Spike of All Trades

by Ariamaki

Chapter 34: Snacks

Once they got into the Library, they took a bit of a breather. Scootaloo helped him out of the harness and Apple Bloom stowed the sledge out of the way of the road, all while Sweetie Belle moved the rest of their training equipment inside. For his part, Spike had to close-slash-minimize-slash-hide that entire pile of alerts, as interrupting this momentum with minutia would feel wasteful. He'd check it later, anyways. As it is he took a moment to center himself, focusing on taking a few deep breaths and centering himself in the meditation practice Twilight had taught him. That evening in the lab last year felt like it was a lifetime away... Hay, this morning felt like it was a lifetime away.

He went to crack the seal on the packages full of books but was stopped by Apple Bloom.
"Naw, the boxes can sit fer now: We got plans fer those."

Spike put on his best fake-pout to try to convince Apple Bloom, or at least get her to laugh.
"Given that they're library property, shouldn't I at least get a hint?"

Thankfully, he succeeded on both counts: She had to stifle a giggle as she answered him.
"Well, ah know yer Observe trick can see through stuff, right?"

"Yeah, because of the bit bag Twilight gave me. Using it then listed the contents, and it was my first time using the skill too! So it must be way better now."

Scootaloo chimed in from across the room, where she was hoofing her way through some of the flight manuals and aerobic exercise guides on one shelf.
"Right! But like, I could tell you how many bits are in a bag just by lookin' at it. I might have to guess a little, but I could see the coins pressing on the fabric... I said the fabric..."

Sweetie sighed and threw in a quiet "Dumb fabric" for old times' sake when she realized Scootaloo wasn't going to continue until she did... Always worth another shot at the 'running gag' Cutie Mark.

"Thank you! But seriously, what about identifying the books inside that box? Not just the number of them, but the titles? What about the subjects? Could you read them? Could you use Observe on the books themselves just 'cause you're also Observing the box they're in? It's super weird! And it sounded like a really good test with no risks or sweating, so it'll be nice for during our snack break."

Apple Bloom looked anxiously towards the kitchen.
"Speakin' a snacks, how 'bout we-"

Spike remembered, in horrible clarity, Rarity's description of Sweetie's cooking from earlier.
"How about I throw some snacks together! You three can just chill out here. I need to grind on my Cooking skill anyways."

He caught a sigh of relief from AB and Scoots when he said that, while Sweetie just pouted a bit. After seeing their expressions Spike made his way to the kitchen, holding back a laugh. Snacks and drinks... And training. It wouldn't be fitting of him to take a break at this point: The natural way forward is to mix practice with preparation, just like at breakfast. With this in mind, Spike turned his eyes to the cabinets and the fridge. He would be serving for ponies as well as himself, so many of the 'special' items in the fridge were right out, as were gems.

Thinking over what they had been doing and what was available, it wasn't difficult to come to one conclusion. The hard work had been focused on him, but he wasn't the only one working hard: Refreshing drinks and light food, recovery fare, that was the ideal menu today. Start off with some citrus fruit... Oooh, they still had some of those orange slices Twilight had prepared the other night. A fun chemical experiment had dissolved the outer pith and left them with flawless crystal-clear jewels of fruit, no bitterness or stringy toughness.

Follow that up with a bit of salad (they had enough spinach and assorted lettuces to segue into some kind of joke, and he could add daisies for color), throw together a vinegary dressing with capers and lemon and a bit of spice... Pair that off with something fatty, maybe crumble up some good sharp cheddar: It was too late if he wanted to pick up fresh curds at the market. Then a drink and a sweet finisher would round it out. Come to think of it, he hadn't assembled a menu like this in a little while: Twilight hadn't been hosting many of the girls’ weekly get-togethers, and those were the only time he really got to show off his cooking chops for a whole group.

Interestingly, he earned XP for Cooking as he threw together the dressing and assembled the salads, which matched up with his earlier theory. 'Cooking' (to his power) seemed to be a broad umbrella for everything related to food prep, even if it was as simple as a salad. Just taking the already-stripped orange slices and plating them for service didn't trigger anything, so there must be a threshold. Either that or maybe something about intent... No matter how it worked, the amount of benefit he got for each action was starting to go down, and that was a more pressing concern.

Spike had settled on the idea that his enormous growth today was influenced (at least in part) by the quest he was on. That feeling was being backed up with new information as he trained and ground out new skills... It was going to get harder from here. As skills levelled up their growth slowed, hypothetical influence of his quest aside. As Observe went past 20 and up towards 25 it slowed even more. However, Spike wasn't too worried: He had spent a lot of time with the Crusaders and other ponies as they developed new skills and talents, and that gave him an educated hunch.

If his hunch was right then things would actually balance out after that, making 25 a benchmark beyond which things would be a bit easier. The theory made sense if you compared it to actual self-improvement, where there was a rough wall before you hit the plateau of achieving basic mastery. Once you knew what you were doing, getting better was easier as well (up to a point): If his power worked the same way, the experience-per-level might even end up lower after the bump.

The combination of that theory and the much more clear-cut idea that his 'first day' quest was actually boosting his growth provided him a good excuse to do what he wanted anyways: Try and get as many skills levelled as possible before the day was out. This put Spike in an experimental mindset, so he tackled making the drink for their snacks as if it were more a chemical brew than a beverage... Try to find the boundary between Cooking and Crafting, and level them both either way.

Even if he messed up as badly as possible, it couldn't actually out-catastrophe some of the food he'd been exposed to. The Baked Bads alone were a masterstroke of failure: The most his mistakes could do was kneel in their crumbly, wormy shadow.

So to start... Precise ratios, use some lab glass from the washing rack, measure syrup against seltzer with mint and ice. Crush and mix and fuse it together... The experience went into Cooking.

Alright then. Next time be more methodical, step back and look at it like assembly as opposed to mixing... Cooking. Hrm.

Well, if that failed... Spike the mix with some emeralds, hold back on the syrup a bit, focus on the tonic aspects... Crafting! Perfect.

Now he had a few drinks made up, albeit one of them only he could drink safely... But even more importantly he had a good idea what the divide was. There was a line between something you’d eat or drink under normal day-to-day circumstances, and something that was meant as a curative or palliative, something closer to medicine... That's when it shifted from Cooking to Crafting, and vice versa, was when something crossed that line.

A few extra glasses with small variations confirmed his hypothesis and provided a buff notification for the gem-laced version: [Virgin Emerald Julep], granting improved HP recovery. So now he had drinks, fruit, salad... He could grab a bit of bread or some crackers on the way out to get carbs in there. If all of that got finished off and they still needed a refresher, there were dessert fixings in the fridge. Ideally Spike had been hoping to save it for later, but there was no sense not treating friends when he had the chance.

And a treat it very clearly was: As soon as he came back out of the kitchen the usual light-hearted ribbing began, even as Spike could see the hunger in their eyes.

"Awww, food food again?"

"Hey now, that's the rule! We all voted and everything."

"Yah, plus today's looks real swell."

The Crusaders had established a rotation of sorts to cater to all of the four critical food groups: Junk food, fast food, sweets, and ‘real’ food. Apple Bloom could always be counted on to provide the pies and cakes and fritters, Sweetie had a sizable allowance to blow on takeout, and Scootaloo helped Rainbow Dash stick to training diets by 'confiscating' all of the daisy chips, cookies, hay crisps and other unhealthy food she kept 'managing to end up with'. Which left Spike as the only capable cook of them all, alone in charge of Class 4: Home-cooked meals.

"Well, here's hoping! Orange ‘gems’, salad with cheddar and capers, crackers with the leftover cheese, plus mint spritzers to drink. The one in the, heh, pebbled glass is mine by the way: Threw in some emeralds while I was experimenting."

"Niiice! Alright, let's dig in!"

Rather than try to distribute eating into all of the training they had been doing, it was a lot simpler to just take the direct route and take a real break. Time was limited, but not that badly... Plus, it turns out the food was so good that they finished it in mere minutes anyways. A quick trip back into the kitchen to rinse all the glasses and bowls, and then Spike was back in the foyer preparing himself for another bout.