• Published 17th Jan 2012
  • 40,115 Views, 958 Comments

It Takes a Village - determamfidd



Spike only wants things to stay the same. Time, however, has other ideas. He's going to need help...

  • ...
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Chapter 10

Chapter Ten

Mr Spike
c/o Ponyville Square
Ponyville

Dear Spike,

Some information has come to light concerning Huffy. I have been following up your suggestions from the last time we spoke, and there have indeed been some clues as to her whereabouts.

When she ran away ten years ago, she and Trixie were performing in Palfreyton. Most ponies (including myself, I am ashamed to admit) believed that Huffy must have run into the nearby Palomino Woods. Yet when those woods were searched, there was no sign of her. Further, the Palomino Woods have had no unexplained fires or noises since her disappearance.

However, Palfreyton is only three days canter to the great Brumby Bushlands, and that is a different tale. There have been three different fires in that huge, sprawling forest, the first occurring almost exactly ten years ago – three weeks after Huffy ran away. There is a pall of smoke hanging over the western edge of the Bushlands that has not moved for the last six years, which would be consistent with Huffy's maturation. Finally and perhaps most conclusively, there is a rumour circulating the nearby villages concerning a 'great and powerful' creature that lives within it. As the Brumby Bushlands have always been home to strange and unusual beings, these signs have unfortunately been overlooked.

Tomorrow I intend to enter the Brumby Bushlands and discover whether the creature spoken of is Huffy. I am counting on her remembering me, even though our meeting was long ago and she was very young. Several other members of the RSCPD are accompanying me. If you do not hear from me in three days, please inform the authorities of my actions.

Thanks to your suggestions, Spike, we may finally be close to finding a dragon we failed so many years ago. It is worth any risk.

Sincerely,

Just Cause

President, Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Dragons

~**~

Spike heaved backwards at the stump. It came free far more easily than he was expecting, showering clods of earth from its roots as it tore from the ground. Big Macintosh's eyebrows rose slightly – the only reaction visible.

"Might be that we need to go back t' the drawin' board," he said in his slow, deep way.

Spike let the stump of the old apple tree fall from his claws. "Huh?"

"Well, bein' that yer stronger than y' were, p'raps we need t' do a few more exercises?"

Spike screwed up his face. "If you think so," he said.

"Now, don't be like that," Macintosh said. "Won't take nearly so long as y' won't be startin' from scratch."

"I guess," Spike allowed.

"Use these stumps fer practisin'," Macintosh suggested. "Try applyin' yer strength slowly instead o' all in one go."

Spike eyed the next one, and nodded. "Right."

He dug around the stump, his claws easily digging through the rich musty earth, before setting them firmly around the base. Then he very slowly leaned back. Applying his strength incrementally was harder than it sounded, and he had to restrain the urge to yank the thing out immediately. The stump jerked slightly as he plied it with a little more, and then came free in a rain of soil.

"That's more like it." Macintosh nodded approvingly.

"How many more?" Spike asked, throwing the stump aside.

"I'd say there's only 'bout two or so more. Won't take y' no time at all."

Spike rubbed at his forehead with the back of one forepaw (leaving a streak of dark dirt), and moved on to the next. "Okay then, stump, you are comin' out," he told it, and began to slowly employ his strength, his muscles gradually tightening.

"Must say, it's right kind of you to offer t' do this," Macintosh said, chewing his hay-stalk.

"No... problem," Spike replied absently, concentrating on keeping the tension escalating smoothly instead of jerkily.

"Don't think I haven't noticed what yer doin' about the place." Macintosh leaned back. "Yer bein' a real help t' us, Spike."

The stump came free, the long taproot sliding out from the ground. "Well, you've been helping me." Spike shrugged, and moved on to the next stump. "It seems only fair to help you back, yeah?"

"But t' move the water-tower, rake the fallow fields fer plantin' with yer claws, pull up these ol' stumps, heat up that water fer Granny... seems a little..." Macintosh tilted his head back, searching for the words. "Y'know?"

"Just... trying to help..." managed Spike, gripping the final stump and beginning to pull.

Macintosh eyed him steadily. "An' it hasn't escaped me that yer bein' a help in other areas too."

Spike pulled the stump free, and gave Macintosh an artless look as he dusted his claws off. "Don't know what you mean," he said innocently.

Macintosh snorted. "Don't play dumb wi' me, Spike. I saw y' pushin' Miz Twilight an' Miz Fluttershy t' dance at that party." He adjusted his heavy collar, before a tiny smile flitted across his large red face. "Don't think I can thank y' enough fer it."

"So it went well?" Spike asked. "Your walk?"

"It did," Macintosh allowed, "an' that's all I'm sayin' on that subject."

Spike squashed the little shout of delight bubbling up inside him. "I'm glad."

"Eeyup, well," mumbled Macintosh with a mix of happiness and uncomfortableness.

Spike snickered to himself, and began to pile the stumps. "What should I do with 'em?"

"Charcoal, y' think?"

"Charcoal it is." Spike nodded. Taking a few paces back from the pile of gnarled old wood, he took a deep, measured breath and roared at them for a couple of seconds. Green fire flickered over the stumps, and it caught immediately.

"Nicely done," Macintosh complimented him.

"Thanks," Spike said modestly.

"What have y' got planned fer the rest o' the mornin'?" Macintosh asked as they watched the old stumps burning merrily.

Spike picked dirt from his claws, his shoulders slumping a little. "Well, Twilight wants to have a sort of brain-storming session about the... the fight," he said. "We're all meeting after lunch. I'm hoping somepony comes up with some sort of strategy, because I got nothin'."

"I see," Macintosh said. "Well, y' got some clever friends, an' no doubt they'll come up with somethin'."

"I've got my claws crossed," Spike agreed. "I just wish we could think of something to do about all the stupid press as well."

"They still not lettin' up?"

Spike growled. "They're staking out the gate of Sweet Apple Acres as we speak, waiting for me to start back into town. I'm sick of everything I do being front page news. Has that burned long enough, do you think?"

"Eeyup."

Spike dug briskly into the ground for a moment, and then began to shower the burning woodpile with earth. The flames doused almost immediately, and smoke began to rise as a neat pyramid of soil formed around the former bonfire. He blew out the flames that still rose from the top, and stepped back to view it. Within the cairn of earth the wood would continue to blacken and burn, but at a far slower rate. "Might need to keep an eye on that for a day or two," he said, frowning at it.

"I'll be doin' that." Macintosh walked forward to stand alongside him, his head tilted. "Ever thought o' charcoal burnin' as a trade?"

"Along with everything else?" Spike gave a short laugh. "Maybe I can fit it in somewhere."

"Spike!"

The call came from within the rows of apple trees, and Spike jerked his head around to see Apple Bloom racing at full gallop towards them. "Oh, Spike, y' ain't ever goin' t' believe it!" she yelled.

"Bloom, slow down," Macintosh scolded. "Y' gonna trip."

"I ain't gonna trip, Big Macintosh!" She scowled at her brother as she neared, her sides heaving. "Spike, it's all over Equestria!"

Spike hid a wince. "Hooray, more news?"

"Yeah, but this is different!" she exclaimed as she halted before him. "Sapphire Shores..."

"Hang on – the Sapphire Shores?" Spike interrupted.

"She's gone an' written a song about y'!" she said with wide amber eyes.

"A song?"

"Yeah! It's called, 'Full of Fire', an' it's so sad an' nice," Apple Bloom enthused. "It's all over the radio, an' everypony's playin' it!"

"It's sad?" Macintosh asked, brows knitting.

"F-full of Fire?" Spike squawked. Oh, ponyfeathers!

"Oh, it's so sad," Apple Bloom said wistfully. "S'all about wantin' to stay with yer friends, how yer full o' fire to be with 'em an' protect 'em even though the whole wide world don't want y' to... almost made me cry, I don't mind admittin'. It's all slow an'... an' poignant, all about a tragic sort o' hero, carryin' on against the odds, all alone an' heart-broken an' brave..."

"Apple Bloom," Spike said uncomfortably. "I'm... er, right here..."

"But it was sooooo sad!" she sighed dreamily.

"I have... a song written about me. By Sapphire Shores. A big, tragic, sad song," he said blankly. Then he shook his head. "My life is so bizarre."

Macintosh seemed to be having a coughing fit.

"An' the chorus is so romantic'ly tender an' movin'," Apple Bloom continued with a soulful expression. "It goes, 'Cos' I got a heart under these scales that's beatin' only fer home, an' at the end o' the day I don't wanna be alone... An' I'm tellin' y' true, I'm not so different from you, why can't y' hear me saaaaaay... I'm full o' fire t' staaaaaay'," she warbled. Horribly.

Spike closed his eyes in mortification. "Oh... shoot."

Macintosh's coughing fit was getting worse.

"I'm never going to live it down," he said. "Never. Twilight is going to torture me mercilessly."

"Ah," Macintosh straightened up somewhat, wiping his eyes with his hoof. "Aha, uh, well I'm sure she wouldn't..."

"She would!"

Macintosh began coughing again.

"Oh, horseapples, Pinkie will sing it bouncily at me," Spike said in horrified realisation. "And Rarity will be kind at me, and Fluttershy will say it's nice, and Applejack'll hide her grin, and Rainbow Dash will laugh forever."

Macintosh doubled over, tears squeezing from his eyes.

"You might want to get that cough checked out, Macintosh," Spike growled.

Apple Bloom gave him an adoring sort of smile. "Just wait 'til Sweetie Belle hears! I bet she'll perform it fer the whole village!"

Spike turned on his heel and began to march towards the gate. "I gotta go."

"Spike?" Apple Bloom called after him, her tone puzzled.

"Later!" he said, his face violet with embarrassment.

"Okay..." she said dubiously.

He was greeted by the now-familiar flash of camera bulbs as he neared the gate of Sweet Apple Acres. "Spike! What do you think of the new hit single from Sapphire Shores, the pony of pop?" one press-pony asked.

Spike let his head drop to his chest and groaned loudly.

~**~

Twilight greeted him with a smirk tugging the corner of her mouth.

"Don't," he warned her.

"I see you've heard the news," she said, eyes twinkling.

"Just. Don't," he said, and sat down heavily on the cobbles, pulling his wings over his head with his forepaws. "I'm never coming out," he said in a muffled voice. "I'm staying under here forever. Just build around me, okay?"

She giggled. "Oh, Spike, it's not all that bad..."

A green eye glared at her between folds of wing. She burst out laughing. "Okay, okay, so it is that bad. Still, it could get some ponies to change their minds about you, and that's a good thing, right?"

"Twilight," he growled, "It's called Full of Fire. Full of Fire, Twilight!"

She snickered, and nudged his wing. "I know," she said wickedly. "How much of it have you heard?"

"Too much," he moaned.

"Did you like the bit about 'soaring above my sorrows'..." She began chuckling again. "I think that's my favourite line."

"I hate everything and everypony," Spike said.

"Come on out," she coaxed. "We've got to get started on this planning session."

"You're all going to be snickering at me," Spike said mournfully. "The whole of Equestria is snickering at me. And I thought it was bad before..."

"Spike," Twilight said gently, "nopony's snickering at you."

"We're snickerin' at that totally uncool, un-rad and un-awesome song," Rainbow Dash's voice said. Spike peeked out from under the trailing edge of his wings to see her swoop in to the square. There was a smirk on her face as well, so Spike clamped his wings back down.

"Well, look at this, wouldja?" she said. "Big old scaredy-dragon, scared of a silly little song."

"A song," he grated through the folds of his wings, "by Sapphire Shores. About me. Called Full of Fire."

Twilight burst into laughter again. "Oh, sorry, sorry!" she gasped, trying to calm herself once more.

"Sure you are," he groused.

Dash was definitely sniggering now. "Well, looks like you're not actually 'soaring above your sorrows, flyin' on wings of hope'..." she quoted with what Spike felt to be intolerable smugness.

Twilight fell backwards into another gale of laughter.

"Now, that's not very nice," Applejack's voice piped up. "Teasin' on poor Spike just cos some fool filly wrote a bunch o' hooey about him."

"And put it on the radio," guffawed Twilight.

"All... over... Equestria!" Dash hooted, before joining Twilight in another round of giggling.

"Save me, Applejack," Spike whimpered. "They're destroying my will to live."

"Come on out o' there, Spike," she said comfortingly. "I won't let 'em, what was it... break the heart under them scales..." And the farmpony too began to chuckle.

Spike growled. His friends? Sadists.

"You guys!" Pinkie Pie's voice squealed. "You guys, have you heard it? Isn't it just the most catchy hoof-tapping party-popping danciest tune you ever heard? I'm gonna put it in my jam – first song, pride of place! - and if anypony asks I'll be all, 'that's all my friend Spike!' and they'll be all 'WOW, Pinkie Pie, you know Spike?' And I'll be all 'hey, sure I know...' hey, why is Spike under his wings? Is he hurt? Oh no, he's not hurt, is he?"

"Depends on what you mean by hurt," Applejack chortled.

"He's dead of embarrassment," Spike said, muffled. "RIP Spike."

"Ooooh," Pinkie said.

"He's apparently staying under there forever," Twilight said weakly. Spike could just imagine her wiping tears away from her eyes.

"For-EV-er?" Pinkie said, horrified.

"Oh dear," said Fluttershy's voice. "Forever, goodness, that's quite a long time..."

"Well, the poor darling," Rarity's voice said sympathetically. "Such a mortifying thing to happen, and so tacky..."

"Not. Helping," he snapped.

"Spike, please come on out," Twilight coaxed him. "Promise we won't laugh anymore. Look, it's all out of our systems, okay? Come on out, and we can get started on this challenge..."

Spike hesitantly unfurled his wings, peeking out at them. He was dreadfully aware of his violently blushing face and humiliated expression.

Five mares stifled a snicker. Rainbow Dash wasn't so restrained and rolled over, kicking her legs as she convulsed with hilarity.

"Ignore her, darling," Rarity said, though her lips were twitching. "She's just jealous she never had a song written about her."

Dash sat up abruptly, bristling with indignation. "Hey! I could totally have a song written about me!"

"You see?" Rarity said, her eyes rolling skywards.

Spike tried to control his burning face, and gave up. "I. Am. SO. Embarrassed," he said.

"Sorry, Spike," Twilight said. "It's just..."

"It's an awful song, I get it," he sighed, his wings flopping dejectedly behind him.

"Actually it's a really good song," Pinkie piped up.

"It's only because we know you that, well..." said Fluttershy shyly.

"It don't fit you in the slightest," Applejack chuckled. "It's all sad an' tragic..."

"Don't get us wrong, you've got some of that goin' on," Dash interjected.

"But it doesn't exactly... mesh with the Spikey-wikey we've known for so long," Rarity said.

"The one who's funny, snarky and occasionally silly, snores like a thunderstorm and does things like streak dirt over his forehead and forget about it," Twilight finished fondly.

Spike rubbed at his head, and his forepaw came away black with soil. He blushed even harder, if possible. "Just... well... thanks, guys, but... seriously, please don't quote it. Ever."

"You got it," Dash grinned.

"Cross my heart and hope to fly, stick a cupcake in my eye!"

"No problem, sugarcube."

"Certainly not! Repeat that vulgar thing?"

"Oh, of course not, if that's what you'd like..."

"Blackmail material for years, wasted," Twilight said.

"You'll get yours, Sparkle," he threatened. She smiled sunnily.

"I look forward to it. Now, shall we get started?"

Spike sighed explosively and folded his wings on his back neatly. He carefully avoided the sympathetic, amused eyes of his friends as they settled down around him. Twilight's horn glowed briefly, and a quill and parchment slid from her saddlebag. "Okay then," Twilight announced. "I think we should start by listing the known weaknesses and strengths of our combatants..."

"Who?" Applejack whispered to Pinkie.

"Spike and Razorfang," Twilight clarified.

"Oh. Why didn't y' just say that, Twi?"

"She likes showing off her education." Spike couldn't resist the dig after all that teasing. Twilight gave him a mock-glare.

"Oh, snap. Now, can anypony think of anything?"

"Well, Razorfang's reaaaaally big," Spike said thoughtfully.

"Size," Twilight muttered, writing it down.

"But..." Spike screwed up his face. "I don't think he's as fast in the air as me. At least, it didn't seem so when I saw him fly that one time. Maybe it has something to do with how much air he displaces?"

"Yeah, that sounds about right," Dash said. "It'll take him longer to get in the air as well. Kinda like how I can get in the air faster than you... or anypony else for that matter."

"Speed, lift-off faster." Twilight scribbled. "Hmm."

"Definitely stronger than Spike," added Applejack.

"Oh yeah," Spike agreed fervently, remembering gigantic green claws raking the mountainside as though it were sun-warmed butter. "Loads stronger."

"Would he be as agile, though?" asked Rarity thoughtfully. "Spike threaded his way through all those barrels last week, after all..."

Spike could feel his cheeks heating again, and he ducked his head a little. "Uh, I don't think he's all that agile," he mumbled. "He seems kinda old, to tell the truth. He's got a lot of reach on me, though."

"Reach," Twilight repeated as she wrote, "Agility... strength..."

"How about your fire?" asked Fluttershy. "Can he do that green-white fire, or the invisible one?"

Spike frowned. "I don't know. I've seen him flame a few times, but his fire's always been, y'know, normal. Big, but normal. Really, really, really big... but red. Not green."

"Ah," Twilight said in a business-like way. Spike recognised her lecturing tone with resignation. "That's another side-effect of being hatched by magic, Spike. Your flame is a different colour, and acts as a conduit for small, inanimate objects, like letters. Razorfang obviously hatched naturally, and so his fire has no special ability."

"Except the ability to turn me into a piece of toast," Spike said pointedly.

"Ahem, well," Twilight said, her eyes shifting back to her list. "Yes, apart from the... obvious."

"Didn't you once say you were fireproof?" Pinkie asked.

"Sorta," he hedged. "Normal fire's okay, and of course my fire can't hurt me, but..."

"Razorfang's singed him before," Twilight reminded them. "Remember? When he was a baby. He can be burnt."

"It all depends on the fire," Spike sighed. "And unfortunately... dragonfire'll do it."

"Still, that means your fire's just as likely to get him." Rainbow Dash shrugged.

"Did you ever see that fireball he blew at me?" Spike demanded. "He's got a lot more flame than me, let me tell you."

"I bet he ain't as clever with his claws as you," Applejack said.

Spike frowned. "I don't think so. But he's a lot bigger than me, and his scales are a lot harder..."

"Armour," said Twilight in realisation, and began writing again.

"He only has to be lucky once," Spike said glumly. "I have to be lucky all the time."

"Now, please don't think like that, Spike," Fluttershy said.

"You're twice as awesome as that mean ol' bully!" Rainbow Dash declared.

"Unfortunately he's five times as much dragon," Spike said dryly, and rubbed at his eyes. "This doesn't look terribly optimistic, you guys."

"Well, we haven't finished yet," Twilight said. "What else do we know about him?"

"Could you make him so terribly cross that he loses his concentration?" Rarity suggested.

"Well..." Spike said, "probably. He's got a real short temper. But..."

"But...?" prodded Twilight.

"I don't much like the idea of doing that," Spike confessed. "It doesn't seem... right."

"Keeping your opponent off-balance is a perfectly acceptable strategy under the circumstances," Rarity said with a touch of indignation. Spike squirmed.

"Yeah, I guess..." he said, troubled, "but... it doesn't seem right. The sort of things I could use to make him angry..."

"Are the sort of things you shouldn't," Pinkie said perceptively.

"That's right," Spike said in relief, glad that somepony understood it. "I mean, if I brought up his family, or his territory, it would be a sure-fire way to get him seeing red... but..."

"That's very principled of you, Spike, but can you really afford to have such high-minded morals in this situation?" Twilight asked him with scarcely-concealed worry.

"Probably not." He sighed again. "But it doesn't matter. I just couldn't stand it if I did that to anydragon else. It's... it's just wrong."

"Very decent of yer, Spike," Applejack said dubiously.

"Very suicidal too," grumbled Dash.

Spike ignored that. "What else have we got?"

"Hmm, well, your aim is no doubt better than his," Twilight said thoughtfully.

"I can attest t' that," Applejack said. "Darn good pupil."

"You can swim!" Pinkie offered brightly.

"Not really appropriate to the situation, Pinkie," Dash pointed out.

Spike met Twilight's eyes. "Hang on," she said slowly. He nodded, before leaning towards the party pony intently.

"What do you mean, Pinkie?" he asked.

"Well, you could lure him to a lake or river because you're so much zippier than him," she said, bouncing gently, "and that'd put his fire out for a little while, wouldn't it?"

"Now we're getting somewhere!" Applejack said enthusiastically.

"Perhaps you could use your aim to get mud or something in his eye?" Fluttershy suggested.

"Great idea, Fluttershy!" Twilight enthused, writing furiously.

"Can you fly while you're carrying a rock?" asked Rarity.

Spike frowned. "Don't know," he admitted. "I can try..."

"Well, you could drop one on his head," she said with satisfaction. In response to the resulting disbelieving looks, she sniffed, a lofty expression on her face. "Just because a pony is ladylike, doesn't mean she can't-"

"Suggest braining a dragon with a rock?" finished Dash, and Rarity pursed her lips.

"Well, if you will insist on using such a common sort of phrase," she said haughtily.

Spike lowered his eyes. He wasn't all that keen on that idea either.

Rarity noticed. "What, is that one no good as well?" she asked, nonplussed. "It's simply not my day, is it? Do remind me not to design anything this afternoon, it's sure to be atrocious."

Spike rubbed the back of his neck, his mind awhirl. "It's a good idea, Rarity," he said. "They both were. It's just..."

"Spike?" Twilight nudged him.

"He's had a really rotten deal, all right?" Spike burst out. "His family were killed, and he's been alone for ages and ages and ages and it's turned him all sour inside. He's so lonely, Twilight. He helped me with the flying, yeah? And he's told me a lot about being a dragon, even though he might turn on me any moment if I stick my foot in it. He spies on me just for something to do, I think. I interest him. I'm the first new thing he's come across in Celestia knows how many years..."

"Spike, you can't forfeit your whole life just because you feel sorry for him," Twilight said.

"I know! I just... I don't get it. I don't get him," Spike said, and slumped over onto his belly and elbows.

"You an' everypony else," Rainbow Dash muttered.

"Maybe that's it, then," Twilight said, gnawing the tip of the quill as she thought. "Maybe you need to ask somepony who's not a pony about him..."

"I don't know any other dragons, Twilight," he said wearily. "Razorfang's got this issue with explaining himself. I don't think he's likely to spell it all out for me."

"No, that's not what I meant." She shook her head. "Ask the Wyrmstadt ambassador at the Gala."

"Oh, right." He blinked. "I forgot about that."

"Well, you've got a lot on your mind," Rarity said kindly. "All this press, the protests, the challenge, all that work..."

"...that song..." interjected Pinkie.

"Yes, thank you, Pinkie, that song, your house..."

"I get the picture," Spike said, feeling rather overwhelmed hearing it rattled off that way. "Holy guacamole, how did everything get so complicated?"

"You outgrew the library," said Applejack dryly.

"Oh."

"Did the Princess send the tickets?" Fluttershy asked.

"Yeah, yesterday," Spike said. "Seven of 'em, as before."

She stifled a small whimper.

"Come on, Fluttershy, it'll be fine," Rainbow Dash said.

"Oh my goodness," she murmured nervously, eyes downcast.

"Hey, it can't be worse than strolling in after somepony's written a completely embarrassing song about you," Spike said with a wry smile.

"I suppose," she sighed.

"Control," said Pinkie suddenly.

"What?" Six pairs of eyes fixed on her curiously. Pinkie leaned forward, her face uncharacteristically serious.

"That's what Spike's been doing all month, isn't it?" she said, eyebrows high and blue eyes wide. "Learning control. That's what he's really got over silly cranky lonely old Razor-face."

"Razorfang," Twilight corrected.

"Potato, eggplant." She shrugged breezily.

"Eggplant?" Applejack wondered to herself.

"Control," Spike repeated sourly. "Yeah, that's a word I know and loathe."

"That's gotta be worth more than size and strength and fire and all that... thatness," Dash said, tossing her mane.

"I think..." Fluttershy piped up, before subsiding timidly.

"No, go on, Fluttershy," said Twilight.

"Well," Fluttershy said, "I think – with dragons, that is – that you have to be very brave, and stand up to them. They respect that... I mean, that's what I've noticed, I could be wrong..."

"Good thing our l'il Spike's the bravest dragon there is, then!" said Applejack.

"Yeah," Spike said with a sinking feeling. "Uh, good thing."

"Hmm." Twilight tilted her head, regarding her list with a pensive expression. "Well, that's a great start," she said finally. "Good work, everypony! I'm sure we'll be able to get something out of all this."

"Keep thinkin' about plans, you guys," Rainbow Dash ordered, a touch of the Wonderbolt in her voice. "We'll stump this big bully yet!"

"I do hope we were able to help," said Fluttershy.

"Thanks so much," Spike told them all sincerely.

"Are you feeling more confident now?" asked Rarity. He gave her a shy little smile.

"Well, a bit," he replied, not really wanting to confess to the dread building somewhere in his stomach. He was just so outmatched, no matter how they plotted and planned.

"Good t' hear," Applejack said heartily.

"I have to get back to the animal shelter," said Fluttershy. "I really am so sorry..."

"Don't be," Spike said as the others also began to stand. "Thanks for all the help."

As everypony made their goodbyes, Rarity gestured to Spike to lower his head to her level. "Spike, darling, I wonder if you'd come by the boutique tomorrow," she said.

"Another scarf?" he asked in amazement, and she laughed, waving one hoof elegantly in dismissal.

"Oh no, dear, not this time... but it is a surprise for you," she said airily.

"I get another surprise?" he said, awed. Rarity gave him a demure little smile.

"You'll see," she said mysteriously.

Rarity waved with practised grace and began to make her way back to Carousel Boutique. Spike straightened up, staring after her wistfully. She was so very... small.

"What's on your mind, Romeo?" Twilight asked softly.

"Nothing," he said, shaking it off. It didn't matter.

Twilight began to sing under her breath. "I'm not so different from you, why can't you hear me say... I'm full of fire to staaaaay..."

"That's it," he growled, rounding on her. She shrieked with laughter and cantered for the safety of the library, a juvenile dragon tearing after her and shouting threats.

~**~

The Great and Powerful Trixie,
Cob & Co Coach House
Seaddle

Dear Great and Powerful Trixie,

As you've probably guessed from the size of this letter, this is Spike. I'm writing for two reasons; first, to thank you for your sentiments. That's the most honesty I've ever seen from you, even if you couldn't sign to it. We've had our differences, but your letter showed a different sort of pony, one who is willing to admit to her mistakes and move on. I'd like to be that pony's friend.

About your advice; I'm definitely trying not to let anypony's opinions tell me who I am, but it's not always easy, especially when you're such a big target. I know I'm the luckiest dragon in history to have a sister like Twilight, and she means the world to me too.

The second reason I'm writing is to tell you that I might have news of your own sister. I've been told the story of yourself and Huffy, and there's a slim chance that you may be reunited with your friend after all these years.

I'm not sure if you remember your dealings with Just, the leader of the RSPCD. He's been following up some leads I suggested in locating Huffy, and he believes he has found a trail. I hope to have confirmation in a few days time, if all goes well. I sure hope it does. I hate to get your hopes up if this lead doesn't pan out, but it just didn't seem fair not to tell you.
I'm sending this the normal way, but if you want to contact me a bit faster, you can send it via magical signature (that's how Twilight puts it, I don't understand it myself). It'll be sent through my fire that way.

Sincerely,

Spike

~**~

"Oh... my!"

Mayor Mare stepped off onto solid earth once more, a foolish grin on her face. "Glad you enjoyed it," Spike told her cheerily.

"Oh... my!" she said again, her eyes sparkling and her mane swept back by the wind into an aerodynamic cone.

"Let me take care o' this," Applejack whispered to Spike, and led the stunned and beaming Mayor away with gentle hooves.

"So, who's next?" Spike looked up at what once had been quite a long queue, but had now dwindled to only three or four ponies. The rest were sitting on the grass above the cliffside, watching and laughing and talking after their flight. "Only four? Okay, hop on up."

"You sure y' can carry me along w' three others?" Big Macintosh said dubiously. "I ain't exactly no light-weight."

"Piece of cake," Spike said, crouching down once more. "Come on, everypony, on you get!"

"My turn, my turn, my turn!" Sweetie Belle said with glee, stepping lightly onto Spike's knee and then skittering over his back to where seats had been strapped.

Spike had gotten used to the odd feeling of metal-shod hooves on his scales. "Strap yourself in, now," he said to Sweetie as Macintosh gingerly tested Spike's knee with one large shaggy hoof. Turning back to the big red stallion Spike huffed, "Come on already."

Macintosh looked a little put-out. "Jest makin' sure," he said defensively.

"It's fine, I'm strong enough, I promise, come on," Spike said. "Did you want to fly or not?"

That decided him. Macintosh scrambled up Spike's side as quickly as he could, strapping himself into one of the seats with astonishing speed.

The last two waiting to be seated were a pair that Spike wasn't familiar with. He smiled as unthreateningly as he was able as they hesitantly made their way towards him. "Hi," he said. "I'm Spike."

"We know," said one of the ponies in a drawling, state-the-obvious sort of way.

"I'm Lyra Heartstrings," said the other pony, ducking her head shyly. She was a mint-green unicorn with a streaked mane. Her cream-coloured friend straightened, tossing her pink-and-blue curls.

"Bon-Bon," she said.

"Nice to meet you," Spike said, and jerked his head towards his harness. "All aboard?"

The pair rather tentatively began to clamber up his side, placing their hooves delicately, and Spike snorted. "You're not going to hurt me, if that's what you're being so cautious about," he remarked. "Tough scales, you know."

"Oh," Bon-Bon's voice said sheepishly. She yanked her friend up Spike's side, and they grabbed the seat before Macintosh. Spike turned his head to peer down at everypony, neck arching.

"Could you move over to the right a little?" he asked Lyra. "I'm not exactly evenly balanced."

She looked a little startled, but shunted over within the makeshift seat and strapped herself in with a flare of her horn. Spike smiled. "Thanks."

"Right," said Scootaloo, flying to a point above Spike's head and addressing his four passengers. "These are the safety rules. You better listen up, because every dragon is different, and the rules won't be the same if you fly on another one."

"Is she kidding?" Spike heard Lyra whisper to Bon-Bon.

"In case of emergency, don't – and I repeat don't – jump off Spike. We have a unicorn standing by if he hits a sudden downdraft or something..."

"I'm fine with downdrafts," Spike protested.

"... but she can't catch all of you and a dragon, so just stay put. Keep your seatbelt on at all times, and the pilot better not tell you to take it off, otherwise he's lookin' at a tail-kickin'."

"Who gave you this job anyway?"

"I volunteered. Now, shhh. Please keep your hooves close to you at all times, and please don't tickle the pilot mid-flight."

"Did you make all this up too?" Spike asked, eyebrow raised.

"I'm doin' my civic duty," Scootaloo said piously. "Cheering, whooping and yells of 'YEAH!' are strongly encouraged, and you may talk to your pilot as long as he's not bein' a grumpy-pants. Which he is, so don't talk to him."

"You are in so much trouble."

"Full of Fire, Spike."

His claws bunched in the soil of the clifftop as he blushed. "I hate you," he grumbled.

"I know," she said sweetly. "Lastly, though yelling is encouraged, it is advised that you keep your mouth shut for the lowest hundred metres or so, cos' swallowing a bug often offends."

"Are you done?"

"I'm done." She grinned.

"Twilight?" Spike turned his head around to where his sister stood. Her hoof was pressed against her lips, and her eyes were watering slightly. "Oh, go on, laugh," he said wearily.

Her hoof flew away and she immediately burst into chuckles. "Oh..." she gasped, "that's... going to be the end of any... argument from now on..."

Spike rolled his eyes heavenwards. "This'll pass, it'll pass, it'll all pass," he muttered to himself.

"Hate to say it," Lyra said shyly, "but it's made double platinum."

Spike's head thudded to the ground heavily as everypony began to giggle at the spectacle of their dragon embarrassed beyond belief.

"Okay, all right, leave 'im be," Applejack said sternly, though mirth danced in her green eyes. "I promised I wouldn't laugh at him about that silly song no more, an' I won't. Twi, you quit that right now before you hurt his feelin's. All o' you, cut it out. Spike, I think yer ready fer lift–off... leave these hay-brains behind until they've come to their senses."

Spike shot her an endlessly grateful look. "Applejack," he said, "I am now your slave forever and ever."

"Get on with yer, flyboy." She shooed him. "Twilight, pull yerself together now. You ain't able to save squat all doubled over like that."

"Ohhh..." She breathed out the last of her laughter, pulling herself together. "I'm sorry, Spike... it's just..."

"Hilarious, I know," he said, rolling his eyes. "I guess it's okay from you, though. I'd be wondering who replaced you if you weren't teasing me about this."

She perked up. "Did you just..."

"That is not permission," he said hurriedly.

She raised wide purple eyes to his. "Did I say that?"

"Are we flying this year?" Sweetie Belle asked. "I've been looking forward to this!"

Spike shook his head sharply, refocusing on the matter at hoof. "Right. You ready?"

"Ready," she nodded, and set herself at the edge of the cliff. "Which way this time?"

He squinted down at the ravine, the dam blocking one end. "That way, I think," he nodded towards it.

"What is it with you and water?" she asked.

"Insurance," he said, spreading his wings. "Rainbow Dash is still at rehearsal, in case it escaped your notice. Okay, in three, two, one..."

His legs pushed away from the clifftop with a mighty thrust, and his wings beat once, twice, three times, before filling with a soft zephyr that carried them serenely through the air.

The cliff-start wasn't necessary for these flights, but with her usual flair for the dramatic Mayor Mare had insisted on it. The ravine could easily be seen from the town, and the spectacle of a dragon flying ponies around all afternoon might soften a few of the protestors' hearts. Just as she had predicted, she had been one of the very first to get an air-ride. She'd loved it so much she hadn't stopped lining up all afternoon.

The ponies on his back all drew in a loud breath as the ground dropped away from them, and Bon-Bon whimpered as the ravine opened up below. Spike ducked his head a little and then swooped upwards, his wings tipping open to the sun, before levelling. "Yeaaaah!" Sweetie Belle whooped.

"Not bad, huh?" he threw back over his shoulder, banking a little to turn towards the dam.

"This is..." Macintosh sounded completely overawed.

"Wow," Lyra breathed. "The world is so..."

"Far away," choked Bon-Bon.

"Beautiful," Lyra stressed. "This is amazing! Thank you so much, Spike!"

"You're welcome," he called back, and beat his wings twice more to gain some more height. "Everypony okay back there?"

"I..." Macintosh gasped.

"Big Macintosh seems to be catching bugs," Sweetie Belle giggled. There was the snap of a jaw being closed, and Spike chuckled a little as well, picturing Macintosh's face.

"Is it always like this?" Macintosh asked, a note of wonder in his voice.

Spike thought of his first flight, and winced. "Uh, depends on the weather, really," he said evasively.

"It's so peaceful," Lyra said.

Spike considered that as he beat his wings once more and then locked them, ghosting through the air. The breeze was warm and gentle, belling under his wings easily and carrying them aloft through clear and silent stillness. He could hear it ruffling at the ponies' manes, and zipping and snapping at the stretched edges of his wings. It was peaceful.

"I never thought of it that way," he said.

"You've been too busy showing off," Sweetie Belle said, her hoof digging him in the side.

"Hey, I resent that," he said defensively. "I'm not showing off, I'm just..."

"I know, Spike, just teasing you. I get it."

"I don't," Bon-Bon said, sounding confused.

"Spike's been havin' some problems with some neigh-sayers," Macintosh began to explain.

"Anypony who hasn't been living under a rock knows that," Bon-Bon snorted.

"All those protestors in front of the Town Hall," said Lyra.

"Right," agreed Sweetie Belle.

"Well, this might go some way towards changin' their minds," Macintosh finished.

"I'm just trying to help," Spike said.

"Well, I'm appreciating it," said Lyra. "This is wonderful. Look, you can see our reflections in the dam!"

Spike glanced down. His own face, his body elongated and rigid, skimmed over the surface of the glittering water.

"Look at those wings," whispered Sweetie Belle.

Spike blinked. "What...?"

"Spike, you look..." Macintosh paused.

"What?" His brow furrowed. "I look what? Really purple? Really tired? Really big? What?"

"Oh no, not those," Bon-Bon said, her voice hushed.

Spike wrinkled his brow. "Do I still have dirt on my forehead? I thought I got it all off..."

"Spike," Sweetie Belle said. "What they're trying to say is..."

"You look... magnificent," said Lyra quietly.

Spike almost forgot to breathe. "I what?" he squawked.

"Well, nopony's ever gonna accuse y' of bein' vain," Macintosh drawled.

Spike looked down at his reflection once more. He tried to regard himself dispassionately, as though he were looking at somepony else. It was hard to overlook all the changes in himself that he had resented for so long.

And then it clicked. His wings, broad and motionless as he glided, were huge and splendid in the sunlight. His neck and tail moved with sinuous grace, his powerful claws tucked against his long and gradually strengthening body. His head was stretched towards the horizon, framed by his fins. His scales glittered like underwater jewels.

He gaped for a moment, and then grinned fiercely. Bright white fangs glinted back at him. "Lookin' good, Spike, lookin' real good," he murmured in wonder. It had been a very long time since he'd last said that to his reflection.

"Maybe I spoke too soon," Macintosh muttered dryly.

"You seeing it now?" Sweetie Belle patted his back with her hoof.

"Yeah," Spike breathed. "Wow... how come I never..."

"Too close to the problem," Bon-Bon said sagely.

"That's... " Spike regarded himself with a touch of awe. "I look..."

"You look like a dragon," said Lyra.

"Surprise, surprise," Sweetie Belle said with a lilt of amusement in her voice.

"Everypony's wondering what Carousel Boutique's gonna do with your shed skins, you know," Bon-Bon said. Spike blinked, his eyes jerking away from the water.

"Seriously?" he asked.

"It's all over Clotheshorse Magazine."

"Every fashion magazine is writing about it," said Sweetie Belle. "Rarity hasn't stopped gloating for weeks."

Spike glowed for a moment at that thought. "Well, if Rarity..." he began.

Abruptly at that moment some sort of dark, fast-moving shape came hurtling past them. It sprang out of nowhere, moving so rapidly that he never saw it coming. It passed barely a pony-stride from his head, shooting up through his vision with deadly intent. Spike yelped in alarm and banked left, his heart leaping into his mouth. "What was that?" he gasped as he turned sharply, his wings beating frantically for more height.

"There!" yelled Lyra, her hoof visible in the corner of his eye as she pointed. He followed it to see some sort of wicked-looking spear tumbling back down towards the dam.

"That's a harpoon!" Sweetie Belle shouted with sudden anger.

"Har-harpoon?" Spike spluttered.

"Celestia above," Lyra gasped.

"They might have another!" blurted Bon-Bon.

"If it gets Spike, we're all dead," Lyra said in horrified realisation.

"Spike, get outta here!" Macintosh roared. "Back t' the village! Go!"

"Hold on, everypony," he said unsteadily, his mind reeling in shock, fury and fear. He tipped his weight further left and banked on his wingtip, veering sharply around to face the cliff once more. He could make out the purple and orange blurs that were Twilight and Applejack, and the rest of the crowd were all converging upon them, peering over the cliff, calling to the airborne dragon and ponies, and pointing at the harpoon now splashing into the water.

He beat his wings as fast as he could. "Keep an eye out," he barked, his pulse juddering in his ears. The cliffside drew ever closer as he shot towards it like a bullet. "They might try again!"

"Can you see anypony down there?" Bon-Bon hollered.

"No!" Lyra yelled back. "We're going too fast!"

They were speeding like a missile now, Spike's wings pushing the air behind him with frenzied force as he raced for the cliff. Rage was clawing at his mind, rage that somepony would dare endanger his ponies, but it was drowned under the freezing fear that a second shot might come at any time.

"Almost there!" Macintosh shouted.

"We're gonna crash into all those ponies!" Sweetie Belle shrieked.

"Everypony, move back!" Spike roared as he backwinged at the edge of the cliff. Twilight, her face pale lavender, ran towards him instead.

"Are you okay? Are you okay?" she yelled frantically to him. "Spike, are you okay?"

"I'm okay," he said in a quaking voice.

Her eyes were wide and wild. "Is anypony hurt?" she yelled. He shook his head, backwinging furiously.

She seemed to sag on the spot for a fraction of a second, before drawing herself together. Her horn glowed, and invisible hooves pushed the crowd back gently. Spike lifted himself over the lip of the cliff and thudded to the ground, immediately sinking to a crouch. His whole body was trembling, he realised somewhere under his shock.

"Those cowards!" Twilight hissed in fury, her forelegs immediately wrapping around his neck. "Those cowards, those pathetic cowards..."

Spike tried to slow his madly hammering heart, tried to stop the gasping that seemed to judder up through him from the soles of his feet. "That was a harpoon," he said thickly as she held his head tightly. "A harpoon."

Somewhere, far away, somepony was helping his four passengers disembark and the knots upon his seated harness were being untied by unicorn magic. He could hear Scootaloo's voice, but couldn't make out her words. He couldn't concentrate. His mind was racing over the same few things; The death-threat, the talk with Razorfang, a harpoon.

Somepony had just tried to kill him.

"Why didn't they try that earlier?" Applejack asked, anger shaking her tone.

"Because he didn't fly over the dam earlier," the Mayor answered, her face troubled and her tone shaken. "I'll wager that we'll find the device that fired that... that thing at the lakeside. They must have been waiting for him to try that direction."

"How did they know?" Spike asked in a small, quivering voice.

"We didn't make these rides a secret, Spike," she sighed.

"Somepony just tried to kill me," he said hollowly. Twilight's hold grew tighter.

"They're gonna regret it, mark my words," said Applejack grimly.

He swallowed, his whole body trembling. "I just want it all to stop," he said.

"I know," Twilight murmured, her hoof stroking over the top of his head. "I know."

"Why won't it stop?" he demanded unsteadily, and then hid his face in his forepaws.

"Oh, sugarcube," Applejack breathed unhappily.

The crowd watched wordlessly as their dragon struggled with his fear. His sister clung to him fiercely, her silent tears sliding onto scales that glittered like underwater jewels.

~**~

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