Sooooo. Uh, sorry? For the long absence. I've been studying my butt off. So now I have another degree, yet MORE debt, and no butt.
As always, not mine, no money (DEBTS DAMMIT), no sue.
It wasn't working.
Spike had concentrated on the necklace in his palm for what seemed like hours, and they'd tried hooking it over every bit of his enormous body they possibly could. It had even enjoyed a small sojourn on his tail before they finally gave up.
"Impossible!" Rarity declared in despair.
Spike ran a paw over his spines. "I guess that's not the answer, then," he said.
He was still speaking in that carefully neutral tone that made Twilight want to scream. Rainbow Dash trotted over to peer into the casket and scowl at the heaped jewels inside.
"Stupid things," she muttered. "C'mon, get workin' already!"
"What else should we try?" Spike asked.
"What haven't we tried?" Twilight said, frustration with herself and the Elements and even with Spike's eternal loneliness all fusing together to form one great lump of irritation and guilt.
"I know you probably..." Spike said, only to be interrupted by a belch and gout of flame at least sixty feet long.
Rarity screamed, Fluttershy made a noise like a squashed kitten, and Twilight had to quell the instinct to bolt. Where would I run to, without feet? she asked herself sarcastically, even as she belatedly recognised the signs of a letter exchange.
The fire formed into an enormous scroll, and Spike grabbed it from the air with deft claws. He unrolled it and his eyebrows rose as he read, his eyes skittering across the parchment. Then he slumped back, staring into the distance. "Oh no."
"Uh-oh," said Rainbow Dash darkly.
"What's happened?" asked Pinkie, hopping nervously from hoof to hoof. "That was from the Princess, right? Did Nighttime Disco do something?"
He raised a foreleg absently, not really paying attention to anything at all, and began to rub slowly at his temple. "That's it then. We're out of time."
"What is it?" asked Applejack.
He refocused on the letter, and his eyes turned flinty. "Hoofington. Hoofington's been hit."
Rainbow's ears lowered even as her pupils shrank in fear. "Hoofington? But that's..."
"...just west of Ponyville and Canterlot," he finished. "I know. He's pushing the border of the Zone again. It won't be long."
"Hang on, you guys, didn't all those Fillydelphia refugees go to Hoof...ing...ton..." Pinkie said, trailing off in the face of their fierce glares. She closed her mouth and sat down with a thump. "Um. Just ignore that."
"Did the Princess say what happened to it?" Rarity quavered.
He looked grim. "She did." He didn't elaborate. He didn't need to.
Fluttershy was in tears. "Oh, those poor ponies," she said.
"Are there any survivors?" Applejack said. Her hooves were planted firmly, and her jaw was set. She looked like she was ready to go buck Discord in the face all by herself.
"They don't know," Spike answered. Then he squeezed his eyes closed, rubbing at his temple some more with a grimace on his face. "We can't wait anymore. We don't have time. I have to go."
"But Spike, you've got no way of using the Elements yet; you'll lose whatever advantage you have..." Twilight said through the sudden, icy shock of fear. Her frustration fled as the implications hit her. She simply couldn't lose him, not after forgetting him and not after finding him once more. That bleak roll-call had brought the past smashing through the warmth of their strange little reunion, and now reality was threatening to demolish the splinters.
"Doesn't matter," he said distantly. "The longer I wait, the bolder he gets and the more ponies die. Trottingham, Appleoosa, Salt Lick City, Manehattan, Bitsburg, Fillydelphia... and now Hoofington. Where next? No, I've got to find him and stop him, or die trying."
"Spike!" Rarity exclaimed in horror.
"No, no, no, no, no..." Twilight began to moan.
"You'll be killed!" said Applejack, stamping one hoof. "Spike, this is suicide!"
He was as calm as still water as he replied. "Maybe," he said. "But I took on the duty, and duty has been my life for so long that I just can't seem to kick the habit. I've got to try, and I've got a better chance of success than any of the ponies in his path. Better me than them."
"At least work with the Elements for a bit longer," begged Rarity.
"Rarity, it isn't working, anypony can see that. Who knows? Maybe they need danger to activate. If not, well, nopony's going to miss a dusty old dragon academic anyway."
"We will," Twilight tried.
The corners of his mouth turned up the slightest bit. "Thanks, voice in my head. Good to know."
"What will it take for you to believe us?" she growled, made fierce by her fear. "We're here, Spike, and you'll be missed. So, so much. You can't just walk to your death like this!"
"You'll forget me again, Twi," he said, lifting his head and staring out into the aching blue expanse of the sky. "You won't remember how to miss me."
Twilight recoiled as around her the others loudly gasped.
Well. He had certainly learned to hit where it hurt.
She couldn't bear the idea of forgetting him all over again. The Dark grinned in her memory. She hated it more than Discord.
Spike hauled himself to his feet, as ponderous and inexorable as tectonic plates shifting. "First things first. I've got an errand to run," he said, peering over the rocky shelf at the valley below.
"Whatcha gotta do?" Pinkie asked.
He jerked his head towards the sleeping Diane. "I've got friends... well, not exactly friends..." he said, and then sighed as he crumpled the letter in his claw. "More like colleagues. They'll take her in. I hope."
"You're leaving her behind," stated Rainbow Dash.
"Yeah, you all should recognise how that goes," he said tartly. Then he sighed again, wincing. "Sorry, I'm sorry. That was uncalled for. I want to take her and keep her, of course I do. I could love her easily, I think. She's so... new. She's brand new and fresh and innocent and full of wonder. I need a bit of that in my life."
"But she's only a baby," Twilight interrupted, looking up at his pained eyes. This world outside the casket seemed intent on stabbing her in the heart. Really, she was fortunate that she didn't have one. "You want to keep her with you, but you're afraid she'll get hurt – or worse. Where you're going is no place for a child."
He was still for a moment, and then gave a short nod. "I'm glad she's too young to know it. It's no fun, being left behind."
"Just you watch," Twilight said, and then laughed despite herself. "She'll have her own adventures without you. You won't be able to stop her. It'll drive you crazy."
He smiled. "I'm sure it will."
They both knew that for the lie it was.
"Right then," he said, and turned to the sleeping baby. Diane was sprawled on her back, all four paws in the air and her stubby tail flung loosely to one side. It looked awkward, but she seemed perfectly comfortable. A little orange flame danced on her lips every time she exhaled, and her left hind paw twitched in her dreams. Spike chuckled at the sight, before tenderly scooping the little thing into his paw and depositing her back onto his snout. "Well, time to go scare everypony out of their minds."
"But the Princess said you wouldn't make ponies scared," Pinkie said, her head tipping.
He glanced down at the Elements of Harmony, and frowned. "She was being kind. You think I haven't heard your little gasps, the way you sound strangled when I yawn or smile? You all almost had conniptions when that letter came through. Fluttershy's simply the only one who can admit to it."
"Now, that ain't true, Spike," Applejack said, her eyes narrowing. "I don't know what's happened over the last five hundred years t' turn the happiest l'il feller I knew inta such a gosh-darned pessimist, but you listen up and listen good. I ain't scared o' you. None o' us are, I'll wager not even Fluttershy. She's scared o' dragons, but not you. Yer always gonna be Spike first an' a dragon second to us, an' don't you ferget it. You're a bit much t' take in, I'll admit, but you'd never hurt a fly an' we know it. An' from what the Princess said, so does everypony else in Equestria!"
"Even if you would, how could you? We're all ghosties!" Pinkie laughed, waving her hooves mysteriously. "Whooooo!"
Spike jerked back. "Uh..." he faltered. "Not that I don't appreciate the sentiment, but is this really the time?"
"You can believe anythin' else you like, sugarcube, but you ain't goin' out there t' save the world thinkin' yer some sort o' monster," Applejack said firmly. "Not if I can help it."
"I said you looked marvellous, darling, and I meant it!" said Rarity in a ringing voice.
"It's one heck of an awesome wicked look," Rainbow chimed in. "I might even go so far as to say it's radical – but hate to break it to ya, you're not quite at Rainbow Dash-levels of radicalosity. Sorry, big guy."
"You're actually very...um, beautiful," Fluttershy said, smiling timidly. "I said so back when you were in Canterlot. I suppose I just need a little time to... adjust."
Spike was opening and closing his mouth like a fish out of water.
"For goodness' sake, Spike," Twilight said with a blend of exasperation and fondness that felt as familiar as breathing. "You never did listen to me the first time. Remember, I said we just needed to get used to it. And we will. You're still our Spike, and you're always going to be. Don't you dare think otherwise just because you're all grown up now."
"But Twi..." Spike mumbled. The slightly-panicked, slightly-shy expression on his face was priceless, and she dredged up a laugh from somewhere.
"Give ponies some credit, Spike," said Rainbow Dash. "So they'll be a bit shocked at first. Big deal! They'll get over it."
"Anyway, don't tell me you've forgotten what Fluttershy does t' things that scare her? She stares 'em down until they run home cryin' fer their mamas," Applejack added.
"Ah, well," Spike said, fidgeting with his claws like a bumbling teenager. His mammoth size, his bashful face, the fidgeting and the baby draped over his snout made him the most incongruous sight Twilight had ever seen. "I, er, don't think I'm likely to be doing that..."
The tension was gradually lifting as Twilight watched her friends cajoling Spike into having some faith in himself and in ponykind. He was visibly sheepish as they wheedled and declared and reassured and berated – a very different reaction to how he'd once responded to praise. To her surprise she found that she almost missed his proud grin and ridiculous preening.
She shoved the possibility of his death out of her mind. That just couldn't happen, despite all his certainty and calm fatalism. The universe could not be so cruel as to give them back to each other and then rip them apart. She refused to dwell on it any longer.
To distract her mind from it, she tried to see a bright side. After a brief struggle she told herself that no matter how bleak things were, at least they had just made some definite progress reconnecting with Spike. The tenseness generated by their previous topics had not quite dissipated, but the atmosphere was definitely lighter. No doubt there were a million more sore spots yet to be prodded, but at least they'd cleared one major hurdle and identified several more. Centuries, she reminded herself. He'd had four whole centuries alone to remember all the conversations left unfinished, words left unsaid, actions never taken. He was harder and older and colder than the Spike she knew, but her Spike was truly still there, buried under layers of loneliness and brokenness, waiting to be uncovered. It would take time.
But then, everything worthwhile always did.
He was beginning to blush as Pinkie made up one of her impromptu songs for him. The chorus was along the lines of "A great big dragon with a great big heart!" His cheeks darkened to that so-familiar shade of violet, and Twilight's laugh bubbled up with far more ease. Celestia only knew how long it had been since he'd blushed like that. She loved it intensely.
"Guys, stop," he said, cringing. "I get it. You can stop now. Please."
"There's my Spike," she said, letting all the love she felt for him at that moment infuse her voice. Her Spike, hoarder of the Elements of Harmony, Champion of Equestria, Dean of Ponyville University, ambassador to the world and five hundred and twelve years old (last birthday) – blushing like a schoolfilly after her first kiss. What other dragon would do that?
Pinkie concluded her song with a boisterous dance routine, belting out the high note with gusto. Spike tried to glower, but there was a lightness in his expression that hadn't been there before. The scowl didn't quite have the impact he was obviously hoping for. "Leave off, guys, come on."
"We'll have no more o' this nonsense, then?" Applejack said sternly. "Hold that head up, kiddo. You're a dragon. Be proud that yer the best one there's ever been, would you?"
Spike forced a smile, and his back straightened stiffly.
"A bit better," Rainbow said, wrinkling her nose.
"That's not a real smile!" Pinkie said, her face outraged. "You think Pinkie Pie doesn't know a fake smile when she sees one? Quit with the phoney-baloney, Spikester! Oooh, don't you make me bring out the big guns! There's plenty more songs where that one came from!"
He actually laughed out loud, a rich and rolling noise, and Pinkie clapped her hooves together.
"That's it! Now you got it!"
He leaned back against the cliff again, grinning. "Okay, now I understand all the gasping and scared noises. You're just jealous you don't look this good."
"Actually, yes," said Rarity tightly, her aura pulsing with irritation.
Spike's face fell a little, but he rallied magnificently. "I don't really see how I can keep the casket open while I travel," he said, changing the subject. Sensible move, Professor Spike, Twilight thought in amusement.
"Not the Dark again," Rainbow groaned.
"I don't want to put you back in," he said. "Any ideas?"
"Maybe you could hook the necklaces over a branch and carry it," said Fluttershy.
"What about the big crowny thing?" Twilight said. "That'd fall off."
"I'll just carry them," Spike said. "It'll be awkward, but I think I can do it. Let me know if I drop any of them."
Tipping the casket out into his paw, he closed his fingers around the Elements and tucked his fist against his chest. Then he began to clamber down the mountain three-footed, clinging with his free forepaw and gouging huge furrows in the rock. As his head drew level with the rocky shelf, Pinkie bounced over and landed on the top of his head beside the foremost green spike, before turning and beaming at the others.
"Come on, you guys!" she hollered. "Or you'll miss the dragon!"
Rainbow Dash perked up and flew over to land on his shoulders, followed by Fluttershy (who had her eyes closed and nearly overshot him). Applejack seemed a little hesitant at first, but eventually charged with her head thrust forward to land with a mighty jump on his snout and skittering straight through the sleeping Diane who was sprawled bonelessly on his scales. Spike didn't even blink as the farmpony scrambled in front of his eyes up onto the top of his head. Pinkie grabbed her forehooves and she pushed herself up the rest of the way with a mighty thrust of her strong hind legs.
"And what about us, might I inquire?" Rarity said haughtily.
She was answered by a yank as Spike drew further down the mountain. Twilight and Rarity were sent hurtling through the air as their mysterious connection to the Elements reached its outermost limit. The sensation was similar to the 'pulling' their Selves were able to use in the Dark, only this particular pulling made Twilight feel extremely queasy. She looked down at the ground far below as she began to float above Spike's industriously climbing body, and had to suppress a squeal of alarm. The valley opened up underneath her Self like a hungry maw.
"I shouldn't have asked," Rarity moaned. Twilight pulled her close, and they drifted steadily downwards at Spike's rate of descent.
"It's okay," she said, trying to keep the nausea out of her words. "Just don't look down."
"A little late for that, darling," Rarity said in a green sort of voice.
After reaching the valley floor it took Spike no time at all to reach the unfamiliar wood that now bordered Ponyville. His long legs ate up the miles as though they were nothing. Ponies scurried through the streets below like ants as he approached, and he began to slow as he entered a grove filled with hummingbirds and wildflowers. Then he lay down on his belly and sighed.
"What?" asked Pinkie, bouncing from his shoulder to his foreleg and trotting around to peer up at his face.
"I'll just wait here," he said. "I don't want to try going into town. I'll start a panic, and besides I don't think I can make it through the streets without causing serious damage. They'll send somepony out to talk to me, I'm sure."
It was with a shudder of relief that Rarity and Twilight finally caught up with him. Floating through thin air without free will was somehow sickening. "Thank heavens that's over," Rarity said shakily.
"I hear that," Twilight muttered.
"This is the outermost part of the animal sanctuary," Spike said, waving his closed fist to indicate the grove. The jewelled hummingbirds flitting through the sunshine gave it a dreamlike, almost fairy quality. It suited him, Twilight thought reflectively. His glittering scales and pointed features made him seem as otherworldly as his surroundings. Even his size didn't seem out of place in this sundrenched grotto – rather, he could have passed as one of the dragon-kings depicted in the ancient tapestries hung on the Palace walls.
Spike carefully lifted Diane from atop his snout and laid her gently amongst the nodding flowers. As he began to draw his forepaw way from her a sleepy smile crossed her face, and she wrapped all four paws around the tip of one of his gigantic claws. His intake of breath was very loud.
"Stay strong, sugarcube," Applejack said quietly.
Spike froze as the baby dragon rubbed against the claw with slow, lazy strokes of her head, and then she curled her tail around it as well, huddling into a little ball. His eyes grew warm and sad.
"I knew wanting things was a bad idea," he whispered.
"Guys? Can you hear something?" asked Rainbow, frowning. She stood up on his shoulder, her head cocked and her body tensed and ready.
"Oh dear," quavered Fluttershy.
The sound of twigs crackling underhoof was coming from the trees before them, and with a muffled curse and a stumble a pair of ponies came crashing through the tree line. The stallion was a pale blue unicorn with a dark blue and white striped mane and tail cut quite short. Square-rimmed glasses covered a pair of purple eyes, and his flank was adorned with a strange cluster of starbursts and numerals. The mare was a small but angular earth pony, with a cherry-red coat and a dark purplish-red mane the exact shade of ripe blackberries. Her eyes were a startling yellow, and her cutie mark was a pair of beribboned masks, one smiling and the other crying.
The stallion halted at the sight of the dragon and the mare crashed into his back, sending them both tumbling across the meadow. Spike's mouth twitched.
"Get off me," the mare hissed.
"I would, oh light of my life, but you're standing on my tail," the stallion hissed back.
"Well, why didn't you say so?" the mare snapped, and tried to move her legs. It wasn't the most effective of techniques, and the pair fell into an even more complicated jumble as they tried to extract themselves.
"Need a hoof?" Spike asked dryly.
The stallion tore to his feet with a mighty wrench and smoothed back his mane. He was visibly trembling, but he was standing tall. Behind him the mare painfully got to her feet. "Ow," she said grumpily.
"Uh..." the stallion said. His pupils had completely shrunk in terror. "Mr... D-dragon..."
"Oh, shove over, Pothy dear," the mare said brusquely, shoving the frozen stallion to one side. She marched up closer to the recumbent giant and squinted up at him. "Professor Spike? That you?"
He nodded. "I was hoping they'd send you two. Yes, it's me."
She didn't move a muscle, but somehow the tension bled out of her. "Thought so," she said, nodding her head. She then jerked it at the stallion, who was regarding her sulkily. "This one didn't believe me when I said so, though."
"Well, how was I to know?" the stallion said defensively. "Professor Spike's a little fellow, quiet as a mouse, barely moves, never leaves the library. It didn't make any sense! Still doesn't!"
"Oh, for pony's sake," the mare sighed. "Aren't you a scientist? How can you not know anything about a dragon's maturation? The professor wrote the seminal work back in 478AL- didn't you read it?"
"I'm a magical scientist, not a biologist," the stallion retorted. "Anyway love, the Arts have even less to do with it, so how would you know?"
"Did you even see the Drama Faculty's production of 'The Apple Orchard' last year?The whole final act is about the Professor and the accident! I won three Golden Haystacks for my portrayal of Cheerilee! Honestly sweetheart, you could try to pay a little attention to my work," she said, before turning back to Spike with the dignity of a queen. Rarity herself could not have matched her. "Why the sudden change of heart?" she asked.
Spike watched this exchange with a sort of amused tolerance. "I need a favour, Star Quality," he said, ignoring her question.
"You want us to move every book in your library up to that mountain you've been sitting on for the last two days?" asked the stallion with dry sarcasm. "You've sent the whole town into an uproar, you know. There's all sorts of mad theories."
"You're the expert on mad theories, Hypothesis," said Spike with a little smile.
The stallion, Hypothesis, jerked backwards. "Whoa. That's... one heck of a smile, Professor."
Star Quality frowned, her face growing suspicious. "Actually," she said slowly, "I've never seen you smile before."
"I haven't had a lot to smile about," Spike said.
"Maybe Hypothesis has a point," Star Quality continued, her eyes narrowing. "Professor Spike never smiles. He's famous for it. It's historical record that he swore on the memory of the Six that he'd never grow again - and you need your own postcode. Besides, the Professor doesn't have a monopoly on purple and green. How do we know you are who you say you are?"
Spike's eyebrows shot up.
"Are you crazy?" Hypothesis whispered urgently. "That's a dragon, the biggest damn dragon anypony's ever seen! If you make him angry he'll eat you alive! Do you want to leave Dawnie without a mother?!"
Star Quality shook the stallion off and gave Spike a challenging look. The little angular pony held herself still and proud, an ant challenging the anteater. "Well? Some proof would be nice," she said politely but firmly.
Spike seemed a little flummoxed, and he blew out a gusty sigh of resignation. "If that's what you want. Uh... My name is Spike Sparkle, I'm five hundred and twelve, I've lived in the Library since 1AL and I'm the Dean of Ponyville University. I was once your student advisor, Star. You had a problem with your voice tutor and asked me to mediate. You also applied for extra time to finish your final assignment because a touring company had asked you to join them in a production of 'The Merry Mares of Windsor'. I had to refuse, but I allowed that your performance could count towards your Practical mark."
Star Quality's mouth fell open.
"Sparkle?" Twilight blurted.
"Was that all true?" Hypothesis hissed.
She closed her mouth and nodded dumbly.
"He is Spike, then?" Hypothesis pressed.
"Yes," she said. "Please shut up, sweetheart."
"I need a favour," Spike repeated.
"Why did you do this?" Star Quality asked.
Spike's mouth bunched in frustration. "If I tell you, would you let me finish?"
"Sure," said Hypothesis, stepping on Star Quality's hoof before she could open her mouth. "Um, she's very sorry. Go on, Professor."
For answer, Spike opened his clenched fist. Gold and jewels glittered in the sunlight, sending dazzling reflections around the fairy glade.
Hypothesis gaped. "Are those..."
"Yes," Spike said.
"What I wouldn't give to get my hooves on them!" he breathed. "The actual Elements of Harmony! The most magical items in the world! Oh, I'd kill to get them into the lab..."
Spike growled under his breath. Uncomfortable harmonics bounced from the nearby mountains. Hypothesis froze.
Star Quality rolled her eyes. "Ignore him, Professor, you know how he gets."
Spike closed his fingers around the Elements again. Twilight loosened her chokehold on Rarity's Self. She hadn't even realised she was holding on quite so tightly.
"The Princess gave them to me," rumbled Spike, before lifting his head and looking towards the west. "I have to use them."
"Against the... the Nightmare Chaos?"
Hypothesis swallowed. "Oh my word."
Star Quality just looked up at him with open mouth and wobbly knees.
"So what's the favour?" Hypothesis continued, nudging his partner sharply.
"It's this," Spike said, and carefully raised his other forepaw, unhooking his claw from Diane's grip. The tiny dragon had been hidden from the two newcomers' sight by Spike's mammoth paw, but now she glinted in the sunshine like polished copper.
"She's an orphan I found near the edge of the Zone a couple of days ago, hidden in the bushes beside the bodies of her slaughtered parents," Spike told them. "She'll need somepony to look after her. She doesn't have any teeth yet, so only mushy foods will do. After they come in, she can eat anything and everything. Oh, lock up your jewellery, or she'll snack on it. Gems are like sweets to a dragon. Careful of rubies – if she eats too many she'll get hyperactive. She likes being talked to and sung to sleep. Until she's about four months old she'll sleep most of the time; I think she's about two months old at the moment. When her teeth come in, remember to give her sandstone to chew on. It's soft enough for her to digest, but hard enough to give her gums some relief, 'cos believe me, teething for a dragon is no fun at all."
Twilight remembered that with a little lurch. He'd cried piteously as his fangs grew in, sharp and unbelievably hard and bigger than his little mouth could handle. It had been a year before he'd grown into them. She wished she'd known about the sandstone trick.
"We're cold-blooded, so she'll need a lot of warmth," Spike continued, looking at Diane with soft, sorrowful eyes. "Until her internal fire's big enough to keep her warm she'll get cold really easily. She'll have a fire talent eventually. All dragons do, like my translocation-fire. Hers is orange, so I expect it has something to do with sight. Maybe farsight, who knows."
"You want us to take her?" blurted Star Quality.
"Yes," Spike said, his breath catching in his throat though his face was unchanged. "I want you to take her."
"Now that there was a lie," Applejack whispered.
"But, Professor..." Hypothesis said, eyeing the dragonette dubiously.
"Please. Take her," Spike snapped. "I can't. You're the only two I can think of who can do it. You've done a great job with your own daughter. Dawning Wonder is a happy, clever, well-adjusted little filly. And you wouldn't treat Diane any differently just because she's a dragon."
"Diane?" asked Star Quality with gentle enquiry as she trotted closer to the baby dragon, who was beginning to wriggle uncomfortably, reaching out with her little arms for Spike's claw.
Spike was silent for a second, and then he lowered his paw again to stroke the baby's tiny back. "I don't know her real name, so I named her Diane. That was Pinkie Pie's middle name."
"Laughter," Star Quality said, her expression shrewd.
Spike nodded, and then turned his head away. "After all she's been through, I hope she finds reason to laugh," he said.
"I don't know the first thing about dragons," said Hypothesis blankly.
"You'll do fine," Spike said, still stroking Diane. She was almost fully awake, her eyes blinking and her little legs beginning to kick. "Twilight didn't know the first thing either, and she didn't muck me up too badly."
"Hey!" Twilight said indignantly.
"That was Twilight Sparkle, the Element of Magic," said Hypothesis. "I'm not her! I'm just a normal unicorn!"
"Twi was a child when she hatched me," Spike said. "All Diane really needs is somepony to care for her."
"But... the fire?" Hypothesis said, a little wild around the eyes. "Keeping a dragon? Professor, I don't know..."
"She's not just a dragon," Spike said with a little edge to his voice. "She's a personality. She's an individual. She's young, but already she's curious and intelligent and a little bit bossy and very affectionate. Just be kind to her."
"Well, naturally, but I don't..." Hypothesis tried to say, but Spike cut him off.
"Check the guide I published late last century for anything you're really worried about, otherwise just use your common sense. She'll set a few things alight, but she won't have enough flame to do any real damage until she can handle it. She's just a baby. Look at her."
"Oh my," said Star Quality as Diane's blue eyes opened completely - iridescent dragon eyes as bright as gemstones. The baby gave a little grunt and rolled onto her belly, pushing herself up onto her forepaws and blinking. She burbled as a hummingbird flittered past her eyes, and then craned back to look at Spike and her face lit up with the uncomplicated and joyful smile of all infants everywhere.
"She is just a baby, isn't she," Hypothesis murmured. "A baby like any other."
"And she needs what any baby needs," Spike said, and smiled back down at the little face, his own poison-green dragon eyes glimmering.
"Mummy?" came a voice from within the trees, and four ghostly ponies, two disembodied minds, two university academics and a giant dragon jerked in surprise. "Daddy? Where'd you go?"
Star Quality whipped around to Hypothesis. "That's Dawning Wonder! I thought you told her not to follow us!"
"I did!" he said, shaking his head in exasperation. "But you know what she's like with adventure!"
With dainty steps a little filly crept out into the clearing, her purple eyes wide as she gazed up at Spike. "Uh, Mr Dragon?" she said in a small, piping voice that nevertheless didn't shake in the slightest. "Have you seen my mummy and daddy? Toffee Nose said they came in here, but he was just teasing me, wasn't he? Or did you eat them? I'll scream loud enough for your ears to fall off if you eated them, just so you know, and then I'll magic you good."
"Twilight...?" whispered Applejack. "Mah memory might be a bit wonky still, but that l'il filly reminds me a lot of..."
"Her cutie mark,just look at her cutie mark!" whispered Fluttershy.
The little unicorn filly's coat was purple, the exact mix of her father's pale blue and her mother's bright red. Her long loose mane was as purplish-black as her mother's but with a streak of bright red through it, and her large eyes were clear mauve.
On her flank, a red star shone.
"Hello there, Dawning Wonder," Spike said. "Your mummy and daddy are here, safe and sound."
"Oh, so you didn't eat them!" she said, deflating in relief, before her face brightened. "Mummy, Daddy, you're all right! Look, Mummy, I made it frough the woods without getting a single burr in my coat! I didn't trip at all, and neither did Clever Clogs! Look!" She held up a doll which, as advertised, had rather large hooves.
"That's lovely, sweetheart," Star Quality said soothingly, shooting a glance at her husband and then up at Spike. "You were supposed to stay behind though, remember? Daddy told you. You broke your word and disobeyed Daddy, Dawnie, and that means no dessert and an early bedtime tonight."
"You know the rules, young lady," Hypothesis said.
"But there's a dragon and Toffee Nose was teasing me and I was all jumpy that it had eated you and I was getting reaaaally nervous and so was Clever Clogs and then I thought I could help!" she said, skittering over to her mother and pressing lovingly against her. "I wouldn't let you get eated, promise! I'd do the magic to make it stop. I'm a big pony, and I can do big pony magic. Promise!" She threw out her little chest proudly.
"I know, my poppet," said Hypothesis, smiling. "But everything's okay. This isn't the kind of dragon that eats ponies. This is the nice kind."
"Oh, good, I'm nice too!" Dawning Wonder said, rounding on Spike and giving him a bright and energetic smile filled with innocence. "I'm glad you're not a mean dragon. I don't like screaming, it makes my head hurt. Are you going to stay and be friends?"
"Ah, I'm actually leaving, Dawning Wonder," Spike replied. "I've been Ponyville's friend for a long time, though."
"Wow, wish I was friends with a whole city," Wonder said, looking up at Spike with owlish envy.
"This is Professor Spike, poppet," said Hypothesis. "You've met him before."
Dawning Wonder gave him an unimpressed look. "No," she scoffed. "Prof'sor Spike is all little, and this is the biggest of big dragon. You're mixing them up, Daddy."
Hypothesis opened his mouth to try and explain, and shut it again as his wife giggled at him.
"Woweeee! She looks just like you, Twilight!" hissed Pinkie Pie.
"But she acts sorta like you, Pinkie," Twilight said, wondering if the little filly really resembled her that much. She was ashamed to admit that she couldn't remember.
"Except she seems to have a touch of Rainbow Dash's more... foolhardy tendencies?" said Rarity delicately. "She did come to challenge a dragon, after all."
"The squirt's got guts," Rainbow Dash said with grudging admiration.
"Why d'you have to go, nice dragon?" Dawning Wonder asked, before noticing the bundle of scales batting at the flowers and making their heads bob and sway. "Whoa, a baby one!"
"Well, that's torn it," said Star Quality wryly as her daughter tore over to the dragon cub and bent her head close. Blue eyes met purple, and Diane reached out with one forepaw to bat experimentally at her mane.
"Oh," said Dawning Wonder in a stunned voice. "She likes me."
"Torn what?" Spike asked, watching the youngsters with a bittersweet expression.
"Nopony can change Dawnie's mind once it's made up. Oh, look at the pair of them, thick as thieves. Well, I guess that's that."
Hypothesis gave his wife a faint look of surprise. "We're adopting the dragon?"
"We're adopting the dragon," she said firmly.
Spike closed his eyes and took a couple of long, deep breaths. "Thank you," he said eventually. His voice was rather faint and raspy.
Hypothesis studied Spike for a moment. "You've really become attached, haven't you? I'd never have believed it. The Stone Professor and a baby."
Spike's eyes snapped open, and he met Hypothesis' eyes for a second. Then his gaze slid away. "You'll understand more when you read the guide," he mumbled.
Star Quality's face became thoughtful as she looked between the baby dragon happily playing with her daughter amidst flowers and butterflies, and Spike's closed-off, forbidding expression. "Oh, I remember," she said softly. "It's that special way a dragon's greed works. You want to keep her."
Spike's eyes grew flinty. "It's not about what I want. It's about her. Besides, I probably won't come back."
"Professor, I'm sure that's not..." Hypothesis began, and then he sighed.
"Don't," Spike said, and heaved himself to his feet. "There's no use pretending otherwise."
The two ponies took an involuntary step backwards as the dragon rose to his full, awe-inspiring height. "All our hopes go with you, Professor," said Hypothesis, pulling himself together.
Spike didn't answer, but his eyes landed on Diane with an expression more telling than words. "Can I just have a..." he said, and then checked himself.
"Take all the time you need," said Star Quality with an understanding glint in her yellow eyes. "Dawnie, the Professor wants to say goodbye to the baby."
Dawning Wonder looked up from a game that seemed to involve poking the baby's soft little belly and then giggling together. "The nice dragon? He's not staying?"
"I have to go, Dawnie," he said, and then slowly extended his empty paw towards the filly. "Could you give me Diane for a moment?"
The filly didn't seem the least bit afraid of the spear-long claws or the foot that dwarfed her entirely. Instead she gave a solemn nod and gently laid Diane on Spike's open palm, before backing away with careful, respectful steps.
Spike brought the baby dragon up to his face, and smiled as she wobbled about, trying to focus. Her eyes met his, and then she made an indistinct noise of triumph and lunged for his face. Her soft claws caught on the scales of his nose, and his breath hitched as she purled affectionately, nuzzling against him.
"Be a good girl, Diane," he said quietly. "You won't remember your parents, and you won't remember me, and that's for the best. Have a good life. Be happy and clever, and don't make my mistakes. Remember, you were named for laughter."
Diane cooed and burbled, patting at Spike's nose and talking back in some baby language only she could understand.
Spike curled a finger around to stroke her head the way she liked, and she blew a bubble of contentment. "Be good for your new family, little one," he whispered like the breeze brushing the flowers. "I wish it could have been otherwise. I wish you could have been mine, but there's a bright little filly down there who wants to love you, and even a doll called Clever Clogs, and maybe one day there'll be a basket and books and a library." His eyes flicked down to the filly standing below, and a faint melancholy smile crossed his lips. "Amazing, the way history repeats itself."
He held her there for a beat more, before lowering her down. Diane's soft little claws couldn't hold onto his scales and sustain her weight, and so she was rocked backwards in his palm as they lost their grip. She let out a mewl of protest that became an angry wail as Dawning Wonder picked her up in her forehooves and held her close. Spike lifted his chin. His face was unreadable.
"Well," he said. "I'm off."
"This is unbearable," Rarity choked. "I can't watch this."
"We'll tell the city, Professor," said Star Quality, and she bowed her head in profoundest respect. "We'll tell the whole of Equestria. You'll be remembered."
"Look after her," was all Spike said as he began to turn away.
"Professor Spike!" Hypothesis called after him. "We'll look after her, I promise! I swear it on the Six!"
Spike hesitated before taking his next step. He half-turned his head back to them and nodded once.
Diane was struggling in Dawning Wonder's embrace, her little arms reaching for Spike as he began to walk away. "Shhh, baby," the filly said. "It's okay. The nice dragon's got to go be a grown-up and do somethink important, but I can look after you now." She rubbed her furred head against Diane's scales as the baby began to sob and hiccup. "You can be sad, baby, that's okay. I'll be here. I'm Dawnie. I'm gonna be your big sister, Diane."
Spike bit down upon his lip hard as Diane's wails rose in pitch, but still no expression crossed his face and his pace continued without pause. With his head held level and his eyes dry he left the sundrenched fairy grove without looking back. Twilight's worry competed with the sudden lurch of nausea as she and Rarity were ignominiously jerked through the air yet again (and she wanted to have a word or two with whoever was in charge of this ridiculous half-life. How could an entity with no stomach or internal organs get nauseous?).
Once she had adjusted – reluctantly – to the feeling, she peered up at Spike's impassive face for a clue as to how to comfort him. His eyes were beginning to shine, but other than that it was carefully, rigidly blank.
Behind them, voices were slowly fading.
"Do you think we can live up to this responsibility, love?"
"We have to. Look at what he's done for Equestria, and what he's about to attempt. This is all he's asking of us in return. I'm going to go speak to the Chancellor and the Mayor the minute we get back - it can't ever be forgotten. Besides, just look at the pair of them, Pothy."
"I see what you mean. So, our dragon daughter, huh? She looks sort of sleepy still, even though she's crying."
"He said she likes to be sung to..."
"Oh, Mummy, can I? I know a good song."
"In a moment, Dawnie. Give her here and I'll rock her, and you can hold Clever Clogs. Careful with her little neck as you pass her, she can't quite hold her head up properly yet. Nice and gentle, that's it. Babies are fragile. Oh, she's so soft! Pothy, pat her head, see?"
"Oh wow, she is. So soft and smooth. Somehow I thought she'd be hard, like the Professor was."
"She's brand new, Pothy, and the Professor was aging unnaturally. I'll show you the script of the play when we get home. Oh, would you just look at those dimples. You are a little cutie, aren't you Deedee?"
"Well, Pinkie Pie's middle name or not, you can't call a cute little scrap of adorableness like her by a big haughty name like Diane. My babies get nicknames as sweet as they are. Don't they, my little Deedee? Oh shhh, little one, shhhh. Dawnie, stroke her head a little. Her eyes are blinking a lot, see? That means she's tired."
"Ohhhh. Like this?"
"Good girl, my poppet, Daddy's very proud of you. You're going to be such a wonderful big sister. Oh, the poor little thing, she just won't stop crying. There, shhh, there's a girl, there's my new little girl."
"Well, she's lost her parents and her new parental substitute within a few days. I'd be howling a lot louder than her, believe me. Ready, Dawnie?"
"Pat her scales, that's it. Gently does it."
"Hush now, quiet now, it's time to lay your sleepy head. Hush now, quiet now, it's time to go to bed. Drift off to sleep, there's another day behind you..."
"Did they just diss my name?" Pinkie whispered indignantly.
Spike reached the end of the little wood and the lullaby was lost amongst the birdcalls of the morning. His eyes were brimming.
"Spike," Twilight said miserably, dragged along behind him like a balloon on a string. "I'm here for you. Talk to me."
"So am I," Rarity said in a weak little voice.
"She'll be fine," said Fluttershy, standing up on Spike's shoulder and turning back to try and see the new and strangely assorted little family through the trees. "They seem like nice ponies. They'll look after her."
"No, I mean I'm here," Rarity said somewhat louder, and it was with a shock that Twilight realised that her Self was no longer wrapped around the nebulous sense of Rarity's Self but around a barely-perceptible unicorn with elaborate curls and thick-lashed eyes.
"You're here," she said blankly.
"It would seem so," she said. Her beautiful face was unhappy.
"Oh hey, Rarity's got legs!" Rainbow exclaimed, peering over Spike's haunch to gawk at the unicorn skimming along in thin air.
Applejack joined her and then whistled low. "Whoa there, Rarity. I clean fergot how frou-frou that mane o' yours was."
"I would very much appreciate it if I could climb up onto your shoulder, Spike dear," Rarity said in a stiff voice. She was keeping her eyes averted from the grass passing beneath her immobile hooves.
Spike stopped as he reached the foot of the mountain, and flopped down onto his haunches. "Where are you, milady?" he said, scanning the ground.
"I seem to be stopping by your left forehoo – uh, paw," she said as the nauseating ride slowed, "the one holding the Elements."
"Uhhhh," Twilight said, her grip on Rarity tightening. "I hate that flying thing, I hate it. Rainbow Dash, you're insane. Nopony should do that, nopony at all."
With glacial slowness Spike leaned forward and reached out with his empty paw. "On you get," he said dully.
"Well, you got yer wish then, Rarity," Applejack said, trying to lighten the mood. "You've got yer feet back."
"I didn't want to get them back at Spike's expense," Rarity muttered as she stepped lightly onto the broad palm, still wearing Twilight like a metaphysical fur. Then she looked up at his huge, blank face with anxiety in her large eyes. "Darling, what can I do?"
"Nothing. There isn't anything you can do," he answered, raising his hand level with his neck and holding his paw still as she clambered out onto his scales. After a few moments he asked, "are you off yet?"
"We're all on your shoulders, Spike," said Fluttershy.
"'Cept me, I'm on your head," said Rainbow proudly.
"There must be something I can do," Rarity fretted.
"We're ghosties," Pinkie said. "Remember?"
"Everypony except Twilight, that is," corrected Applejack.
"Yeah, everypony except me," Twilight grumbled, feeling horribly selfish for complaining about such a thing when Spike's heart was breaking in front of them, and yet not being able to stop herself for a sackful of bits and the original manuscripts of Star Swirl the Bearded. She wanted to be real – or as real as she could be – and despite being the Element of Magic she was the one lagging behind.
"Girls," Fluttershy said, her face serious as she shook her head and beckoned them close. The five insubstantial ponies and Twilight gathered together and bent towards her. Fluttershy glanced nervously over at Spike for a moment, before bending even closer. "Don't you see what's happening?" she whispered in a voice that even Twilight had to strain to hear. "Every time one of us has become, well..."
"Corporeal?" suggested Rarity.
"Not quite," whispered Librarian Twilight. "But let it pass."
"It's always come at an emotional cost to Spike," Fluttershy continued, ignoring the interruptions with unusual determination. "We first saw Rainbow Dash when the Princess called on his memories of us, which must have upset him terribly. Then Pinkie Pie – he was already hurting after what he had to do to grow, and so he made a joke to hide his feelings..."
"And you, Fluttershy," interrupted Rainbow, "he knew he'd have to give up Diane, but he let himself get close to her anyway 'cos she needed it after her parents died..."
"Me," said Applejack in blank realisation. "He 'fessed up about blowin' that fireball on th' Elements, even though he knew we might hold it against him."
"And he just gave Diane the chance for a good life when he wants to care for her himself," said Rarity in a low voice. "The selfish thing to do would be to keep her, but he let her go instead."
Twilight turned her attention to Spike, hunched forlornly beneath them. His great head was off to one side of their little huddle rather than above them, and Twilight realised that it was bowed - in acceptance or anguish, she couldn't tell. There was a lurching where her stomach should be, and just one thought flew through her mind.
She couldn't be the cause of yet more pain for him.
"I don't want to be a ghost," she said abruptly, directing her attention back to the huddle and filling herself with as much determination as possible. "I'll stay like this forever. I don't mind." She forced herself to believe it, despite the fact that she'd been complaining only two minutes earlier.
"Twilight," Applejack said in a sympathetic voice, moving to where Twilight's Self hung in the air like a faint scent. "I understand where you're comin' from, but maybe..."
"But nothing," Twilight said curtly. "I won't hurt him. He's my son and my brother and my best friend and he's already in the kind of pain I can't even begin to imagine. I'm not going to add to it. He already half-believes that he's going mad. Celestia only knows how he's stayed so strong."
"He was always mighty stubborn," Applejack said. "But have y' thought that maybe all o' us need to be out o' the Elements invoked-like before he can use 'em?"
"I don't see why," Twilight said. "We never had to."
Rainbow shook her head. "Yeah, but how's he gonna use Magic, huh? Like he said, it's..." she wrinkled her nose, "in-herent? That right?"
"Inherent," Twilight confirmed.
"Listen," Fluttershy said.
"He's a draaaaagon," Pinkie drawled, rolling her eyes with theatrical exaggeration.
"Y' don't say," Applejack deadpanned.
Pinkie blew a raspberry at her farmpony friend. "So he said he's got magic of the body and fire," she elaborated, waving a random hoof for emphasis. "Yeah?"
"But we've tried the body, and he tried the fire," Twilight said, frustrated.
"Listen," Fluttershy said.
"I dunno if just hooking them all over him is really tappin' into his body's magic," said Rainbow.
"It was a hoot, though!" Pinkie added.
"Well, can you think of anything else?" snapped Twilight.
"Well, if you weren't takin' out yer frustrations on us, maybe we could!" Applejack snapped back.
"I'm worried about Spike!" Twilight yelled.
"We all are!" Applejack shouted. "I get that it's personal fer you, Twi, but there's no need t' bite mah head clean off!"
"Listen!" Fluttershy yelled.
They turned to her. She shrank back a little, and then steeled herself.
"You were getting a teensy bit loud there, girls," she said, and then turned her head with a significant glance. Twilight followed her gaze to see Rarity standing high on Spike's collarbone. His head was still downturned, but his neck had arched back towards her in spite of himself. None of them had noticed her leaving. She was talking softly to him, one hoof trying unsuccessfully to stroke the shield-sized purple scales. Spike had his eyes closed, and his expression was one of hopeless regret.
Twilight was suddenly incredibly ashamed of herself.
"I'm sorry, Applejack," she said quietly.
"Me too, Twi," Applejack sighed. "Me too."
"I don't want to fight," she said. "I just want him to be okay, and..." She couldn't finish, but the rest of them could hear her unsaid words.
Rainbow Dash gave the space her Self was occupying a doubtful look that needed no translation, before turning back to where the faintest suggestion of a unicorn tried to comfort a dragon with more issues than the Equestrian Inquirer.
I miss my debt-free life - and my butt. Console me by leaving a review!