• Published 17th Jan 2012
  • 40,087 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 6

Chapter Six

Spike threw himself into the business of carving and cutting basalt as though he'd received a mining cutie mark. Pinkie Pie, bubblegum-pink hard-hat in place, oversaw the entire operation. It had never been more apparent that she had been raised on a rock-farm (crazy rock-pile-in-party-hat moments excepted). She ruled the dig with an iron hoof, albeit one that bounced about occasionally.

"Now the vertical incisions," she hollered over the sound of scraping rock. Spike nodded, huffing, and began the laborious process of tracing his claw over the cliff-face. Applejack leaned herself against the wall, the spirit level braced between herself and the rock. A shallow groove quickly deepened under his talons.

"Okay, block's ready!" Pinkie said brightly. "Carefully now, or the whole thing shatters! Twilight on safety standby!"

Spike shook rock-dust from his claws, nodded to Applejack to clear the way, and then brought his whole weight to bear on the prepared cube. The crack and grind of tearing rock sang out through the gorge once more as he ripped the stone from the cliff, and it tumbled ponderously free. He sank back to his feet, panting and dripping with sweat.

"That's seventeen!" Pinkie said, looking down at the checklist under her feet.

"Only seventeen!" Spike groaned.

"We've only just started." Pinkie shrugged. "Dashie, can you get on clean-up?"

Rainbow Dash cracked open an eye from where she lazed on her ubiquitous puffy white cloud, before leaping up and zipping about their feet with nonchalant ease. The stone dust that had collected was whirled into a gritty grey tornado, before settling down on the scrubby sandy banks of the gorge's river.

"Done," Dash said dismissively, already settled back on her cloud.

Spike sighed enviously. Flying still eluded him, even with Razorfang's advice.

Pinkie squinted at her checklist again, before looking up at the afternoon sun. "We should probably stop for the day," she mused.

"But we've only got seventeen!" Spike protested.

"Spike," Rarity said firmly, her careful coiffure sprinkled with rock dust, "We've been at this since early morning, and some of us could do with a rest. The cliff will still be here tomorrow."

"Besides, you still have to lug all seventeen back to the field," Twilight pointed out, "and you'll be way too tired to even move if we keep this up."

"And we skipped lunch," added Applejack. "I'm plum starvin'."

"Good work, everypony!" Pinkie beamed at them all. "We'll get back to the old grind in a couple of days, whatcha say?"

Everypony except Spike groaned. He nodded eagerly.

His cart sat in the town-side edge of the gorge, awaiting the basalt blocks. It was an old train cart, once used for hauling lumber. With the wheels modified and strong chains attached, it made a more than serviceable wagon for the basalt blocks.

He ducked his head under the last block and carefully allowed it to roll to the hollow between his shoulder-blades where his wings met his back. Tom had spent an inordinate amount of time in the last few days resting there (between lessons), and he was now quite proficient at balancing rocks. Straightening his legs slowly, he walked over to his cart and allowed the huge cube to slide in amongst its sixteen fellows.

Twilight gave him a speculative look. "You're definitely stronger, Spike."

He looked up, taken aback. "I… I suppose. Wasn't that the whole idea?"

"That rock's twice as big as Tom, and you moved it easily." Pinkie smiled.

"'Sides, sugarcube, you're lookin' a mighty sight healthier than y' were too." Applejack nodded approvingly.

"I do?"

"You're a better colour," said Twilight, eyeing him with a critical expression.

Spike looked down at his dust-covered feet. "You must have real good eyesight to see under all this."

"Oh, learn to accept a compliment," Dash snorted.

"You look… more streamlined," Rarity said thoughtfully.

Spike tried to restrain the joyous preen, and couldn't. He threw out his chest proudly. "Thanks, Rarity!"

"Easy, Romeo," Twilight murmured, her horn flaring. The chains attached to his cart flew into the air and settled around his neck and shoulders.

"She thinks I'm streamlined," Spike whispered giddily.

"I heard," she said, amused. "Get lugging, big guy. Fluttershy should be finished at the Animal Shelter by now, and you can go get started on this afternoon's lesson."

Though the cart was weighted with seventeen huge blocks of stone, various tools and five ponies, Spike practically pranced his way back to Ponyville. She thinks I'm streamlined! kept bouncing though his head. Twilight and Pinkie Pie giggled at him most of the way, and Rarity kept indulgently smiling at his exuberance. Dash and Applejack were having some sort of guessing competition in the back of the cart.

Their cheerful progress was halted by Fluttershy racing to meet them, a fluttering paper in her mouth. "Mmmmph!" she said urgently, her usually timid eyes wide and wild.

"Er, wanna try that again without the interference?" Rainbow Dash suggested.

Fluttershy spat the paper to the ground, her wings fluttering anxiously. "Oh, I wouldn't go into town, I really wouldn't!" she gasped.

"What's happened?" Twilight half-stood.

But Rarity had glanced at the paper Fluttershy had dropped. "I think I can guess," she said.

Spike carefully smoothed out the tiny thing, and Twilight levitated and enlarged it. His own face, surrounded by fuzzy scarf, smiled shyly back at them.

" 'The Biggest Kid of All: Spike, the Ponyville Dragon, by Scoop Headlines'," read Pinkie Pie.

Spike began to read along, wincing at the pictures – particularly his baby photos.

THE BIGGEST KID OF ALL
Spike, the Ponyville Dragon

- by Scoop Headlines (Photography by Photo Finish)
Exclusive Interview Page 4!

(Scarf made by Carousel Boutique)

He's not even an adolescent yet, and he can't fit through the door. His 'big' sister is three
times smaller than him. He's the most efficient predator in Equestria, and he doesn't eat
meat. He's lived his whole life amongst ponies and not his own kind, and he's desperate
to keep it that way. But by far the strongest impression one takes away from meeting
Spike, Ponyville's resident dragon, is one of love and hope.

Hatched in Canterlot by Twilight Sparkle (DMag, DThau Res, BMag (Hons), DipThau,
BFriend), the Princess Celestia's famous protégée and the Element of Magic,
Spike began life as no more than a test to be passed. His egg was procured by the
research division of the Canterlot School for Gifted Unicorns to be hatched by aspiring
candidates during the entrance examination. This controversial practice has since fallen
into disuse. To this reporter's knowledge, Spike is the only dragon hatched from these
'examination eggs' that has remained in Equestria,. The last known was Huffy, dragon
companion of Trixie, the well-known touring magician. Huffy, a female purple and white
dragonet, left her pony friend due to 'creative differences' whilst Huffy was still an
infant. She has not been sighted in over a decade.

Sparkle, however, proved to be exactly what the doctor ordered for Spike. A foal herself
when he hatched, she spent no time on ethical or moral crusades regarding her new 'little
brother's' origins, but diligently set herself to seeing to his care and needs. Spike has had
an education this reporter rather envies, and all the love that is essential to any infant. As
a result, the affection between the unlikely pair is overwhelmingly apparent, though they
have more than their fair share of the banter and bickering that any sibling knows too well.

For many years, he referred to himself as her 'number one assistant', fulfilling the role of
a helpmeet and library aide. Small, soft-clawed, unwinged and unthreatening, Spike was
a regular fixture in the Canterlot library, and a permanent shadow at Doctor Sparkle's
side. Then the pair moved to Ponyville following the Nightmare Moon crisis, and Spike's
life became complete.

As a sometime offsider of the famous Elements of Harmony, it was inevitable that Spike
would find himself drawn into their lives and adventures from time to time, winning
himself some small acclaim in the process. As he was still an infant and less than half the
size of any pony, no great weight was placed on his draconic nature. He was simply one
of a group of good friends, living together in a place they all loved. It wasn't until his first
great growth spurt that problems really began to arise for the young dragon.

According to close sources, Spike virtually disappeared at this point, to the extent that
many new foals didn't even know that a dragon lived in Ponyville. It was later revealed
that he had been hiding within the library for months at a stretch, ashamed of how much
and how quickly he had grown. Never a terribly graceful type, he had become
disastrously clumsy and cumbersome. Only when he finally outgrew the library was he
forced to venture out into the streets of Ponyville once more. His reappearance has been
greeted with mixed reactions, to say the very least.

At three times the height of a pony at the shoulder, and (estimably) close to twenty times the
weight, Spike is now an intimidating sight. His claws, teeth and wings have grown in,
and although his muzzle is not the length of an adult dragon's, neither is it the snub of an
infant's. His neck and tail are beginning to take on that characteristic sinuous quality,
extending his length even further, and one hesitates to guess what his full wingspan is.

It is difficult to remember, in the face of this, that Spike is still a child. An unusual, brave
and intelligent child, perhaps, but still a child. He is at the stage when our colts and fillies
are looking forward to their cutie marks and moaning about school. Spike does not have
this luxury. He spends his time trying to control his new size and strength in a world
destined to become ever more diminutive to him.

He refers to Ponyville as 'territory', but hastens to clarify that he does not consider it as a
dragon normally considers territory. Ponyville is not his hunting ground, nor is it ever
likely to be so. Spike has never and will never eat pony (his reaction was rather vehement
on this point), and is in fact a talented vegetarian cook. According to Doctor Sparkle, he
makes a mean dandelion and wild rocket quiche.

Territory, to Spike, seems to mean something a little different. He wants to keep
Ponyville safe, and be its living history-keeper. He plans to stay there for his whole
natural life, so he says (See exclusive interview, Page 4), and as he puts it, 'just help out'.
He has already unblocked the Horsefall Stream, and wants to give earthbound ponies a
taste of the clouds by giving them skyrides. He is building a house behind his beloved
sister's library. He wants to stay with his friends. He hopes to be accepted.

With growing anti-dragon discontent surrounding Ponyville, and the inevitable interest of
the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Dragons, it is to be hoped that
everypony realises at least one thing – Spike is himself, an individual, and not a ball to
be kicked around some ideological field. In his own words, "I'm just Spike on the inside,
and I'm not really that different from... you. I'm just a kid still, a kid who loves his
friends and family and home."

Turn to our exclusive interview on Page 4 for more!

"Well, that turned out much more favourable than I expected," Rarity said in surprise.

"Did they have to use that photo?" Spike cringed, glancing over the photo of his newly-hatched self stuffing his tail into his mouth. "I thought I burned all of those!"

"Mum and Dad kept a few for me," Twilight smiled. "And I'm sure they took a few at the School for Gifted Unicorns."

"You're soooo cute," Fluttershy crooned at the paper. "Widdle baby waby Spikey-wikey."

He winced. "Must you?"

"Well, you were cute." Twilight shrugged.

"Cute," confirmed Pinkie.

"Sorry, Spike, you were cute," sniggered Dash.

"Oh, shut up," he groused.

"So what's happening in town?" asked Applejack.

"Oh, it's simply awful," Fluttershy said. "There are ponies everywhere holding placards and the Mayor has a megaphone and there's shouting and the policeponies have been called…"

"The policeponies!" echoed Spike, Twilight and Pinkie.

"Yes, and there are slogans and everything." Fluttershy wrung her hooves. "I couldn't stay and wait. When the reporters saw me and remembered that I was one of the Elements of Harmony, they started pelting questions at me and chasing me – oh, it was worse than modelling!"

"Oh, Fluttershy!" Rarity swooped down upon her friend and hugged her tightly. "Are you all right?"

"Yes," Fluttershy said in a small voice, "but oh, Spike, you mustn't go into town! They'll just swarm you, all these protestors and Dragon Society-ponies and reporters… they're all here for you!"

Spike looked over his shoulder helplessly at Twilight. "What do we do?" he asked.

"I'm glad you said we this time," she said warmly, before her brow creased in thought.

"Big Macintosh told Apple Bloom who told me that I shouldn't hide any more," Spike said worriedly.

"Pardon?"

"I think I followed that," Applejack said.

"I agree!" Rarity said in a ringing voice. "You belong here, Spike!"

"True, but getting mobbed wasn't on the wish-list," he said pointedly.

"SO? What can they do?"

"Huh?" Six pairs of eyes swung to Pinkie Pie. She snorted.

"You're a dragon, Spike," she said.

"I… may have noticed that a time or two," he said, eyebrow rising. "Where are you going with this, Pinkie?"

"So what can they do?" She grinned. "Are they gonna attack you? Like, reeeeeally? I don't think so. Attack a dragon? Even annoy one? Like, duh!"

Spike blinked, before turning away. "I… don't want to be like that," he mumbled. "I don't want to frighten them…"

"So don't." She shrugged.

"She has a point," Twilight said.

"Twilight!" he said in anguish. "They'll all be yelling at me! And there'll be photographers and reporters and everything!"

"Ignore 'em," was Rainbow Dash's flippant response. "Pinkie Pie's right. We'll mind our own business and just get on with it."

"Besides, Spike," Twilight said, "if they do take pictures, what will they see?"

He hesitated.

"Spike carting six ponies," offered Fluttershy.

"Seven friends and a cart," Pinkie supplied.

"Oh," said Spike faintly.

"Giddyup, you," Twilight said, and he scowled. She smiled sunnily. "Oh, just give me that one," she teased.

"You're in trouble," he sniffed and began to pull his cart again. Rarity and Fluttershy hauled themselves back in as the wheels creaked into motion once more. Butterflies began to dance madly in his stomach as he neared the outskirts of the town.

"Twilight," he hissed.

"Thought I was in trouble?" she said lightly.

"You are trouble," he growled. "But seriously, what do I do if they ask me stuff?"

"Trust your own judgement, Spike," she said. "Ignore the stupid questions. Answer the ones you like. We'll only be passing through the square briefly, so be patient."

"I'm not good at patient," he sighed.

"Says the dragon who disappeared, and I quote, 'for months at a stretch'."

"That's different," he protested.

"Quit yer whinin', Spike," Applejack said, but gently. "You'll be fine. I promise."

"Hey, how come she can promise and I can't?" Dash said indignantly.

A pained chuckle escaped him despite his growing unease, and so it was that the first camera flashes caught him smiling. "Ow!"

"Ooooh, that brings back awful memories," whimpered Fluttershy.

"There, there, dear," Rarity soothed her.

"Spike! Spike!" A cacophony of shouts greeted him along with the blinding flashbulbs, and he paused momentarily in their onslaught before pushing on with renewed determination. Microphones were shoved close to his head, and he lifted his chin higher so that they couldn't reach. The pegasi amongst them found that no difficulty, and simply took to the air.

"Spike, how do you feel about the protests outside Ponyville Town Hall?"

"Spike, 'Mare's Monthly' is dying for your recipe on Dandelion and Wild Rocket Quiche!"

Spike gritted his fangs and pressed on through the mob. He could feel reassuring hooves against his flank, and knew that his friends were offering silent support.

"Spike, is it true that you've never been taught your own rich customs and heritage?"

"Spike, my paper is offering twenty thousand bits for an exclusive lifestyle interview!"

"Spike, my station is offering fifty thousand for a live interview with Big Bouffant!"

"Spike, the RSPCD is offering you sanctuary, do you intend to accept?"

"Spike, do you feel that inciting ponies to protest against you is the way to ensure you stay in Equestria?"

"Spike, is it true you're donating your shed skins to fashion designer Rarity of Carousel Boutique?"

"Spike, The Evening Show with Glasses Grimsby will offer you one hundred thou for you to do a segment…!"

Spike closed his eyes and pushed through, through, through. With every careful step he could feel the press of ponies against his forelegs growing fiercer.

"Twilight..." He turned his head back to her, his eyes wild, "I think we're closed in… I can't walk much further. There's too many, I'll hurt somepony."

"I can see that," she said worriedly. "Perhaps this wasn't such a good idea…"

"Keep goin'," said Dash with grim determination. "I'll clear 'em."

She took to the sky, wings whirring, and Spike squashed his envy flat. Celestia knew how much he'd like to be able to fly away right at that moment.

He was distracted from Rainbow Dash's upcoming acrobatics by a new roar of voices. They had just entered the main square, and the protesters had spotted him.

"Oh. My. Word," breathed Rarity in horror.

There were three distinct groups. One group was holding placards reading, 'DRAGONS? NOT IN MY BACKYARD!' and 'EQUESTRIA FOR PONIES!' amongst other similarly bigoted sayings. A familiar blue-green and peach unicorn glowered at him from amongst them, a banner over her head declaring 'PARENTS FOR A PEACEFUL EQUESTRIA!'

The second and least numerous group held placards reading, 'RSPCD: FREE THE PONYVILLE ONE!' and 'SAVE SPIKE!' He caught his breath in incredulity.

"That's the society?" he asked.

"That's gotta be them," Applejack replied hoarsely. "You need freein', Spike?"

"At the moment, freedom from crowds 'd be favourite," he muttered.

The last group was full of familiar faces, and it was with a flush of gratitude that Spike saw Apple Bloom, Scootaloo, Sweetie Belle, Big Macintosh, Derpy Hooves, Cheerilee, Pip, Granny Smith, Zecora, several of Dash's Wonderbolt friends and even tiny little Sweet-Pea gathered underneath a sign (with Apple Bloom's artistic hoofprints all over it) that proudly announced, 'PONYVILLE FOR SPIKE'.

"Oh," he said softly, a little catch in his throat. Apple Bloom waved at him frantically, and soon the whole group of his extended friends were waving and cheering him on, drowning out the hollered slogans of the 'Parents' and the RSPCD.

"Go on, then," Twilight urged him, and he began to press carefully through the crowds once more.

Right at that moment, the worst possible thing happened.

A familiar feeling began to rumble in his stomach, and fluid began to slosh into his flame-ducts. "Oh no, not now!" he gasped.

"Spike?" Twilight said, alarmed.

"You're rumblin', sugarcube…"

"Message…!" Spike managed, before clamping his jaws shut. Perhaps the message would just burn up in his mouth?

From the inevitability of the feeling overtaking him, he didn't think so.

"Fluttershy!" Twilight barked, and the Pegasus was abruptly fluttering at Spike's ear, her voice low and urgent.

"You can't stop it?"

He shook his head.

"Then we have to control it," she said. The surrounding reporters and photographers seemed to realise that something was wrong, and the press of ponies began to back away, their eyes wide.

Spike breathed through his nose shallowly, trying to control his panic. What if he burned somepony! There were ponies everywhere! It would be a riot! He tried to concentrate on Fluttershy's voice, but his rising panic was commanding all his attention.

"You have to use your softest flame," she was saying, "the thin wavering one, the one that happens when you whistle. Spike, you have to use that flame. Spike, are you listening?"

Spike could feel the press of flammable gas in his chest and throat, and tears began to swim in his eyes from holding it back. He whined fearfully through his nose.

"Spike. You will listen to me. Right. Now!"

His eyes snapped to attention.

"Your softest flame," Fluttershy snapped. "Aim high."

Obediently, he let a trickle of the gas escape, his neck tilted skywards. A thin, curling green flame emerged, winking into a letter at the very tip.

"Now stop," Fluttershy commanded as the scroll tumbled softly to the ground. "Um, if you would," she finished in a tone far more reminiscent of her usual one.

There was a bemused silence, and then a reporter asked, "It happens a lot where you're concerned then, when fire turns into scrolls?"

"Spike can send messages," Twilight said shortly. "His flame can be used as a conduit. It has to do with being hatched by magic."

"Slavery!" hollered one of the RSPCD ponies, his 'DIGNITY FOR DRAGONS' shirt askew.

"Uh, no," Spike said. "I'm okay with it really…"

"Oh, sure looked like it," sneered the activist pony. Then he looked taken aback at himself for sneering at a dragon.

"It's just that there's an awful lot of ponies here today," Spike continued, "and I don't have the best handle on my fire just yet. Fluttershy's helping me," he smiled at her, and she smiled back bashfully.

Big Macintosh's dreamy "eeeyup" could be heard all over the square.

"You could have killed somepony!" screeched the greenish-blue unicorn amongst the 'Parents' group. "We won't stand for it! The PFAPE will see you and your beastly kind gone from all Equestria!"

Thinking of Razorfang, Spike snorted, "Yeah, good luck. We're not all kids."

At that moment with an almighty BOOM, Rainbow Dash broke the sound barrier. The Sonic Rainboom spread across the sky in colourful concentric circles. Startled, the assembled ponies shrieked and flinched, and Spike took advantage of their distraction to haul his heavy load across to the Ponyville crowd, carefully nudging the confused hordes out of his way with gentle forepaws.

"Nicely done." Macintosh nodded to him approvingly.

Spike beamed at them. "You guys… I…"

"Don't say anythin'," Apple Bloom said briskly, holding Sweet-Pea's hoof. "We wanted to."

"But…"

"Now you jest hushit, you young whippersnapper!" Granny Smith said in her old cracked voice, shaking her stick at a point somewhere beyond his ear. "If somepony's goin' to go tryin' to take our dragon away, they're goin' to have words with me, y' hear? An' if I want t' go protestin', well there ain't nopony old enough to tell me otherwise! You brought back our ol' stream where mah Toffee proposed hitchin' to me. Yer good to mah kin, mah farm an' mah village. Yer our dragon, an' I'll whip the tarnation outta anypony who says otherwise!"

Spike reared back at the old pony's vehemence. Apple Bloom and Macintosh shared a glance, before grinning at his discomfiture.

"Granny's always like that," Applejack said, helping the others climb down from the cart.

"She's… very firm about things, isn't she?" Spike faltered.

Applejack only chuckled.

Sweet-Pea, pink and tiny, nervously crept out from behind Apple Bloom's shadow. "Smoove?" the tiny foal squeaked, and Spike slowly ducked his head to allow the filly to stroke the fins either side of his head.

"Very smooth." Apple Bloom nudged him.

"No it wasn't," he sighed, smoke rising. He could hear the pop and clack of cameras working overtime as the little filly patted his head, and wondered sourly if that was a Lifestyle or a News column sorted. "That was almost a disaster."

"Thank the stars for Fluttershy, then," Scootaloo remarked.

"I hear that," he replied.

"So how was that…?" panted Rainbow Dash, coming to a halt. Rainbow trails were beginning to fade behind her.

"Perfect," Twilight assured her. "We managed to get to where we're surrounded by friendly faces, at least."

"Well, I dunno if I got another Rainboom in me to get us outta the square," Rainbow Dash said in exasperation.

"It was awesome!" Pinkie enthused, and Spike nodded, careful not to jostle Sweet-Pea.

"Thanks, Dash!"

"EVERYPONY, NOW LISTEN UP!" The Mayor was standing on the Town Hall steps, her mane dishevelled and a megaphone held to her mouth. "I HAVE HAD QUITE ENOUGH OF THIS! IF YOU WANT TO PROTEST PEACEFULLY, FINE, HAVE AT IT, KNOCK YOURSELF OUT AND WELCOME! BUT IF YOU ATTACK OR RESTRAIN OUR CITIZENS GOING ABOUT THEIR BUSINESS, THEN IT BECOMES A MATTER FOR THE POLICEPONIES, WHO I MIGHT ADD, ARE ON THEIR WAY!"

"She seems tense," remarked Pinkie Pie.

Twilight giggled, and Spike snorted, and suddenly they were all laughing, the tension bleeding away all at once. "This is so crazy," Spike chuckled, unable to stop.

"So it's just another normal week in Ponyville, then?" sniggered Dash.

In all the excitement, none of them remembered the letter.

~**~

"AAAND STROKE!"

Spike pushed his wings down, shooting forwards faster than thought. He opened them again laboriously. The pressure was amazing.

"AAAND STROKE!"

Once more he swept them down, trying to arch his back as the great green dragon had told him. Unfurling his wings from the downstroke was immensely hard. He'd much rather cart rock around. Pressing his chest forward, he readied himself for the next burst of speed.

"AAAND STROKE!"

He brought them down again, and then remembered about bringing his hindquarters level. They felt as though they were beginning to sink. Unfortunately, this broke his concentration when it came to keeping the rest of him afloat, and the three of them – Spike, Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy – began floundering in the river.

"Whoops!" he managed, before his head bobbed under briefly.

"Spike!" hollered Rainbow Dash. "What happened!"

"Lost it," he garbled, mouth full of water. Steam rose in tendrils and he shook his head briskly, trying to unblock his ears. "Sorry, sorry!"

Fluttershy was paddling valiantly as she made her way back to him, her hoof hooking over his foreleg. "Ooof," she said. "Well, that was going… quite well until… just then."

"What did you try and change?" Rainbow Dash asked, also hauling her sodden self over to him and hooking a hoof over his shoulder.

"Tried to lift my tail," he explained, steam billowing.

She rolled her eyes. "You're already level. That's why we decided to try this in water, right? So you could float?"

"Felt like I was sinking," he muttered, and she sighed.

"Look, it doesn't matter," she said, "We'll just try again, right?"

"Right," Spike said, his face falling.

"Chin up, Spike," said Fluttershy. "You'll get this, I'm absolutely sure of it."

"Yeah," he said despondently, before carefully rolling in the water so the two Pegasus ponies could climb aboard his shoulders once more.

"AAAND STROKE!" Rainbow Dash barked.

He brought his wings down yet again, shooting fast as an arrow across the surface of the gorge's river, and steeled himself for the immense pressure of the upbeat.

Dash made him swim the length of the river using only his wings four times, and he was utterly exhausted by the time they finally let him go. 'Flying' in the water had been Fluttershy's idea, and so she had been present for that lesson. He was to see her the next day for yet another fire lesson as well. Lessons and exhaustion were now something he was quite familiar with.

He bade the two ponies farewell, and then proceeded to a quiet pool he had found whilst still very small. He had always liked it, and to his delight it seemed the perfect size to him now rather than imposingly big or frustratingly small, as so many things were nowadays. He blew a thin stream of green fire over the top for a few moments, before clambering into the now-warmed water with a sigh. Bliss.

"What is the purpose of that?"

Spike yelped, and inhaled a huge amount of water. Orange eyes were glaring at him from the treeline.

"You enjoy scaring me out of my wits, don't you?" he accused.

"It affords me some small pleasure," acceded Razorfang with pleased cruelty. "And of course, it is so easy to do."

"I'm not in the Forest, I'm not even holding a flag, so why are you here?" Spike snapped, annoyed at being interrupted.

"Grown bold, haven't we hatchling?" Razorfang snarled, and Spike rolled his eyes.

"My name's Spike, you proved you can use it last time, so quit with the hatchling thing," he said crossly.

"My apologies. Spike," the great green dragon said with oily malevolence, and his name was spoken like the promise of death. "Now answer the question."

"It feels nice," Spike said, fed up with Razorfang's games. "At least it did, until you showed up. Now I'm tense again."

"Call yourself a dragon? You moan and complain…"

"…just like a mammal, blah, blah, blahdy blah." Spike closed his eyes and slid down further in the water. "If you're going to kill me now, make it quick. I'm too tired to make a fuss and my water's getting cold."

There was a silence.

"You are not afraid of me any more," Razorfang said, and there was an odd note in his voice. It sounded almost… approving.

"Course I am," Spike snorted. "But you think you're the only thing I have to deal with? Go away, Razorfang. I hurt too much, and your advice stinks, and I can't fly. You get to legally kill me soon enough, anyway. Didn't anyone ever tell you not to play with your food?"

"No."

Spike cracked an eye open.

"Playing with food is an essential stage in the development of young dragons. It prolongs the exquisite moments between life and death, between surface and reality, between soul and meat."

"Sounds stupid," Spike yawned, eye closing once more. "Also, gross."

There was another pause.

"But that is how it was explained to me," Razorfang said in a low voice.

"Still gross," Spike mumbled. Razorfang made an unidentifiable noise, and then his head emerged from the trees.

"So you still cannot fly." Razorfang settled himself down at the water's edge and peered down scornfully at the smaller dragon. "You have put into practice what I have told you?"

"I said before, your advice stinks," Spike slurred. The water was sooo nice.

"What is your wingspan now, hatchling?"

Spike opened his eye again and glared at the mammoth beast.

Razorfang snorted fire through his nostrils in a show of barely-concealed impatience. "Spike. Your wingspan?"

"I think…" Spike thought back to Macintosh's lessons on distance. "Um… maybe a bit wider than I am long. But not by much. Not real sure. Keeps changing, keep growing."

"They should be wide enough. Spread them."

Spike snorted. "No chance. Also? Also gross."

Razorfang looked at him perplexedly. Spike groaned, and rolled over in the water. A more alert part of him was wondering why he was doing this, but the rest of him just didn't care enough to protest. It was too much, he was too tired, and the world was too crazy. He spread his wings.

"You have enough span to support yourself in the air," Razorfang pronounced after a moment's deliberation. "There is more bulk on you. You have been working, little one."

"Not that little," Spike mumbled, his wings collapsing back into the water. So. Good. "Don't wanna die."

"And should you survive, what of your life amongst those silly short-lived coloured things? Have you thought about my words to you?"

Spike beamed up at the huge dragon, who seemed taken aback. "My ponies," he said happily. "My ponies, not yours, not anydragon else's. Mine. I'm gonna look after 'em."

"Ah," Razorfang said with soft menace. "Now I see your territory."

A fire ignited inside his mind. Spike launched himself to his feet with a sudden and shocking burst of strength, surprising even himself. "Mine!" he snarled. "You won't hurt them! You won't hurt them!"

Razorfang seemed braced for an attack, forelegs stiff with tension and neck curved in firing position. Although Spike longed to lunge at the gigantic dragon and tear his throat out, something stopped him. Purple eyes were watching from his childhood. He glowered fiercely at Razorfang instead, his body poised for action. The tableau held for some moments, the silence broken only by Spike's heaving breath.

Finally Razorfang seemed to realise something, and his frozen pose relaxed infinitesimally.

"Sit down, little one," he grunted. "Lie back in your strange hot pool. There is a lesson here for you."

Spike, his mind still on fire and his chest heaving, glared suspiciously at the other dragon. "What?" he said.

Razorfang leaned forward slowly, dangerously. "That is what it felt like when I caught you eating my jewels."

Spike sat heavily in his warm water, the fire draining from his mind. He was abruptly angry with himself for almost losing control like that, and scowled fiercely at the other dragon.

Razorfang regarded him with distant puzzlement, like a bug who had learned a trick. "You should have attacked me," he said bemusedly. "You should not have been able to stop yourself. No dragon can, not when true territory is threatened."

"I'm a better dragon than you, then," Spike retorted. "I don't need to."

It was something he'd heard Twilight say a million times. Not to retaliate. Be the better pony – or dragon, in his case. But the old pony saying seemed to strike a huge blow to Razorfang, who opened his gargantuan jaws in amazement and anger, great black smoke billowing everywhere. "You… better than me!" he roared. "You, who cannot even fly! You, who squat there in water and live amongst mammals and cannot play with your food!"

"At least I try new things," Spike said with shaky defiance. The great dragon's wrath was like witnessing a natural disaster.

"You barely even know what it means to be a dragon!" Razorfang snarled. "You still smell of eggshell, stupid little infant! You, a better dragon! There is no way upon this earth that you could ever be a better dragon!"

Spike lifted his chin bravely. "I'm not a bully," he said, standing up once more. "And I don't give up easily. Neither do I have some stupid set of awful rules to tell me what – or who I am!"

"You… you pathetic mammal hatching!" Razorfang bellowed in outrage.

Spike rolled his eyes. "Mammals don't hatch."

Razorfang blinked, and then to Spike's huge astonishment, he burst into laughter. Great gusts of smoke billowed and furled about him as he laughed and laughed, roaring with mirth.

"Calm down, it wasn't that funny," Spike said tentatively. The older dragon seemed nearly frantic with hilarity.

Finally Razorfang settled somewhat, barrel-sized tears of laughter hissing to the ground. He sighed out the last of his laughter, and regarded Spike with amusement. "You have a point."

"About mammals?" Spike asked, his eyebrow quirking.

Razorfang didn't answer. Instead, the huge creature unfurled his wings. Each was easily twice the breadth of the whole length of Spike - from purple snout to tail-tip.

"Watch, little one," he said, and the force from the downbeat almost sent Spike under the water once more.

"I don't much like that name either," Spike called after him, watching the great dragon climb with long, majestic strokes into the late afternoon sky.

~**~

Sleep was elusive that night. Spike was pestered by reporters for several hours, but he pointedly ignored them and their frankly horrible questions until they simply gave up and went away. A few photographers had hung around and snapped shots of him eating his dinner (apples, what else? Plus a couple of amethysts, courtesy of Rarity), bidding Twilight goodnight and settling down in his usual place in the library square. He closed his eyes firmly against the camera flashes and tried to will his tired body to sleep, sleep, sleep.

He had started to drift off when a small voice at his ear brought him back to wakefulness, and he started abruptly. "Unnh!" he blurted.

"Sorry," said the pony sheepishly. He could see a vague outline, and from the voice could tell that it wasn't a pony he was acquainted with. "Didn't mean to startle you."

"I don't mean to be rude or anything, but I'm trying to get some shut-eye here," Spike said sharply. "It's been a long day."

"I get that. Again… sorry, I'll just…" The pony fidgeted as though he were going to move away, but didn't. Spike cocked his head.

"Is something wrong?"

A small beam of light fell across the stranger's face, and Spike recognised the leader of the RSPCD with a small shock. "No, I'll just… I'll come back later, you're tired…"

Spike sighed. Knowing he was likely to regret this, he folded his forepaws under his chest and jerked his head at the pony. "Come on, sit down then. You can lean against me, it gets cold out here at night."

"Seriously?" the pony squeaked, his eyes alight with a colthood dream. "Oh wow, that is… wow, thank you!" He scurried around to Spike's side and sat down beside him, before gingerly leaning against his side.

Spike snorted. "I'm not made of glass, you know."

"Oh, I… er," the pony stammered, but he did stop trembling and leaned against Spike's side with a little more confidence.

"So what's your name?" Spike asked, wondering whether he'd have to lead the whole awkward conversation.

"Just," the pony answered shyly. "And of course I know yours…"

Spike sighed. "Everypony in Equestria knows mine now, it seems. I knew that article was going to make trouble, but it was all already organised."

"Why did you do it, then?" Just wanted to know.

"Because I hoped otherwise," Spike said with a snort. "And the Mayor seemed so certain it was a way of getting the anti-dragon ponies off my case. Well, you saw how that worked. Are they all still camped in front of the Town Hall?"

"Yeah," Just said darkly. "Close-minded, blinkered idiots. They're too afraid to come near you, even when you're sleeping, so they're still picketing the Town Hall."

"They're probably not all that bad, you know." Spike yawned, fangs glinting. "Just afraid, like you said."

"You're okay with them?" Just asked incredulously. "All the things they were shouting? All those lies about dragons? All that stuff about parents and foals, designed to tug at ponies' heartstrings?"

Spike scowled. "Of course I'm not. I'm still a dragon, in case it's slipped your notice. But I'm beginning to realise that it doesn't matter so much what anypony else thinks, as long as I'm sure I'm doing the right thing. And so far, it feels right. This'll pass." One way or another, he said to himself bleakly, thinking of Razorfang's challenge.

"That's big of you," said Just, before he snorted. "Sorry."

"No fat jokes," Spike said dryly.

"Actually, I wasn't expecting you to be so…" Just floundered for a moment.

"Handsome?" Spike suggested. "Debonair? Charming? Dashing? Stop me when I hit the right one, okay? Amazing? Suave?"

"Stop!" laughed Just. "Well, that's another thing, I guess…"

"Hmm?"

"I didn't think you'd be funny."

"Hey, I am a carefully crafted barrel of laughs, I'll have you know. What was the first thing?"

"Well, we've known about you for some time – the RSPCD, I mean - and last we knew, you were a little round fellow that spent all his time in a library. And you look, well…"

"I've been working out," Spike replied. Just laughed. Spike found that vaguely offensive. "No - I'm serious," he insisted.

"Oh."

"So, the RSPCD, huh? How come I've never heard of you before this week?"

Just shrugged. "Don't know, we've been around for decades. It all used to be a lot of work, caring for abandoned examination hatchlings and re-homing them outside Equestria. Then we got the laws passed to stop using dragon eggs for those entrance examinations to the School for Gifted Unicorns. Everything petered out after that. Huffy was the last case before you, and we haven't seen her for ten years. I hope she's okay."

"Huffy… was the Great and Powerful Trixie's sister, right?" Spike remembered the name from the article.

"Trixie didn't see it like that, and neither did Huffy to be honest," Just admitted. "Huffy saw Trixie as her pony, but Trixie saw Huffy as a symbol of her power and greatness." He sighed. "Poor Huffy. I often wonder if she was from the same clutch as you, you know."

Spike was stunned. "You're kidding. I had other brothers and sisters?"

"Dragons lay up to five eggs, though usually only three or so hatch," Just parroted, as though reciting something learned so long ago it was barely a fact anymore. "They can be kept indefinitely as long as they are stored in a warm place in magical stasis. It's entirely possible she was your sister. She was purple and white – white where you're green. Lovely cerise eyes. Very smart - lived up to her name though. She could be amazingly impatient."

"Was she funny?" Spike wanted to know. It seemed incredible that there had been another dragon like him, brought up by ponies – by a pony he had met! – and that she could have been another sister to him.

"Not really," Just mused. "She was pretty angry when I met her, though. She wasn't as big as you are now, still only a baby really. She was just starting her first growth spurt, and her wings were starting to grow out."

Spike winced. That had hurt.

"Anyway, we lost her," Just said sadly. "She ran away. She always was so impatient, and we weren't working on her emancipation fast enough for her, I suppose."

Spike stared out at the night, feeling a little bereft though he'd never even heard of Huffy before that day. "Is there any way to be sure?"

"Of what?"

"Of any of it." Spike looked back at the saddened activist pony at his side. "Can we check the School's records to see if Huffy was my other sister? Can we find out if there have been any unexplained fires or noises near where she disappeared?"

Just brightened a little. "Yeah… yeah, those records are available… Hey, thanks!"

"No charge, just let me know what you find out," Spike replied.

"But how about you?" Just abruptly changed tack. "Are you really happy here, with all this hoopla going on around you?"

"I told you, it'll pass," Spike said. "And I'm not leaving. This is home, and I'm happy when I'm here."

"Just checking," Just said hurriedly.

"Look, Just…" Spike decided to get to the point. "You seem like a nice guy, and you really care about dragons. I like you. I could sure use your help, if you're willing to give it. But please ask first, okay, and don't try and make my decisions for me again?"

Just seemed subdued. "Sorry, Spike… I guess when you've seen all the things I've seen ponies do to young dragons – turn them into slaves, abandon them, use them as a portable gas-stove… I suppose I got carried away with the unfairness of it all."

"I'm fine," Spike said gently. "Ponyville is home, and Twilight loves me. Things… aren't so hot right now, but they'll get better."

He stared out into the night again, and wished that he could talk to Princess Luna once more. "They've got to."

~**~

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