"Twilight, this is ridiculous," Spike complained in an opposing voice. He was already starting to regret allowing his pony friends the opportunity to help him the moment the words left his mouth, and what was happening now was doing nothing but strengthening this thought in spades.
Twilight sighed, rubbing a hoof onto her eyes before taking it off. "Now Spike, you know what you agreed on. At least make an attempt at this." What was sitting before them both in the grassy field they were standing in was a long-bodied, fake patchwork dragon of a very, very goofy complexion, propped up on a set of sticks as its limp head hung about like a semi-unconscious drunkard. It looked very much like what Spike remembered his friends had created when they tried to disguise themselves as a dragon during a certain great dragon migration; the same one he went to as but a child in an attempt to find out how real dragons behaved, which he found, to his surprise, very distasteful when compared to the pony society he grew up with.
With a begrudging glare overcoming his face, he finally asked her something. "What exactly do you want me to do with it, Twilight?"
"Now, it says that as soon as the gathering begins, all dragons try to impress, flatter, or otherwise woo another dragon they wish to become life-mates with," she started right off, reading directly from the book in her hooves. "They do so by various means, all meant to serve as ways to grab another's attention. Whether it's showing off, performing great feats of physical prowess, or expressing a 'rare' moment of consideration for another, it matters only to how the dragon wishes to make it. If successful in catching their fancy, the two will spend the rest of their time there attempting to get to know one another."
"Twilight..." Spike groaned again, rolling his eyes. "You don't actually expect me to speak or act like that toward a... dummy, do you? In front of you all, at least?"
"I expect you to try. And you definitely need our criticism if you want to know how well you are at it," she stated bluntly. "Just imagine this fake dragon we provided as a real one, and think of us as not being here."
Muttering something under his breath, Spike still looked doubtful about the whole experiment. Watching this predicament unfold from the side with the rest of her friends, Rarity decided it was her turn to speak up. "Come on, Spike. It's just a little test you can take as many times as you want; until the month ends, that is. A big, tough dragon like you needs to get ready to show what the lady-dragons are missing out on," she cajoled. "Try saying something that will attract her attention right off. Something that will... um... make her notice you!"
Sighing, Spike walked up to his 'opponent'. He got a closer look at the patchwork, serpentine, cone-horned monstrosity (as if there was any other way to describe it thus) standing before him, and looked into its googly-eyes. "Um..." he started quite hesitantly, rubbing his foreclaws together as he couldn't help but focus on its distracting, red-tinted, strip-of-cloth tongue, which hung loosely from it jaw like an ugly, lolling worm. "Hi, I guess? You look... nice."
"Oh, put some back into it!" Rainbow shouted, sending an echo throughout the field as she cupped her hooves around her mouth. "You're sounding like Soarin the first time he took me out on a date!"
"Rainbow, please," Rarity said again, before glancing back at her irked dragon friend. "Spike, why don't you try complimenting her scales?"
"Alright," he agreed, clearing his throat with a small cough as he returned his attention to the forged creature. "Your scales are a... lovely shade of green."
"Be more descriptive than that," Applejack continued on when he went silent after those few words. "Talk about something she takes pride in, or point out something about her that she hasn't noticed."
"And be more lively!" Pinkie Pie added. "Be much more lively!"
Deciding to actually humor them, Spike quickly thought up a more articulate conversation. Stiffening his face and with a regal bow, he started with an "Excuse me my dear, but would you care for us to get to know one another? Your scales look absolutely stunning in this lighting, your eyes dazzle with the glitter of a thousand stars, and I couldn't help but take notice of your entire, wonderful splendor from where I was just standing. It would be my greatest, and most humble honor if you were to become my life-mate."
Finished with his display, he turned back to his cohorts with a sardonic look painted on his face. "Happy?" he asked, stretching his arms out and trying his hardest not to crack a snicker some of their dumbfounded expressions.
Fluttershy appeared to be assessing the situation as she pondered what to make of it. "Well... it's a start, I guess," the pegasus finally said. "You were very sweet, but I think you might have been a little bit too... formal."
"What do you mean 'too formal'?" Spike inquired in reply, misunderstood frustration building up in his tone.
"That fancy-talk of yours might not be too well understood by some of the dragons," Applejack said once more, ringing a clear bell in his head. "Say good things about them like how you were just doing, but don't drag on and get dull."
"Like Pinkie said, be more lively," Rainbow agreed. "Be energetic. Flashy. Interesting."
Spike grumbled, turning back to the fake dragon. Letting a puff of grey smoke escape his nostrils, he thought of something and started again as all of the ponies watched with bated eyes and ears.
"This is the next challenge you'll most likely face, and, if you ask me, it's going to be even harder than the last one," Twilight enunciated. Where they all had ventured to now, not a short while after their last project, was just in front of Applejack's barn in Sweet Apple Acres. There, a dozen or so feet in front of Spike, was another creation of the ponies.
It was another faux-dragon, but this time it was made from several hay bales all stacked and strapped upon and onto one another to form an upright shape. With the way it was made, complete with a set of large, dead branches sticking from its back like a pair of haggard wings and 'snout' filled with sharp rocks that had been gathered and stuck there, it was around Spike's own height, and looked fairly more dragon-ish than his friend's last abominable creation, despite the items used in its making.
"If two dragons find that they want the same life-mate, they fight for it," the alicorn said. "It's meant to be a match of strength that shows who's most worthy. Whoever backs down first in defeat is declared the loser, and the victor takes their opponent's life-mate for their own, the latter of whom typically concedes to the matter willingly and wholeheartedly."
"I remember reading that part too," Spike sighed, remembering how he stumbled across the page containing the information not even a few hours before. "Can't say I'm too surprised about it either."
"Dragons do value power and strength above most other aspects of one's being. It's no wonder why many would view it as attractive," she spoke again. "Are you ready?"
"Come on, Twilight. Look at what it's made of. I could just breathe fire on it, and I'd win," he answered arrogantly and without any form of worry. Rolling her eyes, the alicorn's horn lit up with a bright glow.
"Just try and defend yourself physically. Fire isn't going to do anything to a real dragon in a real fight," she ordered as the magic animated the inanimate being like a puppet on strings. With a halo of purple magic covering its outline, the hay-dragon began to stomp forward, its maw snapping open and close, sending stray bits of straw falling to the green grass below like leaves in an autumn wind. Spike watched as the beast got closer, readying himself for what he thought was going to be more of a joke than an actual round of combat, when something unexpected happened.
Seeing something like this suddenly sent a sharp jolt down Spike's spine, as though he had been struck by lightning. Right off, the drake knew it was some form of his most basic and primal instincts kicking in, but one he had never yet experienced. As he crouched lower on all fours, he could feel his heart pounding away in his chest relentlessly, boiling his blood. He tried to calm himself with a series of deep breaths, but his sudden, sheer, unbridled anger at his enemy burned within him like a fire in a blazing kiln.
Claws outstretched and fangs bared, Spike lunged forth with a flap of his wings before Twilight had a chance to let her puppet get too close. Intercepting the creature as he let out a reptilian roar, the drake wrestled mercilessly with it. The two rolled about on the floor for but a single split second before he began to punch and tear at its dry silage flesh with his claws, pulling chunks of it out at a time and throwing it about like confetti.
Whatever little remained of the poor hay-dragon a scant few moments later was scattered among the dirt below like a sheet that had been utterly savaged by a timberwolf. Returning to his senses immediately, Spike spat out the straw that had entered his mouth, rubbing a claw over his tongue to rid himself of the last of it. When he finished the task, he realized the ponies were all staring at him with wide eyes and blank expressions, stunned by the act of ferocity he had committed. Even Twilight had lost her concentration on what was supposed to be a challenging foe long before he looked up.
"What?" he asked, confused.
"N-nothing..." Pinkie replied for her friends. The earth pony then turned to Applejack, who stood beside her. "I think it's safe to say that he's got the fighting-and-defending-thing down. What should happen now?"
"We do it again, Pinkie," Applejack replied in a sigh, fixing the hat over her head before slowly walking over to her barn to grab more bales, as to begin the slightly-taxing objective of making another dragon from them. "Come help me get some more supplies, if'n you may."
Repeating the same two activities several more times, Spike and the ponies found their work cut out for them. By the time the day had ended, he felt exhausted, but through the savage wrestling and (at times embarassing) dialogue sessions, he also felt motivated by his friends' help. After he and Twilight returned to the castle, they both ate a small dinner in tranquil silence, and soon afterword decided it was time to rest for the night.
Things were still very quiet between Spike and Twilight as they walked together down the castle's hall. Their pace was as slow as a couple of slugs racing each other through a garden, and the looks they both possessed at the moment filled the air with a musk of uncertainty and capriciousness. As the dragon's door came into sight, as it was the room just before Twilight's own, he made a sideways glance to the pony.
"Twilight, does your book say anything else important about the gathering? About what comes after the 'courtship' and fighting?" he asked her, allowing the awkward silence enveloping them to finally subside. "The facts I read told me some things about it, but most of them were scattered in different sections."
"Ember mentioned the Time of the Heartscale itself once before, yes. It was a few months after we first met her, actually. It wasn't a subject I really touched up on, since I was still, you know, trying to take in as much dragon culture as I could," Twilight replied, uttering a small chuckle as she still walked beside him. "She said that after the courtship and fighting is decided fully, the two will be officially recognized as a pair, and when the Time of the Heartscale nears its end, the two dragons will take to air and perform a magnificent aerial display to signify their true love for one another."
"Any... instructions on how to do said aerial display, exactly?" He anxiously reached for the doorknob and pushed his door open, showing off the dark insides of his chamber. Twilight hummed, as if trying to find a proper way to explain it, before finally responding.
"Only that when it happens, they simply know how to do it. It's pure instinct and passion that drives them to enact the feat."
"Sort of like how I reacted toward those fake dragons you had me fight against?"
"I guess. You looked quite ferocious," she said in what sounded more like a compliment than a matter of fretting. "If you have to have a little tussle with another dragon, I'm sure you'll fare well against them. Especially if you never forget that you still have your smarts, Spike."
Spike let out an amused chuckle. "Yeah, I hope so. Sorry if I scared you and the others, I just felt so... enraged when I saw it. I can barely describe it as anything else but that. It was if someone was... taking something from me. Something I valued greater than any other item I've ever had. Is that bad?"
"Don't worry about it, Spike. Like you said, I'm sure it's just a natural reaction that's preparing you for what's coming up soon." Twilight's words gave the young drake a bout of much-needed comfort. With a cheerful smile on his lips, Spike started to enter his room.
"I hope you have a good night, Twilight," he spoke in a small voice over his shoulder.
"And good night to you too," she replied in kind. "You're going to do good when the time comes. With us helping, you'll do spectacularly, just wait and see."
Closing his door with a satisfied grin, Twilight began to trot off to her own quarters, leaving Spike alone. As he paced over to his bed, his tail thumping behind him the whole time, he took the alicorn's final words into account.
"I hope so," he said to himself in a small whisper. "I hope so."