Natural Selection

It was good to be back in a wooded area. Spike didn't know how the birds could stand to sing when pony teeth could pluck them from the sky at any second, but they did, and he appreciated the background music. He remembered enough of the map to know where he was in a broad way, too – over to the left (west) of Ponyville. A determined run for a few minutes would get him to high ground and the dam, if he had any reason to need 'em. But what really took over his brain was that subtle smell, that smell that had made Garble think Equestria wasn't such a bad place to be in after all (ignoring that Garble had been a total schmuck). The scent of rich mineral clusters. Gemstones. Finally, something delicious that he could eat without feeling horrible.

He found a likely-looking boulder and, not interested in playing any namby-pamby games, just sliced it in half with a firm stroke of his stiffened tail. The top fell off and he started drooling, eyes and mouth wide, at the sight within. It was full of all kinds of gems, diamonds, rubies, amethysts sprinkled about like confetti. As far as Spike knew, that wasn't how gems grew in the rest of the world, but whatever, pony magic was pony magic. He dug in without a further thought, at first prying out the gems with both claws and then getting impatient and just biting off the ones he could reach with his teeth.

A few minutes later, he withdrew his face, covered in pebbles and gem dust, and groaned happily, patting his full tummy. Oh yeah. That was the stuff. Now he felt like he could hike over mountains, swing on jungle vines, do whatever crazy thing was required to move around in arctic tundras! Yeah, this would be a good location to set up a temporary base. It was a nice little spot of woods, but with just enough thorns and other inconveniences that the ponies didn't go in for pleasure hikes. Now he just needed to find a nice little cave – if he didn't want to just dig one himself – and a source of water.

The water revealed itself before the cave, and he uncovered a stream that had probably been too small to put on the map. Spike started to follow it upstream to make sure it wasn't dirtied up by anything nearby... and to make sure there weren't any ponies hanging around, like the last time he'd found a stream.

Upstream, of course, led him back in the direction of the pony town. He could see the distant shapes of their painfully cute little houses already. How typical. Still, nothing risked, nothing gained and all that jazz. He told himself that the moment the trees stopped, he'd stop too, but they just kept on going. Spike was starting to enjoy his little stroll just when he heard a rough, familiar voice that made him stop cold.

"Come on, Fluttershy, this would be so much easier if you'd help!"

That was the crazy rainbow pegasus's voice! Just his friggin' luck! And it sounded close. Like, just a few trees away. Spike peered around frantically until he pinpointed the source. The tree line ended suddenly on his right side in a few measly yards, and past that was a cottage where Rainbow 'Crash' was half-talking, half-yelling to another, butter-colored pegasus.

"Look, I know you don't like doing hunts, but we really need everypony to pitch in! This Spike guy's attacked at least two ponies already, and some ponies are even saying he might've broken into AJ's place! What if he's got that crazy foaming at the mouth disease or something, huh? What if he comes for you next?"

The yellow pegasus squeaked and cowered back against her cottage, her face vanishing behind her long mane.

Okay, Rainbow Dash had officially gained a check on the 'dangerously obsessive' box in Spike's mental checklist. This was just nuts. Sure, he'd hurt a friend of hers... but only a little! And okay, maybe that thing with Rarity had been mostly unprovoked, but it wasn't like she hadn't deserved it. So he didn't want to die, how did that equal having rabies?! He wasn't even sure if dragons could get rabies! The ponies were the crazy ones, not him!

"Pleeeease, Fluttershy? We need your pets. Plus I broughtcha a sweet meat pie," Rainbow Dash added, pulling the steaming round tin over and waving it in the still-hair-blinded Fluttershy's face. "It's veal, that stuff is way pricey, but I thought you might like it better because it's all soft and fatty so it's easy to swallow."

"Oh, thank you very much," Fluttershy said so softly that Spike could barely hear her over the mild breeze. Weirdly enough, she sounded almost as nauseous as Spike felt from looking at it. "I guess... if it's that important... I could help a little bit..."

"That's the spirit! I knew you had it in ya!" Rainbow Dash patted her friend's back so hard the other pegasus stumbled. "We need to get started right away, no tellin' how far off the little twerp is by now!"

"Um, okay. Release the hounds," Fluttershy said in a voice barely louder than her earlier one, and at that point, Spike decided running away was probably a good idea.

Hounds. Hounds, seriously?! No, wait, it was okay, he could use the stream to hide his scent. But he had to get further off so they didn't hear the splashing. Spike pumped his legs as fast as he could right back the way he'd come, cursing himself for having acquired a stalker. Okay, sure, from their point of view maybe he did kind of look like an out of control bandito or something, but it was still totally their fault for being such, such PONIES! At least he was pretty sure he could beat that other pegasus if it came to it. She looked like a total wuss. Skinny, too; either she was a major dieter or she had some food supply issues goin' on, because she looked a few missed meals away from being a poster filly for anorexia. Thank goodness they weren't all mad athletic types like Rainbow Dash and Braeburn.

He heard three sets of barks. And they were closing. Great, they'd already picked him up, life was so unfair! It was kind of hilarious that he'd just wandered by at the right time to become dog food, he bet the ponies were almost as freaked as he was. Beware the big bad Spike, 'cause he's gonna break into your home and GETCHA! Yeah, he wished he was that scary.

Okay, so they already knew he was here, it was probably too late to jump in the water and wash away his smell to escape. But there were still trees, and he hoisted himself up one with claws that had zero problems with gripping bark. Now all he had to do was figure out a way to climb or jump over to the next tree, and keep on like that for a while until they'd lost track of him. They couldn't smell him all the way up here, could they?

A few very dangerous tree-hops later, his blood pounding in his ears, Spike saw three dogs bound into view underneath him. Big gray diamond dogs with floppy ears and lolling tongues. They didn't seem too bright; as soon as the biggest one stopped in front of the first tree, the medium one ran into the big one and the littlest one into the medium one, and they sprawled in a pile, barking and whimpering in confused indignation. Figuring that moving would be certain to give him away now, Spike settled in tight close to the trunk and hoped they wouldn't think to look up. The branches provided some cover, but purple kind of stuck out. Truly, being a handsome dragon was sometimes a curse.

The diamond dogs ran in circles for a while, sniffing at the ground, other trees, the stream. They didn't seem to grasp the idea of 'up,' though, and just keep running around like he was going to magically appear in front of them if they sniffed hard enough.

Home free. All he had to do now was wait, and Spike was, if he did say so himself, a champion at waiting.

Then the yellow pegasus, Fluttershy, hovered over, barely above the ground and fluttering in a very butterfly way, looking every which way in clear nervousness.

"Ohmygoodnessohmygoodnessohmy goodness..." she was mumbling to herself, her head going left, right, down, to the stream, to every tree and shadow and rock, and... up.

They froze, staring at each other, neither of them breathing while around her, the dogs continued their aimless yapping.

Spike slowly moved a hand behind him, looking for a breakable branch, anything at all that he could throw at her. Then she put her hoof to her mouth in the universal 'Shhhh' gesture, and he hesitated, bewildered.

"Didja find 'im?! Didja find 'im?!" Rainbow Dash called excitedly through the sound of branches cracking up all around from her usual mode of transportation.

"He went that way!" Fluttershy called out, pointing to the far side of the stream deep into the woods, right where he'd come from in the first place.

Mutts and Rainbow Dash both zoomed off in the completely wrong direction while Spike took a moment to wonder what the heck was going on. Did she want to eat him all by herself? Maybe bake him into a special snack for the doggies. But that wouldn't explain why she misled the dogs too, or why she acted like she was helping him hide. What kind of trick was this?

When the extremely loud sounds of dogs and Dash were gone, Fluttershy looked up again through her curtain of pink mane and addressed him with the softest, most gentle voice a pony'd ever used on him before. "It's okay, I'm not going to hurt you. Oh, you look so scared! You really shouldn't be here, you know."

This trick didn't make any sense at all! And like he would be scared of one dumb pegasus after everything he'd gone through, hah! Spike puffed up angrily. "I'm not scared, you stupid-" And then he lost his footing and fell.

...straight into her outstretched hooves.

He couldn't help but scream just a little bit as he flailed around until he got to the ground again, ready to high tail it. But after ten trees, that repetitive background drone in pony vocals finally got processed in his head as words, and he stopped.

"I'msorryI'msorryI'msorryI'msorryI'msorry..."

Spike turned around to stare at the pony, every ounce of him feeling it was a trap, like hooves and teeth could spring out of the air from all directions if he didn't run away right now. Even though it didn't make sense. Even though she could have just had him killed a few seconds ago, either time. She'd said he looked scared, but she was the one who was shrinking against her own skinny, underfed body, hiding behind her mane, hooves slid close together and worrying the ground anxiously.

But curious always beat fear, just like fear always beat practically everything else except curiosity.

"Why?" he asked after taking a very few carefully measured steps back towards her, still ready to run. Every less blade of grass between them was a tiny bit of space closer to being dinner, and still...

"I just don't want anypony to be hurt," she said sadly, body slumping. "Or any, um, anydragon, I mean. I don't want anyone at all to be hurt. If, if that's okay with you."

"That... is fantastic with me," he said with a slightly shaky voice. He didn't want to believe, not after Rarity, but... "You still eat meat, right?" His eyes narrowed accusingly.

She started crying, which to Spike seemed completely unfair. Monsters should not be allowed to cry. Especially not big tears with sniffles that they tried to hide like they were ashamed of it.

"I'm sorry! I don't want to! I try not to, not very much, and sometimes even when I do I just feel so bad about it that it comes right back up. But th-they make me... when they see I'm not eating..."

"I've seen you guys eat vegetables, why don't you just eat those?" he asked, starting to want to give her a hug. But it was a trap. It was a trap, it was always a trap, he was just... testing out the lure, that was all he was doing.

"Oh, I do, but it hurts my stomach when I eat more than a fourth of a salad at a time," she whispered, turning her head aside and blushing. "I, um, I drink a lot of tea." Then she tilted her head to look at him straight on, and squeaked and hid her face behind her mane when she saw him looking right back.

This seemed like the right time to clear up some misconceptions and nasty rumors that were floating around about him.

"I'm not gonna hurt you if you're not gonna try to eat me or anything," he offered cautiously.

A plump little crow fluttered down at her hoof and he wanted to cry out 'Run, you bird-brain!' before it got snapped up. But even though Fluttershy saw it, he was sure she saw it, she didn't try to eat it. She didn't do anything to it at all.

"Look, if you really don't want anyone to get hurt, can you tell me a place I can go to be safe from ponies? Someplace where you guys won't try to hunt me or eat me or anything, ever?"

She looked at him with the confused face of someone who had been asked a college level math question when they were still working through what one plus one equaled. "I don't know of any place like that, I'm sorry mister dragon." Her lips opened to let out the tiniest of sighs. "Maybe someplace really far away from Equestria?"

He laughed bitterly, making her flinch like he'd smacked her. "I only got here a little while ago but ponies have been hunting me all my life. You guys are sick, you know that? I don't wanna run anymore. Maybe I'll just go dig a hole and hide in it forever. At least I'll have plenty of gems that way."

"Oh, don't say that mister dragon!" she entreated him, holding front hooves together. "I'm sure your life will be full of happiness and gems and, damsels or whatever else it is dragons like! I can't believe that someone as smart as you would have any problems."

Spike blinked. Was she trying to butter him up so he'd lower his guard? "I'm not that smart."

"Yes, you are, mister, and I don't want to hear you talking yourself down like that," she scolded him in a motherly way, which made him blink even more. "You're still alive, and as long as there's life, there's hope! You even tricked Rainbow Dash into losing a hunt, and that's hard for anyprey to do." Her facial expression shifted to something a bit gloomier. "She doesn't like losing," she added darkly.

"Sheesh, tell me about it. I mean, I didn't even hurt her personally and I feel like she's tracking me everywhere I go now! I wouldn't even make that big a meal, she's probably burnt up twenty times the carbs I'd give her trying to find me!" Spike actually walked right up to her, he was so caught up in his complaining, and he jumped back as soon as he was realizing he was doing it, finding a tree to hide behind.

"She just... tries very hard, that's all," Fluttershy said vaguely, and then giggled. "Gosh, I've never met anyprey as shy as me before. Especially not a dragon. I didn't know they started out so cute, either!"

Okay, things were clearly getting TOO comfortable. You couldn't let the enemy know you were weak! "I am NOT cute! I'm a cold-blooded killa with a heart of stone and claws of ice!"

"Oh, okay, mister cold-blooded killa, but then why did you ask me for a safe place to go to if you're that dangerous?"

Crud. "Err. I didn't care, I just wanted to know if you knew."

She giggled again and he flushed.

"Look, this is... um, never mind," she interrupted herself. "You should probably go now in case anypony or anydoggy else comes."

She started to walk off – walk, not fly, even though her wings looked fine. The change in position gave him a quick glimpse of her flank symbol, an angular grass-green contrasting the rest of her fur, but he couldn't make it out better than that.

"What," he asked flatly to her tail.

She paused and half-turned back around.

Mumblesqueakymumble.

"What was that?"

"I was just saying..." Mumblesqueakitysqueak.

Spike clapped a hand over his face and dragged it downwards. He was getting nervous standing still and holding a conversation like this. And she wasn't helping by being so... so... shy! Was this reverse psychology? He totally didn't get this pony.

"Look. Fluttershy, right? If you've got anything else to say before I continue the epic journey of Spike running away from ponies, say it loud."

"Um. Well, if you wanted to. That is to say, I mean, maybe you could... stay with me?" The last three words were so soft they were more like a vibration that a noise, and he half lip read them to get the general idea.

"Stay with you," he repeated, making sure he'd gotten that right.

"Like the diamond dogs and all my other cuddly little friends," she explained, turning back around. "I keep lots of prey as, as pets, because that way nopony tries to eat them. Everypony thinks I'm strange because of it but. Well." She smiled halfheartedly. "I guess I kind of am strange. I'm sorry, I'll let you go now."

"Wait." He looked for any sign, any reason to distrust her, and saw nothing. "You want me to be your pet? And I'll be safe?"

"Not actually be my pet, just, um, pretend." Her eyes shifted to one side. "I know dragons don't like to be owned by ponies, but it's the only way other ponies would know not to eat you, besides the. Err. Inn. Which you can't do anymore, because you hurt Rarity, and I'm sure you didn't mean to, but-"

Yeah, that ship had sailed.

"I meant to," he told her, and watched her body stiffen, her eyes widen in a fright. Wow, the pony being afraid for a change. It didn't feel nice like he thought it would have.

"But you wouldn't do it again, I'm sure. You're such a nice little dragon."

Spike thought through his answer very carefully before saying it. "I would if they hurt me or tried to hurt me."

"Because you'd be scared. I wouldn't blame you for being scared. I'm scared all the time."

That, he could believe.

"Do you hurt people when you get scared?"

They had closed in again during conversation. Somehow she had a way of making distance evaporate without it seeming like a violation of Spike's internal safety radius. Fluttershy leaned in after looking around for a second, and it didn't even occur to Spike to jump back by now.

"One time I stepped on an ant. It was horrible," she whispered with a stoney serious face, as though it was some great terrible secret. "His legs just kept... twitching..." She was starting to cry again, good grief.

The realization struck him and made him want to laugh so much. She wasn't just not murderous, she was a great big wussy! Probably the wussiest pony in all Equestria! He waved his arms to distract her from her memories until she snapped out of it and began blushing from embarrassment instead of crying, which was probably as good as it was gonna get.

"Okay, okay, okay, I get it. But... even if I did stay with you..." So weird, to think about something like this when a few minutes ago he'd been ready to attack her. Hurt her. "Even if I did, wouldn't the dogs know I'm here and give me away?"

"Oh, no, I don't let them inside since they did something naughty on the rug. And even if I did, I have so many pets that their noses would be too confused to smell you. As long as you stayed out of sight, I'm sure it would be fine!" she said breathily, her marshmallowy voice managing what seemed like her best approximation of a loud, happily enthusiastic exclamation.

These were his options. Trust a strange pony he'd just met was friends with Rainbow Dash and who'd probably betray him like every other pony, or go back into the woods and probably get caught because a crazy pegasus and three dogs were looking for him in the area right now. So, bad and worse.

He'd said he was tired of running, and he'd meant it, but he kept running anyway. How much was he really willing to risk here? Hadn't he been hurt enough? Wasn't it time to give up on ponies? But something in him sank at the thought.

Spike's eyes went back to the crow. Fluttershy had stretched out a hoof for it to perch on, perfectly content to play furniture for something that anypony else would have gobbled up in a second. That was what made up his mind for him.

"I guess I could use a place to rest while I get a new map and junk," he said as casually as possible, waiting to see that light of hunger in her eyes, drool drip from her mouth, all the signs of a hunter glad that the prey had been suckered in so easily...

Fluttershy smiled as the bird made itself at home in her mane, both of them seeming as happy as could be. "Oh, I'm so glad! I promise I won't let anything happen to you, mister Spike. And I can get lots and lots of gems so your baby dragon bones can get big and strong!"

Mmmm, gems. This was seeming like a slightly less insane idea every second.

But. He did have his standards.

"Just one thing."

"Yes, Spike?"

He stopped following her and pointed a claw at her face firmly, steeling his face muscles and turning his gaze into ice. "Don't mess with me. Don't trick me, don't backstab me, don't hurt me. I mean it. Because if you do, I'll hurt you back. I'm not your food and I'm not gonna let anypony hurt me ever again, got that?!" His voice wobbled with anger a bit at that last sentence. That was anger it was wobbling with, a warrior's rage, that was all it was.

She looked at his last stand sermonizing with blankly. "Oh, Spike..." she finally said, reaching with both hooves.

Spike stiffened up and flexed his claws, but instead of an attack, she drew him into a hug so soft it could've been made of clouds, her head and neck leaning down and her eyes closing as her delicate and weirdly flowery pony scent filled the air around him. He could've gotten out of it any time he wanted, there was absolutely no attempt to restrict or restrain him. A sneeze could've broken it, even.

"Shhhh, it's okay. I won't hurt you. I promise," she murmured so, so softly in his ear.

He believed her, and almost hated himself for it, unable to think a clear thought with the warmth of her body and the pink framing of her delicate mane and the smell of her pony body all over the place.

"Okay, sure, but can you stop hugging me now? Guys don't do that kinda thing." That was the bluff he used, and thankfully it worked, because she immediately backed off before he felt the need to completely freak out.

This wasn't like Rarity. This was going to be different. Maybe. But even if it was like Rarity, all he really needed was a few days to rest, get some gems stockpiled, get some supplies and things. He didn't have to put himself 'out there.'

Small talk. Small talk would make it all cool.

"So, how many pets do you... hooOOOoooOOOoooly moly, you have a zoo in your backyard!"

Vultures, crows, eagles and falcons dominated the skies and every branch of every tree. The portion of the stream that ran past Fluttershy's cottage seemed dominated by the dark green bumps of alligator eyes just barely peeking out of the water. In the fields nearby, mountain lions slept in sunny patches like overgrown house cats while large brown bears took up the spots with the softest, thickest grass. Snakes curled up in empty stumps and logs. So many animals, more than Spike had ever seen in one place before, all of them mysteriously not fighting each other. In a faintly eerie callback to the Inn and its bracelets, each of them had a collar; a dark brown leather loop with a little metal tag with a wobbly cursive symbol on it.

All of them, it occurred to Spike, were carnivorous.

And they were all looking at him very, very interestedly.

"Everyone, this is Spike," Fluttershy told her menagerie with something actually resembling a tone of authority. "He's going to be staying with us for a little while, but he eats gems, so you don't need to worry about sharing your treats. Now I don't want to hear about anyone trying to sneak a nibble on him, is that clear?" There was a terrifying racket of fearsome animal sounds that would probably be haunting Spike's dreams for weeks to come, to which Fluttershy replied as though they'd been clear words. "That's good. I'm so proud of you for taking this so well, I know dragons can seem strange or even scary, but Spike is going to be on his best behavior."

"Yep! No fire-breathing or nothing," Spike put in with a nervous chuckle, regretting it when the animals looked at him again. He actually cowered against the pony, that was how intimidated he was. Never going to live this down.

Then they got inside, and Spike was only slightly comforted by the hiding space afforded by the walls, since there were almost as many animals – smaller ones, but still – inside as out. He took note of the species. Still no plant eaters, although there were some carrion eaters and mixed diet critters, carnivores still dominant. They had little hidey holes in the walls, beds and racks built in to the furniture. Even when he looked up, he flinched to see dozens of amazingly ugly bats hanging from the ceiling.

"Bug eaters I guess?" he asked his apparent hostess squeamishly. Eating bugs wasn't so bad, considering all the menu possibilities in a pony town.

"Oh, no," Fluttershy replied as she fussed around with them, giving little nudges and pats with her hooves. Spike relaxed, happily surprised that she had at least one group of fruit-eating critters around. "They suck blood from livestock." And then he unrelaxed, looking back up with extra, extra wariness.

He was almost afraid to ask, but...

"Do you have a room that isn't full of animals?"

Fluttershy seemed bemused, as if anyone not wanting to be surrounded by animals all the time was weird.

"Well, I try to keep the guestroom upstairs clear just in case somepony comes over..."

"I'll take it!" With this kind of crowd, he didn't really expect to get a whole room to himself, but all these eyes were making him twitchy, and even just a smaller amount of roommates than usual would be just terrific.

To his surprise, she did let him have the entire guestroom, which was full of snuggly quilts and picture books with big old-timey covers. With the windows shaded, he almost felt safe. Almost.

"Now it's very important that you remember not to go outside unless it's absolutely necessary. I'm not right in the middle of Ponyville, but ponies do come by here sometimes, especially the mailpony, so..."

"Ya don't have to tell me twice, sister." He started flipping through a picture book. It was a story about ponies making friends in a classroom or some garbage like that. He hated how happy they looked.

"Okay, well..." She seemed at a loss now, hesitating, and he smiled up at her encouragingly. "I don't really have anything for you to eat right now, but I'll go get some gems at the market right away."

Fattening him up? No, no, she didn't need his PERMISSION to do that, she could have just caught him. Still, the back of Spike's brain continued to suspect while the rest of it embraced her apparently total wussiness.

"That's alright, I found some growing wild today. You don't have to worry about it."

"Aww, you're such a sweetie. I guess I'll leave you alone for a little bit... I still have a lot to do today, but I'll see you early in the evening at the very latest, okay?"

"Sure thing." He was still testing out the bed, which was thick but firmer than the Inn's, and the quilts were warm and heavy. "Thanks tons, Fluttershy. You're a life saver."

"Um, is that literally, I think?"

They giggled together while Spike tried to spot any signs of hunger in her, any clues that would point to tricks or lies or cravings for flesh. Nothing. She was just a scaredy pony who couldn't even stand to be a pony. Then she commented on him not blinking very much and he made a point to blink very regularly just so she wouldn't suspect that he was suspecting anything.

She brought him up a big bowl of lemon wedge-decorated quartz for dinner, staying only briefly before apologizing and heading out to deal with more pet-related duties. He spent most of his spare time, once he was done with the picture books, thinking up new plans for the upcoming glorious revolution. Could he burn that meat factory down? Nah, it was mostly metal. Some kind of sabotage for sure, but he had to be careful since they already suspected he'd gone there once. Mess with the wagons? Poisoning the food supplies would be super easy once he figured out what to use, but even now he was kinda shying away from the idea of killing ponies at random. There were limits, lines you had to draw. This was war, but war wasn't an excuse to be a total jerkwad.

He found some crayons and some paper and scribbled down a few pictures of ideas, including what he remembered of the Ponyville map. Maybe a social revolution would work better than violence. An underground prey-freeing chain of vegetarian ponies. Now that he knew that Fluttershy was around, he figured there had to be more ponies like her somewhere. And if not, well, they'd just make some more! The required elements were still slipping him by, but he figured for sure that Fluttershy's insane levels of raw kindness were a good starting point. She was so nice it was beyond belief.

Just like how Rarity had been so generous with her time and all the services at the Inn...

Spike clocked himself on the side of the head and the guilt of hurting Rarity submerged again. No time for regrets when you were walkin' the line. He figured Fluttershy wouldn't mind if he used her shower, so he had a quick one to get his mind off of things and came out feeling like a whole new dragon – not to mention one that smelled like apricot. Her bathing accessories were all flower and fruit-scented! That had to be a good sign.

The windows latched, but the door didn't lock. Spike made a note to find a way to barricade it quickly if he had to. When he found himself scribbling a picture of a pony with a purple mane instead of revolution plans, he officially called a break from the planning and set his crayons and papers under the bed.

The biggest scare of the evening was hearing Rainbow Dash hollering about something outside. He couldn't hear what, exactly, but he could dang well guess. Thankfully the loudmouth never came inside, and that was good enough.

The second biggest scare was looking over and suddenly seeing a huge hairy spider in the corner, staring back with all eight beady black eyes.

"You. You are seriously creepy," he told the spider, then smirked. "But I've seen creepier." He decided the spider could stay and keep the flies and other annoying bugs out.

He didn't mind being cooped up. It was a nice change after being on the lam for so long. He didn't mind being left alone, either. It was good that Fluttershy was too busy to pay too much attention to him, because attention from ponies was generally a bad thing, and they were both nervous around each other as it was. The digs were nice, but homely nice, not classy nice, so he wasn't worried about messing anything up. And if he really had to, hey, he could always just jump out of the window, make a rolling landing on the grass, and be off at a run to the treeline. He had it all figured out.

Yes, Spike, things are finally going your way.

His idle thoughts on how practical or useful it was to try to make a shiv out of a toothbrush (and whether Fluttershy would miss her spare toothbrush) were interrupted by Fluttershy wishing him a goodnight through the cracked open door.

"G'night, Fluttershy. Thanks again for, you know, not killing me or anything."

We would just have to see how long that held out, wouldn't we? He kind of wanted to know what had happened to the meat pie, but not badly enough to ask and upset her. At least he was still sure he could beat her up if it came to that. Go for the eyes. But now, those thoughts made him feel a little ashamed of himself.

"Oh, you're welcome Spike. Thanks for not killing me too." She said it like it was a joke.

He snickered. "Whatever."

Sleep didn't want to come. Too used to the field, to being prey, Spike just half-drowsed, one eye half-open, vaguely aware of shapes and colors and sounds even with all the lights in his brain dimmed down to nearly nothing. It was nice though.

Some time later, the door creaked a little, and that cold, sneaky, always-terrified part of his brain perked up just the littlest bit. Light came through in a gentle sliver, and a pony's outline was in the doorway. Her hooves made absolutely no sound on the floor as she walked over, bent her head down and pressed her mouth to his face.

Then all of Spike's mental lights snapped on at once, harsh and uncompromising, and he flipped out. Screaming at the top of his lungs, he grabbed the nearest thing he could find, which was a table lamp, and flung it at the pony's face, smashing it in shards of ceramic and glass. He lashed out with claws next, but the pony was already running away, escaping, sobbing. He was victorious.

Panting and shaking, Spike stood on the bed, unable to think clearly enough to understand or plan or do anything but listen to all his memories that screamed at him to run, run, the ponies were the enemies, they always wanted to hurt you, always, always.

Then he realized what she'd been doing.

She'd pressed her lips on his forehead. They'd been pursed. Not open. Not open at all.

She'd been kissing him goodnight.

The enormity of what had happened, the mistake he'd made, hit him full force and he started crying, raging against himself for doing so but completely unable to stop, blinding himself with it. The only pony who honestly seemed to want the same thing he wanted, for everyone to just stop hurting each other, a pony who'd invited him into her very own home and bought him gems and saved him from Rainbow Dash and kissed him goodnight and he had smashed a flipping lamp in her face.

He was a terrible dragon! The spider glaring at him over in its corner seemed to agree.

"I'm gonna fix this," he told the spider on the off chance that it could care, because sleeping in the same room with a spider that had personal reasons to be mad at you just seemed like a bad idea on general principles. "Don't worry, I'll make it all right."

He had no idea how he was gonna do that, except that it would start with an apology. Fluttershy's sobs were still very audible, she sounded like she was still upstairs too. Probably in her bedroom or the bathroom. He hopped off the bed, winced at the sound of broken lamp underfoot, and gingerly made his way out into the hall where an infinity of upset-looking bats, owls, rats, voles, snakes and other critters looked at him with silent resentment.

Okay, how ironic would it be if he lived through all this pony stuff just to die to pets because he'd been mean to the kindest pony he'd ever met? Oh yeah, irony. It was hilarious stuff.

The light was on in the bathroom and the door was closed. He knocked.

"Fluttershy?"

More sobbing with some sniffles thrown in.

"I'm sorry, Fluttershy, I just, I just panicked, I'm not used to..." He took a breath, calmed down and started again, wiping away his own tears. "I'm not used to ponies being nice to me. It means a lot, but I just got scared. Are you okay? Did I hurt you?"

"N-no, I'm f-f-f-fine. I'm s-sorry I w-w-w-w-woke you!"

"You don't sound fine."

"I-i-it's just a f-f-ew sc-scratches..."

She started crying again, and he sighed. "Fluttershy? I'm coming in."

He ignored her inevitable protests and opened the door slowly, very carefully keeping his face neutral as he took in the damage. He hadn't hurt her eyes, thank goodness. There were just some slivers in her snout and a little redness from bruising.

"You don't look so bad. Come on, bend your head down and I'll get the shards out, okay? It's easier for me to do it than you." He wiggled his fingers pointedly, and she nodded, leaning down.

It wasn't so easy with her flinching with every little movement he made, so he kept talking to keep her distracted, and that seemed to work. As long as they didn't look at each other's eyes directly.

"I'm sorry about your lamp."

"O-oh, it was a really ch-cheap one anyway."

"I'll get you a new one."

"You don't h-have to do that."

"Let me? Pretty please?"

"Oh, well... alright, I suppose, if it's not too much trouble..."

Great, now he just need to find a way to get money, as a prey species and wanted fugitive in the land of ponies, without taking it from the pony he was trying to apologize to. Maybe he could just steal a lamp. Sigh, why was his life always so complicated?

"Almost done... there. Do you have any bandaids?"

She did, and he plastered them over every cut. If she got infected or something he would never forgive himself.

"Maybe... we could sit and talk for a bit?" he asked after they stared at each other awkwardly for way longer than he was comfortable with. "Unless you're really sleepy."

"That... sounds nice." Her eyes hovered over to one side of his head. "Oh dear, you gave yourself a cut! And we're all out of bandaids! Here, take one of mine..."

"No no no, that's okay," he waved her off quickly. He hadn't even remembered cutting himself. Wait, when he'd jumped up, he'd banged his head a little on the bedhead, that'd probably been it. A quick peek in the mirror told him it was a totally ignorable little thing. "I mean, we'd probably mix up germs or something that way, right?"

That seemed to persuade her after it was combined with a long, steady stare, but he still had to sit through her dabbing at it with a moist cotton swab. It gave him ample opportunity to wonder how ponies used things with their hooves, and even after seeing it, he was still wondering.

After that trial was over, she made a pot of tea that smelled like rose petals and they sat together on her couch with just one lamp on (and its reflection in infinite critter eyes) to see by. He drank politely, didn't much like the taste of it, but it was made out of plants, so he loved her for drinking it. For a few minutes they just sat like that, both of them still shaking a bit, leaning against each other, getting used to each other's company. Remembering not to be afraid.

You'd think it'd be easy, a little thing like that, but it wasn't.

It wasn't easy at all.

He bothered to pay attention to her flank symbol for a change. The pair of praying mantises cut a sharply green shape against her side, clashing with the rest of her in every possible way. He wouldn't have picked something like that for her if he'd been in charge of giving ponies their magical symbol things. She was such a fluttery, delicate thing, she should have... maybe moths. Something like that.

"What's that mean?" he asked her. He'd always been curious as to what those symbols were about. "You ponies all have different ones but I never heard why."

"My cutie mark? That's just a symbol of my special talent," Fluttershy replied, more at ease now that she was being asked something simple that she could explain in a general way. "All ponies have them. Rainbow Dash has a storm cloud and a rainbow lightning bolt because she's very, um, fast, loud, brave and, well..."

"Violent?"

"Volatile," Fluttershy corrected him with a faint smile and a twinkle in her eyes. "She's also very loyal to her friends, which is why she's been after you for so long."

"Guess it's a good thing you're not the loyal one or I'd be dragon stew now, huh."

She shuddered, and actually gagged a little on her tiny sip of tea before swallowing it, a reaction he watched with silent interest. "Please don't talk like that, Spike, it's just so... awful."

"Sorry. So, cutie marks are always about a pony's personality?"

"Oh, it can be about personality, interests, careers, even hobbies. For instance, Miss Cheerilee in town teaches all the little foals how to catch prey on a hunt with special traps, so her Cutie Mark is a bunch of flytrap flowers."

Not really making him feel better, but he didn't want to make her feel like she'd said anything wrong, so he kept quiet. This was what pony society was, anyway. No use wigging out every two seconds.

"So why is yours two praying mantises?"

He wasn't trying to get any leverage on her or anything. He just really wanted to know because it seemed strange for her. Just like keeping a bunch of ferocious beasts around seemed strange. Of course, he might as well have been a ferocious beast too, to the ponies. It was all... what was the phrase, it was all related? No, it was all relative, that was it.

She was quiet for a very long time and he wondered if he shouldn't have asked. Spike was on the very verge of apologizing when she began talking again, rubbing a hoof idly at one of the bandaids covering the bridge of her nose.

"Most pegasi live up in the clouds, and I wasn't a very strong flier when I was very young. Before I could really fly, I had an accident and fell down to the ground. Luckily, bunches of cute little butterflies were there to catch my fall. I wonder sometimes if things would be different if I had butterflies for a Cutie Mark. They just feed on flowers, you know."

He nodded and they shared a serious, sad look between them, the first where neither of them flinched back after meeting an even stare.

"A little while after the butterflies saved me, I learned about all the other amazing critters on the ground. I'd never been there before, you see, and I liked all the cuddly-wuddly creatures so much I just wanted to sing. And I found a pair of little praying mantises on a leaf. They were..." She blushed and looked away. "They were mumblesqueakity."

"They were what?" He leaned in closer, and something small and hard at her belly dug into his side and he wondered what it was. He didn't want to mention it in case it was some kind of deformity or medical condition – which, seeing as how she was skinny as a rake, would make tons of sense.

"They were making little mantis babies," she gasped out, and he snickered behind a hand. "Do you... do you know about that, Spike?"

"Yeah, I saw a couple griffins doing it with whips and stuff through a window two years ago," he said with a casual wave of a hand. You didn't live the life he lived and not know about the facts of life – ALL of them – pretty quick.

She spat her tea back into her cup, looking almost as freaked as he'd ever seen her, which was lots.

"Oh! Well then. Um. Anyway." She cleared her throat and sipped the tea she'd just spat out and he grimaced, looking away so she wouldn't see. "Anyway, they were making l-love, and after they were done..." She quieted, looking down. "After they were done... the momma mantis... ate the daddy mantis."

"No way! Sick!" Finally, something so horrible even a pony wouldn't do it. Man, that was messed up.

"I felt like that too, especially when I first saw it. In some ways I still feel that way." Her eyes wandered around her home vaguely. "But later, I learned that mantises only do that because they need the nourishment to survive. Momma mantises especially because they need extra food for their babies. It's very sad, but... if she didn't do it, lots of baby mantises could die. So it was cruel to the daddy mantis. But it was kind to the babies."

"And when you saw that you got your Cutie Mark? I still don't get it though. What does that have to do with you? I'm pretty sure you're not gonna eat me." No matter what his body told him in a blind nighttime panicky lamp-smashing incident. That damp warmth on his face had just been a kiss. The most harmless and caring of gestures.

Fluttershy quieted again, sipping her tea until it was all gone. Spike's own eyes roamed to see lamp light reflecting from infinite little animal eyes. Would they attack if she weren't there to say no? How much did they care about their mistress being hurt? How many of them were real pets, and how many were just 'pets' as cover, like him? Was there even a difference in the end, anyway?

"Everything is very... controlled... here in Ponyville. In all of Equestria, really. We like to think of nature as kind and compassionate. Us ponies, I mean. But it's also cruel and mean, and the two sides are often the same thing at the same time. I just want every living creature to love every other living creature, because I know every living thing is worth loving and I can't stand to see anything in pain. But when I realized that was impossible, I got my Cutie Mark. I realized..."

Her eyes drifted down, lost in memories.

"Everybody needs to eat?" he asked quietly, not looking at her.

"...yes," she said at last, soft and ashamed, just as unable to look at him as he was unable to look at her. "The weak get eaten by the strong. Then the strong get weak and get eaten. That's nature."

Spike clenched his hands together tightly. It was like she was reciting the primary rule of his life, not even realizing it.

"I read a book once that called it natural selection," she went on. "Because over time, it's supposed to make a species stronger for their environment. If, if it doesn't kill them for being too weak."

"That's kind of a big if."

"Yes. I thought so, too."

"Fluttershy?"

"Yes, Spike?"

"You're kind of a weak pony."

She smiled wryly. "I think you and Rainbow can actually find something to agree on, then."

He snuggled into her, ignoring that bulge at her belly, not up to any more paranoia or investigativeness or planning for revolutions tonight. He just wanted to be still and sleep. "I like you that way though. Don't ever be a strong pony, okay Fluttershy?"

"I won't."

They fell asleep on the couch, nestling against each other. In the last dredges of consciousness, Spike was aware of her leaning her head over to kiss him again, and this time, he didn't so much as flinch. Safe. Safe. He was safe. The kiss lingered on the cut at his forehead, nuzzling it, warmer and damper than the first one. Almost ticklish.

It was only the next day that Spike could think clearly enough to realize what those sensations had meant, the difference between the first kiss in the second one.

That moist, ticklish feeling had been her tongue, lapping softly at the crust of blood at his temple.