Rarity levitated Dusky's uniform out of the canvas bag and gasped. Dusky was an officer. And not just an officer—a major! How old was the batpony? Rarity's age, or a year older, at most, unless batponies aged very differently. Dusky didn't have wrinkles or any gray in her mane. She was at least five years, or more like ten, too young for her rank.
How was such a young pony a field-grade officer?!?
Rarity tapped a hoof. This question would drive her crazy, she could tell.
Dusty's uniform wasn't like any Guard uniform she'd encountered before. Normally they consisted of armored plates layered over a tunic; this one, obsidian-black, more resembled a hooded cloak, like her civilian cape. Which made sense, Rarity supposed, given the sunburn Dusky was suffering from.
Rarity draped the uniform over the ponnequin and snipped the Equuicigalpa Home Guard flash off the right shoulder. That flash showed an adobe mountainside pueblo city surrounded protectively by the wings of a snarling, red-eyed, bloody-fanged bat. She sewed on the Ponyville flash, a stylized orange-maned yellow alicorn with a shield, standing between a dark and foreboding Everfree and Ponyville Town Hall.
Both the Ponyville and Equuicigalpa patches were embroidered with the Home Guard's motto: We stand resolute, between the chaos and our family.
On the right lapel was the Combat Action Badge, meaning Dusky had seen battle at least once. On the left lapel were almost three dozen decorations. Most were new to Rarity, and she consulted a Guard uniform manual she kept in a drawer.
Fourteen combat decorations, one-two-three-four-five-six! wounded-in-action badges, and a dozen non-combat decorations.
The first two decorations were silver ribbons Rarity didn't recognize. She checked her book: the Silver Shield, only awarded for 'extreme valor in direct action in the face of the enemy.'
They were, the book said, the second-highest military honor in all of Equestria, and both of them, along with two wounded-in-action badges, bore midnight-blue "L" symbols, the Combat-L device, meaning the decorations bearing the L had been earned at the side of Luna herself.
One of her lesser combat decorations bore a sunlight-gold Combat-C device, earned at Celestia's side. So did one of the wounded-in-action badges.
Wounded in combat three times at the side of a Princess... and three other times, as well...
Most Guards went their entire career without seeing combat even once. This was a most unusual houseguest, indeed.
Fluffing the uniform, hemming the shoulders and flanks to Dusky's new smaller size, Rarity hummed to herself as she worked.
"Rarity!" Sweetie Belle said, galloping into the Boutique. "I did my homework at Sweet Apple Acres and.... what's that?"
"Dusky's uniform. Dusky's asleep, do be quiet."
Sweetie Belle circled around the ponnequin to its left side. "Strange. The qualification badges are all gone."
Rarity looked at the uniform's left shoulder. At least six patches had been snipped off, leaving a patch of slightly darker fabric where they had been.
"We've got quite a guest on our hooves, Sweetie Belle."
"Uh-huh. Can I have ice cream?"
Dusky's alterations were simple, really, and took Rarity less than fifteen minutes. That put Rarity in the zone, however, and she attacked one of her commissions, a wedding dress for a Canterlot aristocrat. She sewed and added gems, humming loudly. Sweetie Belle lazed on the chaise, reading a Daring Do novel and listening to a record.
The sharp snap-pop of a teleport outside the front door was followed a second later by a knocking hoof.
"Honestly, Twilight," Rarity called, "or Starlight, I've told you both Celestia-knows-how-many times you never need to knock."
A blue aura opened the door, and Princess Luna stepped into the Boutique.
"Must ponies always use my sister as their invocation? 'Luna-knows-how-many' rolls off the tongue easier; fewer syllables. 'Cadance-knows-how-many' would have, at least, the benefit of novelty."
Rarity dropped her needle and thread to her work table and bowed. Sweetie Belle hopped off the couch and genuflected.
"Arise, arise," Luna said. "I believe it is past a filly's bedtime."
Sweetie Belle squeaked and bolted upstairs, levitating her novel behind her.
"Princess. To what do I owe the pleasure?"
Luna's horn glowed and the needle lifted off of Sweetie Belle's record, quieting the Boutique.
In the new silence, Rarity heard some muffled noise from...
"Her nightmare is usually not so severe. I think the pain of her sunburn has made her sleep fitful. With your permission....?"
Rarity levitated her red spectacles down to her worktable. "By all means! But don't you usually enter ponies' dreams?"
A muffled scream drifted up the basement stairs.
"I will speak to you before I leave, but right now, time is critical."
"Yes, darling, yes!"
Luna trotted downstairs to Dusky's basement, closing the door behind her.
Rarity continued sewing, but wasn't really concentrating. She kept listening to the sounds from downstairs.
The words were too muffled to understand. Luna's voice woke Dusky, then Dusky screamed, spoke, cried, bawled, sobbed.
The sounds tapered off, and maybe thirty minutes or an hour after arriving, Luna came back upstairs.
"Would you be so kind as to make coffee, Rarity?"
"Of course! Please, sit."
A few minutes later, Luna sipping coffee and Rarity drinking hibiscus tea, Luna said, "You are correct that I usually handle nightmares in the dreamscape. But..."
Rarity pointed her horn at the ponnequin bearing Dusky's uniform. "I've never actually met somepony with 'Combat-L' devices on her decorations before. She fought alongside you?"
"Dusk Fireball and I shed blood in battle together, yes, so she is my sister. A particularly vile incident required I put my hooves on batponies, at a mere moment's notice, and she was officer on duty that night. She volunteered to lead her Ronin section, and then she spent the last year.... Sweetie Belle! It is rude to eavesdrop. Come join us."
Sweetie Belle, face red and legs shaking, trotted into the kitchen and sat in the chair next to Rarity. "Princess Luna... I'm sorry I eavesdropped, but I never met a batpony before. I'm curious about her. It sounds like she was a brave soldier."
Luna nodded. "Her nightmares are well-earned. I keep an eye on her, as a friend and a comrade-in-arms. I detect batponies' nightmares, but they are hard to penetrate. Simply waking batponies and talking is most effective, I find."
"Can you tell us, Luna?" asked Rarity.
Luna shook her head. "It is not my story to tell. I've encouraged Dusk Fireball to engage a psychiatrist, but I cannot force her. I imagine her emigration to Ponyville is, at least in part, to help leave bad memories behind. She spent nearly a year in Equuicigalpa's hospital and veteran's home, recovering from that night, learning to fly again, receiving skin grafts and magical treatments. Her left wing will be featured—anonymously, of course—in a forthcoming issue of The Proceedings of the Royal College of Orthopedic Surgeons."
Luna stood, and dipped her head. "Rarity, you are indeed Generosity. Keep my friend well. Sweetie Belle, I am pleased you take after your sister."
"Princess?" Sweetie Belle said.
Luna looked at her, ears perked forward.
"The stallion who runs the Ponyville Inn wouldn't rent Miss Dusky a room. Others wouldn't let her even apply for jobs."
"The new law I passed is still to be fully appreciated by the population," Luna said. "I am pondering my next steps. Celestia forbids me to use the old encouragements. Constitutional diarchy is so irritatingly... constraining."
She teleported out.
From below came the sound of soft snoring, no sobs or cries.
Rarity didn't speak to Dusky for two days, although she saw the batpony, now wearing a baggy cape in camouflage field-gray, exercising and camping with the other Home Guard reservists in the fallow fields north of town all Saturday and Sunday.
Rarity had a plan for Dusky for Monday, and got Twilight in on it that weekend.
Monday morning, Rarity awoke to the smell of cooking.
"Sweetie Belle, if you smoke out my kitchen one more time...." she muttered, throwing off her sleep mask, grabbing a robe, and heading downstairs.
Her little sister sat at the kitchen table, munching a pastry of some sort. Dusky, covered in flour, sat across from Sweetie. She said, "Rarity! I got paid. It wasn't much, but I made batpony frybread to thank you and Sweetie Belle for your hospitality."
Sweetie Belle levitated a second piece of bread over and took a loud bite. "These are really good, Miss Dusky."
Rarity smiled and said, "Why Dusky! That was hardly necessary, but thank you ever so much."
Rarity poured herself a glass of skim milk from the icebox and then sat down next to Sweetie. She levitated over a round of the flat, greasy bread, and took a dainty bite.
She chewed, and noticed extremely loud crunching, and a very odd mouthfeel.
Dusky's saddlebags were on the counter, and several small cans, labelled in a foreign language, were open. Dusky apparently had dug into her personal stash to make this meal.
After swallowing, she took a drink of milk and asked, "What sort bread is this? I'm unfamiliar with the flavoring."
"Piñón, green chile, and crickets!" Dusky proclaimed, her yellow eyes wide, and fangs flashing with a grin.
Dizziness swirled around Rarity, and she placed her hooves on the table for balance. "Crickets?"
Sweetie Belle nodded. "It's really good! When Scootaloo tows us on her scooter, I keep my mouth closed so I don't eat so many bugs, but I like them fried."
Rarity forced herself to eat a whole round of frybread, then excused herself and brushed her teeth before returning to the kitchen and grabbing herself some yogurt and a banana for breakfast.
"Seconds?" Dusky said with a grin.
"No thanks, Dusky, but crickets aren't my favorite, I'm afraid."
Dusky smirked. "Good thing I wasn't seriously entertaining my 'Open a Batpony Bistro' idea, hmmm?"
"How was your first weekend in the Ponyville Home Guard?"
"Awkward. You saw my uniform when you altered it."
"I did indeed, Major."
The batpony blushed. "I outrank First Lieutenant Davenport, who's the official and legal commander of the unit. Outrank him a lot. However, Princess Luna and her new laws aside, no batpony tries to boss around... y'all."
"What do you mean, 'you all?'" Sweetie Belle asked.
"This is going to be an awkward conversation," Dusky muttered, and took a bite of frybread.
"We're fine, Dusky, really," Rarity said.
"The three tribes. Earth ponies, unicorns, pegasi," Dusky explained.
"Shouldn't it be four tribes?" Sweetie asked. "How does that work, actually?"
Dusky looked at Rarity, and quirked her eyebrows.
"She's old enough," Rarity said.
"Awkward," muttered Dusky.
"Old enough for what?" Sweetie Belle demanded, frowning.
Rarity sighed. "Remember how you had all those questions for mother and I after Miss Cheerilee gave you fillies the 'where do foals come from' lesson?"
Sweetie Belle blushed, and nodded.
Dusky said, "Imagine a batpony and somepony from the three tribes got married. A unicorn, for example."
"Okay," Sweetie Belle said, blushing even redder. "By 'got married,' you're really saying, 'tried to make a foal,' right?" The filly buried her tomato-colored face into her hooves.
"Right, darling," Rarity said, with a pat on her sister's mane.
"Well," Dusky said, "It doesn't happen. No foals. Ever. That means: batponies are a different species than you three-tribes ponies. That's why I called you three-tribes ponies." She shrugged her wings. "We need a word, that's what we call you in polite company."
"What do you call us in private company?" Sweetie Belle asked.
Dusky shook her head no. "My deepest desire is to be just another Ponyville citizen, no more remarkable than anypony else. I won't let myself think us-them."
Sweetie Belle nodded. "Why can't you boss Mr. Davenport around if you outrank him? I'm not guard-crazy like those colts at school, but I know that much."
"Before I found the weather crew, I wandered into Davenport's Quills and Sofas shop. He had a 'Help Wanted' sign up, and he tossed me out. I'm not going to press my luck with him. I want to be just another Ponyvillian, not that bossy batpony bi..... witch who thinks she owns the place. I'm happy to stand quietly in the back of the muster."
"Miss Dusky, why did you get so many promotions?" Sweetie asked. "You look younger than Mr. Davenport."
Dusky's grayish-blue face paled into something lighter than Rainbow's color, and she used her wings and forelegs to grab onto the table.
Sweetie Belle said, "I'm sorry—I didn't mean...."
Dusky shook her head. "It's... it's not your fault."
"Would it help to talk about it, dear?" Rarity asked.
Dusky looked down at Sweetie Belle, then to Rarity. "You've done some ugly things as an Element Bearer, so maybe, yeah, we'll both talk, someday. But... not in front of a foal."
Sweetie Belle harrumphed and crossed her forelegs over her chest. "I'll be a teenager my next birthday."
Dusky narrowed her eyes at Sweetie Belle. "My promotions," she said, "were all in combat, into dead superiors'—dead friends'—horseshoes."
Sweetie's eyes widened, and her ears flattened.
Rarity wiped her lips with a napkin. "Off to school, Sweetie. Today, you and I, Dusky, are going to the Castle. Twilight always has odd jobs that need doing, and she knows everypony in town."
Dusky grimaced, and smacked her lips like she'd eaten rancid peanut butter. "A Princess? Uhhhhh... well, okay. Let me get my cape and sunglasses. It's going to be sunny today, and I'm still sore."
Starlight Glimmer led them into Twilight's library, introducing herself as they trotted.
"I deployed to Sire's Hollow once," Dusky said. "The town wall made for a good assault exercise for my unicorns and earth ponies. Neo-Vanhooverian architecture."
"Wow!" Starlight said. "My dad's ex-Guard. You sound like him. You're pretty up on architecture for... uh... um...." Starlight turned bright red.
"...for a batpony." Dusky whispered.
"I– I– I–" spluttered Starlight. "I'm sorry."
"It's okay, Starlight, don't twist your tail over it. But, I love architecture. Equuicigalpa is all adobe, and boring. The best part of being in the guard was the travel. I've been working on a master's in construction engineering from Open University Canterlot," Dusky said. "Makes it easier to tear buildings apart if you know how they're put together. This castle is amazing—it's unlike anything else in the world."
Starlight, biting her lip, opened the library door. Inside the library, the princess stood from her seat, walked around the table, and gave Rarity a hug.
"Twilight, darling, please meet my new friend Dusky, Miss Dusk Fireball, who's—"
Dusky genuflected and flared her wings, the thick scar tissue on her left wing rippling, her chin flat to the ground and tail flagged high. "I await your orders, Highness."
Twilight blinked several times. Her left ear twitched, then her eyes widened and she sucked in a breath through gritted teeth.
Starlight cocked her head and frowned.
Rarity had never seen the thousand-year-old Fealty Ritual before, but had certainly read about it in many of her romance novels. (Specifically, the romance novels where the dashing guard officer woos the princess.)
Twilight drew herself up to her full height and flared her own wings. Her voice carried a tiny hint of Royal Canterlot, ringing through the crystal library: "Arise, and be at ease, Officer of the Crown."
Dusky stood, and both ponies drew their wings back in. Twilight offered a hoof, and Dusky tapped it.
"With the formalities out of the way," Twilight said, "it's my pleasure to meet you! I didn't realize Rarity's new friend was an officer."
"Presently without portfolio, but I've started exercising with the local Home Guard. My previous assignment was Equuicigalpa for medical rehabilitation." Dusky looked away from the others, and wiped her eyes with her good wing. "I failed my last physical fitness test, and lost my Household Battalion status, and they drummed me out into the reserves. So I decided to start fresh in a new town."
"You were an officer in the Household Battalion?" gasped Rarity.
Starlight asked, "What? Who?"
"Luna and Celestia's praetorians," Twilight said. "The Guard's elite."
Dusky nodded. With a bitter voice, she replied, "I was, yes."
"Well!" Twilight sidled up next to her, and nuzzled Dusky's neck. "I'm sorry to hear that, but: welcome to Ponyville, and know that I make special time for any veteran, especially..." Twilight glanced at Dusky's scarred left side, "well, especially veterans."
"Thank you, Highness."
"Please, call me Twilight."
"Her Lunar Highness and I have been a first name basis since... the time, at the place... but I think one first-name princess is my limit, Highness."
Twilight rolled her eyes. "Whatever makes you comfortable. The Mayor and I went to the Ponyville Inn and spoke to Rental Room. He'll rent to you now, but he won't like it."
"You heard about that, ma'am?" Dusky shuffled her wings. "I don't like stirring up trouble. My ambition is for ponies to forget I'm a batpony."
"Dusky is more than welcome to continue at my place, Twilight," Rarity said.
"I prefer a basement to a hotel, any day."
"There are plenty of rooms here at the castle," Starlight said.
"Regardless of your situation," Twilight said, "the next batpony who comes to Ponyville will be able to rent a room. The economy is booming, so it's only a matter of time. We can't expect Rarity to be right there to swoop in and save them, too, now can we?"
"Well—thank you, Princess," Dusky said.
"Rarity says you're looking for work?" Starlight asked.
"Yes! I'll do anything. I've gotten on part-time with the weather patrol and Home Guard, and I have a partial pension for my wounds, but cobbling together gig jobs won't pay rent for a place of my own." She grimaced. "Not even a basement."
Starlight said, "My hoof-in-mouth just proved that we could use a guest lecture or two on batpony history and culture at the Friendship School. That wouldn't be full-time, but...." Starlight shrugged.
Dusky nodded. "Sure."
Twilight beamed. "Excellent! Well, cleaning windows is boring, but it's out of the sun, and I'll pay a fair wage. Zephyr Breeze never did finish the job, if you're interested."
Dusky's eyes widened. "It's my pleasure, Princess. I'm happy with any civilian work I can find. I had expected to retire from the Guard, but after I got wounded..." she shrugged her wings.
"Tell me the story, please."
Rarity looked at Dusky, then Twilight and Starlight. Rarity said, "You remember your Tirek unpleasantness, Twilight. Starlight, you took apart Chrysalis's hive. They might understand better than you suspect, Dusky."
Dusky looked around the library, and plopped down into a chair.
"Fine. Luna said I should talk. So I'll talk. You see my cutie mark?" She hiked up her cape.
"But I don't understand it, darling," Rarity said.
Twilight wrinkled her nose. "It's a minotaur invention ponies adapted to hooves about a century back. A 'hand grenade.' How under Cadance's pink aurora did a foal get a combat cutie mark?"
"All the little batpony colts and fillies join Junior Guard in middle school. We're poor, and the Guard's the only path out of the desert most of us can see. It's certainly the only path to college. The academy gave me my bachelor's degree. I could buck dummy grenades into a bullseye at one hundred yards like that pink buckballer. Got my mark. Well, when your brother, Princess, was Captain of the Guard, he and Luna had an idea: specially trained hostage rescue ponies."
Twilight nodded. "Is that what he spent so much time secretly doing the year before his wedding?"
"I volunteered for his development team. Sixteen, twenty hours a day, one day off per moon. Ronin Detachment, we called ourselves. Ronin-for-R, R-for-Rescue. I became a section leader, and my section was on duty that night. A unicorn and some henchponies and henchgriffons took some foals, unicorn foals, to sell into slavery. Sex slavery."
Rarity shook her head. "Thank you for refusing to discuss this around my sister."
"Luna tracked them, but their hideout was three hundred miles from Canterlot. They would move again at dawn, so Luna asked me to assemble a team with wings. I had five minutes. Seven pegasi, seven batponies, and me. We flew hard, we flew fast, and we left our armor behind to make better time."
Dusky flared her scarred wing. "Armor..." she whispered, and shook her head. "I can't do this. Where are the windows you want cleaned?"
Princess Luna stepped out of a shadow. "My friend, you must. You've never come so close."
Dusky leapt in surprise, flapped twice, and planted herself against the ceiling of Twilight's library. Her hooves stuck to the smooth crystal, and she hung there, looking down at the others, cape, mane, and tail hanging. "Oh.... Hi, Luna."
Starlight was still looking up. "You're standing on the ceiling. How do you stand on the ceiling?"
The batpony flared her wings and dropped, landing back in her chair.
"Batpony," Twilight explained. "That's an aspect of her racial magic."
Rarity nuzzled Dusky behind the ear. "Tell us the story, for your own good."
Luna smiled. "Tell the story accurately. Your sense of false modesty is almost as bad as mine. I was there, and I will not allow you to lie."
Dusky shook herself. "It was a cave. The pegasi—well, few pegasi can handle caves. One in fifteen, maybe."
"Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy helped save me from Diamond Dogs," Rarity said.
Luna held up a hoof. "Your two pegasi had the Elements' influence. They aren't typical."
"Anyway," Dusky said, "usually Luna is the first one into the fight, because she's so tough, and can hold a shield spell and fight simultaneously. But we didn't have any unicorns, that night, so Luna had to stand back and cast the spell to blow the door... and... and..."
Dusky laid her head down on the table and covered it with her wings, her ribs heaving and tail thrashing.
Twilight and Rarity moved to either side of her and hugged her.
"So I blew the door apart with a spell," Luna said. "And Dusk Fireball rode my fireball into the lair of the beasts. Sometimes it takes decades, but a pony's name will always resonate with her life, no? Such bravery... She singed off half her coat to gain a tenth of a second more advantage. Not many officers choose to be the first through the door, into the maw of Tartarus."
Dusky choked once, then continued. "My batponies followed close behind me, my pegasi watching the mountain for escapees. I bucked two grenades, killed several of the griffons, and an earth pony. I caught a griffon with my wingblade, opened his carotid artery, and left him to bleed out as I ran deeper into the cave. I hit the next door with all four legs, knocked it off its hinges. And inside... the foals. Chained together."
She shook and stopped talking. Luna's horn glowed, and the room filled with the calming smell of lavender. Dusky closed her eyes and inhaled deeply.
After a minute, Dusky spoke again. "The unicorn was charging his horn. Killing spell, I could smell it. I hit him with a grenade, but accidentally caught myself in the blast. Woke up three weeks later. It took nine months to learn how to fly again. Four months after that, I emigrated to Ponyville."
Luna clicked her tongue. "Liar. There was no accident. You did precisely what you intended. Your mark runs too deep. Dusk Fireball bucked the grenade at the villain, knowing she was herself within its lethal radius, and then covered the foals with her own unarmored body. The foals are alive, uninjured, and back with their families. 'Fireball,' indeed."
Starlight whistled. A tear stung Rarity's eye.
"I nominated Major Fireball for the Cross of Valor, Equestria's highest combat honor..." Luna's voice turned harsh, thick with hatred, "but the Guard, in its infinite wisdom, downgraded it to the Silver Shield. Heavens forbid a batpony's name be spoken with reverence! Never before in history has the recommendation of a Princess who personally fought in a battle not been granted. In my disgust, I forced through the Batpony Anti-Discrimination Act, which is now law. In a year or two, I will insist your award be upgraded, and you be recognized as a Hero of Equestria."
Dusky looked up, and wiped her nose. "I don't care about medals. I just want... I just want a new life. New friends. Away from my past. I want a job. It's hard to find civilian work with a combat cutie mark, never mind the discrimination. I want to meet... meet... meet a stallion who's not turned off by scars.... I'm not picky about tribe... just, y'know, a kind stallion... somepony quiet. My fantasy... heh... never said this to anypony before... is to lean up against him, on the couch, and fall asleep reading a book together. My life hasn't been quiet. I need quiet."
She buried her face into Rarity's neck and sobbed. "I want to not see that bucking cave everytime I close my eyes to sleep. I moved to Ponyville because—no caves. A batpony who's afraid of caves is like a pegasus who's afraid of clouds. Rarity, I asked to sleep in your basement because it's as close to cave as I can stand. I've been hoping it would help me, y'know, reacclimate..."
Luna flicked her tail. "I believe in you, Dusk Fireball."
"Me, too," said Rarity.
Twilight wrapped a wing around Dusky, and Starlight trotted up and put a hoof on her back.
Dusky wiped her nose again. "How do you all do that? I haven't.... I haven't talked about that stuff to anyone. Not my parents. Not even grandpa. How did you get me talking?"
"It's what makes them Element Bearers," Luna said.
"Or a guidance counselor," Starlight said.
Dusky smiled, and her fangs glinted. "I'm ready to get to work, Princess Twilight."
"Call me Twilight."
Dusky glanced at Luna. Luna nodded her head a fraction of an inch.
Rarity met Dusky at the castle entrance that evening. Dusky jangled a coin purse from the hooked claw on her left wing. "Let's fetch your sister from her school, and I'll buy dinner!"
"Mother and Father are home from holiday today, so Sweetie's back with them. But I'm certainly famished."
Dusky's eyebrows furrowed. "Can... can I treat them, too?"
Rarity looked at Dusky, and saw tension around her eyes. No, Rarity thought, you're offering because you feel indebted to me, but you and I both know you can't afford to feed five.
"They'll cook as a family," Rarity said, "and catch up from their time apart. Sweetie Belle missed mother and father terribly."
Dusky settled her cape over her wings and pulled up her hood, and then donned her sunglasses. "You and me, then. Hey, asking for a friend, do you know any single stallions in town?"
"Literally dozens," Rarity replied. "Perhaps a hundred, if we count the outlying farms and homesteads."
"Twilight could use a date, too."
Rarity chuckled. "You have no idea."
They headed into central Ponyville, and crossed paths with Redheart and her husband, a light-yellow pegasus named Accounts Payable, who ran the hospital's billing department. Redheart and Dusky smiled and waved at each other. The couple's preschool-aged twins—pegasus colt, earth pony filly—trotted at the nurse's hooves, the colt trying to get airborne.
Rarity grinned to see Dusky cantering with a little bounce in her step and some spring in her wings. The batpony smiled under her hood and sunglasses, and her tail wagged as they trotted. She tossed her hood back and the low evening sun caught her blond mane. Her fluffy ears stood straight up, flicking in time with her steps.
Amazing what a hard day's work, fairly paid, did for some ponies' attitudes.
Savoir Fare seated them at Café Hay and the couple at the next table—pegasus stallion and unicorn mare—stared at Dusky, paid their check, and took their mostly uneaten meals to go.
Dusky pulled her wings tighter under her cape, pulled her hood down over her face, and glowered at the table.
After a minute, Dusky said, "The dozens of single stallions I was asking about, for a friend?"
"What fraction of them would date a batpony with a horrifically scarred wing and torso?"
"Not one hundred percent," Rarity admitted, "but neither zero. And your scars aren't 'horrific.'"
"We're talking about my unspecified friend, not me. And I've looked in a mirror."
"A good stallion will see the heroism and love for foals not even of your species, and not see the scars."
Their food came and they ate in silence. Dusky paid the bill, Rarity paid the gratuity, and they trudged back to Rarity's house just after sunset.
"Mind if I have a bath, Rarity? I'm sore from being on my wings all day."
"Don't let the obnoxious ponies at the cafe get you down, darling. Not all of Ponyville is like that."
"About fifteen percent, by my running tally." Dusky hung her cape in the coat closet and trudged upstairs.
Two nights later, 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.