilliant pink gemstone glinting within. “You look like a Princess!”

The sunlight dimmed, and a deep, regal voice thought lost forever filled her ears. “She certainly does.”

Princess Celestia stood at the canyon’s edge, her sparkling mane flowing in a magical breeze, and her smile as warm as the sun rising behind her. “Thank you, everypony. Thank you for saving Equestria, and for rescuing my sister and I.”

“Sister?” seven voices said in unison.

Something on the ground stirred beside Princess Celestia: a second, smaller alicorn colored deep blue. “Sister? Is it truly you?”

Princess Celestia knelt by her. “It is I, Princess Luna. Come, let’s put our differences behind us at long last, and rule together as we were meant to.”

Princess Luna threw her forelegs around her older sister, nodding. “I’ve missed you so much, sister!”

Looking Down

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Clouds drifted by as the chariot began its descent. Breathtaking scenery passed by below them, from barren fields and forests bursting into leaf, to towns and cities overflowing with cheering, reveling ponies that shouted and waved in jubilant thanks. Even Canterlot, fast approaching ahead of them, had lost the dismal shade that Rarity’s memories usually painted it with. The castle’s spires, once a daily sight on her walks through the uptown, had become a dreamlike sight. Everything old, even the bright blue sky, was new again.

Behind her, her five new friends were lost in conversation with the two alicorns, who seemed to take in everything from Twilight’s reverent questions to Pinkie’s high speed babble with unfaltering smiles. They stood mere inches apart, and seemed to smile at each other just as much at their audience. That, Rarity surmised, was what granted them such perfect composure immediately after the ordeals they’d faced: each sister had the one they cared about most right next to them. Hopefully that was enough. Hopefully love and friendship could get them through the incalculable tasks that lay ahead; righting all the world’s wrongs would take more than sunlight and smiles.

This new alicorn certainly resembled her elder sister, save for coat and mane coloration. Her posture held that ineffable air of regality, even if her rare additions to the conversation included a thousand-year-old affectation, and were often interrupted by self-conscious glances at her sister.

Rarity sighed to herself as she gazed over the railing. “I suppose even princesses can feel out of place.”

Her mind and gaze wandered further, settling for a moment on the two pegasus stallions pulling the chariot through the sky. She’d never considered herself particular about pegasus wings or unicorn horns, but something about watching those two ponies work, wings pumping, tails swishing, and sweat glistening, made her legs feel weak. When was the last time she’d seen a stallion of any kind, let alone these paragons of masculinity?

“Did you say something?” Spike asked.

“It was nothing, dear. I’m just… thinking a tad too much, I suppose.” Thinking so much that she’d started to blush, in fact. Spike didn't seem to notice, thankfully.

“You’ve been over here by yourself since we took off. Don’t you want to talk to somepony? Haven’t you always wanted to talk to Princess Celestia?”

Rarity smiled politely, but shook her head. “In ages past I would’ve given anything to be on a private chariot with the Princess, as we are now. I’d dream of bending her ear to my fashionable causes, and perhaps even securing myself a place at an upcoming social event beyond my modest connections, but now—” she looked at the royal sisters, as she realized she and everypony else would have to start calling them “—I see a pony, not a crown. Both of them must be exhausted after being banished and possessed for so long. Who am I to pepper them with questions and comments at a time like this?”

Spike chuckled. “You did kind of just save Equestria.”

“We all did our part, thank you. I might not be the dragon here, but greed and superfluous accolades still do me no favors.”

Something gold glinted at the edge of Rarity’s vision. She looked and found Spike holding up the remains of her sewing needle, which had bent horribly. “Does that mean you don’t want me to fix this?”

Smiling, this time with great affection, she patted his shoulder. “I would be honored if you did, Lord Spike the Gentledragon. Honored and forever grateful.”

She almost pulled him into a hug. Almost. Her foreleg wouldn’t cooperate for some reason, and once she saw Princess Luna approaching she immediately dropped to a bow. “Your Majesty.”

“You are Rarity, are you not?” Luna’s voice wasn’t that of Nightmare Moon, but only by virtue of its calm tone.

“I-I am.”

“Arise, please. Thou art familiar to us. We are not privy to all that our… darker side did, but thou wast greatly wronged for our pleasure, we are certain. For that, we plead thine forgiveness, and extend our hoof in thanks and fellowship for all that thou hast done.”

Rarity rose slowly, a modicum of calm chasing away her latent fear. “I-I… All is forgiven, your majesty. I know what it’s like to have one’s worst side take over, and what a difference a good friend can make.”

Princess Luna nodded, a hint of a smile crossing her lips. “Then we shall consider thou and thy friends to be ours, if we may.”

“Everypony,” Princess Celestia began, “I know there’s much more that needs to be said, but we're about to land in Canterlot, and once we do things are going to be very busy for Princess Luna and I. Please excuse us for the remainder of the day as we see to our royal duties; I’d like to speak to each of you tomorrow morning. In the mean time we’ll ensure rooms are made up for you in the castle.”

Applejack cleared her throat. “That’s mighty generous of you, Princess, but I don’t know if I could spend another night away from my family back in Ponyville. I haven’t seen hide nor hair of ‘em in an awful long time. They’ve gotta be wondering what happened to me, now that the sun’s up.”

“Then I’ll have this chariot take you there immediately and collect you in the morning. The same goes for each of you, if there’s somewhere you’d rather be.”

“Back home.” Spike muttered.

Rarity shushed him. “We’ll be fine, Spikey.”

He shrugged and looked at his feet. “I guess, but… never mind.”

There was that troublesome word again: home. The vast Canterlot cityscape rolling by below didn’t embody that word in the slightest. She took a deep breath and pulled him close. His scales were so warm, almost uncomfortably so with the sun beating down on them. “We’ll be fine. We’ll be fine.”

---

Seeing Canterlot through a fourth floor guest suite window in the castle was an ominous sight, more so than seeing it from a chariot’s stratospheric heights. The view from the chariot changed unceasingly, and was far enough removed from the ground to obscure all but the largest of features. Little things, like smashed windows, garbage strewn across the streets, and dirt-caked ponies hobbling around on bone-thin legs were invisible from the air and unmistakable from Rarity’s current vantage point.

Canterlot, the heart of the aristocracy, the shining pillar of sophistication and class, had been reduced to a slum, a last refuge for those who hadn’t conformed to Nightmare Moon’s totalitarian rule. It had been more comforting to think that the city was completely abandoned, as the Queen had often insisted. Somehow Rarity processed that idea as Canterlot being encased in glass, lifeless and preserved, until the world righted itself.

The stark, stinking reality hadn’t fully struck her until she’d trotted into her appointed room and unwittingly began this vigil. Surely the sight of it all was less of a shock to her friends, what with their traveling across Equestria and likely witnessing far worse living conditions. Hopefully Applejack and ponies like her were planting fresh crops to feed the starving multitudes. Hopefully ponies like Fluttershy were caring for the sick while ponies like Pinkie brought a smile to their faces. Ponies like Rainbow Dash would bring nourishing rain to compliment the sunlight, and ponies like Twilight would ensure everything happened in an orderly fashion.

That just left Rarity. She rubbed her neck, finding fur instead of the Element of Generosity. She’d surrendered the necklace to Princess Celestia for safe keeping, but the feeling it embodied would forever linger, the feeling that at this moment insisted she should be doing something more useful and generous than standing here, gawking at those less fortunate.

It didn’t help that the bread line was outside her view, despite its stretching from the castle gates to the train station. The ponies out there wouldn’t stay hungry for long, thanks to Princess Celestia and her uncanny ability to muster a loyal workforce no matter the circumstances. In a matter of weeks, Rarity told herself, Canterlot would begin to look like its old self again. Streets would be swept, shops would be reopened, and every resident would be given a fresh start. The same renewal would doubtless spread everywhere, starting with the chariots laden with food and supplies that were already dotting the sky. The worst was over; every pony out there would get what they needed most.

Again, that just left Rarity: unneeded, unless somepony required a fashionable piece of clothing. She forced her eyes closed and turned away from the window. No more of that. No more thinking too deeply for her own good. Princess Celestia herself had insisted that she rest and see to her own needs, which was precisely what she would do; generosity didn’t preclude taking care of oneself. The princess had said as much herself.

After a deep, cleansing breath, she dared to examine her accommodations. A four poster bed dominated the spacious room, ornate furniture lined the wall by the door, and gorgeous wallpaper stretched all the way to the vaulted ceiling. Truly she’d arrived at the height of luxury, the level of importance and class that she’d only ever dreamed of. Merely mentioning her stay in the castle as a personal guest of Princess Celestia would undoubtedly unlock more doors than all her previous accomplishments combined.

She stepped through the room, noting for the first time how impossibly soft the carpet felt, and how everything smelled of fresh pressed linen. Princess Celestia had been serious when she claimed that she’d turn down the sheets herself if necessary. Everything here seemed exactly as a suite in the castle ought too, right down to the quiet bustling of ponies in the hallways. Guards trotted by the closed door, and other ponies called out directions to tidy rooms, sweep floors, and stoke the fires. The castle was simply buzzing with activity, almost as if its entire staff had gone into hibernation the instant Princess Celestia went missing all those years ago.

Her master steward days were long since over, but she could still appreciate the anxious activity that had gotten her room and countless others so presentable within a matter of hours. She trotted toward a slightly ajar door in the corner, suddenly eager to make use of any and all the modern conveniences she’d learned to live without, particularly the bath.

Her pace accelerated as she thought of it: soaking in warm water, smelling of lotion instead of sweat, and coifing her mane and tail with actual shampoo and conditioner.

The clop of her hooves on the marble floor echoed through the expansive bathroom, and her giddy laugh did the same moments later as she took every decadent sight in: the stack of clean towels, the recessed bathtub, and the legion of hair products in glass bottles. Never had reality so thoroughly lived up to her wildest dreams. She turned in a circle, dancing a silly and thoroughly unladylike dance.

And then her laugh became a scream. A horrific apparition stood before her, a mass of grey and black fur topped with brown, vaguely purple hair. She’d discovered the full length mirror.

Her hooves couldn’t decide which way to go; two of them made for the bath while the others went for the door, and moments later she was staring at the same awful sight in the polished floor while Princess Celestia’s exact words to her, that she “take a few hours to focus on her own needs” took on new meaning. The ponies in the slums outside were cleaner. They were better fed too, considering number of her own ribs on display. “I’m… I’m hideous!”

The bath-wanting hooves won out. She crawled into the bathtub and pressed the hot and cold levers with all her magical might. The cold porcelain rumbled slightly as water rushed through the pipes and finally poured out the faucet.

Water would help; hot water a dozen bars of soap would have the worst of this cleaned up in no time. And what did it matter if she’d lost an unhealthy amount of weight? Perfect cleanliness and ample portion sizes were secondary priorities when living in a winter wasteland. She’d chosen not freezing to death over bathing, and had choked down as many leaves and flowers per meal as she could stand.

Warm water pooled around her, the feeling’s pleasantness ruined by the dark grey torrents swirling around the open drain. Soap would fix that. Her magic grabbed a hefty, white bar that smelled strongly of apples and went to work on her right foreleg, scrubbing vigorously. She’d daydreamed about this exact moment, oh so long ago: excising every trace of The Pit from her body and mind. She’d settle for body alone; somehow she’d happily lived in utter filth and borderline malnutrition, but no more.

Within an hour her coat would shimmer like silk, within two hours her hair would be brushed and curled in the highest of Canterlot styles, and within a month her svelte form would be the envy of every mare she met. Then she’d be worthy of her current abode and newfound social status.

Those comforting thoughts vanished as she swished her soapy foreleg through the water: the grime wasn't coming off.

Growling, Rarity inspected the groove she'd worn in the bar of soap and went back to work. “Come out, curse you! I’ll scrub all day if I have to!”

The suite’s door opened with an click that echoed through the bathroom’s steamy air, and a moment later Spike cleared his throat. “Rarity? I can come in, right?”

Rarity raised an ear, but continued to scrub. “Of course, Spike. I could use your help, actually.”

“Sorry I’ve been gone so long; I started showing Twilight around, and every guard we went by didn’t believe I’m staying here at all, never mind with one of the… you know… hero ponies.”

“Hmph. You’re just as entitled to that title as we are, and if anypony asks I’ll gladly tell them so.”

The suite door closed, and a moment later Spike’s claws clinked against the bathroom’s marble floor. “Whoa, you’re—”

She sat up and thrust a scrub brush into his hands. “Yes I’m bathing, and yes I know how awful I look, thank you. Could you start on my back, please?”

“Um… I… really?”

Rarity rolled her eyes and leaned her head back. “Fine, say it if you must: I look atrocious. I’m surprised anypony can even recognize me under all this dirt.”

“I still think you look good. ”

“By Pit standards, perhaps. Now if you please?”

“Yeah, sure!”

Spike slid into the soap suds, brush in hand. “Ooh, it’s so warm. I haven’t had a bath since—”

“I’d prefer not to know, if you don’t mind.”

“Heh, fair enough. So… where do I start?”

“If you see dirt, scrub until it’s gone. It’s as simple as that.”

The brush bristles tickled slightly as they traveled up her back, like a softer version of the dragon claws resting on her shoulder. “Oooh, yes. Just like that! That feels wonderful.”

Everything seemed to fade away in the steam, save for Spike. The brush continued its slow and surprisingly alluring motions, and Rarity closed her eyes to better focus on each delicious sensation. She'd never bathe alone again, if this was all it took to drive away all her worries, if this brought back the endless tranquility that they’d once called home.

Spike cleared his throat. “So…”

“Yes?” That would be her enthusiastic answer to whatever he was about to suggest.

“What've you been up to?”

Her ears flattened. “Oh… well I…. Nothing of consequence. I trust the others are settling in?”

“Oh yeah. Applejack is off doing family stuff, Fluttershy is talking to animals in the royal garden, Pinkie is helping the cooks feed everypony and singing a song about it—don't ask how either of those works—, Rainbow Dash is telling anypony that’ll listen about how we defeated Nightmare Moon, saved Princess Luna, Princess Celestia, you, me, and basically everyone else.”

“With great humility and tact, I'm sure.”

“More like with two mugs of cider.”

That mental image brought a smile to her face, as did the notion that all her new friends were in their element. She’d find hers soon enough; surely she could locate some thread and fabric in the castle, something to put her talents to use. For now she'd content herself with this luxurious bath and leave the rest of the world to her friends. “At least they're all happy. Thank you for helping Twilight get her bearings; no doubt she's just as lost in the castle as I am.”

“I don't know about that. When she said she wanted me to show her around, I thought she meant the touristy stuff like the throne room, but then she asked about the royal library, and why there’s carpet in some of the hallways but not others, and the story behind each of the stained glass windows… It probably would’ve gotten annoying if she wasn’t so… I dunno. Seeing her excited gets me excited. She’s kind of fun to be around, now that she isn’t obsessed with saving the world. You should hear her talk about Princess Celestia—”

Rarity shifted until Spike’s brush nearly slid off, and a faint chill swept through her. In her mind she played out a dozen versions of what to say next, from heated accusations to forced pleasantries to uncomfortable silence. None of that would do; he and Twilight were just friends. No matter how little she knew her, she knew Spike through and through.

Or at least she knew a version of him, the lonely dragon that had been forced to share a tiny cave with a pony. Where would his interests take him now that their mandatory cohabitation was at an end? He and Twilight were merely friends, but would some pony far more attractive and compatible than herself, or some dragon for that matter, eventually whisk him away?

Their shared lifetime in The Pit was over, as was Nightmare Moon’s reign. Who knew what would end next. “I suppose we should get out, before we catch cold.”

Spike’s hands stilled. “I could always heat up the water again, if you want. I could keep scrubbing your back.”

“That’s quite all right. We can’t stay in here forever, after all.”

He sighed. “I guess so, but… Rarity?”

She met his gaze for the first time since he’d joined her in the bathtub, and the worry in his eyes mirrored her own. “Yes?”

“If you want me to spend less time with Twilight or something…”

She shook her head, smiling slightly. “As generous as that offer is, I can’t possibly accept it. I should be happy that you’re making friends so quickly, Spikey. It’s me that needs to change, not you.”

He held up his hands. “Whoa, don’t put this all on you. If you need me to be around more, or less, or… I don’t know… to be six inches taller, just tell me. Twilight’s my friend, but you’re… you.”

Her slight smile became a wide grin. “Indeed. I’ll keep your ability to spontaneously change size in mind, should the need ever arrise. That’s hardly what I—”

A loud thump on the door set Rarity’s fur on end. Was it one of their friends? Surely it wasn’t Princess Celestia. She scrambled out of the bathtub, loudly calling out “just a minute!”

Spike draped a pleasantly hot bathrobe across her shoulders. “What me to get that?”

Rarity touched a hoof to the robe, relishing the unexpected heat. “How did you—?”

He blew a quick jet of flame and winked . “Everything in the castle’s been fireproof since the first time I sneezed.”

Giggling, she headed for the door. “Now that’s a dragon ability that I could find a use for.”

Spike ran ahead of her and turned the handle. “Who is it?”

A bespectacled stallion in a white uniform stood in the hallway, smiling brightly. “Could I speak to Lady Rarity, please?”

His lovely accent alone made her blush. If only she were wearing an elegant gown and expensive makeup instead of a bathrobe. At least she wasn’t in one of her own dirty, drab creations; she needed to find new fabric and an up to date fashion guide as soon as possible. Tossing her damp hair as best she could, she smiled and curtsied. “I am Lady Rarity, good sir.”

He bowed in return. “It is my pleasure to cordially invite you to join your friends at the chef’s table in one hour’s time. The royal kitchens are hardly producing the elegant cuisine we were once known for, but serving a respectable meal is the least I and the other staff can do for the mares who saved our beloved princess.”

Rarity’s heart sang, and her mouth nearly did the same. “I-I… Of course, and thank you! We’ll be there promptly. Thank you ever so—”

Spike cleared his throat. “Yeah, thanks. Bye!”

The door slammed shut, and Rarity’s mouth fell open. “Spike! How could… I can’t begin to describe how distasteful and rude… What were you thinking?”

Her voice was growing steadily louder; the ponies on the streets outside would be privy to her outrage in short order.

Spike stood up tall, which made little difference, and matched her glare. “It’s because I’m just a dragon, isn’t it?”

“I don’t know what you mean. Being a dragon is no excuse for being so rude, and in Canterlot Castle of all places!”

“Yeah? Then what’s your excuse for checking out every stallion you see?”

“I-I have not! I’ve noticed them, but I certainly haven’t outright stared—”

Spike held up his fingers to count. “The two pulling the chariot, the guards by the door, the butler that told us all where our rooms were, the cook just now… You’re practically drooling! It’s like I’m not even here.”

Rarity flushed deep red and bit her lip. “Perhaps on the chariot I… and the guards… Oh dear.”

Spike turned away, arms crossed. “So you admit it.”

“To staring a bit more than I should have, I suppose I do. You must realize it’s been a very long time since I’ve glimpsed a male pony, and now that we’re surrounded by so many… Well what would you do if our roles were reversed, and we were surrounded by females of your kind? I’m sorry that I haven’t adapted to the… change of scenery as well as I thought I had, but do you expect me to spend the rest of my life wearing a blindfold?”

He wrung his hands and stared at the ground. “No, but… I know I overreacted, but can you blame me for being nervous?”

“Hmph. Being blatantly overprotective is a better way to put it. Don’t I deserve the same level of trust around ponies that I’m giving to you?”

“Of course you do! And I promise I’ll do better, but…” After a moment’s tense silence, Spike walked over to the bed and collapsed on it, face down. “This must’ve been what it was like for you.”

Perplexed, Rarity sat next to him. The mattress was so soft that she briefly wondered if it was going to swallow her. “Would you care to explain?”

Spike rolled onto his back. “The Pit was my home for a really long time. It was our home. Canterlot might be where you really belong, but I don’t. I used to, but now I… I just don't belong anywhere.”

“You belong with me, of course.”

“Are you sure?”

Rarity paused. Was he asking for her assurance, or her permission? Surely he didn’t have the same worries about their long term prospects that she did. “Did you have any doubt?”

“I know being the princess’s personal guest is a dream come true for you, but… this is her house. Where’s ours? Where’s home? Please don’t say Canterlot.”

She prodded the impossibly soft bed with her hoof; the longer she sat, the more she wondered if she’d be more comfortable on the comparatively rigid carpet. She rested her hoof on Spike’s chest instead. “I honestly don’t know what comes next, Spikey, beyond our joining the others to eat. Things have changed so quickly that I confess I haven’t given the future much thought. Just this morning the only thing I had to worry about was what kind of fabric dye to try next, and there’s so much to see, and to do, and to discuss… I don’t know where to begin.”

“Me either.”

Her hoof traced a circle, silently skidding across each shining scale. Even if their world was doomed to come crashing down, it needn’t do so right this second. “Surely all this worrying can wait. We have an hour all to ourselves, and a bed bigger than our entire previous home. For the moment couldn’t we just enjoy each other’s company?”

Spike’s hand closed around her hoof, and he smiled. “Deal.”

Fine Dining

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“And that’s why Ponyville cider is the best in Equestria.” Rainbow Dash finished her story with a small belch, eliciting laugher.

The ‘chef’s table’ proved to be a banquet hall in miniature. High stone archways enclosed the square room, setting it apart from the kitchen space that bordered it on three sides. Waning sunlight entered through windows on the one true wall, a disconcerting reminder that the sun was indeed going to set again soon, albeit for a few hours instead of years.

A single, square table dominated the room and offered enough space for twenty ponies at least, although the castle staff had secreted away all but the required seven chairs. Rarity sat on one end of the little encampment of friends gathered round the table’s most sunlit corner, stirring the remains of her potato soup. Her stuffed bell pepper and freshly baked roll lay untouched. The meal was far from lavish or heavy by Canterlot standards, but the soup alone had filled her to the brim.

You should be eating more, she told herself. Her gaunt figure wasn’t going to improve if she never made it past the first course.

Spike tapped her on the shoulder. “Um, Rarity?”

“Yes, Spike?” she’d barely looked at him since the meal started, partly to stay engaged in the other’s merry conversation, and partly to avoid staring at his own near-empty bowl. Nothing could hide the sound of his eating, unfortunately. The unmistakable crunch of gem after gem after gem held none of the outright reverence for them he’d observed in The Pit, when untold days would pass between him even mentioning the small number he still possessed, let alone daring to consume one.

“Could you… uh… Are you going eat that roll?”

Sighing, she pushed her plate toward him. Forget getting taller; at this rate he’d be twice as wide within a month. “Have it.”

“Are you okay? You’re not eating much.”

At last she looked at him, right as he shoved an amethyst into the roll in lieu of butter. “That’s hardly a crime, is it?”

Defiling artisan bread with a gemstone should be, in her estimation.

His contented smile faltered. “No, but… Sorry.”

Pinkie gasped. “Oh, ooh, can I try one?”

She zipped across the table, crouched in front of Spike’s bowl of gems, and gave the contents a sniff. “Mmm, it smells just like home.”

Spike raised an eyebrow. “Were you raised by dragons or something?”

Pinkie grinned and patted his forehead. “No, silly. I grew up on a rock farm! Most of our rocks tasted pretty bland, but—” she took an unsettlingly deep whiff “—these beauties are probably amazing!”

Rarity raised a hoof in protest. “Pinkie, darling, please get off the table. And I don’t believe ponies can digest gems. Or rocks, for that mater.”

“Not the super-hard ones, but where do you think rock candy comes from?”

Pinkie was back in her seat before Rarity could fathom a response.

Twilight cleared her throat. “So… is anypony else getting worried about our big meeting tomorrow?”

Fluttershy gasped and nearly dropped her cup. “B-big meeting?”

“You know, with Princess Celestia? She said she wanted to talk with each of us in the morning.”

“What? What did I do wrong? It was okay to eat the little mint on the pillow, right?”

Rainbow groaned. “Relax, Fluttershy. Did you ever think that maybe you did a bunch of things right, like saving the Princesses’ sister? Maybe she wants to give us each a big reward.”

“Wow, do you think Princess Luna will be there too?” Twilight replied. “She's got to have some amazing insights on the progress of civilization. I wonder if she’d let me interview her for a research paper.”

Pinkie leaped onto the table again, or rather she came within six inches of doing so before the force of Rarity’s glare nudged her back over her chair. “If we get to pick rewards, I’m asking to lead a ginormous parade through Ponyville!”

“Pfft.” Rainbow rolled her eyes. “Didn’t you already used to do that like two times a week? All you’ve gotta do is start singing.”

Three times in a good week. But this would be way better because Princess Celestia would be there, and the Wonderbolts would do a bunch of fly overs—”

“Now you’re talking!”

“Um—” with the tiniest sound, Fluttershy quieted the room “—are you sure the Princesses would want to do something like that? I don’t think any of us even know them that well.”

At last Rarity had something to contribute. “Spike happens to know Princess Celestia quite well, actually. I’m sure the two of them will have a great deal to discuss tomorrow.”

Spike’s half-finished gem roll landed on the table. Rarity could almost smell his fear as everypony turned to him. “I… um… I know her and stuff, but I wouldn't want to take up a bunch of her time. I'll just wait outside or something.”

Rarity snorted. “Don’t tell me you’re not going to speak to the pony you’ve talked fondly of nearly every day of our time together. I expect you to be first in line tomorrow.”

Twilight leaned toward Spike until her the tip of her mane landed in her soup bowl. “Do you think she could pull some strings at the School for Gifted Unicorns so I could re-take the entrance exam? I-I know I could ace it this time, really!”

Spike clasped his roll and wrung it in his hands like a favorite stuffed animal. “No. I mean yes. I don’t know, okay? I haven’t really talked to Celestia in ages, and… and I’m not starting tomorrow.”

Rarity gave a seconds-long gasp, and her soup spoon clattered to the table. “Excuse me? Reticence is one thing, but you can’t blatantly refuse a royal summons! Not from Princess Celestia, not after all we've suffered and lost just to be seated here! I won’t stand for it!”

Spike shook his head and tossed the roll aside. “It’s my choice, Rarity! If you don’t like it… then I guess you don’t like it.”

Silence hung in the air, particularly between Rarity and the dragon next to her. So this is what she had to look forward to: dealing with their burgeoning relationship problems in public as well as private. What if this had been a dinner with the well-to-do, as opposed to a simple meal amongst friends? Convincing the world to accept the kind and sweet Spike she used to know would've been hard enough.

She gave a huff and returned to her soup. “I suppose it is your choice, Spike.”

Perhaps she was being unfair. Or perhaps she was finally thinking clearly. Postponing their inevitable parting, and it did indeed look inevitable now, would only make it worse.

“Excuse me, everypony. It’s been a long day, and I for one would like to get a proper night’s sleep before meeting with Princess Celestia. Good night.”

That same silence chased her from the room, the sound of an ever-widening gulf between her and whom she’d once called a life partner. So much for consorting with dragons. So much for happy endings.

Found Advice

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Rarity saw no need to hurry back to the room, not when she could aimlessly wander the castle hallways, catching looks of admiration from every pony she passed and ogling stallions as much as she felt like. That second part could hardly continue, but for this evening she’d let her biological urges have a modicum of say in the matter, and what they said, loud and clear, was that she belonged with her own species. How she’d ever fallen for the wiles of a dragon barely as tall as she was would remain a mystery.

It must have been The Pit. Isolation could do strange things to the mind, as could near starvation. That had to be it. She’d just have to keep walking the halls until she believed in those facts, and until all notions of crying passed. Hopefully that wouldn't mean yawning her way through her first, and hopefully not last, meeting with royalty. If she truly was going to start over, in this city or any other, as a socialite or a dressmaker, she'd need all the high-ranking connections she could get.

Her hoofsteps echoed through the dim hallways. Every now and then she passed a lit wall sconce crackling merrily with firelight. Hopefully the castle staff would light the rest of them before the sun set completely, otherwise she’d be stuck wandering in the dark. Still, if that happened she need only call out for help in order to have one of those delightfully muscular guards escort her wherever she wanted to go, be that her room or to that of a friend. She’d decide later.

A long stretch of unlit, nearly pitch black hallway lay ahead. No matter. She was in Canterlot Castle, the last place in the world to have monsters lurking in the shadows. With resolute and indignant “hmpf,” she set hoof in the darkness without a second thought.

At least until the darkness swam and coalesced before her into a hulking, all-too-familiar shape.

“Aah! Nightmare M—”

Princess Luna stepped into the light. “ ‘Tis only I, fair Rarity. We beg thy pardon for frightening thee so.”

Rarity prostrated herself on the cold stone floor, her fear far from gone. “Th-think nothing of it, Princess Luna. I should be the one apologizing for using that… that name.”

“Nay, unless thou wouldst have half the royal staff begging forgiveness in like manner. We… I must confront the damage left behind in my darker side’s wake. Arise and be at ease.”

Rarity rose, though ease bordered on impossible. She gave one more quick bow and did her best to smile. “Thank you.”

“Why dost thou wander these halls? Art thou lost?”

“N-no, your majesty. I merely… well I'm merely walking for walking’s sake.”

“Indeed. We are doing the same, lest we suffocate in the confines of our royal chambers. We have been trapped long enough. But where is thy beloved?”

Luna craned her neck as she glanced around, as if she'd expected to find Spike hiding around a corner or behind a tapestry.

Rarity shut her eyes tight, lest any tears escape. “He’s… elsewhere, and isn't likely to keep that title, I'm afraid.”

Luna stood up straight and nodded. “A pity. Our elder sister made specific mention of thy trials, and of thy companion.”

Rarity winced. Would she have to explain Spike’s absence to Princess Celestia too? How had she gotten trapped in his minuscule shadow of all places? “We did endure much together, but I'm afraid that… that what we had might have quietly ended the moment our trials did. It's just taken me until now to—”

She wiped a tear away and sniffled. So much for not crying. So much for slipping back into the hard-nosed persona that she'd spent the better part of her adult life cultivating; generosity itself wouldn't stand for it.

A sizable hoof touched her shoulder, and Luna spoke in the gentlest of tones, each syllable a lullaby. “Be not troubled. Should you wish to keep your own counsel, we shall take no offense. Should you wish to talk, we shall listen.”

Rarity nodded, wiped away another tear, and then nodded again. She couldn't stay silent, but what could possibly be said to a princes that hadn't known freedom for a thousand years?

“We were the only two creatures in the world, once. We lived in isolation and poverty, but we lived. We were happy, sleeping on ragged blankets in the bitter cold, eating whatever the forest provided… We were happy. But now I can barely tolerate the softness of a mattress, or eat actual food, or stand to look in a mirror at what I've become.”

“And thy companion?”

“He… isn't adjusting well either. On our own things are fine, unlike when anypony else is present, it seems. Our tastes, our desires, our species… we’re so irreconcilably different. Without dire circumstances forcing us together, I’m not sure I see room for there to be an us.”

Luna’s hoof left Rarity’s shoulder, and she turned to the darkened hallway. “Pray walk with us?”

Rarity fell into step beside Luna, “Where are we going?”

“Away from what has been said, nothing more. Let us seek out new roads and perspectives.”

“Such as?”

Luna pursed her lips. “We have seen much, across the centuries. For all the ‘progress’ that this new age seems to have achieved in our long absence, much has been lost, too. We can recall a time when consorting outside of one’s pony tribe brought scorn. We can also recall a strategic marriage between a renowned pony and a griffon prince making interspecies unions a mark of increased social standing. We know not where on the spectrum this current age falls, but we presume not in a place that admires love between a pony and dragon.”

Rarity sniffed and nodded. “Indeed. Dragons aren't considered suitable as friends, much less lovers.”

“Does that alone erase all hope for thee and Spike?”

“It certainly doesn’t help, but my worries were manageable when I considered how kind and gentle he was, the exact opposite of what's expected of a dragon, and something a great many so-called gentleponies could learn from. I was prepared to fight for him, to see him accepted by ponies as any noble creature should be.”

“And what has changed?”

Rarity’s sadness gave way to annoyance. “Him. Me. We're being pushed in different directions: me to be the lady I've always aspired to, and him to… to act more like a typical dragon, honestly. At first his willingness to follow me here, to pledge to stand beside me seemed like enough to hold onto, but now…”

The conversation entered a lull, but Rarity didn't mind. The regular rhythm of their hooves on stone, and the idea that they were indeed leaving things previously said far behind them helped more than she’d expected.

At last Luna spoke, her voice barely more than a whisper. “Celestia and we… I barely interacted for years before it happened, before anger and resentment consumed me completely. Dear Celestia tried her best, but nothing, not even surrendering control of the sun, would have sufficed. It is a dark time in my memory, and because of the crowns upon our heads, all the world suffered with us. Such a debt shall never be repaid, not even by thee and thy friends returning balance to the heavens.”

“I'm so very sorry, Princess Luna.”

Luna huffed. “We do not share such intimate details in hopes of sympathy. We do so in hopes that thou wilt not make the same mistake.”

Rarity froze. “Pardon?”

“We royal sisters share little beyond history and blood. One brings the day, the other the night. One deals best with the waking world, the other with dreams. One grew jealous…and all was lost. If we can still love each other as sisters ought, then consider carefully if thou hast given up thy lover’s cause too soon. If he is truly willing to give up everything he holds dear for thy sake, should that not factor in to thy assessment of him? Could it be that thine differences are in fact the greatest treasure, and time will smooth away all rough patches? I do not mean to force thy hoof, but only to share what I have observed… what I have suffered. Do with it what you will.”

All Rarity could do was scuff her hoof against the stone floor while memory after memory came to mind. Spike really had given up everything, hadn't he? She'd been thrown into The Pit against her will, but he'd given it up of his own volition for nothing but a flimsy hope of rescuing Princess Celestia and the supposedly unbreakable bond of love they'd forged. Was everything that had transpired since then really cause to give up on what until today had been the love of her life? Could such decisions even be made in the unpredictable, stressful time and circumstance that they were in the midst of?

Clearing her throat, Rarity turned to Luna. “These… interspecies unions in ages past. Some of them were happy ones, weren't they? Did they remain so?”

Luna smiled. “Some. No more or less than creatures consorting among their own kind, by our estimation. The only sacrifice a member of such a union truly makes—” her smile vanished and her voice grew somber “—is seed. If thou can accept that limitation, then let the world show you no others.”

Rarity took a deep breath. “I won't. Thank you ever so much for your time, Princess Luna, but I'm afraid I need to hurry back and attempt to make amends.”

If I can, she thought. Oh I hope that I can.

Familiar Shadows

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The sheets were still rumpled from their afternoon together. Her hoofmade shawl and saddlebags still lay on the floor beside the bed, vestiges of The Pit that she hadn't seen fit to consign to a dresser drawer. Everything in the room had remained as it should have, save for Rarity being the only creature within it.

“Spike?”

A silence more terrible than even Nightmare Moon’s laughter answered her.

“Spike?” she said at a shout. She'd wake the whole castle if she had to.

Galloping hooves echoed through the hallway behind her, and Luna’s voice called out. “Rarity, we have heard from the night guard that a small, purple creature left the castle grounds some time ago. Are we to presume that—”

Rarity rushed past her. Forget social grace and protocol, she had a dragon to catch. “Thank you again, Princess Luna!”

The castle hallways rushed by, along with confused glances from guards, maids, and anypony else unfortunate enough to be in her way. She wouldn't stop. She couldn't.

The moon shone down on Canterlot, the streets beyond the castle gates home to a thousand shadows and who knew how many impoverished ponies. Rarity looked left and right, unsure of which road to take. Her own mental map of the city bordered on useless, thanks to the near-total destruction of virtually every street sign and store front.

Something streaked by just overhead, ruffling her mane. Looking up, Rarity spied a multicolored tail. “Rainbow Dash? What in the world are you—”

“I’ve got the East side! Fluttershy, you’ve got the West.”

Fluttershy glided by a moment later, winking at Rarity before speeding off.

Rarity’s mouth hung open. “What are they doing?”

Twilight trotted up to her side, smiling brightly. “Princess Luna mentioned you might need a little help from your friends tonight, Rarity.”

“M-my… friends? Even after—”

Pinkie bounced by with a jewel-encrusted camouflage helmet strapped to her head. “Less talky more searchy, Twilight! We’ve got a dragon to find!”

Twilight nodded to Rarity. “Of course we’re your friends, Rarity, and we’re Spike’s friends too. Just think hard about where Spike might’ve gone and we’ll make sure the rest of the city is covered.”

Rarity took a deep breath. She’d thank them all later, possibly with a completely new wardrobe apiece. For now she needed to think. “Where would Spike go in Canterlot… aside from leaving it, obviously. He’s clearly not enamored with the place, save for—” she gasped “—where’s the school?”

Twilight raised an eyebrow. “You mean Princess Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns? Why would Spike—”

Where?”

Twilight pointed, and Rarity ran.

City blocks flew by, each one largely resembling the last save for the exact placement of refuse. She’d seen the school once or twice before, just enough to have a sense for its architecture. Hopefully it was still standing. If Spike’s birthplace was nothing but rubble, she had no idea where he’d head next.

At last the building’s three spires came into view in the brilliant moonlight. She rounded a corner, hooves pounding through dust, dirt, and trash without a single worry for how dirty she was getting, or who might see her half-starved form. Dirt could be washed off, and what she currently lacked in classical beauty she more than made up for in muscle; perhaps she’d been too hard on herself as well.

Her furious pace slowed as she entered the school grounds. Each hoof had to be carefully planted to avoid the legion of hovels set up on the grass, lest she disturb the ponies asleep within. Her first job after meeting with Princess Celestia, she declared to herself, was to ensure that warm blankets were distributed all over the city. She’d carve up her own bedsheets if need be.

A shadow flitted across the building’s garbage-strewn front staircase. Rarity came to a stop and managed a breathless whisper. “Spike?”

The shadowed form stilled, and then drew closer. Muscle-bound stallions were all well and good, but Spike’s impossibly strong, scale-covered body held a different kind of alure, one that she’d clearly taken for granted.

Spike stopped a few feet short, staring at her blankly. “Rarity? What’re you—”

She rushed forward and pulled him into a hug. “I’m so very sorry for so many things, tonight in particular. I’ve let the tremendous stress we’re both under get in the way of good judgement.”

He chuckled as his arms encircled her. “Did you think I wasn’t coming back or something?”

Rarity froze. “Well I… Why else would you leave the castle late at night? I-I couldn’t possibly let that happen, for our last words to each other to be so… so…”

Spike sighed. “I did think about it, but you’re right: things are just crazy right now, and I know they won’t be forever. Sometimes I’d take walks in The Pit when I needed to think hard about something, and… I’ve just got a lot to think about right now.”

“Would you be so kind as to share? If not, I-I’ll hurry back the castle and leave you be… so long as you intend to return.”

Spike broke the hug and stood facing her. “There’s something about Celestia that I didn’t tell you, about why I can't see her tomorrow. I meant to tell you before, but then other stuff came up and… I'm sorry I snapped at you at dinner.”

“Don’t give such trivialities a second thought. You can tell me anything, Spikey. I swear it.”

His gaze dropped to the ground. “When I left on the dragon migration, Celestia sort of gave me a mission to teach the other dragons about friendship. She said if anybody could help them get back to the way they used to be thousands of years ago, when the dragon and pony races were friendlier with each other, it was me. But… I failed. You saw where the dragons put me, and why. I failed, and if Celestia asks about it—”

Rarity placed a hoof on his shoulder. “She’ll understand, Spikey.”

“I guess, but she’s still going to be so disappointed in me.”

“She won’t be, once I’m through explaining how you introduced me to friendship, and in so doing help save Equestria itself. If she is, then she’d not half the Princess she purports to be, and I’ll tell her so.”

He shivered under her grip. “Do you really… you’d do that?”

“How could I not? I’d prefer to do so with you by my side, of course.”

“But what about… whatever comes next? I don’t know if I can stay in Canterlot forever. I know you said we’d talk about it later, but things are moving so fast. I’m scared that I’m going to wake up and we’ll have an apartment here or something, and I won’t say anything because I know it’s what you really want, but…”

“Who said anything about living in Canterlot?”

“You do, all the time! The only places you ever mention are Canterlot and Ponyville, and I know you don’t what to live in Ponyville, so…”

Rarity shut her eyes and shook her head. “I most certainly do not, but… may I explain myself, at least?”

“Okay, but… hang on.”

While Rarity looked on, Spike gathered an armful of branches and wooden debris together and, with one fiery breath, brought one of their old home’s fixtures back to crackling life. Smiling, he offered her a seat.

Blushing, Rarity joined him by the fire and pulled him close. The fire was pretty, but he gave off more than enough heat all on his own. She looked down at herself, slightly disgusted by the mess she’d made of her coat, and focused her attention on the cutie mark peeking through the grime. Her magic guided his nearest hand to it. “Did you ever wonder how I discovered my supposed special talent?”

Spike nodded as his fingers brushed through her fur. “Yeah, but… you don’t talk about it, and I’ve heard it’s not always polite to ask, and—”

“It wasn’t far from here, actually. As you know, I came to Canterlot at a young age and fell in with the art crowd, or at least tried to. The best I could manage was finding a job dusting in a gallery. That’s just what I was doing one quiet morning long before anypony else arrived; I was just finishing up when the sheer beauty of each painting struck me, and how much better the whole of the presentation would look if I rearranged them all. I wasn’t supposed to, and shortly thereafter I was in need of a new job… but that’s when I earned my cutie mark, and why I thought it merely related to the care and curation of art, and not the creation of it. I didn’t realize that the gallery itself had been my canvas, but worse still: the experience came without fanfare, without celebration, without friends, and without family. What’s supposed to be every filly’s best and brightest day was one of my worst and loneliest. My every day since then, up until Nightmare Moon arrived, was an effort to remake my life and Canterlot itself in such a way that would celebrate what I could do, what I could become. If I’ve talked about Canterlot more than is reasonable, it’s only because I haven’t been able to let go of it, to the notion that somehow I could still turn that one ruined day into the slow start of my inevitable rise to prominence and success, to make my cutie mark story… mean something.”

She sucked in a breath of smokey air and sighed. “And here we are, huddled around a fire in front of boarded up school without any future prospects. My having misunderstood my own special talent for so long is the least of our troubles. It’s high time I move on… that we move on.”

Spike shook his head. “It’s not that bad, Rarity. Really.”

“Hmm? And how is that?”

“There’s more than two places to live in Equestria. We can go anywhere, and wherever that is, you can start making dresses just like you’ve always wanted.”

“I fail to see where we’ll secure the capital to embark on such an endeavor, unless you think Princess Celestia would be interested in bankrolling a middling art curator and unproven fashionista.”

Spike cocked an eyebrow. “Remember the gold we took with us?”

The saddlebags laying on the floor in their room sprang to mind. She’d forgotten that they were filled with treasure, no doubt another sign that their humble life really had improved her muscle tone. “But that’s your hoard, Spike. I didn’t carry it all this way just to squander it on attempting to start a business. Where do you intend to sleep, if not on a pile of gold? I confess I’ve gotten somewhat used to it too.”

He answered with a shrug and a wink. “We’ll figure it out, right?”

Her first impulse was to kiss him, and given the time and privacy she’d do just that. This particular moment called for something else, which happened to be nestled in her mane. The bent golden sewing needle floated through the air and hung over the fire’s heat. A little magically applied force was all it took to bend it further, curling the sharp point around until it slipped through the eye on the opposite side once and then once more.

She dropped mangled needle into Spike’s palm and winked. “I believe your fire will do a better job at finishing it, but that’s a worthwhile start.”

Spike looked through the little golden circle and shrugged. “What’s it supposed to be now?”

Rarity’s magic took it up again and slipped it onto one of his fingers. “A promise, of sorts. Should I ever stop talking about how I feel or, worse still, stop listening to how you feel, give this back to me as a reminder. If I don’t realize my mistake then, then I truly have ceased to be the mare sitting with you now. I can’t promise that that will never happen… but I’ll do my very best to grow with you, not apart from you.”

Spike closed his hand, and the ring caught the light like a small golden serpent coiling around his finger. A dragon tear landed on the knuckle next to it. “It’s beautiful, Rarity. But what if… what if I’m the one who needs the reminder?”

Giggling, she kissed him on the cheek. “Well then, in due time you’ll have to find a ring for me, won’t you?”

Belonging

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Some parts of the castle were much cleaner than others, although Rarity supposed she and Spike were wholly responsible for their room currently being the wreck that it was. In any case, the sun shone brightly in the morning sky, and after a long walk through hallways in terrible need of a mop, window cleaner, and freshly laundered tapestries, they’d arrived at what had undoubtedly been an ornate waiting room, once upon a time. The carpet had been cleaned, but only so much could be done to hide the ravages of time, to say nothing of the silhouettes on the wallpaper showing where the full compliment of furniture had once stood. All that remained were two massive oak doors, the gateway to one of Princess Celestia’s private meeting rooms, or so a guard had told them.

Not that such things really mattered, of course. What mattered was that she was here with some of her best pony friends and her dragon companion. She’d stationed herself by a wall, leaning on it for support while Spike paced back and forth.

“Spikey, please come here and stand still. You’re making me nervous.”

He chewed on his claws for a moment, but finally relented and stood beside her, one hand resting on her back. Fluttershy smiled at them from across the room, her serene expression devoid of all the worry Rarity had come to expect from her. “You’re looking awfully calm this morning, Fluttershy. Did you try that camomile tea I suggested?”

Fluttershy shook her head. “No. I’m just so happy the sun’s out again. This morning I went outside to talk to the woodpeckers living in the south garden’s trees, and they told me all my animal friends back in Ponyville are okay. I’m so relieved, I can’t even think about being nervous.”

Rainbow Dash, who had yet to set hoof on the floor, groaned. “Don’t suppose you could’ve asked how all the Ponyville ponies are doing, Fluttershy? I need to check on all my old buds.”

Fluttershy’s ears drooped. “Oh, sorry. I guess I didn’t think of that… but we’ll get to go home soon, won’t we? Princess Celestia said she only needed to speak to us briefly, after all.”

Pinkie held up a sizable pocket watch and glared at its handless face. “That was forty five minutes ago, Fluttershy!”

Rainbow groaned again. “Yeah… Anypony else think it was a bad idea to let Twilight go first? She’s probably asking a bazillion boring questions straight out of Princess Celestia’s autobiography or something.”

Fluttershy cleared her throat. “Well, technically she’s second. I heard a guard say Applejack came here right after sunrise. That must be why she’s not here waiting with us.”

Pinkie twisted her curly mane around her forelegs. “And now she’s rocking the after-party without me? I’m gonna go stir-crazy!”

Spike left Rarity’s side and stepped in front of Pinkie. “Um… Do want to know some cool facts about the castle to help pass the time?”

Pinkie gave a pained nod. “Anything.”

Rarity held her breath. In her estimation Spike was attempting to defuse a pony-shaped timebomb filled with confetti.

“Well… the reason the castle’s already got food and lots of staff ponies working in it is because there’s a bunch of storage cellars carved right out of the mountain.”

Pinkie moaned. “Sooo bored!”

“And Celestia had an emergency plan set up so if there’s ever a disaster like Nightmare Moon, all her staff can go down there and live off like a ten year food supply and still have extra to bring out to ponies in need. That’s why there’s still ponies living in Canterlot; they’ve been secretly getting food from the castle this whole time!”

Pinkie perked up an ear. “But… but that means everypony probably just had boring stuff to eat like bread and rice, and and—” she stifled a gag “—sugar free stuff.”

Spike shrugged. “Yeah, probably, but—”

Pinkie jumped up, grinning maniacally. “I’ll go last! I’ve got a gazillion cupcakes to bake! If Princess Celestia needs me, I’m in the kitchens bringing laughter back to food prep!”

Gale-force winds heralded her supersonic departure and nearly sent Spike flying out a nearby window. Rarity caught him with ease and huffed angrily. “Honestly, the way she carries on…”

Rainbow shrugged. “She’ll be calmer after she’s got some sugar in her. She’s still ticked off that ‘dessert’ last night was this teeny tiny vanilla cookie with some fancy cream on it. It was like half a bite, tops.”

Rarity rolled her eyes. Apparently she’d missed the most gourmet part of the meal. She set Spike beside her and smiled, knowing she’d do so all over again in a heartbeat.

Spike leaned against the wall and put a hand over his heart. “She’s calmer when she gets more sugar?”

The oak doors flew open, and Twilight strolled out with a smile wide enough to rival Pinkie’s.

Rainbow landed in front of her. “Finally! What took so—”

Twilight pranced around her like a filly on her birthday. “Princess Celestia said she was ‘astounded’ by my magic research! The way I broke us out of The Pit and developed a spell to locate the Elements of Harmony and their ideal bearers was ‘genius’ and we’re going to meet twice a month so she can tutor me in person, and I get to send her a letter every week! I… can’t… believe…”

Fluttershy stepped forward just in time to prop Twilight up with a wing while she caught her breath. “That’s wonderful, Twilight.”

“Let’s not forget my stipulation,” Princess Celestia added.

Rarity turned to see the Princess herself standing in the doorway, looking every bit as dazzling and regal as one could imagine. She bowed low, and nudged Spike when he didn’t do the same. “Manners, dear.”

Twilight took a great, gasping breath. “Oh, right. I… um… can’t live at the school… or in the castle.”

Princess Celestia nodded, her smile radient. “A star student might do so, but I think you’ve grown far beyond simple classwork, don’t you? You’ll learn far more by living among your new friends and nurturing the bond you all share.”

Twilight nodded. “I won’t let you down, Princess Celestia!”

“I know you won’t, Twilight, not after what you’ve already accomplished. Would it be all right with everypony if I speak to Rarity next? I promise this will be a much shorter conversation, and there are others involved who shouldn’t be kept waiting any longer than necessary.”

Spike sucked in a quiet breath.

Rarity cleared her throat. “If it’s all right with you, Princess Celestia, could you speak to Spike and I together? There’s nothing in the world that you could say to me that I would mind him hearing, and I believe he feels the same way.”

Spike nodded, clasping and unclasping his claws. “But it’s okay if you don’t need to talk to me… because I can just wait out here for Rarity and… uh… help make sure Twilight doesn’t hyperventilate again.”

Celestia chuckled and beckoned them to follow with a sweep of her foreleg. “I wouldn’t dream of leaving you out, Spike. Come.”

Rarity gave him a quick hug and pushed him forward. “Neither would I, Spikey.”

Beyond the oak doors was a surprisingly simple room, despite the furnishings being intact. The carpet was plush and clean, but clearly not new. Well-stocked bookcases lined the walls, broken only by other sets of oak doors. A circle of oversized sitting pillows made up the interior, lit from above by natural sunlight filtering down through a domed skylight. Princess Celestia settled herself on the largest of the pillows, which was still on the small side for a pony of her stature. “Please, sit. May I offer you some tea?”

Celestia’s horn lit, and a china tea service in the middle of the pillow circle sprang to life, setting out three cups.

Rarity didn’t have enough air left in her lungs to speak; she hadn’t breathed in since setting foot in this wondrous place, this inner sanctum that had no doubt been a meeting place for dignitaries, decorated generals, and foreign leaders. And now the Princess of Equestria was offering to pour her a cup of tea.

Spike ended up pushing her forward, at which point she spat out some combination of “yes, your majesty” and “it would be an honor” all mashed together in an undignified mess.

Patting her shoulder, Spike guided her to a pillow. “Heh, it’s her first time talking to you in person, Celestia. If you say ‘I’d like to buy a dress from you’ she might spaz out worse than Twilight.”

Rarity gasped and jabbed him in the arm. “Spike! How dare—”

Celestia’s laugher cut her off. “Perhaps I’ll save the dress orders for another time. I believe the contents royal treasury would be better spent on feeding the needy and rebuilding Equestria, at present.”

Rarity sat down before she could fall down, and nodded emphatically. “I couldn’t agree more.”

“But that’s not why I’ve asked the two of you here. Twilight already filled me in on the basics of your ordeal, so I’ll start with this:—” she held out a foreleg —“It’s wonderful to see you again, Spike.”

Spike gasped. “It’s g-great to see you, too! When Rarity… When she told me what happened to you—” he hung his head “—I should’ve been here to help. I’m sorry that I—”

Celestia stood and reached for him, lifting his chin with her golden shoe. “You were doing what you needed to when you left on the dragon migration, and your mission to the dragons was a complete success.”

“What? But the dragons I met were total jerks! They don’t care about friendship! They… well you know where I ended up, right?”

“Yes, but you shouldn’t be upset that they didn’t change their ways overnight. When I told you all those years back that you were the ideal creature to reintroduce friendship to the dragons, I meant just that: a reintroduction. In due time we’ll try again, perhaps in a different way. Given enough time, be that years or decades, the dragons will come around.”

Sniffling, Spike clasped her foreleg and kissed her shoe. “Thanks, Celestia. I-I really needed to hear that. And I really missed you.”

“I and you, Spike. If you'd sent word to me I would have helped, but it seems you didn't need me to. Because of your hard trials, you’ve grown up in your own way and on your own terms. The dragon that left my care couldn’t have done all the things you have. Nothing I can say will ever sum up how proud I am of you, or repay the debt of gratitude I owe you both.”

Celestia’s gaze shifted to Rarity, which again robbed her of her voice. Instead of sputtering she smiled weakly and waved. She truly was terrible at this. How in the world was she going to sell dresses to the upper crust if a mere look from a Princess left her tongue-tied?

“Rarity, I have one more thing to ask if you, but before we get to that I believe Applejack has been waiting far too long already.”

“Applejack?” Rarity blurted.

Celestia’s magic opened another set of doors at the far side of the room, and in trotted Applejack, her hat tucked under a foreleg and a bleary-eyed smile on her face. “Thanks, Princess.”

“Applejack,” Rarity muttered. Her voice had returned, and the price was her elation at being in Princess Celestia’s presence for a intimate chat. At least Applejack had removed her hat; hopefully her hooves were clean, too. She couldn’t count the times their old primary school teacher asked the class who’d forgotten to wipe their hooves before stepping inside, despite knowing exactly who was to blame.

No, Rarity told herself. That’s all in the past. Let it go. Your own past deeds are treason compared to Applejack’s fillyhood missteps.

Applejack moved to tip her hat, remembering halfway through the gesture that she’d taken it off. “Howdy, Rarity, Spike. I’m sorry to intrude like this, but… I’m just gonna come out and say it: there’s something else that had me running back to Ponyville lickity-split. Somepony else, more like: an old Apple family friend.”

Rarity wanted to stand, to run, and to scream all at once, but instead found herself petrified with a horrific mixture of fear and doubt that took her all the way back to the Ponyville train station, to ear-splitting blast of the train’s whistle, to handing the conductor her ticket, to her one small suitecase, and to all the ponies and possessions that she’d intentionally left behind.

“C’mon in!” Applejack called.

Hoofsteps sounded it the hallway, and in between each clop of a hoof a thousand of Rarity’s heartbeats raced by. She could see them already, the two ponies she’d once sworn to never speak to again. What was she supposed to say to her parents after all these years? How could Applejack be so callus, so blind as to think a surprise intervention would somehow erase decades spent apart without so much as a letter?

She shut her eyes tight. She couldn’t look. She wouldn’t. She’d escape this awful moment with sheer force of will.

“Um… Are you Rarity?” a small, squeaky voice said.

Rarity’s total panic wouldn’t simply switch off, but in between rapid breaths she managed to crack an eye open and drop the foreleg she’d held across her face. Before her stood a young unicorn with a white coat, gorgeous mulberry and rose hair, and spellbindingly green eyes.

Now her panic came to a full stop, and its residual momentum jolted words into her mind and out her mouth. “Yes. A-are you…”

The filly smiled and held up a hoof to shake. “I’m your little sister, Sweetie Belle!”

A hoof shake wouldn’t do. A hug would be wonderful, if she could work up the nerve. Speaking audibly was hard enough. “I-I… I left town before you… My… Our parents. I had a terrible fight with them over the silliest of things and… well I suppose you know. I never… I never knew if I had a little brother, or sister. I-I’m so happy to finally meet you!”

Sweetie Belle leaped forward and hugged Rarity with enough force to put Spike’s strength to shame. “I missed you sooo much! I know we’ve never met, but mom and dad talk about you all the time, and they have your picture everywhere!”

Rarity’s stomach lurched. “H-how are… mother and father? As I said, I didn’t leave under the best of circumstances… or at the best of times.”

“They’re super proud of you, of course! They always talk about how you made it in the big city, and then how you made it big in the palace, and now about how you saved Equestria. You kinda set the bar for me pretty high, sis.”

Rarity patted Sweetie’s head and managed a small laugh. “Proud… I’d always hoped they would be, of course, once I got over our petty squabbling. I just couldn’t bear to write, for fear of the wounds it would open… and the thought that you might hate me for the pain I caused—”

Sweetie Belle hugged her even tighter. “Pfft. No way! You’re my big sister. I love you!”

And Rarity loved her too, more completely than she ever imagined a pony could on first sight. Whatever she’d lost by her and Spike being unable to have children had been given back tenfold: she had a little sister who loved her. She had parents who loved her, too. If only she’d sent them a letter, or not had the childish gall to forbid them from doing the same in her terse goodbye note. But all of that was in the past. All of it.

Sweetie Belle suddenly jumped back and fished around in her mane. “Oh! Oh! I almost forgot! Mom made me promise to give this to you.”

She held up a small newspaper clipping, which even at a distance Rarity could see was little more than a smudged picture of a building and a brief caption.

Rarity took the paper in her magic, and again was at a loss for words. It wasn’t just any building: she’d walked by this Ponyville landmark every day. The money that bought her train ticket to Canterlot had originally been destined for redecorating the place and filling it with expensive fabrics. “Why it’s the Carousel Boutique! That’s what I intended to call it, anyway.”

“And it’s for sale!”

“What? You can’t be—”

The caption finally caught her eye. “ ‘Historic town hall still empty. City planning office desperate.’ Oh my. Oh my!”

The picture flew away as she fanned herself.

Spike caught it and held it up to the light. “Yikes, that place needs a lot of work.”

Rarity nodded. “Absolutely everything about it would need to be renovated. It’s enthralling to dream about the possibilities, though. If only, oh if only.”

Celestia cleared her throat. “That actually brings us to my request of you, Rarity. I’d like you to consider moving to Ponyville, if only to keep the friendships you’ve developed from fizzling out with distance. I know for a fact that Applejack, Fluttershy, and Pinkie plan on returning there. I intend to arrange for Twilight to head the Ponyville Library, and to offer Rainbow Dash captaincy of the town’s new weather team, which until now has just been a volunteer effort.”

Rarity’s giddy smile vanished, and all the room’s warmth seemed to follow. “Excuse me?”

She met Celestia’s quizical look with abject shock. “You mean to… to dictate where I live?”

“It was only a request, I assure you. I have no intention of forcing any of you to live near each other. I’m only trying to foster the friendships that have been made. You’ve seen first hoof what the magic of friendship can do, and what the Elements of Harmony can do when they harness that power, which will undoubtedly be called upon to save Equestria again someday. Can you blame me for wanting to assure that the current bearers of them are all located in one place, should the unthinkable happen?”

Rarity frowned and took a deep, slow breath. For a brief moment she'd returned to her childhood imaginings of high fashion and self employment; concepts far too big for her then, but not now. “I suppose I can see the merits of that. Nevertheless it seems I need to make a request of my own: I require this property, Ponyville’s historic town hall. Call it a gift, a tax break, an urban renewal, or whatever you’re calling these favors to Twilight and the others. Do this, and Spike and I should have funds enough to remodel the place into a proper home and business establishment.”

Celestia’s unsmiling stare dug deeper than a mere frown ever could. “Didn't we just agree on the importance of helping the poor?”

“They will be. Spike and I will be more than generous with our profits, and take no profit at all on essentials for the needy, which I assume Ponyville is in just as much need of as Canterlot. Set us on the path to self sufficiency, and we’ll never cease paying that gift forward.”

The stare-down continued for a minute more, a minute fraught with Rarity’s unvoiced, barely-concealed panic. What was she thinking, making demands of the Princess? Queen Nightmare would have thrown her in the dungeon by now. Canterlot Castle didn’t have a dungeon, did it?

At last Celestia nodded, and her smile returned. “I’m sure you’ll make a wonderful businessmare, Rarity. We’ll be in touch, once Princess Luna realizes her wardrobe is a thousand years out of date.”

Rarity balked, her bravado vanishing as quickly as it arrived. “I-I certainly hope so, Princess Celestia, and thank you! Ponyville is hardly a premier destination of the fashion world, but given enough time… The important thing is who I’ll have alongside me every step of the way.”

She pulled Spike and Sweetie Belle into a hug. Sweetie seemed appreciative, but Spike quickly raised a hand. “Hey, um… can I ask for something, too?”

Celestia chuckled. “Of course, Spike.”

“Well, actually it’s two things. Rarity, do you mind if I ask Twilight if I can help her out in the library, maybe as an assistant or something? She’s probably going to need help staying focused on the important stuff, and this way I’ve got a job too.”

Rarity nodded. “Of course, dear, of course.”

“And Princess Celestia, when Rarity and I are ready—” he touched two claws together and took a deep breath “—will you marry us?”

Rarity tensed, her every thought derailed and her gaze focused on the simple ring she’d made for him, the ring everypony in the room now appeared to have their eyes glued to.

“Why Spike,” Princess Celestia replied, “how could I not? The castle will be at your disposal, if you’d like to make use of it.”

Spike grinned at Rarity, his thoughts as clear as day: want to get married in a castle, like royalty?

Rarity looked to Applejack, who’d remained silently smiling in the back of the room, and who no doubt was desperately needed back at home; farming couldn’t be a very comfortable profession after literal years of darkness. “Actually… Applejack, I don’t suppose you and your family would object to hosting a small but lavish wedding at Sweet Apple Acres? Perhaps when there’s some snow on the trees? Rest assured we’ll pay quite generously.”

Applejack’s eyebrows shot up, and she dropped her hat. “Say what? Really?”

“Absolutely. I think we’ve all had our fill of Canterlot opulence, and not nearly enough time with the ponies that matter most to us.”

Sweetie Belle drummed her hooves on the floor and squealed. “My big sister’s moving back to Ponyville and getting married! Yay!”

Princess Celestia and Applejack laughed.

Spike rested his hand on her hoof, and she matched his smile.

---

“Wow. It’s… something.”

Rarity put a foreleg across Spike’s shoulders and joined him in looking the wreck of a building before them up and down. Right in the middle of Ponyville’s quaint and well-kept cottages stood this two story eyesore: the original town hall, a cylindrical, two level affair riddled with holes, faded paint, broken windows, and chipped marble columns. It was just as she remembered it: the most beautiful structure she’d ever seen. “I used to walk by here every day, often taking circuitous routes on the way home from school just to make sure nopony had stolen it away. Nopony could of course, not at the exorbitant price the city demands, and with the stipulation from the historical society that it be revitalized and not torn down.”

She stretched a foreleg out to it, painting a mental image. “Just think: light purple and blue paint, big oval windows, second story balconies… We’ll replace the marble columns with carousel dummies to go with the theme, of course: The Carousel Boutique, where every garment is chic, unique, and—”

“Magnifique, yeah, I remember. I guess I can see it. And I guess I did kind of say I’d build you a house fit for a princess.”

“One fit for a fashionista and her betrothed will do nicely, thank you.”

“My pleasure, Lady Rarity.”

“Thank you, Lord Spike the gentledragon. You are still onboard with this plan, aren’t you?”

Spike flashed her a big smile. “Oh yeah, Ponyville’s awesome! Did I tell you the Cakes know how to make sapphire cupcakes, and that we can dig up all the gems we want in the hills past Sweet Apple Acres?”

Rarity nodded. “I’m so glad to hear it, although speaking of the Cakes, we need to hurry if we’re going to join the others at Sugarcube Corner. And after that you’re helping Twilight reorganize the library, and… as for me…”

“Seeing your parents?”

The word alone set her heart racing, but didn’t inspire the dread it once did. If she had the boldness to face down Nightmare Moon, and the empathy to love her little sister at first sight, there wasn’t anything she couldn’t do. “I’ll be fine, I assure you.”

“Are you sure you don’t want me to come with you?”

“All in good time, after I’ve given you a proper introduction.”

“You mean about how I’m a dragon? Sweetie Belle probably covered that already.”

Rarity kissed him on the cheek. “I’m referring, my dear Spike, to how happy you make me, and to how I’ve come to realize that where I belong isn’t Canterlot, or The Pit, or even Ponyville. I belong wherever those who I love are. I love our friends, and I love you.”

“I love you, too.”

And that love, Rarity knew, would carry them through whatever happened next.

Bonus Chapter: Iron Author Version

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The wind howled in Rarity’s ears as she fell. Her tears rocketed upwards as she did the opposite, plunging tail-first towards oblivion. Queen Nightmare’s chariot was already a distant spec in the cloudy skies above, and still she fell.

“Please, my Queen! Please forgive me!”

Her own memories answered her, and not with mercy. The inquisition had happened so fast, starting with the footpony guards napping during their patrol of the castle grounds while a mysterious purple pony and her dragon whelp intruded on Queen Nightmare’s domain. Surely a pony such as herself was above such accusations of treason and sedition. Rarity, the official steward of the castle, the only pony besides Her Majesty that commanded bows and courtesies from the staff, couldn’t have been more above repute if she wore a crown herself.

Or so she’d assumed.

The cold wind stung, but not as much as that moment a mere twelve hours ago when the guards came for her, and not the palace guards that wore armor she herself had designed. No, it’d been the military guards, the thuggish stallions that carried the Queen’s flag across lands savage and disobedient. They’d come for her. They’d brought her to grandest of the royal chariots where the Queen herself waited, wearing her deepest, most dangerous frown, the expression that exiled traitorous ponies to the diamond mines, or to fight one of the many warring factions on the borders.

But surely, Rarity had thought, a loyal servant like her was above such severe punishments. Surely dealing with intruders to the castle was the domain of the guards and not her. Surely the Queen would look upon her with a sated nod once she explained herself.

“M-my Queen, how may I serve—”

The mouth gag came first, followed by ropes about her legs. Queen Nightmare’s frown widened into a wicked grin that always preceded the harshest of sentences. “Have you heard of The Pit, my traitorous servant?”

The wind whipped her around in the air, and suddenly she was diving headfirst towards the swirling vortex of white clouds waiting at the bottom of the canyon. Of course she’d heard of The Pit, everypony who’d spent a day in the kingdom had. No retelling of the legend could measure up to the Queen herself chanting the tale as the guards wrapped her in layer upon layer of jewel-encrusted ropes. Even the gag in her mouth was made of fine brooches fitted with gems worth more than a peasant family would earn in a lifetime. She was being chained up in the finest pieces of the royal treasury.

“When I conquered the Dragon Lands,” Nightmare Moon had said, “I discovered what the dragons did with their prisoners, with the monsters that even brutish creatures such as themselves couldn’t control.”

The whirling mists burned Rarity’s wet eyes, but the wind no longer bothered her. Instead she simply heard her old master, her ruler and Queen whispering in her ear: “the worst dragons of all time were thrown in The Pit, a prison from which they could never escape. Let’s hope they’re still hungry. Let’s hope they don’t mind a little pony with their gems.”

The world vanished, but not into darkness. Snowflakes peppered her face, and the distant tops of pine trees broke through the clouds of blinding white waiting below.

At the last moment, as her current screams of terror mixed with her recollection of Nightmare Moon’s peals of laugher, her eyes snapped shut. This was the end. All her years of faithful service, her complete reconstitution of the castle’s fine tapestries, her work designing armor for palace guards and dresses for nobility boiled down to a grave with fire-breathing dragons, the worst monsters the world had ever known, save perhaps for the legends of Day Breaker.

And then she landed in the snow, sinking for over a minute through the seemingly bottomless drifts before finally coming to a stop somewhere cold and dark.

“I’m… alive? Dear Moons I’m—” sweet elation turned to deepest horror in a heartbeat “—I’m in The Pit, waiting to get eaten by… by…”

The ground shook underneath her, starting in her back and vibrating all the way to her hooves. Maybe that was just her thundering heart. Maybe all the dragons had gone. Surely they’d broken out of this place long ago, or starved. Surely a quiet, respectful end awaited her here at the bottom of this snow drift.

“Oh please please don’t let it be—”

Bright sunlight burned her eyes as something brushed the snow away. Fresh snow rained down from the cloudy heavens above, quite unlike the roiling storm of The Pit’s surface. A dark shape hovered over her, cast into sharp relief by the sunlight.

She couldn’t scream anymore. She couldn’t think. Her palpable fear dissolved into a simplistic thought: what a waste, eating precious gems. No wonder the Queen exiled all dragons from her realm. No wonder they were all but extinct.

A claw that looked the size of a cart wheel blotted out the sunlight, and suddenly her fear was back. “Please don’t touch me! Please don’t!”

The claw paused for a moment, almost as if her words meant something to the mindless creature about to devour her. Could dragons understand ponies? The legends weren’t clear on the matter. History had distilled dragons into gluttonous monsters that breathed fire and devoured gems, reason enough to avoid them at all costs.

A deep voice, deeper even than Nightmare Moon’s, broke the silence. “But then you’ll freeze.”

Rarity blinked. She didn’t hear mindless hunger in that voice. Still, dragons were monsters. “B-better to f-freeze than to be eaten b-by…”

Her teeth were chattering. The snow underneath her back had started to melt, and ice cold water was soaking through her finely brushed coat. If she could only distract the beast long enough, she’d lose consciousness before he thought better of taking advice from his supper.

The claw touched her quivering leg and slid along its length, slicing through the golden chains binding her, but feeling no sharper then a knitting needle against her skin.

Her latest scream died in her throat as the chains fell away, scattering priceless gems in the snow. As soon as she felt the chilly air embrace her, as soon as her newfound freedom of movement registered, she was on her hooves and running. She ducked behind a tree, each panting breath a cry of relief mixed with horror. The beast touched her. The dragon freed her. What did this mean? Did he expect her to run and be hunted down like an animal? Was she going to be left alone just for the other, less fortunate dragons to find and consume?

Steadying her nerves as best she could, she leaned around the tree trunk to get a better look at the thing that dared toy with her dignity.

A purple, scaled body the size of a carriage was hunched over the snow drift, calmly sweeping the gems and gold into the crook of its arm. “Are you hungry?”

Rarity ducked behind the tree. Surely the beast was talking to himself, or to another dragon waiting to pounce.

“Shrubs grow near my home. Ponies eat plants, don’t they?”

She nodded, despite behind completely hidden by the tree. She hadn’t eaten since the guards took her. Just thinking about the royal kitchens made her stomach rumble. Were there any cooks left, or had this latest purge of ‘traitors’ cleared out the entire castle?

The snow crunched under the dragon’s enormous feet. It was coming closer! Her heart thundered in her chest, but she didn’t bolt. Surely she had enough self control to stand her ground in the face of this curious yet completely unwelcome advance. She set her jaw and turned up her nose. “Is this a game, dragon? Am I to be your plaything before you or one of your kind eats me?”

The dragon’s laugh echoed through the woods, loud and yet devoid of the menace she’d come to associate with the sound. “Look, pony, I don’t know why you’re down here. Maybe you fell, maybe some monster pushed you in, but let’s get things straight: dragons eat gems when we can, plants when we can’t. The worst thing that can happen to you down here is freezing to death, and that’d be a shame. I haven’t had another creature to talk to in… How many moons has it been? Does Torch still rule the Dragon Lands?”

Rarity relaxed by the slightest of degrees, her hind legs losing some of their bowstring tension. “The Q… Nightmare Moon rules the Dragon Lands, along with all of Greater Equestria.”

“Who?” The dragon’s warm breath blew across her ear.

She screamed and fell sideways into the snow. Seconds later she glared up at the sleek, scale-covered face peeking around the tree. “Don’t touch me, you… you beastly…”

The dragon’s smile disappeared, but not into a terrible snarl like she’d expected the moment her biting demand escaped her mouth. Instead he paced around the tree until he was in full view, standing on his two feet and offering his two clawed hands in what almost looked like a contrite gesture. “Sorry. I don’t mean any harm. Please can we get out of the woods? I’ve got scales, but even I get cold. You must be freezing.”

Her shivering redoubled, now that the adrenaline boost from his latest insult to her person was abating. She picked herself up and tried to adopt a dignified pose, or at least as much of one as a pony who’s been ceremoniously dumbed into the snow in the most compromising of positions can. “Very well. I am indeed cold and hungry. I suppose I could impose upon your… hospitality.”

The dragon’s smile returned, again exuding kindness and not malice. “I’m Spike. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Miss…?”

She watched him bow until his snout touched the snow. This wasn’t a dragon, or at least not the kind of fearsome legend. “Rarity.”

- - -

Spike’s home lacked the grandeur Rarity had grown to expect under the Queen’s fearsome rule, but that hardly mattered in her current state of cold and undress. The snowy woods where she’d landed turned out to lay in the center of a deep valley surrounded by dizzyingly high cliffs. The only break in the wall of rock locking them in was a jagged cave opening not much taller than Spike himself. Inside awaited a roaring fire, stores of herbs and mushrooms harvested from a small garden outside, and a few tattered curtains that divided the modest space into rooms.

She settled herself by the fire, relishing the scent of warm embers more than the finest vintages of cider sitting in her personal stores back at the castle. What would become of her possessions? Would the Queen have her fine dresses and furniture burned? She might as well set fire to the entire castle, considering how much of a hoof Rarity had a had in its decoration and upkeep. Not that any of those things mattered now, she supposed. She’d been more than exiled. She’d been ‘disposed of’ in the legendary Pit, to be devoured by dragons. Ponies said it was the fate that Nightmare Moon would have preferred for her scheming, treacherous sister, if circumstances would have allowed.

“Hungry?” Spike held out a bowl of greens.

Rarity’s stomach wouldn’t say no. Decorum barely won out over her desire to bury her face in the bowl instead of nibbling each leaf politely. “Thank you, Spike.”

He smiled again. “It’s no trouble. There hasn’t been a pony down here in ages. I used to keep track of the days, but I ran out of room to count.”

She followed his gaze to the cave walls, all of which were covered in tick marks. “Ponies say dragons condemned the worst of their kind to The Pit. What horrible thing did you do, to earn such a fate?”

Spike laughed. “Is that what they’re saying now? Wow, it really has been ages, especially if some pony was able to kick Torch off the throne. No, that’s not it at all.”

Rarity’s ears folded back, and she put on her best glare. The dragon’s warm laugher and welcoming smile were infectious. But such things were beneath her. She’d dedicated her life to service of the Queen after all. She’d set aside family, friends, and all but the barest forms of her own cutie mark-given talent to serving the pony that ruled over all the lands. She’d chosen class and prestige. And now she was sitting with a dragon in the bottom of a pit, exiled and imprisoned. At least he hadn't eaten her, or at least not yet.

Spike sat next to her by the fire. Her fur stood on end as his colossal form came within mere hoof-breadths of her own. Still she sat, unwilling to move further away from the warmth just for dignity’s sake. “That’s not why the dragons built The Pit. That’s not what they used it for.”

She watched his smile turn sullen as he stared into the cave’s depths. In between the curtain walls she could see an inky blackness of someplace deeper where the fire’s light couldn’t reach. “Then what?”

Spike sighed. “Greed.”

Rarity turned to him, eyebrows raised. “Pardon?”

“Dragons aren’t like ponies, at least not as far as I remember. We get bigger when we’re greedy, and dumber too. The dragon sorcerers of old made The Pit to hold the greediest of dragons, the ones that threatened our culture.”

She held back a scoff. ‘Dragon’ and ‘culture’ hardly belonged in the same sentence, quite like ‘Nightmare Moon’ and ‘Queen’ if she were to be honest herself.

“Greedy dragons got The Pit, and they’d be stuck in here until they got their priorities straight. It never took long, considering how there’s no gems in here, and the cliff walls are enchanted so you can’t just climb or fly out.”

Her ears shot up. “There’s a way out?”

Spike nodded. “That way.”

He leveled a claw at the blackness waiting beyond the curtains. “It’s tiny, though. Only small, greed-free dragons can fit.”

“Well then, I see why you’ve been—” why was she about to quip at him for being greedy?

“Except I don’t want to go out there. Greed used to be why dragons got thrown in here, but me? I was the opposite… I was too nice for Torch’s tastes. I challenged his daughter once, and…”

His great shoulders shrugged. “Go on through the cave. You’ll fit just fine. I’m not going back out there. I’m hoarding gems instead of eating them so I stay too big, so I don’t even go out there accidentally.”

Rarity’s gaze softened. Hesitatingly at first, she touched his arm with her hoof. “Well… I’m not wanted out there either, really. I don’t suppose… you’d like some company? Just for a little while, you understand?”

Spike smiled again, and this time Rarity couldn’t help joining him. “That sounds amazing!”

And for an hour it was. And then for a week. And then for a year. And then for two lifetimes.