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Gone in 1800 Seconds

Chapter Text

“I really am sorry, AJ,” Spike said for about the tenth time that afternoon.

Applejack laughed as she climbed up the ladder in the back of the old shed. “Heavens to Betsy, Spike, I already told you you’re forgiven. Didn’t we sit down an’ write that letter to the Princess about all this?”

Spike chuckled sheepishly. “Yeah, yeah, I know. I just got carried away, with that whole Noble Dragon Code and all...”

“Ya sure were puttin’ a lotta stock in that musty ol’ tome ya found,” AJ commented. “Y’know you don’t have to do all that just ‘cause a book says so, right?”

“No, I know, I’m no Twilight! It’s just...” She could hear Spike kick up a bit of hay. “I thought I’d finally found something that... that connected me to other dragons. Real dragons, wise dragons, not like those jerk teenagers I met.”

Applejack paused in her digging through old boxes, turning around to peer down at the little dragon from the upper floor. Concern was clear on her face and in her voice. “You still worryin’ yourself over that, sugarcube? You should’ve told us...”

“It’s not—!” Spike held up his claws defensively. “It’s not like before. You girls are my family, and I’m glad! But I still wish I could know about my birth family too.” He sighed and forced a smile. “Guess I better get used to wondering, huh?”

AJ smiled sympathetically. “Aw, try not to let it get to ya, li’l guy. There’s always a chance, right? Maybe you’re gonna find yer blood ties some day, an’ maybe not. But either way, you still got plenty of love ties, right here in Ponyville.”

Spike swallowed, eyes suspiciously bright. But his smile was far more genuine this time. “Thanks, AJ.”

“Don’t mention it. Now—” She suddenly grinned, teasingly. “If you can handle it without goin’ hogwild, I could use just a little bit of help with this box here.”

The dragon rolled his eyes, but he took the jab with the good humor that was intended. “You got it! What do you need?”

“I’m comin’ down the ladder with it backwards, so just keep an eye on it. Try an’ catch it if it slips, but don’t go gettin’ yourself hurt.”

“Right!”

The trip down went smoothly, Spike’s vigilance ultimately unnecessary (though certainly appreciated). He helped Applejack get the box up onto her back, and then the pair headed back to her house with it in tow.

“What’s in here, anyway?” Spike finally asked, once the box had been settled in the Apples’ living room.

Applejack tugged the top open. “Somethin’ like... old papers and photos, I think. From before the family founded Ponyville! Granny got all nostalgic after the reunion last week, so she said I oughtta go through ‘em and see what’s what.” She tipped the box over, allowing a stack of yellowed parchment to spill out onto the floor.

And right on the top of the pile was a black and white photo of a handsome stallion in a ten-gallon hat, snuggled up next to a dragon half-again his size.

Spike’s jaw was nearly on the floor, and Applejack could feel hers drop as well. “Wha... What the heck is that?” Spike stammered after a few seconds.

“My goodness, and here I thought that was just an old mare’s tale!”

Applejack’s head whipped around like an overactive lasso. “Granny? You know about this?”*

“I sure do!” Granny Smith replied, walking around her granddaughter to look at the photo. “Oh, gracious, it was before even my time. Rumor had it one of the Apple stallions was shacked up with a dragon for a few years! Never believed it myself, but it looks like my ol’ grandpappy was tellin’ the truth all along!”

Applejack flipped the photo over, mind still foggy with disbelief. Time had left whatever was written on the other side completely illegible. But Spike dug through the papers with a passion, claws finally capturing a sheet of parchment that looked as if a stiff breeze would dissolve it on the spot.

He read aloud: “I suppose I shall always wonder what could have been if things had worked out for me and dear Violet. But I don’t imagine society is ready for such a star-crossed love. Still, our time together was well spent. Wherever she and our adorable little purple eggs go, I hope they will always be well.”

Silence fell over the Apple household for a few seconds.

And then a pony and a dragon flung their forelegs and arms (respectively) open wide. “COUSIN!”

Chapter Text

Wood splintered and shards of plaster fell as Spike’s claw crashed through the wall of the Carousel Boutique.

He stalked through the empty building, smashing through wood beams with his claws and tail. He’d grown as large as Big Macintosh now, his lean draconic body far stronger than it appeared. Each strike was carefully judged for maximum damage and minimum energy expended. His demolition was methodical, his path unstoppable. It all seemed cold and calculated from the outside... but inside his head, he was anything but.

The boutique had been emptied of anything that could be reused, but in Spike’s mind’s eye, everything was untouched, pristine as the day he’d first come to Ponyville. Even as he tore down walls and crushed supports, each room evoked, involuntarily, a stream of memories made with the unicorn he had always admired.

Here was the entryway, where she had once wound a custom-knitted scarf around his neck before they stepped out into the snow and sleet.

Here was the kitchen, where he had cooked a romantic dinner for her, combining all his experience cooking for Twilight with a week spent scouring the library for the perfect recipes.

Here was the central display room, where they had spent hundreds of afternoons working together on one project or another. Where he had finally dropped to one knee and professed his love for her. Where she had tearfully accepted his offer of his heart, and confessed that he had stolen hers as well.

And here was the staircase that led to her bedroom, where they had held each other close, shared their first kiss, and... Spike turned away. Even after so long, thoughts of her could still bring a blush to his scaly cheeks.

But his task was clear, and he had already steeled his heart. No matter how many memories it held, no matter how much it would be missed, the Carousel Boutique had to go.

Spike tore the building apart from the inside, ripping away its supports one by one. Wood creaked dangerously around him, but he ignored it. Finally his task seemed complete, and he leapt through the open doors to safety. He turned to watch the fruits of his labor...

A heavy rock, suspended in a magical aura, flew past his head and into the building, breaking through the last untouched column. With a groan that sounded almost alive, the Carousel Boutique collapsed in on itself, becoming nothing more than a pile of scrapped wood.

Spike let out a long breath and wiped the sweat off of his forehead. “Whew... Thanks for getting that last bit, Rarity.”

“My pleasure, darling,” Rarity assured him, stepping forward with a handkerchief as white as her fur. She dabbed at his face, getting the rest of the sweat off until he met her high standards for cleanliness again. “And thank you so much for taking this project on.”

“Yeah, that was pretty awesome!” Rainbow Dash flew down from her cloud perch, leaving behind her pegasus’-eye view of the action. “I mean, I could’ve done it faster, but that was a seriously clean collapse!”

Spike laughed. “Well, you’ve got Twilight to thank for that. I wouldn’t have known what supports to hit without her.”

Twilight shook her head. “That’s true, but it was you who did all the hard work.”

“That was impressive, Spike!” Applejack added. “No two ways about it!”

“Heh, thanks...” Spike glanced back at Rarity, only to find her staring at the wreckage, her face pensive. He brushed a claw over her back, ever so gently. “Hey, you okay?”

“I’m fine, Spike. It’s just...” Rarity smiled, dabbing at her eyes with her handkerchief. “Even though it had to be done, I will miss the old boutique. We all made so many wonderful memories there.”

“Yeah, I know what you mean. I was thinking the same thing while I was in there.” Spike wound his arm around her, pulling her close. “But we do have that photo album we put together. And we’ll be making even more memories in the new place.”

Rarity beamed. “We certainly will! Oh, there will be so much more room! Room for display models, room for fabric storage, room for...” She placed her hoof on his claw. “Us.”

“Right. Us.” Spike’s grin was uncontrollable. He glanced down at Rarity’s stomach, remembering a conversation they’d recently had. And maybe some day... a bigger ‘us’.

“Oh, I can’t wait to see the new boutique,” Fluttershy gushed. “It’s going to be so beautiful.”

Applejack nodded. “Sure as shootin’! Shame we had to get rid of the old one, but that’s just the way it is.”

“Yeah! After all, creation and destruction... They’re really two sides of the same coin!”*

Everyone stopped and turned toward the speaker of those words. “Wow...” Twilight managed, after a moment. “Pinkie Pie, that was really deep!”

“Aw, it just makes sense, silly!” Pinkie giggled. “We make food at the Sugarcube Corner, remember?”

“Oh, that’s right,” Twilight said. “No matter how beautiful it is, everything you make there is eventually going to be eaten.”

Pinkie nodded with a seriousness that didn’t match her wide smile. “Exactly!”

“Okay, I’m gettin’ outta here before it gets any more philosophical,” Rainbow groused. “Lemme know when you guys need help again!”

“We will, Dash, don’t you worry,” Rarity chuckled. As the gathered ponies began to break up, she turned to Spike, allowing a coquettish smile to slip onto her face. “Now, then, my dear Spikey-wikey... With the boutique properly demolished, I seem to be in need of a place to stay tonight. I don’t suppose you might be able to assist me?”

Spike hummed, pretending to think it over. “Hmm... I think something could possibly be arranged. Why don’t you come with me, milady?” His tail slid around behind her, gently pushing her forward into his embrace.

“Oh! With pleasure, darling...”

(“Psst, Twilight! Wanna have a sleepover tonight?”

Thank you, Pinkie Pie.”)

Chapter Text

It wasn’t until the tower of smoke was miles behind her that she allowed herself to glance back. She could still see the flames at this distance, the ashes of what they had once called home, and with a pained groan she turned away and kept running. With both wings torn and bloody, with a warm bundle tucked up tight against her chest, it was all she could do.

She wasn’t sure how long it had been since the attack. Maybe an hour, maybe more. Her mate had drawn their attention, bought her time to flee. It was him they’d been after from the start. He’d sought peace, unity among all species, and this was how they had rewarded him. Had it been a lost cause from the start?

No, she couldn’t start thinking like that. It was his kindness that had first drawn her attention, that same kindness that had captured her heart. Had the world ever seen his equal? Would it ever again?

She glanced down at the bundle hanging from her neck, and even after everything that had happened that night, she found herself smiling. Perhaps it still would.

Her leg gave out suddenly, and she tumbled onto her side, wood and dry grass crunching underneath her. Her throat went dry as she saw the trail of blood behind her. How much had she lost? She’d fought fiercely when the attackers first descended upon their home, before her mate and the rest of their clan had joined her. She’d ignored her injuries, underestimated them until now. Adrenaline and fury had carried her this far, but they could only do so much.

Hot tears dripped down her snout as she curled in on herself. This was the end, then. The beautiful future her clan had dreamt of would never come to pass. She had escaped the slaughter, only to die alone in the forest. And worst of all, once she was gone, who would look after her—

“Good heavens!”

A voice. She forced her eyes open, struggling to see through the haze that was creeping in around the edges of her vision. A regal figure stood before her, wings outstretched, mane flowing in a wind she couldn’t feel.

The pony—yes, it was a pony, it must be—reached out to her. “What in the world—Can you hear me? Hold still, I’ll try to heal you.” The glow of magic washed over her, and she could feel the pain retreating. But she could also feel that it wouldn’t be enough.

“Listen—” she hissed.

“No, don’t speak,” the pony said, voice tight. “I saw the smoke too late, I don’t know what—I fear I was too late to help them, but I can still help you!”

“No, listen!” she insisted. A pony whose first thought upon seeing her was to help, without hesitation or restraint. This was her last and best hope. “My child!”

The pony gasped. “Your child? Back there?”

She shook her head, as much as she could (which was not much at all). “No... here.” With the last of her strength, she reached up behind her neck to undo the bindings, allowing the bundle to roll away from her chest to rest at the pony’s hooves.

The pony lifted it up, peeling the blankets back almost reverently to reveal a purple-spotted egg. “...It’s beautiful.”

“Isn’t it?” Tears dotted her eyes again, but of joy this time. “We’ve named him... Spike.”

“Spike...” The pony brought the egg to her chest, held it close. “I’ll protect him. But please, come with me. There may still be—”

A tree crashed down in the distance, and two heads turned. “No, just go!” she shouted. “They don’t know... They’re after me!”*

The pony hesitated for only an instant before nodding. “Very well. I promise you, I will keep him safe. Goodbye, and good luck.”

A flash of magic left her alone again. But she was smiling even as the blood and the tears flowed down her scales, even as she got back up onto her feet to greet her attackers. They could do what they wanted to her. As long as her child was safe, everything was alright.

Chapter Text

“Eep!” With a startled squeak, Fluttershy’s legs slipped out from under her, and she tumbled unceremoniously into the snow.

“Whoa, there!” Applejack yelped. She and Twilight dashed over to their friend’s side, each offering a hoof. “You okay there, sugarcube?”

Fluttershy glanced up at them for several seconds, then ignored the helping hooves, pushing herself onto her hooves again. “Mm, I’m alright,” she assured them, smiling softly—but the tears that had begun to roll down her cheeks told a different story.

Twilight gasped. “Fluttershy, you’re crying! What’s wrong? Do you need us to call a nurse?”

“Huh?” Fluttershy brushed at her eyes, looking at her hoof as if she’d never seen it before. “Oh! Oh, no, it’s not—I’m fine, really, I am. I just... was reminded of my father, all of a sudden.”

Oh.” Applejack seemed to understand, immediately wrapping Fluttershy up in a tight hug.

Twilight, however, found herself clueless. “Did... something happen?”

“I haven’t told you about him? Oh, Twilight, I’m so sorry.” Fluttershy smiled apologetically once AJ had released her. “You see, my father passed away many years ago.”

“Wha... I, I’m the one who should be saying I’m sorry!” Twilight rushed forward to mimic Applejack’s motion, awkwardly pulling Fluttershy into a hug of her own. “I-I, I’m so—” she stammered, at a loss for words.

Fluttershy patted her on the back—as if she was the one who needed comfort! “No, it’s okay. It was so long ago, after all. The memory just surprised me.” She paused, leaning back to meet Twilight’s eyes. “Would... Would you like to hear about him?”

For once, Twilight didn’t need to think about how to respond. “Of course I would.”

The three mares continued their walk down the snow-spotted main street, Twilight and Applejack at Fluttershy’s sides as she began to speak. “My mother was very sickly and didn’t survive my birth, but my father always told me how beautiful and kind she was, and he never missed a chance to tell me I was following in her hoofsteps. He wasn’t the strongest or the bravest stallion, but nopony ever worked as hard as he did to support their daughter.”

She brushed the last stray tears away, serenely staring up at the clouds. “We struggled a little, but we were so happy. I was always Daddy’s little girl; I wanted to stay with him forever. But even while he was caring for me and protecting me, he knew that nothing lasts forever.”

------

“Eep!” With a startled squeak, Fluttershy’s legs slipped out from under her, and she tumbled unceremoniously into the snow.

“Careful, sweetheart!” A wing swept over her, blowing the snow away and clearing the cloud around her. “Here, do you need help?”

Fluttershy sniffled and reached up to take her father’s outstretched hoof. “T-Thank you, Daddy,” she quavered.

Her father nodded and looked over the Cloudsdale street. A few families had dragged in some snow clouds from the factories, so that the foals who’d never yet set hoof on the ground could still enjoy the snow they made, and there were fillies and colts dashing around tossing snowballs and making snowponies. “It sure looks like they’re having fun,” he chuckled. “Don’t you want to join them?”

Fluttershy whimpered for an instant and pressed close to his side. All those strangers she’d never met, ponies who might judge her or threaten her or—she could feel her legs wobbling underneath her. She just couldn’t! “I-I’m fine!” she squeaked. “I’m fine right here.”

Her father looked down at her, biting his lip thoughtfully. “Flutters...” he said tentatively. “You know... I won’t be here forever.”

Fluttershy gasped. “Don’t say that, Daddy! I-I don’t know what I’d do if, if you...” The sentence was too horrible to complete.

“I know! Believe me, I’m not planning to go anywhere!” He draped his wing over her, warm and comforting. “But every pony has to leave the nest eventually. One day you’ll be all grown up, and trust me, you’ll want to get your old man out of your mane as fast as you can.”

She shook her head vigorously. She couldn’t imagine wanting to leave him! She couldn’t imagine anywhere else that would feel like home... or anypony else who would accept a weak little pegasus like her.

Her father sighed, dropping down onto his knees so he could talk to her eye-to-eye. “I know what you’re thinking, Flutters. I’ve known you long enough for that. Everypony has a place in the world, their little niche they were meant for. I love you, and I know one day you’ll change the world, make it a better, happier place. But to do that...”

He tapped her chest, ever so gently. “You have to love you, too.”

Fluttershy swallowed. Sometimes she was so far from loving herself that she didn’t think she ever could. But if her kind, wonderful daddy loved her... there had to be something lovable about her, right?

“Just think about it, alright, little one?” Her father got to his hooves again, glancing over at the crowd of kids. “For now... I think it’s been too long since I played in the snow, don’t you?”

“D-Daddy!” But despite her embarrassment, Fluttershy started to laugh as her father waded into the snowball fight, tossing balls and taking hits like a pro.

Chapter Text

It’s dark... What’s going on? It’s dark, but I feel warm. I hear sounds from outside. And there are bright lines around me...

The darkness is gone! There’s so much light now! And there’s so much more room! Look, I can stretch! Is this what outside is like?

Wow, that purple thing is really bright. That’s what was making those noises. It’s making a lot of bright stuff all over. Whoa!

Oh my gosh, everything got smaller all of a sudden. Outside has an outside. It’s so pretty out here! There’s lots of gold things and white things, and little things of all colors going in and out of them. What are those?

Oh, everything got big again. I’m back in the first outside. The purple thing isn’t bright any more, but the big white thing that’s with her now is. They’re making noises at each other. Can I make noises too?

The big white thing is so pretty. It’s all shiny and sparkly. Now the purple thing is jumping around and making noises that sound happy. It must think the big white thing is pretty too!

I stop sucking on the pointy purple thing I found and try to make happy noises too. The big white thing turns around and comes closer to me. The noises it makes are quieter but still happy, and they’re really nice to listen to. It lifts me up with more bright stuff, and I reach out to it eagerly.

I wonder if it will be my friend?

------

It’s dark... It confuses me for a second, until I shake off the daze. I used to keep torches burning during the day, just in case anyone visited from Ponyville, but it’s gotten to the point where I can’t even breathe that much fire. I suppose that’s when I realized the end was close.

Is someone here? I grunt and nudge my head in the direction of the entrance. My vision’s been better, but no matter how blind I got, there’s no way I couldn’t recognize Celestia. Her mane still sparkles like it did the day I hatched.

“Hi,” I whisper. “What brings you by? Been a while... since you could spare the time.”

She sighs and bows her head. “I probably shouldn’t have, as busy as I am. But I wanted to see you again before... it happens. It’s going to be soon, isn’t it?”

I try to stretch, but there’s not much more I can do than flex my claws. “Pretty soon, yeah. Funny how I can almost feel it, huh?”

“You are unexpected in many ways, my dear. The first known dragon to die of natural causes...” She smiles sadly.

“What can I tell you? I always was one for... bucking the trend.”

She looks around at my cave. I don’t need to, even if I could move. It’s all empty. I gave everything away months ago—my hoard, my possessions, everything. Thousands upon thousands of years spent giving and receiving from the creatures I loved, all winding down at last.

Celestia puts a hoof on my snout. She’s so small. I remember when I was hatched, she towered over me. Now I’m the one towering over her. Or I would if I could stand.

“It never gets easier,” she says, a slight hitch in her voice. “Watching those you love come and go. You know that better than almost anyone.”

I chuckle weakly. “Tell me about it. I guess I knew... I’d probably do it to you too... eventually. Sorry.”

She shakes her head. “It’s alright. Nothing lasts forever... not even us. I’ll join you one day, in the next great adventure.”

“I’ll look forward to it. All of us will.” I cough, a weak cloud of smoke escaping. “Want me to pass anything on? When I see... Twilight, and everypony else.”

“I said everything I needed to long ago. Just remind them how much I love them.” She strokes my snout gently, and I purr a little. Can’t help it. “I love you, Spike. Take care, rest well, and never forget that.”

“I never could. Love you too... Mom.”

It’s coming now. I can tell somehow. The end. I close my eyes and lean into Celestia’s embrace.

It’s dark... But I feel warm.

Chapter Text

“SPIIIIIIKE!”

If the slamming of the front door hadn’t caught Spike’s attention, the scream would have done the trick. He peered down from the upper level of the library to see Twilight Sparkle, mane frizzed and breath coming fast. “Oh, boy,” he muttered under his breath. “Not again.”

“Spike, where are you?!” the unicorn yelped again, teleporting across the room to her desk. (Couldn’t she just walk?) “And where are my Horsetradamus translation notes? Ohhhh, I have to find it!”

Spike rolled his eyes and hopped down toward the first floor. “I’m right here, Twilight. What’s all the commotion about?”

Twilight pulled a sheet out and paled as she looked it over. “Oh, no, oh, no, it’s worse than I thought. Spike!” She spun around and grabbed his face with her hooves. “I need your help. I just don’t know what to do!”

“Okay, okay, calm down!” Spike pushed her hooves away. “You know I’m always here for you. So what happened, anyway?”

“It’s Pinkie Pie. She... She...”

Spike gasped. “What? What happened? What did she do?”

Twilight stared into Spike’s eyes, as serious as he’d ever seen her. And then she dropped the bombshell. “She kissed me!”

“...Say what now?”

“She kissed me! And not on the cheek or anything, oh, no! This was a lips-on-lips kiss! And she said she liked me, she’s liked me for ages, and she wants to be my marefriend!” Twilight was pacing around in circles now, waving her forelegs to emphasize each hurried sentence. How she wasn’t falling on her face, Spike couldn’t begin to guess.

“Okay...” Spike scratched his head. He wasn’t quite seeing what was the panic-worthy situation here. “And... Do you need help turning her down or something? You never seemed to have trouble with that when you were getting flirted with back in Canterlot.”

“No, I—” Twilight stopped her panicking for a moment... and blushed. Quite a lot, really. “I actually... don’t... want to turn her down. I didn’t really realize it myself until today, but... I think I like Pinkie too.”

Okay, now he was really lost. “What? That’s a good thing all around, then, isn’t it? So why are you freaking out?”

“Because of this!” Twilight grabbed the parchment from before and slapped it into Spike’s face. “I remembered this old Horsetradamus prophecy I translated out of the old language, and sure enough, I think it’s talking about me and her!”

When pink and purple intertwine / And two turn into more / Two magics mix and meld in one / And open destruction’s door.

Spike squinted at the couplet. “Why does it still rhyme, if you translated it from—”

“That’s not important right now! Look!” Twilight snatched the parchment up and pointed with a hoof. “The pink and purple obviously means me and Pinkie Pie. And the two magics must refer to my unicorn power and her Pinkie Sense! Which means...”

“If you and Pinkie hook up, you’ll open destruction’s door.” Spike’s voice was as flat as a pancake.

“Exactly!”

Silence. Spike wanted nothing more than to go back to bed. “Twilight. You’re like a sister to me. And you know I love you.” His voice took a sharp upturn into the higher octaves of his register. “But that’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard!” And living with Twilight, he’d heard a lot of ridiculous things.

Despite her panic, Twilight was allowing a bit of her old lecturing voice to slip in. “Spike, we can’t just discount divination so easily! If not for the prophecy about Nightmare Moon, we might not even be here today!”

“Yeah, but for every real prophecy like that one, there’s a dozen that ponies just made up on the spot!” Spike swiftly countered. “I mean... You remember that time two months ago, when you found a prophecy that you were sure meant the world was going to end?”

Twilight went silent for a moment. “...Yes...”

“And did the world end?” Spike prompted her.

“...No...” she ruefully admitted.

“You see! Everything’s fine! Horsetradamus doesn’t exactly have the best track record anyway. He was so vague, his couplets could mean whatever you wanted them to. I mean, the purple could just as easily be... Rarity. Or even me!”

“Yeah...” Twilight finally seemed to calm down for good. “I guess you’re right. It’s silly to let something like this get in between me and Pinkie Pie, isn’t it?”

Spike sighed with relief. “Thank you. Now will you please go back out there and get back to smooching your new marefriend?”

“You know what? I think I will. Thanks, Spike!” Twilight stood tall and marched out of the library again. Spike carefully listened... Yep, as soon as the door was closed, she’d broken into a swift gallop.

“That’s more like it,” he chuckled, returning to his cleaning tasks. “At least one of us should get to have a love life.”

As he swept, he came across the sheet of parchment containing the prophecy that had started this whole mess. He rolled his eyes. Really, even if it was true, what could it even mean? It was so vague. Pink and purple intertwine and two turn into more? That almost sounded like Twilight and Pinkie were going to—

Spike coughed and tried to wave away the mental images. He did not want to think of his almost-sister doing that. Two mares couldn’t have kids anyway. Although he’d heard something about spells once, and if there was one, surely Twilight would be able to find and cast it...

Curiosity peaked, Spike looked over the rest of the couplet one more time. Two magics in one... He imagined a little unicorn baby with Twilight’s magic reserves and Pinkie’s unknowable senses. Twilight’s curiosity and Pinkie’s boundless energy. Twilight’s neuroticism and Pinkie’s obsessions...

Calmly, Spike set his broom aside and walked over to the desk to write a letter.

Dear Princess Celestia,

Do you know anypony who could dig me an underground shelter? Just curious.

Chapter Text

If Rarity was being honest with herself, she had to admit that her relationship with Hearts and Hooves Day could best be described as love-hate.

It was a fantastic time for business at the Carousel Boutique. Mares all across Equestria were looking for the finest dresses to wear, desperate to impress their special someponies (or their special someponies in potentia, as it were). And over the years Rarity’s fame had grown to the point where she was one of the first designers on everypony’s mind. It was very possibly her busiest week out of the entire year, so much so that she could barely set aside time for her own special somepony!

If she had one.

Which she didn’t.

How was it that she was still a spinster after all these years? It wasn’t as though she had a shortage of suitors... but none of the noble stallions who approached her were even remotely good enough. Prince Blueblood, cursed be his name, seemed to set the standard when it came to Equestrian nobility. If they weren’t completely classless and disgustingly sexist, they were dreadfully boring and apathetic. Even the best of them seemed to want nothing more from her than to hang off their forelegs like a trophy.

Was it too much to ask for somepony who would love her, cherish her, romance her? Was it too much to ask for somepony who would treat her like a lady and an equal? Was it too much to ask that she be given as much generosity as she gave? But precious few stallions met those standards, and they were all snapped up already—no doubt the other mares of Equestria had noticed how scarce they were as well.

So every year, Rarity threw herself into her work. And this year was no exception. With a week to go until Hearts and Hooves Day, she sat at her drawing table, nose buried in enough sketches and lists of customers to put Twilight’s checklists to shame.

“You don’t need this tulle today, right?”

Rarity waved a hoof dismissively. “That’s right, Spike, it can stay in the back until tomorrow.”

“Gotcha.” Behind her, she could hear the teenaged dragon heft the roll of fabric over his shoulder and drag it off to the shelves. At least she could always count on his assistance when her workload grew. It was as if he could sense when she was feeling overloaded.

With a sigh, Rarity put a few more lines down on her latest design. “That should do it,” she mumbled to herself. “Now, where did I put my scissors...?” She turned away from her papers—and found herself snout-deep in flowers.

She recoiled reflexively, staring at the intruding blossoms. Half a dozen lavender blossoms, in a lovely understated vase. They had certainly not been there when she sat down and started drawing. “What in the world?”

“Something wrong?”

Spike had quickly returned from his tiny errand, and a bemused Rarity turned to address him. “Spike, darling... Do you know where these flowers came from?”

Spike blinked at her for a moment, then, to her surprise, let out a short bark of laughter. He put a claw over his mouth to mask the continuing chuckles, only partially successful.

Rarity felt a twitch begin under her eye. She was stressed enough without having her assistant laugh at her. “May I kindly inquire as to what you find so amusing?” she asked archly.

“No, I—I’m sorry, I just...” Spike calmed himself down and smiled apologetically. “When you get in the zone, you really get in the zone, don’t you? I put those there half an hour ago when I got here!”

“You... You brought them?”

“Well, yeah. Roseluck had a bunch of them at her booth, and I thought... They’re your favorite, right?”

Rarity nodded slowly. “They are, indeed. But how did you...?”

“Oh, uh, I dunno... I guess you must’ve mentioned it once, and I just remembered, somehow...” As Spike spoke, a blush began to bloom on his face, and he shrank a bit before her disbelieving gaze, for a moment looking like that tiny dragon she’d met so many years ago. “You never seem very happy this time of year, so I just wanted to...”

He’d noticed? “Well, I... suppose not,” she admitted. “Thank you, Spike.”

“Sure thing!” Looking relieved that the conversation was over, he returned to his fabric sorting.

Rarity turned to look at the blossoms again. When had she mentioned that she liked them? Had it been weeks ago, or months? And Spike had remembered, and surprised her with them, just to brighten her mood. It was the kindest, sweetest gesture she’d received since... since the last time Spike had given her a thoughtful little gift.

It was as if she was opening her eyes for the first time. Lavender meant a few things, but “devotion” most of all. Did Spike know that? If he didn’t, it was surely an apt coincidence. They had known each other for years, and he was still as devoted and kind as ever. Always helping, always caring, through good times and bad...* How long had she been looking for a pony who truly cherished her, when a dragon was cherishing her right this moment and she wasn’t even appreciating it?

“Rarity, what’s wrong?”

Rarity turned toward the horrified-sounding dragon, wondering for an instant why his face looked so blurry. Then she came back to herself, and with an embarrassed giggle, she snatched up the nearest handkerchief and dabbed at her eyes. “It’s nothing,” she assured him.

Spike frowned at her, worry lines standing out around his eyes. “Nothing, my spines! You’re crying!”

“No, I assure you...” She brushed away the tears and smiled at him. “I’m alright, darling. Better than alright, in fact.”

“Well, alright, if you’re sure...” Spike bit his lip uncertainly. “But... If there’s anything I can do...”

Rarity glanced at the lavender for an instant, then brought her gaze back to Spike’s eyes. Those green, reptilian eyes that practically shone with love and devotion. “Actually, Spike... There is one thing you could do to help.”

He nodded immediately, without the least pause for thought. “Great! Just name it!”

“Well...” One hoof gently slipped forward, to rest on the back of his claw. “Do you happen to have any plans for next week?”

Chapter Text

Thunk! Hooves struck wood, and a rain of apples fell from above into the waiting baskets. Another ordinary day at Sweet Apple Acres.

Applejack groaned as she brought her hooves back down to the ground. Her joints were complaining an awful lot today. Probably the chilly wind that had been blowing all afternoon...

“Nah, I can’t blame the weather for this,” she chuckled aloud, shaking her mane out and then adjusting her hat. “It’s these old bones o’ mine.” Much as she hated to admit it, she wasn’t getting any younger. She just couldn’t quite buck the way she used to as a youth.

Still, pigs would fly before she gave up completely! (Barring Discord’s occasional flight of fancy, of course.) She might have to watch her limits more, but that didn’t mean she was helpless. Applejack made her way to the next tree and smacked it with everything she had. Apples fell from the branches—but too late she saw one coming right for her head—

A streak of black and yellow soared overhead, and the threatening apple vanished with it.

“Huh?” Applejack blinked for a second before it registered, and then she smiled to herself, glancing around for the “intruder”. “Come on, now, where are you? You ain’t fast enough to fool yer old lady’s eyes, you know that.”

“Yeah, Ma, I do,” an amused voice responded. The black-maned pegasus stepped out from behind the tree, tossing the apple up and down with one hoof. “But if you missed this little guy, maybe your eyes aren’t what they used to be! Think ya oughtta start lookin’ at glasses?”

“My eyes’re as sharp as they ever were, Busy Bee.” Applejack gave him a stern glare, trying with little success to hide her own amusement. “Sharp enough to catch you sneakin’ a little extra dessert last night after dinner, f’r instance.”

Busy Bee ducked his head, blushing quickly like he always did, pink on yellow. “W-Well, is it my fault my ma makes the best apple cobbler in Equestria?”

Applejack snorted. “S’pose it ain’t, at that. You get everything done up at the barn?”

“You bet!” Busy Bee saluted. “All my chores are done, so I wanted to give you a lil’ break out here!”

A bit of old pride flared up for an instant, but her hip followed up with a flare of its own, and Applejack found herself uninclined to argue. “I reckon I could use a bit of one. Just until my joints calm down a touch.”

Her son beamed and nodded. “Just until then, Ma. You relax an’ I’ll get these trees all taken care of!”

As Busy Bee flew from tree to tree, knocking apples into the baskets and flying up for the ones that didn’t fall, Applejack rested in the shade and watched him. He might not have had an apple in his cutie mark or in his name, but no one could doubt that he was an Apple through and through. He’d never be as big as his uncle, but he still had the stocky build of an earth stallion, and he was easily as comfortable on land as in the air. He was always buzzing around the farm, taking on every task he could find, and accomplishing them all with a natural sense of time management that even Twilight had once expressed admiration for.

He practically ran Sweet Apple Acres now, and it was clear that he loved every moment of it. Maybe now was as good a time as any to do what she’d been considering for a long time.

“Hey, Bee!” Applejack called, getting back onto her hooves with only minor discomfort.

He dropped down in front of her curiously. “What’s up?”

She reached up to tap the brim of her hat. “Have I ever told you the story of this hat?”

“Gosh, only about a billion times,” Busy Bee snorted, rolling his eyes. “Great-Granddad got it as a wedding present when he married Great-Granny Smith and they took on the duties of runnin’ Sweet Apple Acres.” He recited the tale as if from rote.

“That’s right,” Applejack chuckled. “An’ then he passed it on to my ma when she took over. An’ she left it to me when I was ready to do the same. An’ now...”*

She flipped the hat off her head, twirled it on the end of her hoof, and dropped it onto Busy Bee’s head. “I reckon it’s time I did the same for you.”

Busy Bee’s jaw dropped, and he reached up to touch the hat in disbelief. “You... You mean it, Ma? Do you think I’m...”

“I don’t think it, I know it. You’ve been ready for this for a while now. I just...” Applejack smiled sheepishly. “I never was good at admittin’ my limits. But I am gettin’ old, an’ I think it’s time I stepped back a little and let some youthful energy into the place. So what do you say?”

“What do I say? I say YES!” Busy Bee leapt into the air, wings buzzing excitedly. “This’s gonna be great! I got so many ideas already—I’ll run ‘em all by you an’ everypony else, of course—oh, I can’t wait!” He flew down to wrap Applejack up in a tight hug. “I’ll make you proud, Ma, I promise.”

“You already have, son,” Applejack whispered, patting his head. “You already have.” He released her and flew back, face pink and eyes moist, and she grinned at him. “Now, these trees sure ain’t gonna buck themselves! How ‘bout we get to work, Boss?”

“Right!”

Chapter Text

When Spike fell off of his hoard and landed head-first, he knew it was going to be another lousy morning.

He growled under his breath and sat up, rubbing his forehead grumpily. The only real bruise was going to be on his pride. How long ago had he outgrown that little basket, and he still couldn’t even sleep right? Another chapter in the tale of the World’s Worst Dragon, an autobiography.

At least there were no witnesses to his foolishness this morning. Twilight was already up and out, once again getting an early start with her princessly duties. Which left the library, of course, to him. Spike leapt over the balcony to the room below and started gathering up the stray books and papers. He’d been working there so long that his body practically ran on automatic. This tome on medieval armorcrafting went here, this old grammar study went here, this lovely encyclopedia volume went upstairs on his hoard—

No.”

Spike slammed the encyclopedia into his face. Maybe he would have a bruise there after all.

Sometimes he wondered if maybe he shouldn’t have just stayed a baby forever—and how freaking weird was his life that this was a choice he had to make in the first place? Being a teenage dragon was a constant balancing act, a constant struggle with that voice in the back of his head that wanted everything, that voice that didn’t care if somepony would miss this globe or that football. It had gotten easier to ignore since he’d started his hoard, in the sense that it was a constant dull murmur instead of a constant dull roar. But Spike couldn’t help but wonder if he’d have to fight with himself all his life, just to stay the right size for the ponies he loved... and more importantly, to keep from hurting the ponies he loved.

And even that new size came with its disadvantages. He’d only ever known Ponyville from a couple feet off the ground, and now he was constantly misjudging distances and overestimating spaces. Heck, it was probably only Twilight’s royal influence that had kept the town from classifying his tail as a Ditzy Doo-caliber weapon of mass destruction. He couldn’t seem to fill his stomach for more than five minutes at a stretch, he found himself scratching at the floor with his claws like a cat... And then there was the pettiest and most annoying complaint of all: his back would not stop itching.

Had those teenage dragons he’d met at the migration had such a list of grievances? Suddenly Spike thought he could understand why they kept themselves distracted with all those violent and destructive games.

“Hello? Spike, darling, might I beg your assistance for a moment?”

Spike knew he had to be in a pretty severe funk, if even Rarity’s sudden arrival couldn’t bring a smile to his face. He faked one anyway and turned around to greet her. “Hey, Rarity! What do you need?”

Rarity gave him a smile that under normal circumstances would have warmed him up from the inside out. “I was wondering if you might have something on fashions dating to the immediate pre-Equestrian era. I’m thinking of putting together a line based on a judicious combination of the three tribes’ styles, in preparation for Hearth’s Warming Eve.”

“Wow, you sure do plan ahead, huh? But I think I know just the book!”

Spike padded around to the shelves just right of the door, glancing up to the top. Here was one advantage to his new size, at least—no more need for the rickety old ladder. Leaving one of his back claws on the floor to brace himself, he carefully climbed up, body stretching and foreclaw extending, until he was just able to snag the book he wanted off the uppermost shelf. “Here you are, Rarity,” he said, settling back down and turning to meet her eyes.

Which seemed to be aimed well south of his face.

Rarity made a cute little sound that sounded like “Eep!”, jerking her head up and belatedly looking Spike in the eyes. Was she blushing? “T-Thank you, Spike. I-I’m sure it’s just what I’m looking for.”*

“Uh, glad to help,” Spike replied, handing the book over. It wobbled in the air when Rarity’s magic took hold of it. “Is there anything else I can do for you?”

Her cheeks turned even redder, and she shook her head with much more force than he’d ever seen her do. “No! No, thank you, darling, I should be perfectly fine. But I really should be going, inspiration calls, you know how it is, ahahaha... Ta-ta!” As swiftly as she’d arrived, the unicorn was gone.

Spike sat there for longer than he would have liked to admit, going over the last few minutes in his head. Eventually, he decided that he had to be imagining things, reading too much into it.

But as he returned to his work, he found that he just couldn’t suppress his smile.

Chapter Text

Dinner at Sweet Apple Acres was invariably a joyous, boisterous occasion. It could hardly be anything else, with a family famed across Ponyville for their cooking skills, a family that believed so strongly in working hard and keeping fed afterward.

Today the tomatoes had finally been ready to harvest, so Applejack had prepared some pasta and sauce, and a generous helping of apple fritters on the side, naturally. Apple Bloom dug in immediately, and Big Mac followed up with only slightly less enthusiasm. AJ took her place at the table, breathed deep the delicious scent, and bent forward to start eating as well.

SPLAT.

Several seconds passed in silence before Applejack deigned to move again. Swiping a foreleg across her face to wipe away the splattered tomato sauce, she glared at the little white rabbit that was standing paw-deep in her pasta. “Angel Bunny,” she said, ignoring Apple Bloom’s badly-suppressed giggling. “You got until I finish this sentence to get outta my dinner, or so help me—”

Angel hopped onto her napkin, then bounced to the floor, beckoning to Applejack as her eyes followed him. Now that she got a good look at him, he didn’t seem to have that usual air of barely concealed disdain. No, he looked... worried. Frightened, even.

“Angel? Somethin’ the matter?”

The rabbit nodded frantically, gesturing repeatedly in the direction of the door.

“What’s got ya so worked up? Is it—Is it Fluttershy?” Angel nodded again, and Applejack suddenly found herself on her hooves, with no memory of standing up. “What happened? Is she hurt?”

Angel didn’t answer, dashing toward the door as if there wasn’t a moment to lose. He pulled it open easily, looking over his shoulder as if to say, “Are you coming or what?” And then he darted out into the darkness.

Applejack swallowed, willing her hammering heart to shift back down into her chest. “I-I better go see what’s up. Y’all just enjoy the meal, alright?” Without waiting for her family to answer, Applejack galloped out the door at her top speed.

Fluttershy’s cottage wasn’t far from Sweet Apple Acres, but it was far enough for Applejack’s imagination to provide plenty of worst-case scenarios, each one worse than the last. What if one of the animals she cared for had slipped and lost control? What if something from the Everfree Forest had attacked her? What if something had gotten out of Tartarus? Cold terror filled her veins. If anything happened to Fluttershy, sweet, kind, innocent Fluttershy...

No, Applejack couldn’t think like that. She just had to believe that whatever was the matter, she’d get there with enough time to help. The alternative... was just too terrible to consider.

There was the cottage, a dim light flickering in the windows. Was there a fire? Applejack practically leapt over the bridge and up the path, slamming the door open with her shoulder. “Fluttershy!” she gasped. “Are you... Are you... you...

“...Huh?”

To say that the sight before her wasn’t quite what she’d expected would have been an understatement of massive proportions. A table had been dragged out into Fluttershy’s living room, set with two plates, a heaping bowl of salad, candles providing the flickering light she’d seen... Far from a disaster, it looked like a dinner date straight out of those romance novels Rarity was always trying to talk her into reading.

Applejack stared for a second, before confusion turned to frustration. “Angel Bunny, what in the wide, wide world o’—”

From the doorway, Angel flashed her a sneaky grin for a fraction of a second, then slammed the door shut.

Before Applejack could decide what to do with herself, a soft voice came from above. “Is someone there? I’m sorry, I wasn’t expecting visitors...” Fluttershy tiptoed her way down the stairs, tentative as usual. When she saw the table and the pony standing awkwardly beside it, her face flooded with a blush that must have taken up most of the blood in her body. “A-Applejack? I—what—th-this is...” she stammered, eyes wide with awe.

Applejack groaned and tugged her hat down over her eyes. “I’m sorry, Fluttershy, but one o’ these days, I swear I’m gonna punt that little furball clear across Ponyville.” She gestured at the table. “Angel Bunny thinks he’s pretty funny, I reckon.”

“...Oh.” Fluttershy’s voice took a sudden drop in volume, even for her. “I see. He really does mean well, it’s just...” She slowly made her way to the table, her eyes, wings—almost her entire body drooping. “I’ll just... clean this up. I’m sorry he bothered you.”*

Even straining to hear her as she was, Applejack couldn’t miss the tone of—there was no other word that fit—disappointment. It was like she’d swallowed an ice cube the size of a cider barrel, seeing Fluttershy so sad. Did she actually like the idea of... Did she really want to...?

“Actually—” The word slipped out involuntarily, but when Fluttershy turned to look at her, eyes glistening suspiciously, Applejack realized that the last thing she could do—the last thing she wanted—was to walk away. “I... I ain’t exactly interested in goin’ back to the dinner that bunny stepped in... so, well... reckon there’s no sense lettin’ this meal go to waste, right?”

Fluttershy’s blank stare gradually became a tentative smile, accompanied by another blush that made her look just as cute as a button, and Applejack found herself thinking that maybe, just maybe, she might have something to thank Angel for after all.

Not that she was going to give him the satisfaction of admitting it.

Chapter Text

Every year, Rarity begins her birthday the same way. It’s a tradition of sorts, a play put on for herself and her loved ones—though it began life as a genuine expression of insecurity. And it goes like this.

When she wakes up, she steps out of her luxurious bed and walks over to her vanity. She picks up the schedule of due dates that she knows by heart and pretends to read it. And she says aloud, “My goodness, I have so much to do today! There must be no interruptions.”

Still in bed, her husband rolls over and grins at her, leaning his head on one claw. The first year (though he was not yet her husband then), he’d been silenced by confusion, well aware of the significance of the date. She had taken advantage of it, sweeping out of the bedroom before he could form words. Now, she saunters out of the bedroom dramatically, tossing him a showy wink and a flick of her tail before she shuts the door.

She takes the stairs down to her work room, brushing her mane on the way without the aid of a mirror. She whisks fabric and thread and tools up in her magic, carries them to the table, and begins her work. Snip by snip, piece by piece, she immerses herself in the dresses and costumes that need to be completed. The first year (though her beloved boutique was much smaller then), she had done it to keep her mind off the date, to keep from thinking of the various doubts and fears that plagued her. Now, she does it to pass the time before the next act. The cruel voices that once spoke in her mind are now silent.

Her husband steps in an hour later and attempts to engage her in conversation, but she brushes off each play for her attention with a curt sentence and a shake of her head. The first year (though his words had been as heartfelt as they were clumsy then), she had quickly grown frustrated with his attempts to distract her from her distraction, to make her think about the one thing she least wished to acknowledge. Now, she struggles to hide the smile on her lips as she speaks cold words, and she does not wholly succeed. Eventually, he kisses her cheek and steps out, leaving her to her work.

The boutique is silent but for the swish of fabric and the click of scissors. She works, and the hours roll away, as they always do. The first year (though there had not been as much work then), she had found it harder and harder to suppress the regret and the pain with every passing moment in solitude. Now, she is filled with anticipation instead, for she knows that at any moment she will turn to look for a blueprint, or a certain needle, or a pincushion—

And suddenly—just as suddenly as it happened that first year—she is no longer alone.

A purple-coated alicorn has slipped into the boutique. Silently, the princess of magic holds out the pincushion Rarity had sought, smiling softly. As Rarity takes it, she turns to a nearby mannequin and starts sewing together a seam, assisting without words.

A few minutes later, an earth pony in an aged hat is bringing in a roll of fabric from the back, followed by a pink-maned pegasus carrying a bag full of thread spools.

A perky pink pony arrives with cupcakes in hoof, abnormally sedate but smiling warmly. Even the rainbow-maned tomboy who has long despised high fashion is assisting without a single scoff.

And last, but most certainly not least, her husband returns from his self-appointed task: gathering up her closest friends to support her as they always do.

Together, the seven lifelong friends make short work of Rarity’s backlog, and before the sun has even begun to approach the horizon, they are done. The first year (though she had barely been able to see and hear them through her sobbing then), they had all taken turns to reassure her and comfort her, reminding her that she was more than her age, that growing old would never leave her any less beautiful or any less loved. Now, they don’t have to say a word. She has left those doubts and fears behind her.

And now, her party-loving friend finally allows her enthusiasm to burst free, and her new and improved party cannon explodes, showering the whole boutique in confetti and decorations. Now, just as in the first year, and the second, and all those since, and all those yet to come... Rarity smiles and declares her birthday party begun, reveling in the love of her dearest friends, and in her love for them.

Chapter Text

When Mariposa May slipped in through True Blue Spark’s bedroom window, she found him curled up on his bed, one leg covering his face. The remains of his latest project were scattered around the messy room. Oh, boy, she thought with a sigh.

“So... how’s it going?” she asked.

“Enh,” was the only response.

“...Got all your homework done?”

Spark nodded without looking up.

Mariposa sighed again, then went for the elephant in the room. “And... how did your latest blueprint turn out?”

“I’m giving up,” Spark announced suddenly.

“Wha—giving up on what?”

“Everything. The inventing thing. I quit. I’m done.” The unicorn, blue in the figurative as well as literal sense, rolled over and kicked a stray crescent wrench off the edge of his bed.

Mariposa frowned. “Oh, come on, you can’t just quit! Remember how excited you were about inventing some great gadget back when we first met?”

“Yeah, well, a few years of nothing but failure later...”

She looked at that ‘latest blueprint’, which was tacked to the wall next to a dozen others. This one was supposed to be an automatic sugar cube shaper. “Maybe you just need to start a little smaller?”

“If I go any smaller I’ll be working with nanotech!” Spark sat up and glared at Mariposa—or tried to; he was really terrible at anger, so he just looked kind of pathetic. “They just don’t work. Nothing does. No matter how hard I try, I can’t make anything that lives up to my imagination. The gears just won’t fit together!”

Mariposa May fluttered her wings awkwardly. Spark was usually a lot more upbeat than this, and it felt wrong to see him so pessimistic, as if a law of the universe were being violated. “There’s got to be something you can do...”

“Yeah, give up.” True Blue Spark flopped backward on his bed again. “So much for my stupid cutie mark. Guess my destiny is to fail.”

At the mention of his cutie mark, Mariposa’s eyes strayed to it. A large gear and a smaller one, with a spark flying out from where they met. “How did you get it again? You made a TV remote control and showed it off to your middle school class, right? They were all laughing like crazy?”

Spark groaned. “It was a fake remote. We were supposed to make up an invention, so I recorded asilly entertaining video ahead of time and memorized the timing.” He slapped his forehead. “That’s it! My destiny is to make up fake inventions that would never work! At least that’s clear now.”

“Geez, you get really sarcastic when you’re in a bad mood,” Mariposa mumbled. She cast her gaze around the room—and it alighted on a stack of papers on his desk. They didn’t look like the blueprints he usually made... “What are these?”

“Huh? Oh, those.” Spark waved a hoof. “Staring at designs was driving me crazy. I had a dumb idea for a comic strip, so I scribbled it down. My art’s pretty pathetic, but I don’t think the writing’s that bad.”

Well, it’s bound to be better than your automatic back-scratcher, Mariposa was kind enough not to say aloud. She picked up the sheets of paper and glanced at the one on top.

When she next looked away, she discovered almost a half-hour had passed.

“Spark... This is fantastic!”

True Blue Spark furrowed his brow, staring across the room at her. “Uh, what is?”

“This comic of yours!” Mariposa gushed. “I love it! The art’s not the best, but it’s a great adventure story!”

“O-Oh, really?” He reddened, rubbing the back of his neck sheepishly. “Wow, thanks. It’s just a little something I did for fun...”

“Well, it works really well! I like the six demons and the weird elements you picked for them. And working the last one in with the main character’s missing wings! Did you plan that from the start?”

“Actually, no!” Spark grinned and leaned forward, starting to gesture enthusiastically as he spoke. “I knew from the start the hero would be born wingless, and since he had to unite the feather-winged and the leather-winged tribes, he’d have to get one of each eventually. But I didn’t know how until I decided the demon would have to steal wings to disguise himself. It all just kinda came to me one creative spark at a time!” He laughed. “And it ended up fitting together just like...”

Spark stopped, eyes going wide, and it took him a few seconds to pick up the sentence again. “Like a couple of gears... meshing just right.”

As one, the two ponies turned to look at Spark’s cutie mark again.

Chapter Text

The sight of five ponies and one young dragon hanging out together was not an uncommon one in Ponyville. These particular ponies and dragon were known for being the best and most inseparable of friends. The activity they were engaged in this fine afternoon, however, was a bit unusual.

“Oh, Spikey-Wikey, I simply cannot thank you enough for assisting me so ably!” Rarity leaned down to nuzzle Spike’s cheek affectionately. He blushed like the setting sun, but valiantly prevented the quill in his claw from splattering ink all over the stack of parchment in front of him.

“I-I’m glad to help, Rarity! It’s the least I can do. You need this filled out to enter the exhibition, after all!”

“I gotta admit, I’m mighty impressed at how good you are with all this paperwork,” Applejack chuckled. “After yer done here, mind if I hire ya to help Big Macintosh with the farm’s taxes?”

“You don’t have to hire me, AJ, I’m glad to help!” Spike insisted. “I grew up in Canterlot, so I know how obtuse their paperwork can be.”

Rarity shook her head and placed a hoof against her forehead. “Oh, it’s simply dreadful! Form after form, half of them requiring information already given in the ones before!”

“Yeah, seriously. Princess Celestia is always trying to make things more efficient, but some ponies just like their red tape.”

Pinkie Pie leaned over the table, peering at the upside-down (to her) forms. “Is that how you got so good at this? Did the Princess teach you?”

Spike smiled and stared off into the distance for a second. “She didn’t exactly teach me, but... Before Luna came back, just about every scroll that needed a signature had to go by her. So I just picked it up here and there.”

“Well, I think it’s very impressive,” Fluttershy said.

“Oh, agreed! And I’m ever so grateful that you did,” Rarity chimed, leaning in for another nuzzle.

“Ehehe, me too.” Once Spike had tamed his latest blush, he snorted and tapped the uppermost parchment with his quill, where a field marked ‘First Name’ contained the name ‘Rarity’ and the field ‘Last Name’ rested blank. “It sure wasn’t easy, though. It took me forever to figure out how these worked for all of us who’ve only got one name!”

“Yeah, I always kinda wondered about that,” Rainbow Dash put in. “And what about this one?” She pointed at the ‘Middle Name’ field one line below. “Do they even need that? I don’t think I even know anypony who has a middle name!”

“Sure you do, Dashie!” Pinkie said. “Mine’s Diane!”

Dash blinked at her pink friend. “Oh, yeah, I forgot. Okay, so I know one pony who has a middle name. And that’s Pinkie, so it only half counts anyway.” The Pinkie Exception was a well-known maxim throughout Ponyville and portions of the rest of Equestria.

“Actually, Twilight’s got one too,” Spike commented absently, chewing on the end of his quill. How much could he get away with putting down for travel expenses, he wondered. Rarity could technically get a royal escort any time she wanted, but—

“Wait, what?” Rainbow Dash was the first to react, slamming her hooves down on the table. “Twilight has a middle name?”

“Huh? You guys didn’t know?” From the shocked expressions on all five ponies’ faces, the answer to Spike’s question was obvious.

“Why, she’s never told us! So, darling, what is it?”

Rainbow Dash chuckled and rubbed her hooves together. “Yeah, spill it! It must be something embarrassing, or she wouldn’t be keeping it secret!”

“What?” Spike scratched his head. “She doesn’t keep it a secret or anything... She’s probably told all you guys a couple times, you just didn’t realize it.”

“Now, what’s that supposed to mean, exactly?” Applejack asked.

He rolled his eyes in response. “She’s totally in love with that dumb joke. I’d be surprised if you never—oh, hey, there she is.”

In unison, the six turned toward Twilight Sparkle, who was walking down the street with Mayor Mare. “Are you certain it’s alright?” the mayor said solicitously. “I would completely understand if you were too busy, with your other duties...”

“No, no, it’s no trouble at all, I assure you!” Twilight assured her. “Canterlot does Winter Wrap Up entirely with magic, so I won’t be needed! I’ll be more than happy to be the All-Team Organizer again!”

“Oh, thank you, Twilight. I don’t know what we would do without you!”

Twilight beamed proudly. “It’s my pleasure, Mayor. After all, ‘Organization’ is my middle name!” And she grinned, as if enjoying a private little in-joke that only she was in on.

Spike held out his claws and looked at the others. “You see?” he drawled.

Rainbow Dash’s jaw dropped. “What, seriously?!”

“Talk about prophetic names...” Applejack muttered under her breath.

“Yeah. As long as I live, I will never understand what Mr. and Mrs. Sparkle were thinking.”

Fluttershy shook her head. “At least she seems to like it.”

“She would.”

“Hey, Spike! Hey, girls!” Twilight trotted up to the table happily. “What’s up?”

The girls mumbled and exchanged awkward glances and kicked their hooves.

Spike just rolled his eyes. “Hey, Twilight. Wanna help me finish off this paperwork?”

Do I!”

Chapter Text

My first inkling that anything was the matter came when the light from my horn quite abruptly blinked out. I gasped and stopped dead in my tracks, of course. I certainly didn’t want to walk into any stalagmites or cave walls!

“Rarity! Are you alright? What happened?” Spike was quick to rush to my aid. I could hear his footsteps scratching against the stone until he collided with me. “Oof!”

“I’m fine, darling.” I reached out with a hoof to steady him, and he leaned against me in relief. “My light simply seems to have gone. Just give me a moment...”

I focused on my horn, calling up all the magic within my body, but it stubbornly refused to light up again! And not only that, but when I tried my gem detecting spell, it failed as well. I was even unable to levitate anything! “Oh, dear,” I murmured. “Something seems to be blocking my magic.”

“Really?” Spike gasped. “Is that possible?”

“It appears that way,” I replied. “I can still feel my magic, but the spells aren’t working. Could you possibly light the way for a moment so I can reorient myself?”

“Sure thing!” Spike gathered his breath, then breathed out a jet of flame. For an instant I could see his face, the floor below us, covered in odd geometric carvings... and a glint off in the distance, as if the light from his fire had reflected off something very large. Very large and undoubtedly very valuable.

The flame died out, and Spike pulled in a gasping breath. “Just... Just gimme a second, I can...”

I patted his shoulder. “No, no, Spike, save your breath for now. Before we turn around... I think I saw something in the back of this cave. If we’re very careful, it should be safe.”

“Okay, if you say so...” He sounded uncertain, but he was still willing to come with me, the brave boy.

Very carefully, one step at a time, we walked toward the mysterious object. Spike kept his claw on my side so that we weren’t separated. As we grew closer, I began to notice a strange metallic scent. The air tasted dry, lifeless. From the way Spike leaned closer to me, I could tell that he sensed it too. We’d discovered something strange down there.

Finally my hoof bumped stone. I carefully ran both my hooves over the squared-off surfaces before me. Erosion had softened the corners, but it felt like some kind of altar, with carvings in it similar to the ones I’d glimpsed earlier. And atop the altar, fused to the stone by the drippings of thousands of years...

It was an enormous gemstone, unlike any I’d ever seen before. Not that I was seeing it at the moment, but you know what I mean, don’t you? It was as large as one of my saddlebags, perfectly faceted, an utterly flawless, unmatched thing of beauty.

And yet... As I felt the many facets of the gem, my hooves began to feel numb. And I began to feel slightly weak, legs wobbling under me, as if I had overused my magic and needed to rest.

My magic... “Spike... I believe we’ve found the source of the missing magic. This gemstone seems to have the power to block my spells.”

“Yeah...” The tension in Spike’s voice was plain to hear, and I immediately released the gemstone to place a hoof around his shoulder. Goodness, he was trembling! “I can tell...”

Without a thought, I pulled him closer. “Spike! Darling, whatever is the matter?”

“I can feel it... That thing is trying to suck the magic right out of me.” He felt it even more strongly than me, without even having to touch it. I wondered, for an instant, if perhaps dragons were more inherently magical creatures than ponies are, even unicorns like myself. His voice stumbled over a half-finished word, wobbling, but then I felt him stand up straight in my embrace. “I think we should get out of here, Rarity,” he said more firmly. “It’s not safe.”

Ordinarily I would have agreed with him. It might have been the most beautiful gem in the world, but it wasn’t worth placing him in danger. But then I realized... If we had found this artifact, others could very well do the same. If hooves less trustworthy than ours held the magic-draining gemstone...

“I agree,” I said. “It isn’t safe... But I think it isn’t safe to leave that gemstone here either. What if somepony else were to find it, and use it for evil purposes?”

“You’re right,” he breathed. “I didn’t think of that. Maybe we should take it to Twilight? Or the princesses?”

I chuckled fondly. “You read my mind, my dear. Now, if you would help me lever it away from the altar?”

“You bet!” He wriggled away and dashed toward the gem—

And then I heard a wet hiss and a pained scream.

Spike!” I shrieked, hooves groping blindly until I found him in the blackness. I pulled him into my embrace, wincing as the horrible scent of singed scales met my nose. “Oh, no, are you hurt?”

The poor little dragon let out a pained hiss. “I-I don’t think I can touch it, Rarity...”

“Oh, darling, I’m so sorry. I’ll just grab that blasted thing myself and we’ll be back to Ponyville as quickly as we can run!”

I reared up onto the altar, wrapping my forelegs around the cold gemstone that had dared to harm my Spikey-Wikey. I yanked with all my might, intent on getting it off the altar and into my bag so we could get back home and the nurses could tend to his poor abused scales. It resisted briefly, but one last yank freed it from the stone.

And then, as I fell back onto my flank and the gemstone fell with me, an ominous rumbling filled the cavern.*

“Oh, dear...”

“Rarity, run! It’s a cave-in!” I heard Spike’s feet patter against the stone, and I rushed to follow him, one leg looped around the gemstone. But where was the exit? I groped at the floor with my hooves, feeling the geometric carvings, and remembering the way they had roughly lined up with the doorway.

I dashed forward, hearing rocks crash and feeling dust fly up against my rear. The rumbling grew louder, and I thought I heard Spike’s voice, but I couldn’t make out the words. I tried to respond, but only succeeded in inhaling a cloud of dust. I coughed, hacked, stumbled blindly forward...

And then something struck me in the head, and the darkness outside my mind rushed in to fill it.

------

“Yeah? And then what happened?” Rainbow Dash demanded.

Rarity put on her straightest face and adopted the blandest tone of voice she could. “Why, we both died, of course. Crushed to death in the cave-in. It was the most tragic ending imaginable.” She could feel Spike shaking with suppressed laughter where he leaned against her side.

Rarity!” five voices yelled—oh goodness, even Fluttershy had joined in.

“Very well, very well, I’m sorry. But my throat is growing a bit sore, I’m afraid. Spike, would you mind continuing from here? You woke up before I did, I believe.”

“Yeah, I think so.” Spike cleared his throat and smiled up at his friends. “So the next thing I knew...”

Chapter Text

It isn’t until you realize that you have spent the last half-hour staring at (or, more accurately, “over”) the same page of your manual on expert stitching techniques that you finally admit to yourself that you have a problem, and that your problem’s name is Spike.

You’re being unfair, and you know it. Spike is about as far from a problem as one can get—he’s eagerly helpful, always pleasant conversation, and now that he’s started building his hoard and growing, very easy on the eyes as well. Really, the fact that he isn’t a problem is the problem, as much as that sounds like a sentence Pinkie Pie would construct. Because he’s quickly demonstrating the same ability that the other ponies in Ponyville seem to share: an uncanny knack for absolutely decimating your Plans.

You’ve always had a Plan for your life, ever since you discovered your talent and gained your cutie mark. Your fashion designs will lead you inexorably to Canterlot, where you will earn fame, fortune... and the attention of a classy, noble stallion. Certainly Prince Blueblood has been stricken from the plan for possessing class and nobility only in the most technical of senses, but that only means that your Mr. Right, your Prince Charming, even, is still out there, waiting to be found! He’ll fall for you at first sight, sweep you off your hooves and romance you, and the two of you will live a life full of love and luxury together.

Spike was never a part of the Plan. A baby dragon, your true love? Of all the crazy ideas, that took the cake! Certainly he had turned out to be a wonderful friend, to the point where you found yourself preferring his company to that of your Canterlot suitors. And certainly his old crush on you was sweet, if just a touch overbearing at times. But you never believed it would become anything more. After all, he was just a child.

Until, suddenly, he wasn’t.

He’s as tall as any pony in Equestria now, but svelte and serpentine—a word you never considered attractive until you saw how well he wears it. His face is leaner now, but his eyes are, if anything, even more expressive than before—he still wears his heart on his sleeve like he always did. His voice has deepened ever so slightly, and somehow he’s picked up a distressing purr that makes you shiver. You had never in your life entertained the idea of being attracted to a dragon, but now the idea seems disinclined to give you a choice in the matter.

Like a single spark setting a bale of hay ablaze, Spike has blown your old, comfortable presumptions to dust, left you stumbling and blushing like a schoolfilly. Only now are you seeing just how much you prefer his company, how much you appreciate his attention and his assistance and even simply his quiet presence. It’s as if you were falling for him all along, just a little at a time, and all it took was this nudge to make you realize it.

And to your great shock, you find yourself not wanting to follow the Plan any more. Not if it means losing him.

He pauses in his dusting and glances over at you. You quickly pull up your book again (what were you even reading? you can’t remember), but it’s too late. He’s walking your way. “Everything okay, Rarity?”

“Just fine!” Oh, curse that blasted squeak in your voice!*

“You sure?” You lower your manual just a bit, to see those accursed green eyes seeking yours out. “You don’t seem to be getting much out of that book. Want me to look for another one?”

You shake your head, with a bit more force than necessary. “No, really, Spike, I don’t want to put you to any trouble.”

He smirks and leans against the table. “How many times do I have to say it’s no trouble if it’s for you? Seriously, is there anything you need?”

A wake-up call back to reality. A rescue from this crazy crush. A way to save your Plan from the tornado of emotion inside you. A kiss. “You.”

Those lovely eyes go wide, and you realize the last word slipped out unbidden. You gasp and cover your mouth, mortified beyond belief, hoping that one of Twilight’s old abandoned experiments will spontaneously explode and distract from your embarrassment.

But then he smiles shyly, pink gently tinting his cheeks. “I thought you knew? I’m already yours,” he says, and you think you may just swoon on the spot.

Maybe the Plan will work out after all. You never really said it had to be a pony sweeping you off your hooves and romancing you, right?

Chapter Text

I hate Twilight Sparkle.

Alright, alright, I don’t really hate her. She’s okay, I guess. Always tried to help us Crusaders out—back when we were still little kids and still crusading, I mean—and she doesn’t seem to mind me crashing into the library now and then. And yeah, there’s the whole saving-Equestria-once-a-year thing. I guess I just don’t think she’s as super amazing as everypony else always says, you know?

I mean, sure, she’s a super-powerful princess now, with magic even stronger than Celestia’s or something. But how many times has she screwed stuff up using the wrong spell? Do I have to bring up the Smarty Pants doll again? And I’d run out of feathers before I could count all the times she’s made a bad situation worse!

And even after all this time, she’s still totally clueless about all sorts of stuff! If it’s not in a book, it might as well not exist to her. And talk about... oh, what’s that word Spike’s always using... Neurotic, that was it. I swear she plans her day down to the second!

But certain ponies seem to think she’s just the most fantastic mare who ever walked the earth. And I’m like, are you kidding me? First of all, she’s not a tenth as cool as Rainbow Dash, and second of all, just because she’s teaching you magic doesn’t mean you have to melt all over her!

“Ahhh... There she is, Scootaloo...”

No, I don’t hate Twilight. What I do hate is the way Sweetie Belle just won’t. Shut. Up about her.

Take right now, for instance. We were supposed to hang out, she doesn’t even have a magic lesson scheduled today, and yet here we are, walking by the library so she can swoon over Twilight again. I swear if she gets any schmoopier, my teeth are gonna rot out of my skull.

“Doesn’t she look beautiful today?” she gushes.

I make an unenthusiastic noise that sounds kinda like “Mnuhh,” and from her cloud of floating hearts Sweetie takes that as agreement. I seriously can’t see it, though. Am I the only pony in the world who just doesn’t get the “sexy librarian” thing? Twilight’s manecut is flat and boring, and she’s got the physique of somepony who spends all her time sitting around and reading! Okay, I suppose she’s a little sleeker now that she’s become a princess and all, however the heck that works. But beautiful? Hardly.

Now, take a look at me. All the exercise I get from speeding around town has made me nice and toned all over, head to hoof. And I’m not exactly the girly type, but I’ve been paying more attention to my mane lately. Even been trying a little makeup here and there. Y’know, just for kicks. But do I ever get called beautiful? Yeah, right! Everypony’s too busy fawning over the Princess.

Sweetie Belle sighs dramatically. That sister of hers is a bad influence, I tell you what. “Oh, if only she would look my way for just a moment! Oh, Scoots, do you think I’d ever have a chance with her?”

I don’t know,” I growl, fighting the urge to roll my eyes until they pop out of my skull. “Why don’t you stop talking about it and go find out already?” Maybe then I can actually have enough peace to think.

She stops and stares at me. I start fidgeting, wondering what’s the matter with her. Just when I’m about to ask, she shouts, “That’s it!”

“What? What’s it?”

“I’m gonna do it, Scootaloo!” Sweetie announces, a look of determination on her face. “I’m gonna tell Twilight how I feel about her!”

My jaw drops. “You’re what? Hold on, Sweetie, maybe this isn’t—”

She shakes her head. “No, you’re right!” Her voice squeaks cutely on the last word. No, wait, I meant annoying...ly. “I’m never gonna know unless I go for it!”

“No, seriously, isn’t this kinda sudden for—”

“Sorry, now is the moment! I’ll let you know how it went later, okay? Bye!” Without another word, Sweetie dashes off toward the library, busting the door down without a thought.

So now I’m alone, I guess. That’s cool.

I start wandering down the street. I’m not sure where I’m going. Wherever. Doesn’t matter. Apple Bloom’s busy on the farm. Maybe I’ll just keep walking until I end up in Manehattan.

I guess it’s pretty obvious what Sweetie Belle looks for in a mare. Twilight’s powerful, influential, super intelligent... She never struggled in school, she figured out how to fly after only having wings for a few days, she’s saved the freaking world... When you look at it like that, she’s pretty much the exact opposite of me, isn’t she? No wonder Sweetie likes her so much.

And now she’s going off to confess. And, I mean, of course Twilight’s gonna say yes. You’d have to be crazy to turn her down! You wanna call someone beautiful, she’s beautiful. Growing up was seriously kind to her, in the “curves in all the right places” sorta way. And she’s sweet and thoughtful, and so much fun to hang out with, and when she grins her face just sort of... I don’t even know how to describe it, but...

Oh, you know what, I don’t even care any more! Good for her and good for Twilight! They can run off to Canterlot and have a bunch of super smart magical babies for all I care!*

Where am I? I wasn’t paying any attention. I can still see the library off in the distance, so not far enough yet. Wait, is that Sweetie Belle coming out already? As much as I don’t want to hear how it went, I guess I better go pretend to be happy for her. I cover the distance with a few flaps and land in front of her—

What. She’s crying. Why is she crying.

“S-Sweetie Belle? Wha, what happened?”

Between sobs, she manages to get out, “T-Twilight said... she likes me a lot, and... and she’s flattered, but she’s not... s-she doesn’t...” And now she’s bawling too much to get any words out.

The first thing I feel is relief, with a little bit of hope mixed in. Maybe that stupid crush is finally over with, and I can stop hearing about Twilight this and Twilight that.

And then the rest of me catches up, and I want to puke. Sweetie Belle just had her heart broken, and that’s all I can think about? No wonder it took me so long to fly, I’m the lowest dirtbag of a pegasus who ever lived.

I pull her into a hug and let her sob on my shoulder. She needs a friend right now, dammit, so that’s what I’m gonna be. “Shh, just let it out,” I tell her. “It’s gonna be okay, I promise.”

Who knows, maybe if I get her to believe that, I’ll start believing it too.

Chapter Text

The atmosphere was tense in Cheerilee’s classroom. A crime had been committed, a suspect named. And justice was about to be served... or so it seemed.

Cheerilee herself sat at her desk, forelegs crossed and wearing a stern expression. Dinky Doo was sobbing in the corner, with Pipsqueak patting her shoulder in an attempt to calm her down. And Scootaloo, on Cheerilee’s instruction, was standing at the front of the room, sweating heavily.

“But I didn’t do it! I swear I didn’t!” Scootaloo pleaded. “You gotta believe me!”

Cheerilee frowned. “I’d like to believe you, Scootaloo, but the evidence against you is strong. The pie tin from Dinky’s dessert was found in your desk, and you were alone in the classroom during lunch.”

Scootaloo paled, eyes darting around. “W-Well, yeah... I was at my desk for a bit at lunch... But then I went and hung out with Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle like I always do! I didn’t take Dinky’s pie! I’d never do something uncool like that!”

“Then how do you explain the tin?”

Scootaloo swallowed. “I-I dunno... Anypony could’ve put it there!”

“Yeah, that’s right!” Apple Bloom put in. “Did anypony see her eat it? There’s no proof!”

“Right! You can’t punish her if you don’t know it was her!” Sweetie Belle agreed.

“It’s admirable that you’re trying to defend Scootaloo, girls, but who else could have done it?” Cheerilee looked over the classroom. “Dinky was one of the last students to leave the room aside from Scootaloo, and the pie was still there when she left. And Shady tells me he saw her dart out of the room in the middle of the break.”

Shady? Sweetie Belle turned to look at her classmate. The colt looked normal, but... his wings were twitching. Just like Scootaloo’s sometimes did when she wasn’t being totally honest with the Crusaders. Something didn’t add up here.

“Miss Cheerilee?” Sweetie waved her hoof in the air. “What if Shady told us all what he saw?” Shady jumped in his seat, turning to face Sweetie Belle. She gave him the sweetest, most syrupy smile Rarity had ever taught her. “Just so we can make sure we’re not confused about how it happened!”

Cheerilee rubbed her chin. “I suppose there wouldn’t be any harm in that. Is that alright, Shady?”

“Uh, sure!” Shady said, hopping up and fluttering to the front of the room.

“Whenever you’re ready, then.”

Shady nodded and cleared his throat. “Okay. So a few minutes after lunch started, I realized I’d left my lunch bag in the classroom. So I came back to get it.”

Sweetie Belle leaned forward in her seat. Everything checked out so far.

“When I got there,” he continued, “I saw Scootaloo sitting at her desk, all alone. She looked kinda suspicious.”

“Hold it!” Apple Bloom suddenly shouted. “Whaddaya mean, ‘suspicious’?”

Shady shrugged. “Well, she was looking all fidgety. Like she didn’t want anypony to see her. Like she was doing something wrong, you know?”

“Mmm...” Apple Bloom hummed discontentedly. Sweetie knew they were thinking the same thing: Scootaloo hadn’t been able to afford lunch again today, and she always felt too embarrassed and ashamed to be seen borrowing food from them. That explained the way she was acting, but they couldn’t tell the whole class that...

“Anyway, she zoomed out of the classroom in a rush. Even faster than she usually goes. So... Just on a hunch, when I went in to get my bag, I peeked inside her desk too.” Shady coughed, blushing a bit. “I know I shouldn’t’ve been snooping, but I wasn’t gonna touch anything.”

Sweetie scowled. It wasn’t a crime to look at the other desks—it was a public schoolhouse, after all. There had to be something wrong with all this, but how could she prove it?

“When I opened it up, I saw an empty pie tin! I knew right away it was Dinky’s special dessert, the one she was bragging about this morning. The one her mom made special, just for her.”

Dinky, who had almost calmed down by this point, let out a wail. Pipsqueak winced and pulled her into a hug. Scootaloo was starting to shiver, too convinced that her goose was cooked to offer a word in her own defense.

Somepony had to have planted the tin. Sweetie Belle just knew Scootaloo would never have done such a thing, no matter how hungry she was. After all, Scootaloo knew how much Dinky loved her mom and the treats that she always—

Wait just a minute.

“Hold it!” she squeaked. “How did you know it was Dinky’s dessert? Was her name on the tin?”

Shady wrinkled his brow. “Huh? Well, no. But like I said, she was bragging about how her mom made her something special for dessert today! So what else could it have—”

Objection!” Sweetie Belle slammed her hooves down on her desk and pointed at Shady. “That’s right, Dinky had ‘something special’ for dessert! But that’s all she said! She never told us it was a pie until after it got stolen! And everypony knows her mom! Why would you assume the special dessert was a pie, when everypony else was expecting some kind of muffin?”

“Wh—Gah!” Shady recoiled, jaw dropping in shock. His wings shot out to either side, twitching in time with one of his lower eyelids. “W-Well, I, uh...”

Sweetie crossed her forelegs and smirked. “Looks like your story is one slice short of a full pie, Shady! Why don’t you tell us what really happened?”*

Cheerilee’s eyes went wide. “That’s true... Even I had expected her mother to make muffins again. Can you explain yourself, Shady?”

“H-Hang on!” Shady stammered. “Okay, okay, I mighta got the details a little wrong. I can totally explain, though!”

“Go right ahead!” Sweetie chimed happily, confidence rushing in. She had him on the ropes now, and she wouldn’t let him wriggle away! Whatever story he made up next, she’d find something wrong with it.

For Scootaloo’s sake, she would see to it justice was served. A la mode, even!

Chapter Text

Slowly, with careful, tentative hoofsteps, Twilight stepped up the stairs to the bedroom she shared with her assistant. “Spike? Are you awake?”

A lazy grumble was the dragon’s only response.

“Come on down, Spike. I made breakfast! Citrine-studded omelettes, just the way you like them!”

Spike rolled over in his basket and fixed Twilight with a flat-eyed stare. “You didn’t make anything else in there, did you?”

Twilight choked, sputtered, and stammered, “I—guh—Spike!”

“Hey, I had to check.” Spike hopped out of his basket and trotted past Twilight, who took a second to shake off her embarrassment and follow him back down.

At the door to the kitchen, the little dragon paused, peering around the corner as if expecting something to jump out at him.

Twilight could feel herself blushing. “Spike, you’re being ridiculous,” she grumbled.

“Ridiculous? Well, excuuuuse me, Princess! I just don’t want any more surprises, okay?”

“Look, I’m sorry that you walked in on... that... last night.” Even just alluding to it made Twilight’s face go red from cheek to cheek. Or maybe that was from remembering what she’d done. “But in our defense, you told me you were going to be at the boutique far later than you were.”

Spike climbed into his chair, frowning at the table. “Well, Rarity didn’t need as much help as she thought. That happens sometimes. And how was I supposed to know I’d need to announce my presence when I got back?”

“You did know we were having a date night in!”

“That was not a ‘date night’. That was...” Spike waved his claws at his omelette. “I don’t even know what you call it! Pinkie was... and you were... and right on the cutting block! I chop gems on that! Or at least I used to...”

“Spike...”

“And I’ll never look at cake frosting the same way again, I can tell you that for—”

Spike!” Twilight’s chest felt tight. When Spike turned to look at her, she found she couldn’t meet his eyes. She looked at the wall, face still burning. “Does it bother you that much? That Pinkie and I are—”

“Whoa, whoa, wait!” Spike scrambled off his chair to approach her, eyes wide. “I didn’t mean—I... You know I’m happy you guys are happy, right? Pinkie’s good for you, and you’re good for her! I’m glad you’re together, really.”

Twilight sighed, feeling some of the tension leave her. “Thank you, Spike,” she said. “I’m happy to hear that. Your opinion means a lot to me, you know.”

Spike beamed a bit at that before continuing. “But just because I’m happy about it doesn’t mean I wanna see it. I mean...” He scratched his chin for an instant. “You don’t want to think about what Shiny and Cadance get up to now that they’re married, right?”

A mental image flashed into her mind, and she shook her head furiously to dislodge it. “Ew ew ew ew ew!” she chanted.

“There, you see?” Spike chuckled, no doubt enjoying the minor revenge he’d achieved by putting that thought into her poor, innocent brain. “You’re like my sister, y’know? It’s just weird to think about you like that.”

“Okay, I understand.” Twilight wrapped a foreleg around Spike and pulled him into a hug, glad that this little incident had brought them a bit closer in the end. “I feel the same way, little brother. I sure wouldn’t want to walk in on you and Rarity!” she teased.*

“Not like there’s anything to walk in on there,” Spike sighed. Still, he returned the hug, seeming to have a little more energy now. “But thanks. Sorry I made you worry.”

“And I’m sorry we weren’t more considerate of you. I promise, if Pinkie and I get up to anything else in the library, I’ll hang a...” Twilight faltered for a moment, then went on, “I’ll hang something on the doorknob, so we won’t surprise you again.”

Thank you. Now how about that breakfast you made?”

Twilight smiled. “Yes, let’s eat! I think it came out really well!”

They settled in at the table and dug in. Now that the air had been cleared, both pony and dragon could relax and eat in companionable silence. For a minute or two, at least.

“So how does doing that taste, anyway? She had all that frosting there, but—”

“SPIKE!”

And normality returned to the Golden Oaks Library. Or, at least, what passed for normality with Twilight and Spike.

Chapter Text

Celestia’s sun silently sank past the skyline, dim daylight drifting into dark dusk. Sleepy citizens snoozed, snuggling stuffed toys and singing sonorous songs of slumber. But though they thought themselves safe and sound, a sinister and spiteful soul sought to settle a score. Yes, precariously perched upon a parapet, Professor Piggy plotted against Ponyville!

“The night of my new nation’s nascency is now,” the porcine profligate pronounced. “My minions are massed, and my mega-mecha is marking mayhem to come. I’ll crush the cretins who cursed me, and reign as their rapacious ruler! Who could hope to halt my hoof?”

“Who indeed?” A vivid voice vibrated from behind the broad-bodied baddie. The perfect purple princess, Twilight Sparkle, had come to clap the insane instructor in irons! “Cease your scheming, Professor Piggy, and submit to a strict sentence!”

“Aha! The aggravating alicorn who always arranges to send my aims awry!” The cold-hearted criminal cast his cape back, eyeing the interloper. “Too many times I’ve toiled only to tumble, beaten by your brains and brawn. Not this night! Never again! Prepare for the pounding you properly deserve!”

Twilight tittered. “The only one owed undoing is you, Professor. Contrive and connive however you can; I cannot concede to such a cruel crook! Now come!”

The raging rivals reared, and—

------

“Pinkie? Pinkie Pie, stop.”

“What’s the matter, Twilight?”

“Isn’t this story a little... farfetched? Even, I might go so far as to say, absurd?”

“But that’s half the fun of it!”

“I know, but... The plot is pretty perplexing, the antagonist’s actions are awfully arbitrary, and... Oh no.”

“Hee hee hee, what?”

“Sweet Celestia... Now you’ve got me doing it.”

Chapter Text

It was dark. Well, as dark as the streets of Canterlot ever were, considering the flickering neon signs and LED billboards plastered across every other building. The skyscraper Vinyl Scratch had her eye on, however, bore no signs, no billboards, nothing of any kind to draw a pony’s attention to it. But looks deceived, and she knew this innocuous little building held exactly what she wanted.

Or more accurately, what her employer wanted. Which was basically the same thing.

“Everypony knows the plan, right?” She looked over her team, four other ponies lending their unique skills in the name of fun and profit. (Mostly profit.) “We split up into two and two once we’re inside. Lyra, you’ll be out here making yourself highly visible.”

“I was born for this role, DJ!” Lyra cackled, raising one hoof in a salute. A fireball flickered to life in front of her horn, giving her eyes a dangerous glint.

“Just what I wanted to hear.” Vinyl glanced up toward the top of the skyscraper. “How’s our eye in the sky, Double D?”

A perky voice chimed over her crackling earpiece. “All clear! Nopony seems to suspect a thing yet.”

“Excellent. Let’s move, team! Remember, Bon Bon and the Doc hit the security. Tavi, you’re with me up top.”

“As usual,” Octavia huffed, shifting the bundle on her back. “Let’s do this before I come to my senses.”

Lyra split off from the group, and the others slipped into the shadows of the alley. Two pegasus security officers stood by an ordinary-looking door, but an explosion from the main street pulled their attention away. They stared at each other in a panic, then dashed around the corner to see what was up.

“Typical hired security,” Vinyl snorted. “Doc, you got the door covered?”

The Doc pulled out his little multi-tool and scanned the door. “Oh dear, it’s a tricky one. Seven separate levels of security! They really don’t want us coming in here, that’s for certain!” A few moments later, the tool beeped and flashed, and the door slid open as smoothly as silk. “But I suppose nopony gets what they want all the time, do they?” he chuckled.

Vinyl snickered on her way in. “One of these days, I’m gonna finally figure out how that thing works.”

The halls inside were simple to navigate. The maps Ditzy Doo had gotten them were as accurate as could be. Before they reached the split-up point, though, two more guards, earth ponies this time, bumped into the group. “Hey, what’re you doing here?” one of them snapped.

Bon Bon beamed at them, pulling a pair of candies out of the pouch around her neck. “We’re handing out free samples! Here, try a taste!” She tossed them to the guards, who backed away suspiciously—and rightly so. As soon as they hit the tiled floor, they exploded in a burst of sleeping gas. The guards were out before they hit the ground.

“This is where we part, yes?” Octavia noted at the stairs. “Good luck at the security station, Bon Bon, Doctor.”

The Doc nodded. “Not that we need it, but much appreciated all the same. Good luck keeping the DJ under control.” With no further words necessary, both pairs were on their way.

“As if anypony can control me,” Vinyl cackled. “But you’re welcome to try it some time!”

Octavia sighed and shook her head. “Remind me, Vinyl, why I still choose to associate with you, let alone work with you?”

Vinyl allowed a lecherous grin to slip onto her face, but delivered her answer in the most matter-of-fact tone she could. “Because the pay’s good, and I’m even better in bed.”

“Tch. Debatable.” The red on Octavia’s cheeks was the only hint that the jibe had affected her. But Vinyl loved that about her—the harder she was to rattle, the better it was when Vinyl managed it.

The laser grid blocking their destination shut down just as Vinyl and Octavia stepped onto the floor. “Flawless timing, as usual,” Vinyl said. “He can’t even see us, there’s no cameras on this floor.”

“If he weren’t such a fool at times, I might actually fear that stallion,” Octavia added. “Is that the computer?”

Vinyl crossed the room and looked over the innocuous beige box. “Gotta be. No route into the server except through here. All I gotta do is run the software our employer gave me, then track down the files they wanted.”

Octavia nodded, turning to face the door. “Good. I’ll never understand your work, so just do what you have to do, and I’ll see to it nopony interrupts.”

“Love ya, Tavi,” Vinyl purred. “Back in a flash!” She tucked her sunglasses up over her horn, her artificial red eyes focusing on the computer screen. Her neural plug emerged from the back of her neck, and she clicked it into the computer easy as could be.

Just as planned.

------

Not just as planned.

Vinyl’s virtual self cursed and leapt clumsily to one side, just dodging a blast of pure corruption. The defenses around the data she needed were good. Way better than Double D’s intel had suggested. She hated to admit it, but this Manticore virus might be too much, even for a decker like her.

“Vinyl—!” Hearing her partner’s voice, she pulled a screencap from her eyes. Much to her horror, it displayed Octavia with her katana out, clashing with another samurai—a unicorn hovering two blades in the air at once. “Whatever you’re doing, finish it quickly!”

“I wish I could, Tavi,” she hissed, knowing Octavia couldn’t hear her. She threw a blast of code at the Manticore and groaned as it bounced off the virus’s skin. “I think this might be it for me. Well, one out of two ain’t bad, right?” She called up the software her employer had given her, using all the resources her deck had left to set it running. “I hope whatever this is wipes your damn servers...”

The Manticore growled and leapt at her, claws out and tail lashing forward.

And then an explosion of green flames tore it into shreds.

“Geez! Are you okay?” Vinyl could only stare in astonishment at the figure before her. A dragon, one of those mythical beasts that had supposedly existed thousands of years ago, before magic had begun to give way to tech. It hovered before her, tail lashing behind it. “Why didn’t you run me first thing?”*

Vinyl pushed her jaw back up with one hoof. “And what the hell are you supposed to be?”

“I’m Spike!” the dragon said. “Mom was sure the security here was better than advertised, so she sent you a way to let me in to help. Now that her back door’s running, I can get to this server through the net!”

“Okay, that doesn’t answer my question, but whatever. Thanks for the save, kid.” Vinyl shook her head, virtual mane shaking. “Can we go get those files before my marefriend gets herself bisected?”

Spike nodded and waved toward the center of the pixellated landscape. “That’s what I’m here for! Let’s move!”

------

And from across the city, Spike’s “mom”, Twilight Sparkle, watched the images her artificial intelligence was sending back to her. And she smiled.

Vinyl and her team had done even better than she’d hoped. With the anti-viral codes they retrieved from the server, Twilight would be able to eliminate the Paraspite virus that had been taking so many decker lives in the past weeks. And once that terror had been cleared away, perhaps she could bring Vinyl’s team on with Equestrian Innovations in a more permanent sense.

There would be a lot to explain to them, of course. But if she was going to rescue the company Celestia had left her, Twilight Sparkle would need all the allies she could find.

Chapter Text

Fluttershy’s breath came fast as she sprinted down the cold, dark corridor, necklace bouncing against her chest. Her hooves pounded against the stone, their echo the only sound that broke the silence. Ahead of her she could see a massive door, encrusted with black gemstones. “This is it... isn’t it?” she panted.

“It certainly is,” came a voice from behind her. Discord floated up by her side, no larger than a parasprite, his expression more serious than she’d ever seen it before. “The final showdown, as it were. The last battle to save your friends... and more importantly, to save me!” He held up his mismatched arms, displaying the black crystals clinging to his wrists, the ones that had sealed his power away and left him trapped in an undersized form. Fluttershy knew he wasn’t able to transform, but the teary puppy eyes he gave her still seemed far larger than they should be.

“I’ll do my best,” Fluttershy promised him, but she couldn’t keep the quaver out of her voice.

“I know you will,” Discord replied. “And as strange as it must sound coming out of my mouth... I believe in you, Fluttershy.”

She smiled weakly. “Thank you.” Only privately did she add, ‘I wish I did.

The door was unlocked, sliding open silently to reveal the room they sought. Fluttershy took in the vast throne room in pieces: gleaming stained glass windows depicting the fall of Equestria, and then the Crystal Empire. Her friends locked in cages hanging from the ceiling—Rainbow Dash, Applejack, Rarity, Pinkie Pie, and even poor Spike. Twilight Sparkle, frozen wide-eyed in an enormous crystal with a terrifying black tint to it.

And below the crystal... King Sombra. His back was to Fluttershy, but she could still hear his cruel laughter as he looked up at Twilight. “My plan is almost complete, at long last... When the moon reaches its zenith, the light will charge my dark crystal, and your precious princess’s powers will be drained out of her... and into me. Nopony can stop me now!”

“Oh dear,” Discord drawled, leaning against Fluttershy’s wing. “Someone’s dreadfully behind the times. Do you want to tell him, or should I?”

“Fluttershy!!” her friends gasped in unison.

“What?! Who goes there?” Sombra spun around, face twisted in a snarl. But he immediately calmed when he saw the intruders. “Oh, it’s only you. The supposed ‘Hero of Courage’. I hope you don’t think you can stop me.”

“I do,” Fluttershy lied. “That’s why I’m here. I can’t let you do this.”

Sombra cackled. “Are you serious? I can taste the fear washing off of you, little pony! Some courage!”

“Hmph!” Rarity scoffed from above. “Actually, I do believe dear Fluttershy is the most courageous of us all.”

Applejack nodded firmly. “She’s plum terrified, but it ain’t stopped her from doin’ what she’s gotta do,” she said proudly. “If that ain’t the textbook definition of courage, why, I’d like to know what is.”

“Silence!” Sombra shook the cages with a single stomp; the ponies and dragon scowled, but quieted for the moment. “It matters not. This foolish little weakling couldn’t even kill a single one of my minions! There’s no possible way she... could...”

The self-styled king paused, then turned toward Fluttershy again. “Wait a minute. You haven’t killed any of my minions. I would have sensed it if you had. So how did you get in here?”

Despite her fear, Fluttershy smiled. “Oh, they let me in. They were very courteous about it, too.”

“WHAT?!”

“It’s the funniest thing, Sombra, old boy!” Discord purred. “Dragging a race of monsters out of their home, forcing them to follow your orders under threat of death... It really doesn’t do a thing for morale! I don’t believe you have a single loyal one left.”

Sombra snarled furiously. “Impossible! You can’t have turned all of my minions! No pony could possibly be that selfless!”

Discord rested his chin on one hand, grinning madly. “You must be new here. Let me introduce you to Fluttershy, bearer of the Element of Kindness. She couldn’t be cruel if she tried!” He shook his hands out, crystals glittering on his wrists. “Of course, if I had my powers, I could give her a little help on that front—”

“Sombra.” Fluttershy stepped forward, eyes on the evil king before her. “Won’t you stop this? There’s still time. Think how much better off Equestria would be if you used your magic to help us instead of harm us. Won’t you reconsider?”

Sombra stared at Fluttershy for a long moment. “...No,” he finally said. “I think, instead, I’ll kill you.”

The king stomped the ground, and a dozen razor-sharp crystals burst forth around him. He spun and kicked in Fluttershy’s direction, and the crystals broke free, flying at her at speeds that rivaled Rainbow Dash at her fastest. Her friends screamed for her to run, but she closed her eyes, gathering herself for an instant...

...and sang.

It was just one note, a note that vibrated at first but quickly smoothed out. Her voice was quiet, but as the stones that hung from her necklace began to glow, the note grew louder, the vibrations grew stronger. The crystals flying at her wobbled, vibrating with her voice, and before they could reach her, they shattered into harmless little shards.

Sombra’s jaw dropped. He stared in undisguised shock at the three rocks Fluttershy wore around her neck—the first one round, the other two shaped like little waves emanating out from it. “The Sonorous Stones...” he whispered. “How... Where did you... Inconceivable!”

“You keep using that word, Sombra...” Discord laughed. But he stopped when Fluttershy took another step forward.

“Discord was wrong, Sombra,” she said.

Discord’s brow furrowed. “What? When?”

Fluttershy stood up straight, staring at Sombra. “I can be cruel. It’s surprisingly easy, actually, which is why the thought terrifies me so much. But to protect my friends... to protect Equestria... I won’t hesitate any more.

“This is your last chance. Give up now... or I’ll do whatever I have to do... to stop you.”

Sombra’s face twisted again, anger turning his not-unattractive features hideous.* “As if you could, you wretched little pest! Even with the Stones, I’ll crush you like a bug!” He slammed his hooves against the ground and dashed forward, eyes and horn glowing with his ugly black power.

Discord buzzed against her ear, actually sounding genuinely concerned. “Here he comes, Fluttershy! Are you ready?”

Her wings flared out. Her eyes fixed on her enemy. The fear was there, just as it always was... but she wouldn’t let it stop her. There was far too much at stake.

“Yes.”

Chapter Text

The sky was clear and the moon was full, blanketing Ponyville in its calm white glow. The streets were quiet and peaceful, not even a stray cricket disturbing the silence. All in all, it was utterly flawless, the perfect romantic setting... At least, so Rarity hoped.

The past few days had been as chaotic as any she’d ever experienced. Whether this night went well or poorly, she was swearing off matchmaking for life. She wasn’t even certain how she’d gotten roped into the whole mess, aside from having been present at the moment of love-at-first-sight. But she and her partner had one last plan in mind before she threw in her towel.

“I really do wish to apologize, Philomena,” Rarity said solicitously, trotting toward the fountain ahead. “I’m afraid we got a bit caught up in everything. We certainly didn’t mean to be so overbearing...”

From her back, the visiting phoenix trilled a response. She didn’t know a word (or, rather, a note) of the phoenix language, but she could just tell that had been a dry, snarky remark. I should hope you didn’t! perhaps, or Only a bit caught up?

Rarity allowed herself a bit of a scowl. “Although we could always call it a bit of payback for that dreadful prank you played on Fluttershy so long ago...”

The next tweet was sharp and startled, followed by a chirp of apology.

“No, I’m only teasing. It’s all in the past. At any rate...” Rarity trotted out from under Philomena, who took to the air and hovered beside her, wings flapping lazily. “Thank you for giving him one more chance. If you really aren’t interested after tonight, we won’t bother you any more.”

Philomena nodded to her, looking a bit dubious, and flew over to land on the rim of the fountain. Rarity glanced around, seeking out the others. Surely they weren’t going to be late...?

Then they came from around the other side of the fountain. A teenage dragon with a bundle on his back, and a young adult phoenix perched on his shoulder. Once again Rarity had to marvel at how much Peewee had grown. How much both boys had grown, really. Both lean and tall, only a hint of youthfulness remaining in their faces... If she hadn’t known that Peewee couldn’t visit Spike more than once in a blue moon, she would have sworn they’d grown up together.

Spike gave a tentative wave with one claw, then reached behind him to lower the bundle he’d carried from the boutique. He unwrapped the record player, set it to spinning, and placed the needle down. A quiet, low-tempo orchestral piece began to play. Peewee hopped down from Spike’s shoulder, fluttering over to stand across from the older phoenix he’d fallen so hard for. And then he began to sing along with the orchestra, his voice as clear and strong as the strings of a harp.

It was beautiful, even if Rarity couldn’t understand the “words”; she only knew he and Spike had spent the whole day writing it together. But Philomena would understand. Her skeptical expression had vanished as soon as Peewee began singing, and as Rarity watched, she began to stare at her young suitor in awe. A blush appeared on her little cheeks, shining even through her bright feathers, and as the song reached its crescendo, she turned away for an instant to brush a tear away.

The record came to a close, and Spike lifted the needle up, but neither phoenix noticed the slight scratch. Philomena hopped a bit closer to Peewee, lowering her head an inch to meet his eyes, and they began a quiet conversation in song. Rarity listened as closely as she could, relying on the tune and body language to discern the meaning.

She, a careful query.

He, a duck of the head and a bashful reply.

She, a faint smile and a teasing trill.

He, an embarrassed flutter and quick agreement.

She, a pregnant pause... and then a slow nod, and a confident chirp.

Peewee’s head jerked up and he stared at Philomena, wide-eyed. He inched toward her tentatively, as if expecting to wake up at any moment... and finally they cuddled against each other, necks curling and heads nestling together.

Rarity bit her lip to suppress the squeal of joy that threatened to escape. She brought her gaze to Spike, seeing her joy and excitement mirrored in his eyes, and gestured for him to join her in leaving the two lovebirds alone. He nodded eagerly, scooping up the record player and dashing across the plaza to join her.

Once they left the fountain behind, Rarity could finally let her breath out. “It worked! Oh, that was the most romantic thing I believe I’ve ever witnessed!”

“I know, that was great!” Spike grinned as wide as can be. “We really did it, Rarity! We really helped him win her over!”

Rarity smiled faintly, glancing up at the starry sky. “Now, don’t go getting too confident, darling,” she said after a moment’s thought. “There’s no guarantee it will work out long-term. She’s only agreed to give him a chance.”

When she looked over at Spike next, she found him watching her. “Yeah, but there’s no guarantee of anything, right? You just gotta try. At least... he’ll never have to say he didn’t.”

The intensity in his eyes sent a shiver through her, and she found herself staring down at her hooves without quite knowing why.* Words popped into her head, and she voiced them without thinking. “That song really was lovely, Spike. You and Peewee did an excellent job.”

“Hey, you were the one who found the perfect music for it! I wouldn’t have been able to just come up with a tune from scratch.”

“Yes, but it was what you wrote that made the difference.” Rarity hummed a measure of the tune to herself. “I only wish I could have understood it the way Philomena did.”

“Actually...” Much to her surprise, Spike stopped walking, pausing right in the middle of the empty street. He set the record player back down again. “Do you want to?”

Rarity blinked at him. “What do you mean?”

Spike lowered his head slightly, cheeks turning red. “I mean... We didn’t write that song just for Philomena.”

He sat down next to the record player, sliding the needle back to the beginning of the song. As the orchestral music rose, Spike closed his eyes for an instant. And then he opened them and met Rarity’s gaze as he began to sing.

“The fire in your soul burns bright
And sears an image on my heart
Your outer beauty pales before
The beauty deep inside...”

Rarity’s breath left her completely. He was serenading her. Spike was singing her a song of love and adoration, obviously nervous but still keeping his voice firm and strong.

They’d worked together so closely over the past few days, setting aside all other concerns as their ever-more-complex matchmaking schemes crashed and burned one after another. He’d begun to act distant, and she’d begun to think he no longer felt anything for her. The thought had created an odd pit of emptiness in her stomach that she’d tried desperately to ignore.

But the love in his eyes and the emotion in his voice left no doubt that she’d been wrong. And this couldn’t be an old childhood crush, or a shallow attraction—this was love, deep and true, and if she thought she’d felt joy and excitement five minutes ago, that was nothing compared to what she felt now.

As the song wound down once more, Spike cleared his throat, finally breaking off eye contact to stare at his claws. “I, uh, we only managed to get it to rhyme in phoenix, not in Equestrian, but... well... What do you think?”

Slowly, a bit unsteadily, Rarity stepped toward him. “I think... I’ve never heard anything so beautiful before.”

He flashed her a grin. “Oh, I know that’s a lie. You’ve heard your own voice before, haven’t you?”

“Oh, you shameless flatterer!” she giggled, giddy with happiness.

“Hey, I’m only getting started.” He blushed again, smiling shyly at her. “If... you’ll let me?”

“Only on one condition...” She reached out for him, and he met her halfway. “That you allow me to do the same for you.”

For the second time that evening, two figures intertwined in the moonlight.

Chapter Text

“Opal? Opal, where are you? Here, kitty, kitty, kitty...

“Aha, there you are! How the heck did you get yourself wedged so far under Rarity’s bed? I mean, it’s not that high up off the ground...

“Rarity’s bed... Wow. I can’t believe I’m actually in Rarity’s bedroom. Or I guess her ‘boudoir’? I need to learn more of that language, since she likes it so much...

“Ugh, but that’s not important right now! Opal, you have to come out, okay?

“No, hiding your face and being really quiet won’t make me forget where you are. It doesn’t work that way. I can still see you.

“Rrrr... Can’t... reach...

“Come on, Opal, don’t be like this! It’s not like I want to do this either, y’know! I’d be perfectly happy just letting you lick yourself clean all weekend. But it says right here on the list Rarity gave me: ‘Give Opalescence a bath’! You don’t give her this much trouble, do you?

“Actually, you probably do. Forget I said that.

“Can’t you just be reasonable? What happens if you don’t cooperate and you’re still dirty when Rarity gets back from Canterlot? I’ll get in trouble, and you’ll still get a bath, just from her instead of me! So all you gain is a couple days and my suffering! Is that what you want?

“This isn’t about the last time I petsat for you, is it? I swear I learned my lesson! I really do want to take good care of you! That just includes a little pesky water, on your owner’s orders. Like I said, I’m not the one who decided this!

“Okay. Fine. If logic and reason won’t work, I’ll resort to bribery. I’m not ashamed. What do you want? More cat treats? All the cat treats? Extra brushing, extra nap time, an escort across Ponyville on the best cushion I can find? On my back?

Come on! Opal, I’m serious here! Look, I’m on my claws and knees and everything! I can’t screw this up! I need Rarity to know I’m trustworthy!

“...

“...I need to know I’m trustworthy.”

“...Mrr... Mrrow.”

“...Opal? Are... You came out? Does—Does that mean you’ll—”

“Rrrrrrr... Mow.”

“You will? Oh, thank you thank you thank you! You’re the best! I promise I’ll make it as painless as possible for you!

“And I meant what I said, too. Whatever you want in return, anything in Ponyville, it’s yours! Just name it! Or, well, we can do charades or something instead. So what do you want?”

“...”

------

“This was a great idea, Spike! I gotta admit, it’s been a while since I gave Winona a good scrubbin’.”

“Arf, arf!”

“Yeah, and I always forget to clean under Tank’s harness.”

“Haha, thanks, but it wasn’t my idea, really.”

“Oh yeah, Rarity wanted Opal cleaned up, didn’t she? I’m impressed that ornery feline ain’t puttin’ up more of a fight.”

“No, that’s what I was saying. This whole get-together was actually her idea.”

Opal’s? Yer kiddin’, right?”

“No, no, I got it. She just wanted to see some other pets suffering too!”

“Nah, it’s not like that! She’s a great cat, really! You just... gotta give her a chance.”

“...Purrrrrrrrr.”

Chapter Text

“Hi, Twilight!”

For once, Twilight did not jump out of her skin. Was she finally beginning to get used to Pinkie Pie’s dynamic entrances? Perhaps it was an unforeseen bonus that came with being a newly-crowned princess. She leaned her broom against the wall and greeted her friend with a smile. “Hello, Pinkie. Did you forget something?”

“Yep!” Pinkie chirped. “I forgot to ask if you needed any more help cleaning up!”

Twilight cast her gaze around the library. There were still scattered bits of confetti and discarded paper plates here and there, but on the whole their “Welcome Back to Ponyville Party” hadn’t been a messy affair after all, and everypony had already helped tidy up a little before leaving. “No, I think I can finish up on my own,” she said. “Thank you, though!”

Pinkie beamed and nodded, mane bouncing as if it had a life of its own. “Anything for a friend! Okay, see you tomorrow!” She gave Twilight a quick hug and bounded off toward the front door again.

Twilight smiled to herself as she returned to the clean-up. Canterlot was certainly a beautiful city. It was her hometown, and she would always love it. And it had been wonderful to spend some time in the castle again, learning from the Princesses—her fellow princesses, now—about her new power, her new duties, her new responsibilities...

But by the time the last few days had rolled around, her homesickness had become too much to bear. Canterlot was her hometown, but Ponyville had become her home, and now that she was back, she knew it was where she belonged.

“Hey, Twilight!”

“Pinkie?” Bumped out of her train of thought, Twilight turned back to Pinkie, brow furrowed. “Is everything alright?”

“Yeah, everything’s fine! But I just realized, maybe I forgot my party cannon over here! So I thought I’d better check and make sure!”

Twilight tilted her head. “But Pinkie... Don’t you usually keep it, you know... behind your back?” She would never understand how that worked, but it did, and she wasn’t inclined to question it.

Pinkie paused, turning to reach behind her back, on the opposite side from Twilight. And when her hooves came back, there was the party cannon, nestled between them. “Aha! There it is!” she giggled. “Thanks, Twi! Always in the last place you look, right?”

“Well, yes, because—” Twilight stifled her inner lecturer. “I’m glad I could help. Now, you’d better get back before it gets too dark, right?”

“Ehehe, right! See ya!”

As Pinkie left again, Twilight gathered up the last of the trash with her magic, dropping it into the trash bag and knotting it up carefully. She’d take it out in the morning, or have Spike do it, whichever worked.

Spike... Twilight smiled and glanced up toward the second floor, where she knew her dragon assistant was already fast asleep. He’d missed Ponyville just as much as she had, possibly even more. There had been dozens of letters back and forth, of course, and several visits one way and another, but it just wasn’t the same. It was a relief for both of them to know that the training was done, and now they were home for good.

“Oh, Twilight!”

Twilight didn’t even turn around this time. “Pinkie, are you sure everything is okay?”

“Sure I’m sure! Why wouldn’t it be?” Pinkie bounded around the table to flash her a thousand-watt smile. Wait... Twilight squinted. Was there tension hiding behind that grin? “But I realized I never asked you if the Welcome Back to Ponyville Party went okay! You enjoyed it, right?”

“Pinkie Pie, of course I enjoyed it! Why wouldn’t I enjoy one of your parties?” Twilight patted her on the shoulder. “Everything was perfect. Even the pinata that came to life and ran wild.”

“Oh, superiffic! It was really tricky getting that enchanted frame to hold still long enough to put the papier mache on. Anyway, just checking!”

“Wait, you mean you planned that—”

“Bye-bye!”

Once Pinkie was gone... again... Twilight shook her head and started up the stairs to her bedroom. “Where was I?” she mumbled to herself. Oh, that was right... Home. It still amazed her sometimes how much she’d come to love Ponyville. Staying was the last thing on her mind when she’d come to oversee the Festival, but things had changed, and quickly, before she’d even realized it. She’d found a sense of belonging she’d never known anywhere else, found too many friends to list for fear of forgetting a few...

Pinkie Pie chief among them, of course. Twilight wasn’t even surprised to see her standing in her bedroom. “Are you sure you don’t need any help cleaning—”

Twilight stopped her with a hoof. Two was a coincidence, three was a pattern, and four was something she couldn’t ignore. “Pinkie Pie... would you like to stay a little longer?”

When Twilight’s hoof left her mouth, Pinkie smiled, but this one was wobbly and her eyes were sad. “Can I?”

“Of course you can. We can have a little sleepover. Come here.” Twilight tugged an unresisting Pinkie onto her bed with her, floating the covers over them both.

“I’m sorry, Twilight. I just...” Pinkie’s forelegs wound around Twilight’s shoulders, hugging her tight. “I missed you so much. You’ve never been away this long before, and everything felt weird and empty without you, and...”

Twilight returned the hug, pulling Pinkie close. “I know. I missed you too, Pinkie. But no matter what, no matter how long I’m gone... I promise, I’ll always come back.”

Chapter Text

Deep down in his heart of hearts, Big Macintosh had always known that this day would come.

Tonight, Applejack was bringing somepony over for dinner. But not just anypony, no, no. She had invited a suitor. A “special somepony”. His beloved little sister had fallen in love.

Big Mac stared at the mirror hanging in the bathroom. This mystery guest was due to arrive any minute, and he needed to be ready. He’d had this speech worked out in his head for years, ever since he’d discovered mares—and realized other stallions might discover his sister. But one more rehearsal wouldn’t hurt.

He’d pull the pony off to the side before dinner, probably under the guise of a tour of the barn. And he’d start off firm but kind. “I wanna talk about you an’ my sister for a minute,” he practiced. Good. A little intimidating, but not too threatening. He didn’t want to scare them off yet.

“I prob’ly don’t have to tell ya how important she is to me,” Big Mac went on. “Specially with Ma and Pa gone, we Apples have always been a tight bunch. I been lookin’ after her since she could fit ‘n a bushel basket with room to spare for th’ apples. She’s my precious little sister, and I love her more ‘n just about anything.

“Now, she’s picked you, and that’s a point in your favor. I ain’t about to say she can’t make decisions for herself... least, not while I’m in range of those back hooves o’ hers!” He chuckled. He was proud of that little joke, and it would lighten the mood a little before he really got serious.

He gave the mirror his severest glare, letting his lip curl slightly. “But if you ever hurt her... lie, or cheat, or break her heart...” He leaned in close, until his nose was almost touching the glass. “You better be ready to run, and keep runnin’. ‘Cause I will find out—we all will—and when we’re done with you, yer gonna wish you ain’t never heard of the Apple family at all.”

Perfect. Big Macintosh reared back again and grinned proudly. He was more than ready to do his brotherly duty. Now when was this suitor going to arrive?

As if on cue, he heard a tapping from the direction of the front door. “I got it!” he called, throwing the bathroom door open and dashing through the hall to the entryway.

From the living room, Granny Smith asked, “Goodness, Big Mac, what’s the rush?” He didn’t respond, summoning up his severe glare again. One, two, three...

He threw the front door open.

“Eep!” Wings shooting up, Fluttershy ducked away from the door, staring fearfully up at Big Mac. “I-I’m sorry, is something wrong? Oh dear. I’m not interrupting, am I? I probably am. I should—”

Big Macintosh stared for a second before he realized what he was doing. “No, no! Uh, sorry, Fluttershy. We was just expectin’ somepony, that’s all.” He gave her a sheepish smile, rubbing his neck. Talk about embarrassing.

“Oh! I think that would be me.” Fluttershy straightened up and smiled shyly. “Applejack invited me to dinner tonight, if that’s alright?”

His prepared speech fluttered away like butterflies in the breeze, along with the rest of the words in his head. Big Mac’s jaw fell slightly slack. This was the mystery suitor? The Apple family interloper who needed to be warned off of taking advantage of his sweet little sister?

“Fluttershy! There you are, sugarcube.” Applejack appeared as if out of nowhere, bumping her brother out of the way to allow Fluttershy entrance.* “C’mon in! Food’s almost done.”

“Oh, thank you, AJ.” Fluttershy tiptoed in, giving Applejack a sweet little nuzzle on the way past—and neatly eliminating Big Mac’s last lingering doubt.

For a moment, he tried to imagine himself giving Fluttershy the big brotherly speech, and wondered if he could make it more than two sentences before her terrified expression shattered his resolve. No, setting that aside, he tried to imagine Fluttershy doing any of the things the speech mentioned. Lying, or cheating, or breaking Applejack’s heart... She’d sooner break her own than hurt anypony else, wouldn’t she?

“What’s the matter, Big Mac?” Applejack asked, grinning impishly. “Got somethin’ to say?” Darn her, she knew exactly what he’d been thinking from the start, didn’t she?

Big Macintosh just sighed and shook out his mane. “...Welcome to the family.”

Chapter Text

Dear Mom and Dad,

Hello again! I’m sorry it’s been so long since my last letter. If I thought Celestia kept me busy back when I was her student, well, that’s nothing compared to these diplomatic missions. I can’t go into too much detail about what we’re doing right now, but I really think I’m winning over the tengu we’ve met out here. I’ve been doing this for months, but it’s still hard to believe no pony has ever set hoof in these countries before me. But it’s exciting, too. And you’d think I’d be nervous about making a good first impression, but I’m really not! Making friends is the one thing I don’t ever doubt I can do.

Speaking of friends, I’ve been hearing from mine on a daily basis. It’s a good thing we’re not trying to hide, because the constant flame belches would make that impossible! Gosh, where do I start? Rarity is still keeping in touch with you, right? She told me once that she’d treated you to dinner after a particularly good quarter. She’ll probably come by again soon; her newest line is flying off the hangers faster than she can sew! Although she’d probably have more time to work if she weren’t constantly writing to a certain assistant of mine...

Spike is doing better than ever. He’s finally getting comfortable in his own scales again, and he just never seems to run out of energy. The new horizons are doing wonders for him, even more than they are for me. He constantly surprises me with his maturity and intelligence. I’d be absolutely lost out here without him. So no change from when we were young, really.

Rainbow Dash just wrote the other day. She and the Light Rays just carried out another daring rescue over Vanhoover! At this rate they’ll replace the Wonderbolts as Celestia’s go-to rescue flight team. It’s also nice to hear that Scootaloo’s rising like a hot-air balloon in their ranks. She may have been a late bloomer, but she really bloomed. They’re heading back in the direction of Canterlot right now, alongside Sweetie Belle’s national tour, so maybe you’ll be able to meet up with them too.

Last I heard from Pinkie Pie, she was spreading her special brand of cheer in Las Pegasus. I tell you, if there’s anypony in the world busier than me—besides the Princesses, of course—it’s Pinkie. Starting new Sugarcube Corner franchises and running her own party-planning business at the same time? I don’t understand how she does it! Of course, there are a lot of things Pinkie does that I don’t understand. But she’s one mystery I’ll always enjoy exploring figuring out.

And Applejack has been expanding Sweet Apple Acres again. It’s hard to believe that she and Fluttershy are the only two of us still living in Ponyville permanently. But if I had to pick two ponies that would never leave, it would be them. It helps that they make an absolutely amazing team. Fluttershy handles the animal and Applejack the vegetable; all they need is a mineral expert and they’d understand everything! Sorry, little in-joke there. Do you know, from the latest figures Celestia has sent me, Sweet Apple Acres alone is responsible for reducing hunger in Equestria by 17% last year? I couldn’t be more proud.

Look at this letter. Five paragraphs about other ponies and only one about me! I suppose it’s not surprising, though. It’s been years since we parted, but I think about them every single day. Spike and I were just talking about it last night. We both miss the time when all seven of us lived in Ponyville, never went more than a week without hanging out together. Sometimes when I’m sleeping under the stars in uncharted lands, I wish those days had never ended.

But they have ended. We’ll never be those young ponies we once were. We’ve grown and changed, and our lives have led us in different directions. I used to think we’d stay together forever, but that was a little naive. Then I started to hope we’d settle back in Ponyville when we’re old and retired, and you never know, maybe we will. But the truth is, we don’t have to.

It’s not our physical location that makes us friends, any more than it was the Elements of Harmony back when we still wielded them. The connection we share is something much deeper than that. And no matter where our paths take us, no matter how far apart we are, that connection will always stay strong. Bonds of the heart can never be broken.

It’s getting late; I should turn in. I’ll write again when we reach the kappa colony up ahead. I love you both, so much, and Spike sends his love too. Take care!

— Twilight Sparkle