Greenfire stared at the floor of his cave.
Before him rested a pink checkered tablecloth, on which rested a large silver platter, on which rested a small porcelain saucer, on which rested a tiny white tea cup. The cup was filled with a steaming brown liquid; he felt safe in assuming that it was some form of tea.
The dragon looked back up at his guest. “Really?”
A week after her second visit to Greenfire’s cave, Rarity had returned for the third. And just like the week before, she had not come empty-hooved. But what she’d brought with her this time was something much stranger than a bag full of gems.
Rarity smiled at him, lifting the teapot to fill her own cup. “Whatever could be the matter, Greenfire?”
“Gee, I wonder. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything more absurd in my life.”
She shook her head. “Oh, now, don’t be silly. I see nothing absurd about having tea with a friend.”
“Yeah, nothing apart from everything. Look at this!” He gestured at the little setup. “You brought a tea set into a dragon’s cave!”
“And?” she responded archly. “Why should a dragon not be allowed to enjoy a pleasant cup of tea just like anypony else?”
Greenfire paused briefly, then sighed and rolled his eyes. “Y’know what, I’m just gonna give up now. No sense arguing with a mad pony.”
“Well done, darling,” Rarity teased. “You’re learning already.”
With a valiant effort, he successfully fought off the urge to slap a claw over his face. But only just. Instead the claw plucked the tea cup off the saucer, and he lifted it up to his eye. There were flowers around the rim of it.
“Careful! This tea set is very fragile, you know.”
Greenfire gave the unicorn another baffled look. ‘Then why drag it all up here?’ he wanted to ask. He didn’t understand why she was bothering with all of this. Why she was going to so much trouble for him. Why she was different from every other pony in Equestria.
To distract himself, he gulped the tea down. Rarity frowned, but didn’t draw attention to his undoubtedly dreadful table manners. Surprisingly, it was actually fairly tasty. “Huh... Not bad.”
Rarity’s frown vanished. “I’m glad you like it. Would you care for another cup, or perhaps a cupcake?”
Greenfire tilted his head. “Cupcake?”
“You haven’t heard of—oh dear, it’s a good thing I’m here! Please, have one.” She levitated a little pastry out of her basket, peeling off the scrap of paper that covered the bottom half.
With a bit of uncertainty, Greenfire took it. He wasn’t prepared for it to be so soft, and it was a little mangled by the time it got to his lips. But he’d eaten far worse, so with only a sliver of hesitation, he popped it into his mouth.
His eyes went wide. “Mmm! It’f fweet!” Far sweeter than anything he’d ever tasted before. But it was good. He was torn between gulping it down greedily or leaving it in his mouth to enjoy the taste longer... but then he heard a most unladylike snort come from the other side of the tablecloth.
When he looked at Rarity again, she was biting her lip, shoulders shaking with suppressed laughter. “I-I’m so sorry, Greenfire, I... The expression on your face was... There, there are more cupcakes if you would like another?”
Greenfire scowled and swallowed the little treat. “Glad you’re having fun,” he muttered, groaning internally at how wounded his voice sounded. Maybe it was just so hilarious, a dragon who didn’t know the first thing about pony food or pony drinks or pony anything, but she didn’t have to—
“Wait—” Her hoof was on his claw again, before he could lift it to turn away from her. She looked genuinely contrite, all laughter gone. “I am sorry, truly I am. I didn’t mean to laugh at you. It was just a bit unexpected.”
His claw tightened once, involuntarily, before he settled down again. “Alright. I... guess I should probably be a little less sensitive.”
Rarity shook her head, curls bouncing delicately. “No, I’m the one who should have taken your feelings into consideration.” She tapped her lip thoughtfully. “If it helps... I have it on good authority that the first time I tasted one of Pinkie Pie’s strawberry cupcakes, I made an even more embarrassing face than that.”
“Oh, really?” Greenfire chuckled despite himself. “Sorry I couldn’t have seen that.”
“I’m not,” Rarity said firmly. But the barest hint of a smile tugged at her lips.
The dragon picked up another cupcake, careful not to squish it this time. “So this is a strawberry cupcake, huh? And Pinkie Pie must be the pony who made it?”
“That’s right! She is an acquaintance of mine who works at the Sugarcube Corner, making all manner of sugary delicacies.”
“Well, I wouldn’t mind trying a few more of those, uh, delicacies.” The unfamiliar word came out a syllable at a time. “These are pretty tasty.” He popped the second cupcake into his mouth and chewed slowly, allowing himself to savor it.
Rarity tensed up, reaching out with a hoof again. “Uh, dear, you’re supposed to—” He swallowed, and she winced. “Um. The wrapper?”
Wrapper? Oh, there had been another scrap of paper on it. Greenfire shrugged. “It’s fine,” he said. “There’s not much a dragon’s stomach can’t handle.”
“I... see. As long as you’re enjoying them, I suppose.” She picked up a cupcake of her own and took a tiny bite, far more delicate than any bite the dragon had ever taken in his life.
They sat in polite silence for a while, Rarity nibbling at her cupcake, Greenfire gingerly pouring himself another cup of tea. He picked up his cup, he drank, he set it down. “So, this is what ponies do at a tea party?” he finally asked. “Sit around and talk about... whatever?”
Rarity tittered and nodded. “That’s exactly right. You could say that it’s just an excuse to spend time with one’s friends. But the routine of it, the ritual, if you will, can be very comforting.”
“Yes, indeed! For example, my friend Fluttershy is very, well, shy.”
Greenfire made a show of dramatically rolling his eyes. “Gosh, really? I never would’ve guessed.” Ponies sure had weird names.
“Oh, hush.” Rarity slapped his claw, playfully scolding. “But it’s true. She is ever so sweet and a joy to talk to, but new situations and new ponies can make her very nervous. So we have tea parties, salon visits, that sort of thing. The routines are familiar, you see, so she doesn’t have to worry that she’s doing something wrong. Which means she can just relax and enjoy the company.”
The dragon thought that over for a few seconds. “Huh. Yeah, that makes sense. So what do you talk about with her? Just whatever comes to mind?”
“Well, if there hasn’t been anything of note in her life or mine, we just pass some gossip back and forth! News about our friends and acquaintances in Ponyville and elsewhere.” The unicorn beamed. “Would you like to hear an example?”
A single-shoulder shrug was his reply, as he rested his head on one claw. “Sure, why not?”
The gleam that arose in Rarity’s eyes was Greenfire’s first hint that he had committed a grave error.
“I had the occasion to speak to Lemon Hearts during a recent shopping trip, and I discovered that she has the most adorable little crush on her pen pal, a Canterlot mare by the name of Strawberry Lime. Lemon and Lime, isn’t it just perfect? But even though she regularly visits Canterlot and has several good friends there, the poor dear is terrified that she doesn’t measure up to nobility, and she absolutely refuses to confess!”
Rarity had tried to hold back. Really, she had.
“Now of course I told her that was nonsense, and anypony who suggested that she was lower than nobility wasn’t worthy of spending a moment in her presence! But she wouldn’t be convinced, so I came up with a second tactic that I like to think was rather clever of me: I informed her that what she needed was lessons in noble etiquette, and who better to give her those lessons than yours truly? Of course, she positively leapt at the offer. I just ought to have made it in a more private venue, because, you see, she wasn’t the only one.”
But she was holding a cozy little tea party, even if her other attendee was of the decidedly masculine (and decidedly draconic) sort, and tea parties just weren’t tea parties without a little gossip!
“I’m afraid I’ll be ending up with quite a class to teach! And I was shocked at some of the ponies who expressed interest! Who would ever have guessed that Caramel was interested in proper etiquette? I can’t imagine why, but I certainly won’t turn him down if he’s willing to learn. Coconut was less of a surprise, considering how often he orders lunch from Horte Cuisine. Really, it amazes me that nopony else sees the looks he gives him!”
And he had said it was alright for her to demonstrate what she talked about with Fluttershy...
“And then, after all of that, I visited Bon Bon’s sweet shop, thinking that surely she would be a bastion of reliability in a day full of romantic turmoil. But what do I discover when I walk in? That she’d broken up with her coltfriend Blue Bonnet just the day before! Of course, I can hardly blame her, if even half of the many transgressions she so lovingly detailed were true. And I’ve always thought he was a bit too... sour for her, tee hee. She’s quite cynical herself, and she needs somepony more cheerful, somepony who can break through her pessimism and show her how much there is to smile about in the world...”
So before she knew it, she was hip-deep in a story about who had asked out who, and who was trying to work up the nerve to propose to who, and who had sworn never to speak to who again, and a good fifteen minutes had passed before she finally realized Greenfire had gone silent and, moreover, was staring at her the way one might stare at the light of an oncoming train.
She paused to take a breath.
Greenfire blinked at her repeatedly, eyes ever so slightly out of focus. Then, just as she was opening her mouth to ask if he was alright, he went limp, dramatically toppling over onto his side.
“Greenfire!” she exclaimed indignantly. “I’ll admit I may have gotten a bit carried away, but it wasn’t that bad!”
The dragon propped up his chin on one claw, giving her a sardonic look. “Are you kidding? I bet that Fluttershy mare isn’t quiet at all, she just can’t get a word in.”
Rarity turned her nose up. “Hmph! If you’re going to be like that, perhaps I’ll just be going.” ‘And I’ll be taking the cupcakes with me,’ she readied herself to continue.
But Greenfire didn’t give her the chance to speak. “W-Wait! I—” He scrambled up off the stone, one claw outstretched as if to stop her, unguarded panic on his face.
Rarity froze for an instant, then smiled a little sadly. She couldn’t help but think that he must have precious few close friendships, to be so desperate to keep hers. “It’s alright,” she assured him. “I was only teasing.”
“...Oh.” Greenfire sat back down, a blush blazing across his cheeks. Honestly, it wasn’t fair that such a big dragon should be so adorable.
She placed her hoof on his claw again and gave him the most sympathetic look she could. “I am trying to keep your feelings in mind, and I’ll continue to do so. But by the same token... If you’re going to tease me, you must expect a little in return.”
Greenfire chuckled sheepishly. “Yeah, I get it. Sorry, I’m still getting used to... this, y’know?” He gestured widely at her and the tea set.
“Believe me,” Rarity said, “I understand completely. It may surprise you to hear this, but you happen to be the first dragon I have ever befriended.”
He gasped and put a claw over his mouth. “You mean you don’t have a whole pack of dragon pals back home? I’m shocked!”
The laugh they shared brightened the mood considerably. After a moment, Rarity reached out to toy with the edge of the tablecloth. If she were completely honest with herself, she had gone overboard. “But I do hope my little speech wasn’t too unpleasant.”
Greenfire shook his head. “No, it’s fine,” he said. “I was just... amazed, I guess. I mean, how do you even remember all those ponies, much less keep track of all that crazy stuff they’re up to?”
“It’s not that difficult, darling. After all, I grew up with most of them! And Ponyville isn’t exactly a small town, but we’re nowhere near the big cities like Manehattan and Canterlot.”
“Yeah, but still...” He drummed his clawtips against the stone. “How many ponies live there?”
Rarity hummed and considered the question, lips pursed. “I can’t say that I’ve ever counted, but... perhaps a few hundred?”
The dragon’s jaw dropped. “Wow. Yeah, no, there’s no way I could keep track of that many names and faces.”
“Really, as I said, it’s not that difficult when you’ve spent your whole life with them. You don’t have trouble remembering your friends, do you?”
Greenfire’s mouth tightened and he glanced to one side. “Well, no, but... I don’t exactly have hundreds,” he said, with a casualness that couldn’t be anything but feigned.
There it was again. Forget “precious few” friendships, she was beginning to wonder if he had any aside from her. Dragons were said to be very territorial, after all... Rarity wanted to ask, but they’d only been on friendly terms for a week. It was far too early to invade his privacy.
Perhaps he would volunteer something on his own? Unlikely, but worth a try. “At any rate,” she said, “I fear I’ve gone on more than long enough for one evening. Why don’t you tell me what you’ve been up to since our last get-together?”
“Huh? Me?” Greenfire sat up a little, looking perplexed.
“Unless you see another dragon in this cave?” Rarity giggled. “I’m simply dying to know what you get up to out here.”
Greenfire settled in again and scratched his chin thoughtfully. “Huh... I dunno if it’s all that interesting. Spent some time rereading a few old books, I guess?”
“Oh, you enjoy reading?” Wasn’t that a lovely mental image? A dragon peacefully reading by torchlight, carefully turning pages with his formidable claws, maybe even with tiny reading glasses perched on his snout. It struck Rarity as almost poetic. “What sort of books do you favor?”
He shrugged at that. “Just whatever I come across, I guess. They aren’t exactly easy to come by out here.”
“I see... Well, why don’t I bring you something from the Ponyville library when I visit next?”
Rarity thought she could spend all day just watching the subtle interplay of emotions that flashed across Greenfire’s face as he thought. He was so open about everything he was feeling, as if he’d never needed to hide it, or even, perhaps, never learned how. Wide-eyed excitement was followed closely by a flash of suspicion, then careful contemplation. “I guess I wouldn’t mind that,” he finally said.
She nodded firmly. “I’ll do my best to choose something you’ll like. So, anything else? I’m sure you didn’t spend an entire week just reading.”
The thoughtful expression stayed, joined by the furrowing of his brow. But soon he seemed to have an answer. “Well,” he said in an all too casual tone, “there was that clan of manticores I ran into three days ago.”
Rarity gasped, front hooves shooting up to cover her mouth. “Manticores? An entire clan of them?” The horror had blown all thoughts of observation from her mind.
“Oh, yeah! Big ones, too.” Greenfire reared up on his hind legs, briefly towering over Rarity, and held one claw up over his head, nearly to the ceiling of the cave. “The tallest one was about this big. And they were not happy to see me.”
“Oh my goodness... If I were to run into even one manticore, I can’t imagine what I would do!” She still remembered the terror of the night she first met Greenfire, and she could picture that fear multiplied by however many monsters he’d faced. “So what happened?” she asked.
“Well, I offered to just turn around and head home, but they were mad for some reason. So they started circling around me in the clearing, and the big one pounced!” Greenfire got on all fours and did a quick horizontal jump. “I was way too fast for him, obviously, but I couldn’t really get away with his friends all around me. And I had to keep an eye on that tail of his, ‘cause manticore poison can even get through dragon scales! So I kept dodging left and right—” He swerved back and forth to illustrate. “—and waiting for him to make a mistake.”
Rarity found herself leaning forward unconsciously as Greenfire told his tale. He had a bit of a knack for it—it was the enthusiasm and emotion in his voice that did it, more than his word choice or grammar—and she would still have been anxious to know what happened next even if it hadn’t actually happened to him. She did suspect he might be embellishing just a touch, though.
“He wasn’t getting tired, so I started tossing some insults at him. If he was even trying, if those claws were just for show... When I asked if his tail had gone dull, that did the trick. He swung it right down at me—!” Greenfire swung his own claw in a swift downward arc.
And froze instantly, eyes as wide as the saucer and cup he’d just shattered.
“Greenfire!” Rarity gasped. “Oh, are you alright?”
The dragon lifted his claw slowly, as if willing the shards of porcelain not to be there when he looked down. A few pieces were lodged in between his scales, but as he opened his fist they fell to the stone to join the others. He seemed to be unharmed; scales beat porcelain, apparently.
Rarity winced at the sight of the crushed tableware, but that was a secondary concern to her friend’s well-being. “Don’t worry, dear,” she hurried to reassure him, “they can be replaced. If you’re not hurt, then there’s no harm done!”
Greenfire dropped his head into his claws with a groan. “Oh, don’t try to sugarcoat it. I’m a menace. This has gotta be the worst tea party you’ve ever had, right?”
“Far from it, darling! I’m having a lovely evening, broken cup and all.” She leaned in to whisper conspiratorially, “Remind me one day to tell you what happened when I made the mistake of inviting over the two most energetic mares in Ponyville.”
He peeked out from behind his claws. “Was it bad?”
“It’s been months since the incident, and I am still finding bits of biscuit embedded in the wallpaper!”
That got a laugh out of Greenfire, and he uncurled and stood up again. “Now that sounds like a story I wouldn’t mind hearing.”
Rarity glanced at the cave entrance and sighed; the oranges of sunset were peeking in already. “Another time, I’m afraid. It is getting late.”
“Oh, wow, I guess so. I lost track of time.” Greenfire gathered up the porcelain shards, frowning awkwardly. “You want some help getting this packed up?”
She had already begun to levitate the tea set back into her bags, carefully wrapping up each piece. “I have it under control, but thank you so much for offering! Did you enjoy our little tea party tonight?”
He rubbed his neck and nodded, looking adorably embarrassed but happy. “Yeah, it was... kinda fun. Are you coming back the same time next week?”
“Of cour—” Rarity stopped mid-word. “Oh, no, I’m sorry. I just remembered, I’ll be needing to go digging at the ridge next week. I haven’t been since the day you retrieved those gems for me, and my stock will be running low soon.” She gave him an apologetic smile. “It will have to be the day after, I’m afraid.”
“Hey, that’s fine!” Greenfire said. “Whenever works. My schedule’s open.”
She had suspected, but hadn’t wanted to assume. Rarity nodded and went back to her packing. “I’m so glad to hear that, darling. Eight days it is, then.”
“Huh... Y’know, come to think of it, that was my last trip up there too. Guess it is about time for another.” She could hear the amusement enter his voice. “Don’t worry, I’ll leave one of the nice gems for you when I’m done.”
“If you can find them,” she swiftly retorted. He might have the advantage at digging, but she had the advantage at detecting...
So why in the wild, wild world of Equestria were they working alone?
Rarity stopped her packing again and turned toward her dragon friend, beaming winningly as another brilliant idea formed in her head. “Actually, Greenfire... What would you say to a little business proposition?”