The sun rose appallingly early on Sunday morning, flooding Ponyville with thin golden light. Spike groaned and folded a forepaw over his eyes. Sleeping in the square was convenient (and certainly kinder on his back) but the wake-up calls were somewhat earlier than he liked.
"See, he's awake," he heard somepony whisper.
"No, he's just shifting," whispered somepony else.
"Nah, he's awake, he made a noise."
"So? Heaps of ponies make noise when they're asleep. Sleepovers at Apple Bloom's ring any bells?"
"There's a difference between the sound of Big Macintosh snoring and waking up," hissed the first voice.
"Yeah, and you can hear 'em both from the other side of the farmhouse."
"You're lucky Apple Bloom isn't here to hear this."
"Think he'd mind if I put my hooves over his nose? It's cold first thing in the morning."
"Well, if he is awake, you can ask him."
"If he's awake, then you don't have to whisper, dummy," snorted the second voice. There came the sound of a short scuffle as the two combatants tussled, before a muffled 'ow' proclaimed victory for the first voice.
Spike had half-listened to this with the detached befuddlement that goes claw-in-claw with being woken far earlier than usual. He finally cracked his eye open to see a blurred orange face peering back at him much too close for comfort. "Auugh!" he blurted, his neck reflexively snaking his head away from the distorted orange apparition.
"It's just Scootaloo, Spike." Sweetie Belle moved into his sleep-blurred field of vision, her eyes dancing in amusement. Scootaloo had also jerked back in surprise at his sudden movement. To cover her momentary lapse of cool she scowled balefully at her friend.
"I didn't think he'd wake up just then," she defended herself, flipping her wings tightly against her back. Rainbow Dash's old goggles glinted in the sunrise from within her short-cropped purple mane. "He slept through everything else!"
"Everything... else?" That didn't sound good.
Scootaloo gave him a look that seriously queried where his head was at. "It's Sunday."
"And?" He stretched his back a little, hearing the bones in his spine clack and crack. "So?"
Sweetie Belle giggled. "Look around, Spike."
He did, and then felt rather foolish. "Oh yeah," he said, embarrassed.
There were gaily-coloured stalls setting up all through the square, banners, flags and signs gently waving in the crisp early morning air. It was a long-standing tradition that upon Sunday morning a market opened in the main square of Ponyville, weather permitting. Everypony in the vicinity of Ponyville came to hawk their wares. Wagon-back sales, home-grown flowers, herbs and vegetables, fancy craftwork, it all came to the Sunday Markets. The absence of Apple Bloom from the usual trio was abruptly obvious. She would be flitting between her family's apple stall and her own little nascent woodcraft and artwork stall. Spike himself had even gathered the weekly groceries at the market before becoming too ashamed to step beyond the library doors. It was still so early that hardly any Ponyville ponies were out and about and only the out-of-towners were visible, busily bustling to get their stalls ready for the crowds. The riot of colourful marquees glowing under the gleaming disk of Celestia's morning sun made his sleepy eyes blink. Although all seemed as it usually did on market morning something about it was slightly off, but he couldn't quite put his claw on it.
"You slept through all the carts arriving, all the stalls setting up..." Scootaloo listed.
"Right, right." He yawned. Then he stood himself up on all fours and stretched like a cat. "Urgh, it is way too early," he muttered, rubbing at his eyes with one paw. He flopped back down onto his haunches and glared down at the two adolescent fillies petulantly. "Why'd you have to wake me up anyhow?"
"Sorry," said Scootaloo sheepishly.
"Didn't mean to," Sweetie Belle said, shrugging. She then bit her lip and eyed the nearer stalls apprehensively. "We were trying to... y'know..."
It then occurred to Spike what was different about these Sunday Markets compared to the ones he had attended as a baby. These were quiet.
"Why isn't anypony yelling what they've got to sell?" he asked. "I know it's early, but that's never stopped them before."
"Well," Sweetie Belle said reluctantly, "we've kind of gotten used to seeing you sleeping in the square over the last few days, you know...it was a bit of a shock at first to see how much you've grown, but you're our friend and we've known you since you were a baby. But..." she trailed off.
"There are a whole bunch of folks who only come to Ponyville to sell at the markets, and they don't know you at all," Scootaloo said. "They're a bit intimidated. We thought we'd come get close to you to show them there was nothing to be afraid of - Oh, and to say hi!" she added brightly.
Spike sagged. "Oh."
"So... hi?" Sweetie Belle ventured.
He sighed. "Oh, everypony knows that dragons are nasty and scary, so you'd better be scared of the nasty ole dragon," he muttered to himself with heavy sarcasm. The two fillies were peering up at him worriedly. He cleared his throat and shook off the self-pity that threatened to rise. "Sorry," he said.
Scootaloo shared a look with Sweetie Belle. "We're not scared of you," she said, tipping her head back.
Spike raised an eyebrow. "I heard. Cold hooves."
She blushed, and Sweetie Belle snickered.
He got himself comfortable on his belly, and crossed his forepaws before him. "All right, stick 'em over here."
She stared at him incredulously. "You're serious?"
He shrugged, and laid his head over his feet with another sigh. "You gotta be up at this crazy hour, you might as well be warm," he said. "I don't have to be anywhere for a few hours yet. Somepony woke me up early," he added with a little scowl.
He was abruptly crowded by the sight of four little hooves swaying through the thin curling drifts of smoke from his muzzle. They were a moving blur of white and orange, and he blinked a few times as his eyes automatically tried to focus on them.
"You went cross-eyed!" guffawed Sweetie Belle whilst Scootaloo groaned dramatically in relief at the warmth.
"Ohhhhhh, that's sooooooo much better," she moaned, her wings also beginning to comb through the smoke. "I thought they were gonna snap off!"
"Your friendly ambulatory furnace at your service," Spike quipped, and the two fillies snorted in unison.
"More furnacing please," Sweetie Belle said appreciatively.
"It's really not too hot?" he asked, a little nervously.
"It's perrrrrfect," said Scootaloo, gyrating in order to stick three hooves and both wings into the smoke. "Gnnngh," she managed blissfully, teetering precariously on one hoof.
Spike hoped she didn't end up losing her balance. Deciding to ignore Scootaloo's increasingly bizarre contortions, he addressed Sweetie Belle. "So are you still taking lessons from Madame Mezzo Forte? Twilight told me she'd agreed to teach you."
"That's a bit out of date," she laughed, waving her white hooves to make his smoke eddy and billow. "I still see Madame for a technique lesson every now and then, but she passed me on to a colleague of hers in Canterlot. She..." Sweetie Belle blushed in thrilled modesty, "she introduced me to Bel Canto. I mean, the Bel Canto! The most famous singer in Equestria! It's just so exciting and glamorous. I take the train to Canterlot every week now to have my lesson – oh and guess what! Miss Canto says I'm to sing in her next production! Eeeeee!" she squealed with barely-suppressed joy.
"Wow!" Spike said, despite knowing utterly nothing about this apparently famous pony.
"And, uh, how about you, Scoot? What have you been up to?" Spike asked, tilting his head so he could see the practically melting Pegasus properly – without removing the warmth that was apparently sending her into paroxysms of happiness.
"Flyin', skatin', scootin', you name it." She grinned in satisfaction, her eyes lazily lidded in the heat. "I'm gonna be the best extreme sportspony in Equestria. Don't forget, you knew me before I was huge."
"Before your head was, you mean," teased Sweetie Belle.
"Oh, you can talk, Leather Lungs," retorted Scootaloo amiably. "Anyway, the scooter routine's gotten the attention of the ponies that do the movin' and shakin' in these sorts of things. They love the Scootaloo Spacewalk – have you seen that one? I get the scoot really going, right, and then - Whhoooosh! Aaaaaand – powie! Round and round and round! Sends 'em wild. I've got a few moves that I'm keepin' in reserve, but I've gotta perfect 'em before..."
"Oh, Celestia above, what are you doing?"
The shriek came from a blowsy unicorn with pale greenish-blue fur and a peach-coloured mane, which was tied in a knot above her ears to keep it out of her way although wisps of it were making a bid for freedom. An apron adorned her and her face was almost comically distorted in fright. Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle shared a quick glance as Spike drew back, speechless.
"Well, we were talking with our friend, lady," Sweetie Belle said pointedly.
"And we were warm for the first time since waking up," sulked Scootaloo.
"You are in terrible, terrible danger!" the aproned unicorn said tremulously. "Quietly, now, just step away and maybe it won't notice you were ever there..."
"He can hear you," Sweetie Belle said. "I think he's noticed by now."
"Look, we appreciate the sentiment," Scootaloo said, "and seriously, I don't want to offend you or anything – but you're a bit of an idiot."
The aproned pony drew herself up. "I understand you're scared," she said in a shaking but measured voice, "but humouring it simply won't keep you safe dears... quickly now, run! I'll protect you!" She drew herself up and her horn began to glow fitfully.
"I should go," Spike muttered, and began to stand.
"Yes, fly, foul beast!" the unicorn declared hotly as murmuring began to rise from the stands behind her. "You shan't have them! Slink back to whatever pit you crawled out of!" A few other shouts joined hers, and Spike cringed.
"You stay right there, mister!" barked Sweetie Belle, before nodding to Scoot. The orange Pegasus with the racing-stripes cutie mark saluted her friend smartly, before wrapping all six limbs around Spike's foreleg.
"You're goin' nowhere," she said.
The aproned stallpony was now close to hyperventilating. "Fillies, get away from there!" she shrilled. Spike debated simply walking away with an orange pony clamped to one leg. "Don't you know that's a... a..." The word seemed to be too frightening for her to even think.
"Dragon," supplied a familiar voice helpfully. Murmurs rose from the unicorn's supporters as a yellow earth pony walked serenely towards them.
"Apple Bloom." Sweetie Belle exhaled with gratitude.
"What in the hay is goin' on here?" Apple Bloom asked, her eyes flicking between her friends and the newcomer.
"Our sartorially disastrous friend here," Sweetie Belle jerked her horn towards the quivering unicorn, "has an issue with Spike."
"Uh-huh." Apple Bloom considered that. She was taller than the other adolescent ponies, and constant physical labour had turned a once rounded and dainty little filly into wiry, indomitable steel. White and pink flowers cascaded down her flank symbolising both her name and her need to create. Her red mane was pulled away from her face with a pink band, which in deference to her foalhood had a small pink bow jauntily perched on one side. Despite her still-tender years she carried herself with an undeniable air of authority, and she had the Apple attitude in spades.
She glanced back to where the stallholders were all avidly pretending that they weren't eavesdropping furiously. "So Spike do anythin' to deserve this?"
"He was just talking to us!" Scootaloo protested.
"It was about to eat their feet!" screeched the unicorn. The murmurs of support from the ponies gathering behind her were rather more strident this time.
Apple Bloom's coppery eyes regarded them evenly. "Spike don't eat ponies," she said calmly.
The unicorn pulled at her wispy mane. "They named it, they named it," she gasped.
"He," snarled Scootaloo. "He's a he!"
"Guys, leave it," Spike said. "I'll just clear out to the farm or something on Market days..."
"And where does that end?" Apple Bloom tilted her head up at him. "Spike, think about it. Y'know, mah brother had a tale fer me the other day. Said you were worried about gettin' run out of town. Well, you better make your stand right here an' now, cos' this is where it starts if you let it."
Spike stared at her.
She smiled faintly. "Straight from Macintosh's mouth t' your ears."
He took a deep breath and released it slowly, trying to regain that sense of belonging he had felt when he realised that his friends accepted him just as he was and he didn't have to leave at all. In the face of this knee-jerk prejudice it was quite a task. He still wanted to simply leave the square and perhaps hide in the outskirts of the Everfree Forest - but he recognised that Apple Bloom (and thus Big Macintosh) was right. He couldn't allow himself to be chased away by hysterical strangers, not when the town itself was solidly behind him. He had to stand firm as a full citizen of Ponyville just like any other, otherwise his life here would only become a different kind of exile.
With that in mind, he turned large green eyes on the greenish-blue pony and her fellows who had so readily assumed the very worst simply because he was a dragon.
"Look, I know what I look like and what I am, but you don't have the whole picture, ma'am," he told her in a carefully uninflected voice. He didn't want to appear offensive or defensive – though the odds were admittedly stacked against him in that department. "I was hatched in Canterlot so I guess that's the pit I crawled out of. I moved here when I was a baby. Ponyville is home, and always will be. My sister lives here, my friends, everything I know and love. As to food, I eat gems, and vegetables, and apples, and gems, and bananas, and cakes, and gems. Not ponies. Sometimes rocks by accident if I think they're gems. I really like gems."
"A sister?" the unicorn gasped in horror. "Oh great galloping goddesses, there are two of them. Oh, this must be stopped, it must be stopped, won't somepony think of the foals! We have to drive the monsters from Equestria! It and its foul sister both!" A half-hearted chorus of cheers met this ringing announcement.
Spike hurriedly heaved himself to all fours with Scootaloo still wrapped around his foreleg. He was both furious that they were threatening Twilight and desperate to make the increasingly rowdy bunch hear him. "No! Please!" he called anxiously, "you have to listen to me! Please!" His wings half-spread in his distress, and their shadow spilled across the faces of the small crowd.
The group of fledgling dragon-haters and their blowsy ringleader gasped and leaned backwards in perfect unison, resembling nothing quite so much as a multicoloured wheat-field bending in the wind. In the resulting hush Spike realised how he must appear; a dragon three times the size of any stallion with outstretched wings the breadth of a building rearing menacingly over a cowering congregation of ponies.
Far too late he drew his wings quickly against his back once more. The assembled ponies were staring fixedly up at him in fear and distrust, and he hung his head against their condemning eyes.
"Please, listen to me..." he begged, his voice ringing awkwardly in the yawning silence. "I didn't mean to scare you. Please. Don't think of me as a...as a dragon, if you like. I'm Spike. I'm just Spike, no matter how big I get, please, listen..."
"Oh for Celestia's sake...! This is ridiculous! His sister is a pony!" yelled Sweetie Belle.
"He used to ride her back – he was as titchy as any l'il foal you ever saw!" chimed in Scootaloo.
"He had a little round face and little soft claws, an' Twilight used to get him to write letters an' spells down," Apple Bloom remembered.
"He's been here practically our whole lives!" Scootaloo said.
"He was there the day I got my cutie mark." Sweetie Belle raised her chin haughtily, the quaver-tailed diamonds glinting on her flank.
"Me too." Apple Bloom drew herself up, her jaw set challengingly.
"And me," Scootaloo piped up from around his leg.
"He has a crush on my sister that's lasted longer than a Fillywood marriage!" Sweetie Belle threw her hooves in the air.
"Oh, you had to go there," Spike muttered. "Why can't anypony keep that secret?"
"Shyeah, you call that a secret?" scoffed Scootaloo.
"You've been mooning over her since I was taller than you." Sweetie Belle rolled her eyes.
"You... really live here?" came a voice from within the small group who had been haranguing him.
Spike looked up eagerly at the lack of aggression in the speaker's tone. "Yes, I do. I live – lived – with Twilight Sparkle in the library. I was her number one assistant."
"You still are, dummy," snorted Scootaloo. "Nopony's ever getting a hoof on that position while you're around."
"Well, why don't you just go back there and leave normal ponyfolk in peace!" snarled the greenish-blue and peach unicorn, and Spike's heart sank a little. He ducked his head.
"I outgrew it a few days ago," he said sadly. "I didn't want to. I can't help it. It's just the way I am."
"You know, I think I heard something once about the little lizard that lived with the librarian from Canterlot..." another pony murmured. Sounds of vague agreement rose from others in the assembly.
"Lizard! Well, I like that!" Spike said indignantly, but Apple Bloom hushed him, her eyes watchful.
"Well, what about what I saw!" the aproned unicorn challenged. "You were about to snap those poor fillies' hooves clean off! You can't deny it; I have the proof of my own two eyes!"
"You really are an idiot," sighed Scootaloo, finally uncoiling herself from his foreleg. "We were cold. Spike is warm. It's freezing here before the dew really dries, and he let us heat up our hooves in his smoke."
"I say, would he let me do that?" a colt asked rather suddenly, "I kept thinking I needed to check for chilblains, it was so cold this morning."
Spike blinked, and then smiled hopefully at the colt. A few ponies drew back suspiciously at the sight of all those teeth. "Sure, if you like," he said, his voice tentatively optimistic. A general air of mistrust greeted this offer, so he added, "And if anypony doesn't like the idea of that then they can put their feet against my side. It's pretty warm compared to a pony's normal temperature."
"You weren't that eager to help us," accused Sweetie Belle, and Spike wrinkled his nose at her before sticking out his forked tongue at her.
"Well, you woke me up," he said sulkily. "You great big bullies."
Though the laughter that followed this display of childishness was a touch nervous, it finally broke the tension. Slowly and steadily Spike lay back down on his belly and rolled slightly onto one side, his head stretching to rest over his claws once more. Scootaloo immediately shot over and stuck both front hooves back into the smoke curling above his nostrils, and both Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle leaned companionably against his ribs.
The aproned unicorn clamped her jaw shut in horrified mortification, turned on her hoof, and stalked stiffly away to pack up her stall. Three or four of the visiting ponies followed. The rest however were edging closer to Spike.
One by one they tentatively made their way towards him, their expressions apprehensive. Quite a few made their way to lean their hooves against his side and his partly-exposed pale green underscales. Far fewer seemed to want to stick their feet in the smoke rising from his muzzle – it was probably the proximity to the teeth and claws that worried them. Yet a small number of the throng braved it, with that one colt in particular growing almost as ecstatically gymnastic as Scootaloo.
Spike kept still and calm. If one of the former Cutie Mark Crusaders or new heat-seeking ponies asked him a question, he answered as quietly as he could. Giggles from the vicinity of his ribcage told him that his passengers could feel his voice through his skin. Utter strangers spoke to him, their panic turning to shyness and inquisitiveness. He offered a little thing, the smallest thing he could do – warmth – and despite their initial fears they accepted it.
A new sort of determination gripped him. It was less euphoric than the heart-full joy that his friends' acceptance had brought him, but it was firmer, steadier. He was beginning to realise that the challenges of carving out his life in Ponyville were going to be even more varied than he had expected. He had to stay calm and stand firm to succeed.
He chuckled as Apple Bloom told jokes into his ear, and listened sympathetically as one of the ponies before his nose complained about the trip from Trottingham.
He'd seen the first test and prevailed with help from the Cutie Mark Crusaders. He'd won a skirmish, but he'd only just started the campaign, and the war was far from over yet.
And to think - the day had only just begun.
"Trees are good," Spike said to himself with relish as he stepped through the orchard at Sweet Apple Acres. "Trees are great."
Breakfast with Twilight, Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle had been an interesting experience. He'd had an audience to watch him eat his crate of fruit and vegetables, two rubies and (a rare treat) a pink diamond. Some were checking to see whether he was snacking on pony, he was certain. Others seemed to be growing more fascinated by his history and his different, draconic self. Several of the crowd had followed him all morning, even so far as to trudge down to the lake to watch him take a bath. He'd felt immensely exposed – and just plain old immense – walking under their scrutiny along the bare roads to the farm. And then – trees, blessed trees!
Big Macintosh was just exiting the barn as he neared, and the red farmpony nodded to him in greeting as he walked back towards the farmhouse. "Mornin', Spike. Be with y' in just a tic."
Spike sat down to wait, wondering what sort of thing constituted a 'strength-controlling lesson'. He'd made good use of Macintosh's first piece of advice already. Moving slowly and steadily had certainly curtailed many of the accidents that had plagued him - though of course moving out of the library might have had something to do with that.
Big Macintosh re-emerged with a large basket full of oversized vegetables on his back, and Spike tilted his head. "Uh, I've already eaten," he said.
"These ain't fer breakfast," Macintosh said as he placed the basket down by Spike and tipped it over onto the grass. Pumpkins, squash and marrows tumbled over. "These are fer practise."
"Eeyup." He nodded. "I've noticed that you ain't usin' them claws anymore. I had a think about it, an' I'm guessin' you simply ain't used to their strength an' size yet. That's gonna be the first lesson. Can't have you grab fer somethin' an' break it. We'll get to judgin' yer distances an' how to tell if a thing can hold yer weight in due time. First thing is t' make sure y' can get through a day without rippin' it t' pieces. Now, are y' right-hoofed or left-hoofed?"
The lesson was bizarrely exhausting. Spike had to try to pick up the vegetables without piercing or shredding them between his claws. The first squash he selected turned into pulp almost immediately and he sighed before steeling himself for another go. He had to concentrate very hard on the vegetable and shift his paw very slowly and delicately, and he found it very hard work despite the fact that he had barely moved. His focus wavered a few times and he punctured his test-vegetable, but each mistake was less dramatic than the last.
Macintosh watched and nodded and made his laconic comments interspersed with advice. "This'll help you a bit on judgin' distances, too," he said when Spike huffed in exasperation.
"Don't you worry none about some mistakes," came after Spike had skewered another marrow.
"Y'think this is dumb? Mah granny made me open an' close doors fer hours until I could feel how much force I needed to use without slammin' em," he added when Spike faltered, vegetable mush all over his claws.
After what seemed like a million pumpkins, marrows and squash had been pierced, pulped and shredded, Spike was beginning to get the knack of it. After he had lifted four vegetables in a row without piercing a single one he looked over at Macintosh flushed with victory. "Good onyer," the farmpony said approvingly. "That's good work. Keep practisin' that."
"I don't get it," Spike said as he flopped onto the grass feeling rather drained. "Twilight helped me to hold a quill again, and I didn't shred it to bits. Why am I having so much trouble with a few measly veggies?"
"Cos a quill don' get held by yer claws," Big Macintosh answered in his slow, considered way. "I'm guessin' you hold it by restin' it between yer toes?"
Spike looked down at his feet. "Oh yeah. My claws never actually touched the quill, even when I was little. They went around it instead."
"Eeyup," said Macintosh, idly walking over to a close-standing apple tree. "A quill's long an' thin an' you can grab it without any sharp bits gettin' involved. But yer paw is designed to direct all yer strength in them sharp bits, I reckon, so tryin' to pick up anythin' that ain't long an' thin is a mite harder. 'Specially small things." He eyed the apple tree appraisingly, before giving it a carefully measured kick. A single apple thumped softly onto the grass, and the farmpony turned to Spike expectantly.
Spike swallowed. "It was hard enough trying to pick up a great big pumpkin! I'm not going to be able to pick up a tiny little apple!"
"How'd you eat them barrels I sent yer, then?" Macintosh leaned idly against the tree.
"Stick my head in it," said Spike bluntly. "It isn't pretty, but I can eat."
"Want to fix that?" Macintosh jerked his head at the apple once and then gazed at Spike steadily.
Spike sighed once more. "I'm gonna squish it," he warned.
"You were doin' real well there with the last o' them vegetables," Macintosh said reasonably. "Don't hurt to try, does it?"
He steeled himself. "You're right. Okay."
Carefully, almost tenderly, he lifted his claws above the little red fruit. He focused so hard he could practically see every freckle on its shiny skin. Hesitantly, he allowed his thumb and pointer claws to close as slowly as he was able. The tension running through his whole foreleg was unbelievable.
"You got it now," Macintosh said.
Spike breathed in sharply as the hard talons met resistance, and began to lift. He turned his forelimb over to look blankly at the apple pinched delicately between his claws.
His head came up. "I picked up an apple," he breathed.
"Eeyup," said Macintosh, full of quiet pride.
"Did what now?" came a voice from the farmhouse that made them jump, and Spike's concentration broke. His claws pierced the apple like rice paper.
"Ah, shoot," he grumbled, flicking the ruined fruit off.
"Sorry sugarcube," was Applejack's bashful rejoinder. "Didn't mean to scare you none, only it's almost lunchtime an' I thought you boys might want something t' eat, seein' as you've been workin' out here all mornin'."
"It is?" Spike said in surprise, and looked up at the sky. Sure enough, the sun now blazed from almost directly above him. The morning had simply disappeared whilst he bent his concentration on picking up vegetables. "Lost track of time, I guess."
"That'll happen when you're that focused," Macintosh agreed.
"Come on, then," Applejack said cheerfully, "Lunch, an' then we go an' watch you makin' fireworks. We got last autumn's apples in the apple cellar if you want some, an' you can practise pickin' 'em up too if y' like."
The sweet smell of apple blossom mixed with the pungent smell of turned loam as he neared the fallow end of the farm. The fields had been raked clean of weeds and grass, and bare earth rolled smooth and crumbly under his claws.
Beside him, Applejack and Macintosh were debating what use to put the fields to next year. "I still say it should be taters," Applejack said stubbornly.
"You say that every time these fields're goin' fallow," Macintosh drawled. "We orta call ourselves Sweet Tater Acres."
"Well, what do you suggest?" she challenged, and Macintosh hummed, his ever-present sprig of hay travelling to the other corner of his mouth.
"I reckon," he said slowly, "we should put some carrots in there."
"Carrots!" scoffed Applejack automatically, before she blinked and began nodding. "Actually, that's not a bad idea y'got there."
"There ain't nopony who don't like carrots," Macintosh said, eyeing the fields with satisfaction. "What d'you think, Spike?"
He glanced down. "Carrots are okay, I guess."
"You makin' a liar outta me?" Macintosh snorted, and then turned to the fourth member of their party who had been characteristically quiet since her arrival after lunch. "You think we should we plant carrots, Miz Fluttershy?"
"Oh!" she said, startled at the sudden attention, "well, that is. Um. I like them fine, but you know, my little Angel Bunny would be ever so appreciative..."
Macintosh's expression didn't change one iota, but his voice softened slightly. "Well, I know you do like a-carin' fer all them critters. So carrots it is, I guess. Fer Angel Bunny, o' course."
Applejack stifled a knowing chuckle.
Spike yawned hugely as he sat down in the middle of the proposed carrot-patch. "So what do I have to do?" he asked.
"Well," Fluttershy said in her soft little voice, "I thought maybe you could start by blowing the very, very biggest fireball you can. We'll be able to see what the upper limit is that way – if you're okay with that," she finished meekly.
He looked down at her, mildly surprised. "Okay, well, if that's what you want..."
"Better get well away," muttered Big Macintosh, and the three ponies hurriedly moved to a point perhaps thirty ponystrides to one side.
"Let 'er rip, Spike!" Applejack hollered.
Spike inhaled as deeply as he could and the familiar feeling of liquid sloshing into his flame-chambers rumbled in his chest and throat. He half-stood in order to relax the muscles of his diaphragm, his breath swelling, before opening his jaws and exhaling.
A sheet of green flame erupted before him. He closed his eyes against the glare and continued to roar until he had run out of air. His knees sagged slightly as he dragged in a shallow breath, and looked up to see that a great swathe of the fallow soil was blackened, dried and charred. The area was approximately three times the length of himself, including his tail.
"Holy horseapples," came Macintosh's voice.
"Landsakes, that's one heck of an upper limit," Applejack said weakly.
Fluttershy said nothing, her legs trembling noticeably. Her wide aquamarine eyes met his, and she swallowed before visibly getting herself under control and taking a deep breath. Then she regarded him contemplatively. "Oh, that was very impressive, Spike," she said with only the faintest tremor in her tone, "and it was a very big fireball, and certainly quite hot."
"You said to try the biggest," Spike said, his voice a little hoarse.
"Oh yes, yes." She nodded, and began to trot cautiously over the blackened ground towards him. "I did say that, didn't I?"
Behind her, Applejack and Macintosh shared a look of bewilderment. Fluttershy normally needed some sort of catalyst in order to be assertive in any way, unless it came to her animals.
"Now," Fluttershy said as she reached the dragon, "if you feel like trying that again I'd be ever so grateful - but instead of the fire just going everywhere, why don't we try to narrow the focus?"
Spike squinted down at her. "What, like making it smaller and hotter?"
"Exactly." She beamed up at him, her pink hair swaying. "Oh, not that that wasn't the most impressive thing I ever saw," she added hurriedly, "but perhaps you could try to have a little more control over it?"
Control. Spike was quickly beginning to hate that word. Along with focus. "Okay, if you say so," he said, and began to stand once more. Then he stopped. "Uh, you might want to go back over there." He jerked his muzzle to where Applejack and Macintosh were standing, their mouths ajar.
"Oh, I'll be fine here," she said sweetly, her large and timid eyes full of trust. "I'm only beside you. Besides, you didn't get a single curl of flame anywhere but in front of you last time. I'm perfectly safe."
"What if the wind changes?" Spike wondered.
"It's all quite all right," she said. "Please stop worrying and try it... if you want to, that is..."
Spike blew out a smoke-laden breath sharply, and reminded himself that he trusted Fluttershy. She was the Stare Queen of Ponyville after all, and had shouted down a dragon, a cockatrice, and a gala full of the rich, famous and painfully stuck-up.
"Okay," he acquiesced. She smiled prettily, and then expectantly turned her head to the expanse of blackened earth.
Spike sucked in air once more, the depleted fluid in his flame chambers replenishing itself. He tried to focus on narrow, focused, intense rather than simply big as he began to release the fire in a long roar. His jaws elongated as he attempted to rein in the billows of flame.
"That's a little better, but perhaps you could try moving your mouth and head some more," Fluttershy suggested in his ear. He tried to adjust his soft palette and tongue in order to change shape and direction. This met with somewhat mixed results. His fire shortened and became more concentrated, but he still couldn't distil it into a single blade of flame.
It wasn't until he lengthened his neck and sent his breath barrelling along the roof of his mouth that he hit upon the answer. Abruptly the fire changed from a vague core with amorphous tendrils to a focused, sizzling white-green tongue of flame only a ponylength long. What it lacked in length it more than made up for in sheer ferocity. He could feel the power of it rattling the bones of his skull.
"Wooo-hooo! Yee-haaah! Knew you could do it!" Applejack cheered.
"Eeyup," approved Macintosh, a glint in his sleepy green eyes.
"Oh congratulations, Spike!" Fluttershy beat her wings until she was eye to eye with him, her face wreathed in her demure smile. "That was ever so amazingly wonderful!"
He panted a little as he caught his breath, and it began to sink in. "I controlled it, didn't I?" he said exuberantly, his chest beginning to puff with pride. "I really did!"
"That's just the start, sugarcube," said Applejack, though her face was still proud. "Now the hard work really begins."
What followed was both a lot of fun and a lot of work. They sent Macintosh back up to the barn, and he came back carrying some old steel poles and soup cans. Spike drove the poles into the soft, turned earth and set the cans over them, and then tried to hit them from different distances and with varying strength of flame.
Applejack was a mine of information garnered through years of rope-twirling. "It ain't necessarily about lining up the eye," she said critically as he missed his can altogether, blackening the mid-lengths of the pole instead. "Especially as you're shootin' from yer mouth. You're gonna have to learn to judge where yer real line o' fire is, no pun intended. If you aim with yer eyes, you're always gonna be off. Learn to aim with yer brain."
He nodded, panting, and fired again, trying to imagine the line between his mouth and the can rather than his eye and the can. It wasn't easy, but the resulting blast was closer than before.
Fluttershy remained right beside him, gently coaxing him to try different methods, different breaths, and different stances. She wheedled, soothed and encouraged him through every target and exercise, and with her help he somehow made his way through them despite his rapidly mounting exhaustion. Macintosh remained to one side watching the lesson with a slightly singed stalk of hay in his mouth, though occasionally his dark green eyes slid over to the Pegasus by the dragon's side.
Spike was discovering that his flame could do so much more than simply send messages or blast what was before him. When he pursed his lips and blew very, very gently, a thin little line of green would waver in the air, barely visible to the eye. When he hissed through his teeth the flames would flicker like a fire in a grated fireplace. And when he opened and closed his mouth whilst breathing out, puffs would appear like crackling green smoke-rings.
Celestia's sun was flaring pink and orange by the time he finally flopped onto the utterly charred soil and moaned. "I surrender," he mumbled in defeat. "I am pooped."
"Y' done good today," Macintosh said gruffly, and clapped his scaled shoulder with a shaggy hoof.
"Yeah, that was darn good work, kiddo!" Applejack said, and Fluttershy gave him a little smile that lit up her eyes.
He groaned, and began to pull himself up once more. His legs were as wobbly as jelly. "Guess I'd better get back, Twilight'll be wondering where I am," he said, looking around at the blackened earth. He winced. "Uh, sorry about your field."
"Well, we don't need to buy no charcoal fer the fertiliser this year," Macintosh said. "Gonna be the biggest carrots you ever did see, I'll betcha."
"Oh, Angel will be so pleased," Fluttershy said happily.
"Well, I hope so, Miz Fluttershy," Macintosh said with a peculiar catch in his voice.
"Actually, I'd better be going home to him," Fluttershy continued, her voice tinged with worry as she looked up at the setting sun. She began to beat her wings, floating gracefully from the field. "He gets quite cross if I'm late, you know. I hope to see you all very soon, and that was ever so wonderful, Spike! You're going to be just so good with your fire, oh, I just know it!"
"Thanks so much, Fluttershy!" Spike called after her.
She waved a hoof once before flying away into the honey-warm afternoon light, her long tail curling behind her.
Macintosh stifled a sigh, and Applejack rolled her eyes.
"You are hopeless, brother o' mine," she said with fond amusement.
"Oh, you hush up now," he muttered. Spike watched this exchange in bemusement before shrugging.
"Whatever. Anyway, I better go home," he repeated, yawning once more. "Guys, thank you so much," he said rather more seriously then, his eyes sincere. "I can't tell you how much this means to me."
"Oh, go on, y' sentimental reptile." Applejack brushed this off affectionately. "Go see Twi; I bet she wants to hear all about yer lessons."
He grinned. "Gotcha. See you soon!"
The siblings waved him off as he began the walk back to the town proper. His gawkers had long since disappeared, and his body was pleasantly heavy with the weariness that comes with hard work as he trudged along the farm road to the main thoroughfare of Ponyville. The doors to the little balcony set into the library's ancient old tree were open, and so too was the main door to the street with its scraped upper doorjamb. He stuck his head inside.
"Twilight?" he called. "Twilight, you home?"
"Spike?" came a voice from upstairs, and he pulled his head out from the downstairs door. Balancing on his hind legs and tail, he hooked his claws carefully (and gently) on the railing of the balcony, and stretched himself up to peer in.
"Over here," he said, tired but happy. She was sitting on her bed, books and scrolls piled high around her. She looked very startled to see him at her balcony, but smiled anyway.
"So then, how'd it go?" she asked.
"I am soooo tired," he said pathetically. "Fluttershy is a slavedriver, and Macintosh is twice as bad."
She giggled. "How about Applejack?"
"Don't even get me started," he said, shuddering.
She hopped down off her bed and trotted over to look down off her balcony at his stretched body and legs. "Wow, that's quite a long way down, Spike! We should measure you sometime," she said, impressed.
He nudged her flank very gently with his snout. "Food first?" he pleaded. "I am starving. Applejack gave me some stored apples, but not all that many..."
She gave him a sceptical look. "How many is 'not all that many'?"
He rolled his eyes. "Two bushels, hardly anything! Come on, Twilight, I'm sore all over and this is really starting to hurt."
"Okay, I'll be down in just a moment," she said, brushing his cheek briefly before whirling back into her room. Spike unhooked his claws from the balcony and gingerly lowered himself to the ground, the muscles in his hind legs screaming at him as they braced his weight. He looked over at the barrels and crates stacked by the library full of his meals, and set his jaw in determination.
"Right, here goes," he murmured to himself.
"What was that?" Twilight asked as she stepped outside into the darkening square.
"Well," he said, squirming, "I'm going to try to eat dinner... well, by picking up the apples. It's one of the things Big Macintosh taught me."
She looked astonished and then pleased. "Oh, well done, Spike!"
He sat down and grasped a barrel cautiously before dragging it towards him. He studied the nailed-down lid for a moment before sticking his pointer-claw straight through it and yanking it out. The disc of wood clattered to the ground, and he gently set the barrel down before himself. Then he glanced up at Twilight's encouraging face, focused on the uppermost apple as hard as he could, and carefully, delicately pinched it between his talons before offering it to her.
"Want one?" he asked tentatively.
Twilight's hoof gently lifted the apple from his claws, and she smiled at him with pride in her eyes.
"I'd love one," she said.
He fumbled the next apple and stuck his thumb-claw right through it, but Twilight didn't mention it. "So what else did you learn?" she asked, getting herself comfortable as the stars started to wink between the clouds.
Spike was woken the next morning by a loud, crass burp.
He sat up in alarm, checking the square for any damage, but the brief burst of flame thankfully hadn't singed anything important - though several of the flagstones directly before him were red-hot and plinking as they cooled. He relaxed in relief, flopping back down onto the now-heated stones, and his claws moved against something that rustled.
Curiously, he picked up the oversized piece of parchment, and laboriously unpicked the ribbon. Claws were a real pain.
Smoothing out the letter, he began to read:
My dear Spike,
I was surprised to hear from you the other day for two reasons. Firstly, I had quite forgotten how much time had passed since I had seen you (that can be an issue when you are as old as I am), and secondly, I was in the bath when your letter arrived.
It must have been a very difficult time for you, and I fear the challenges you face are no less daunting. Always remember that you are surrounded by the Magic of Friendship.
I was so proud to hear your friends are helping you in this time of adjustment, and equally proud to hear that you plan to help them back. True, change can be frightening, but it is not always bad. You are to be congratulated for your great courage, my little dragon – though perhaps I should not be calling you 'little' anymore!
A word of caution – keep in mind that you will not always succeed. There are many ponies that fear and shun the different, and there are skills that will take many years to master. Continue to face these odds with the bravery and honesty of your letter, and always trust in your friends.
I hope that you may count me among them, and send me word should you need my assistance.
P.S. My little sister is remarking over my shoulder that you seem to be a rather different sort of dragon and she would very much like to speak to you. I feel you both would benefit from each other's friendship. I do hope she can call on you? P.C.