• Published 17th Jan 2012
  • 40,006 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 15

Chapter Fifteen

He drifted through the day, barely thinking, barely breathing. He forced himself to eat. He had to keep his strength up.

Twilight never left his side.

Everything and everypony became a brightly coloured blur. He tried to fix as many details into his mind as possible, but they ran together like watercolours in rain. He couldn't remember what he'd had for breakfast. Every voice sounded as though it was underwater. He wanted to be annoyed about that, but couldn't.

The time passed too quickly. Far, far too quickly.

He couldn't remember any of it.

He knew he'd done some training with Applejack and Macintosh. He knew that he'd finished a row of basalt blocks on his house, and that Huffy had helped. He knew that dinner was supplemented by all the gems he'd ever wanted. He knew that Twilight and the pony gang slept in the square alongside himself and Huffy that night. He even knew that Pinkie had brought marshmallows. He knew these things had happened.

The details slipped through his mind like water through a sieve.

The final day dawned. He couldn't remember sleeping.

The sun slipped through the sky, counting down the seconds of his life.

"Spike."

He raised his head to look into Luna's dark eyes.

"It's time."

There was a crowd gathered at the edges of Ponyville, clustered under the shadow of the mountain. Spike slowly walked towards them as the sun began to set with Twilight and Luna either side of him, the pop and clack of camera bulbs in their wake. Luna was serene as she stepped beside him, but Twilight's head was high and tears ran silently down her face.

The expressions that greeted him were solemn, almost sad. He looked over the faces of his ponies and swallowed hard against the dry knot in his throat. Funny faces, beautiful faces, pretty faces, strong faces, young faces, old faces; He knew them all so well and loved them all so much.

There was Lyra, who'd told him he looked magnificent. There was Snips, who thought he was awesome. There was Cheerilee, who introduced him to foals and took him out of their nightmares. There was the Mayor, who'd worked so tirelessly on his behalf and had been so unfailingly kind. There was Granny Smith, who would attack a mob with her walking frame if they tried to drive him away. There was Derpy, who greeted him every morning with a cheerful, "muffin call!" There were Aloe and Lotus, who had sent their dragon to the Gala looking his very best, all for free. There was Zecora, who sympathised. Each one had a story attached. Each one was a pony he knew. Each was a friend.

"Look after them," he said to Luna. His voice was barely there.

She regarded him with fathomless eyes.

Beyond the crowd, where the mountain began to slope, stood Princess Celestia, her pristine white coat glistening in the sunset. Next to her stood the small, sinuous figure of the Wyrmstadt ambassador, his wings lowered in that peculiarly submissive attitude and his eyes as hard as agates.

Atop Horsefall Mountain, silhouetted against the sky, was a giant shape.

Razorfang.

Spike groped for his courage.

Suddenly, a hoof clapped him on the side.

"Good luck," said Big Macintosh. Though his deep easy drawl was tinged with tension, the sound of his voice caused Spike's mind to flash back in time to the sundrenched fallow fields at Sweet Apple Acres. "Remember, stay focused an' keep yer control at all times. Y've worked hard, Spike. 'M darn proud o' you."

He could remember the first apple he'd successfully picked up. He could smell the apple trees, and feel the squish of rich soil between his claws.

"Thanks, Macintosh," he said. "Thank you for everything."

"Oh, Spike," Fluttershy said in a quavering voice, stepping up from beside her beau and pressing her face against his chest. He wrapped a paw around her back.

"I'm guessing you're all out of scoldings?" he said. She breathed in sharply.

"You saved my life, Spike. You're strong. You're very brave, and you can stand up to him."

Stand up to him. The words rang in his memory, and, as with Macintosh, images of her began to flash through his mind. He could remember the planning session; the way they'd teased him about that terrible song. Plunging through the air after her. Sending her to dance at Pinkie's party. Fire lessons.

She stepped back into Macintosh's embrace, and he smiled at them. "Be happy, you two."

Fluttershy's hoof covered her mouth.

"Go get 'em, boss," said Scootaloo, holding up a hoof. The scream of the wind, rope tied around his middle. Safety rules. Hooves in his smoke early on a Sunday morning. He bumped it with his fist, and she exaggeratedly shook her hoof in mock-pain at his strength.

"Spikey-wikey!" Rarity flung herself against him, her eyes overflowing. "Oh, darling, be careful. You have to be clever and careful... you have to be safe..."

"Rarity," he sighed, and inhaled the scent of her mane. She was mussed this afternoon; it was most unlike her. Images flickered across his thoughts – scales on a fancy gown, a too-long scarf, Scoop Headlines, the ballroom floor. "You're the most beautiful thing I've ever seen, you know that?"

"You're the best friend a girl could ask for," she said with a small, pained smile.

He shrugged one shoulder, and gave her a wry look. "I know."

Her lips trembled, but her smile didn't falter. "You're always going to be my little Spikey-wikey," she said.

"Wouldn't have it any other way."

Her face crumpled, though she still tried to maintain her smile. Fluttershy reached for her, and held her close. "Go on," she said.

He watched Rarity break down in Fluttershy's embrace, and closed his eyes heavily. Turning away from them was one of the hardest things he'd ever had to do.

He began to navigate once more through the crowd to the Princess and the ambassador. Ponies parted to let him through. The hush was absolute.

Then a party pony broke it. "Hey, Spike?" Pinkie said, her mane once more a forlorn and wavy mass. She gave him an approximation of her usual bright grin, though it didn't reach her great blue eyes. "I have the biggest, bestest party planned ever. EV. VER. Don't you go and force me to throw it for somepony else."

A million ideas and a million giggles, a raging river carrying her away, a pink hard hat on her head, parties and pranks and unexpected wisdom.

Spike simply grabbed her and held her tight. Her hoof rubbed his face, squishing his cheek fondly. "Silly billy Spikeface," she said, and crossed her eyes at him.

He laughed through a throat that felt like it was lined with blades. "Keep laughing, Pinkie."

Somepony tugged his foreleg. "You've got to come see me perform in Canterlot at the Summer Sun celebration," said Sweetie Belle, choking a little. "I've got the lead role. You've got to promise."

Spike carefully set Pinkie down. She was surreptitiously wiping her eyes. He turned to Sweetie, and ran an affectionate claw down the side of her face. "Can't miss the big-city debut of the best singer in Equestria."

"You'd better not," she said, and, like her sister's, her face crumpled and she turned her head away. Apple Bloom caught her, and rubbed her friend's back.

"Hey, Apple Bloom," Spike said, and he tilted his head at her. They'd grown up together. Well - she'd grown up, and he'd grown up and up and up. "You're one heck of a pony."

Her eyes grew warm and shiny. "You ain't so bad yerself."

Defending him against a mob. Laughing 'til she wept at the schoolfoals' questions. "Do me a favour, huh?"

"Sure..." She stopped and sniffed loudly, clutching Sweetie Belle closer. "Sure... thang."

"Fix that wobbly cobblestone in Ponyville Square? It's been sticking into my stomach all month."

She burst into loud laughter that she immediately tried to tame. "You got it," she said, and then grinned at him with a glint in her damp eye. "Go show him how full o' fire you are, Spike."

Singing that awful, awful song. He growled, and she laughed some more.

"I'm guessin' that makes it mah turn," Applejack said, trotting up to him and peering up at his face. He swallowed.

She cleared her throat. "Don't you be aimin' with yer eyes now," she said in a brisk, matter-of-fact way. "Keep yer fire steady and yer chin high, an' make sure you got enough breath fer anythin' you're tryin'. Don't give that bronco a chance t' buck, you hear me?"

He nodded. He could see a million Applejacks in his mind: laughing, twirling rope, singing, running. It must have shown in his expression, because she cleared her throat once more, her eyes blinking rapidly.

"I'm behind you all the way, sugarcube," she muttered. She gave him a brief, tight hug, and then scurried away into the crowd. Spike opened his mouth to call her name as she left, but at that moment a multi-coloured streak of lightning barrelled directly into him and almost rocked him back against his tail.

"Spi-i-ike!" Rainbow Dash howled. "You... you... you gotta beat him! You just gotta!"

"Dash, I..."

"You're the... the... the... most awesomest fantasterrific dragon ever, you got that? You own that sky, we clear? You're gonna show that big bully what for!"

He gave her a brittle grin. "Sure am."

She glared at him. "You can do this," she said through hitching breaths, "I know you can."

She'd never given up on him. She never would.

She released a slow, shaky breath as she stepped away from him, her hoof sliding along his scales.

"You won't die." Huffy's eyes bored into him. "You won't."

"Huffy," he said. "It's been so good to meet you."

She set her jaw, her neck convulsing as she swallowed. "You're my first friend in ten years," she said. "You can't..."

"I'm not your first friend, though," Spike said. He glanced back at Trixie, who stood by Cheerilee. "I know it's hard, Huffy, but she wants your forgiveness so much. She loves you."

Huffy's eyes clouded. "Spike," she said, and it was almost a snarl. "This is not about me."

He smiled at her, before hooking his neck around hers and tugging her close. "Well, if it's about me, then it's my rules. I want you to be happy," he said.

She clutched him, her larger claw almost engulfing his shoulder. "Go stand your ground," she growled against him.

He pulled away from her, setting her claws down gently, and turned to the Princesses. The two goddesses stood tall and still as they watched him. Celestia's eyes were warm and anxious, but Luna looked at him with a challenge in her gaze.

"Spike," Celestia greeted him.

He bowed his head. "Princess."

"Are you ready, my dragon?"

He sucked in a breath, and released it in a long stream of smoke. "I'm never going to be ready for this, Princess."

"Dragon of Ponyville Village," said the ambassador implacably. "The sun is setting. The full moon rises. The Dragon of the Everfree Forest waits."

"Tell me something I don't know," Spike said. Celestia covered a small smile with her hoof.

"You must go," the ambassador continued as though Spike hadn't spoken, though his eyes narrowed with irritation. "I will accompany you. The Magician of Coal Crater will meet us at the mountain to ensure no..." He paused and eyed the Princesses with a certain sourness, "... tampering occurs."

The tiny part of his mind not consumed with dread piped, another dragon? The protestors are going to love that.

Luna whispered, "Remember, Spike. I am not gone yet, and neither are you."

The memories almost dropped him to his knees. The cool night – her eyes in the darkness – the touch of her mane on his forepaws - greed and jealousy - we will endure.

She steadily returned his gaze, starfields in her eyes.

Then he turned to the most important friend he'd ever had and ever would.

"Twilight," he said, and at the sight of her, he finally lost it. He choked. He could feel his eyes beginning to prick and steam. She rushed to him and clambered over his forepaws to seize his head in her grip. She rocked gently from side to side, heedless of his boiling tears.

"I'm so afraid," he said. His pulse was a juddering drumbeat in his ears.

"I know you are," she said, and he could feel her own tears splashing onto his hide. "Shh, you're a big brave dragon now. I believe in you."

"I don't want to..."

"Hey. What do I keep telling you?" She pulled back to smile at him, her face ravaged by tears and her lips trembling violently. "It's going to be okay."

He cradled her in his forepaw and held her against himself as tightly as he dared. He could crush her so easily now. "I love you, Twi," he said in a voice that cracked and hissed and smoked.

"I love you too," she said, stroking his scales the same way she had when he was very small and couldn't sleep. "I love you, little brother."

"Spike," said Luna.

"No," Twilight breathed, and pressed her face against his. "No, I'm not ready."

He kissed her cheek, uncaring that the whole village could see it. Stuff being macho, Twilight was crying. "Turn on a lamp once in a while. You're gonna end up needing glasses if you keep reading in the dark," he told her.

She held onto him even harder, and her body shook and shook.

"My dragon," said Celestia. "I must lower the sun now."

"Can't you..." Twilight said.

Luna closed her eyes. "No. It would rip reality asunder and allow Discord back into the world." Her eyes opened, and they were full of compassion. "The moon must rise, the sun must set, the tides must change, the world must turn. Twilight Sparkle... I have never wished so hard that things could be otherwise."

He set Twilight down, and had to bite his lip to keep himself from picking her back up. She looked utterly devastated. The pain of his fangs cutting into his mouth was a welcome distraction from the pain cutting into his heart.

He took a long, last look at Ponyville. It basked in the warm glow of the sunset, and the thatched roofs looked like gold.

Then he turned, and began to make his way up the mountain. The ambassador stalked wordlessly at his side.

The looming shadow of Razorfang seemed to swallow everything in its path, and he gulped as he tried to ignore the sudden weakness of his limbs. Stay focused. Control. Aim with the brain. Chest forward on the upstroke, he told himself firmly. The babbling of his fear almost drowned it out.

"Hatchling," came the menacing rumble.

"Spike," he automatically corrected.

Razorfang's upper lip curled in a slight sneer. "I feared you were going to stay below with your precious ponies for a time there."

"It crossed my mind," Spike said.

"Are you prepared?"

Spike laughed bitterly for answer, and looked around the mountain peak. All was as he remembered, save for the merry little stream that trickled from the summit. It now ran clear as crystal. "So where's this magician, then?"

"Ambassador. You have requested a magician?" Razorfang frowned. The ambassador inclined his head.

"Dragon of the Everfree Forest, my greetings and my sincere apologies. He is late," said the ambassador with a look at the skies. "My message was very specific. He was to arrive at sundown."

"Oh well, can't duel without the magician, I mean, how would you know if I didn't have some magical alicorn advantage, huh?" Spike began to back down the mountain, gabbling nineteen to the dozen. "What a shame, was really looking forward to it, oh, well, that's the way the calcite crumbles. Maybe we can do lunch sometime instead? Anyway, seeya, wouldn't wanna be ya!"

There was a great, booming thud behind him. Spike froze in the act of taking another step backwards.

Razorfang merely gave him a sardonic glare.

Turning slowly, Spike took in a pair of royal blue clawed feet, a pale yellowish scaled underbelly, and a great horned head. Golden eyes gazed down at him incredulously, and then turned to Razorfang with disgust.

"Dragon of the Everfree Forest," the newcomer said. "It's been a while."

"Magician of the Coal Crater," replied Razorfang, his teeth snapping over the words.

Sandwiched between two mammoth dragons, Spike suddenly felt very, very small.

"This is your opponent? He's barely more than an egg. Call this a duel?" the blue dragon hissed. He was in fact a little smaller than Razorfang, and somewhat stocky, with a shorter neck and thickset limbs. His head was broad and his snout blunt. "There is no pride in this."

Spike immediately bridled at the insult, and then checked himself. Perhaps this guy was his ticket out of this mess.

"This hatchling has twice encroached on my territory," Razorfang said. "He has eaten the treasures that were mine, and he has flooded the cave that was my home."

"Is it still flooded?" Spike asked.

Razorfang shot him a venomous look.

"Right, so that's a yes," Spike muttered.

"That is a duelling offense, that's true," the magician said, ignoring Spike. "Oh, very well. Do try not to take too long. I've got other places to be, you know."

Spike's eyebrows shot up. The dragon sounded just like a bored Manehattanite or Canterlotian. He'd heard voices like that at the Gala.

"You are late, magician," the ambassador snapped.

The magician scratched at the side of his face with dulled blue claws the size of Spike's whole foreleg. "Keep your feet on, Shorty, you've only got two to spare. I'm only here at all because you asked Her, and She insisted. It's amazing what She sticks her snout into sometimes. I'll wait over there, shall I?" he said, nodding to the foothills beside Ponyville. "On those little hills. Whose are they?"

"Mine," Spike and Razorfang said at the same time. Then they glared at each other.

"Whoo-eee," said the magician, holding up his forepaws. "I'm not getting involved in this one. May I impose upon your hospitality?"

"What does that mean?" Spike asked suspiciously.

"Of course you may," Razorfang said. "I extend my hospitality to you."

"Marvellous, I'm famished," the magician said. "Oh, look down there, it's a pony village. Haven't seen one in decades..."

"You won't touch them."

Spike bared his fangs, wings extended and claws gripping the earth as he glared at the blue dragon. Razorfang rolled his eyes.

"The mammals belong to the hatchling," he said with irritation. "I will offer you hospitality after the duel. In the Forest," he added for Spike's benefit.

Spike slowly lowered his wings. "You won't touch them," he repeated. "There's a treaty."

"Dear me, child, I wasn't going to. I was just remarking that I hadn't seen one in years," said the magician in his yawning sort of voice.

"The treaty has been broken," the ambassador said grimly.

"No, it hasn't," Spike grated. "The harpoon was thrown at me, so I get a say - and I say we don't discard a treaty between two whole peoples because of the actions of one individual."

The blue dragon suddenly looked interested. "I say, this fellow's got a mind," he said with an impressed glance at Razorfang. "What's your name, lad?"

"My... name? Or my name-name?" Spike asked, very confused and wondering if the fight was ever going to start, and if he could keep everydragon talking all night and thus skip the whole thing altogether.

"Not this again," said the ambassador with disgust.

"Your territory name, hatchling," Razorfang said, pinching the bridge of his snout between two massive, gleaming claws.

"Oh! I'm the Dragon of Ponyville Village," he said proudly.

"So you're the one everydragon's talking about," the blue dragon said, leaning closer. "Hmm."

They're talking about me? "What?"

"There's something magical going on," he said, his great eyebrows knitting.

"I was hatched by magic," Spike offered, and the dragon pursed his lips.

"That'll be it. It's been a while since I've met... oh, look at the little darling! What a pretty colour!"

"I have not greeted the new dragoness," said the ambassador. "I intend to request audience after the duel."

Spike followed their gazes, and, as he had dreaded, they were looking directly at Huffy. "She's a friend," he said.

"Another one like you?" the ambassador asked. The only sign of his surprise was a slight widening of his eyes. He looked back at Huffy with a speculative expression. "No new hatchlings for a hundred years, and now two of you turn up within a week."

"Yes, she's like me," Spike said, wondering what that meant. Did dragons really have so few offspring? "Raised by ponies, hatched by magic, the whole shebang. She doesn't know anything about dragon customs either."

"Oh, yes, yes," the magician said, waving his claw dismissively. "I had pony friends once; unicorns, of course. I remember how confused they were about my traditions, funny little mites. Of course, that was a terribly long time ago. What a precious little thing she is. They're so cute when they're at that age, aren't they?"

Spike gaped, and Razorfang's head swivelled around to stare at the magician with astonishment and mounting anger.

"You were one of these..." Razorfang spluttered.

"You... had pony friends? But you don't live in Equestria..." Spike said. "Do you?"

"After my friends dropped in harness," the magician said, a certain tightness around his eyes the only indication of his sorrow, "I decided to leave. That would have been about, oooh, seventeen hundred and forty years ago. It wasn't called Equestria then, of course. They call it the pre-classical era now." He snorted derisively. "Please."

"Pre-classical," Spike said to himself. There was something in that - some detail that was jumping up and down for his attention - but he couldn't quite put his claw on it.

"And She Who Lives Longest sent you?" Razorfang snarled. "Another of you pathetic half-mammals?"

The magician's eyes abruptly glowed like banked coals, and Razorfang was rendered immobile, frozen stock-still. Spike could see his muscles hauling against his invisible bonds. "She did," the blue dragon said in a low, dangerous tone that was nothing like the chatty, urbane one he had been using.

"Whoa," Spike breathed. He was impressed. The blue dragon must be a very powerful magician indeed to overcome an adult dragon's magical resistance.

The horned dragon snorted smoke from his nostrils in two jets, and looked back down at the village below. "Those are the Princesses," he said, his expression calculating. "Luna looks well, haven't seen her for an eon. For obvious reasons. I see Celestia's doing her mane differently these days. That's a relief – the pompadours were starting to interfere with the ceiling." He then pursed his lips as he regarded Huffy some more. "So who is she?"

"Um," Spike said, watching Razorfang strain at the spell that held him. "She's Hu... I mean, she's the Dragoness of the Brumby Bushlands."

"Dangerous territory," the ambassador remarked. "No wonder she has been so well hidden."

"I guess," Spike said.

The blue dragon tipped back his head, and looked up at the sky. "The full moon is about to rise," he said, and turned to Spike and Razorfang once more. "I will signal the start of the duel. Watch for my flame. I am going to release you now, Dragon of the Everfree Forest. Do try not to insult me again. The warning is embarrassing, but painless. What comes next is not."

Razorfang relaxed out of his frozen pose, glowering. "My apologies, Magician of the Coal Crater," he rumbled, and his eyes were hard. "I meant no offense."

"Oh, pull one of the others, it's got bells on," the magician snorted.

The detail clicked into place. "Starswirl the Bearded!" Spike exclaimed. "You knew Starswirl the Bearded!"

The blue dragon jerked, and gave Spike a sharp look. Then his lips pressed together. "Yes," he said.

Spike shook his head in amazement. "I know somepony who would love to meet you," he told him.

"Enough," Razorfang growled. "Get to your post, magician, ambassador. I have had enough of this."

The ambassador bowed sinuously. "I will be recording this for She Who Swallows the Sky," he said when he straightened, his eyes stony. "Dragon of the Everfree Forest, Dragon of Ponyville Village, you fight according to the laws as laid down by dragons for twelve thousand years. While you stand - fight. While you breathe - fight. While you live - fight. Mortal injury will decide the victor. Prove the truth of your convictions upon the body of your opponent. No victor's request can be denied. Die a dragon, or live a worm."

"Let's get this farce over with," the magician said. "Shorty, want a lift?"

The ambassador's mouth tightened. "I can fly myself, thank you."

Spike watched in dismay as the blue wings unfurled, and the horned dragon took to the air. The ambassador's smaller wings spread and he took to the air as well, whirring as fast as a hummingbird. He bobbed in the magician's wake like a cork floating on a current.

For a short time there his fear had receded, swamped beneath his curiosity. The blue dragon had understood both the draconic and equine worlds, and Spike had begun to feel somewhat safe near him. He had been a friend of Twilight's hero.

Now, standing alone and face-to-face with Razorfang, the fear came back in a torrent. Spike gasped and sagged, before pulling himself upright again.

"Dragon of Ponyville Village, I greet you and caution you to prepare for combat," Razorfang said in a formal tone. Spike's heart leapt into his mouth, and all his muscles bunched in readiness.

"Dragon of the Everfree Forest, likewise and whatever," Spike replied, his breathing coming faster.

"You aren't going to insist on your name?" Razorfang said, his eyebrow lifting. "You usually do."

"And you always ignore it," Spike said. "Why bother anymore?"

Razorfang looked taken aback, and somehow, wounded. "I see," he said.

The magician alighted on the foothills, and turned to face them. The ambassador landed before him, and Spike could see their mouths moving. Arguing again, no doubt. Dragons didn't appear to be the most co-operative of creatures, if the magician's attitude was any indication. Of course, his other two examples were Huffy and Razorfang – a dragon who'd run away and a dragon who was about to flatten him.

The sun began to sink beneath the horizon. The cloudless sky was the colour of steel.

Spike could make out Huffy's pale shape amongst the crowd at the edge of his village, and the bright form of Celestia amongst the flowerlike colours of his ponies. He wished he could see Twilight, but she hadn't been named idly, and he couldn't make her out.

Slowly - even reluctantly - the full moon peered over the mountain.

The magician roared. Golden flames rushed into the air.

Razorfang opened his jaws. A cloud of red fire bloomed and rushed directly at Spike with a noise like a thousand forest fires, and Spike leapt straight into the air, beating his wings as hard as he could. The gigantic stream of fire followed him, closer than thought. He could feel the scales on the blade of his tail beginning to singe.

He banked and flew as fast as he could around Razorfang's neck, forcing the huge creature to turn his head further and further to follow him. But Razorfang was no Owloysius, and couldn't turn his head further than towards his own back. The old dragon was obviously a little stiff as well, and his mammoth bones popped with a sound like branches breaking. As Spike circled the huge dragon, he began to prepare his fiercest flame – the one that was too hot to see with the naked eye. Fluttershy's voice rang in his head. He stretched out his neck, fluid rushing into his flame-ducts, and opened his mouth. When he came roaring around the corner, Razorfang's head was hopelessly out of position.

He seared the green scales on Razorfang's shoulder but did not burn them through. They blackened, but Razorfang's armour was just too strong. He swooped away, cursing to himself. He'd been counting on that to wound more than it had. He ducked behind the sheer mountain peak as another giant cloud of flame billowed towards him, and desperately tried to think of something else.

Before him, the little brook he had freed bubbled happily.

Aim with the brain...

Inspiration struck. He grabbed a handful of river rocks and mud, before racing back around the mountainside and pumping his wings, gaining as much height as he could. Tipping slightly, he folded his wings back in and dove straight for Razorfang's face, casting his clawful of stones into his eyes.

The great dragon reared back and roared in annoyance, and Spike spread his wings, flipped mid-air just as Rainbow Dash had taught him, and buzzed over the other dragon once more. Whilst he scrubbed at his eyes in order to get the stones out, Spike took the opportunity to burn through the spines on top of his head.

This time it worked. Another roar greeted this second use of his invisible flame, and Razorfang's huge claws swiped blindly for his tiny tormentor. A steady drip-drip-drip of ichor began to trickle down his great green face.

Spike dodged the giant, flailing claw and ducked back behind the mountain peak. He was breathing heavily as he slumped back to the ground. He'd been lucky to get that chance. He didn't think Razorfang was going to let him have another.

"Hiding, hatchling?" Razorfang boomed.

"Well, sure," Spike called out, "I mean, have you heard of breath mints? Look into it. You'd hide from you too."

"You have been fortunate so far, little one, but you know you cannot win."

Spike inspected his burnt tail, and winced. His scales were blackened, and the top layer of hide was cracked and blistered. "What, so you're going to call it off, then?"

A dark chuckle was his only answer.

The mountain trembled as the heavy footsteps grew closer, and Spike prepared to leap into the sky once more. He knew he had to do something about the great spiked tail...

There was a sudden, uneasy silence. The footsteps had stopped. Spike panicked.

He launched into the air – and not a moment too soon. Razorfang came crashing down exactly where he'd collapsed, and the gigantic claws dug trenches in the earth. The blow would have severed him in two. Spike wheeled through the sky uncontrollably, his heart hammering against his ribs.

"You can't play this game all night, hatchling," Razorfang hissed, and his huge wings spread again. Spike could see the sky through the rents in the thin skin.

He flew over a fireball, and prepared to turn back to attack Razorfang's tail, but he'd underestimated the massive dragon's reach. A giant claw batted him out of the air like a cat playing with a moth, and he slammed against the mountainside with a mighty crash. He skidded along the rocky ground, his whole body screaming in pain. Then the fire came.

A great rose blossomed and bathed him, and Spike could feel the edges of his scales crisping. He'd never felt such agony. He screamed as his hide blackened, sizzling and popping. His eyes slammed shut, and he could smell an awful cooking scent that he instinctively knew was his own skin burning. The fireball dissipated, leaving him panting and choking in its wake.

"You will learn that you are wrong," Razorfang growled. "You will pay for it."

Spike hauled himself up, and wove unsteadily on his legs. His whole hide felt like it was a size too tight, and it stung as he moved. He glanced down at his feet through blurred vision. His scales were streaked with black, but they were whole. His armour had not been penetrated.

"Wrong?" he asked through dry, cracked lips. "How'm... I wrong?"

"We cannot live with mammals!" Razorfang snarled, eyes wild, and his claw rose into the air and swiped for Spike.

Swiped where he had been. Spike beat his sore, stinging wings, the cool air an absolute torment on his scorched skin. He circled the mountain once more, darting and banking as fast as he could. He couldn't survive another of Razorfang's blasts. His scales couldn't take it.

The green dragon was an almost-invulnerable behemoth. Spike's only advantages lay in his speed, his agility, and his hotter, invisible flame. He couldn't afford the principles he'd been hanging on to – fighting fair was over.

As he rounded the horn of the mountain, he was astonished to see Razorfang's head swinging from side to side, his eyes narrowed. Spike hovered, his wings motionless, and watched as the green dragon inhaled deeply through his nose. Smelling for me, Spike thought, a shiver running down his spine. He glanced at his streaked and blackened wings, and then up at the full moon. He wasn't purple any more – he wasn't even shiny. The old dragon was having trouble making him out, and so he was relying on senses other than sight.

He gathered up every last scrap of courage he'd ever possessed. Fortifying himself with the memory of his friends' faces and the touch of Twilight's hoof on his head, he rocketed above Razorfang's snapping head, strafing him with his furious invisible fire, and ducking back into the night sky.

Razorfang's gigantic wings beat once, and Spike almost lost control again as the ripples in the wind hit him. He ducked his head and flew on grimly, watching Razorfang like a hawk. It certainly took him a lot longer to get airborne than it did Spike. He was simply too big and too stiff compared to the smaller, more manoeuvrable dragon. A few seconds grace, Spike realised. A window of opportunity.

As Razorfang majestically rose into the air, Spike fell like a stone. He dove back to the ground and bounded along the rocky soil until he reached a little thicket of saplings. Their canopies were burning, but Spike ignored that as he broke one from the ground with his teeth and stripped off the branches with his claws. Then he turned back to face the dragon now descending upon him, and hurled his makeshift harpoon with all his strength.

It flew true as an arrow for one great orange eye... and then Razorfang ducked his head. It clattered against the green scales, bouncing away harmlessly. Spike gritted his fangs as a booming laugh echoed all around the valley.

"Very ingenious," came the sibilant jeer. "Using their methods, are you?"

"I don't want to use any methods, but you haven't given me much choice!" Spike yelled, and launched himself into the sky just as the older dragon's claws touched the earth. Razorfang swore as the rush of wings reached his ears, and began the laborious process of trying to get himself airborne again.

He had barely beaten his great wings three times when a charred black bullet tore through the air and invisible fire slashed him across his back and neck. He howled in pain, and landed with a boom that shook the mountain.

"Yeah! How'd you like them apples!" Spike shouted as he span on his wingtip and hurtled directly for Razorfang once more.

A giant claw reached for him, and Spike ducked, snapping at it with his jaws. His teeth penetrated, but Razorfang shook him off as though it were no more than a bee-sting. He was flung directly upwards, and he pinwheeled madly before getting himself under control again. Stupid. He wasn't trying that again.

Shaking his head to clear it, he flew out of range and began to hover, trying to come up with something, anything. He stared down at the vast green shape below. Razorfang's wings were once more unfolding, and his orange eyes were full of grim satisfaction as he glared up at the sky, searching for the smaller dragon.

A mad notion struck him. A mad, horrible, dangerous notion.

Well, it wasn't like he was fighting for his life, after all-

He arched himself forward and began to plummet for the ground. His wings folded flat against his body, and his neck stretched as far as it could, his nose never deviating from his target. The wind howling in his ears, he barrelled like a javelin for Razorfang's outstretched wing. Razorfang opened his mouth and roared. A jet of deadly red fire began to hiss and sizzle behind Spike, but he ignored it and stretched out his foreclaws, focusing on the vast expanse of green before him.

With a sound like ripping canvas, he tore a huge hole directly through the thin skin of the wing and burst through it. The roar became a scream, and Razorfang's fire cut off abruptly.

"You...!" Razorfang managed through pain and outrage. "You have grounded me..."

"Couldn't happen to a nicer guy," Spike retorted, the adrenaline coursing through him. He flew over the dragon's shoulders once more, raking them with his flame. The scales on Razorfang's back and spines were starting to look like somepony had branded them. There were long, blackened stripes passing from one side to the other.

This close, Razorfang's senses could pinpoint him far more easily. Spike ducked under a vicious claw and nimbly weaved around a fireball, stopping mid-air and tipping his head in order to change direction. Don't let your rump slump, Rainbow Dash's voice told him.

"I'm not, I'm not," he told her.

Another claw missed him by only a pony-stride, and his heart caught in his throat. Flipping over, he tore beneath Razorfang's extended foreleg and directly under the huge dragon's belly. He wove between his legs with dizzying agility, dodging the spiked tail that almost clobbered him from the air. He repressed a shudder as he began to fly vertically, pushing himself harder and harder. His breath wheezed and rattled in his chest. That extra-spiky tail had to be taken out. It was just too dangerous. He'd be skewered if it connected.

First things first, though... and if it worked last time...

He beat his blistered wings frantically as the older dragon turned on him, another great fireball blowing past his ear. The moon was now a silver eye in the sky, as unknowable and as unreachable as Luna herself. He sucked a deep breath into his starved lungs and extended his neck. Time for another of Dash's tricks.

Razorfang's eyes followed him as he tilted himself backwards. Arching as far as his stiff and stinging body allowed, Spike traced an upside-down arc over the other dragon's head, his belly upturned to the moon and his back to the ground. His wings kept beating rhythmically, the cold air tearing at his skin. Razorfang had no time to turn and barely time to blink before Spike was behind him again, plunging out of the sky with his talons extended like a bird of prey.

The other wing ripped just as easily, and Spike burst through it to the accompaniment of Razorfang's howls of pain. A wall of fire greeted him as he sped past the huge dragon's head and Spike dodged, but too late. The flames licked at his heels, before searing right through the weakened scales over his tail. He screeched, falling like a stone from the sky.

He managed to get his wings open again before he crashed, but the ground was too close. He backwinged furiously to halt his momentum, scraping along the ground. His hind claws dragged and flipped him over, and he went tumbling across the rocks to land in a pile near the craggy peak.

His groan was part-sob as he began to haul himself to his feet. When he tried to put his weight on his left hind leg, he almost passed out from the pain. It was broken.

Razorfang saw it. He began to laugh, slowly at first, and then louder.

Spike swallowed his scream of agony, panting heavily as his mind raced. Fighting from the ground was out of the question now, and his best advantage lay in the air anyway. He couldn't get airborne without a leap, and that meant using his powerful hind legs. Not an option now.

Somewhere, far below, he could hear Twilight screaming his name.

The mountain peak dropped sharply on one side, almost as though it had been sliced away by some giant knife. He could hurl himself off instead – that would get him flying.

Spike gritted his teeth and began to limp for the summit.

"The hatchling cannot walk," Razorfang sneered through his laughter. "You have done yourself proud, little mammal-dragon, but my wings shall heal. My scales shall heal. I can still fight. You however," he said, and another dark chuckle escaped him, "are now... what is the phrase... a sitting dock?"

"Duck," Spike snapped, still limping along to the summit. His scales felt like they had been peeled. His tail throbbed. He was shaking uncontrollably. His eyes were stinging from the wind and the heat.

"I can crush you at any moment," he said, and the huge claws reached out and knocked Spike sideways like a rag doll. He fell heavily onto his broken leg, and tears immediately rose in his eyes. He bit down on his lip hard as he pulled himself upright, and took another halting step. The sharp bite of his fangs was a pitiful distraction against the pain of his useless leg.

"Such determination, my, my," said Razorfang, evidently enjoying himself. "Look at you go."

The huge claws pushed him over again, and Spike growled low in his throat. Breathless with pain, he dragged himself up off the ground once more and staggered onwards, his eyes fixed to the peak of the mountain.

"Such a pretty, pretty dream," Razorfang cooed, following after the wounded youngster. "Dragon of Ponyville Village. How truly revolting. In a way, I am doing you a favour, hatchling. You would lead a long, lonely, miserable life. That is what happens when a dragon has anything to do with those vile, deceiving, wretched creatures."

"Spike," said Spike through his teeth. He was almost there...

"What was that?" Razorfang asked. "Was that your name, hatchling? Do you even know what it means to call you that?"

Spike shook his head. "S'... my name," he panted, and leaned against the rock he had once moved in order to release the Horsefall Stream. He closed his eyes, and shoved at it with his elbow in a futile gesture of resentment. If it hadn't been for the stupid rock, none of this would have happened.

It shifted slightly.

"Every time you demand that I call you by your name," Razorfang said, "you demand that you are part of my family, my clan."
Spike's brow furrowed. The mountain peak was maybe five, six steps away. He could make it.

He'd be killed before he even got close.

"But my family is dead, hatchling," Razorfang whispered. "And so is yours."

"Spike," Spike mumbled. His mind raced. His muscles tensed.

"Thank you for your name, hatchling, but no family of mine will ever live with ponies," said Razorfang. He sounded almost sad.

The sound of air rushing into mighty lungs reached Spike's ears.

His eyes narrowed.

"SPIKE!" he roared. He whirled on his three good legs, and with a mighty shove that surprised even himself...

...sent the giant stone bouncing down the mountainside.

Razorfang's eyes widened, right before the stone flew straight into his mouth. He gasped, falling to his belly, smoke billowing everywhere.

Spike stared at the sight, breathing heavily.

Then he turned and threw himself from the mountain peak, wrenching his blackened and stinging wings open. He circled, his broken leg dangling uselessly, and glared down at Razorfang as he hovered above him.

Razorfang wheezed. No fire emerged from his mouth, and no words either. Smoke puffed from his jaws and even poured from his ears as he croaked, his great forepaws wrapped around his throat.

"My family isn't dead," Spike said coldly. "My family is huge."

Razorfang's face was gradually turning a darker shade of green. He gasped and gurgled around the giant rock, his eyes protruding.

Anger was coursing through Spike's veins. He was practically incandescent with rage. "Don't you ever talk about them like that again," he snarled, biting the words off.

Razorfang raked feebly at the ground, his face nearly black. He pleaded with his eyes, his forked tongue lolling out of his mouth.

"You have the right to destroy him," came a voice, and Spike turned his head to see the Magician of Coal Crater hovering behind him. "If that is what you wish." The magician's tone was faintly incredulous, and there was a touch of admiration in his eyes.

Spike looked back down at the weakly struggling Razorfang. "I don't know how they did things back in the Pre-Classical era, but in this day and age, that's messed up." He gritted his fangs. "Can you get that rock out of his throat?"

"Yes."

"Then do it."

A golden glow surrounded Razorfang's throat, and the rock popped into existence beside him. The great green dragon rolled over and began coughing noisily, great wheezing, hacking coughs that made Spike wince to hear them.

"There's a stream over there," he said, jerking his head. Razorfang's eyes flicked up at him, his expression blank, before he dragged himself over to the babbling Horsefall stream and plunged his head in. A cloud of steam arose, and Spike beat his wings a little more to clear it.

With a giant exhalation, Razorfang sat back, wiping his mouth with the back of his claw.

"So are we done?" Spike asked. The hope that rose up in him almost knocked him out of the sky.

"We are done," Razorfang said. His voice had become weak and thready.

"You mean I won?" Spike turned back to the magician with huge eyes.

The magician smiled. "Mortal injury. It doesn't say anything about dying."

Spike stared at him.

Razorfang hauled himself up with a groan, and began to walk towards the Forest. His tattered wings trailed behind him, and Spike winced at the sight. "Can you do something about his wings, too?" Spike asked the magician. "Are you powerful enough to heal him? I mean, he's a fully-grown dragon."

"What an insulting question. Of course I am. I'm the best magician dragonkind has seen in eight hundred years. But he lost. He should bear the scars of defeat," the magician said, frowning. Spike snorted.

"That's a really dumb reason. Please fix it?"

"You haven't asked about any magical help for yourself," the horned dragon said, his eyebrows rising. "Didn't you used to be purple?"

"I know a couple of alicorns. Please?"

The magician sighed, and landed. Raising his voice, he called, "Dragon of the Everfree Forest?"

Razorfang halted. "Leave me be."

"The little one has asked that your wings be healed. Victor's request."

Razorfang turned to stare up at Spike. His orange eyes were confused. He submitted to the dragon's magic without taking his eyes from the small, black figure hovering above, silhouetted against the moon.

"Why?" he croaked, as the glow faded from the magician's eyes.

Spike tipped his wings and landed gingerly, keeping his weight off his broken leg. "You really are a giant idiot," he said.

Razorfang bared his teeth. Spike ignored it.

"So I've been insisting that you're my... clan?" Spike tilted his head back, his breath catching as his scales prickled and stung. "Every time I asked you to call me Spike, I was demanding that you were... my family."

Razorfang closed his eyes. "Yes."

"That's why you wanted to make sure I was safe after the harpoon." Spike realised. "That's why you've been watching me. You... you want me to be your family, but you don't want me to live with ponies."

"You are in danger if you stay with them," Razorfang rasped.

"And you thought beating that into me would change my mind? Turn me into a dragon worthy of being your family?" Spike shifted painfully on his forepaws. "Ow. Nice job, genius."

The orange eyes narrowed. "Do not flatter yourself," he hissed. "I was within my rights. You flooded my cave-"

"You never considered calling it off once we'd gotten to know each other?" Spike demanded. "You never thought that maybe I had some rights? Like the right to live where I want?"

"I was doing what I thought best," Razorfang said. "Ponies killed my family, hatchli... Spike."

Spike rolled his eyes. "I've been scared out of my mind for a month because of a dragon with abandonment issues and a chip on his shoulder."

The magician chuckled. "Touché," he murmured.

"Do you remember the first time I met you?" Spike asked. Razorfang's face darkened. "Yeah, yeah, ate your gems, my bad. I said we were like brothers. Remember?"

Razorfang's eyes grew thoughtful. "You... did."

"You can be part of my family if you want," said Spike. "This isn't dragons versus ponies. You keep trying to turn it into that, but it's not. I can have a family made up of dragons and ponies. It doesn't have to be one or the other."

"But that harpoon," said Razorfang.

Spike growled. "Forget. The stupid. Harpoon."

There was a flash, and then Twilight was there, clinging to him fiercely, her hooves agonising against his hide. "You're hurt," she gasped.

"I'm alive," he said, and smiled, wrapping his foreleg around her.

"But your scales... your leg..."

"Yeah," he said, glancing back at his hind leg. It was throbbing with pain, charred all over, and beginning to swell. He turned his head away from it quickly. "I could use some help from one of the Princesses right now."

"You have it," came Luna's voice.

Spike blinked as the Princesses materialised before him, the ambassador flittering over their heads. The little wyvern was gaping at Spike unashamedly. At the edges of Ponyville far below, he could see Huffy rising into the air above the crowd, ponies clustered on her back.

"Hold still," Celestia said, and together the two alicorns bowed their heads. Their horns glowed, and a tingling feeling spread over his body. His broken leg was wrapped in a cloud of soft blue and gold magic, and the pain abruptly disappeared. Its sudden absence made him realise just how much it had hurt.

The twinkling mist faded, and he carefully stretched his leg. It felt fine. It felt better than fine.

"That is so much better," he said, leaning his weight on it and bending his knee. "Thank you!"

"Your scales, oh, your poor scales," Twilight said with a little catch in her voice. Her hooves brushed the black dust from his foreleg, revealing healed purple hide. "Oh, thank Celestia..."

"You're welcome," said Celestia, beaming. Luna looked a little put out.

"But the other one's still alive!" the ambassador blurted. His fabled coolness was nowhere to be seen. "That's not the way it's supposed to go! Mortal injury means... well, mortal injury!"

Spike glanced up at Razorfang, whose eyes slid away.

"Yes," said Spike firmly. "He's alive, and he'll stay that way. I'm not going to kill him, and he's not going to kill me. We have a lot to teach each other, so that'd be a stupid thing to do."

Razorfang's orange eyes widened, and he jerked his head back to stare at Spike. "I..." he began.

"Blah, blah, blah, dragons, ponies, names, families, blah." Spike heaved a massive sigh, and slumped down onto the blackened ground. "Twilight? I'm ex-haus-sted. I could sleep for a hundred years."

She laughed through her tears, and flung her hooves around him. "No way, mister. Not 'til you're at least two hundred."

"Tired," he insisted, wrapping a blackened paw around her.

She laughed, and cried, and laughed some more, soot from his scales staining her fur.

"Spike!" Huffy cried as she touched down on the mountain. She didn't even wait for the ponies clustered on her back to slide off before she raced directly for him, clumsy in her enthusiasm. "I told you! Didn't I tell you? I told you that you wouldn't die!" She threw herself to the ground beside him, and her forelegs swept him into a hug. Five very familiar ponies spilled down her sides, shouting in alarm - except the pink one, who said "wheee!"

Twilight yelped as she was jolted against Spike's chest. She shook her head, spitting soot everywhere. "Careful!"

"Sorry," Huffy said, a sheepish smile on her face. Then she froze, her forelegs solidifying around Spike like steel bands. "Um."

Spike followed her eyes to peer around at the two dragons, the two Princesses, the gaping ambassador, and his groaning friends. "Yeah. Um is right."

"Did I just make a fool of myself?" she whispered.

"No more than I just did," he said. "Huffy, this is Razorfang, the Magician of Coal Crater, and the Wyrmstadt ambassador. Everypony, this is the Dragoness of the Brumby Bushlands."

"Charmed," said the ambassador faintly. His impeccable draconic decorum seemed to have fled. The wyvern landed heavily, and his wings slumped to his sides. Wiping his face with one of his two legs, he muttered, "I have no idea how to report this."

"Hello, sweetheart," said the magician, pulling the most horrendously cutesy faces Spike had ever seen. "What a little love you are."

Huffy wrinkled her nose. "Why is he talking to me as though I'm a baby?"

"Because you are," said Razorfang, his voice still very raspy. His eyes darted between all the ponies warily. "You both are. You are still children."

"He didn't talk to me like that," Spike said. Huffy snorted.

"I'm prettier than you," she said haughtily.

"You have been challenged. You have no clan to protect you. You have a territory. This makes you an adult in the Lore's eyes," said the ambassador, mopping at his bronze brow with the edges of his wing.

"Is it just me, or is every dragon rule completely stupid?" Spike demanded. Huffy hugged his neck tighter.

"I knew you wouldn't die," she said.

"It was a pretty close thing for a moment there. Two moments. Four. Actually, it was all one hay of a close thing. Ow."

Celestia touched his forepaw gently with her hoof. "I am so proud of you, my dragon," she said gently.

"Yeah! And the way you threw that rock!" enthused Rainbow Dash. "That was amazing!"

"I got the backwards loop-de-loop right, did you see?" he asked her, smiling.

"Told you it was easy," she sniffed.

"That big ole rock almost flattened you a month ago, and you just grrred and arrrghed and Spiked it right down his great big toothy fiery dragony mouth!" Pinkie said. "Spike, you did it! You know what this means?"

"Let me guess." He grinned.

She threw her hooves in the air and tossed her head back. Her smile was blinding. "SPIKE WON THE FIGHT PARTY!"

"Later?" he asked. Though his leg and hide were healed, he still felt like he had been rolled flat. Even cradling Twilight, light as she was, seemed too much for his muscles to bear. "Pinkie, I'm so, so tired."

She gasped, her hooves snapping to her mouth. "Are you really magically all okay? Did it not work on you?"

"I'm all better, I promise. Just tired. Hey, it's okay, you guys. Come here," he said, and opened his free foreleg. She smiled, and barrelled into him, followed by the others a second later. Huffy braced his drained limbs as his dearest friends swarmed into his embrace.

"I was so terribly frightened for you, Spike. But you, you were just so brave. You rock. Woohoo!"

"Oh, and the way you ducked his tail, and did that flip, and stopped mid-air to change direction? Truly awesome-tacular!"

"Darling, your beautiful scales! Oh, did it hurt very much? Are you still in any pain? I'll get Lotus and Aloe on it right away!"

"I've bitten mah hooves right down t' the quick, y'know... sugarcube, I am so dang relieved to know that you're okay."

"...and then I said, 'a bowler hat, are you crazy?'"

Spike smiled wearily at them all. He was swimming in a sea of his friends, their faces close and their voices overlapping as they clamoured and praised and commiserated. Their hooves patted him fondly, stroked him carefully, held him close.

He hadn't quite come to terms with the fact that he was alive. He'd fought a grown dragon and lived. More, he'd won. He'd actually, really, truly won, through good luck, hard work, lots of help, and by the very skin of his teeth. He was still alive. He had a future.

He was sure that when that sank in, he'd be able to fly without wings.

"Spike," said Luna softly. He looked up at her from within a tight knot of love.

"Congratulations, Dragon of Ponyville Village," she said.

He smiled. "That's me."

"She isn't going to believe me," the ambassador said. "She's going to replace me with my useless nephew, I just know it..."

The Magician of Coal Crater was watching them wistfully. His expression abruptly smoothed over when Spike glanced curiously at him. "Well, as nice and heart-warming as this is, I've got to get going," he said. "Got a couple of spells on the boil, that sort of thing. You know how it is, always busy, busy, busy..."

"Must you go, Digsy?" said Celestia with a sly smile. The magician jerked back. "You've only just arrived."

"Nodragon's called me that in a long time," he said, his broad forehead creasing. "I'd almost forgotten."

"It is you, isn't it?" Luna asked. "Indigo?"

He shifted. "Yes."

"Twilight, you are not going to believe this," Spike said, looking down at her.

"I can't believe you're still alive," she said, her eyes closed. She held him as though she was never, ever going to let go. "Everything else is just wallpaper."

He buried his face in her mane for a moment, before peering up at Razorfang. The great green dragon's eyes were flickering between hatred and confusion.

"Razorfang?" he said. "You didn't get much of an introduction last time. Want to meet the rest of the family?"

~**~

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