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Spike gave Rainbow Dash an incredulous look. She grinned.
"Get used to that joke amongst fliers," she told him, a mischievous twinkle in her eye. "Well? Let's have a look at 'em, then."
Rainbow Dash pushed her Wonderbolts goggles higher onto her forehead and whistled as Spike spread his wings as far as they would go. He'd never actually stretched them out to their fullest extent before, and the further he unfolded them the heavier they became. "Wow."
"Rainbow?" he grunted.
"Nope, just... they're great, Spike, really great, really... really big," she finished with a small tinge of dismay in her fuchsia eyes.
"What...?" He looked down at her with some difficulty. His back and chest were braced to hold up the expanse of his wings, and the tension was running into his neck and throat.
"Ah-ah-ah!" She immediately shook an admonishing hoof at him. "Stop that! When you got ya wings open, your neck shouldn't get involved. The stiffer it is, the less manoeuvrable you're gonna be. Now relax that neck, go on!"
He made the effort. His neck relaxed, but his shoulders bunched.
"Whoops, can't get tense there either!' she said cheerfully. "Keep those wings out, but relax your shoulders and neck and chest as much as you can!" She scratched her chin in thought. "You gotta build up the muscles on your chest and back."
"That's where you carry the weight of 'em when you're on the ground, and where they carry you when you're in the air," she explained. "Carry that weight in your shoulders, and you're gonna need a walking frame in under a week. Put those things down an' I'll show you."
Spike gratefully folded up his wings and blew out a little puff of smoke.
Rainbow Dash opened her own wings in demonstration. "Okay, just here, right? You see the big ol' muscles that run along the tops of my wings and down into my back? And the ones that run underneath and around under my chest?"
Spike peered, feeling a little embarrassed to be looking so closely at Dash's back. "Uh, yeah?"
"Those are the magic muscles," she said smugly. "They gotta be strong but springy. Get them right an' you can rock the whole sky!"
"Right, rock the sky, okay." He nodded, leaning back. "So how do I get those working properly?"
She rolled her eyes. "Practice flying!"
"Right. Silly question," he said dryly.
"Okay, so here are a few basic rules," she continued. "Keep your neck loose and your body straight – don't let your rump slump is what my first instructor used to say."
Spike wrinkled his nose. "Yeah, I thought it was stupid too," Dash said, pulling a face. "Just keep your tail high, all right? Anyway, moving on.
"You wanna turn left? Lean left. You wanna turn right? Lean right. The more you lean, the tighter the turn. You want more height? Flap 'em. You want down? Lock 'em and lean forward - gently. You might need to flap a bit when landing – my personal favourite is backwinging to a landing – and lower your hindquarters first, or you'll end up snout-first in the dirt."
"Should I write this down?" Spike asked.
She gave him an impatient look. "Spike, most of this'll come naturally when you're in the air, I promise. It does to any flyer. The most important thing of all to remember – cos this bit doesn't come naturally – is to look where you're going!"
"Okay, you wanna try a little flight?" she said in the voice of somepony offering a rare treat.
"Rainbow, I..." he said weakly.
"Yeah, yeah, you're nervous, I get it." She waved her hoof dismissively. "Look. Water underneath you down there. You're fine, it's safe. Now go!"
He looked at the lake far below. "I..." he quavered again.
She scowled. "You're a dragon. Puh-lease. Now quit being a scaredy-baby and go!"
"But...!" he tried.
"Even Fluttershy can do this!"
"Oh, so you've never been scared at all?" he retorted, stung at the insult to sweet little Fluttershy.
Dash cleared her throat. "Well, yeah I... wait, no! No, of course not! Oh, just open up those overgrown sails and jump off, would ya?"
Spike took a deep breath.
And then yet another, trying to calm the nest of insects that had made their home in his stomach.
"Some time today?"
"I'll be taking my own time, thank you," he said with wobbly dignity. His knees were knocking violently. Now was it keep your rump tense and your neck high...?
"Oh, come on," Rainbow Dash groaned. "Look, you'll be fine, I promise!"
"Not gonna be a crater," he squeaked, and jumped.
"I said I was sorry!"
"Look, I promise I can teach this – really! We'll just keep trying!"
"Ow-ow-ow... ow." Spike gingerly sat at the edge of the lake and gave Rainbow Dash a dark glare. "Ow," he repeated pointedly, in case the message hadn't sunk in.
"Ow," he said, and slumped over pathetically.
"Well, your wings locked, that's good," she said into the silence.
"Ow," he agreed grudgingly.
"And you got a few wingbeats in..."
"Owwww," he remembered, wincing.
"Yeah, so... I probably should have mentioned something about wind resistance, right?"
Spike lifted his head to glare at her once more, and said very precisely and very clearly, "Ow."
"Hey Spike," she chuckled, "You made a totally awesome splash when you hit the water!"
He groaned and closed his eyes. His whole body felt like it had been pummelled by experts.
"At least you kept your rump up," she said encouragingly.
"Hooray for me," he said painfully.
"Oh, you can talk, glad to hear it."
"Hurts," he grumbled.
"You really didn't do too badly for a first run," she said, before shaking her head. "Nah, actually, that was pretty awful. But hey, you flew!"
"I fell," he corrected.
"Flew," she insisted. "You totally flew for a bit. You would have seen that if you'd had your eyes open. Incidentally? You really oughtta keep your eyes open."
He huffed. She waved smoke away and patted his head.
"C'mon you," she said. "Time for another go."
"Ow?" he protested.
"Quit that. C'mon, you'll do better this time! I promise!"
"You lied," Spike whimpered, sopping wet and aching.
"Sorry," she said, muffling her giggles with one hoof.
"You've killed me," he managed.
"Hey, if you will insist on falling..."
"Breaking News at Ten: Wonderbolts Star Finally Cracks. Crazy Pegasus Kills Incredibly Handsome Young Dragon Stone Dead," he wheezed.
"That was a pretty wicked somersault you just did."
"Eyewitnesses Say; 'It Was a Pretty Wicked Somersault'."
Dash guffawed. "Additional Report: Dragon Blubs and Moans Just Like a Little Filly."
"Policeponies Warn That Pegasus Is Obviously Deranged and Dangerous. Do Not Approach," Spike countered.
"Dragon should get his backside back up that hill and have another go," challenged Dash.
Spike folded his paws over his eyes. "Pegasus loves to see Dragon suffer."
"Come on, Spike," Rainbow wheedled. "One more go, and that's it for today. I swear, you're going to get it this time! I promise!"
Spike dragged himself out of the water and hurked up a fish.
Dash took one look at him and keeled over laughing.
"Glad... it's so... amusing," he croaked.
"Sorry... ahahahah! Aha... ahuh... hummhmm..." She tried to stifle her laughter, but the minute her eyes landed on him she rolled over in hysterics again, her legs kicking the air.
Spike growled weakly.
"Ohhh." She sighed out the last of her riotous giggling. "Oh boy, that was hilarious. You got a future in comedy, pal."
Spike simply lay like a beached seal, his wings and legs limp as wet lettuce. He tried to raise his head to glower at her, but his neck just would not budge. "Urrrrnghhhh," he said.
"Aw, Spike," she said sympathetically, a grin still tugging at her lips. "It's okay, really it is. You'll totally get it, I pro-"
"Don't!" he said hoarsely.
"Never promise me anything, okay?" he rasped.
She tilted her head, taken aback. "Uh, why?"
"When you do, disasters happen." He cringed as his whole back twanged like a broken banjo. "It's like you invite them," he added mournfully.
Rainbow Dash had to, well, dash off to a rehearsal, and so Spike had to haul himself back into town alone, his body screaming at him every step of the way. His wings dragged furrows in the dirt either side of him, and he could feel his ankles and knees wobbling like jelly.
Flopping bonelessly down in the square before the library, he tried to summon the energy to call Twilight, and failed. However, a gasp from the balcony told him that he'd been spotted, and the sound of hooves on stairs and the slam of a door announced the presence of visitors. The scratch of hooves skidding on gravel registered in front of him, and he raised his eyes to see Twilight, Pinkie Pie and Rarity all staring speechlessly at him.
"Spike...?" Twilight ventured. Behind her, Pinkie Pie and Rarity shared a look.
"I..." he managed, "am very good..."
"Yaaaay! Flying Celebration party!"
Twilight clapped her hooves. "See! I knew you could-"
"...at falling," he concluded glumly.
"—oh." She deflated.
"Never mind, Spike," Rarity said. "You'll get the hang of it, I'm sure."
He looked up at her with an expression of pure disbelief.
"It's only your first lesson," said Twilight sensibly.
"I know, I know," he sighed.
"Take heart, dear," soothed Rarity. Spike grunted, and then steeled himself against the screaming of his shoulders and legs as he hauled himself to his haunches.
"All right, okay, I'm up, I'm up," he said, panting.
"Poor Spikey," Pinkie crooned. "Poor little crashy-washy hurty-wurty silly billy Spikey-wikey..."
"Does she have an off-switch?" Spike muttered.
"Anyway, darling, we've come up with some plans for your house," Rarity said, obviously wanting to perk him up a bit.
"Yes, and I think you're going to be pleased," Twilight said, her horn flaring, and a couple of large, rolled-up parchments came floating out of the library's open door.
"You're gonna love it!" Pinkie bounced excitedly.
"Can't wait to see 'em," he said with a shaky smile.
"No Jacuzzi or moat, unfortunately." Twilight glanced slyly at him.
"Dang," he said. "I had my heart set on those pony-shaped shrubs."
She chuckled, and nodded at Pinkie to step on a corner of one of the parchments. Thus secured, Twilight spread out the chart and looked up expectantly.
Spike craned closer, smothering a grimace as his neck ached and spasmed. The chart seemed to depict a rather simple stone structure with only one room. A door, marked 'metal!', faced the town and away from the gorge up to the mountains. A large empty space in the centre dominated, but there were markings all around the walls. "What're all these?" he asked, his claw travelling over the alcoves and boxes.
"Well, here's a little larder for you – I say 'little', but really it's going to be large enough for you to stand on the shelves for a few more years yet." Rarity pointed it out - an alcove set against the wall.
"That's a torch-bracket," chirped Pinkie. "Big enough for a whole tree!"
"And this is a sort of library," Twilight said, tapping the chart enthusiastically.
"Of course," he drawled.
"Here's a kitchen-ish sort of area," Rarity continued. "I wasn't entirely sure about that..."
"But I said you've always liked to cook and I didn't think that was going to change," Twilight said. "Uh, you'll have to use your own fire, though... I didn't think it was a great idea to put a hearth that size in there."
He quirked his mouth wryly. "Luckily I'm working on that."
"This," Twilight indicated a large round structure nestled against the building, "is a rainwater tank. We'll get pipes to move the water into your kitchen. It won't be enough to bathe with, but you won't have to leave home to get a drink of water."
"I still believe a house with no bathroom is no house at all," Rarity declared, firmly stamping a forehoof.
"You don't need a shower because the lake is right next to the town," Twilight pointed out, "and there's the river in the gorge as well if the lake is frozen."
"And here's where you can keep your great big bed of gems!" Pinkie tapped the chart. "See? Right away from the door and against the wall so no little baby dragon can sneak in and eat them."
"Uh, Pinkie? I don't have a great big bed of gems," he reminded her.
"Not yet, silly!" She beamed.
"These are shelves and cupboards and all manner of things." Rarity gestured at the lines on the chart. "And here is a little platform sort of area for your guests, so you don't have to crouch down to have a decent conversation. That was my idea," she added modestly.
"Why the big space in the middle?" he wondered.
Twilight coughed. "Uh, it... it won't always be bare, Spike."
"Well, you'll be in it."
"Oh, right." He looked at the chart, and then at the scale marked, and swallowed. "Right."
To cover the moment, Twilight unrolled another of the charts, and he was looking at a detailed view of the roof. "This is an important point," she said seriously. "See this?"
Her hoof traced a marked circle, and he frowned. "Won't I get wet if there are holes in my roof?"
"Oh, we'll give it a shade or an umbrella-like arrangement." Rarity cocked her head. "Perhaps in green," she said thoughtfully.
"Okay, but what is it?"
"It's a chimney." Twilight looked up at him, eyes serious. "As you get older, you're going to have even more smoke. Remember that dragon who tried to have his nap up on the mountain? He was fully grown, and his snores were blacking out the sun over all of Equestria."
Spike stomach dropped. "I forgot about that," he admitted.
"I didn't," she said, giving her plans a determined look. "Now, this chimney is a bit special. I'm going to cast a spell on it, and it will vanish as much of the smoke as possible. Not only that, but whatever is left will always blow away from anyplace where other beings live, until it dissipates harmlessly in the wind."
"Wow, Twilight!" Spike said, impressed. "That's an amazing idea!"
"You like it, then?" she asked a little shyly.
"Like it? I love it! You've thought of everything! Guys, thank you so much for doing this for me!" Spike's claws touched the plans carefully. "You've gone to so much trouble."
"Aw, that's okay!" Pinkie bounced.
"Our pleasure," Rarity said, tossing her mane. "Oh, and I suggest you put in some little accoutrements here and there, darling, or it's going to be terribly bare and gloomy."
"I'd always ask for your advice first." He smiled bashfully at her.
She cleared her throat self-consciously, touching her mane a little. "Yes, well."
"We've got a lot of work ahead of us, you guys," Twilight said. "We have to source as much metal as possible for the tank, doors and pipes, and we're going to need," she squinted at the paper and wilted, "a lot of stone."
"Where do we get that much rock?" Pinkie asked.
"I'll haul it back - I said I would," Spike reminded her, and Twilight nodded absently, lost in thought.
"The best place would be along the sides of the gorge," she said finally. "There's lots of basalt along there, and shale for the roof."
"Basalt?" Spike wondered.
"Yes." She nodded. "You see, if you heat up basalt, it becomes a thermal insulator called stone wool. That should keep your fire from roasting the rest of the valley, and also keep you warmer in winter-time."
"Ohhhhh," he said, nodding as well. "So I just breathe fire on it before we set it?"
"That's right," she said, rolling up the plans.
He shrugged. "Okay."
"It has to be very, very hot," she warned.
Spike remembered his lesson, and the fierce white-green flame he had managed to produce. "Fluttershy's helping me with that. I really think I can do it."
"Really?" squealed Pinkie. "Oh, wow, that is so cool! Show us, Spike, go on, show us!"
"Uh... it's not really there yet," he said, eyeing the immensely flammable buildings around the square with a lurch in the pit of his stomach. "I'll have it by the time I need to heat up rocks, though – you'll see it then, okay?"
"Aw!" Pinkie sulked.
He shifted his shoulders, and they twinged in pain once more. "I think I should lie down again," he said unwillingly.
"Was it really that bad?" Rarity asked.
"Well, Rainbow Dash said I flew on all three attempts, but all I know is that I hit the water on all three attempts," he said through gritted teeth as he carefully and creakingly lowered himself down again.
"Any ideas?" Twilight asked him. He yawned hugely, and Rarity pulled a face at his teeth.
"Yeah, she said I've got to build up my chest and back muscles," he remembered, eyelids fluttering. "Hauling stone should help with that, right?"
"I should think so," she agreed. Then her brow furrowed. "You know, Tom's in the field behind the library..."
"You promised never to speak of it again," Rarity grated.
"No, no." Twilight shook her head impatiently. "Spike can practice with him until we get started on the building. Tom's the perfect size for Spike - not too heavy, but not light either."
"With a perfect finish," Pinkie sniggered. She stopped abruptly when Rarity gave her a long, cool stare.
"Okay," Spike said in a blurry voice. He was so comfortable, and the sunshine was so nice on his sore muscles. "Build muscles, lift up Tom, gotcha."
"I've got to make some headway on my thesis this morning," Twilight said. "I've been letting my studies slide. Will you be okay?"
"I'll talk to... to Macintosh about... the rest." He yawned again. "Get stronger, but... ow, control it. Ow. So... sore..."
"Poor little dragon," Twilight said, amused.
"Is she talking about Spike?" Pinkie whispered to Rarity.
"Sorry guys... I am so out of it right now. Thanks," he slurred. "Thanks... so much."
"I'll wake you at lunch, okay?" Twilight said, and he felt her kiss on his head before the three of them turned and tiptoed away. He was asleep before they'd even reached the library.
"All right, class, settle down!" Cheerilee clapped her hooves. "We have a guest. Now, I know some of you have been telling silly stories in the playground and trying to make the smaller foals cry – no, I'm not naming any names, but I know who you are!"
Spike could hear the class of mixed-age fillies and colts shuffling uncomfortably under Cheerilee's teacherly gaze.
"Now, single file, we're going back outside. Pip, dear, would you lead?"
The sounds of the schoolhouse door opening and small hooves clattering reached Spike, and he braced himself for all sorts of screaming and carrying on when they rounded the building to where he sat.
Pipsqueak's familiar patched face came round the corner first, and his eyes widened before he scurried back out of sight.
Spike pouted and his spines slumped. Well, ponyfeathers, not Pip too? he thought, his heart sinking.
But the piebald colt was rounding the corner again, this time with two tiny little fillies and one teensy colt laden on his back. The three foals appeared to be even smaller than Pip himself used to be to Spike's biased eye, and they all gasped in horror and fear as they caught sight of him.
"Oh noooooo, we're gonna be crunched all up wif horrid big teef!" one filly moaned in stark terror.
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'll do my homework next time, promise!" the other wailed.
"Wet me go, I'm too wittle to die!" the colt hollered.
Pip ignored the three foals' cries with beautiful nonchalance, and dumped them on the grass in front of Spike. "Hi there, Spike," he said with a smile, and then stepped firmly on the three little tails before him.
"Neat," Spike said approvingly.
"I got two little brothers now," Pip said, rolling his eyes. "I picked up a few survival skills."
"You've lost your accent," Spike said with a grin.
"Where've you been? I lost it years ago," Pip snorted as the three foals heaved at their immobile tails valiantly.
"Is this it?" Spike asked.
"Nope, Miss Cheerilee should be out with the rest any minute. It's just that these," he nodded to the three before him, "are the ones telling all the stories that are causing all the nightmares. They've got some imagination, let me tell you."
Spike raised an eyebrow reprovingly at them. "Oh, really?"
The three whimpered. Pip chuckled, his cap bouncing on his mane.
A breathless sort of hush told him that Cheerilee had arrived with the other schoolfoals. He lifted his eyes to see a group of perhaps twenty colts and fillies surrounding the dark purple teacher. Most were looking up at him in fright (especially the particularly small one holding onto Cheerilee's fetlocks) but to his delight, Apple Bloom waved vigorously at him from amongst the older students.
"Apple Bloom!" he said in relief.
"Hey there, Spike!" she called back cheerfully.
Cheerilee organised the class so it was sitting on the grass before Spike, and gently ushered the tiny filly clinging to her fetlocks to sit over with Apple Bloom. The little pale pink pony with the leaf-green mane was trembling visibly as she clutched the older filly tightly.
"Now, how many of you know our visitor today?" Cheerilee asked brightly. Spike felt a bit silly. Visitor, good grief.
Apple Bloom put up her hoof, as did Pip and a couple of other ponies that Spike didn't quite recognise. He definitely remembered Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon, however. The two stuck-up fillies were leaning away from him in distaste.
"Very good," Cheerilee was saying. "Everypony, this is Spike, Ponyville's resident dragon. Say, 'hello Spike'!"
"Hello, Spike," the older foals droned. The younger ones meeped. The tiny one hid under Apple Bloom's mane and shivered like an autumn leaf.
"Uh. Hi," he answered, nonplussed.
"Ohmygoodnesshetalks," blurted one of the smaller ones in a whisper.
"Spike is here to address the concerns that some of you," she gave the three still trapped beneath Pip's hooves a stern look, "have been having about him."
"Right," Spike said in a faint voice. "Right," he repeated, a bit more strongly. "So, what do you guys know about me, then?"
"You're a dragon," said a little one promptly.
"Dwagons are scawy," insisted the colt of the troublemaking trio.
"They crunch you all up," said a filly with relish. "Crunchy, crunch, crunch!" Spike gave her an odd look.
"You've got wings," said an older colt curiously. "Can you fly?"
"Umm..." Spike said, beginning to feel a little swamped by foalish voices.
"Can you blow fire until the whole lake is all dry?"
"Can you blow fire until the whole world is dry?"
"Could you eat a pony wif a single snap?" asked one of the two troublemaking fillies owlishly.
"He could eat you," the colt of the trio insisted.
"I wouldn't..." Spike tried.
"How many ponies you eated?" a little filly asked, eyes huge.
"I bet it's hundreds!"
"I bet it's fousands!"
"Actually, I..." Spike began.
"Fink he could fly around chomping ponies up?"
"Yeah, swoopin' in, and SNAP! Suddenly you're all disappeared!"
"And nopony would ever find you!" said a filly impressively.
"I'd never..." Spike said desperately.
"Bet he can fwy wight into your house, burn it all up an' then cwunch up your burnt cwunchy bones!" said the colt of the trio dramatically.
"Oooh," breathed all the little ones.
Apple Bloom was now in silent hysterics. Spike shot her a filthy look.
"And the last thing you see," said one of the story-telling fillies in a hushed voice, "is great big white teef comin' to eat your face. Clean. Off."
"Eeeeek!" the foals screamed.
"Please!" Spike shouted.
The plume of smoke that arose from his shout froze all the foals in place, and terrified little eyes fixed on him in horror.
"Um," he said, and threw a desperate glance at Cheerilee, who was trying and failing to hide her grin. "Look, I don't do any of that stuff."
"Aw!" sulked the colt of the trio. "Nuffin's ever the way it should be."
"Kid, you don't know how right you are," Spike said sourly. "Well, as Miss Cheerilee said," he scowled at her, the traitor, "my name's Spike, and I live here in Ponyville. I've lived here most of my life. And hooves up if you want to ask something," he added as one of the small fillies opened her mouth.
She wrinkled her nose and stuck her hoof up. He nodded. "Okay."
"Where'd you live before that?" she asked. "Wasn't it nice?"
"It was nice," he allowed, and then smiled. "Not as nice as Ponyville though. I was hatched in Canterlot, and Twilight and I moved here when I was still a baby."
Spike eyed the little colt with his hoof quivering skywards dubiously. "Uh, yeah?"
"You were hatched? You came from an egg?" he said, wide-eyed.
"Clover Patch, remember our class on reptiles?" Cheerilee reminded him.
A slow chorus of "ohhhhhhhh," rose from the assembled foals.
"So where'd your egg come from then?" The colt wanted to know.
Spike paused. "Actually," he said slowly, "I don't know."
One of the fillies put her hooves to her face and choked, "Oh, that's soooo sad!"
"Well, it's okay," Spike hurried to reassure her, though he was half-wondering if it really was okay. "I was hatched and raised by Twilight Sparkle – do you all know Twilight?"
"My daddy says she's a looker but she reads too much," said one filly, her expression rather self-important. Spike struggled not to choke.
"Um, that's her, the librarian," he said, coughing. Apple Bloom had progressed to holding her sides, tears rolling down her cheeks.
"She scared off an Ursa Moaner!" exclaimed a little colt.
"It's minor, stupid," said another.
"Yes, she did," Spike said hurriedly before the situation got away from him again. "Anyway, we moved here when I was about the size of..." he squinted, "you."
The filly he'd indicated 'meeped'.
"You were as little as Peepbow?" breathed another of the fillies.
Spike grinned, and they all leaned back from his teeth a little. "Yep, and I didn't have my teeth then, or these." He rustled his wings, and then groaned as pain shot through his back.
"Cooooool," said Clover Patch, his eyes shining.
"So are you all growed up now?" a filly wanted to know.
Spike hesitated. "Well, no," he said reluctantly. The assembled foals gasped and whispered amongst themselves busily. "I'm still a kid, like you."
"How come you don't have to go to school then?" challenged a colt, his lower lip pouting.
"Well, Twilight teaches me. She always has," he explained.
"So how big 're you gonna get, sugarcube?" asked Apple Bloom slyly, and he glared daggers at her. He sighed when all the foals tilted their heads expectantly.
"About five times bigger - or more," he mumbled.
"There aren't enough ponies in the whole of Equestria for him to crunch..."
"I don't do that," Spike repeated crossly. "I eat apples mostly. And vegetables, hay fries, pancakes, salads and gems."
"That's a lot of hay fries," somepony whispered.
Ignoring that comment, Spike turned to the filly with her hoof up. "Yeah, gems. My teeth are really hard – not for ponies," he stressed, "and I've been able to bite through diamond since I was a baby."
"Do they taste nice?" she asked shyly.
"Well, they do to me." He smiled at her. "I don't know how they'd taste to you, though."
"Can you breathe fire?" asked the next pony he nodded to.
"Yes," Spike replied. "But I don't think Miss Cheerilee would think it was very safe, so we're not having a demonstration. Next?"
"Can y' fwy?" asked the troublemaking colt. Spike winced.
"Not... not just yet," he said, a twinge of pain streaking along his back.
Shyly, the tiny little filly who had been pressed fearfully against Apple Bloom slowly raised her hoof. Spike tried to look as unthreatening as possible – quite an achievement, he felt. "Yes?"
"What's that fur of?" she lisped, huge leaf-green eyes round.
Spike carefully laid his foreleg along the grass in front of him. "It's not fur," he said gently. "I have scales instead."
She looked at Apple Bloom for reassurance, and then over to Miss Cheerilee, who nodded.
"Go on, Sweet-Pea," Apple Bloom urged softly.
Then the miniscule little pony slowly inched towards him, and laid a trembling hoof on his foreleg.
"Oooh," Sweet-Pea squeaked. "Smoove."
"Y'hear that? The l'il lady thinks y're smooth," Apple Bloom giggled in his ear, and he rolled his eyes.
"Funny. Real funny. Anypony else want to see?" He raised his voice to the rest of the little ponies, and slowly, one by one, the class converged on him.
"Warm," said one in surprise.
"Duh, he breathes fire."
"Ugh, this is stupid," declared Diamond Tiara. "That dumb lizard's been around for ages. Why are we wasting our afternoon on this?"
Spike cocked his head at her over the gathered throng of little ones prodding the scales of his foreleg. Several were tentatively tapping his claws. "Well, I don't know about you," he said pointedly, "but I'd like to go to sleep knowing I'm not in the starring role in anypony's nightmares."
"Y'all don't got much in common; that's her main ambition in life," said Apple Bloom dryly. Diamond Tiara haughtily turned her nose up at the farmpony and began whispering vociferously with Silver Spoon.
"She still giving you trouble?" Spike said in an aside to Apple Bloom, and the teenager snorted.
"Hardly," she said in an amused way. "She just got a beehive in her backside about anythin' to do with me. Always has."
Pip sauntered over, his parchment-and-quill cutie mark flashing. "Well, that worked!" he said with characteristic chipperness. "They're not afraid of you now!"
"Guess not." Spike looked down to where several of the small ponies were now trying to clamber up his aching back. "Uh," he said worriedly, "how do I stop them?"
"Traditionally the first step is to wait until they fall asleep," Pip replied with cheerful sadism.
Spike held the little white flag of truce in his claws and waved it half-heartedly.
After finally reclaiming his tail from the gaggle of fillies and colts, he had made his way up to the peak of Horsefall Mountain once more, his legs and back groaning and twisting every step of the way. Twilight had wanted to come with him to talk to the dragon, but he insisted on going alone. There was no way he was going to voluntarily endanger any of his friends, and especially his sister.
The wind was colder at the top of the mountain, and his sore muscles were beginning to cramp in the chill as he waited and waited. He kept his eyes and ears peeled for any movement in the trees below him – and then he waited some more.
As the sun slipped away, he began to think the dragon might not ever turn up. His attention wandered to his aching body, and then to his anxiety over the various problems he was facing. Stupid dragon-challenges and possible pony mobs and learning all these skills... he hadn't lied when he told Princess Celestia it was all becoming harder.
The dragon's rumble took Spike by surprise, and he jumped, startled, his flag clattering to the ground.
"Uh, hi," he said lamely, his pulse racing.
"I assume you wish to beg for the challenge to be called off," the dragon said, his voice smooth and contemptuous. Spike took a short breath and faced it properly.
"Well, that'd be nice," he said honestly. "I don't want to die. I was wondering if there was any way I could make it all up to you instead. I could replace your hoard, for example?"
The dragon regarded him curiously, great orange eyes whirling. "You are a very strange hatchling," it finally said.
"Spike," he said. "My name's Spike."
The dragon was silent as it watched him some more.
"And what's your name?" Spike prompted hopefully.
"I do not give my name away so freely," it snorted. Spike's brow was slick with sweat.
"Well, what can I call you?" he asked. "It seems rude just to call you 'dragon'."
"That is the highest honour one can be accorded," rebuked the dragon in a tone of disgust. "You still know utterly nothing."
"I never lived among dragons, did I?" Spike defended himself. "How am I supposed to know what's done? It's not like there's an etiquette guide!"
The great green dragon's eyes widened, and then to Spike's astonishment, it burst out laughing. "Ah, little hatchling, you do have a use. You could be a jester!" it jeered.
"All right, no need to be insulting," Spike muttered.
The dragon lay down on its belly facing him, and its eyes twinkled with mirth. "You can call me Razorfang, since a name means so much to you," it said with a curl of its lip.
"That's a... nice name." Spike gulped.
"It is an accurate one." Razorfang grinned cruelly.
"So I see," he answered weakly, before pulling himself together. Then his curiosity got the better of him. "So, what else don't I know?"
"About being a dragon," Spike clarified.
Razorfang huffed, and a fantastic plume of smoke billowed from his jaws. "Everything."
"Care to be more specific?"
"Why would a warm-blooded little mammal wish to know?" the huge creature jeered.
Spike smothered his irritation under his fear. "Well, let me see now, because I'm a dragon and I don't know anything about being one?"
"You are no dragon." Razorfang scowled.
"See, that's what I meant! I didn't know that just being called dragon was respectful, I didn't know anything about challenges, I've still got no idea about this territory thing..."
"Can you feel the pull?" interrupted Razorfang.
Spike blinked. "What pull? Pull where?"
"Back to your den," Razorfang said impatiently. "The never-ending tugging to where your nest is, the possessiveness, the jealousy."
Spike frowned. "I don't..."
But it was true he was almost madly protective of his home, and particularly of Twilight and his position as her assistant. The idea of having to leave had made him so utterly miserable it bordered on agoraphobia, never leaving the library at all for fear of having to abandon his life altogether. The whole Owloysius situation had seemed perfectly logical to him, though everypony else had acted like he'd behaved quite irrationally. He'd gone to extreme lengths to remove the owl and restore his place. Finally when it seemed obvious that his niche had gone for good, he had packed it all in to start afresh as far from Ponyville as his infant legs could carry him. He had never even considered trying to find a role in the town outside Twilight, her friends and the library.
Finally, Razorfang's threat to raze the town with fire filled him with an almost incandescent fury. The library - it was his. His home, all his. The other dragon could not touch it. He would kill him first.
Discovering such violence inside himself made Spike release a long shuddering breath, his heart pounding with turmoil. What was this?
"Ah, you do feel it, I see," Razorfang rumbled, amused. "Well, hatchling, that is territory. It will expand as you age. All the Forest is mine, the creatures within it mine to hunt and eat."
"I think mine's mostly a building so far," Spike said, trying to cover his moment of confusion. "One that I don't fit into anymore," he added.
Razorfang laughed like a distant thunderstorm. "Yes, first territory is always outgrown; a hatchling's meagre wants are few compared to the mature greed of a true dragon. You will eventually claim the valley, I expect," he said in a thoughtful tone. Then the great dragon drew himself up in the sudden realisation that he had been almost civil. His voice turned ugly again. "That is, in the highly unlikely event that you should live so long," he purled menacingly.
Spike shook his head sharply and cast away any thoughts of territory and libraries and creepy little owl dudes. "Look, so is it possible for me to make this up to you? I'll never come into the Forest ever again, I promise from the bottom of my heart, and I'll replace every last gem in your hoard. Would that work?"
The dragon regarded him with a certain loathing. "Your little life means that much to you?"
"Well... duh!" he said desperately. "I'm sort of attached to it – it's my life!"
Spike gave Razorfang a perplexed look, and he sighed.
"Hatchling, you live amongst the mammals and you will see generation upon generation of them pass on and die, and you will never truly be one of them," he growled. "You will sacrifice your true nature and your true diet and be forever in mourning. What life is that for a dragon?"
Spike closed his eyes tightly before opening them again, his gaze full of resolve.
"I know," he said steadily. "And I'll watch them go and be sad. And then I'll make new friends among them, and then again. I'll know their families, and the families they came from before that. I'll write them down, who they were and what they did, and read their lives to their descendants. They'll never be forgotten as long as I'm around to remember them."
"If you are around to remember them." Razorfang chuckled darkly.
"So that's a no, then?" Spike said, disappointment washing over him.
"Correct," he mocked. "But very stirring nevertheless, hatchling."
Spike sighed and turned to leave.
"Oh, such a shame," Razorfang crooned sarcastically. "It was such a pretty plan, too."
"What a jerk," Spike muttered and began the long trek down the mountain.
"He is limping as well, the poor little mammal," Razorfang's voice boomed derisively after him. "What could he have been up to?"
"I've been trying to learn to fly," Spike answered evenly and truthfully without turning around. "There's a lot of crashing involved."
The dragon roared with laughter – but the laughter died as Spike continued to walk away.
Spike kept walking.
"Hatchling, if you turn now I will tell you why you are failing," Razorfang said sharply.
Spike ignored him.
The huge dragon's breath hit him in the back of his neck. "You are such an odd creature," it murmured.
"I was thinking almost the same thing about you," Spike answered spitefully, trying to keep the quaking from his voice.
"Listen to me," Razorfang said. "Lock your wings, then move your chest to flap. Not wings alone, chest as well. You must counterbalance the width of your wings. Back rounded and chest concave on the downstroke. Back arched, chest pressed outwards on the upstroke."
Spike turned his head to see Razorfang's massive muzzle not twenty ponylengths from where he stood. "Why are you helping me?" he asked bluntly.
"You said it yourself," Razorfang sneered. "There is no pride in killing an infant. We must ensure you mature somewhat before you die, otherwise where is the sport in it for me?"
Spike met the dragon's gaze and let the full extent of his anger flash briefly in his eyes, before resuming his steady walk back to Ponyville and home.
Razorfang watched him go, contempt and bemusement warring in his face.
"Apple comes up, apple comes down," Spike muttered to himself as he delicately pinched the apple and let it fall, before pinching it again. He was actually becoming quite proficient at controlling his claws now, at least where apples were concerned. Concentrating on the exercise was a final, desperate attempt to stop brooding on Razorfang's words, which were still echoing in his mind. "Apple comes up, apple comes down. Apple comes up..."
Spike yelped and pierced his apple.
"Oh, we are terribly sorry," said a resonant voice from within the shadows. "We did not mean to frighten you, gentle dragon. It isn't that time of year yet."
His brow wrinkled. "Princess... Luna?"
"It is indeed your Princess," she said grandly, stepping from out of the darkness into a convenient patch of moonlight. It seemed designed to highlight the alicorn's ethereal mane and proud, elegant figure – and Spike didn't put it past her not to have arranged it beforehand. "How dost thou fare this fine... I mean," and she cleared her throat, taking the volume down a notch or twelve, "how are you tonight?"
He hoisted himself up and bowed, making an effort to make it as smooth as possible – or at the very least not as ungainly as he generally was. "Um, fine, Princess," he mumbled.
"My sister told you of my royal presence, did she not?"
"Yes," he said, ducking his head. "It was in her letter. You said I was a different sort of dragon."
"I did," she confirmed, her proud head nodding. Then she tilted it slightly.
"What is the purpose of this apple lifting you do? Is it for... fun?"
"Uhhh, no," he replied. "It's practice. See, I'm learning how to control my claws... and my size, and my wings... and my everything, I suppose."
"Ah," she said in understanding. "This is an endeavour I know well. Striving for skill and mastery of your gifts."
"Skill and mastery, I wish." He rolled his eyes and neatly nibbled the apple from his claw. "I'd settle for not-hopeless."
"You seem troubled, dragon Spike," she said after a pause.
"Oh no, no, Princess," he said with false bravado. Then he slumped. "Yeah."
She sat down beside him, her mane and tail rippling in a non-existent breeze. "Would you speak to your prin... I mean, to me of your troubles?"
He glanced down at her. "I don't really want to, if that's okay," he said. "I'm sort of trying to forget about it actually."
"Your Pri- I would be happy to share your burden."
"Well, I've already spoken to Twilight about most of it," he said, "and I don't want to re-hash all of that again, begging your pardon, Princess. The rest... is something I don't think anyone without scales can help me with."
"If you wish," she said, regally inclining her head. "But know that a trouble deferred is a trouble prolonged. That... was a lesson it took me a very long time to learn," she added softly.
He looked at her, stunned. She bowed her head, her legs folding underneath her with quick, neat movements.
"I would spare you the pain of learning these things if I could," she said in a far gentler tone than she had previously used. "I am your Princess, though you are no pony, and it is my task to care for and guide you."
"Maybe later," he said to deflect her. It wasn't that he didn't like the princess – it was that he already had somepony to care for and guide him, and that was the study-fixated bookworm asleep in the ancient tree behind him.
"Very well," she said, and looked up at the stars.
There was a pause full of ear-burning awkwardness.
Spike cleared his throat. "Beautiful night tonight, Princess," he said encouragingly, and she smiled.
"Indeed." She pointed out a faint cluster of stars topped by a bright and blazing one. "Do you know what those are called?"
She gazed up at the shining stars fondly. "That is the Dragon. See his body, and there the fire he breathes?" She indicated the bright star.
"Oh yeah. Cool." He craned his neck back, and then winced as his muscles twanged with pain.
"You are hurt?"
"More practice," he said, studying the stars. Razorfang's words were still echoing in his head.
"What are you thinking of, dragon Spike?"
He clenched his fangs. "Greed," he said shortly, "and jealousy."
She was silent for a moment, prompting him to glance down once more. Then her voice rang out, low and dark. "I... know something of those two emotions. I think I could help. Please, dragon Spike, it would be my honour to listen."
Her eyes were large and sorrowful in the pale moonlight. He looked away from her, lost in sadness and guilt, and back up at the stars. "It's not quite the same," he murmured.
He gave in. "The dragon said..." he began haltingly.
"Razorfang," he sighed. "In the Everfree Forest. He said it is in a dragon's nature to..."
She remained silent, accepting, listening.
"It's about the territory thing." He swallowed. "Amongst other stuff. Too much other stuff. But that really struck me...
"He said that I'm supposed to be possessive, greedy and... and jealous of my territory. I hadn't thought of it like that – but I am. I am. You were wrong, Princess. I'm just like every other dragon." he said moodily.
"I do not believe that."
"I once smashed my way through the village because of greed!" he said. "I couldn't stand to see an owl in the library because I was so jealous!"
"Greed, jealousy and possessiveness have positive traits as well," she replied matter-of-factly. "They are called by different names, but they spring from the same source."
He gave her a puzzled look.
"Let me explain." She turned to him, her exquisite face serious. "Dragon Spike... may I call you Spike?"
"I wish you would," he said.
"These emotions and needs are not evil," she said evenly. "To deny them is the true evil. They must be acknowledged and resolved. If they are inseparable from your very being, as yours are, then make them yours. Fold them into you and use them for good. Only when you repress them do they become evil." She paused and continued very slowly and softly, "Chewing over your grievances in bitter resentfulness and spite will twist your soul into darkness."
"But how can greed and jealousy be good?" he scoffed, and she bowed her long, slender neck.
"If it is yours, it is then yours to care for," she said in a calm, clear voice. "Thus the hopes and dreams of all those who shelter under your wing become your hopes and dreams as well. You can strive to see them come to pass - for the good fortune of those who belong to you becomes your reward. You can be jealous with their happiness and tend to it carefully. You can be protective of their safety and guard their wishes, needs and desires as closely and possessively as you hoard your own. You can be greedy of your responsibilities to them. Their pride is yours. Their loves are yours. They are yours, but so too do you become theirs."
It was like a key fitting into a lock. Spike reeled back onto his elbows as suddenly the very purpose – the whole point of him became clear. Light-headed in realisation, he stared worshipfully at the slight, slender goddess.
"You are very wise, Princess," he said humbly.
"I am very old." She smiled. "And I have made many, many mistakes. That is what some creatures call wisdom."
"That's something else I meant to ask him..." Spike remembered.
"You wish to know how long you will live."
"Um," he said.
"I do not know all things," she said, a smile on her lips. "I am still a pony, though a powerful one. But dragons live for hundreds of lives of ponies, that much I know."
Spike's throat tightened unbearably for a moment.
Luna lifted her flawless midnight face to the sky. "You will be here to jealously safeguard your ponies for a very long time."
He examined that thought and everything it meant. "Good," he said eventually. "But..."
He'd never really faced up to the inevitability of it, and the realisation was devastating, a dark weight crushing him to the ground. Losing Twilight and the others would be the most agonizing and consuming grief he could imagine. And lose them he would.
"But they'll all leave me," he said sadly. "They'll all die."
She closed her eyes. "Yes. But you and I, we will not. We endure."
Then they opened once more, and she looked at him steadily with pools of blackest blue. "And then you will die, and I will not. And I will endure."
Spike looked at her speechlessly, too choked to speak.
She turned back to the stars. "And when the moon crumbles to silver dust and the sun expands in a glorious conflagration and this world is nothing but a cold cinder in the void, I too shall die," she said serenely.
Spike stifled a heart-deep sob and fell to his belly, his face buried in his forelegs.
"I am not gone yet, however." Her voice rang proudly. "Neither are you, and neither are they. Do not mourn for the future. It robs the present of all of its joy."
Spike sniffled, and then sighed emptily. "It seems a long time to live with just memories," he said hollowly.
"That's the excellent thing about memories," she said, her dark eyes shining. "They last. They have another fine quality as well."
"Mmm?" Spike managed.
"You can always make more."
She stood elegantly and her insubstantial mane blew cool and strange across his face. Stars winked deep in its wind-tossed depths.
"Throughout all your years, I will be here, and be your friend," she said. "I hope you will be mine."
He nodded wordlessly.
She touched his shoulder with her curling wing. "I must leave soon," she said, regret in her voice. "The night is still mine, and I must be greedy for my responsibilities."
He managed a noise that was halfway between a laugh and a sob. "I hear that's a... good thing."
She regarded him with a small smile on her lips. "You are indeed a very different sort of dragon," she said, approval in her starlit eyes. "I will visit you again soon."
"Princess..." Spike said thickly.
"Luna," she corrected.
"Luna," he repeated, his face blushing violet at how presumptuous it felt. "Luna... thank you. Thank you."