Just before midnight, Rarity was sketching a commission concept at her worktable when somepony pounded on her front door. She dropped her charcoal pencil and trotted to open the door, expecting Luna again.
Rain misted down from low clouds, and streetlights glowed inside halos as the fog swirled. Ponyville smelled of clean air and damp mud.
A light-brown earth pony stallion stood on her stoop, a soaked poncho covering a full suit of Guard officer's armor.
"Davenport?" Rarity said. "Whatever is the matter? It's a bit after quill or sofa hours."
"Where's the major?" he snapped.
Rarity blinked twice, then asked, "You mean Dusky? She's asleep, in my basement."
"Wake her. Tell her to meet us at the armory in five minutes. Two minutes. And do me a favor, Miss Rarity, go shake the princess out of bed at the castle and get her to the armory, too. Then wake the other Element Bearers. All ponies on deck."
Rarity's head lightened and she put a hoof against the door frame to stay steady. "Davenport—what's wrong? What's going on? Wherever is this alleged armory?"
"Town Hall's basement. Tell them all, 'Several foals have been taken.'" He took off at a gallop.
It had all begun a week before.
Angry shouting echoed across town square.
"Sis?" Sweetie Belle asked. "What's wrong?"
"Shush! Somepony's causing a commotion." Rarity looked around, rotating her ears, trying to fix the sound.
That direction, Rarity decided, and hurried toward the noise.
Several other ponies were moseying away from the racket, rather quickly.
The shouting grew louder as Rarity crossed town square, and when she reached the propped-open front door of Ponyville Inn, she could understand the words easily.
"And I'm telling you to get off my property," shrieked Rental Room, the unicorn stallion who owned the inn. "I'm not taking your business."
On the other side of the inn's front desk, a petite mare in a khaki cape said, "That's unlawful."
"We're a long way from Canterlot," Rental growled.
The mare's voice was quiet. "I've been on my wings all week, and my left wing... well, I'm sore as Tartarus and I need a hot bath and a rest."
"Get out!" he screamed.
Sweetie trotted up beside Rarity, on the hotel's stoop.
"Stay here, Sweetie Belle." Rarity dropped her saddlebags full of groceries, pulled herself up to her full height, raised her nose as imperiously as she could (which, being Rarity, was most imperious indeed), and stormed into the Inn's lobby.
"Rental, daaaaarling, whatever is wrong with you? Never in all my years in Ponyville, which are all my years, I'll remind you, have I ever seen you behave in such an uncouth and indeed—"
Rarity's teeth clicked together.
She now stood side-by-side with the petite mare, who was dark blueish-gray, with short blond mane and a blond tail.
The mare was a batpony.
"This is none of your concern," Rental growled.
Rarity looked into the batpony's sunglasses, then turned her anger at Rental Room. "Need I involve the Princess or the Mayor? You know full well discrimination is unlawful. Perhaps I should see you admitted to a remedial kindness class at the Friendship School, hmmm?"
"I'll take my chances with the Mayor and Princess," Rental said. "Get off my property, too, ratlover."
The batpony hissed and her hackles rose. "Forget it, forget you, I'll go sleep in the Everfree. I've bivouacked before."
Rarity pointed a hoof at Rental. "You will be hearing more from me, scoundrel!"
She then turned to the batpony, and pointed a hoof at her. "And you! You shall do no such thing as sleep in the Everfree. Who are you, Rainbow Dash on a silly dare? You will sleep in my guest bedroom."
The batpony's jaw dropped open, exposing sharp fangs in the top of her mouth.
The batpony used her right wing to snatch an orange from a fruit bowl on the Inn's lobby refreshments counter as she trotted past, and it disappeared somewhere under her cape.
"Hey! You didn't pay for that!"
"Involve the law, Rental, darling," Rarity called over her shoulder. "I dare you."
Sweetie Belle's eyes widened as Rarity and the batpony left the inn's lobby.
Once back in the public street, Rarity turned to the mare and raised a hoof. "I'm Rarity, and this is my sister, Sweetie Belle."
She tapped hooves with Rarity, then Sweetie. "I'm Dusky."
"A pleasure! I assure you, most of Ponyville isn't like... this. Come, come, Sweetie Belle is staying with me for a few days while mother and father are on holiday." Rarity levitated up her saddlebags. "We were just heading home from the farmer's market. Would you care for some dinner?"
Dusky licked her lips. "I'm.... I appreciate your generosity, but I... I have an orange..."
"Don't bother arguing," Sweetie Belle said. "Generosity is sorta her thing."
She lifted up her sunglasses with her right wing-claw, and gold, slit-pupiled eyes narrowed. "You're that Rarity? I don't want to impose on an element bearer. I don't want to... well... take advantage? Do you even have a choice about being generous....?"
Rarity waved a hoof. "Pssshaw, it's my pleasure. You said yourself you were tired and sore, on your wings all day. My friend Dash is a Wonderbolt, I've seen how she gets."
Dusky smirked and wagged her eyebrows. "Wonderbolt? Lightweights."
"Sweetie Belle and I will make dinner while you have a hot bath."
"I'll... I only have a little money. Essentially none, honestly. I'll find a job, so I'll pay what I can, when I can."
Rarity giggled into a hoof. "Honestly, Dusky, don't worry about it. Pass on the generosity to somepony else, someday, and we'll be more than even."
Dusky dropped her sunglasses back down. "Well, thank you. We'll discuss this more, once I've earned some money."
Rarity led off, with Dusky to her left, and Sweetie to Dusky's left.
"Dusky?" asked Sweetie Belle. "What kind of job do you do?"
"That's my main problem, isn't it?"
Sweetie Belle frowned. "Hobbies?"
"I've heard that word before... now, what did it mean...?" Dusky grinned at Sweetie.
When they entered the Boutique, the batpony lifted her sunglasses to the top of her head, tapped on the floor with a hoof a few times, cocked her ears, sniffed deeply, and then nodded.
"The guest room is upstairs, on the right," Rarity said. "The bathroom is next to it. Feel free to avail yourself."
"I... I don't know what to say. I mean... thanks!"
Rarity smiled, then waved a hoof toward the stairway. "Off with you, shoo shoo! We'll make dinner."
Dusky's wing snaked under her cape, and she put the orange on the kitchen table, then trotted for the stairs. "I can contribute that."
Once Dusky was upstairs, Sweetie Belle asked, "Rarity? What are you doing?"
Rarity levitated the saddlebags open and extracted the groceries: cucumbers, pears, peaches, tomatoes, lettuce, zucchini, a glass bottle of cream.
"She's a stranger."
"She's in need. You heard her—she would have been camping in the Everfree tonight."
"Haven't you heard about batponies? They're not like us."
Rarity glared at her sister. "How many batponies have you met before?"
"The other foals in school all say batponies are really—"
"Sweetie Belle! This is somepony who needs help."
"They say batponies carry ebola."
Rarity facehoofed. "And your school friends have never met a batpony, either. I've never even met one face-to-face, excepting a few palace guards."
"Rental Room called you ratlover."
"I fought Nightmare Moon, Discord, and Sombra, Sweetie. I can take name-calling."
"I heard they eat weird food, that they're crazy for fresh fruit," Sweetie pointed at the orange, "that they love meat, too, and that they're... loose."
"Sweetie Belle! I don't approve of such language. Whomever you heard that from has never met a batpony, either."
Sweetie Belle concentrated, lit her horn, and then extracted the groceries from her saddlebags, and started washing produce under Rarity's faucet. "Well, that's true. What do you suppose she's doing here?"
"In my home?"
Rarity paused, levitating a chef's knife just above a cucumber. "Well, either passing through... no, wait, she said she was looking for a job. She must be moving to Ponyville."
Sweetie rubbed her chin. "I wonder why?"
"Ponyville's economy is picking up, what with the castle and the school, and Princess Luna passed that new anti-discrimination law. I suppose some batponies will naturally want to spread their wings."
"Did you see her wing?"
"What's that, Sweetie?"
"Her left wing. It was shaking, like Fluttershy after a long flight. It had scars, too. Bad scars."
Rarity looked up at the ceiling, and heard the water running in the upstairs bathtub. "Well, she said she was sore."
Sweetie Belle looked at Rarity. "If this is her first day in Ponyville, let's make her a good meal."
Dusky came downstairs about thirty minutes later, her mane damp, wearing her saddlebags and cape, sunglasses atop her head.
"Dusky, darling...." Rarity said. "You're wearing your saddlebags. You aren't planning to decamp without dinner, now, are you? I simply will not permit you to sleep in the Everfree. It will break my heart."
Dusky smiled, and her golden eyes twinkled. "No. I was going to ask... do you have a basement? I mean, I can hear my hoofsteps echo, so I know you have a basement. Could I sleep there?"
"There's no bed!" Rarity cried. "Just my treadmill and excess fabric storage."
"There're spiders," said Sweetie Belle.
"I have a bedroll in my bags, and spiders are good protein. Rarity, first, your guest bedroom was decorated by a filly," Dusky looked at Sweetie Belle, "and second, you've clearly got a guest. I don't want to take her bed."
"I don't mind bunking with Rarity."
"Third... I'm a batpony. I... well, I haven't been in a cave lately. The basement will be good for me."
Rarity stood up to her full height, which was a good two and a half hooves taller than Dusky. "Well.... if you're more comfortable, and it will keep you out of the Everfree... There's certainly... hmmm... adequate humidity in the basement, but the bedroom would be much more comfortable. However, if you're happier down there, then by all means, I shan't stop you."
Sweetie Belle said, "Well, I really don't mind sharing a room with Rarity, if you prefer the guest room. Rarity only snores a little."
Dusky leaned down, eye-to-eye with the filly. "Thank you so much! But I'll feel much better knowing you're comfy. .....Hey, that smells good!"
Sweetie Belle levitated up a bowl and ladle, and scooped some soup. "Cream of zucchini soup! And fruit salad and haycakes, along with baked pumpkin bites."
The batpony licked her lips, and her fangs flashed. "Fruit salad?"
Sweetie Belle smirked. "We put your orange in it."
Dusky licked her lips again. "We never... well, I'm from the desert. No citrus growing up, ya know? Mostly just green chile, piñón, and maize."
"I shall see what I can do for dinner tomorrow, Dusky," Rarity promised.
"I'll find a job and get some money to help out."
As they sat down to dinner, Rarity asked, "Have you any job leads?"
Dusky turned pale and shook her head.
Late the next afternoon, Friday, Rarity returned home from the Friendship School to find Sunshower Raindrops, Sweetie Belle, and Dusky huddled around her kitchen table.
"Sunshower! What a pleasant surprise. Stay for dinner?" Rarity smiled, but felt an internal frown. Sunshower—a yellow mare with a cyan mane—served as Ponyville's weather manager, now that Rainbow Dash had joined the Wonderbolts full-time. Why was the weather manager in Rarity's kitchen?
The pegasus stood up. "No, thanks, Rarity. I need to get back to work. I just wanted to make sure Dusky was all right."
Rarity spun to look at the batpony. "'All right?' Whatever do you mean?"
Dusky was wearing her sunglasses and cape, and her nose was shiny with a white salve. Wet towels covered her wings, and she sat with her head on folded forelegs, her ears flat.
"Whatever happened to you, dear?" asked Rarity
She mumbled, "Sun poisoning. They hired me on the weather crew today, but... I don't think that's going to work out."
Sunshower trotted around the table to Dusky, and ran a single feather down her cape, along her spine. "We'll call you whenever we have a night job to do," Sunshower said. "You're a hard worker."
"How often is that?" Dusky asked.
"Once every week or two."
Dusky nodded. "The bits will help. I'm afraid I'm going to have to cobble together gig jobs instead of full-time. Stupid cutie mark..... Thanks, Sunny."
"Hope you feel better," Sunshower said. "You're a hard worker, I'm sorry I can't offer you the full-time job. Big cities like Cloudsdale or Canterlot have full-time night crews. I'd write you a reference."
"I want a small town, but thanks."
Sunshower shrugged her wings. "I still think you should go see a doctor."
"No," Dusky said, whole body shuddering. "I hate hospitals."
"Oh, Dusky?" Sunshower said.
The batpony looked up.
"While you were passed out on the floor of my office," Sunshower said, "I noticed a booklet propping up the uneven leg of my desk. Equestria Weather Service Policies on Employing Non-Pegasus Sapients. It said, on page one, 'Do not hire batponies for the day shift.' I guess Rainbow Dash used the book to level her desk, and never bothered to mention it when she trained me for this job. Do you two have any idea what the restrictions on employing griffons are?"
Dusky shook her head. Rarity said, "No, darling."
"Me, neither. I need to read that manual, because unlike previous weather managers, I try to be by-the-book, but I have to know there is a book! I'm going to zap Rainbow with a lightning bolt at my next opportunity."
Rarity looked at Dusky's miserable expression. "I shall hold Dash down for you, Sunny. Dusky, didn't you know you would sunburn?"
"I.... well, I got sunburned bad in boot camp, way back when, and once—worse than this—on deployment, dug in on a glacier, waiting to spring an ambush... never mind. I figured I could gut through a few days or a week while I found an indoor or nighttime job. I've gutted through worse..."
"Boot camp?" asked Sunshower. "Weren't you years and years younger then?"
Dusky raised her head and thonked it into the table. The white salve smeared from her nose onto the wood.
Sunshower shrugged her wings at Rarity, and said, "I hope you feel better, Dusky. I'll call you for night jobs. Hey, I've got a big family, all here in Ponyville. If I hear about any jobs—I'll put a good word in. You're a hard worker. I've never seen a pegasus work at such a hustle."
Dusky looked up. "Thanks! I appreciate that. I do."
Sunshower brushed her tail against Rarity's flank, and left the Boutique.
Sweetie Belle had disappeared during the conversation, but came back in right then, levitating two sopping-wet towels. She changed them for the ones on Dusky's wings, and Rarity saw that her wings were blistered and peeling. "Did you say cutie mark?" Sweetie asked. "My thing is kinda helping ponies understand their cutie marks. It's my mark. Ummm.... batponies have marks?"
Dusky smiled at Sweetie. "Thanks! I actually heard about you three today, from the weather crew. I understand my cutie mark just fine. The problem is, I can't follow it anymore. Not since I left the Guard. I'm trying to find myself a new path, here in Ponyville. Too much... momentum... back home."
"Ohhhhh....." said Sweetie Belle. She cocked her head, looking at Dusky, but the batpony's cape covered her marks. "Why did you leave the Guard?"
"I got transferred from an assignment I loved... to one I didn't."
Rarity sat down, and levitated up Dusky's sunglasses. The bright eyes were bloodshot, and the slitted gold had a hint of grayish cataracts.
Dusky reached with her wings and yanked the sunglasses back into place.
"You're—" Rarity said.
"No!" Dusky snarled. "No hospitals."
"I'm more than happy to help you with the cost," Rarity said.
"That's not it." Dusky shook her head. "I'm sorry I snapped at you. I don't have to pay any doctor in Equestria: veteran. I just... I... no hospitals."
Sweetie Belle turned on her adorable filly act, complete with higher-pitched voice and wide eyes. "But Miss Dusky! You're hurt. You don't want to lose your eyesight, do you?"
She smiled down at Sweetie, and rubbed the filly's mane. "I'm a batpony. Not my first case of sun poisoning. I'll sleep it off, and try to find an indoors job tomorrow morning. I've been way worse off than this, before."
Sweetie Belle bit her cheeks and frowned at Dusky.
Rarity levitated up a quill and scribbled a note. She passed it and several bits to Sweetie. "Sweetie Belle, dear, do run to the farmers' market. I forgot a few ingredients. I wrote them on the list. Don't dawdle."
Sweetie looked at the paper, looked at Rarity, and said, "I'll grab my saddlebags and be back as fast as I can."
Rarity gathered fruits and veggies from the icebox to chop, and Sweetie took off.
"Rarity?" Dusky asked.
"Yes, darling? Do you like apples? My friend Applejack ensures I have more than I can ever hope to cook. Having a second, and indeed third, mouth will help none go to waste. Sweetie Belle's at the age when her stomach is a bottomless gaping maw—I think she's grown an inch this moon—and I still let apples go bad."
"I'm not stupid, Rarity, despite what you ponies think of my race."
Rarity levitated her knife down, and turned to look at her. Dusky's sunglasses sat on the table, and she was folding the towels with her hooves and mouth.
"I never thought you were stupid, but after dealing with my friends Rainbow and Applejack, I've learned how to identify stubborn."
"Who's Sweetie Belle bringing? A doctor? I hate doctors."
"No, Dusky," Rarity said with a shake of her head. "Nurse Redheart. She's ex-Guard, herself. I don't know her whole history, but I know she was a medic. A good medic. I've seen her save lives."
Dusky laid her head down, chin flat on the table. "Oh. Well, I appreciate the thought, but I'm still fine."
"Do you like apples? Should I buy some oranges? Other citrus?"
"I'm sorry I didn't make any money today. I wanted to help cover dinner."
Rarity turned back to her cooking. "Sunshower said they work a few nights a month, that'll be some bits."
"That doesn't help me today. I saved every bit I could, and sold all my stuff, but I've been two weeks on my wings, from Equuicigalpa to Ponyville. Luna knows I couldn't afford the train. It'll be a month before my disability check catches up with me here. I'm getting thin on funds."
"Hmmmpf!" Rarity said. "You're getting thin all around. Were your cheeks that sunken in when you were in uniform? I'm making it my personal campaign to fatten you up."
"Ha, ha. You're so funny." Dusky sighed. "But yeah, I'm probably down a stone. I've been skipping meals, and flying twenty miles or more a night."
Twenty miles a night? Rarity clicked her tongue against her teeth. That is not very far, by pegasus standards. Foals fresh out of flight camp can make twenty miles without any trouble. Just how bad is her wing?
Rarity levitated an apple over to her. "Grab a snack, dearest, and don't be shy about eating all you want."
She ate the apple, core, seeds, and all, leaving only the stem. Rarity chopped up another fruit salad—it seemed the stereotypes about batponies and fruit had some truth—and put four herb-seasoned eggplants parmesan in the oven.
Dinner cooked. Rarity failed several times to start a conversation. Dusky brooded, and ate four more apples.
Sweetie Belle and Nurse Redheart arrived just as the oven timer rang.
Dusky stood up, raised her sunglasses to the top of her head, and she and Redheart stared into each other's eyes for perhaps five seconds.
Dusky nodded. "Dusk Fireball. Ponies call me Dusky. My pleasure."
Redheart stiffened, going into a position something like attention, but didn't salute. "I'm S– Nurse Redheart, ma'am. Your eyes look bad. I've... seen this before. Let me get some drops in them, stat, then I can do the rest after supper. The way that oven smells, it would be a shame to let it get cold."
Rarity sprinkled crushed black pepper onto the steaming eggplants and plated dinner while Sweetie Belle set four places. Redheart squeezed some drops into Dusky's eyes.
"So," Dusky said to Sweetie Belle as all they tucked into the meal, "Tell me all about some cutie mark problems you've solved."
And that little stratagem prevented the adults from saying a single word for over an hour.
After dinner, Redheart took Dusky into the basement for privacy. Sweetie Belle went out with the Crusaders—to knock out their weekend homework at Sweet Apple Acres, allegedly—and Rarity cleaned the kitchen.
After about another half-hour, Redheart returned up the basement stairs.
"You were right to call me, Rarity," she whispered. "Her eyesight was in danger, and the sunburn on her wings could have scarred and affected her flying. I treated both."
Rarity dropped the dishrag into the sink, and whirled on Redheart. Rarity whispered, "It was that serious? Honestly, she reminds me of Applejack."
"It was serious. I've treated worse. She must need money bad to spend half a day with the weather crew, up in the thin air, close to the sun, before she admitted defeat. Look, batponies hate to show weakness in front of our kind. They think we think batponies're stupid and lazy, and it drives them..."
Redheart facehoofed. "Raaarrrity...."
"Honestly, Redheart, I don't know anything about her situation. Did you...?"
Hooves sounded on the basement steps.
The nurse whispered even more softly into Rarity's ear: "Don't let her be stubborn." Then loudly, "Keep an eye on my patient and tell me if she gets worse. Thanks for dinner, Rarity. Hey—I'm hoping my twins will be old enough to start at the Friendship School in a few years. Put a good word in for me with Headmare Twilight."
"Oh course, daaaarling," Rarity trilled. "Thank you ever so much for the housecall. Ta-ta."
Redheart headed out the front door as Dusky emerged from the basement.
"Rarity—I... I'm angry, but I'm also grateful. Redheart scared me straight. I won't do that again."
"That's excellent. Hungry?"
"No, no. You made a great meal. Oh! Good news... and bad news."
Rarity quirked an eyebrow. "Bad news first."
"I need a favor, yet another favor, but I promise I'll pay you back."
"That's hardly bad news. What's the favor?"
"There's the good news! Did you know Redheart is the local Home Guard's platoon sergeant?"
Rarity cocked her head. "I knew she was 'a' sergeant, but I didn't know she was 'the' sergeant, whatever that means."
Dusky nodded her head, and her bobbed blond mane bounced. "Tomorrow is Saturday, and it's their Guard weekend for this month. If I muster with the platoon on town square at dawn, they'll advance me my first payday. I was a reservist back home, while I recuperated, so I planned to join the local Home Guard, anyway, once I settled in."
"That's wonderful, and you're sure to make some connections about full-time jobs, too."
She rubbed her chin. "Maybe? I got thrown out of quite a few 'Help Wanted' businesses today before I tried the weather crew... Well, here's the thing. Muster is at dawn, and I won't fit into my uniform. I've lost... well, a lot of weight. Also, I need my Equucigalpa Home Guard flash removed, and the Ponyville flash put on.... Redheart said you keep Ponyville flashes in stock?"
"Of course, Dusky. I do all the Guard and Home Guard alterations for twenty miles in any direction."
The batpony trotted down to the basement, and came back up with a canvas bag in her teeth. She gently laid it on the table. "Rarity? Thanks."
Rarity lowered her head, headbutting her guest, herding Dusky into the Boutique section of her home. "I need your measurements, darling, if I'm to alter your uniform. Off with the cape, off, stand here, stand still, wings loose."
Dusky did so. Rarity stood to Dusky's right, levitated up a tape measure, and rolled a large wheeled chalkboard to herself.
She saw Dusky's cutie mark for the first time: a grey orb of some sort, with something like a sunburst around it. All of Dusky's ribs showed, and loose skin hung down her flanks.
Food, Rarity though. Buy snacks and leave them out. Heavier home-cooked meals. Ask Spike to come cook. Get desserts from Pinkie.
She took the measurements that were the same across all three tribes of ponies—or was it four tribes? Rarity wasn't sure how that worked—and also the wing-specific measurements.
"The base of your wings is three inches farther forward than a pegasus's would be," Rarity said after a few minutes, "But I have the numbers now." She trotted around to Dusky's left side and sucked in a loud breath.
The batpony tucked her wings close and turned around to face Rarity head-on. "Got the measurements?"
"Whatever happened to—I'm sorry, I don't mean to pry. Yes, I've got the measurements."
Dusky looked down her left side, and raised her wing about an inch. "I healed, they're just scars from the skin grafts and surgeries. Redheart gave me medicine for the sunburn—I'm going to bed before I pass out. Thank you so much, Rarity, for helping me. As soon as I get paid, I'll pay you for the uniform tailoring. For everything. Leave my invoice on the kitchen table?"
Purple hair bounced as Rarity shook her head. "Didn't Redheart tell you?"
"Tell me what?"
"I do all Home Guard tailoring for just the cost of any materials, and Mayor Mare pays that from the town's general fund. I'll leave your uniform on one of my ponnequins for you to find in the morning."
Yellow eyes narrowed. "Are you just saying that?"
"Ask any of the others at muster tomorrow."
"Oh! Okay. Thank you again. G'night."
"Good night, have you an alarm clock? You don't want to miss your first muster."
At the top of the basement stairs, Dusky looked over her shoulder. She twitched her tail and smiled. "Don't you know? Batponies don't need alarm clocks. We wake up exactly when we want." She headed downstairs and shut the door.
"Indeed..." Rarity said, as she found one of her smallest ponnequins, barely bigger than Sweetie Belle. Dusky was tiny for an adult, more the size of an adolescent, and clearly down at least thirty pounds or more from her peak weight, given how her skin had sagged off her ribs.
Rarity levitated her uniform out of the canvas bag and gasped.