Calm night air swept across the land, and all was well. Stars above twinkled happily down on the world below. Moonlight cascaded through the cave's gaping opening, illuminating dreary ground and cracked ceiling. The mountain orifice seemed to stretch endlessly into the darkness beyond.
A lone figure rose from his sleeping position on the cave floor and started toward the entrance of his residence. The sky was dark enough; it was time again.
“Arcturus,” he said thoughtfully.
The figure looked up at the remarkably bright constellation. He was pleased to see it so clearly on what he had predicted would be a cloudy night.
A small writing instrument in hand, Spike stomped back toward a wooden desk at the back of the cave. Only a few heads taller than the average pony, Spike viewed his relatively small stature as an advantage over his fellow dragons; he could relate better to most. He retrieved a blank sheet of paper from near a stack of complex drawings and sketches.
He began jotting down what he had seen in the sky, purely from memory. Such was his nature, having spent a few hundred spare years developing his remarkable abilities of recollection. With a glance at the massive stack of recordings to his right, he couldn't help but be amazed.
All this time... he thought. I've been working on star charts for so long... and there's still more to do. Four hundred years...
But relative to his life in its entirety, those years were the snap of a claw. A laugh couldn't help but escape his mouth as he looked around the walls of the cave.
Had any number of art critics seen the murals and paintings that covered every square inch of the cold stone surfaces, they would declare the creature responsible the greatest artist in Equestria.
And they had, as a matter of fact.
Two millenia ago... he remembered. I guess the secret has been lost since.
And a great shame that it was. Equestrians would likely never know that the greatest artist of their time lived in a cave not a mile away from one of their bustling cities. They could learn a great deal from him.
Yet Spike's humility had kept him from them. It's not my job to seek them out. My work was for my amusement. If they want to...
But his train of thought came to a stop. Try as he might to convince himself that he was happy alone...
I miss them, he realized for the thousandth time.
Laying the pen in his hand gently down on the desk, he walked slowly toward one of the numerous paintings the cave walls bore. He remembered the reason they had been created, the promise he made so long ago.
I'll make sure I never forget them, he had told himself.
Against the pepper-gray background was one of his greatest artistic triumphs. Hailed as a veritable masterpiece by Equestrians thousands of years ago, Spike was adamant that the beauty was in the subject, not the artwork. He could remember that day with staggering clarity, the day when his dreams were finally fulfilled. On that day, when the greatest occupation of his heart, his greatest hope, finally came true.
The greatest day of my life, he remembered.
Another classic Pinkie Pie party, Spike had thought eons ago, on the day of Pinkie's fourth “It's Saturday Morning Right Now!” party that month.
Nevertheless, everypony was enjoying herself immensely. Pinkie had once again spared no expense in making the party what she described as “extravagantly partytastic”.
Streamers covered every square inch of roof. Air balloons hung from rafters and banisters, helium balloons from the ceiling; punch, finger foods and pin the tail on the pony had also made their appearance, and in all honesty Twilight appeared to have been drinking something other than carrot juice.
“Isn't this just the-” she burped loudly and just managed to avoid spilling her glass full of instant joy-juice. “Best party ever? This week?” she finished, trotting toward him eagerly.
“I guess,” Spike said with a small smile. “But don't you think you've had-”
Twilight help up a hoof as her eyes widened. “Don't you think you've had enough ugly?” she responded to his half finished thought. Before he could answer, she gave an almost shrieking laugh as she swigged from her cup once more.
Spike followed her chuckling lead and decided not to push the issue further. After all, one of the main reasons she was willing to put up with all the parties in the library was sitting in her cup and stomach.
Under the influence of her drought, Twilight began a surprisingly coherent rant explaining magic theory to a nearby Applejack, who simply stared on and responded with an occasional “What?”.
Spike couldn't help but laugh at her antics as he shot a look toward the door for the umpteenth time. Having thought he heard it open, he was rendered disappointed once more when his beloved Rarity failed to make an appearance.
He needn't worry, he realized. Rarity would never miss one of Pinkie's parties if it could be avoided. She would almost always show up fashionably late, but even still, Spike couldn't help but feel restless until the beautiful white pony strolled through the door.
“Ooooh,” Twilight said, having turned from Applejack for a moment and noticing his longing glance toward the door. “Someone's in love, isn't he?” she teased, prodding him with a hoof.
Spike sighed as she continued to prod, hysterically amused by her own joke. While Twilight was usually fun in this state, sometimes it just became downright-
“In love with who, now?” came a voice from behind the three.
Spike's heart dropped into his stomach as he heard the familiar angelic voice.
“Rarity!” he exclaimed, abandoning all pretense of restraint and turning to hug her.
Rarity could only laugh lightly at his reaction. Such a response had become standard fare when she made an appearance at a social gathering. “It's good to see you too, Spike,” she said, returning the hug.
Twilight's giggles exploded once more at the sight. She grabbed an unmarked bottle from a nearby table and started after Applejack with it, shrieking “Just a sip!” repeatedly.
Spike and Rarity watched in amusement for a moment.
“Spike,” Rarity said softly, laying a hoof on her shoulder. “There's something I need to tell you about.”
Spike's heart leaped from his stomach into his throat What could she possibly want?
Rarity lead him to a secluded corner of the library, where they would not be overheard.
“So, coming to my birthday party tonight I assume?” Spike asked, trying to control the shaking in his body and quavering of his voice. “Pinkie swears it'll be twice as 'hopping' as this one,” he said with a wink.
“That's... that's what I need to tell you about,” her hesitance causing a sinking feeling to develop in Spike's stomach.
“You see... I have a very important client requesting an outfit by tomorrow morning. In order to get it done in time...”
Spike's deep feeling of disappointment felt as if it had hit the bottom of his stomach. “I understand,” he said simply. There was not even an attempt to hide his disappointment. She could tell.
“I'm so sorry, darling,” she said, genuinely feeling so. “I'll make it up to you somehow, I promise.”
“No need, just do what you need to,” he said with a sad little smile.
She returned the smile before walking away from the corner. As she trotted away, Spike couldn't help but feel a weight of crushing disappointment.
“It just won't be the same...”
And with a sigh, he returned to the rest of the party.
* * *
“All I'm saying is that we could use a few more balloons!” Pinkie insisted a few hours later while tying ribbon on the staircase banisters.
“Pinkie-” Spike started, already nearly buried by the bright colored rubber surrounding him.
“Oh, wait, wait!” Pinkie yelled suddenly, sprinting toward the door.
“Now what is it?” Spike asked, attempting to remain patient.
“Cupcakes!” She called from the distance as she ran down the street. “I'll be right back!”
He couldn't help but laugh as he looked around at the decorations. Pinkie had taken it upon herself to make this birthday remarkably special. The balloon count in the room seemed to have tripled; the ceiling sparkled with stars that Twilight had drummed up just for the occasion. All around, the number “16” dominated one's vision. Spike smiled contentedly. As the sun approached the horizon, he couldn't help but be happy; tonight would be beautiful, all thanks to his friends.
“Certainly looks good down here, doesn't it?” Twilight asked, trotting down the staircase. Her head was hung slightly.
“Well, look who's finally up!” Spike teased.
“Can we keep the jokes till tomorrow?” she asked. “I've got a terrible headache.”
Spike laughed. “Serves you right. Here.”
He handed her a bottle of potion to ease her pain. She took a drink and looked back at him gratefully. “Listen, Spike... there's something important I want to talk to you about before everyone else gets here.”
“You're not going to kick me out, are you?” he asked, preparing for the worst after Rarity's declaration had begun in a similar way.
Twilight appeared shocked. “No, I would never want to do that! I love having you here! It's just that... the older you get, the more I realize that you're not going to be here forever. I just want you to promise me that if you do end up leaving, you'll still be around to help me out.”
Spike was taken aback; why would she think he would leave? “Do you know something I don't?” he asked suspiciously.
“Please, Spike,” she almost begged, “Promise me.”
“Of course I promise,” he said finally. “I would never want to leave anyway.”
She smiled sadly. “That may change some day...”
Spike was still suspicious, but he was determined to enjoy his party regardless of the events of that day. True to her word, Pinkie returned later with ten dozen cupcakes from Sugarcube Corner, at which point the party entered full swing. Spike couldn't help but be impressed with her party planning skills, which were honestly never in question. Half of Ponyville seemed to have come out to celebrate with the dragon and his closest friends, the other half absent by necessity and not choice.
I'd have to be insane not to feel great about this... Spike told himself.
But it was no help. All of Equestria could have been at the party; it wouldn't have mattered. The only pony Spike truly wished was there was locked away in Carousel Boutique.
He shook the thoughts from his mind and attempted to enjoy the party nevertheless. He walked slowly to a large table around which his five friends were seated playing a board game. Twilight was once again incapacitated, but had this time been joined by the other four.
“Come on and join us, buddy!” Twilight reached out and tried to pull Spike toward the table.
Spike didn't know quite how to respond “Uh...”
Fluttershy threw her head back and giggled. “Someone's chicken!”
She started to make chirping noises, soon to be joined by the ringing laughter of the others. Spike was baffled; while he had seen Twilight in this state before, it was remarkable to see the entire group in such a manner. “Really, no thanks,” he said finally. “I'm just going to step outside for some fresh air.”
“Suit yourself,” Rainbow Dash said, still giggling.
Spike made his way up the stairs and to the library's balcony. Stepping lightly out the door, he took a deep breath and tried to make sense of the situation.
Spike's feelings for Rarity were no longer immature or based solely in appearance, they had never disappeared as Twilight had predicted; quite the opposite, they had intensified ten fold.
He looked up at the dark sky, the lack of stars helping to mirror his mood.
With a deep breath, he exhaled bright green flames into his claws. The cool night air seemed to chill his entire body as he attempted to ignore the pain of his absent friend.
Eyes closed, the dragon heard the door behind him open and close quickly. Not bothering to turn, he spoke up. “Whoever you are, I' like to be alone for a while. I have some things to work out.”
“And what might those 'things' be?”
Shock shot through Spike’s body as an electric bolt. Recognizing the voice, he turned rapidly on his heels.
“Rarity!” he exclaimed, rushing toward her.
“My, aren't you affectionate today!” she said with a laugh, her head over his shoulder. “Was I missing something other than your birthday?”
Spike collected himself quickly. “No, no... I just...” he faltered. “I'm really happy you made it here. Did you finish your order?”
She laughed again. “There was no order, Spike.”
He looked at her in confusion, slightly hurt.
“I wanted to surprise you.” she said apologetically at his expression. “I'm sorry if I disappointed you.”
Spike shook off the slight feeling of betrayal and smiled. “You're here now, that's what matters. But why are you up here? I'm sure the rest of the party is more exciting than my thinking escapades.”
“It's your birthday, I wanted to spend time with you,” she said replied with a smile.
Rarity approached the balcony, and the pair turned back toward the darkened sky.”It's beautiful.”
Spike chuckled. “It's covered in clouds.”
Rarity coughed in an uncharacteristic nervous state. Spike couldn't help but anticipate the reason for her behavior. “I know... I mean it's...” she cleared her throat again before falling silent.
Eyes trained on the air above, Rarity finally broke the long silence. “What do you think of me?” she blurted before taking a massive breath.
Spike turned toward her questioningly, heart bouncing back and forth against his chest. “What do you mean?”
Rarity took a deep breath and tried again. “What do you think of me?” she repeated, turning toward him and looking him shyly in his wide eyes.
Spike's heart raced. He had waited so long for her to ask that question. Why hadn't he prepared an answer? Why didn't he have a response waiting on the tip of his tongue? And why was he wasting time berating himself up for not having an answer when he needed to think of one?
It was Spike's turn to cough. “Well, I think you're really artistically talented,” he started, unsure of what to say. “And I think you're very pretty, but that's kind of...”
He trailed off, face reddening at the childishness of his own statement. It was clear to the white unicorn that he was embarrassed, but she was determined. “Go on, Spike,” she encouraged.
He took a deep breath and started anew. “I think you're a really wonderful person... a wonderful friend.”
A wonderful friend? he thought, blown away at his own stupidity. That's really the best I can come up with? he mocked himself internally.
Spike watched, disgusted with himself, as she deflated before his eyes, despite her best efforts to hide it. He recognized in a split second that if there was anything right to say in this situation, he had failed to find it. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see her mouth four words:
“Friend. I'm too late...” her lips motioned.
She breathed deeply and spoke again. “I'm asking because... I've not been fair to you. I've been downright unfair to you for a long time.”
Spike's expression was all the admonition she needed to continue. “The truth is that I like you.”
Rarity's immature words would otherwise have made her cringe; at the moment, she didn't care in the slightest; it was the truth.
“You... like me?” Spike tried to sound casual as his heart practically forced its way through his ribs.
She shuffled her hooves, pressing on. “I don't just... I really...” she stopped again.
Spike made to open his mouth, but she beat him to the punch.
“I mean to say... I love you,” she said simply, almost in a whisper as she locked his gaze.
Rarity made it her careful practice to never let her speech go unfiltered. This was a rare occurrence, a fact which Spike knew well.
“I've been in love with you for a long time now,” she continued. “I'm ashamed of myself, it took me far too long to realize.”
Spike suddenly realized the significance of his employer's earlier words. “You told Twilight about this, didn't you? Told her you were going talk about this?”
Rarity nodded. “I needed her advice, to see if I should share it with you. I was afraid your feelings might have changed after all this time, and I guess I was... I just...”
Tears had started to form tiny pools in her eyes.
“Rarity, I-” Spike started to explain.
“You don't need to try to comfort me, I understand,” she cut him off. “How could you possibly still have those feelings for me now? After all I've done to you?”
“No, that's not what I was going to say!” he said almost pleadingly. “Let me-”
“No need to try and explain,” she said, turning toward the door. “I'd never expect your feelings to be intact after all this time. I just needed to tell you. I'm... I'm sorry, Spike.”
All thought had left his mind, as if he had suddenly shut down. Her slow and quiet footsteps did nothing to recapture his focus.
Spike's mind was suddenly aflame. She's leaving, he told himself. What are you doing?! Go get her!
He finally returned to the issue at hand. Just as Rarity's hoof connected with the doorknob and a new stream of tears dropped to the ground as liquid diamonds, he spoke.
It all he could bring himself to say at first.
Rarity stopped abruptly. Only turning her head slightly, she responded. “Spike... I understand. You really don't need to explain. I just... waited too long.”
She started to turn to face him. “I'm glad you're so concerned for me, but-”
Yet she was interrupted by a kiss. Her eyes went wide briefly before closing in shock and pure joy. As they broke apart, her eyes begged for an answer.
“I never said I didn't feel the same way,” he said with a winking smile. “You should learn to listen.”
“But you said... friend?” she said blurted unintelligibly.
“You think you're the only one afraid of rejection?”
They kissed again. Stepping back, Rarity was happy as could be. “And what happens now. Are you saying...?” she started hopefully.
He answered her question by drawing her close. “Neither of us ever has to be afraid again.”
Rarity's tears of crushed hopes became a picture of joy as the dreams of both were finally fulfilled. “Happy birthday, Spike.” she said through the stream of water. “Happy birthday.”
He embraced her once more. Paying no attention to the passing of time, she finally spoke after a long pause. “Spike, would you come back to my boutique to... help me with a new design?” she asked, her pitiful attempts at deception failing to even convince herself.
Spike smiled and ignored her lack of tact. “What a wonderful idea.”
Arm in hoof the duo left the balcony, ignoring the stares of the guests as they strolled through the party. Nothing could cause Spike distress now.
There was no comparing the rest of the reactions, however, to Twilight and her friends. Applejack and Rainbow Dash simply burst into laughter at the sight of the two, interlocked and approaching the door. Twilight and Pinkie Pie simply stared, mouths agape. Fluttershy was not to be outdone, however, bursting into happy tears as such a long awaited event had finally took place.
“Just ignore them,” Spike recommended as they neared the exit. “Right now, this is about you and me.”
She glanced up at him with a glowing smile as he opened the library door and stepped out into the warm night air. “I have a feeling I chose correctly,” she said, closing her eyes in self satisfaction.
Spike laughed. “Well, Rarity... Not that I’m not pleased!” he assured her as they started down the path to Carousel Boutique. “But... how did this happen? When did it happen?”
She looked upward for a moment. “It’s a bit of a long story...”
“We’ve got a bit of a long walk,” Spike replied with a grin.
“Well,” she began. “It honestly started years ago. As you matured, I started to realize that your feelings weren’t just some immature fancy. And that you weren’t just some immature dragon.”
Spike couldn’t help but be slightly embarrassed at that. “You knew all along?”
“Of course I did, silly.” she giggled. “You might as well have announced it to all of Ponyville. Anyway... I noticed you were becoming so generous, and so helpful, and brave, so handsome and muscular-”
She stopped abruptly in the middle of her flattery and cleared her throat loudly.
“Well, don’t quit now!” Spike joked.
Rarity’s giggles began afresh. “Well, you get the point. I’ll stop complimenting you while your ego is still the size of a blimp rather than a mountain,” she said with a wink. “After I noticed all that, my feelings began to develop, I suppose... For a long time, I tried to repress them, tried to ignore them. Maybe part of me wanted to think it could never work...”
Spike glanced at her with a slightly hurt expression.
“Oh, but don’t think that lasted long!” she said hastily. “It didn’t take long at all for me to realize I was just being plain foolish... I finally understood what I needed to do. That was just over a year ago.”
“But then why did it take so long?” Spike asked in confusion, doing his best not to sound ungrateful.
Rarity sighed. “When I finally stopped being so shallow, it was right around the time you got much better at hiding your feelings.”
Spike sudden nodded in understanding. “And so you thought...”
“You’d moved on,” she confirmed with a slight shudder, refusing to think of what might have happened if he had.
“And finally, when I talked to Twilight the other day, I realized it was now or never. I had to take a shot at it,” she said simply.
Spike’s smile failed to do justice to the near torrential explosion that had just occurred in his heart. He put an arm around her and cuddled her close. “You didn’t need to worry about that.”
“Spike, you hopeless romantic,” she swooned. “You’d have waited your whole life, wouldn’t you?”
Spike gave a simple nod in response, yet it was more meaningful than any words Rarity had ever heard.
Their smiles were almost painfully large as they approached the boutique. As Rarity opened the door, Spike waited with baited breath to ask the most important question he’d ever uttered.
“So... we’re... together now?” Spike’s heart rate tripled when he spoke the immature words, as a school-dragon might. He wanted there to be no question.
Rarity simply looked up at him with twinkling eyes and nodded. “I would think so,” she said, winking.
Spike closed his eyes, heart still pounding, and smiled. Best birthday ever, he thought. “Then what happens now?” he inquired hopefully.
His new found mate giggled as a filly would for the third time and took off into the building without a glance back. “Catch me and you’ll find out!” she called as she went.
Spike laughed and sped after her. “Dream come true.”
Spike's tears flowed forth onto the cave floor just as they had the night of his sixteenth birthday, all those innumerable years ago. “I hope you're sleeping well, my love,” he whispered to the air around him.
He could remember those days as though they were yesterday. The chain of events that had led him here, countless ages ago...
Perhaps... he began thinking.
But even before the thought could form he banished it. A dragon's life was not something to be tarnished with regret. He walked along the paint covered walls until he came to rest at what he believed was one of his true masterpieces; a friend, a kind soul that was always willing to help when she was needed.
So long as her head wasn’t buried in a book. Spike chucked to himself. But that day... the first time I truly needed her help... she had none.
Spike sighed, recalling the event. Such a smart pony... so wonderful...
Twilight's stood in the center of the library, horn aglow in a futile attempt to return the building to its usually orderly state. Broken glass littered the ground, puddles of spilled punch moistened the soft wood floors. Remnants of half consumed cupcakes and finger foods remained a testament to the previous night's activities. She sighed heavily.
“Oh, I hope Spike gets here soon,” she said desperately.
Twilight couldn't blame him for leaving, of course... who wouldn't want to spend the night with the love of their life after they had finally confessed their feelings for one another? And on his sixteenth birthday, no less... so many good things in one day... so remarkable.
But it was nevertheless a difficult morning. After Spike's party and departure the night before, Twilight had been left to clean the library alone. She could only hope he would be back soon...
A sense of relief swept through the mare's body as a loud knock could be heard at the door. “Oh, thank goodness, Spike! There's a lot of clean up to do since the party yesterday, and I could really use some help.”
She directed some of her magic's attention at the door, which briefly glowed bright purple before opening. “I could use your help re-shelving these books to start, and then if you wouldn't mind sweeping the kitchen floor-”
As she turned to face him, the flow of words from her mouth stopped. Her smile faded, and her demeanor shifted from focused to concerned.
Spike was in a terrible state as he walked through the door. It was as if he had been up all night.
And he had.
His eyes were sunken and hollow, his claws bore teeth marks. Even his scales seemed out of place and slightly discolored. Worst of all was his expression: depressed, haunted... but above all, desperate. “Twilight, I need your help,” he whispered, holding out a letter.
Even the consummate student couldn't ignore her best friend in such a state. She dropped the books in her hold and rushed to him. “Spike, what happened to you? Are you alright?”
The dragon couldn't speak. He simply held the scroll up to his pony friend.
Twilight's horn glowed once more as she snatched it from his hand. Unfurling it quickly, she sought to read it quickly to gain an inkling of what caused him such distress.
She needn't have read past the first paragraph, however. Immediately understanding, she went to hug the distraught dragon.
“Twilight,” he said from beneath the embrace. “I need you to help me.”
Spike couldn't help but blush slightly at his own childish words. He, now considered an adult, was practically begging for the advice of his employer. But he was also beyond being concerned with whether ot not the situation was dignified. “What do I do?” he asked pleadingly.
Twilight was at a loss after reading the letter. It was a remarkable blow for which she could never have been prepared. “I... I don't know what to tell you,” she responded, marveling even as the words escaped her lips. “I never knew.”
He sighed as he broke away from the hug, fighting back tears. “I was afraid you would say that. I never knew either, and I have no idea how to react. Please, I need something to go on. I'm a wreck.”
He looked down at his feet and hung his shoulders as he awaited her response.
Twilight could only find one helpful suggestion. “Talk to her.”
Spike looked back up and tilted his head.
“Talk to her,” Twilight repeated firmly. “She's what's most important to you. I have a feeling she'll be able to tell you exactly what you need to do.”
Spike could only hope. He nodded in thanks, barely able to find words. “If you still need help-”
The lavender mare shook her head. “Go find her. This is more important right now, even I can tell,” she said firmly.
Nodding his thanks once more, Spike took off without a second glance.
“Good luck, Spike,” she said compassionately.
And he disappeared into the steadily rising sun.
Bathed in moonlight as the ever familiar feeling of loneliness crept through him, he simply stood for a time.
Even when she didn’t know what to do, she would still try to help in any way she could, Spike realized. She was always there for me...
Glancing along the jagged walls of the cave, his artwork stretched seemingly endless into the darkness. He sighed and stepped away from the images; it was all he could bear for the moment.
Eyes closed tightly, the dragon could feel the air begin to warm around him. He peeked an eyelid open and saw the sun steadily rising. Another night had passed in the eternal cycle. With an almost longing glance at the glowing orange orb, he turned back toward his desk at the cave's far wall. Am I really better off? he couldn't help but wonder.
Resuming his recording of the stars from memory, Spike's thoughts drifted to times long past. Pinkie used to name every constellation in the sky, he thought with a chuckle. Even she didn't know how she did it... and Applejack would just stare and yell about how “Gosh-darn many there are!”.
He shook his head. Memories... am I doing myself any good thinking about the past? Or am I just renewing the pain?
He tried to focus on his writing. After what seemed like hours, he heard a fluttering noise at the entrance of the cave.
“It seems you've kept yourself busy,” said a kind, familiar voice.
All semblances of his usually proud demeanor gone in an instant, Spike spun around to face the voice. “Celestia,” he said breathlessly.
For the two ancient souls, respect was no longer necessary; their relationship was more that of a brother and sister. He rushed to the cave opening to embrace her, an expression of affection which she returned wholeheartedly. “Spike, my old friend,” she said with a loving smile. “How are you?”
He hesitated as he broke from the hug. How am I, exactly? he asked himself. Before she could recognize the delay in his response, he hastily replied. “I'm doing well, thank you. Please, come in!” he gestured inside the cave.
Celestia wasn't easily fooled. She recognized instantly that something was not entirely right with the gentle dragon. Yet she didn't press the issue. Sitting at a golden table, one of the only pieces of Spike's small horde, she continued with lighthearted conversation. “Well, that's wonderful to hear. It's remarkable to see all you've been doing since we last spoke.”
“Well, you know me,” he said with a smile, sitting opposite her in a crystal chair. “I have to keep busy or I'll go insane. How are you, my old friend? And please don't mistake this for displeasure! It's wonderful to see you, but... why have you come?”
She giggled almost girlishly. “I'm doing quite well, thank you. And a princess can't come to visit one of her oldest friends simply because she wants to?”
Spike laughed as he rose quickly from the seat. “Sorry, sorry. It's just that I don't often get visitors anymore. Can I get you anything?” he asked, walking toward a crystal table containing a vast array of bottles and crystal glasses.
“Just water, thank you,” she replied. “And no visitors, hmm? But I hear you've been quite the hero in recent weeks.”
Spike paused while pouring himself and his guest a drink, attempting to hide his recognition of her statement. “I'm not sure what you're talking about,” he lied.
“Don't you?” she asked with a sly smile. “So humble... it's remarkable, really. I heard that a certain mysterious “purple blur” saved a group of fillies from being crushed during a building demolition. Now who might that be?” she asked, smile steady.
Spike coughed and tried to come up with an excuse. “Well, I...”
“No need to come up with a clever excuse for all that, Spike,” she said gently. “I wanted to thank you on behalf of Ponyville, since you never seem to take credit for your acts of bravery. I doubt they even know you're living right above them.” she said with a half exasperated grin. “You know, it doesn't kill to recognize that you've done some good every once in a while.”
“Maybe not,” Spike said, sighing resignation. “But I feel like this is the best way to follow her example. The one she passed on to all of us before she left.”
“And which 'she' is that? There were a good number of them.” she winked.
“One in particular. After all, it's impossible not to value hard work with little reward if you spend your life farming apples.”
“Hurry, y'all!” Applejack encouraged. “That lightnin' storm ain't gonna wait around while we dilly dally!”
Spike smiled apologetically. When Rarity had bent down to pick up one of the many fallen branches, he couldn't help but give her a flirtatious smack.
He watched, entranced by her even when she was exhausted and drenched in sweat, as Rarity continued her work clearing the brush surrounding Sweet Apple Acres away. It had been just two years since Spike's 16th birthday; two years since he and his true love had finally share their feelings... two years since his dreams had come true... and years since his decision, the most consequential decision he had ever made.
And even after all that time, it still seemed to be a dream. Never had he imagined his hopes would be fulfilled so thoroughly.
He approached the large hole that Twilight had magically created. Filled once again with the surrounding brush and dead tree branches, he breathed flame into it, setting the otherwise hazardous material aflame.
“Boy, howdy... this is much faster than how we used to do it. Thank you kindly, Spike!”
“No trouble,” he said with a smile.
“Why are we doing all this anyway?” Pinkie Pie asked.
“If the lightning hits the brush, it could set the whole orchard on fire,” Fluttershy answered before Applejack could manage.
“That's right,” Applejack nodded approval. “If we don't clear all this stuff away, we could be facing a lot bigger problems than just a lightnin' storm. All of Ponyville could end up catching fire.”
“Well, we're certainly happy to help,” Rarity said, placing one of the last branches in the pit. She had impressed everyone, including herself, over the last two years. Ever since the beginning of her and her beloved's relationship, her entire perspective on life had changed; ever the fashionista, Rarity had nevertheless become much less adverse to all things “icky”, become much more willing to help wherever she could. Her generous personality seemed to have been amplified a hundred times.
Spike set what appeared to be the last load of material. Exhausted, the rest of the ponies collapsed around him to rest before going inside.
“Well, that was fun,” Twilight said sarcastically. “But at least now-”
“Guys,” came a familiar voice, “Guys! We have a serious problem!”
A multicolored blur rocketed to the ground, sending the nearby dirt into a frenzied cloud. Through the filthy air, the others could make out Rainbow Dash's silhouette.
“What's goin' on, Rainbow?” Applejack asked.
“I just talked to the other Pegasus ponies,” she answered breathlessly. “They had the scheduling off! The storm isn't starting tomorrow-”
As if on queue, a massive crack of lightning was heard in the distance. None of the seven moved, seemingly rooted to the ground.
A second crack whipped them into motion. A bolt of lightning struck the ground only a few hundred feet away.
“What are you all waitin' for? GO!” Applejack bellowed.
They sprinted toward the nearby barn as heavy raindrops began to fall. Fluttershy quickly fell behind the rest as her timidity seemed to physically restrain her. Through the now pouring rain, the distance between each pony was difficult to distinguish; vision was obscured, senses blurred.
After a brief sprint, they stopped to catch their breath.
“We're almost there,” Twilight said. “We just need to-”
“Wait a second,” Rainbow held her hoof up. “Where's Fluttershy?”
They looked around in a panic, but failed to find the pink and cream pony through the sheets of rain.
They were silent and immobile for only a second. “What are we standin' around for?!” Applejack demanded and sprinted back toward the orchard, the rest of the group in hot pursuit.
They scoured the area as best they could through the walls of water. Applejack rushed by memory to the last place in the orchard she recalled seeing her shy friend.
As if it were a miracle, she saw a flash of pink through the liquid sheets and numerous tree trunks “Fluttershy!” she cried out into the distance.
The flash of pink shifted, but disappeared again instantly. An almost inaudible voice called out. “Applejack? I'm sorry, I just-”
“Don't worry,” Applejack said as she searched desperately for Fluttershy's exact location. “I'm goin’ to-”
As if in a nightmare, a crack of lightning struck a tree not ten feet away. The middle of its trunk almost completely destroyed, it swayed dangerously.
“Fluttershy!” Applejack screamed, unable to locate the fragile pony through the elemental assault. “Get outta there!”
In what seemed to be slow motion, a break in the rain made the gentle Fluttershy clearly visible. With an almost explosive noise, the damaged tree broke free from its final bond on the ground and fell toward the fear stricken pony.
Applejack wasted no time. Body seemingly moving independent of her thoughts, she rushed forward. She leaped toward Fluttershy and pushed her out of the way just in time to save them. One of them.
As the trunk finally came to the earth, Applejack was pinned to the ground with a sickening crack.
It wasn't the tree.
Fluttershy could only look on in horror as the others quickly approached.
“What in Equestria happened?” Twilight asked as she rushed to the scene with the others. “We heard-”
She stopped dead at the sight of their friend pinned helplessly beneath the massive tree trunk. She and Rarity looked at one another; they knew what they had to do. Their horns glowed simultaneously, combining their magic. The tree floated from their injured friend as if it were a feather. Rushing to Applejack's side, the six sat on the soaked ground.
“Applejack...” Fluttershy was the first to speak.
“Shh.” Applejack waved a hoof. “There's no time for that right now.”
“I'm going to get help,” Rainbow said, making to take off toward the town.
“Rainbow!” Applejack cried after her. “Don't go.”
Rainbow returned to the ground in confusion, a look shared by the rest of the group. “AJ, we can still get you to the hospital! We can still-”
“No, you can't,” Applejack coughed, expelling blood from her lungs. “It's too late. That tree... it did too much damage. By the time we got there...” A single tear slid from her eye across her face.
The others couldn't hold back their tears any longer. They began sobbing openly as the rain picked up around them once more. Bolts of burning light struck the ground all around them, but the weather may as well have been absent; all they could focus on was their fading friend.
“Applejack... I'm so sorry.” Fluttershy heaved between sobs. “If I hadn't been such a coward...”
“Now you cut that out right now,” Applejack replied in a quiet yet stern voice. “I did that because it was my decision. Don't blame yourself.”
She laid a comforting hoof on the guilt ridden Fluttershy's shoulder. “Life is about choices, Sugarcube,” she said gently. “This is mine. This is how I want to go: making sure my friend can go on.”
At her words, the six realized what she meant; these would be the last words they would speak to their dear friend.
“Applejack,” Fluttershy said. “You've been such an amazing friend. I wouldn't be here right now if it weren't for you. I can never thank you enough.”
“You were always willing to help me when I needed it,” Rainbow spoke up. “You never asked questions or got mad at me for it. You were always there for me.”
Applejack smiled, but winced in pain a second later. Crimson patches of color appeared on her coat. Even in her state, she smiled up at the two.
“You were kind,” Spike said, wiping the tears from his eyes in time to be soaked by rain once more. “You were always kind. You gave so much to so many ponies.”
“You were fun,” even the optimist Pinkie refusing to hold back her tears. “You always loved to play around, even when there was work to do.”
“You put up with us,” Rarity said, placing a hoof on Applejack's as the life seemed to be slipping from her. “No matter what we did.”
“And you were my first real friend,” Twilight said, the most grateful of all. “If it weren't for you, I might not have stayed in Ponyville at all. We can never thank you enough.”
Each of them placed a hoof or claw on her body. It was Applejack's turn to speak.
“Y'all are the best friends I've ever had,” she said, voice growing ever weaker. “Every one of you is equally the reason my life has been so special. No matter what happens next... I'll never forget you. Any of you. Thank you all for the best life a pony could ever ask for.”
“We'll never forget you either.” Rainbow managed to say as she neared the end.
“Cross my heart.” Pinkie began.
“Hope to die.” Twilight and Fluttershy heaved.
“Stick a cupcake-” Spike and Rarity began between sobs.
“In my eye.” Applejack finished.
They paused stopped speaking for a moment as the rain pounded the ground around them.
“Goodbye, everyone,” Applejack said finally. “I love you all more than you'll ever know.”
Her last breath left her body in a final, slow exhalation. Applejack's eyes closed for the last time, and her life slipped away. A single, glowing tear slipped from her eyes.
And she breathed no more.
They bowed their head in a moment of silence, blind and deaf to the storm around them. Spike’ mind was a swirling typhoon, the situation seemed wrong, impossible... and yet here they were.
How? he wondered, staring at the limp body of their beloved friend as his tears joined the raindrops below. All those year of fun and adventure... all the things we’ve been through without a scratch... how did this happen?
His consciousness seemed to leave his body, to view the scene from above. It felt as a dream.
After what seemed like an eternity, Spike finally regained control of himself. He moved slowly toward Applejack’s slowly cooling body, staring into her beautiful face a last time. A face of giving, of sacrifice. Of love.
Gently as one would a baby, Spike wordlessly lifted her limp person from the ground. Twilight acted next, using her magic to create a shield from the elements around them.
“Let's go, everypony,” Spike said, head hung low. “There's nothing more for us here.”
“And we'll bury her in the orchard,” Spike had said that fateful day. “So future generations can follow her example.”
“She was an amazing pony,” Celestia said, wiping a tear from her eye.
Spike nodded, attempting to not burst into tears over an event that had passed so long ago. Neither party spoke for several minutes.
“Do you regret it?”
Spike looked up questioningly into her eyes; behind her, the sun rose steadily, illuminating her body in a glowing sheen.
“Do you regret taking The Gift?” she asked.
Spike truly considered the question... Do I?
Remember what she told you, Spike, he thought. All those years ago... Before Applejack’s passing... never look back.
Hours. Only hours since his sixteenth birthday, only hours since he had finally had his greatest dream fulfilled... only hours since his world had come crashing down around him. As he walked, Spike was deep in thought over what to tell Twilight. It had not been a day since he told his employer he would never leave, and now he was deciding on which way was best to break the news. “I want to spend every minute of my life with Rarity; I love her... and I'm not going to live forever.”
His last statement seemed laughable now.
Taking Twilight's advice, Spike immediately set out to find the one he hoped could shed clarity on the situation. He strolled down Ponyville's main street shortly after sunrise as the sun shined brightly down from the azure sky. He couldn't help but find the beauty of the day remarkable: the birds were singing loudly, animals were happily scurrying in and out of their homes... even the flowers and trees seemed to greet him in a friendly manner, displaying their blossoms and petals in an unparalleled fashion. It was incredible.
Too incredible... Spike couldn't help but be cynical considering the circumstances. Either I'm on something, or somepony's messing with me...
His mood couldn't stay dark, however, at what came into his sight next. There, in front of one of Ponyville's numerous carts, was his dreams incarnate.
“Spike!” Rarity shrieked in delight when she saw him a moment later, sprinting from the linen cart in Ponyville's market.
“Good to see you too,” he chuckled. “But I just saw you an hour ago!”
“I can't be excited to see my dragon?” she asked, poking him playfully in the snout. “But what are you doing here?” she wondered aloud. “I thought you left to go help Twilight?”
Spike looked down at the ground. “What's the matter?” she asked in earnest.
He sighed. “Do you have some time to maybe sit down and have lunch? There's something important I need to talk to you about.”
She was taken aback. “Well, sure. I'm just about done here,” she said despite her confusion, magically lifting her backs to her sides.
They walked slowly along the sunlit road to Ponyville's premier eatery (ironically named “Untitled”). Rarity couldn't take the silence. “What's the matter, dear? I haven't seen you so distraught in quite a long time.”
Spike search for words. “It feels like everything is changing so fast,” he replied. “It doesn't seem like any time has passed... it seems like I'm still that same baby dragon you met all those years ago.”
Rarity couldn't help it. “Something's happened, hasn't it?” she said, refusing to take her eyes off him as he held the restaurant door open for her.
He sighed. “I'll explain inside.”
They sat down at one of the numerous tables arranged in a diamond shape inside the large building.
“I got a letter from Princess Celestia today.” he said, brandishing the scroll he had shown Twilight.
“Read it,” he insisted.
She obliged, carefully eying him before unfurling the scroll.
“Dearest Spike,” she began aloud, continuing to read the rest in her head.
“Today is very special day, for I can finally reveal to you a power that has laid dormant in your body for years.”
She looked up at Spike, waiting for an answer. He simply motioned for her to continue reading.
“As you know, all dragons have remarkable powers. But a handful of them have abilities so strong that their effects are legendary,” she pressed on. “I write to tell you of one of these abilities.
“Inside your being lies something that past generations have referred to as “The Eternal Gift”. An ability discovered by dragons of ancient Equestria, it is a unique fire that lives in a small number of your kind. When unlocked, this special flame allows the bearer to live for eternity...”
Rarity stopped dead. “You... you have this gift?” she asked him incredulously.
“Apparently,” he nodded solemnly.
“But then what's the problem?” she asked him. “What an amazing ability! What I wouldn't give...”
“But would you?” he asked her desperately. “Would you want to live forever? Outlive all your friends, your family; your true love?”
His expression was heart crushing; he was torn apart inside.
Rarity stopped, absorbing what he had said. “Outlive them all...” she said quietly. “But... if you're so torn up about it, why not just refuse?” she asked him.
He sighed deeply. “There's more to the letter.” he said, retrieving it from her grip.
“While you may refuse the Gift, I feel compelled to warn you of the consequences: this is a rare ability among dragonkind; to refuse eternal life would be considered an insult to your species. Future generations will look on your memory in disdain.
“I recognize this is a difficult decision for you; please take all the time you need to reply. Lovingly, Princess Celestia,” Spike finished.
“Lovingly?” Rarity thought aloud.
She had never used that term when addressing Spike before. It seemed even the princess recognized the weight of the situation.
“So you have to choose between living beyond everypony you know...” she began.
“And being shunned by my own species,” he nodded.
“Spike... I'm so sorry.”
“Don't be sorry... this isn't your fault,” he said. “But I need your advice: What do you think I should do? What do you want me to do?”
Rarity thought for a moment. Finally, Spike thought he would receive a definitive answer. To his dismay, however, she shook her head after a moment.
“This is your life Spike; it's your decision. I can't make it for you.”
“This is about more than me, Spike,” she told him firmly. “Whatever you choose, I'll be happy, because I'll still get to spend my life with you.”
“Isn't there anything you can tell me?” he asked desperately as a child would; Spike's life lines for information were rapidly running out.
“Only one piece of advice,” she replied. “Whatever your decision is, you must always be satisfied with it. The only way for you to be happy is if you’re satisfied with what you decide; you must never regret it.”
While not satisfied, her words had brought the tiniest amount of clarity to his clouded mind. He gave a small smile. “Thank you Rarity.”
“You're welcome,” she returned it. “Now, what do you say we eat something? I dare say, all this emotional stress is making me famished.”
Spike smiled as he pushed the issue from his mind for the moment. “I can't think of anything better.”
“No... I don't regret it,” Spike said finally from across the table, snapping back from the flashback after a long pause. “I feel like I've done Equestria some good since I took that Gift. The books I've written, maps I've created, advancements I've been responsible for... It's not that I'm so great!” he said hastily, attempting to retain his humility. “But I feel like I accomplished more in life this way. That I accomplished better things in life this way.”
“But?” Celestia asked.
He drew a long breath, staring at the stacks of books he had written, the numerous maps he had created since unlocking his amazing ability. He had done Equestria's science, art and history an innumerable number of favors. But even still...
“But I can't help but think that... maybe I might have been better off,” he exhaled slowly.
“You have done Equestria an amazing amount of good,” she admitted, never having doubted it. “You followed their example religiously.”
“I suppose I have,” he said. She was so generous...
“I never would have thought this could happen,” Twilight said, shocked at the revelation that had come from Canterlot.
They stood silently in the library, trying to find a solution to the problem that had arisen as the sun set gently over Ponyville's hills. Darkness crept in slowly, mimicking the dire feelings that had appeared in their hearts since the discovery.
Standing stone stick in Ponyville’s library, the six remaining members of their group attempted to process the sobering letter they had recieved.
“Disaster has struck the nearby country of Suteria in a manor I could never had anticipated,” Twilight read to her friends. “The mountain upon which their capital city of Everdale was built was revealed to be a volcano, erupting and causing likely irreparable damage to the city. While you are in no way obligated to assist them, I'm sure the help would be appreciated. I felt it necessary to inform you, since you're always willing to help.”
All were in shock. That city, standing tall, ever a statement to the previous eternality of prosperity in their sister country... bathed in a fiery river. They had never given much thought to their neighboring land.
“And I thought we were the only ones who had to deal with disasters like that,” Rainbow said soberly.
“But what can we do?” Rarity asked the rest. “We all have responsibilities here. What can we do to help them?” she wondered desperately.
And it was true. Every pony had garnered immense responsibilities since Applejack's death four years before.
Pinkie Pie had been left the great responsibility of Sugarcube Corner since Mr. and Mrs. Cake's retirement, a business that had grown massive since their leaving... she was busy almost constantly, and put in as much work as possible to keep the business as explosively popular as it had become; Twilight had finished her studies for Princess Celestia, taking on new responsibilities to further magical study for all the ponies of the land; her magic had reached a state of incredible power, rivaling that of the two princesses.
Rarity's boutique had grown in popularity as well. Now employing almost two hundred ponies, she spent hour after hour designing the fashions that almost everyone in their world had come to enjoy. Spike, meanwhile, helped her in marketing and the creation of her outfits that lived in legend in the world.
At a move which shocked everyone, Sweet Apple Acres had been left to the care of the now consummate hard worker, Rainbow Dash. She had taken the responsibility as a great honor, making sure that the farm lived up to the great name their beloved friend had given it in her care filled life; it had in fact grown to several times its previous size under her care, the southern pony's legacy living on through that multicolored mare.
“We have to do something,” Twilight insisted. “We may all have our work here, but we have a responsibility to help those in need. For her sake.”
No one spoke for a moment. Even four years after Applejack's passing, the pain of her leaving had left a hole in their lives. A hole that they were determined to fill with her constant personality of self sacrifice.
“But how will we find the time?” Pinkie Pie demanded, having indeed taken a great risk in stepping away from the bakery simply to hear the letter read.
Everypony had their obligations... but still one remained unbound.
“We don't have to go,” Fluttershy said finally. “I do.”
They looked at her incredulously. While they couldn't blame her for her personality, she was the last pony the rest of the five would expect to volunteer for such a dangerous endeavor.
“You don't have to do that,” Spike insisted. “I'm sure the relief efforts will be enough, even without our help.”
“Maybe,” she said hesitantly. “But I'm the only one here who doesn't have some huge responsibility they have to fulfill. Somepony will take over the animals here, but somepony... somepony needs to go help them.”
They stared in awe at here determination.
“But-” Rarity started.
“But nothing!” Fluttershy responded in an uncharacteristic loud voice. “Applejack... she gave her life so that I could go on,” she said, attempting to keep from breaking down as a tear appeared in her eye for their lost friend. But she collected herself. “I need to do what I can for those ponies, even if it means I meet the same fate.”
Fluttershy's self-sacrificial personality was not new; it had grown ever since that lightning storm four years ago. Her entire persona had become even more loving than it had been previously. “It's my decision,” she said.
The others stared at her in remarkable realization; part of Applejack seemed to have been imparted to the pink and cream pony, to live on in her: her giving spirit.
“Then if that's your choice, I can send you there.” Twilight said finally.
The rest nodded approval of her decision. “If you come back... when you come back,” Rarity said firmly, “We'll make sure everyone knows what you did.”
They bowed their heads solemnly approaching the fragile and meek pony. They each laid a hoof or claw on her, just as they had Applejack at the end.
“Thank you all,” Fluttershy said to them. “I may be gone a long time, but I'll never forget any of you. Never.”
Her words followed those of the long passed Applejack in almost frightening déjà vu.
Spike finally spoke up after a long moment of silence. “For Applejack.”
“Applejack,” The rest replied, still resting their appendages on their brave friend.
“You'd better come back. Not all of us live forever,” Twilight said, casting a glance at Spike. Tears appeared in her eyes as her horn glowed in preparation to transport Fluttershy.
Fluttershy nodded solemnly. “I will. One way or another.”
In a flash, she was gone; the five remaining let their arms hang in mid air, remembering the last location she was.
“She'll come back,” Rainbow said resolutely. “She always does.”
* * *
The following months seemed to drag on for an eternity. They looked forward every week to letters that would arrive from Fluttershy telling them of her endeavors to help the ponies in need.
“We started rebuilding today,” she had told them just last week. “All the rubble has been cleared away, and we're finally able to start returning the city to the state it was. But it's a long term goal... the capital city was just the beginning. Cities and villages for hundreds of miles around were destroyed before the lava flow could be contained. I'll let you know how it's going. Love always, Fluttershy.”
Twilight closed the letter eight months after their gentle friend had left. Looking solemnly around as they stood in Carousel Boutique, she waited for someone to speak. The dress that Spike and Rarity had been working on was forgotten; this was more important.
“She's doing what she does best,” Rainbow said knowingly. “Giving of herself until there's nothing left to give.”
They nodded. Regretfully, Rainbow spoke words of departure. “I have to go... we have a lot of work to go on the farm.”
“So do I,” Pinkie said woefully. “There's a huge order coming in that I just have to start working on.”
“We understand,” Rarity said. “Go do what you all need to do.”
“We'll send word if we hear of anything more,” Spike said the words that were on both Twilight and Rarity's minds.
Rainbow and Pinkie left quickly to return to their work. Twilight turned to face Rarity and Spike. “Good luck on that order, you two; I'll come right away if I hear anything.”
She left in a hurry to return to the library.
Rarity returned to her measurements wordlessly. Spike could tell she was trying to hide a face of deep concern, even after all this time. “She'll come back,” he told her. “Don't worry.”
Rarity spoke softly. “I know I shouldn't... but I can't help it. After AJ...”
She trailed off. Spike could see the genuine concern in her words; she rarely referred to the southern pony by her nickname.
“We need to press on,” Spike said firmly, approaching her and giving her a loving hug. “That's what she would've wanted us to do.”
Rarity turned and nodded with a sad smile. “You're right. Now, are you going to help me?”
Spike grinned and approached their design. There was work to be done.
Their fashion endeavors continued well into the evening. Their cycle of perseverance was only broken by an urgent pounding on the door.
“Spike, will you get that?” Rarity asked, deep in focus.
Spike obliged, headed toward the door. Opening it, some of his greatest fears were realized.
Twilight stood before him, teary eyed.
Spike froze. This could only mean one thing. “Rarity!” Spike cried. “Rarity, come here!”
The white pony rushed to the door. “Spike, dear, what is it?”
But Twilight's expression was all the answer she needed. Something had gone wrong.
The lavender Twilight led them through the streets toward what they would have otherwise thought was a parade.
If not for what lay at the center.
An obscured object was being carried on a large wooden poles by four strong stallions. Surrounded by Canterlot soldiers and what could only be many of the citizens of Suteria. Between the somber procession lay a large ornate box.
Rainbow and Pinkie Pie were quick to join them in observing the scene.
“What's going on?” Rainbow asked in great concern.
But nopony else needed to speak. The container held all the answer they needed. Among the beautiful swirling designs decorating it was an image they had hoped never to see on such an object: three butterflies.
Fluttershy's cutie mark.
They could only stare, hoping with all their hearts that it was a mistake, a cruel joke.
Celestia fluttered down to them and landed gently in front of the halting procession. “I'm so sorry to come to you under these circumstance,” tears had appeared even in her eyes.
The long line of soldiers and citizens came to rest in the center of the street. Many ponies had begun to look out their windows at the sight of the group.
“In the midst of the relief efforts, a second eruption occurred.” Celestia said, blinking the tears from her eyes in a futile attempt at composure. “She... it...”
They waited with baited breath for her to continue.
“While pulling a cart of the injured, Fluttershy reacted to the second eruption,” Celestia said. “Flying the ponies from the scene, she only failed to save...”
“Herself,” the five said in unison, stunned at the revelation.
Celestia nodded, tears springing anew. “I could think of no better way to give her last respects than to bring her to her home town. She deserves to be recognized for what she did.”
Nopony could speak; they had hoped she would come back, hoped for it with all their hearts.
But not like this.
“I can make arrangements,” Rainbow finally said through tears. “She should be buried where Applejack was.”
Celestia nodded approval. The group began to move once more toward Sweet Apple Acres. “Ponies of Ponyville,” Celestia said to those poking their heads from windows. “A great tragedy has befallen us. One of our most beloved had finally left us. We ask that you come to honor her one last time.”
Ignoring all other responsibilities, everypony rushed from their homes to join the procession.
“She would've felt so loved,” Pinkie said through sobs.
They nodded solemnly as the group moved forward. There was a last gathering to be held for her.
Preparations for a funeral had never been made so quickly. Twilight used her magic to conjure a stage as well as seats for everypony in attendance. No small feat, considering that all of Ponyville and more had come forward to honor the amazing mare.
Set beside Applejack's impressive headstone, the stage now bore both Luna and Celestia. Seated behind them were Rainbow Dash, Pinkie Pie, Twilight Sparkle, Rarity and Spike. They felt the need to be closest to her at the last moments.
As everypony took their seats, Celestia approached the podium. Even though it was well into the evening, Celestia had kept the sun suspended high in the sky for the sake of the event.
“My faithful subjects,” Celestia began, “We have come here to remember the life, and honor the passing, of one of the greatest ponies we have ever known.
“Fluttershy's care for all things living has become the stuff of legend,” she continued, “Following the example of the equally loving Applejack, this amazing pony refused to compromise. She refused to back down even in the face of great danger. Even in the face of her own death, she would not abandon those in need.”
The crowd bowed their heads in honor of her.
Celestia retreated, allowing Luna to come forward. “Her death has wrought a great loss; such amazing individuals are few and far between,” she gestured to the coffin handing delicately over the pit below, next to her long passed savior Applejack.
Satisfied with her statement, Luna stepped back as well, prompting the others to approach the stand.
Surrounding the podium with bowed heads, the five prepared to speak.
Fluttershy was the best friend a pony could ever ask for,” Twilight began. “Her generosity is impossible to compare, her love had no bounds.”
“None of us have ever had a greater honor than to simply know her,” Rarity spoke up.
“She cared for everyone, took an interest in everything,” Spike continued their eulogy.
“She was faithful,” Rainbow said.
“And fun,” Pinkie continued.
“Everything a pony could ever imagine,”
“And even more than that.”
“We'll never forget her as long as we live,” they said.
Everypony in the crowd had been reduced to tears. Even those who had not known gentle Fluttershy personally knew how much they had lost; her care had transcended friendship.
Celestia and Luna stepped forward. “As we commit her body to the earth, we have amazing memories. Though she is gone, her spirit, her example will never leave us,” Celestia spoke.
“To Fluttershy,” Luna said, raising a hoof.
“To Fluttershy!” The crowd and the the six replied.
And even as the coffin sank to the cold ground below, her life and love cast warmth through the hearts of everypony there.
Always to be absent. Never to be forgotten.
* * *
Gathered around the cold stone, the five five stood transfixed at the two graves even hours after the funeral had ended. Celestia had allowed them to open the casket, so that they would be allowed one last look at their beloved Fluttershy. While the sun had finally set, they did not care; all that mattered was their last respects.
“She'll live in our hearts forever,” Rarity said as she looked down at the gentle mare's cold body, breaking the long standing silence as the seemingly unending stream of tears poured from her eyes.
Fluttershy's body lay in gentle repose, her hooves at her sides. If they knew no better, she might have been sleeping...
Twilight gently touched her forehead gently. Even in death, Fluttershy's face remained locked in an eternal smile. Her spirit could never be broken.
They each knelt before the grave with bowed heads, drops of water falling gently from their eyes to the ground below.
Twilight saw it was finally time. She magically closed the coffin and removed its railing from the hole atop which it sat. As the coffin sunk slowly into the ground below, it dawned on each one of them, a stunning, crashing realization that had not fully resonated with them until now: Fluttershy was gone... never to return.
Twilight began magically filling the crevice that would be their friend's resting place. Finally, the large headstone moved into place atop her grave. The two headstones stood tall, ever a sentiment to their bravery.
“Goodbye, Fluttershy,” Spike said gently, laying his claws on the cold stone bearing her name.
And with that, they turned. While their bodies were stricken with grief, their hearts would be forever filled.
“She never needed recognition,” Spike told Celestia as yet another tear escaped his body. “She never wanted it. All she wanted was to be there for those in need.”
“And that's why you never take responsibility for your deeds,” Celestia said knowingly.
Spike nodded. “Helping others isn't about what you get; being there should be reward enough.”
He stood to refill the glass of amber liquid he was holding. “It seemed like every time one of the went on... their traits were amplified in the rest of us,” he said, back facing the princess. “Encouraged the rest of us to live our lives in the same way they had.”
He stared at the glass had just filled. It wasn't the liquid inside that mattered to him. It was the simple container surrounding it.
“It was a gift from them,” he said softly.
“A gift from who?” Celestia asked.
“Those two,” he answered. So brave... so vibrant... so much fun...
“Come on, everypony!” Pinkie encouraged. “There's still plenty more food to be had!”
She gestured toward the buffet line that she had created for the event. Despite being full, everypony at the party rose to oblige; they simply couldn't disappoint the vibrant mare.
While Pinkie never needed an excuse to throw a party, tonight was a special event. Rainbow sat in the corner, exhausted from yet another day's hard work. But it was all worth it to make her donation more complete.
“I have to admit,” Twilight said as she, Rarity and Spike approached her. “I never would've seen you doing this before.”
Rainbow laughed. “I was never a very generous pony... I figured it's about time I gave something meaningful back. They deserved it. Besides, you've all done your fair share of giving. It was my turn.”
Spike and Rarity smiled. “They needed those clothes... besides, it's not like the business couldn't take a small hit.”
And it was true. The clothing Spike and Rarity had generously donated after Everdale's reconstruction was complete had had an incredible affect on returning life in Suteria to normal. “When you employ 5,000 ponies, giving a little something to those in need won't hurt too much,” Rarity reasoned.
It had been almost ten years since the passing of beloved Fluttershy. Everypony seemed determined to follow not only her example, but Applejack’s as well; each citizen seemed to give back daily in a different manner. The world had become a brighter place, all thanks to the two.
“And the efforts you gave?” Rainbow addressed Twilight. “That city was back to normal after half a day.”
“Oh, stop flattering me,” Twilight smiled in embarrassment, attempting to wave away the compliment. But it was no use; she had indeed helped to rebuild Everdale in a matter of only twelve hours when she found the time.
“Besides,” Rainbow said, “All that work I've been doing on the farm... it got to be too much after a while. I'm not exactly young anymore,” she said, smiling weakly. “I figure they can put it to better use.”
Pinkie Pie dashed over and threw a hug on every one of them. “Come on, everpony! Stop dilly dallying! It's time for the presentation.”
They rose to follow her to the center of Sugarcube Corner. Pinkie rushed eagerly to very center of the festivities.
“Fillies and Gentlecolts!” Pinkie cried to the crowd. “Please gather around, it's time for the ceremony!”
They all gathered in a circle around the five. A single weathered looking pony joined them. Despite her appearance of fragility, she had done a great deal of good in Ponyville.
Rainbow stepped forward. “There's an example that all of us still follow, even to this day,” she began, “The example of Applejack, and the example passed on to Fluttershy. The example of giving to those in need, no matter what happens.”
Every pony bowed her head in a moment of silence. They had never forgotten.
“When Applejack passed on, she gave me an amazing gift,” she pressed on, “A gift that I was determined not to waste. Sweet Apple Acres has thrived since her leaving.
“But there's more to life than just farming and selling apples,” Rainbow approached the battered mare, clapping a hoof on her back. “Some of us go above and beyond to do what we can. Like this amazing pony here.
The pony blushed and bowed her head.
Rainbow continued. “She started an orphanage here in Ponyville more than twelve years ago, and named it in honor of our dear friend, so we could all carry Applejack's example on for generations to come. Without her, countless fillies would be without a home, without food or shelter.
“When I decided to retire from work on the farm, it didn't take me long to decide what to do with the property. I can think of nothing better to do with Applejack's ever present legacy than give it to someone who can truly make a difference. Cheerilee, I'm honored to present the deed to Sweet Apple Acres to one of the most generous ponies I've ever known.”
The former school teacher looked up at Rainbow and the rest of the ponies with glowing eyes. Tears appeared there quickly, so touched by the gift she'd been given. “I've wanted so long to expand the orphanage, so we can bring a little bit of happiness back into the lives of more young ponies. With this, we'll be able to make sure that nopony ever needs to go without a home.”
She rushed forward and locked Rainbow in a tight hug. “Thank you,” she said through teary eyes. “For an amazing gift.”
Breaking from the hug, she addressed the ponies again. “We'll make sure that your example lives on. That all of your examples live on through the lives of young ponies,” She said, addressing Spike, Rarity, Twilight and Pinkie.
They smiled with watery eyes, and the crowd of guests erupted in applause.
Rainbow wiped her eyes. “I could think of no better way to honor their memories.”
* * *
You never lost your touch, Pinkie,” Twilight told her after the rest of the ponies had departed. “I'm impressed.
“Well, I couldn't let our going away party be boring, now could I? Duh!” Pinkie said as if it were obvious.
Spike and Rarity whipped around at the phrase “going away party”.
“Did you say...?” Rarity started.
“Going away party?” Spike asked incredulously.
Pinkie's eyes grew wide. “Uh... that's not what I said!” she insisted, diving behind the counter of the bakery.
Spike and the others approached her. “Pinkie, what do you mean 'going away'?”
Pinkie sighed, rising from her hiding place. “I think you'd better come with me.”
They walked out the back door of the bakery, where Rainbow could be seen struggling with the ties of a massive object to the ground. Though obscured by a sheet, they could tell it was straining to fly away.
“Pinkie!” she called. “I think we're almost ready. Did you-”
But she stopped as she saw Spike, Rarity and Twilight approaching with her. “What are you guys doing out here?! You're not supposed to see!” she said.
“It's too late,” Pinkie said, furious with herself. “They know.”
“You're... leaving?” Twilight said with a desperate expression.
“We thought you were retiring so you would have more time to spend with us!” Rarity said, as an ungrateful child might on Hearth’s Warming morning.
Rainbow sighed as she walked toward them. “Like I said... I'm not young anymore. I haven't got all the time in the world left,” she winked at Spike, who shuffled his feet uncomfortably. “There's still so much I want to do... and I just can't do it alone.”
“And I couldn't let you go alone!” Pinkie Pie said, bouncing happily toward her. “We're pals, that's how we're going to stay!”
“But... what about everything you have here?” Spike asked, searching for a reason for them to stay. “Your whole life, all your friends? Sugarcube Corner? What about all that?”
Pinkie Pie smiled sadly. “There was one more gift we gave to Cheerilee that we didn't talk about.”
They looked at her questioningly.
“I gave her Sugarcube Corner,” Pinkie confessed.
They looked at her in amazement.
“It's like with Rainbow,” she said. “I'm not going to be around forever... there's still so much for me to do. I knew that if I gave her the bakery, it would be put to the best use possible.”
Twilight looked on sadly, grimly accepting the truth. “There's no changing your minds, is there?”
Rainbow and Pinkie shook their heads solemnly. “Your places are here,” Rainbow told them. “But ours is our there somewhere... exploring, living life as it was meant to be lived.”
Rarity blinked back tears. “We've already lost so many of us. Isn't there anything we can do?”
Pinkie approached her with uncharacteristic somberness. “Live your life to the fullest,” she encouraged, smiling sadly. “Be everything you're meant to be. That's what you can do.”
Rarity hugged her warmly, and the rest were soon to follow suit. They stood for a long time, putting every emotion they had ever felt for each other into one group embrace.
“Please, be careful out there,” Spike said, letting his tears fall as they stood together. “We can't take losing any more of you.”
“You're not losing us,” Rainbow assured him. “We're just leaving for a time. Someday... we'll all be back together. I promise.”
Pinkie and Rainbow broke from the hug and approached the obscured object. Gripping it together, they swung the sheet from the device. Rarity, Spike and Twilight gasped at what they saw: a massive hot air balloon.
“A gift from Celestia,” Pinkie explained. “She said it was the least she could do.”
Together, the five loaded the bags into the basket of the balloon. Rainbow and Pinkie were next to climb in.
They made no attempt to hold back their tears at the sad sight. On the ground, the remaining three began removing the stakes from the ground. As they did, the balloon struggled and ultimately broke free, hovering lightly in the air.
As Pinkie and Rainbow began to drift away slowly, they waved to each other enthusiastically.
“Bye, everyone!” Pinkie said, smiling through tears. “Please, be all you can be; don't worry about us.”
“We love you all,” Rainbow said simply, eyes streaming. “We'll never forget you.”
Those last words stuck in the minds of the three. The third time they had been spoken, it seemed as if only yesterday they had been heard.
“Goodbye,” Twilight said as they hugged on the ground, trying to hold together.
“I hope you both find what you're looking for,” Spike said, and Rarity nodded in agreement.
As the balloon drifted away into the midnight sky, a void could be felt in all three of their hearts. While it clawed at them, they realized their pain found no source; their friends were going off to fill their heart's desire. What they were meant to do.
As they floated over the horizon, a mixture of desperate grief and insatiable joy entered the heart of every one. While their friends may be gone, their example would be a message for generations.
A sweet pain...
A bitter blessing...
An eternal gift.
“It was remarkable,” Spike told Celestia back in the cave. “I should have felt terrible... but... I didn't. I knew that was what they were meant to do.”
“That was the last you saw of them, wasn't it Spike?” Celestia asked, tilting her head.
“Yes,” he said simply. “But it still felt like they were with us. We never heard of how they...”
He faltered. He didn't need to know, didn't need to consider how they found the end. All he needed was the knowledge that they were fulfilled in what they had done.
Spike walked back to the table, glass in hand, and set it down. Seeing that Celestia's glass was empty, he made to refill it.
A red glow appeared around an ornate silver pitcher on the stand containing his beverages. It floated lightly to Celestia's glass, pouring gently to the top.
At this, Celestia made no attempt to hide her surprise. “Spike, I'm impressed. Not many dragons discover they have that ability. You seem to have used your Gift quite...”
“Studiously?” Spike suggested with a smile. “I should hope so. That was her last request... she wanted me to follow the example she set.”
Celestia didn't need to ask to whom he was referring. “And the other? What was her request?”
“To be all I could be,” he said simply. “I'd never heard such good advice before...”
They were both so intelligent... so brave... so lovely...
Spike floated gently over the hills of Equestia, immensely enjoying his morning flight. Ever since his wings had developed, he had made it a point to enjoy the scenery of the land now and again.
He fluttered down to a river that through Ponyville. Bending down to take a drink, he thought of what his life had become.
I'm happy... he thought incredulously. Even after all this death... all this pain, I'm happy. They really do live on in us.
He lapped up the water, glad to find relief of being parched.
Twelve years, he thought. Twelve years since Pinkie and Rainbow had left for far off lands... twelve years since Rarity passed the Boutique on to Sweetie Belle, when it started to grow even more...
Spike, Rarity and Twilight made it a point to spend as much time together as possible. Ever since the various departures of the others, being around one another filled the void they had created since leaving on their great deeds.
Spike sat gently on the grass next to the river, enjoying everything that was around him. The chirping birds, the flowing water... it reminded him of a simpler time... a better time.
He sighed. His grief may have left him, but the hole in his heart remained. Of course, he had prepared himself for this in taking the Gift... he knew the consequences, for good or for bad. But nevertheless...
He tried to push the thoughts from his mind. It wasn't an easy task.
What do you do when everything you know is slipping away? he pondered internally. When your whole word is gradually coming to an end?
Spike had retired from the boutique along with Rarity. His assistance was no longer needed, and it gave him more time to spend with his love and his best friend. Ever since, he felt more fulfilled in what he was doing.
But the void remained.
“You should take some time for yourself,” Rarity had told him. “I'm sure you need some alone time. And I'm sure Twilight wouldn't object to a mare's day out...”
Rarity had told him this a few days prior. Regretfully, he had taken her advice. Even though he missed Rarity immensely, he had to admit that the personal time had done him some good. Even still...
In the midst of his internal battle, he gave a violent belch. To his shock, a scroll appeared from his body, an event that had not occurred in over two decades. He tore it open with shaking hands, afraid of what it could mean. The scroll contained only once sentence:
“Urgent: Please hurry to Ponyville Hospital. Celestia.”
Spike was instantly alert. The note was clearly hastily scrawled... could it mean..?
Spike immediately took off toward Ponyville at lightning speed. This had better not mean what I think it does... he thought desperately.
But even as he admonished himself to hope for the best, the concern remained intact.
* * *
Spike burst through the hospital doors where he found Celestia standing beside one of the rooms with a somber expression, speaking quietly with a nurse. He rushed forward, pausing briefly only to bow in respect.
“Spike!” she said, motioning for him to rise. It was not the time for formalities. “Thank goodness you're here... Something terrible has happened.”
Spike could barely breathe. “What is it?” he demanded, forgetting his manners.
Celestia didn't seem to care. “Go inside... I'll explain.”
She motioned toward the door. Both parties entered, and Spike's worst nightmare was realized: Rarity and Twilight occupied both beds of the room, unmoving.
Spike felt as if cold steel had been thrust through his heart. “What happened to them?” he asked, barely able to breathe.
Celestia sighed deeply. “Something that could never have been avoided. They seem to be the first cases of an ancient condition in two hundred years.”
Spike looked up at her questioningly.
“Unicorn ponies are the most powerful species,” she explained. “Long ago, before I and my sister ruled Equestria, a condition was created by a mysterious force. It was meant to control the unicorn population to avoid anypony becoming too powerful. It's called 'The Phoenix State'.”
“What caused it? How did this happen?” Spike asked, unable to tear his eyes away from the ponies lying helplessly in bed.
“I don't know,” she admitted sadly. “We haven't seen a case of the condition in a very long time... we don't understand why it showed itself, especially to these two.”
He looked at his two best friends helplessly. “What does it do?” he looked back at her.
Celestia paused, opening and closing her mouth several times.
“What does it do?” he repeated urgently.
Celestia only hung her head. Spike had received all the answer he needed. “There must be a cure?” he asked desperately, turning to face her. “Something to delay it? Something to bring them back?”
She shook her head. “I'm so sorry, Spike, but... we...”
But she couldn't find the words; even she was tied inseparably to the two.
Spike couldn't speak. He turned and walked toward Twilight's bed first, laying a claw on the railing and staring at his helpless friend, doing nothing more than cast a glance down. He trembled, but not a drop of water escaped his body. This was grief beyond tears. “How long do they have?” he said after a long pause.
Celestia hesitated once more. “Spike, try to understand that we don't know much about the condition anymore. There's no way to tell-”
“How long?” he lashed out suddenly. If there was any time he could tolerate her subduing speeches, this was not it.
Celestia could see he was in no mood to be patronized. “Less than an hour,” she whispered. Clearly she was taking this no better than he was.
Spike felt as though the very blood had left his veins, as if the very life had been sapped from his body. Devastated, he attempted to process the information. Less than an hour...? he thought. Less than an hour to say goodbye to my two greatest friends in the world?
“How did this happen so quickly?” he asked Celestia. “They were completely healthy only days ago!”
His grief had rapidly become irrational anger, brought on only be his inability to change fate.
She attempted to sooth him. “I'm sorry, Spike... it's simply how the condition used to work. When too many unicorns existed, this was meant to protect the rest of the citizens by selecting some to...”
She trailed of and approached him silently, placing a comforting hoof on his shoulder. “They're only sleeping for now,” she told him. “If you wish to wake them to say your goodbyes... please, don't hesitate.”
But Spike barely heard her. Tears were falling freely onto Twilight's bedsheets. He couldn't help but remember the others. “I lost Applejack... then Fluttershy, then Rainbow and Pinkie. All my other friends left, and now the love of my life and my best friend in the world are headed for the door. Why does it have to be this way?”
He felt like a child for asking such an obvious question. It didn't matter.
Celestia spun him around and hugged him tight. “This is the curse we face as immortals. The curse and the blessing to watch our friends live out their lives and pass on while we remain behind. That's the destiny of life. That's why it has to be to be this way.”
Spike clung onto her like a child to her mother. After a moment (or perhaps an eternity), he separated from her.
“Can I be alone with them?” he requested. “One last time?”
Celestia nodded with a watery smile. “Be strong, my little dragon.”
Eyes closed, Spike heard the door slam behind him. Approaching Twilight, he gently called her name.
“Twilight,” he said in a quiet, loving voice. “Twilight, I'm here.”
Her eyes opened slowly, but turned rapidly to the purple dragon. “Spike,” she said in relief. “I knew you would make it in time.”
“I would never leave you.” he smiled at her.
At the sound of their voices, Rarity had awoken as well. “Spike, darling. Thank heaven you're here... I was afraid-”
He stood between the two beds and placed a claw against her lips. “I'd be here if it cost my own life.”
He turned his attention to Twilight as her breathing began to slow rapidly.
“Twilight... I'm so sorry this happened.”
“Don't be sorry,” she replied with a smile. “It's not your fault. It's just the way things are.”
“But why do things have to be that way?” he asked for the second time that day.
“I don't know the answer to that,” she said quietly. “All I know is that we all have a time. This is mine. I couldn't live forever.”
Spike shook his head, regret of his choice years ago creeping up on him. “But I'm going to,” he said. “And I don't want to live without you two. I can't!”
“Sure you can,” she smiled. “Your journey isn't over yet, Spike; you still have so much to offer the world. Do you want to make sure we never really die?”
Spike nodded vigorously, wiping his tears.
“Then follow in my footsteps. Improve magic, study hard, learn. Teach others so they can learn from our examples. You've done so much good, and you've still got so much more to do. I know you'll make us all proud, even if we're not here to see it.”
“No buts,” she told him, lip curling ever so slightly. Her speech continued to grow weaker. “This is your destiny, the one you chose. This is mine, the one I chose. I wouldn't have it any other way than this.”
Still sobbing, he lunged forward and held her close. “Thank you Twilight, for everything you've ever done for me. If it weren't for you, I wouldn't be here right now. I wouldn't know anything of what I know. I wouldn't have had the greatest friends I've ever had.”
“And thank you, Spike,” she said, bringing a look of question to his face. “For always being kind and putting up with all my studying. Thank you for always being there for me.”
“It wasn't that hard,” he said with a smile. “You're not quite the handful you think you are.”
She smiled up at him as she had decades ago, eyes a-twinkle. Her heart rate began to slow down.
“This is it, Spike,” she told him without an ounce of fear in her voice. “It's time for me to go.”
His sobs were renewed as the strength began to leave his friend's body.
“Remember,” she said. “Study hard, make the world a better place to live in. I know you won't let me down.”
She reached up and kissed him on the cheek. “Goodbye, Spike.”
Her hoofs dropped to her sides. “I love you.”
And she breathed no more.
Spike held his head in his claws, trying to control himself. There's time for tears later. he assured himself. There's one last thing to do.
He turned to Rarity, who lay with a glowing smile watching the love he had shown to Twilight. “You were always a softie at heart, my love.” she said.
He gave a gasping laugh. “You know it better than anyone. The “big scary dragon bit” just wasn't me.”
He knelt down at her side and took her hooves in his claws. “All these things that are happening... is this what my life is destined to be? Forever? Loving those around me, and then having them taken from me while I have to stay behind?”
“That's part of life: making choices,” she comforted him. “AJ did it, and so did Fluttershy and all the others. They all made choices that affected their lives and the lives of those around them.”
“But what if I made the wrong choice?” he asked desperately.
She laughed at that. “There are no wrong choices, my love; only choices. It's what we do with them that makes them wrong or right.”
“So what do I do then?” he asked desperately. “I'm so confused!”
“Make this a right choice,” she encouraged him. “Don't dwell on the past, you can't change it,” she said as she thought of their passed friends. “Dwell on what you can change: focus on making a brighter tomorrow.”
“I don't want to go on without you, Rarity. I just can’t! I was supposed to live with you, and leave with you!” he said in tears.
Rarity shook her head and gripped his claws tightly. “Yes, you can. Maybe you were meant to come with me when it was time, but you took another path. There will be others after me, others to help, others to be there for. My journey may be ending, but your path stretches on forever. You can make a difference for so many ponies. I know you can.”
“Please, Rarity. There must be something to do, something to reverse this.”
“No, my love. This is the end for me,” she said, smiling up at him just as she did on his sixteenth birthday, decades ago. “Not a bitter end, a happy end. I've had everything I could hope for in my life: a wonderful relationship, an amazing business. Fame, fortune, friends... and most of all, love. I had the love of the most amazing person I've ever met. I can leave content. And you have to go on content.”
Spike nodded, still not willing to accept fate.
“I love you, Spike,” she said, giving him a soft kiss. “Never forget that.”
“I love you too, Rarity,” he said, sniffling. “I just...”
“Hush,” she said gently. “It's time.”
Her breathing began to slow just as Twilight's did. Spike felt the pressure in her hoof recede as her strength began to wane; he needn't look at the monitors to see that her heart rate was rapidly decreasing, he could feel it in her very body.
“Be everything you can be, my darling,” she said. “Never let anyone tell you otherwise.”
He gripped her hand tightly as her breathing slowed further. She drew one last, long breath. “Goodbye,” she said, a tear escaping her eye. “I’ll always love you. Always.”
“And I’ll always love you,” he whispered.
And with that, she breathed her last.
Her hoof went limp, and her eyes looked back at him in a glassy stare. He gently placed his claws over her face, closing her eyes for the last time.
“Goodnight, my love,” he said, water dripping from his eyes to her bedsheets. “I know you'll find a brighter place.
Spike was sobbing openly as he had that fateful day, not caring how Celestia reacted.
She rose gently from her side of the table and trotted to him. “They were honorable ponies, Spike. It was a great pleasure just to know them.”
He nodded, trying to find the strength to respond. He suddenly clung to her, hanging onto her next tightly. “I do regret it,” he admitted as a child would to stealing a piece of candy. “I've regretted it all this time. I should gone with her, gone with all of them. That should have been my destiny.”
“But you chose this one, dear,” Celestia told him. “You chose this destiny, and look at all you accomplished! Just like they asked, you've made the world brighter.”
“I know,” he said. “But I can't help myself.”
He broke from her embrace and walked to the entrance to the cave, river of tears halted for the moment.
“Is there any way to go back?” he said after a long while.
“Go back?” Yet even as she asked, Celestia knew what his request was.
“Can you take this away from me?” he asked more clearly. “Can I go on?”
She approached the entrance, truly regretful. As she stepped to his side, he looked on hopefully.
“No,” she responded. “I can't take it away.”
He deflated, last hope gone. “Why not? Can't I just... give it back?”
She shook her head sadly. “Even I don't know of a way to do that. If I did, I myself might have gone on long ago.”
He looked at her incredulously.
She sighed. “Don't think you're the only one who regrets they way they are. I've lived what you have, watching all the ponies I ever knew pass away in what seems to be the blink of an eye. I know how it feels to be alone, even when you're surrounded by those who love you constantly.”
Spike nodded, knowing he was not alone. He turned from the entrance of the ave to face a circle of crystal containers.
“I was curious what those were for, Spike,” she told him. “Care to explain?”
“They were to count the years,” he replied. “I put a gem in the first bin when one year had passed after Twilight and Rarity went on. When ten were in that container, I put a gem in the one beside it, and so on.”
There were seven containers. Celestia smiled, having forgotten how long it had been. “Time seems to move faster the longer you live, doesn't it?”
Spike nodded solemnly. “Years become days, days become seconds...”
“Such is our curse, such is our blessing,” Celestia finished the poem.
Spike turned in time to see the sun dip below the horizon once again. Another day passes in the infinite cycle... he thought.
“I've just got to press on, haven't I?” he wondered aloud, watching the darkness grip the world around once more. “I watched every one of them pass on, and I'll watch even more go the same way. I just have to keep going, don't I?”
Celestia nodded with the slightly smile. “A bittersweet life to live, isn't it? Incredible how many lust after eternal life, never realizing what responsibilities come with it... never prepared to cope with the consequences.”
“Maybe I can teach them that in time, too,” he said with a broken smile.
“I certainly hope so.” she mimicked his expression. “Stay strong, Spike. I'm sorry that... I'm sorry that things can't be different,” she said with a hint of sadness.
They embraced a last time as she prepared to leave. “No need to worry, it's not your fault. It was my decision, not yours.”
After a time, he spoke again. “Thank you, Celestia,” he said. “You were what I needed to continue going. A familiar face.”
“I suppose so... but I wasn't entirely honest when I said I only came to visit you,” she told him with a small smile.
“What do you mean?”
She laid a hoof on his head. “Sometimes all we need is a little... perspective to teach us a lesson.”
He looked at her in question, still quite confused. “I don't understand. What-”
But he couldn't complete his thought. Looking her in the eyes, his vision began to fade away. “I hope you learned what you should do, Spike,” she said as he drifted away. “I'm confident you'll choose correctly.”
* * *
Spike awoke in a cold sweat. He sat bolt upright in bed, trying to make sense of everything he had just seen. Glancing around the room, he felt a feeling of relief that he could never have imagined.
He was in Rarity's bedroom in Ponyville, just as it had been, eons ago. Hardly daring to hope, he glanced at the lump lying beside him in the bed. Pulling back the sheets, he felt his heart inflate like a balloon as he saw the gently sleeping Rarity, just as she had been after the night of his sixteenth birthday.
A dream, he realized. A nightmare.
He flung himself from the bed without waking Rarity and ran quickly to the desk in her room. Never having felt so happy, Spike looked around rapidly to make sure that he had truly awoken, to be sure that he had truly returned. As he reached the desk, he saw a partially unfurled scroll.
He read the visible portion of the writing in his head. “'Dearest Spike...” he read. “Today is very special day, for I can finally reveal to you...'”
He stopped. That part was true, he realized. I really do have that gift. I really could live forever...
He jumped slightly as he noticed another scroll had appeared on the desk. He tore it open quickly and read. “'Dearest Spike... I trust you received the “message” I sent you. I only hope I accomplished my goal.'”
He read the letter in amazement. She sent me the dream...
“'It's my duty to inform all dragons who possess the Gift of their power. But I would just as quickly have them all refuse it. Immortality is a lonely state, watching for all eternity as those you love will eventually pass on without you. While some of us are bound by our position to take it, others are not so unlucky; others can make the decision to decline.
“'While you may still choose to take the Gift, I'm confident you'll make the other choice. The better choice. Love always, Princess Celestia.'”
Spike closed the letter in awe. She saw how horrible I felt about it... so she gave me advice in the best way she could have.
He glanced at the calendar. In my dream, this was before I even told Twilight about the Gift...
He realized almost explosively what he had to do. This letter, the gift, they're both real...
He smiled knowingly; his path was clear. This may be real... but the rest doesn't have to be.
He took both Celestia's letters in his claws and held them to his mouth. With a gentle breath, he set both aflame, watching them burn gently. Finally, both were completely engulfed in flame; their ashes floated gently to the floor.
At all the activity, Rarity awoke. “Spike, darling? What are you doing?” she called groggily from the bed.
Spike's heart gave a familiar jump at the world “darling”.
I'm back, he realized. It's all back to normal. I can make the right choice.
“It's nothing, sweetheart,” he heart fluttered as he uttered the words. “Just a bad dream. A very, very long bad dream.”
She smiled mischievously. “Well, come back to bed and we'll see if we can't make you feel better. After all, it is your sixteenth birthday.”
Tears appeared in his eyes, accompanied with the greatest smile he could muster. “Something the matter, dear?” Rarity asked, concerned.
“No,” he said, walking quickly back toward the bed and wrapping his arm around her as he laid down. “Everything is perfect. And it always will be.”
* * *
“I swear, I have no idea how it happened,” Rainbow Dash insisted as she attempted to pick up the numerous apples she had spilled the following day.
“Confound it, Rainbow, it happened when you decided to come swooping in here at a hundred miles an hour!” Applejack said, looking glumly at all the work that had been re-created.
“I've got it,” Twilight told her as she magically lifted every apple from the ground and back into the baskets.
“Well that's... I would've...” Applejack coughed. “Thank you,” she said quietly, her aversion to magic still somewhat intact after all those years. “I-Fluttershy, what did I teach you about feeding apples to the rabbits?”
Fluttershy stopped dead while discreetly handing a light brown bunny a snack. “Sorry, Applejack,” she said sadly, retrieving it from the creature's grip.
“Good,” Applejack said, turning away just in time for Fluttershy to give the rabbit the apple and shoo him away.
“Pinkie, can you-” Applejack started.
“Yup!” Pinkie said, swooping in and helping Applejack to drag the baskets.
“But I didn't even finish!” Applejack said, slightly annoyed. “How did you... oh, forget it,” she said helplessly.
Spike laughed briefly at the scene, propped against a tree a few feet away. Everypony seemed to be even more generous than they had previously been, all overnight. Their banding together to help Applejack... it hadn't been an isolated incident. Every citizen of Ponyville seemed to have been inexplicably compelled to help in any way they could. None of them even know about what happened to me... but the lessons seem to have been learned anyway.
He sighed happily and returned to his work. There was one more letter to send.
“Busy, as always?”
Spike around quickly and noticed Rarity reading over his shoulder. He hastily hid the hid the letter as she looked down at it intently.
“And what might this be?” she winked, bending down and wrapping her hooves around his neck. He could tell she was reaching for the letter.
Eh, what harm can it do?
He handed her the scroll, which she quickly glanced it over. “Dearest Princess Celestia,” she began aloud, “While I am intrigued and flattered at this offer, I am sorry to inform you that I must respectfully decline. I realized (through some rather extraordinary means) that I would rather die today with my friends than live for all eternity without them. Thank you again, and most of all, thank you for the message you sent me; it truly gave me... perspective. Your faithful servant, Spike.”
She looked up at him in wonder. “What happened? What gift are you talking about? Live forever? What does this-”
“Slow down there, Rainbow Dash,” he teased, poking her gently in the stomach. “Just because I let you read it doesn't mean I have to explain it to you.”
“Well, you are my boyfriend now, aren't you?” she pouted. “Doesn't that give me any... special privileges?” she asked, tickling his chin.
“Sure it does,” he kissed her on the cheek. “But this is the exception.”
“But why?” But her whining couldn't even fool herself; when it came to Spike, he saw right through it.
“I'd love to tell you,” he kissed her lightly. “But you'd never believe me.”
She widened her eyes and looked him dead in the face. “Give it a try.”
He smiled and drew a deep breath. “I could have lived forever. But I chose not to.”
She looked at him incredulously. “But... why ever not? What an amazing-”
“Hush now,” he said, a single tear appearing in his eye as he remembered his dream. “I wanted to be here with you, and I wanted to leave with you the same way. That's what my destiny is.”
She looked at him curiously, as if she had never quite seen anything like him. Before, that is, she lunged forward and locked him in a tight hug. “Goodness me, I did choose right,” she said happily. “But what in Equestria convinced you not to accept? So tempting...” she said almost longingly.
He remembered the dream almost involuntarily; he tried to keep it as far from his mind as he could manage. “Eternal life isn't all it's cracked up to be... especially when you have to spend it without the ones you love most.”
She looked at him in that same curious manner. “But how do you know that? I thought you didn't...”
Spike looked back at her with a wordless smile. Rising from the ground below, he held the completed scroll up to his mouth. He breathed onto it and watched as it floated gently away before disappearing completely.
That's it... no going back, he thought. And I wouldn't have it any other way.
“You're never going to tell me what happened, are you?” Rarity asked with her same pouting eyes.
He ran a claw across her cheek. “It was bad enough for me to see what I did... I'd never put you through the same in a million years. And I had that many to think about it,” he winked.
She blinked, still not fully understanding.
“Alright, everypony!” Applejack called, pulling the last load of apples into the Sweet Apple Acres barn. “That seems to be about all were gonna get done today. Why don't we all head back to town; I think I owe y’all something to drink.”
Twilight rushed forward enthusiastically to the amusement of the others.
“We'll be along in a moment,” Rarity said.
She turned back toward Spike with a light chuckle. He still stood there, with that same strange smile on his face; the smile of a very old, very wise dragon. She threw up her hooves, giving up her attempts to force information from him; it was not an issue to be pressed. “If that's what you think is best, I understand.”
She smiled and grabbed his claws, casting a glance to the steadily setting sun. “Once we're done with the rest, why don't we take a little midnight stroll? A little fresh air might do you some good.”
“As long as I can be alone with you,” he smiled and wrapped an arm around her as they started down the path.
She giggled as a filly would at his corny comment. “My goodness, you can be cheesy sometimes, dear.”
“I know I can,” he winked. “But would you change it?”
She leaned into him warmly. “Not in a million years.”
They sped to catch up to their friends, clinging to each other as the wind swept gently around them; even in the dark, light shone brightly in the heart of every pony.
“I want a root beer float! With a cherry!” Pinkie was explaining loudly. “NO! WAIT! Orange soda with ice cream in it! No, wait! I-”
“Pinkie, why don't you get some Everything Ice Cream and be done with it?” Rainbow asked, exasperated.
Pinkie Pie looked at her with wide eyes. “They have that?” she asked earnestly.
Rainbow and the rest laughed. Pinkie would never change.
Spike couldn't help be be amazed as he watched his friends speak as they always had. I watched them all go... and they're back. I have a new start. A chance to make a change, a difference in everypony's life, he thought. I could never have even dreamed I could be this happy, he realized as he felt Rarity's head against his body.
None of the others have to know... he decided. It's enough that I learned what I did... enough that I can pass it on. And enough that I get to spend my life... and leave it... with them.
“I love you,” he said softly in Rarity's ear as they walked briskly toward Ponyville.
“And I love you,” she replied.
Calm night air swept across the land, and all was well.
Comments should be turned on now, if I'm not mistaken.