• Published 17th Jan 2012
  • 39,909 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 8

Chapter Eight

"Muffin call!"

Spike awoke with a slight groan. His muscles, sore and aching from yesterday, had stiffened and tightened unbearably overnight.

There were books all around him, scattered in haphazard piles around the square, and a grey Pegasus grinning cheerfully at him as she flapped before his nose. He blinked and reared his neck back a little to focus on her. She tilted her head, one eye beaming at him and the other beaming off to the library.

"Uh, morning, Derpy," he mumbled. His throat was still quite sore.

She waved a bundle of letters. "Muffins for you, Spike!"

He frowned a little. He didn't normally get his mail the usual way. He had a far more convenient system. Who was sending him letters?

"Right, right," he rasped, pulling himself together and holding up a forepaw slowly. She deposited the letters into his talons with what he considered reckless abandon, almost skewering herself as she flopped forwards through the air. He snatched his forepaw back with a quick intake of breath, letters in his palm, and anxiously darted a look back to her. She saluted brightly, entirely unharmed.

"Thanks," he said doubtfully. Then he thought of something. "Hey, Derpy, are those protestors still camped in front of the Town Hall?"

She nodded, one eye glaring off at the library. "They sure are. They've got signs and muffins and bedrolls and muffins and everything."

Spike thought for a moment, heart sinking. If those 'Parents' ponies were still camped in front of the Town Hall, he'd find another way out to his lesson this afternoon. Despite what Macintosh and Rarity had said about not hiding any more, he wasn't a sucker for punishment. He wasn't going to willingly sign up for abuse if he didn't have to.

"Well, see you muffin, Spike!" Derpy's voice trailed behind her as she pinged through the deserted square like a pinball.

"Thanks, Derpy," he called back. "See you muffi – I mean, later!"

He shook his head with a small snort, and then began to study his bundle of letters. There were quite a few. Most were simply addressed to 'Spike, Ponyville Dragon," but one was addressed to 'Mr Spike, c/o Ponyville Square, Ponyville,' and looked rather official. He was beginning to slit open the envelope with his pinky-claw when he became aware of a light weight shifting in the hollow of his back.

"Mmmhnnnn," Twilight mumbled in her sleep, and nuzzled her head against a green spine.

He smiled slightly, lowering the letter. She'd woken up after their 'dragon-ride' with a burning curiosity, and denuded the entire library of every book referring to draconic culture, physiology, and history it possessed. Spike looked around at the stacks of tottering books, and his smile became a grin. She had been in such a study-frenzy that she hadn't even squeaked about leaving the books out all night.

He carefully picked up 'Scales Before Their Eyes: An In-Depth Study on Equine-Dragon Relations in the Modern Day' and tilted it sideways, watching the pages ruffling. Not a single picture in the whole thing. Twilight sure liked some dry and dusty stuff. 'The Collected Poetic Works of Silverclaw,' sat beside 'Diseases of the Dragon: From Abated Heels to Zigzag Throat.' The 'Encyclopaedia Draconequus Vol.7, DRA-ERG' was held open at "DRAGONS" by the bulk of 'Misunderstood or Monster? Dragon Facts and Myths.' Spike squinted closer at the spine of one red book, and flushed when he read, 'Big and Hot! A Guide For Maturing Dragons.' He shoved the embarrassing thing underneath 'Dragons in the Smoke: A Memoir.'

There were heaps and heaps and heaps of books. Boy, was he pleased he wasn't able to file them all away any more!

Twilight yawned loudly, and he felt her legs stretching out. "Morning," he said quietly.

"Mmmph," she said in a muffled voice. He looked back at her, curled up again in the hollow between his shoulder-blades. 'Territory and You: All a Dragon Needs to Know,' was serving as her pillow. Her foreleg was firmly wrapped over her eyes. "S'too early."

"I've gotten used to it, sleeping out here," he said.

"Early," she insisted.

"This is a turn-around," he chuckled. "You telling me that it's too early."

She growled under her breath, her other forelimb wrapping around her head as well. Then she sat up abruptly, eyes wide. "The books!"

"You look like a purple and pink haystack," he sniggered. She scowled at him, but it turned into a grimace as she looked around and took in the explosion of paper around them.

"I fell asleep..." She winced. "Will the dew have got into them, do you think?"

Spike tilted his head. "I'll dry 'em off if it has," he offered. "Least I can do."

She ran a hoof over her mane. "Can you do that without..."

"Burning them?" His eyebrows knitted. "I think so. I'm beginning to trust my fire a bit more... after yesterday, anyway."

"Really?"

"Yeah, and if that doesn't work, we can always spread them on my side." He shifted a little. "Twilight, are you okay if I stand? I am so, so stiff, I've just got to stretch..."

She looked a little startled. "Oh, I didn't think of that! And here I am using you as a great big heated bed..."

"It's fine," he said sincerely. "It's good, actually. I like that you stayed out here with me again. I've just got to get this kink out of my back before I go completely crazy. That rock was soooooo heavy."

Twilight carefully slid down his shoulder to the cobbles, her magic carting the book after her. Spike stood up as fast as possible, his joints creaking, and proceeded to stretch himself as thoroughly as he could. The pop of his bones made him groan in relief. "Ooooh, better. Better," he croaked.

Twilight was giving him an alarmed look. "That sounded awful," she said.

"Better," he said with a pained smile.

"If you say so..." she said. "Hey, what are these?"

She had spotted the letters. "Oh that," Spike said hoarsely as he arched like a cat, forelegs straight and shoulders hunched. "Mail for me... got from Ditzy. Was gonna open... but saw all the books..."

She picked up the official-looking envelope with a little frown. "Mr Spike, c/o..." she muttered.

Spike sat down on his haunches and took the letter from her delicately. She watched as he pulled the letter from the envelope with precise, cautious movements and smoothed it out on the pavement.

"You're getting really good with your claws," she said with admiration.

"Thanks," he replied modestly, "but it's only a letter. Letters are easy."

"Is it big enough?" she asked. "I can enlarge it if you need it."

"I can make it out," he assured her, before squinting at it. "It's from Just!"

"About your egg?"

"Yeah! Listen to this!" Spike began to read aloud. "Dear Spike, hoping this finds you well, yadda yadda yadda... oh, here we go! 'We've discovered that your egg was acquired by the School for Gifted Unicorns not as one of a clutch, but singly. It was donated eighty-seven years ago by the estate of the famous Unicorn explorer, Living Stone. It was kept in magical stasis in the School's Trophy Room for so long because of Doctor Stone's position as a famous alumnus of the School. It was only put forward for examination-hatching at all because we at the RSPCD had managed to get laws put into practise inhibiting the import of dragon eggs for exam use, and it was the only one left. There's no mention of where Doctor Stone found your egg in the School's records...'" Spike trailed off. Eighty-seven. Eighty-seven.

"Keep reading," Twilight said in a low voice.

Spike glanced down at her, and then peered back at the letter. "... 'perhaps you could try Living Stone's travel journals?" he finished weakly.

Twilight bolted for the library immediately.

Spike sat back, his eyes staring at the piece of paper but not really seeing it. Was his egg really so very old before it hatched? That made him actually... well, quite old. A very old... child.

Twilight came charging back out of the library, all tangled mane and determination, her horn surrounded by a corona of magic and yet another book trailing through the air after her. She sat directly before him and immediately buried her face in it.

"It's the right one!" she crowed.

Spike flinched as a cloud of dust arose from the thin yellow book entitled, 'Doctor Living Stone: I Presumed! The Journals and Recollections of an Adventurer and Dragon-Slayer.' He'd never have allowed it to get so dusty. Perhaps he should have a word with Owloysius.

"I know I read something once, there was an egg, and a purple..." she muttered under her breath, flipping pages rapidly. "Where is it, where is it, wait! No, that's not... a-HA! This is it! Neighvember twenty-first," she read aloud in a rushed voice, before raising her eyes and giving him a significant look, "almost exactly one hundred and twenty years ago..."

His mouth was dry as ashes.

She turned back to the dusty old memoir, her voice slowing as she read, " 'bivouacked down on the side of Smolderberg Mountain. Flushed out a spiffing young dragoness: purple, with pink markings. Lost seven porters. Lovely little fight – Purple dragon claw will look rather jolly over the mantelpiece'..."

By the end of the entry she was almost whispering. She stared at the yellowed old pages. "I read that years ago," she said blankly. "You were teething, sleeping there in your little basket, and I didn't make the connections. I never thought it might be..."

"Purple... dragoness...?" Spike rasped. His stomach had dropped through his feet. Ice was closing about his mind.

"Purple with pink markings," Twilight said, her normally bright voice still muted.

"He...?" Spike began in a dead, flat voice. "That was..."

"He killed your mother," she said. "He just killed her, just like that..."

"She killed all those porters," he said hollowly. "She killed too. What happened next?"

Twilight swallowed hard, searching his face with worry in her deep purple eyes, and then turned back to the journal. " 'Neighvember twenty-third'," she read, her voice limping through the words. " 'Found dragoness' clutch. Three eggs. Down seven porters thanks to the dratted beast- can't carry all of the damn' things back. Got one trophy, anyway – purple spotted affair, a real beauty. Others will die without their dam's fire to warm them. Bloody waste. Head Porter Zephara angry about the whole bally business – nasty row after dinner'..." Twilight faltered, and stopped. There was a long, painful silence.

It was something he'd always wondered about, if only a little. He'd never known if he truly wanted the answer. Still, he'd always thought he'd feel something if it one day presented itself. He was sure he was supposed to feel more than just... empty. It was like he was encased in ice.

"So that's how I came to Equestria..." he said, still in that horrible dead voice that didn't seem to come from inside his body. "A dragon-slayer killed my mother and stole my egg, and left my other siblings to die..."

"Spike..." Twilight said wretchedly.

He jerked his head up, trying to come to terms with the hugeness of that – the awfulness. His throat felt like it was studded with thorns. "Well, I was right about one thing," he muttered.

Twilight put a hoof on his paw, and he resisted the urge to jerk it away. "What?" she asked softly.

"I didn't want to know," he said, and closed his eyes as tightly as he could.

"Spike, I'm so sorry," Twilight said helplessly. He nodded his head, and took in a giant shuddering breath.

"It's all done with," he said in a toneless voice. Then he snorted. "It was done with a hundred and twenty years ago."

"Does this..."

He finally glanced down. She was gazing up at him, her lip trembling and her pupils huge in sympathy and worry. The sight of her almost cracked that icy shell that had formed about him.

"Does this..." Twilight repeated again, her ears drooping, "...change anything?"

He stared down at her, unseeing, for a long moment.

Then the previous day washed over him in a flood of warmth, and the ice melted. "No," he said. "No, it doesn't change a thing. So what if I don't have another family out there? That's... that's okay. You're my family anyway. You and the pony gang."

She gave him a tremulous smile. "Are you going to be all right?"

He considered that, and then his eyelids pressed closed once more. "Yeah, I'll be fine. Not yet, but I'll be fine."

Her hoof rubbed the back of his claw in slow, tender circles. "I'm here," she said.

To his relief, he didn't want to pull away any more, and when he spoke he sounded like himself again. "I know," he replied. "Is that letter still there?"

She glanced over at it. "Had you finished? I mean, even if you hadn't, did you want to?"

"Not really," he said reluctantly.

"Maybe I can?"

"Be my guest," he snorted, and lowered himself down to rest his head on his forepaws. She levitated the letter over, even as she stroked his fins comfortingly.

"Let's see..." she said, looking at the letter with an expression mixed of anger, distaste and sadness. "We were around here, no, you read that part... here we are... oh, he writes that the records regarding Huffy are far more detailed. Her dam was the dragon of the Cindery Catacombs, and her sire was the dragon of Tanglevine Forest. Hers was one of four eggs in a clutch. Their dam abandoned them after her mate left her to return to his territory."

"Whoa," Spike said, taken aback. "Do dragonesses often abandon a clutch?"

"Quite often," Twilight sighed. "Once the eggs are laid, the male starts to feel the pull back to his own territory. For the female, this is bad news. Given how possessive they are, it can be a toss-up between trying to keep their mate, or keeping their eggs. If the mate wins the toss, the dragoness will chase him and her eggs will die without her fire to keep them warm."

Spike frowned. "Sounds awful."

"Evolutionally it's not all that great either," Twilight added, her critical scholar's expression in place.

"Well, now I know why the world isn't overrun by dragons," Spike said tartly.

She leaned her head against him. "Spike, seriously," she said, "are you going to be all right? That was quite a shocking piece of news..."

He dropped his gaze. "I just... look, I'll think about it. But I meant it, what I said before... Nothing's changed."

Her madly tangled mane swung as she shook her head. "Something's changed, Spike. You know now that your mother was the dragoness of Smolderberg Mountain, and that she was purple and pink. You know you were laid a hundred and twenty years ago, and that she died the same year. You know you had two siblings. You know that when Living Stone died your egg was donated to the School by his estate's executors, and it stayed there in the trophy room until my exam."

He stared at the yellow journal with anger and bitterness flickering in his heart. "I suppose."

"And there's another thing too," Twilight added in a softer voice, "You know you were wanted very much."

He frowned. "I do?"

She smiled faintly. "Only one dragon defended that nest. There's no mention of a mate in Living Stone's journal. That means your Sire had already left for his home. But your mother was still there with your egg, wasn't she?"

Spike raised his head a little, his eyes lighting up. "Oh... oh yeah... She mustn't have followed him. So the eggs were more important!"

"Important even in the egg." She nudged the side of his face.

"Well, I don't like to brag," he said with a fair attempt at his usual faux-modest, humorous tone. The strain in his face and voice must have been apparent, because Twilight's expression told him he wasn't fooling anypony. Still, she decided to let it slide, and looked back at the rest of the letters.

"Have you looked at those yet?"

"After that first one, I'm a little leery," Spike said wryly. She laughed shortly in agreement.

"I can understand that," she agreed. "Let's get it over with."

Most of the letters were horrible, and it took all of Spike's willpower not to go spiralling back down into the dumps again. "YOU SHOULD HAVE BEEN SCRAMBLED!" one blared in scratchy hoofwriting.

"HOW DARE YOU LIVE NEAR OUR FOALS AND BRING SUCH DANGERS TO OUR HOMES!" another shrieked.

"i hopes that you get ded in the chalenge dragns not belong with pony's you shuld die or fly away to wear dragns live an not be with pony's n.e. more," read Spike's particular favourite.

"You are pathetic, a dragon wanting to be a pony," sneered yet another.

"IF THAT DRAGON DOES NOT KILL YOU I WILL DO IT MYSELF YOU ABERRATION," was the worst, the words pasted together with letters cut from magazines and newspapers. They glared at him ominously.

He was ready to immolate the lot in disgust and fury without opening the last few, when Twilight handed him another with a small smile on her face. "Read that," she said.

He gave her a suspicious look, and bent to read it.

"You are a true inspiration, and if I could meet you, Spike, I would shake your claw."

He looked up, face clearing. "That's a nice change of pace."

"Here's another." Twilight passed another letter over to him, and his jaw dropped slackly as he read,

"I think yore amazing, Mr Spike, and so does my mum and dad. We think yore really brave, and I think yore really cool, and I want to be a dragin when I grow up."

Twilight passed him the last letter silently. He took it in equal silence, and read:

"Don't give up, Spike, our little friend (who is not so little anymore). We are rooting for you. Signed, the Canterlot Palace Guards."

Twilight looked down at the envelope for a moment, before looking back up at him. "Good morning to you too, Spike," she said, and gave him a crooked smile.

He smiled back ironically. "Are all our mornings going to be like this now?"

~**~

"Oooof!"

All the air was expressed out of him as he shunted the basalt block from his back with a now-practised heave. It thudded on top of its fellows. He nudged it into position with his nose, and then stepped back to view the neat row proudly. A huge square of grey stones, two blocks high, now nestled in the foundation trenches he'd dug. A gap in the square indicated where the door was going to be.

"Rarity on standby!" Pinkie Pie barked, her hard-hat in place.

Rarity looked up from filing her hooves. "Hmm?"

"Spike's got to fire that block," Apple Bloom said, frowning as she studied the plans. "Pinkie, can you look at this for a moment?"

"Oh, of course, of course, safety, indeed." Rarity's hoof-file flew into her saddlebag with a flash of her horn, and she stood to look expectantly over at Spike. "Ready!"

Spike gave her an adoring smile. "I'm always ready for you, my lady," he said dreamily.

Her lips twitched, and he abruptly realised he'd spoken aloud. He hid his burning face as Pinkie turned back to him. "Spike," she said impressively. "You may fire that block!"

Spike began to draw in his breath, even as Pinkie, Rarity, Apple Bloom and Big Macintosh lowered safety goggles in front of their eyes. When he was tremblingly full of air, he blasted the cube with that furious, invisible fire for as long as he was able. It began to glow dully where the flame touched it.

"Keep going!"

Spike dragged in another breath and fired at the stone's other facets. After the flame had passed, the basalt had become black and charred, almost shiny-looking. When the whole cube had been treated, he let the fire stutter to a halt. It flickered into wavering green before petering out, and he swallowed against his dry throat.

"And that's the foundations finished!" Pinkie Pie crowed, her hooves up in the air. "Well done everypony! I say this calls for a party!"

"Sure does!" agreed Apple Bloom.

"Uh, I have a flying lesson this afternoon," Spike said.

Pinkie seemed to deflate on the spot, before rapidly inflating. "Okie dokie lokie! We'll have it tomorrow! How does Sunnybank Park sound to everypony? I'm bringing cake!"

Spike looked around at Big Macintosh, Apple Bloom, Pinkie and Rarity. "Sounds good to me." He shrugged. The others made similar noises of agreement.

"Oh, that's so exciting!" Pinkie squealed. "I can't wait to get started on the food and the decorations and the balloons and the streamers and the pranks and the punch and the games and the music! Oh, I've just GOT to run home and tell Gummy right now!"

She began to rush off, before seemingly stopping in mid-air. "Hang on, we need more ponies for a proper Pinkie-Pie party!" she exclaimed, curls snapping back from the interrupted velocity.

"Well, darling, why not simply invite more ponies?" Rarity said, rolling her eyes.

"Oh my goodness that is such a superly amazingly awesomely good idea!" Pinkie said, blue eyes huge with excitement. "I'll invite Twilight and Applejack and Fluttershy and Rainbow Dash and Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo and oh hi, Zecora! Wanna come to a party?"

Spike's head whipped around to see the zebra shaman smiling at them all, her saddle-baskets overflowing with strange-looking plants. "Hello there, Pinkie Pie, my dear," she said in her warm, smooth voice. "And what is it that brings you here?"

"We're helping Spike build his house!" Pinkie said brightly. "I'm forepony, and Big Macintosh is second in charge today, and Apple Bloom is on technical and Rarity is on safety 'cos you need a unicorn on safety, and Spike is doing the building!"

"I'm the grunt," Spike said dryly.

"Oh, now I see the size of it," Zecora said, eyebrows rising as she took in the huge low basalt square. "A house where a dragon can fit."

"That's the idea!" Pinkie beamed. "Anyway, we just finished the foundations, and I said this calls for a party! And Apple Bloom agreed with me, which I thought was just so fantastically terrific that I started making up plans right there for a party in Sunnybank Park, and then Spike said he had a flying lesson this afternoon and I said how about tomorrow and everypony can come tomorrow and I sure hope you can too!"

"You collectin' herbs again, Zecora?" Apple Bloom asked as Pinkie tried to catch her breath.

"Young Apple Bloom, you are correct, these herbs and berries I collect." Zecora nodded.

"Why don't she ever just say 'eeyup'?" Big Macintosh whispered to Spike. He shrugged.

"So will you come, huh, huh, huh?" Pinkie leaned to the very tips of her front hooves, her face inches from Zecora's.

"I'm sure I'll have a lot of fun, so I will very gladly come," Zecora told Pinkie, smiling. The party pony gave a great gasp of joy, before she zipped away in a streak of pink lightning. Her pink hard-hat rattled to the ground seconds later.

Zecora turned puzzled eyes on them. "That response seems oh so strong! I hope I have done nothing wrong?"

"She's just being Pinkie Pie," Spike said with amused resignation.

"She's always like that, dear," Rarity said with a lovely smile. Spike stifled a longing sigh. "Oh, Zecora, I've been meaning to ask you something for ever such a long time! Do tell me, have you ever thought of growing your mane long? I have this new hat design, I can't pull it off, but darling, it would be simply to die for on you..."

Zecora's eyes twinkled. "You are too kind, sweet Rarity, but my mane is long as it can be."

"Oh," Rarity pouted. "And I was so hoping to try it out on you."

"Does it require a longer mane? With short, will it not work the same?"

Rarity pursed her lips. "Maaaaaybe..."

"Do you still have that Nightmare Night wig?" asked Apple Bloom.

Zecora rubbed her chin with a hoof. "I think that I can dig it out," she said doubtfully, "it's somewhere in my house, no doubt."

"Oh, could you, could you please?" Rarity batted her eyelashes pleadingly. "And would you consider posing in my hat for the brochure for the upcoming summer collection?"

"With such a flattering request, my answer can be only yes." Zecora smiled.

"Yes!" Rarity crowed, before toning it down to 'ladylike' levels again. "Ahem. Oh, thank you, thank you so much, Zecora! Oh, it is going to be marvellous..." Rarity continued to speak excitedly to herself, lost in her own world as she began to trot briskly back to the village. "... so thrilling, and those stripes... oh, I-DEA! I absolutely must try a striped gown, so perfect for summer..."

She seemed to realise that she was leaving them behind, and turned back to call, "I'll see you all tomorrow then!"

"Creative frenzy," Spike explained as Rarity hurried off.

"She gets them a lot, Sweetie says." Apple Bloom nodded sagely.

"Um, Zecora?" Spike said then, a little shyly. She held up a hoof to stop him.

"I know what you are going to say," she said gently. "No doubt you'll say it anyway. But let me first say this, my friend: I will support you to the end."

Spike blinked. "But... why? I mean, you don't know me all that well, no offense, Zecora... and yet you were there in the square the other day, supporting me... and yeah, I was going to say thank you so much for that... but..."

She tipped her regal head, golden neck-bands clinking. "I think you are forgetting that... I once was shunned and whispered at. I too have had my share of stares, and rumours foul were once my cares. I know what it is like to be a dreaded curiosity."

Spike ducked his chin. "Oh," he said, subdued. "I remember."

Zecora eyed him shrewdly. "I am amazed you recall that," she said. "You were an infant, small and fat."

"Hey!" he said indignantly.

Apple Bloom hid a snicker, and Macintosh emitted a very, very quiet 'eeyup.'

"I think she's tryin' t' say that ya look a whole heap different now," Apple Bloom said, a grin tugging the corner of her mouth.

Spike sat down petulantly. "Wasn't that fat," he grumbled.

"Y' weren't skinny," Macintosh said.

"Well, how skinny were you as a baby?" Spike challenged.

"He was a great big apple puddin' of a foal, if Granny's pictures are t' be believed," Apple Bloom said wickedly. Her brother gave her a very warning look.

"One more word outta you, Bloom, an' I bring out your foal pictures next time we got company. Even the one in the barn on th' haybales."

Spike's eyes widened and Zecora leaned closer as Apple Bloom flushed the colour of a nectarine. "Oooh. This sounds good," Spike said with relish.

"Oh, don't hold back on our account, this tale you surely must recount!" Zecora grinned at her young friend.

Apple Bloom cleared her throat. "I mean, I think Zecora's tryin' to say that yer lookin' pretty fit an' sharp these days, Spike," she said diplomatically.

Spike glanced down, before dismissing himself. "I got big. It happens."

"Yeah, but you got skinny first cos y' grew too fast," Macintosh remembered. "I remember thinkin' how could somepony so danged big an' strong be so scrawny, back when y' first came outta that there library. Y' had that stretched sort o' look some of our fillies an' colts get when they hit a growth spurt. Y' takin' on more muscle now."

Spike looked back down at himself. Maybe his chest did look deeper? "I am?"

Macintosh nodded leisurely, chewing his hay-stalk. "Yer a whole heap stronger than y' were when you had that first lesson," he said in his deep, easy drawl. "But y' control it better now that y've done a bit o' work on it."

Surprised and pleased, Spike smiled at the farmpony. "Wow, thanks, Macintosh!"

"Don't you go thinkin' that means y' can relax, now," Macintosh warned him.

"No, sir!" Spike saluted sharply, still smiling.

"Come on, Bloom, gotta get back t' the farm," Macintosh nudged her. "Gotta get started on them pies fer Rainbow Dash's friend."

Apple Bloom rolled her eyes. "I ain't ever seen a pony who likes pie so much."

"He's no slouch at the dinner table," agreed Macintosh. "Be seein' yer later, Spike, Miz Zecora."

"See you!" Spike said as they turned back towards the town.

"I hope to see you very soon, Big Macintosh and Apple Bloom!" Zecora said.

Spike turned back to his house, studying the foundations with pride. "It looks good, doesn't it?" he said happily. "I did those blocks myself, you know."

"You should be very pleased indeed." Zecora nodded as she looked over his hard work. "It looks to be all you will need."

"Well, it will once we've got a bit further than the foundations," Spike allowed. Then he grimaced. "And put a roof on it, and a door, and some walls might come in handy at some point..."

"There is a great deal left to do," agreed the zebra, "but your good friends are helping you."

"I'd be a mess without them," he sighed. "It's all gotten a bit crazy lately. Lessons and protests and dragon stuff and interviews and fan mail and hate mail and all... They're sort of holding me together right now."

"I cannot say I understand," she said, and touched his forepaw with a kind hoof. "I am not a dragon in pony land. But I do surely sympathise, and I do think your friends are wise."

"Yeah," said Spike heavily. "They're amazing. They're all behind me one hundred percent; they've been just so supportive. Especially Twilight – I think I'd be in pieces if it wasn't for her. Like this morning..."

He paused. His mother, his egg, Doctor Stone. He threw the thought away violently. He didn't want to think about it.

"You must be strong, my young dragon," Zecora said, eyes serious, "This thorny path you walk upon is not a road for the faint-hearted. But you must finish what you've started."

"I know." Spike looked back at the foundations of his house, and steeled himself. "I mean to."

She gave him a compassionate look. "Ah, you are still so very young, with such challenges yet to come..."

He winced. "You heard about that, I see."

She nodded. "That dragon lives not far from me, and all his movements do I see. He often leaves his smoky cave, and watches as your way you pave."

Spike scowled. "Great, Razorfang is spying on me. That's just great. Now I can add a dragon to my stalker list, along with fanfillies, reporters, photographers and anti-dragon nutcases."

"I think he only wants to see. Perhaps you are a novelty?"

"Oh, goody." Spike closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his snout between two claws. Then his eyes flew open as a wild idea occurred to him. "Zecora! Oh, horseapples, why didn't I think of this before! Zecora, could you please brew up something for me? Something to make me bigger or stronger – or fireproof even! Please?"

She shook her head reluctantly, and the wild hope died in his chest as she said, "No medicine or healing brew can have any effect on you. Your constitution's far too tough; A dragon's made of sterner stuff."

He wilted. "Well, it was worth a shot," he mumbled in disappointment.

"I only wish I could do more," Zecora said apologetically, "There is so much for you in store..."

"Tell me about it," he griped to himself.

"You have your friends to set you right," she said. "And they will see you through this fight."

"My friends," he mumbled, and then straightened his shoulders. "Yeah. My friends. You know, I've got another flying lesson with Rainbow Dash this afternoon. She just won't give up. Big Macintosh has been helping me control my strength... I didn't really know him before, and he's a real good friend now. Fluttershy and Applejack helped me with my fire, and it's so much better, Zecora, nopony'd believe it! Pinkie and Twilight and Rarity designed my house – Rarity made me a scarf, and Pinkie's got so many awesome ideas, and Twilight..." He stopped, his heart clenching, and then continued in a slower voice. "They're all helping me with my house, too... it's amazing. No dragon ever had better friends. I'm really lucky, even if everything is messy and complicated and occasionally completely and totally awful..."

Zecora regarded him for a long moment, her expression unfathomable. Then she spoke, and her voice was distant and far away. It almost sounded like she was chanting.

"There is a saying from my home. It matters not how far I roam; I see the proof of it each day, in every small, essential way. Young dragon, how it so fits you, and all the trials you now go through," and then she leaned forward, her dark eyes boring into him. "No matter how different, strange or wild... it takes a village to raise a child."

Spike stared at her, flummoxed by her sudden change of demeanour. "Z-Zecora?"

She gave him a small smile. "I too will be there for you, and I will help you see it through."

He wasn't able to muster any words, but stared blankly down at the zebra.

She turned and began to make her way through the field to the Everfree Forest path. "I will be seeing you again," she said serenely, "at Pinkie's party in the glen."

"Uh, it's at Sunnybank Park," Spike said, still rather flummoxed.

Zecora threw an arch look back over her shoulder. "That doesn't rhyme."

~**~

"SWING A LITTLE TO THE LEFT!" Applejack hollered from the ground.

"EASY FOR YOU TO SAY!" Rainbow Dash yelled back, the rope around her waist zipping and snapping in the strong wind.

"My mama didn't bring me up to be a tugboat," Spitfire groused.

Spike was frozen stiff in terror, his wings locked and outstretched. Attached to him by guide-ropes around his chest were Fluttershy, Rainbow Dash, Scootaloo, Spitfire and Soarin'. The pegasi were dragging him through the air like some sort of giant scaled carriage.

"Like takin' a balloon for a walk, she says," grunted Scootaloo, flapping valiantly to try and steer his unwieldy frame. Below them, Applejack and Winona ran frantically, calling instructions to his 'handlers'. "Yeah, right! A balloon that weighs a tonne!"

"I'm pretty sure I weigh more than that," Spike said through gritted fangs.

"Now he tells us," Soarin' sniped. "Whose crazy idea was this?"

"Who you callin' crazy?" Dash snapped at her teammate, and he rolled his eyes before pulling against his rope once more.

"I'd really appreciate it if we could get down soon," Spike said in a strangled voice.

"No way, Jose," Dash gritted, straining on her rope. "You are gonna... fly... today!"

"Oh look at that, I'm flying, now can I PLEASE get down?" Spike garbled.

"You're gliding," Spitfire corrected him shortly, sweat running down her golden face as she towed him. "WE'RE the ones doing all the heavy wing-work!"

"There had better be pie after this," Soarin' muttered. "I'm only in this for the pie."

"Oh, ponyfeathers!" swore Dash as Spike's wing banked a little against the wind once more, and he began to veer to the right again. "Fluttershy, can you give me a hoof here?"

Fluttershy flew as hard as she could to the left to bring him back to straight. "Oh my goodness, oh my goodness, oh my goodness..." she puffed.

"OKAY, HE'S STRAIGHT AGAIN!" Applejack yelled from far below. Winona barked enthusiastically.

"Guys, I don't like this..." Spike moaned. The ground was quite a long way away, and he felt powerless and vulnerable being dragged along like a massive kite.

"Tough!" Dash puffed.

"Holy horsefeathers, he's got a lot of side," wheezed Spitfire.

"What does that mean?" Spike asked. His whole body was rigid with fear and trepidation.

"Means you move a lot of air," Scootaloo said, her mane plastered to her forehead with sweat. "Your wings displace a massive amount compared to ours. That's why it's so scootin' hard to keep you straight in a crosswind like this."

"Then maybe we should fly into it?" Spike said in a strained voice. His wings were burning in their outstretched position, but he didn't dare move a single muscle.

"And turn you into Equestria's biggest parachute?" Spitfire asked sarcastically. "Don't you know anything about wind-resistance?"

"Leave off, Ess-eff," Rainbow Dash growled.

"Sorry, Dash," Spike whispered hoarsely.

"Next time, remember what I tell you, huh?" she hissed back. "Especially in front of my captain...!"

He cringed internally.

"Well, it's a bit weird," huffed Soarin', "A dragon who won't fly..."

"It's not won't," Rainbow Dash said, flapping violently.

"It's can't," Fluttershy said, her face apologetic.

"I just can't get the hang of it," Spike said. "Sorry, but I guess that makes me a bit weird."

"You've got glidin' down pat," Scootaloo said encouragingly, hauling on her rope.

"Yay," Fluttershy cheered - as much as she could.

"Yeah, yay," Spike said with tight irony. "Gliding, wow."

"It's... an improvement... on swimming," Dash managed pointedly.

He had to give her that one.

"Let's try something, Spike," Rainbow Dash said then. "Can you feel that crosswind?"

Spike could definitely feel the leading edge of pressure against the front ridges of his right wing. "Yeah?"

"Next time you feel that wing wantin' to bank against the air, do it," she puffed.

"I don't know if that's such a great idea, Rainbow," Spike said in a strangled tone.

"Gotta try sometime," she said.

"You're all attached to me," Spike said, his voice quite a lot higher than normal. "If I lose it, we all go down!"

"You're not gonna lose it by banking on a crosswind," Dash snapped.

"But..."

"Do it!"

Spike stifled a whimper and leaned into the wind carefully.

"Turning right, everypony!" Rainbow Dash hollered, as he began to veer around in a broad circle.

"Ohmygoooooosh," Spike moaned as the ground span strangely below him.

"Whoa, relax, Spike!" Scootaloo said, taken aback.

"You wouldn't say that if you'd hit the ground as many times as I have!" Spike hollered back over the ripping sound of his wings tearing through the air.

"You're doing it, Spike!" Fluttershy said. "That was a perfect turn!"

"You can straighten up now," Spitfire said, unimpressed. Spike was certainly grateful that Dash had brought in her Wonderbolt teammates to help him, but boy were they making him feel hopelessly inept. Which he supposed he was, but it wasn't nice to point it out like that.

Then again, he'd once stuffed them inside a water-tower, so perhaps they were just getting a bit of their own back.

He shifted his weight between his wings until he was flying level again, and Dash nodded to him, her face shiny with sweat. "Think you can remember that when you go broadside again?" she puffed.

He nodded meekly.

"You're doing very well," Fluttershy managed between wingbeats. "It took me far longer to learn, you know..."

"I feel – I feel ridiculous," he replied, changing his word choice at the last minute. He didn't want to admit to how helpless and defenceless he felt in front of Spitfire and Soarin'. The wind tried to turn him, but he mimicked his earlier motions and remained straight.

"Now you've got it!" Scootaloo said triumphantly. "Now you..."

A sudden updraft sent him shooting higher and higher into the air, and his wings locked in terror. For a moment all five ponies were dangling breathlessly at the ends of their ropes. Then Rainbow Dash reacted faster than thought, followed by the other two Wonderbolts a second later. They started to try and haul him across the updraft. Scootaloo shook her head to clear it, before joining in. Fluttershy seemed to have been dazed by the sudden jerk upwards, and she swung at the end of her rope like a pendulum.

"It's no good!" Soarin' roared over the tearing wind. "He's got too much air! We can't get him off the updraft!"

"PULL!" Dash howled. The four ponies pulled with all their might. Spike eyed the ground that was still slipping further and further away with horrified dismay.

"It's not working!" hollered Scootaloo.

"Come... ON," Rainbow Dash bit, her wings a blue blur.

Spike's pupils were pinpricks of fear as he watched the little shapes of Applejack and Winona growing smaller and smaller. The howl of the wind steadily rose in pitch and volume as they continued to rise... and rise... and rise...

"This column's got to taper eventually!" screamed Spitfire. "We'll pull him off the top of it!"

"I'm gonna be a crater!" Spike choked to himself.

Then out of the corner of his wide-blown eyes, he glimpsed a yellow and pink blur begin to turn and roll. Fluttershy, still barely conscious, was being spun out of her rope. The knots must have loosened when she was jerked to the end of it by their sudden ascent.

"Rainbow Dash!" he howled.

She couldn't hear him over the scream of the wind, her whole body straining, all her attention on getting him off the updraft. He looked over in a panic to Scootaloo and Soarin', who were in a similar state. Spitfire looked like she was snarling, her strain was so apparent.

He desperately turned from one to the next, yelling their names. It was no good – they were all yelling at each other, but nopony could hear anymore. With a cold, sick shock Spike realised that he was the only one who had noticed Fluttershy's situation.

With an almost balletic grace she slid out of the rope entirely, her mane and tail trailing gracefully as she began to free-fall through the air. Spike's vision seemed to tunnel in on her – her unfocused aqua eyes, her feebly twitching wings, her lolling neck.

A memory broke. "My pony," he had told her, and he'd stuck his tongue out. She'd giggled.

Flames filled his mind once more.

"Fluttershy!" he suddenly roared in a huge gush of smoke. Without even stopping to consider how, he swept his wings once and ducked his head under the hooves of the ponies still valiantly trying to drag him from the updraft. Four very, very startled pegasi clattered against his back, their forelegs clamping to his shoulders and spines, holding on reflexively.

"Sp...ike?" Dash gasped in his ear.

He growled fiercely, and his forelegs slammed down tight against his underside as he arched himself downwards. His wings flattened against his body, his snout and neck elongating slightly, as he sped straight as an arrow for Fluttershy's tumbling form.

"Look, it's Fluttershy!" shrieked Scootaloo.

"We've gotta save her!" gasped Spitfire.

"We're still tied to Spike!" screeched Dash.

"I'm gonna get her!" Spike roared.

"You're gonna kill us!" Spitfire howled.

"I only wanted some pie!"

Spike ignored them all, eyes fixed on Fluttershy. His vision had seemingly sharpened under pressure, and he could see every feather in her wings, every strand of her mane.

"She's gettin' closer!" Dash gasped.

"So's the ground!" Spitfire yelled angrily.

Spike opened his wings as he drew level with Fluttershy's tumbling form, and the updraft caught him immediately, throwing him skywards once more. He growled as Fluttershy dropped away from him sharply and plunged headlong after her into another vertical dive, wings snapping against his sides. His whole body plummeted like a missile after his friend.

"Listen to me!" Dash grabbed the fins at his jaw and yelled directly into his ear. "You're going to have to dive across the draft! Aim right at Fluttershy, and catch her in your claws!"

He shook his head in horror. He'd hurt her for sure, what with the fantastic agitation thrumming through his body and his whole mind in flames.

"You telling me that you can pick up an egg in those claws, but you can't save Fluttershy?" Dash screamed at him.
Spike's eyes narrowed.

Arching himself once more, he swooped neatly into the updraft in a smooth arc and grabbed Fluttershy with one foreclaw. It was as fast and simple as a swallow plucking an insect from the air.

Everypony gaped silently as he sped on through the updraft, wings still pressed to his sides, cutting through the air as true as a thrown spear. It had all happened so fast. Spike began to emerge from his furious fog, and the fear started creeping back into the corners of his mind. What in Celestia's name did he think he was doing?

A few dragon-lengths later the air pressure dropped dramatically.

Unfortunately, so did they.

"Okay, you're past it, you're past it, open your wings and flap!" gabbled Spitfire.

"Updraft's gone!" Soarin' blubbed. "We're a pancake!"

"Spike, spread 'em!" Dash hollered.

He wrenched his wings open again. Something deep inside him urged him to beat them twice, and so he did. His chest rhythmically moved in the reverse direction.

"Oh. My. Gosh," Dash breathed.

He beat his wings again, even as his neck extended to its full length once more, and three of his limbs flattened against his body tightly, the other cradling Fluttershy close to his chest.

"Uh..." said Soarin' in the sudden, shockingly peaceful silence. "What was that?"

"Spike... Spike, you're flying," said Scootaloo in a strangled voice.

"Don't make me think about it, or I'm gonna lose it!" he said, just as strained. He brought the claw that was holding Fluttershy's limp form before his eyes – fearing that he was going to see blood.

To his dumbfounded joy, she was whole. Even better, she was stirring. She regarded him blurrily.

"You're not a butterfly," she mumbled, eyes puzzled.

He could feel a foolish, elated smile beginning to crease his face. "Nope," he agreed goofily. "But I can fly... Fluttershy, I can fly!"

She blinked, smiling back vaguely. "Silly little friend, of course dragons can fly," she said.

Spike held her against him, his heart racing at the thought of losing her like that. He beat his wings again without thinking, and the extra momentum carried them across a downdraft without a bump. Part of his mind was now gibbering madly in fright, but most of it was strangely numb after the heart-stopping panic and red-tinted rage of the previous five minutes.

"She's okay?" Spitfire asked, an apology in her tone. Spike beat his wings and nodded. It made his whole body swim strangely through the air.

"Oh, don't, I'll be airsick," Soarin' said in a green voice.

"You. Get airsick," Scootaloo said, flatly disbelieving.

"There's a difference between being pilot and passenger," he said defensively.

Rainbow Dash leaned down to his ear once more. "That," she said quietly, "was truly awesome. And for the record? Knew you could do it."

"I don't know how I'm doing it," he answered, flustered and elated and numb all at once.

"I wouldn't look a gift horse in the mouth, if I were you," she snorted, before rubbing his head with rough affection.

"One question..."

"Yeah?"

"How do I land?"

~**~

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