• Published 17th Jan 2012
  • 40,083 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 7

Chapter Seven

"You can do it!"

"Come on, Spike!"

"We believe in you!"

"Gimme an S! Gimme a P! Gimme an I!..."

"Take a deep breath and go!"

Spike took a deep breath and gazed over Sweet Apple Acres' transformed fallow fields with a sick, sinking feeling. The obstacle course seemed to leer back at him.

"I know you can do this, Spike!" Twilight's voice called.

He let his eyes wander over the various tasks. He had to make his way around a course of barrels without knocking over a single one (and they seemed horribly close together, in his opinion). He had to sort a mixed crate of apples, eggs and new season's peaches without bruising or crushing them. He had to hit three successive targets with his fire, each progressively further away, and all of varying sizes. There was an old plough that he had to melt with his very hottest flame. He had to lift a dismayingly large rock and carry it for what seemed a truly sadistic distance, all the way up to the barn. Finally, there was a balloon attached to the very top of the barn's apple-surmounted weathercock, higher than he could reach on his hind legs. He had to fly up there and get it.

Fat chance.

"Your faith in me is much appreciated and completely misplaced!" he hollered back at Twilight, his eyes glued to the torture-track before him.

"Oh, c'mon, Spike! This is a total cinch!" Rainbow Dash yelled impatiently.

"Give it yer best shot, kiddo!" Applejack called.

"Remember, it's just a test!"

"I can't believe Twilight just said that," he muttered to Big Macintosh.

"Would you jest get yerself out there already?" Macintosh drawled. "Y'done most o' this in yer lessons, after all."

Not flying, I haven't! "Yeah, but not all at once, and not with an audience!" Spike glanced back to where his friends were standing. A small crowd of Ponyvillians and press had also gathered there. Cameras were already held at half-mast. Apple Bloom had brought out the apple-stall and was doing a brisk little trade.

He was now sullenly accepting of the trail of photographers and reporters that followed him wherever he went. It was a real pain in the tail, though, when the sound of cameras clicking from the lakeside interrupted his bath-time. He'd resigned himself to being the curiosity of this week – perhaps of this year. It was intrusive and humiliating, but there wasn't much he could do about it until his house was built. Even then, he was sure, they'd stake out his door. He'd never thought he was all that interesting to watch, even when trying to complete an obstacle course.

He would have loved to be a spectator himself. Or perhaps the commentator. He liked being the commentator. With a twinge he remembered doing the announcing for the Running of the Leaves with Pinkie Pie. As spotlights went, that was one he'd rather enjoyed. This one stunk.

His friends were cheering enthusiastically amongst the smattering of other ponies. Rainbow Dash looked impatient to try the course herself, and Fluttershy appeared almost as nervous as he was. Rarity was demurely holding a pair of opera-glasses to her lovely eyes, and Applejack was biting the rim of her Stetson. Pinkie was wearing a rather mad purple and green hat that sprouted wings on either side, and a tail trailing down the back. He blinked. He was a hat now? He raised a perplexed eyebrow at her, before chalking it up to another of the mysteries of Pinkie Pie.

Twilight was smiling at him. "Go on," she mouthed.

He took another deep breath, shook out his tense shoulders and nodded once.

"Okay then," Macintosh said in his slow, deep way. "When I kick this bell, give it yer best shot. Ready?"

"No," Spike grunted through his clenched teeth, staring at the barrels before him.

"Too bad," Macintosh said cheerfully, and his powerful hind legs kicked the bell clear off the post.

Spike resisted the urge to run. He swallowed once, and then began to carefully navigate the barrels as slowly as he could. Controlling the length of his tail had proved to be a real challenge, but he unfolded and curled it around the obstacles as delicately as he could. In one or two places the barrels were so close together that he reflexively held his breath in a futile attempt to make himself skinnier. He inched through, step by cautious step, his wings held high out of the way. It was with a huge sigh that he finished the barrel-weave.

"Goooo Spike!" Pinkie Pie screeched, and he winced.

"Uh, thanks Pinkie!" he called back. "But I'm not done yet!"

"I know!" She shrugged, calling over the cheers of his other friends. "But that was just in case you needed a little extra ooomphing!"

"Ooomphing?" he repeated to himself, and then shook his head. Refocusing on the crate in front of him, he wilted. Eggs and peaches? "Now that's just being mean!" he shot back at Macintosh.

The red farmpony looked smug. "Eeyup."

Three empty crates stood beyond the mixed one, waiting to be filled. Spike bit his lip unthinkingly, and then unbit it hurriedly. Jeesh, fangs, when would he learn?

He pushed the three crates closer to the mixed one, and looked challengingly back at Macintosh. "Never said I couldn't," he said defiantly.

"S'pose I never did," Macintosh agreed, his expression sour. The reduced distance meant Spike wouldn't have to carry the foodstuff to its crate. Still, picking up uncooked hen's eggs in dragon-claws was tough enough, in Spike's opinion.

He set himself to the task. His claws flickered with practised ease over the apples, trembled over the peaches and moved at a glacial pace around the eggs. He forced himself to breathe once spots began to dance in front of his eyes. Sweat began to run down his neck.

A hush had settled over the watching ponies. Every time he picked up an apple, they leaned forward. If it was a peach, the intake of breath was audible. If it was an egg, you could have heard a pin drop. In Canterlot.

By the time he was nearing the bottom of the crate, his brow was pouring with sweat. There was a further surprise for him, however – the lowest layer wasn't filled with eggs. It was filled with tiny cups – that were in turn brim-full of water. He shot a glower at Macintosh, who crossed his front hooves complacently.

"That'll learn yer to move things around," he was told.

Spike growled under his breath, and tried to pinch the first tiny little cup between his claws without spilling a drop. Water splashed over his thumb-claw, and he hissed in frustration. Carefully setting the cup down on the combed earth beside him, he steeled himself once more and set about the rest.

Finally the crate was empty, and he wanted to collapse in a pile right then and there. The water had spilled twice more, but he had given up being irritated at Macintosh or even at himself. Just get it over with, his internal monologue chanted as he backed cautiously away from the wobbling water-cups, and turned to the next challenge.

There was a line drawn in white paint on the ground, and Spike dutifully stood himself behind it. Squinting at his first target, he took a controlled breath and opened his mouth.

The blast of flame was tightly concentrated and very short. The bucket resting over the top of the first, closest pole rattled under the blast, the side charring black. To the sound of cheers, he looked back triumphantly at Fluttershy and Applejack. The first was stock-still in anticipation, peeking out from underneath her pink mane. The second had left off biting her hat and was now biting her hooves.

The second pole was further away, and the target wasn't a bucket. It was an apple, and he realised he had to roast it. That meant tempering his flame over a distance. Squaring his shoulders, he eyed it sternly. "No apple's gonna get the better of me," he told it sternly, and released his fire.

The red skin blushed darker and began to wrinkle under the soft, gentle flame that flickered over its surface. He continued blowing the thin stream of his mildest fire over the apple until it had shrivelled and wrinkled up completely. He stopped, panting. That sort of thing required far more control and finesse than anything big and showy.

The last pole was a distressing distance away, and the target was the smallest yet. A little wisp of hay was tied to the tip of the pole. He looked back at Fluttershy in alarm, and she gave him an encouraging little nod, before ducking back under her mane. Applejack was now gnawing her foreleg. The silence was so thick you could walk on it.

He gulped, and turned back. The hay had been dipped in red paint, and he realised that he was meant to singe it off.
Without burning the rest.

"My friends are all evil diabolical geniuses of the first degree," he breathed in dismay.

He'd never tried anything along these lines. That much control over his fire was never something he'd expected to have. Still, nothing ventured, nothing gained, he supposed. Taking a shallow breath, he screwed up his nerve, gave the tiny hay tuft a diamond-drill stare, and fired.

To his amazement, the trickle of flame that curled from his jaws unfolded easily and elegantly over the stretch of ground to delicately flick the hay-tip gently. A little hiss told him that the wet paint had been burned, but the rest of the stalk did not blacken and char. It didn't even twitch. He didn't bother closing his mouth as the fire died away, but stared stupidly at his achievement, slack-jawed.

"YOU DID IT! YOU DID IT!" Fluttershy yelled wildly, and Spike was startled out of his stupor by the uncharacteristic sight of the shy pony hugging Applejack around the neck and jumping up and down.

"I did it," he said blankly, still staring at the hay, before turning to his jubilant friends. "Hey, I did it!"

They hollered and whooped back at him, and quite a few of the other spectators did as well. He beamed at them all, flushed with victory and happiness.

"Well done Spike, but y' ain't done yet," Macintosh reminded him quietly.

"So what's next?" Spike turned back, still smiling. "It can't be harder than – oh."

The old plough was suspended in the air in a blacksmithing vice. Underneath it, a mould sat waiting for the melted metal. It would require the absolute hottest flame he could produce, and the tightest focus. That horrible, horrible word, focus.

He immediately straightened, jerking his head to Macintosh to step back out of the way once more. A hush fell over the little crowd as they gathered the nature of the challenge, and there was some whispering amongst them as they debated the use of a dragon in blacksmithing on a more regular basis.

He'd produced that green-white flame several times since that first lesson, but he'd always had Fluttershy coaching him through it. This time he was on his own. Lengthening his neck, he drew in the very largest breath he could, his sides expanding with its volume.

For good measure, he took in a little more. His wings half-unfurled and his shoulder-blades slid apart as his ribcage expanded, and he began to tremble from containing such an amount of air.

Then with a tearing, crackling roar, he sent it barrelling along the roof of his mouth, along his hard palate, through his tightly pursed jaws and into the cracked old metal. It wasn't white-green, or even normal green. With a start, Spike realised he'd stumbled upon yet another new sort of fire. This flame was so hot he couldn't even see it though his watering eyes.

The old plough pinged and crackled and began to glow red hot within seconds. Only a few moments later, the plink of liquid sounded in the trough of the mould beneath. His heart leapt inside him, and he redoubled his efforts. Through blurred vision he could make out the plough's shape softening and running like butter in a saucepan.

His mighty breath stuttered to its close, and he dragged in another. Without pausing he again sent the superheated flame screaming at the lump suspended above the mould. His whole skull was buzzing like a hive from the force of the fire pouring from his mouth.

A clunk signalled that the lump had grown too small to be held by the vice and had fallen into the mould. He took another huge gulp of air and aimed carefully at the bobbing red-hot island in the sea of silver. Once more he roared that invisible, furious flame. The lump bobbed a few more times, shrinking like an ice-cube in summer, before he could no longer make it out at all.

He sucked air into starved lungs and prepared to do it again, his eyes now flooded with boiling tears. As he reared his neck into position, a touch against his side made him stop. "I think y' might have done it, Spike," Macintosh said.

"I... did?" he said hoarsely, his head swinging back blindly. The pony was a red blur beside him.

"Filled that mould neater than pie in a piecrust," he said, and there was pride in his voice.

"I did?" Spike repeated, voice gravelly, and rubbed his forepaw against his stinging eyes.

When he looked back, the mould was filled to the brim with gently rippling silver, and he blinked a few times. "Wow. Sweet."

There was silence from the crowd. "Did they not like that?" Spike croaked.

"I think that was a bit more than they was willin' to handle," Macintosh said dryly. "That last fire o' yours is a mighty scary thing."

"Oh."

"Cheer up now, y' almost done." Macintosh nudged his side, before squinting. "Also, yer sorta soundin' a little hoarse. Need a drink?"

"Do I ever!"

Spike sank to the ground as Scootaloo ran forward, a tub filled with water on her back. Spike gave her a grateful smile and then practically lunged for it, grabbing it in one paw and tossing the water down his throat. The hiss when it touched his mouth was very loud and he sighed in relief from amongst billowing clouds of steam. "Ow. Oh, that is soooo much better. Ow."

"You all right?" Scootaloo asked. "Hey, that was awesome! And the way you got that hay-stalk! Amazing!"

"Thanks, Scoot," he said tiredly. "Gotta finish."

"You look kinda rough, Spike," she said doubtfully as he struggled up again and eyed the rock he had to carry up to the barn.

"Can't stop halfway through," he said. "I'm fine."

"If you say so," she said, picking up the tub and moving back.

"Right," he croaked, and then cleared his throat. "Right," he said again, glaring at the rock.

It was larger than Tom. It was larger than the basalt blocks he'd been carting for his house. He wondered how they'd got it into the field at all.

"It took twenty ponies," Macintosh answered the unspoken question in a murmur.

"And I'm supposed to lift it all on my own," he muttered back.

"If y' gonna hurt yerself in anyway, best t' stop now," Macintosh said, but Spike shook his head.

"Can't stop halfway through," he said to himself, and ducked his neck against the rock, bracing his back and rolling it down into the hollow between his wings.

His eyes bugged out immediately, and his knees trembled. "Gnnnph!" he choked, breath stolen away.

"Y' gonna do yerself a mischief," Macintosh said worriedly. "Shoulda known it was too heavy. Put it down, Spike."

But Spike was taking a step, and then another. His legs wobbled like wet noodles, but he strained onwards. The stubbornness he'd always possessed and had always thrown into childish things was now in full control – and by Celestia and Luna and everything good, he was going to get the stupid rock up to the barn.

"No matter what!" he grunted through gritted fangs, and took another, stronger step. Macintosh's protests fell silent and he began to keep pace with Spike. The soft sounds of hooves in loam told him that his 'audience' was also following. Under the dizzying weight, he vaguely wondered how sweaty and violet his face was. No doubt he looked truly ridiculous.

He watched the ground passing underneath his claws. It seemed to move torturously slowly. Under the crushing weight of the giant rock, he puffed and panted and hauled one foot in front of the other, his claws dragging against the soft earth. His throat still burned and his back felt as though it was being pulverised. He shook that thought away and took another heaving step, and then another.

"Not far now," Twilight's voice whispered from behind him.

He looked up. Though his eyes were still a little sore and stinging, he could see the large red shape of the barn before him – closer than he had imagined! He took another step, his pace quickening as the finish neared. His neck straightened and he staggered onwards, tail stiff with tension, up to the barn's side and allowed the massive rock to slide off his back. It landed with a dull boom, and rolled a little distance before rocking to a standstill.

Spike huffed smoke through his nostrils at it contemptuously, before careening to the ground in a pile of purple scales.

"What is it with you and showing rocks who's boss?" Rainbow Dash's voice asked, and he made a husky noise of irritation.

"I'd say that was more a case of not being beaten," Twilight said, proud and fond and worried all at once. "Spike? Are you okay? Have you hurt yourself?"

"Mmmph," he managed, and slumped over some more.

"You look like a beaten-up suitcase," Rainbow Dash said.

"Real nice," Applejack said tartly.

"I calls 'em how I sees 'em."

"You are not attempting to fly in this condition," Twilight said.

"Gotta finish," he rasped, hauling himself upwards.

"Spike..."

But Twilight didn't get to complete herself before his wings extended and swept into the all-important downbeat. His mind flickered back to Razorfang, and he tried to emulate the giant dragon's movements the previous day. His tired legs pushed away from the ground and he beat once, twice...

"I'm doing it," he thought, incredulously, joyously. "I'm..."

THUMP.

He landed heavily on his hindquarters, agony racing up his spine. He screeched and crumpled on the spot, a jumbled heap of wings, limbs and pain.

"Oh, you silly dragon," Twilight gasped, racing towards him. He turned his ringing head to her. Stars were winking in and out of existence before his eyes.

"Sorry... Twi..."

"What possessed you to try and fly in this state?" Twilight demanded in a rushed voice, her hooves running over him, checking for damage. She sagged in relief when she found no injuries, and continued in a lower tone. "You should have listened to me, Mister Stubborn."

He was too beaten to even protest the name. He made a mumbled noise of apology, and drooped even further into his untidy jumble of purple aches and pains.

"Spike, it was just a test," Rainbow Dash spoke up once more. "Just a way of seeing where you were at with everything, and pushing the boundaries a bit. You didn't have to finish it all, you big idiot, and you sure didn't have to try and fly!"

"Can't anyway," Spike mumbled.

"You can," Dash insisted automatically. "We just haven't found the right exercise for you yet."

"The ground an' I..." Spike slurred, "have a ver' special relationship."

"Well, now we know he's perfectly fine," Rarity commented, "if he's making dreadful jokes like that."

"Rar'ty?" He raised his head and smiled unsteadily in the direction her voice had come from. "Didja see me... liftin' that rock? An' my fore... I mean, fire... I did good fire."

"You certainly did, dear."

"Spilled the water. Can't fly. But I did... real good fire. Didn't knob a bury, either. Knot a balloon. Knock a barrel."

"We should get him home," Twilight sighed.

"Home," he agreed wholeheartedly. He felt like he'd been wrung out like a dishcloth.

"How?" Rainbow Dash asked, eyeing his prone bulk with scepticism.

Spike himself answered by slowly, creakingly dragging himself to his feet with a gigantic groan. Then he appeared to sag on the spot. "Ow," he said pathetically.

"Oh, poor Spike," Fluttershy said, her tone sympathetic. "I'll heat up some towels for you and we can put them over your shoulders when we reach the square. How does that sound?"

"Heavenly," he croaked.

"How do you manage to have a competitive side when there's no competition?" Twilight asked.

"Natural... talent," Spike replied with a wobbly grin.

~**~

"I am one big bruise," Spike moaned.

"It's your own fault," said Twilight heartlessly, laying another hot towel over him.

"Pony of stone," he accused.

She rolled her eyes. "Sure, that's why I'm here with heated towels and salve, instead of inside my nice cozy library."

Fluttershy rose into the air in order to lay another towel over his back. He groaned in relief, and practically melted all over the cobbles. "Soooooo goooood," he burbled. "Arrghunnngh, oh yeaaaaah."

"We found his off-switch," Twilight said dryly to the other pony. Then her eyes widened in alarm and surprise. "Pr... Princess?"

Spike raised his head eagerly, muscles protesting. "Luna?"

But it was a tall white alicorn with a pastel-rainbow mane that stood before them, her hooves bound in gold filigree. Spike tried to pull himself upright in order to bow, but Princess Celestia held one hoof up to stop him. "You should not rise, judging from the sight of you," she said.

His brow furrowed. "Um, Princess? Is something wrong? Not that it's not great to see you..."

She looked along his length silently, before inclining her head. "Indeed, I should not call you 'little' anymore," she said.

"Princess!" Twilight found her tongue and ran to greet her mentor joyously. "It's so wonderful to see you!"

"And you too, Twilight Sparkle," Celestia replied, though there were tense overtones in her normally warm voice.

"Something is wrong," Fluttershy said in realisation.

Celestia turned her regal head from her protégée back to Spike. "When you didn't answer my last letter, Spike, I wasn't very concerned. I thought you might still be mulling over my offer. But then one of my advisors brought this morning's O-HAY! Magazine to me..."

The Princess' horn flared, and a trashy-looking sort of magazine fluttered into existence.

" 'Spike's SHOCKING Secrets Revealed: What They're Not Telling Us!' By Gossipy Rag," read Twilight. "Oh no."

" 'A conspiracy reaching to the highest authorities of Equestria: Exclusive Proof!' " Fluttershy looked up from the magazine cover with a wince. "Oh... oh dear."

"We left the letter in the square yesterday." Spike realised with horror. "And there were all those reporters everywhere..."

"One of them obviously found it," Twilight sighed.

Princess Celestia looked stern and just a bit puzzled. "My little ponies - and dragon - what are you saying? My letter arrived... during a press conference?"

"More like a siege," Spike muttered. "Princess, I'm so sorry. It arrived just as we were walking into town, and there were reporters and protestors everywhere. We were so preoccupied with trying to contain my fire that we totally forgot the letter."

She sighed and closed her brilliant lavender eyes. "I see."

"I really am sorry," he said humbly. "I seem to say that a lot lately... especially to you..."

"The damage is done." She waved a hoof in dismissal. "And your lack of answer is now explained."

"Uh." Spike scratched at his head. "Yeah."

"Do take better care of your mail in future," she said in a long-suffering tone, though a twinkle began to wink from within her eyes once more. "Apology accepted."

Spike released a smoky sigh of relief. "Phew, thanks Princess!"

"Don't you want to know what the letter said?" she asked, and Twilight leaned forward, her eyes liquid with hope.

"Oh, so can you magically intervene in this fight, Princess?" she asked. "We've been so worried!"

"Patience, my faithful student," Celestia said. "I believe this... Gossipy Rag... has helpfully printed the whole letter. Page twenty-six, if you would."

Twilight glanced back at Fluttershy, before her horn flared and the magazine flipped open, the pages ruffling by magic to fall open at a shot of Spike hauling the wagon with his friends riding inside. He looked rather pleased, and Spike remembered how happy he'd been at Rarity's compliment.

"You look almost... smug, Spike," Fluttershy said, her brow wrinkling.

"They'll have chosen that picture especially for that reason," Twilight growled. "Here's the letter."

"Could you?" Spike asked her, and she nodded, horn glowing brighter. The magazine grew to twice its size, and he bent to it, frowning.

"Dear Spike," he read,

"Your apology is accepted, but your reasons are not. Setting aside your fears for my personal safety, I would have held it my duty, as your Princess and as your friend, to aid you in the smallest of ways through this difficult time. I am sure that my sister, Twilight, and your friends feel much the same way. Furthermore, I understand that acting contrary to an instinctual urge is difficult, but I have already stated my case here. In any case, let us consider this affair over and done with. You are forgiven.

"I have just read the article and interview published by one Scoop Headlines, and I must say you have comported yourself with true honesty and feeling in this matter. Well done. It is a trying thing to be singled out amongst the many for public scrutiny, and my thoughts are with you. Remain calm, remain strong, and remain yourself. Always remember your friends are with you. I hope construction on your house is going well?

"To answer your second postscript: Although I indeed have the power to affect a fully-grown dragon, politically it is impossible. I am afraid I cannot influence any outcome of this challenge. It is an intrinsic and ancient part of draconic culture, and they would see my involvement as a desecration. It pains me to write this. You see, your article will attract attention from outside Equestria as well as within it, and there will be considerable interest from the dragon clans about you. Should their magicians discover that I am interfering in an ancient and traditional rite of combat, I will be signing Equestria up for invasion. The situation is very tense as it is. Wyrmstadt's ambassador has already questioned me quite harshly regarding the origins of your egg.

"I am so very, truly sorry that I cannot magically assist you in this matter. Perhaps I can help in the matter of the unrest here in Equestria? I believe that sending my Royal Guard would only exacerbate the situation, but publically acknowledging our friendship may soften some hearts. Furthermore, I would like to invite you to the Grand Galloping Gala in two weeks time as a special guest. This would be a fine opportunity to display your good intentions to the most influential ponies in the kingdom. Your friends are also invited, and do tell them they are allowed - nay, encouraged - to liven up the festivities as they did the last time they attended. Be warned, the Wyrmstadt ambassador will likely hound you into agreeing to leave Equestria to be with others of your kind. As you have repeatedly said, Ponyville is your home now. Hold fast to your convictions.

"Please let me know if you agree to this proposal. I look forward to your answer.

"In friendship,

"Princess Celestia

"P.S. My sister also says 'hi', and asks if she may visit you again soon? P.C.

"P.P.S. Could you please send your recipe for Dandelion and Wild Rocket quiche? I haven't had a good one for nearly three centuries now. P.C."

Spike fell silent and looked up at the Princess. "Grand Galloping Gala?"

"What does the article say about the letter?" Fluttershy hovered over his shoulder, her eyes racing over the page.

"A whole lot of horseapples," Twilight growled. Naturally she had read ahead.

"Twilight! Language!" Spike said, shocked she would swear in front of the Princess. Celestia looked grim, and a little amused.

"In this case I feel that my faithful student is fully justified in her choice of words," she said. "It is a despicable, scurrilous load of nonsense and conjecture."

"Lots about how you and the Princess are conspiring against the ambassador, lots about the challenge being a barbaric and primitive ritual, lots about your 'instincts' and plenty of insulting things about dragons in general," Twilight fumed.

"I don't exactly disagree about the challenge," Spike muttered.

"And even a horrible bit of... of hooey," Twilight spat Applejack's word in her simmering irritation, "saying that you were dangerous simply by bringing the Wyrmstadt's attention to Equestria. As though they haven't always known that dragons lived within our borders!"

"Calm yourself, Twilight Sparkle," Celestia said. "It is a ridiculous slander indeed, but it can be easily punctured. I will make a royal announcement tonight to refute the allegations."

"That's not going to help against that 'Parents for a Peaceful Equestria' lot," Spike said glumly.

"That is the name of the group against you?" Celestia asked, and tsked when he nodded. "Such a transparently emotional ploy."

"I don't think they're ever going to be accused of being intellectual giants," Spike replied.

"The Grand Galloping Gala again?" Fluttershy said, her face flustered. "Oh dear, I thought that was all done with."

"Now, now, Fluttershy." The Princess' lips twitched. "It was a long time ago. I'm sure they'll all simply, ah... love you."

Twilight made a choking sound, and Spike stifled a snort as Fluttershy turned the colour of curdled milk.

"What do you think?" the Princess continued smoothly, as though poor Fluttershy wasn't dying of mortification on the spot. "Is it a good plan?"

Spike shrugged, and then cringed as his back creaked like a rusty hinge. "Sure," he said, "as long as you don't send any letters halfway through."

She smiled. "No fear of that, my dragon."

"One thing though," Twilight said matter-of-factly, having recovered her composure. "That's only a few days before the challenge. Are you sure that's a good idea, Spike? Perhaps you should stay at home and rest up..."

Spike considered it. On the one claw, he rather liked the idea of holing up in Ponyville. Meeting stuffy, fancy, stuck-up ponies wasn't his idea of the best of times. Besides, why should he waste what could be one of his very last nights at a stupid Gala?

Because he shouldn't think that way, he realised with a chill racing down his spine, for the same reason he was continuing to build his house. He had to make plans for his future. He had to go on as though his existence didn't have a looming deadline. He had to believe that he would survive, and continue to embrace all the ridiculous, painful, humiliating and wonderful complexities that make up life. He had to hope. Otherwise he might as well walk up to Razorfang's cave and ask him to end it then and there.

"I'll go," he said.

Celestia smiled gently at him. "I thought you might. I will send the tickets tonight. How many?"

Spike glanced at the rather morose Fluttershy. "Uh... how about I get back to you on that one?"

She inclined her head. "Very well, I await your letter. And Spike?"

He looked back to her, neck pinging with pain. "Yeah? I mean, yes, Princess?"

"Do try not to lose them," she said with a small smile. He blushed.

"So, do you know the origins of Spike's egg?" Twilight asked suddenly, her eyes tracing the article once more.

The Princess looked taken aback. "Excuse me, Twilight Sparkle?"

She gestured to the magazine with one hoof. "I was just re-reading the letter, and you said you'd been questioned by the Wyrmstadt ambassador about it. Can you remember anything about it?"

Spike looked uncertainly from Twilight to the Princess. He wasn't actually sure he wanted to know the answer to that question. His family was the purple unicorn, and she was all the family he wanted. He didn't want to know if his first family had lost him, or worse, rejected him.

"I am afraid I was not aware of the details at the time, my faithful student," Celestia replied. "The School for Gifted Unicorns made these arrangements in my name without my consent. I believe the practise started many decades ago, when an abandoned dragon's clutch was discovered by a Professor of the School. She made hatching them part of the examination, and it proved so effective a method of determining magical ability that it became a tradition. I put a stop to it once the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Dragons brought it to my attention. As for Spike's egg, the School itself has records of where it sourced the dragon eggs from, I believe."

"Just, the President of the Society, is helping me with that," Spike said. "He offered last night." Twilight gave him a sharp look.

"Then you have gained a very passionate and vocal advocate," the Princess said, her ethereal mane rippling in a non-existent breeze.

"Spike, are you..." Twilight began, but he hushed her quickly. The Princess raised her eyebrows at him.

"There is a problem?"

"Well." Spike squirmed. "He's gonna find out which clutch my egg was from, sure... but it's mostly to find out whether Huffy, Trixie's dragon, was my other sister."

"Your other sis... oh!" Celestia smiled warmly and broadly. "You would not, then, consider a dragon to be your real sister and Twilight to be your adopted sister?"

"Twilight is my real sister!" Spike said indignantly, and then subsided as he realised how stupid he sounded. "I mean, I know we're... different, and I guess I'm adopted... but she's my sister. She is. Even if I end up having a million brothers and sisters, Twilight is still my sister. That's all there is to it."

"Territory?" the Princess asked delicately.

Spike's eyes blazed. "Precisely."

Twilight blinked. "I'm territory?"

"Not in the traditional sense, I expect." Celestia tilted her head. "He means to protect you."

She looked gobsmacked. "Spike, you ninny. I protect you!"

He gave her a steady look. "Nope, not for this. Not in this way."

"Perhaps you should explain further," the Princess suggested gently.

Spike squared his shoulders and turned to face Twilight and Fluttershy fully. "Okay. Right then. Here's sort of how it goes. Ponyville is mine, and I protect it. They're my ponies. I look after them. Especially you, Twilight. You're mine. My sister."

She stared at him. "And am I my own pony as well?"

"Oh yeah, that too," he allowed. "Do what you like, as long as it makes you happy. That'll make me happy. Whatever doesn't make you happy, though... answers to me."

"Does that go for all Ponyvillians?" Fluttershy ventured.

He beamed. "Yup."

"I just get all the brotherly love on top, I get it," Twilight said blankly. "Uh... wow, Spike. You've given this... a lot of thought."

"It is well done of you, my dragon," Celestia murmured. Spike's chin lifted happily, and he took a deep breath filled with contentment.

"Thanks, Princess."

"I think I need to think about this some more," Twilight said in a stunned voice.

"You? Thinking too much? Shock and awe," Spike teased. That seemed to snap her out of her trance, and she scowled at him.

"Oh, funny dragon," she said with heavy sarcasm. He grinned at her.

"Thanks for noticing," he said cheerfully. Just thinking about his village, his ponies, about what could be, filled him with a sense of rightness and comfort. His territory, his ponies. His to protect, to look after and care for. It was a much-needed panacea in the midst of the escalating chaos of his life.

"So that's what you meant when you..." Twilight began, and stopped. Spike glanced sidelong at her, knowing she was going to bring up that moment during the interview with Scoop.

"Yeah," he said softly.

"Wow," she breathed.

"Really, all of us? You're going to look after all of us?" Fluttershy asked again, her pupils wide with affection and wonder.

Spike nudged her with a forepaw. "My pony," he declared, and then poked his tongue out at her. She giggled.

"Spike, that's... sort of amazing," Twilight said. "But don't you want anything for yourself?"

"That is for me, Twilight," he said patiently. "I could have just claimed any place, you know. First territory was the library, but I've outgrown it. So I could have picked anywhere, yeah? But a place doesn't make you laugh, or cry, or smile... unless it has memories attached. What makes memories? Friends do. Family. Ponyville has all that for me – but most of all, the ponies of Ponyville make it what it is. And they'll be mine, and I'll be theirs, and I'll look after them." He smiled faintly. "I told you this."

"Not... in so much detail," Twilight said in a hushed voice.

He shrugged again. "Well, that's sort of it, anyway," he said peaceably. "Hey, remember you mentioned about a hoard? I really don't think I'm gonna need one. My hoard's alive and growing all the time. And it talks to me."

"Oh, Spike," Fluttershy gasped.

"Very well done," the Princess said quietly, and she bowed her elegant head to him. He jerked his own backwards in startled surprise.

"Uh... it wasn't all me," he said, embarrassed at this show of respect from the premier monarch of the country. "Your sister helped."

"I could sense her hoof in some of that," she agreed. "Greed and jealousy?"

He nodded once, his face becoming grave. "Tell her to drop in anytime."

The Princess looked skywards, and then back to him. "I must leave," she said regretfully. "There is a delegation arriving from the Eyrie, the Griffon capital. I must be in Canterlot to greet them."

Spike lowered his head in a bow. "Princess, thank you... and once more, I'm so..."

"Forgiven," she interrupted him, but with a smile. "It is past, Spike. Put it behind you." She looked up at the sky again, her mane rippling and flowing gracefully, before looking back to the three of them. "I will see you all soon, at the Gala. Farewell, my little ponies, my dragon."

With a flash of light as bright as the sun, she winked out of existence.

"Oh, that was so... embarrassing," Fluttershy said, before she turned to Spike, a question in her eyes. "We're your hoard?"

He wriggled in discomfiture, shucking the cooled towels from his back into a pile. "Sorta. Well, we all saw how I took to hoarding when I was little, and that wasn't exactly my finest hour. I think this can be a way to channel my normal dragon greed without triggering any unnatural greed-growth. Besides, hoard is such an... ugly word. Can't I call you my gems instead? Nope, that's no good either, it sounds like I'm going to eat you..."

"I knew you'd claimed Ponyville," Twilight said in a subdued voice, her ears drooping, "I just didn't realise how personal and... and possessive it was."

"Dragons are possessive, Twilight," he reminded her. "You've probably read all about it. Wait - what am I saying, of course you have. Well, I'm no different there. I just had a few pointers in how to direct it."

"Possessive, jealous, greedy, protective, eloquent, powerful, stubborn, proud, short-tempered, cunning and inscrutable," Twilight recited, eyes widening. "Why didn't I ever connect all that with you?"

"Hey, I'm not inscrutable!" Spike protested. Then he paused. "What's inscrutable?"

"Hard to understand, or mysterious," she answered absently. She was gnawing on one hoof.

"I don't think I'm either of those," he said, wrinkling his snout. "And I'm sure not cunning. I'm not eloquent, or especially short-tempered, I don't think... Anyway, don't worry that you never saw me like that before. I'm pretty glad of that, actually. It means I was always just Spike to you, not Spike, a dragon – even when I was little. That means a lot."

Her eyes, already wide, widened even further. Then to his great astonishment she threw both hooves around his neck, took a deep shuddering breath, and began to cry quietly. "Tw... Twilight?" he exclaimed, one great paw rising to brace her trembling back.

"You're... just growing up so... so fast," she sobbed.

"Hey!" he said, alarmed. "No, wait, Twilight, I didn't mean to make you cry!"

"You didn't make her cry," Fluttershy said suddenly, and Spike turned confused green eyes on her.

"I didn't? Then why's she crying?"

"She misses the way you were," Fluttershy said. "You're thinking of all these things yourself, working it all out on your own without her help. You carried a boulder today, and melted a plough, and then told her mentor about claiming your territory. The press are hiding around every corner, and she misses the little baby she used to carry on her back. You've changed a lot, Spike. You've taken on a lot of those traits she just rattled off, you know. You're such... such a real dragon now. You're not the baby dragon we all knew."

"Yes I am!" he exclaimed in horror. "I still am! I'm still me!" His foreleg tightened around Twilight, holding her close. "Twilight, listen, please! I know this is a lot to take in, and believe me I'm still trying to get my head around most of it. But no matter what, I'm always going to be your number one assistant, okay? No matter what."

"Number one assistant," she mumbled against his green-scaled chest, and then buried her face against him. "Oh, Spike, it's not just that... it's, well... and then, what if they find your real family? You said I was your real sister, and that was all there was to it, but maybe you'll feel differently if another dragon..."

"Never," he said staunchly, his claws stroking gently through her mane. "Never."

"I love you," she said, and her hooves held on tighter to his neck.

"I love you too," he said, a lump rising in his throat. "And I miss it too, you know. I miss my basket. I miss my blankie. Sometimes I think I can still hear it calling my name... 'Spike, Spike'!" he called, and then sighed, tucking his head over hers. She nuzzled closer into his neck. "What happened to my blankie anyway?"

"You sneezed," Twilight said in a thick voice, sniffing.

"Oh yeah," he said, and chuckled. She laughed a little damply herself.

"I thought I'd go mad every time you had a cold," she said.

"Knock on wood," Spike said hurriedly.

"I miss your little snores at night," she said. "Now I can hear you from all the way out in the square."

"I miss falling asleep on your back when it was late," he murmured. "I always felt so safe, knowing you'd get us home."

"You had so many nightmares about the Mayor in that clown wig." She giggled tearfully.

"Don't remind me." He shuddered.

"It's stupid," she sighed, pulling herself away a little to look into his face. "You're right here, I talk to you every day, and I still miss you."

He said nothing, but gazed at her.

"Your eyes are the same," she said quietly. "That's about it, really."

"I'm still me, Twilight," he pleaded. "I really am. Don't you be the one to believe otherwise. Not you."

"I know," she said. "I do, really. It's just..."

"I get it." He let his eyes drop to the ground. She put a hoof against his face and raised his eyes to hers again.

"Not that," she said, smiling through her tears, "not just how big you are, or how much you've changed physically. How wise you've become."

He stared at her, taken aback. "Uh, Twilight, you're talking to Spike. Spike. Remember? The dragon who lost the Princess' letter, got himself into a challenge, can't fly, didn't tell the Princess about said challenge, almost flattened himself for a stupid little test..."

She shook her head in fond amusement. "Changed the whole meaning of territory, stood up for his beliefs, let a bunch of foals use him for a jungle-gym, wouldn't let Rarity's scarf be taken off, freed the Horsefall stream, didn't back down in the face of prejudice and hysteria and hate."

"Okay, it sounds awesome when you put it that way," he said.

"Soon you won't need me at all," she said sadly.

"Now I know you're out of your mind," he said, rolling his eyes. "I'm only a kid! You're my big sister! I'm always gonna need you, and I am never letting you go!"

"One day you'll have to, Spike," she said, barely audible.

"Knowing you, you'll be the voice of my conscience by then," he retorted. "And anyway, when that day comes, you'll still be here, inside my head and my heart. You're gonna be with me every day of my life, Twilight. I am never, ever letting you go."

She leaned forward and kissed his cheek, strands of her mane catching in the finned scales at his jawline.

"Wise," she whispered.

"Oh, get away, bleagh, mushy stuff," he said, embarrassed. Blinking, he looked around. "Where'd Fluttershy go?"

"I think she must have wanted to give us some privacy," Twilight said in a shattered sort of voice, and Spike looked down at her, cradled within his foreleg. He made a decision.

"Well, we can't do this the old way," he said, "but maybe we can get a teeny weeny little bit of it back..."

She gave him a suspicious look through red-rimmed eyes. "What are yooooooh! Spi-i-ike!"

His name became a squeal as he raised her over his head, snaking his neck under her kicking legs and depositing her on his back. He could feel her hooves scrabbling against his scales before she sat down heavily between his shoulder-blades. His back complained vociferously, but he ignored both it and the screaming of his limbs as he stood.

"Whoooah... oh... ah, Spike!" Twilight squawked as he drew himself up, her forelegs hooking around his neck in a chokehold. He turned his head to look back at her, his neck arching easily, and she glared up at him. "Warn me next time!" she growled.

"Sorry." He grinned sheepishly.

"What are we doing?" she said in exasperation, and he cocked his head.

"Well, I can't ride on your back anymore, so logically you'll have to ride on mine," he said. "Where do you wanna go? You can fall asleep if you like. That was always pretty cool."

She gaped at him.

"Seriously, where do you wanna go?" he prodded.

She blinked, and then smiled though her eyes were still watery. "Why don't we just do a turn around the town? Maybe we'll run into somepony we know."

"That'd be nice." He smiled back. "Let's go for a pony-ride."

"Dragon-ride."

"Whatever. Ready?"

"Hi-ho Spike," she giggled, and leaned against his neck companionably.

"I am way too sore to rear up on my back legs like you did."

"That's okay, the ground is far away enough as it is."

"Is it okay?"

"Yeah, it's fine. Actually, it's nice. I see why you liked it."

"And if you turn around, you can see where we've been."

"That's a very old joke."

"The old ones are the good ones, they say. Hey, Twilight?"

"Yes?"

"Do you think Fluttershy is scared of me?"

"What? What makes you say that?"

"Well, she said I was such a real dragon now... and, well, she's afraid of dragons. Big ones. Wings and teeth and stuff. I hope I don't have to draw you a picture."

"You'd need a lot of purple crayon."

"Oh thanks, kick a dragon when he's down, that's real nice."

"I don't think she's afraid of you at all, Spike. She was certainly quite... uh, apprehensive about helping you with your fire at first, but she overcame that fairly quickly, didn't she?"

"I suppose..."

"She's your friend. She knows you, Spike. She knows you wouldn't hurt a horsefly."

"I... well, it can't hurt to ask, I guess."

"Mind you don't hurt her feelings. You know how sensitive she is."

"I'd never hurt her, Twilight."

"Of course I know, you possessive dragon you. You know, your gait is..."

"Reptile, remember? My spine bends in different ways to yours."

"Oh, of course! I should have realised. It's really very high up here. Look, I can see Sugarcube Corner!"

"Yep. And you can see the Boutique from the top of the next street."

"You would know that, you big sap."

"I'm merely an appreciator of beauty. That's all."

"Oh, merely."

"Critic."

"Spike?"

"Hmm?"

"Thanks."

"Hey. What are number one assistants for?"

She fell asleep on his broad purple back. He walked on through the golden afternoon, thinking of simpler days.

~**~


(This amazing image created by Slate - all my thanks and awe to you!)

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