Spike found himself in a familiar position. He was abandoned, in the corner, and expected to be on his best behavior - and quiet. To be fair, the shubbery he was standing next to was lovely and fit the white marble decor well. It was also an excellent example of something on its best and quietest behavior.
There had been explicit instruction to be “the best baby dragon in a baby blue suit in this whole great big awesome gala” from a certain purple unicorn. The laughter itched like his ridiculous suit. The patronization dripping from “great” and “big” made Spike’s skin crawl. It had already been itchy under a frilly gala wig.
Spike desperately wished the punch was mixed with fire-brandy. It was not.
Spike was starting to chafe in several ways. The small dragon struck out for the grand balcony’s towering French doors. At the doorway, well-coiffed gentlecolts were plying their charm, hoping to court any comparably well-coiffed filly. Spike managed to scrape past the legs of a few young colts. He could nearly taste cologne.
Easing through the doors, Spike was impressed. The balcony was large enough to host a minor soiree, but there was hardly a soul to be seen. It was silent but for the wind, which caught noise from the hall. Most of it was light speculation about the traditions surrounding the gala, and this nice little chalet I’ve rented rooms for the week just for the occasion. Spike could hear the creak of frail smiles.
The breeze was cool and crisp. It carried away the chaffing under Spike’s clothes. It did not smell heavily of perfume and dom peignoir. The darkness equalized all things; there were no scales and errant spikes and ill-fitting pantsuits …
Spike tore away the powdered wig and raked up his scales. His tiny frame fit easily between the balcony columns. Looking up, the little dragon tried to find consolation in the turning of the stars; it felt better than muttering to himself about dumb rich stupid attractive ponies.
All the constellations were crisp that night; Spike’s slitted eyes picked them out singly and in tandem with one another. There was Canis, there was horribulus equus, there was the bandied girdle.
The heavens were equal-opportunity humblers. The stars were so high and proud, and twinkled away without bosting- unlike certain ponies he could mention. They were beautiful and radiant on their own terms. There was no shape of a mane or the shimmer of a scale. They were Beauty, capital-B.
“You, boy,” came a rattle from the shadows. It sounded like a creaking cigar box.
Spike turned around in a panic. He prayed he hadn’t mussed one of those dumb rules of decorum Twilight had been spouting about; there’d be such a terrible lecture later, he could nearly feel the condescension now - but he stopped short.
There was a looming shape in the shadows. The great red beast was huddled on himself, great tan belly dwarfing the tallest stallion in the land. It was apparently a full-grown dragon, with brilliant scarlet scales and a jet black beard, holding his claws proudly and with grace.
It was strange to see someone - anyone - without a formal dress at the Gala, regardless of size. Spike supposed any number of cotton fields or sheep would have to die to garb those wide red scaly shoulders, but the many golden necklaces and slate-gray chain-mail were peak haute fashion. It accentuated claws and teeth and two inscrutable reptile eyes.
The partygoer looked distinguished and proud. That getup was not at all like a baby-blue children’s costume Spike observed, glancing down at his own trousers.
For all the blood red scales and dragon-shape clothing, Spike somehow hadn’t seen him coming or going. He would have remembered from the eyes alone; There were strange depths in those amber-orange eyes. They were puzzled but focused, very nearly glowing fire-red in the borrowed light from the hall.
To the dragon’s left was a cart-sized hookah, burning a fair bushel of tobacco. It lent the cool night air the smell of burning applewood, with a - surprisingly pleasant - a hint of smoldering leaves. A few pony-sized hoses snaked away from the stoker. Spike couldn’t help but notice the cart’s steep roof barely reached the red one’s hips.
“You, small one,” the red hulk rumbled again. It came out thin and private, but as loud as expected of a fire-breathing giant. To Spike’s amazement, one on the balcony seemed to have heard it.
“You have pony friends, yes?”
“Yeah, I do,” Spike bit off quickly, “But what’s your name-”
“You can call me The Red One," came neatly clipped. "So you have pony friends …” the dragon rolled off his tongue, amused.
“It’s why I’m here,” Spike spat sternly, taking his punch from one paw to the next. The Red One sounded awfully amused at a private joke. Spike didn’t feel too swell being the butt of it.
“Mmm, yes, you have acquaintances,” Rolled Red one, punctuating with a puff of smoke. “But do you have friends?”
“Sure, I have my friends from Ponyville and I help Twilight Sparkle learn about the magic of friendship!” Spike wasn’t sure where this conversation was going, but he was inclined to like where it’d gone so far. To start, there were two dragons involved.
“Mmm. Much like a pony need a dragon to learn,” another deep engine-backfire chuckle. A claw twisted at a dial on the cart. The cart’s groanings and pufft-pufft noises grew more insistent.
“You don’t know what she does-”
“Don’t I? I was introduced. Her studies are smiled upon in the royal court. Miss Sparkle does not seem the kind to pick up their own books or clean up their own messes,” Red one’s words came haltingly - strange accents on all the vowels - but the meaning was uncomfortably clear.
The scarlet dragon’s eyes darted to spike Spike, “And you do those things for her. Because that is what friends do?” Red One mused, gumming idly at the hookah stem with glorious fangs.
“How did you know--” Spike stopped short. He’d smelled something. It was like tasting a color. It was familiar.
Spike’s eyes squinted at the pipework cart. The fire was puttering away quite merrily. It also had no wood or gas or pressurized fuel.
It was magic. There was no hint of unicorn horn flicker-flame or breathy incantations or the slightest whuff of dragon fire. It was simple burning-magic, there and boiling away in a persistent cataclysmic alchemical reaction. Spike recognized it from practice. Twilight couldn’t muster for thirty seconds.
“How can you do that-” Spike stammered.
“The fire? Good Lord, don’t you know proper fire magic?” Red one puzzled. Spike had never held a gaze so exacting. He had neither experienced one so sad.
“N-no. I’m not really a student, I just help Twilight with sparring and magical construction,” Spike sputtered. His legs crossed and his body drew itself small in the dainty sky-blue tux.
The Red One frowned deeply. It was the particular frown for those annoyed at Spike for not doing properly. Those frowns always came just before a shower of grief. Spike shut his eyes tight, thinking of Twilight’s many speeches. Tiny knees buckled just a little, as they often did in the Library back home.
“Little one,” came very evenly, the sound of an old oak barrel rolling down a hill. “I should not expect that from someone who is just beginning.”
The little purple dragon opened his eyes wide.
“The friendship of magic is strong. But we have many magics beneath these scales, little one,” Red One rumbled, doubling down. His face was just parallel to the balcony floor, large snout nearly touching Spike. His breath came in gusts of warm smoke, notes of magic and basil and tobacco. He semeed to be weighing a choice very carefully. At length he mumbled half-to-himself, “And you need to hear of that.”
As he drew himself up again, Red One pointed skyward with a yellow nail. “I have seen the shape of stars bend before me. They will do so long after me. You see their magic? It is in their movements. You see my magic?” A massive claw gestured to the cart, “It comes from my past. Let me tell you of my past.”
Any other time, this stranger would have been getting an earful about how Twilight and his friends really were and how dare you tell me about how to live my life- But Spike’s gaze held firm. Spike decided to listen.
The stranger spoke of the apple orchards with which he’d grown 300 years ago in a fertile valley when he was much younger. He spoke of the smoke rising from the steeple of Princess’ vizier 130 summers ago, less so if you counted it was Wintermas time. Red One rumbled and rumbled and spoke on.
There were stories of the sound-magic of tribes Red One discovered on the farthest plains with strange stripes. There were stories of the cold fresh waters of a strong coursing river with giant rats on its banks, large as cows. He spoke at some length of a beautiful summer dawn over Canterlot in the wake of civil action in Mayproxy some 200 years ago, one that brought palpable relief the relief to Red One and everyone in the city streets. He nearly choked, finding it hard to speak of the magic of that golden light - its effortless stripping away pain and tears. Those strange orange eyes became watery from the smoke and memory.
Those eyes had seen everything.
The occasional pony trotted to the cart to take a few draws and enjoy the night air, talking amongst themselves. It was always light conversation, drawing on the present or soon-to-come. They listened half-way and went back in, marvelling at the sight of two domesticated dragons, how funny darling, isn’t that precious ...
Spike hardly noticed the ponies; his eyes and ears were fixed on Red One.
A great red claw pointed out constellations, calling Equus Nobilis jah’ral sengal, Red One never quite explaining what language he used. With a broad sweep of his claw, the stars shimmered and danced the way Red One remembered them from his stargazing on a mountain cliff as a pup. Roaring with laughter, Red One recounted the brave stunts pulled as an adolescent in Belshorn Calley to the West, the courting of a female. Voice low and warbling, he recalled failures in this courtship and in many others, in battles, in raising a family.
Spike couldn’t tell in the dark, but he could swear he saw tears.
The wheel of stars turned, misted in smoke.
Spike’s punch had run dry many stories before a surprisingly riveting tale discussing a treaty between unicorns and pegasi 400 years ago, or so Red One had been told by his father -
Chimes inside noted the beginning of the Beryl Coronet dance. The glockenspiel sound startled both dragons. In an instant, the spell was broken. Spike realized it had been hours since he left the hall.
Remembering himself at some two stories tall, Red One began to push his cart toward the door, “It was good to remember, little one. I must be going.”
Spike ran after him, little legs barely holding pace, “W-wait! Your stories! They’re amazing! I want to hear more!”
Red One stopped short. He looked like a very well-to-do hill.
“You will hear stories. You will make stories, as I have, little one.”
“But I need a dragon in my life!” Spike shouted, arms flung to the sky, grasping for the stranger and his stories and the wild strange magic and the strange little cart. The piping shout drew the attention of several ponies in the doorway.
Red One chuckled softly, the sound of a growling tiger. He threw his great snout over a shoulder. Those red pebbly scales looked strange against the clear yellow light pouring out of the hall.
He fixed Spike in the strangest gaze …
“You have one,” the red tall one chuckled, “It is you.”
“How can you say that,” Spike huffed, arms buffering about, throwing a loose button into the darkness, “I didn’t say a word! I just listened and thought it was amazing!”
“And you will remember my story?”
“Of course!” Spike bellowed into the night.
Two pebbly lips vaulted into a smile.
“So you are a dragon …” Red One murmured, pushing his cart along into a soap-bubble world of light, grace, champagne, and the nattering of a thousand silly colts and fillies.
With uncanny ease, the huge red dragon passed through the double doors, pushing the cart along. The sight was so ludicrous, yet ponies traipsed around the strange red shape in their midst, barely glancing up. Was it a food cart? Was it a tray of hot sandwiches? They didn’t know or particularly care.
Spike wanted to run and shout and tell them all to stand, to listen, to care - but he found himself frozen on the spot. Abandoned. In the corner, just as before. Before long, the cavernous hall and its banners and bright lights swallowed any sight of Red One.
Spike stood on the balcony, wig in hand, staring blankly at the last patch of wall he’d seen the red scales clash against. Without the cart and without the mountainous fire-breather, the balcony felt quite empty and silent. The absence of the dragon’s story and sonorous voice made Spike feel very alone. He felt a shudder. Surely it was from the chill.
The stars wheeled above.
Spike didn’t want like going back into the sound and expectations. He wanted to stay out and recapture the magic he’d just felt. He convinced himself he wasn’t pouting. But yet after a time the cold grew unbearably cold for thin costume dress. The stars were beautiful, but they didn’t have the same effect as cheery ballroom fireplaces and bubbly champagne. Spike eyed a champagne cart puttering along inside.
Spike waddled sadly to the door. Listening to a wise old dragon, even one so mercurial, had been wonderful. Now it was back to that sea of lords and ladies who didn’t pay him attention at all, let alone teach or listen or laugh with him. He sighed deeply and reached for the handle.
He paused. Suddenly he understood the door, the hall, the gala, everything through Red One’s eyes. How many times did Spike have the opportunity to make a name for himself, to do amazing feats, to be a person worth telling stories about - only to shy in the corner? How many stories had he been a part of, and not been the focus of? How many more chances would he get?
How many had Red One missed and desperately wished he hadn’t?
Standing there, Spike knew what he should do for once, regardless of proper. Throwing aside the silly wig onto the marble, he raked up his head-scales, proud and shining. He popped the remaining buttons, loosening the collar in a particularly fetching way. In one swift motion Spike shucked his pants and shoes, letting his dragon paws pad on cold stone. Opening the door, he held his tiny frame tall.
Spike looked at the stars once again.
He entered the din. With a swoosh of a door and a crooked smile, Spike began his own story.
He began with a flourish. He shot upwards a four-foot jet of pale green flame, stirring the crowd piling up by the door. The sudden blaze elicited shouts and laughter and whoops of excitement. There was no need to squeeze past; every pony on the far end of the hall made room with smiles, nervous and otherwise.
With this, Spike felt worth telling a story about. The possibilities for his story grew warm and full in his mind. He planned on dancing, singing, and referring to himself as a student and gentledragon. There was a swell in his heart; Spike knew the night would take him places. After all, it already had brought him a vaulting of beautiful stars and the remembrances of a new friend.
Strutting his way through the murmuring crowd to the nearest drink cart, Spike licked his flame-dry lips.
A cream-coat young filly burst from the crowd and began ambling beside him. Her gentle features were framed with long blond tresses, while her body filled a flowing blue dress rather winsomely. The sparkle in her emerald eyes showed her quite piqued by the short and proud young dragon. Getting closer, Spike noticed she smelled of sweet melons.
Bubbling excitedly, she exclaimed, “Are you a dragon? That is so fascinating!”
Spike grinned confidently, reaching for a flute, “Hells yeah I’m a dragon.”