Dusk Shine's Saga

by Psi-nova

First published

In another world Twilight Sparkle is a man known as Dusk Shine. The following are his Adventures though the Saga in both good times and bad. Anthro/Humanized warning!

Inspired by several other stories and the concept of a male Twilight Sparkle, this will be a re-telling of MLP FiM with the Main Six lead by Dusk Shine a talented but flawed male version of of Twilight who leads a harem formed from the main Six. A mix of Slice of Life and Grand Adventure expect a odd mix of both Romance and Drama depending on what Episode is being retold.

Character Profiles can be found here!

I've added a Glossary of terms, feel free to add suggestions!

Editing by: Frankie, Flamerz, Duelist, Wrabbit, Troublesome Beast and Shawkthorian


Major Notes:
-Humanized ponies. Aka with horns and tails and wings but otherwise human.

-My first work: All Criticism is very welcome as long as its kept creative and/or constructive, aww heck, even insults are welcome! It's a party!

-The main six are split between 17-25 years old with the CMC being 11/13 at the start of the story. Over the series some of the CMC might be in relationships but until they are 18 ic this will never be explicit.

-Chapters are based off stories from the show.

-Interludes are stories that happen between events depicted in the show. Be that between parts of a single episode of the show or just before or after the events of a major episode. Due to to their nature Interludes will be numbered as they are written but I will try to keep them in order as to when they happen in the timeline. As of right now I have 10 Interludes planned for Season 1 though some may end up getting put together or added to Chapters that they are very heavily related to instead if it makes the story flow better.

-Sex tag is for the growing relationship Dusk has with the Main Six and a few others over time.

-I am Canadian, so you will find that my spelling of some words is off to what your use to.

-All OC's are just placeholders made up on the spot to take up background spots at this time. I might include Fan OC's in future updates/rewrites of chapters though I will not have an OC as a featured story leader at this time.

-Will include some fetishes, not limited to some minor incest. These will all be tagged in the chapter or interludes title.

-A huge thank you to APZZANG on DA for allowing me to use their fantastic fanart of Dusk Shine as a cover art!

Prologue: The Second Last Day in Equestria

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Dawn of the Second Last Day, 48 hours before the Summer Sun Celebration.

Things in Dusk Shine's life were simple, organized, and happy, every day since he began studying at Princess Celestia's school. The aggressive teaching program kept him busy, and more often than not, forced him to learn new things about the world and the way things worked, both natural and magical. It was an exciting, though reclusive, lifestyle, but with the chance to learn so much, who could blame the stallion for enjoying the lifestyle tremendously?

Like many mornings, Dusk was the first to awaken; long before his assistant Barb, who still lay softly snoring across the room in her small bed. A smile crossed Dusk's lips for a moment as he inspected the odd little dragoness, still sleeping curled up around her tail, using its spade to block out a bloom of morning sunlight that glowed through a gap in the drapes and brightened Dusk's observatory.

For now, Dusk let her sleep, knowing the young lady needed all the rest she could get these days. With classes out for the weeks surrounding the Summer Sun Celebration, students were given free time to visit home and relax after a grueling exam period. But Dusk was different. Something in the exams had bothered him, and even now the nagging thought tickled at the back of his mind.

Walking with light grace, the young stallion stepped before a full length mirror Princess Celestia had given him when he moved into the abandoned building. He still questioned what her motive had been for the gift. Often in his free time he pondered adding 'Find an excuse to put it away and add another bookshelf' to his daily work checklist, but Barb had pointed out that with all the other bookshelves already in the massive main workspace, he really didn't need one more. In any case it was a gift from his mentor, and just any excuse just wasn't good enough to make a little extra space.

At twenty-one, Dusk was in good shape for a bookworm. Princess Celestia's insistence that he take part in the school's yearly athletic events to keep in shape and get to know his classmates paid off in more than one way. Never the star of any team, he had put in a fine performance at everything, always aiding the coaches far more than showing off. Thus, he had never done well enough publicly to stand out against others’ skill and talent, and while often considered for an assistant, he never had the talent needed to be a good Captain. Standing at an even six feet and a little over one hundred sixty pounds, he was a lean figure, but without enough excess muscle to show a six-pack. With long, dark, royal-blue hair and an odd natural streak of both purple and pink over his right eye, he had occasionally been teased that he could be a male model if only he was willing to put up with the invasive attention.

Dusk’s eyes started to wander away from the mirror as the package from last week captured his attention. His breath caught in his throat as he stepped forward, speaking to himself to spur this moment forward in hopes of just getting it over with. “Come on Dusk. It was one interview for Canterlot Confidential. What's the worst they could have done?”

The cover was the worst. He had only done the interview as a moment of pride when told he was the youngest stallion to finish Star Swirl U's doctorate exams. And they had approached him in the school library, all sweet words and praise. His picture, showing him sitting below portraits of the Princess and Starswirl himself in the school’s library, was now plastered upon the front page. Quickly, his eyes shot to the story title, frantic to see how they were twisting his words to suit their audience. 'Princess Celestia's chosen pupil, and Star Swirl U's youngest ever Doctorate Grad, speaks exclusively with us!' then the next one below, just as damning. 'Humble genius on duty, his studies, and his flawless athletic track record.' Even here, a nervous tick had started to shoot up his arm and made his head twitch. But there was still one more bubble left on the cover related to his interview. 'Single stallion confesses: Still looks up to Beatrix Lula's record.' Wait what?

Dusk was lost for a moment, turning back to the mirror as he started flipping through the magazine. A mare's publication, it was filled with fashion advice and tips on romance. Why had they asked him about Beatrix? The name was familiar, but they hadn't spoken in years, not since...

Dusk pushed painful memories aside. He had never heard what her doctorate thesis was about, and nobody had seen her since the exams last year. Was she even still at SSU, or had she moved on after submitting her thesis?

A sigh left his lips. What did it matter? The magazine wasn't that important and it wasn’t like anyone he cared about, besides mother, read it. As his gaze lifted to the mirror again, he began to smile, shifting the twin locks of oddly bright purple and pink before letting his bangs fall back to rest over his brow again. The decision to once again leave the question of Princess Celestia's mirror and this headache of a magazine alone, if nothing else, made it easy to make sure he was presentable whenever the Princess needed him for something, and he never wanted to disappoint his kind patron and teacher. Walking downstairs in only his deep purple boxers, he skipped past the kitchen, far more interested in what was in the main hall and his library.

* * *

The majority of Dusk's last two weeks had been spent working on the bonus question Princess Celestia herself had posed during their exams, quite suddenly and with only five minutes left. In his mind, he could still see her sudden entrance into the room; walking at a light stride as she wandered to the podium, flanked by two royal guards that always stayed at her side, while that ethereal mane floated in a slight breeze everyone in the test chamber wished they could feel. She may have spoken to the gathered unicorns still buried deep in their tests, but Dusk could have easily sworn her eyes were on him when she spoke. “My students. I offer one extra question not on your tests. Any who can answer it with what little time you have left will receive a passing grade, no matter how you do on the rest of the test.” A pause dropped for the crowd, letting it sink in to allow for the more desperate students’ gasps and murmurs before she lifted a hand for silence again, her voice stern, tone dark and, for just a moment, haunted. “What is the origin of the Mare in the Moon myth?” The Princess waited only a moment as the class whispered in confusion at a childhood legend being brought up in so serious a test.

But there was no time to be confused; the proctor took a step beside his Princess and his voice lifted high, his horn glowing pale rose-white to let his words boom about the room without having to shout. “Five minutes left, colts and fillies. No time for talk and anyone caught asking for help on a foal tale is in line for the same punishment as any other form of cheating.” A serious threat, as expulsion was normal for even small breaks in the rules during a test. Dusk himself had never done extra study into the myths of his childhood, this new question caught him off guard.

While the stories told by his foalsitter, Cadance, were still fresh in his mind to this day, he had been far more interested in her storytelling than the tales themselves. Now he was forced to rack his brain to fill in this one extra credit question. He was so shocked, he had stopped in the rechecking of his answers for the third time, the ever-dedicated stallion trying to ensure not a single answer had been missed or smudged, and that all spelling errors were corrected. Pen in hand he took a breath and scribbled...

* * *

His first attempt still burned in his mind with shame. “It's just a silly story about what happens to bad colts and fillies to keep them in line when a sitter is about. Any hints as to its origin have likely been lost to the ages due to the rewriting of history books over time.” It was a bad answer, and he had scratched it out and tried working it out twice more before the proctor ripped the page from his hands. Even now he still felt the stares he had garnered from the gathered students. The shock of hearing himself arguing with the old man even as he got carried away with trying to strong-arm his paper back, demanding just another second to put his words into proper context. That had resulted in him being sent to Princess Celestia's office, and while she had gone easy on him, he was ordered to be confined to the school grounds and banned from the library, pending an apology to the elderly unicorn.

And he had dealt with that last week, making sure to show all the due respect in front of several other teachers and a half dozen students. It had been embarrassing as well, but it was over with and now he could move on with his free time... and Princess Celestia's question. The desk in his study was covered in books, the full collection of every source Star Swirl Library had on hand about childhood stories and foal-tales about The Mare in the Moon. Why was it the legend had persisted unchanged throughout so many decades? Nay, it had been centuries and still the legend was the same! It was almost unnatural for a story this old to remain the same for nearly a thousand years of pony history!

A busy unicorn dedicating himself to a new study topic, Dusk took up the next book from his desk and reached out with the light purple glow of his magic, drawing a quill from the inkwell upon his desk. This next book was old and had to be handled with great care; the unicorn eventually resorting to using magic to help him flip the pages without risking damage to one of the library’s oldest books. As he worked quietly flipping to the page his notepad listed as the next source to look up, a smile spread over his short muzzle, his eyes scanned the page title and a tiny flare of pleasure glowed in the depths of his eyes. This was it! 'Of the Mare In the Moon And Princess Celestia's Public Reading Of the First Edition.' Now this was exciting! The stallion quickly jotted another note down upon the list he was already building in his second notebook. 'Princess Celestia's relationship to the mare myth? First Edition of what?'

A creaking of floorboards three hours later was his only hint that Barb was at last up; the late morning sunlight had brightened the observatory and forced the young dragoness to get out of bed. However, as a good an assistant, she was already entering Dusk's study from the kitchen with a daisy sandwich and tall glass of water. Dusk was deep in his reading, never noticing a thing until one of his notebooks was covered by a plate pushed in front of his face and the tall glass of water held out while a still-sleepy Barb spoke out with annoyance.

“You've been at it again Dusk! Stop reading and eat something.” A sigh escaped her lips. “You promised Princess Celestia you wouldn't let your extra summer studies prevent you from visiting home, and it’s only two days till the Summer Sun Celebration!” Exasperated at Dusk's focus on the paperwork and not his health, Barb was forced to bring out the big guns. “Or do I have to ask Shining Armor to come look into his little brother's diet?”

It might have been an idle threat, but Dusk worshipped his brother’s approval almost, almost as much as he worshipped the Princess herself. And with Princess Celestia and her honor guard busy with the Summer Sun Celebration, getting Shining's attention might not be hard, but his patience for his younger brother’s antics always tended to be short. Dusk had to stop and put down his quill before sheepishly taking the water from his assistant and drinking deeply, a bead of sweat upon his brow. “Sorry Barb, don’t bother anyone. It's just so interesting! Did you know in the hundredth year of Princess Celestia's reign after her sister's disappearance she held a public reading of the Legend of the Mare in the moon the night before the Summer Sun Celebration? Or that she read it from her personal copy of 'The Elements of Harmony,' a first edition penned by Starswirl himself? Or even better! That the copy she used is still housed here at the university!” Excited as he was Dusk moved to swiftly gulp down the water before shifting back from the desk and ripping into the daisy sandwich. Magic might keep crumbs off an eight or nine hundred year-old book, but it was far better to avoid doing such damage in the first place.

Barb began to simply nod at his talk while looking over her adoptive father. Shaking her head, she poked his shoulder. “Then shower, put on SOMETHING, and go to the Library and ask if you can see it. If it’s so rare and important a book, they will never let you at it in your boxers and smelling like that.”

Dusk blushed as he finished the last bite of his breakfast, sniffing at his musk and shaking his head. “You're right Barb. Sorry. I will make showers the first thing on my morning list from now on.” Ashamed he needed to be reminded of something so basic, the blushing stallion sheepishly gave Barb a nod and the empty dishes, closing the book and setting it on the pile to return to the Library. “If you have time after you are done with breakfast could you pack my backpack and get the checklist for today? I do not want to miss anything else today.”

Barb was stuck left only able to nod, a sigh held back until after he left the room. His musk was so strong, and the dragoness’ sense of smell was far too keen. She could only hope he had not noticed she was near retching from his three-day-old sweat. Happy he was off to clean up, she too went to work, a happy whistle on her lips.

* * *

A short while later, in the school’s main courtyard, Shining Armor and the royal guard were practicing shield spells. Far from a mirror image of his younger brother, Armor stood at six foot five, the silver emblem of his rank as polished as his name suggested. Hardly even flexing he as he put on this display for the students who had come to watch and the royal guard themselves, his shield bubble, the translucent soft rose colored aura of his magic, wrapped about a Princess Celestia stand-in. A guard in oversized and heavy armor, which gave him the size and proportions of the princess, stood nervously within the bubble; the intent of which was to protect him from any harm. Shining called out with firm, but calm confidence to the gathered crowd. “... and that’s the theory to the Shield spell. If one’s magic is sufficient, it can hold back any form of assault, and can be kept up for days on end. No need to be shy, Thunder Wall is more than well guarded. Throw everything you got at him.” The guard's Captain was being a little cruel today, but Thunder had earned it.

Last week, he had been caught consorting with the teaching staff when he was meant to be training students how to take a strike from a storm cloud without losing elevation while in flight. The pegasus guard was smart, at least; he never denied his relationship with Ember Star or Ribbon Dancer but now had weeks to learn about what he did on duty versus off.

The crowd, of course, was only too happy to test the illustrious guard Captain's powerful version of a spell first taught by Star Swirl himself. Already, students were throwing rocks and other basic and smaller magic spells at the shield, all of them bouncing off and landing in a small pile on the ground around Thunder Wall’s feet. Most spells simply expelling their full power on the shield’s surface. All of this hardly caused Shining to sweat, having already proved weeks ago to Princess Celestia that he could keep the shield up for weeks on end without exerting himself. A sudden surge in the air, however, got Armor's attention swiftly, a thick blast of brilliant raspberry magic slammed into the shield from the far side of the field, near the main walkway that rounded the north edge of the magic field and led to the main library.

This newcomer instantly had everyone’s attention, as Shining took a step and braced both feet upon the dirt field, pouring his concentration into the spell that protected his guard. Sweat broke out upon his brow as the assault continued and grew only fiercer, the excess magic cast off by the focused magical force hitting the bubble of powerful shielding magic burning the dirt around the now frightened pegasus stallion.

And yet, just as suddenly as the blast started, it stopped, Dusk dropping to his knees and panting heavily as he failed to pierce his brother’s defensive shield spell. All in attendance were quick to stand up and start to cheer the guard captain who first dropped his spell before wandering over to the frazzled Thunder Wall and checked the lad to make sure he hadn't been harmed. Anger brimmed in Shining's throat but he held back, pausing a moment to realize it was his younger brother who had thrown so serious and aggressive an attack... and amused at how powerful the spell he had thrown together to break his shield really had been.

Pushing past fawning mares and stallions, the giant rushed to his brother’s side and clapped him upon the shoulder, nodding at little Barb as she stood wide-eyed and fanning Dusk with her tail spade, still muttering darkly at his antics. “.. and yet you always try to push things just a little further Dusk! Did you know what you were casting or did you make it up again? Princess Celestia said you shouldn't try new magic when she isn't around, it’s dangerous.” For the second time in a single day Dusk's behavior had exasperated the poor little dragoness.

Shining's rich laugh escaped at her words and spoke out to cut off her worried rambling in a kind and reassuring tone. “Don't worry Barb, I like his trick. It's so rare someone other than Princess Celestia herself can make me break a sweat while trying to pierce my Shield spell.” A hand touched his brother's soaked forehead, brushing hair aside. “You did really well. A minute or so more and you might have cracked it Dusk. You okay? Been sleeping well since the big exam? Mom said you did so well you were interviewed by one of her favorite magazines.”

Dusk, for his part, remained on the ground, resting on his knees in the nice black dress pants Barb had picked out for him. Dirt was now ground into the knees, leaving a stain Barb was likely to spend an hour getting out later. His light violet dress shirt was buttoned up to the neck and a thin summer vest of pale pink had been worn over top with rich dark royal blue hues edging the trim to offset the pink. All was now soaked in his perspiration from extreme effort at cracking the shell. And here was his brother, hardly a drop of sweat on his face, standing over him, the flawless guard captain offering him a hand up and fawning over Dusk's needs.

Accepting the offered hand, Dusk made to stand up while still blushing darkly; he nodded with a quiet unease. Something that was bugging him in the back of his mind that had been forgotten in the chance to challenge his brother’s magic. His voice was still ragged as he struggled to catch his breath, but Dusk answered as best he could. “Barb's right though. I did just make the new spell up. I was thinking of an arrow to pop the bubble, so I focused the magic to a point and threw it... and yet somehow it just became a fat blob of force before even making impact.”

He sighed, and smile spread as he took a towel from one of the guardsmares, watching his brother do the same, and started to mop up his sweat. “Thanks, Shining. I've been well enough, just researching the origin of some silly foal tale that the Princess asked me about.“ The unicorn stallion paused, something about that sentence nagged at his mind and he knew it was more important than he had thought before. “The exam was great, even if I was panicking beforehand, it turned out really well... And before Barb starts, I have been sleeping just fine. She just sleeps in all the time.” Dusk’s mind flashed back to the copy of the magazine in his observatory, a complimentary copy for doing the interview. He made himself a mental note to get Barb to burn it... no, she might read it, better he destroy it himself when she was busy later. He wanted no member of his family to read that trash. “That interview. It was such a rag, please tell Mom it isn’t worth reading. I bet only mares on the prowl would ever take half the junk in there seriously." Playing it cool, he hoped they could move on quickly enough.

Barb’s mouth was already half open and starting to form a reply before Dusk cut her off, stomping her foot. Mildly grumpy, she spoke up against Dusk anyway. “But he didn't eat ‘til I got up and threatened to make you hand-feed him. And now he’s running around town looking for some long-lost book of pony lore Princess Celestia read a story from nine hundred years ago.”

Shining Armor laughed at his niece’s annoyance and started to pat her head-spines lightly in an attempt to ease her fears. “Don't worry Barb. He is strong, and if needed I'll happily pin him down and sit on his chest while you force-feed him. And Dusk, mares on the prowl are exactly the kind of distraction you don’t need right now.” A chuckle escaped his lips at Barb and Dusk's deep blush in response. “What book is it? Anything the Royal Guard might have in our archives?”

Dusk was recovered and the two nagging ideas in the back of his head were at last finally sorting themselves out, one coming to the forefront long before the other. His voice more relaxed, he spoke out with an easier tone. “It's called 'The Elements of Harmony'. The records from other books say it is the first book to reference 'The Mare in the Moon'. And that it was written by Star Swirl himself.” There was a gasp for breath before the excited unicorn continued. “Plus apparently Princess Celestia's personal first edition is held at the library here in Canterlot.”

Shining took a moment to pause at his brother’s words, confused by Dusk’s obsession over the foal’s-tale reference, yet glad he could at last offer some reassurance. “That? Well I can promise you that copies of that are far from hard to find. The guardponies all read it as part of our history classes since it tells the origin of so many of our traditions. Not to mention the last great disaster to befall the land. You know, the tale of Nightmare Moon?”

Dusk's jaw dropped and his eyes went wide. “Wait, Nightmare Moon? The one who killed Princess Luna and Princess Celestia herself had to defeat in battle? Why would a guard book talk about that?” It had never before this moment clicked in Dusk's mind that Nightmare Moon and the Mare in the Moon might be the same figures in pony history! His long week of research suddenly felt so one-sided and inadequate. “Where can I find a copy?”

Armor could only offer a shrug, his voice light and easy. “First edition reprints of ‘The Elements of Harmony’ are all over the place. Heck, I wouldn't be surprised if you had a copy in that massive library you keep at the observatory. You have one of almost every other book I've ever even heard of, and two of some I've never.”

Dusk gasped, and with a nod of thanks took off running back to his room, poor Barb in tow. Shining couldn't help but laugh softly at his younger brother’s antics while the other guards now gathered around and took up casual conversation about his younger brother and the antics of the day. Thunder Wall was soon freed of his heavy armor and sent off to shower and cool off, his punishment clearly not an issue anymore. Philandering on duty or not, it was clear he had learned his lesson today.

Somepony asked Shining a question, and distracted by thoughts of his brother, it took him a moment to realize and answer. “What? Oh. Well, he’s just a little obsessive about learning all that Princess Celestia asks him about. I'm sure he might do well in the guard, but I think he is far more interested in learning than how to be a good guard.” Those gathered saw how candid the guard Captain was about his brother. The rumor mill couldn't resist and soon the mixed group of students and recruits were pressuring the powerful unicorn with questions of every nature. And thoughts of following his brother and questioning his interest in Nightmare Moon were forgotten, along with the letter his girlfriend had asked him to give Dusk. They had only been dating seriously for the last year and Princess Cadance wanted to get back in touch with his little brother after having foalsat him so many years ago.

About to turn and go back to the field, Shining accidentally kicked a backpack on the ground before him, only just realizing it was there as his foot made contact. “Who left these books behind?” He let the question hang in the air for a moment before a swift inspection revealed that his brother’s star-shaped cutie mark lay on the flap. “That airhead. Always running around so fast when he’s obsessing over things. He’ll forget his head one of these days.” A sigh escaped the stallion’s lips and he took a few minutes to hand the class over to another of his lieutenants. He shouldered the bag of library books and began the walk to his brother’s observatory a whistle on his lips.

Chapter 1: An introduction to Ponyville

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Dusk was in a rush to return to his observatory after being distracted by the guards’ display. He had more to think about than when the day started, however the conversation he had with his brother had reignited his blood once more. Now a stallion on a mission once again, he hardly even noticed as three mares approached him on the main walk. His mind so occupied with his quest that it wasn't until one of them spoke up that he took the time to register who it was that had wandered in his way. But fillies had always been like that with him; always looking for any excuse to speak with Dusk when he was obsessed with his studies. And while the girls had found he was rarely interested in what they brought up, the fact he was so well-known as a good student, as well as Princess Celestia's chosen pupil... well, it appeared this only made him even more tantalizing to some fillies. At twenty-one, and recently having passed the final exams five years earlier than was normal, his stock with the unicorn mares had only shot higher. Now groups were forming, plots were being hatched and the first of a very new attempt to overwhelm Dusk's normally passive reaction to the mares’ flirtations began today.

Twinkleshine was the first to step forward, always the leader of her social circle. Now they were a group of interested mares, all working together towards a common goal. Presenting a winning smile, she held what they clearly considered a full house, stacking the odds in her favor. With Lemon Hearts and Colgate flanking her and dressed for the party ahead, they moved to crowd him into their company. These mares were a sight most stallions couldn't resist or ignore. Yet, as always, it appeared Dusk was so busy with whatever his current extra project was for the princess, it was clear she had to be the first to lay her cards upon the table. Voice silky and welcoming, she spoke out with ease, acting as if they had been best friends for years.

“Dusk Shine! You have such perfect timing. You remember your tutor Moon Dancer, right? It's her birthday and she would simply die if you didn't come to celebrate with us!” The mare, her long and silky pink hair waving in the breeze, was flirting openly with one of the rare stallions in Starswirl University; this was a clear-as-day sign to any who spent time on campus, and others quickly shifted aside, letting the trio play their cards, yet still watching the game unfold. Tall and thin Lemon Hearts stood at her left, the soft-eyed unicorn matching Dusk's height and offering him the full effect of her sweet gaze. Colgate framed and blocked any escape to Twinkleshine's right, a few inches shorter, but her deep and lovely blue eyes matched the two-toned locks of her wilder tomboy style. Dusk stopped abruptly from the sudden conversation, Barb easily enough ignored the trio and continuing to the observatory alone as the conversation was clearly going to keep Dusk busy.

The break in his stride left his mind suddenly blank, save for the eyeful of attractive mares who stood in his path, all flirty smiles and bright eyes. Swallowing hard, the stallion hunted for words, almost babbling like a fool even as in the back of his mind his libido started stabbing his brain with a pitchfork. “Moon Dancer? We... have not really talked in years. I do not think she likes me much anymore. After all, I passed the tier three classes the same day as she did, and she was always so proud of being ahead of me.” The stallion ignored the screaming in the back of his head, shrugging it off as a passing thing. He needed to get back to his work, back to his study.

Lemon wasn't about to have any of this, and with a hand on Twinkleshine's shoulder as she leaned toward him, a sultry pout formed on her plush lips. “But Dusk! That was all years ago. You're both working on your doctorates now, aren’t you? Why, we all know she isn't the type to hold some silly test you passed before you were even a full grown stallion against you.”

Twinkleshine grinned as Lemon pushed the aspiring harem’s second and third card forward. “Who cares about some silly test, when all the tests are over. Two brilliant, young minds still forging ahead with personal studies don't need to bother feeling ashamed of silly, youthful things!” These three mares before him were the talk of the school. Some of the smartest of mares who had yet to find a 'mentor'. That was how it was politely put when a stallion formed a herd while still in school.

Confronted by the three-prong attack, Dusk was stuck backpedaling a step or two to stay away from the mares and their words. In his mind, the need to figure out the mystery still stood tall, while his libido had taken up the battle with new weapons to try to crack the iron walls of duty. “But... I have so much studying to do! And I have never been good at parties!”

Dusk once again attempted try to slip past them on his left, but Colgate was fast to grab his arm and draw herself close, the soft minty smell of her shampoo drifting to his senses even as she pressed her body into his side. “But Dusk, we really do just want to get to know you better. You're a fine stallion, and we know you've yet to 'mentor' any mares. With work on your doctorate started now that you've passed the last classes, surely you must see that the three of us could be of great use to you! Lemon can cook, I love to clean and Teacher's Pet is almost as advanced as you are in magical theory.” A nod was offered in Twinkleshine’s direction. “We're the perfect trio to aid your work.” The tomboy was far from bashful and was quick to lean in to stroke her hand across his jaw.

And that was the last straw - his libido finally broke the iron wall his sense of duty had built. Lips faltering, eyes wide, the slender stallion was shocked by the touch of Colgate's flesh. A breath stifled in his lips and for just a moment, they started to shift, to form a sentence. It was the first time the mares had teamed up on him, and it seemed that they were going to win. All thoughts of his search were lost as a smile slipped onto his lips and he began to nod his head. The mares grinned. They had won, and their stallion was as good as captured with Colgate's application of the last two trump cards to make a full house... and then Shining Armor arrived with a royal flush.

“Dusk! You foolish colt, there you are!” The towering stallion was an example of unicorn masculinity that put his little brother to shame. Head of the Royal Guard and at the moment, Equestria's most powerful and eligible stallion... at least in the fields of magic, athleticism and title, he was easily a head taller than his younger brother.

A hand was swift to grab Dusk on the same side as Colgate, pulling him away from the now-pouting tomboy, and shoved a saddle bag into his arms. Shocked by the sudden weight, the younger male had to gasp for breath while Armor had hardly appeared to notice he was holding the heavy book-bag. “I'm sorry ladies, the guard was just out on the field practicing, when I noticed Dusk had left his bags behind after visiting me. I hope I haven’t interrupted anything important?” The stallion left no time for questions from the girls as his hand slipped to the back of his brothers neck and a few quick shoves got the still shell-shocked younger brother moving forward again.

“Well, to tell the truth...” Began Twinkleshine, not as stunned nor charmed from her mission as her friends by the elder male's staggering presence, but she was quickly cut off by Armor.

“Yes, yes, I'm sorry. The nagging older brother always forcing his younger into study when there are parties to attend. But don't worry. Tomorrow’s the night before the Summer Sun Celebration. And not even Dusk is foolish enough to dare miss that party. Princess Celestia is his teacher after all, and he wouldn't insult her by studying on that important of a day!” Those last few words were teamed up with a harsher than normal grip upon Dusk's neck as he was shooed off by his brother. His brain was only now beginning to work again, and for just a moment, he thought of thanking his elder for saving him from the mares’ plot.

All he managed, however, was a nod and the quick whisper of a half-stuttered “What? Oh, yes, yes!” before he took off running again. “And thanks for my books. I'd have missed them so much.” The mares were aggravated by this sudden twist in their plans, the royal flush of duty Shining represented pushing away all other thoughts from Dusk's head, but not from the mares'. Soon, they realized whose presence they were in, and were quick to turn their attempted seduction upon the elder brother. And yet, they instead found pictures of Shining's last visit with Princess Cadence shoved in their face before they could start shuffling the deck to play a new hand. It was clear that Armor knew his game, and theirs as well. Soon, they were bedazzled into complementing his royal girlfriend and all attempts to gain ground back were lost.

* * *

Dusk was still trying to work out just how or why his brother had saved him from the mares when he arrived at the observatory, quickly walking to the door and using his magic to unlock and open it so he wouldn't have to break his stride. His mind was once more locked solid upon the matter of the Elements of Harmony and the legend of Nightmare Moon.

Barb’s scream as the door smashed into her face caught him off guard and he paused for a moment to help her up onto her feet, inspecting the crushed present she now held with a light sigh whispering from her lips. “That was for Moon Dancer.” Barb quietly muttered to herself. Dusk remembered something about that. A few years ago, Barb had crushed hard on the attractive mare, and Dusk had worried what was going to happen when he, still only in his second year at Starswirl University and the youngest to pass the third year exams in history, had upstaged Moon Dancer, the student aid Celestia herself had picked for him. Thankfully, Barb was still young back then, and a youthful heart is fickle.

Dusk had already moved on and was up the stairs, calling out to Barb as he turned to begin hunting the shelves. “Any sign of 'The Elements of Harmony' yet? I've got to have a copy here somewhere!” For his sake the dragoness was swift to call back as she clambered up a ladder to one of the higher shelves.

“I saw it up here a few weeks ago when I was dusting. It's right over her-” Suddenly, the ladder she was on slipped, and as she had set it up too quickly before climbing, Barb knocked it off balance as she pulled the book free. Yet, even as she fell, Dusk came to her aid with the spell she had only this afternoon first witnessed in use. The brilliant hue of his light raspberry coloured magic formed a bubble around little Barb's body, and instead of a painful impact with the ground, the shield bounced once before shattering, a panicked Dusk running swiftly to his assistant’s side.

“Did it work? Are you alright? Ohhh, I knew I should have practised that on the way home while Shining was still around to help.” Probing hands drew the book from Barb's grip and then he checked her for bumps or bruises, only letting up when she laughed at his over-protectiveness.

“Stop! Stop it! That tickles! I'm all right Dad! No fall that short is gonna break my noggin. Now get your book! I'm sure we can finally settle this whole Mare in the Moon nonsense once and for all, and life will finally get back to normal!” The name was mostly a tease. Dusk had been so young when he hatched Barb’s egg that they were really more of an odd combination of brother and sister more than father and daughter, but all the same it was a name she was happy to pull out when Dusk got too paternal with her.

Blushing darkly, Dusk quickly nodded and took up the book once more, swiftly running to a reading stand and setting it up before skimming through the pages. His voice was shaky even as he realized within the first few pages his hopes were true. “Barb! It's a first edition! A new printing, but done under Celestia's personal supervision only forty years ago! Why is it that the Princess took such interest in making sure this book was kept so close to the first printing almost a thousand years later?” Of course, he didn't wait for Barb’s shrug. The little dragoness was busy cleaning, and it was all she could offer on the situation.

Reading aloud, Dusk recounted the story of the Nightmare Moon's rise a thousand years ago, and Celestia's use of the Elements of Harmony to strike her down. All of it was fascinating and quickly led to the evil mare’s banishment, turning Nightmare into the Mare in the Moon. Startled, Dusk quickly realized his brother's words were right, and the combination of two figures from his childhood were swiftly added up. But the childhood story had never had the next paragraph when he had heard it from his foalsitter, Cadance.

“Barb! Listen to this. 'Legend has it that on the longest day of the thousandth year, the stars will aid in her escape, and she will bring about nighttime eternal!'” A gasp escaped Dusk's lips as he stepped back from the book, one hand wiping perspiration from his brow as intense thought put one idea together with another. Quickly enough, he came to a realization, rushing to Barb with ink and quill as well as paper carried by his magic.

Pulling the dusting rag from her grip, he started to speak with sudden excitement. “Barb do you know what this means?” A little caught off balance, the dragoness was only able to lightly shake her head and pick up the quill and paper from Dusk's magical grasp, swift to realize his intent.

“N... No. What?”

“Barb, take a letter!” Dusk called out, suddenly proud and firm, standing to his full height and delighted to have a full grasp on the situation at hand. One hand moved to straighten his long bangs, smoothing that pink and purple stripe and clearing his throat as the little dragoness set quill to page. “My Dearest Teacher. My continuing studies of pony magic have led me to discover that we are on the precipice of disaster.”

Shocked, Barb attempted to quickly speak out, in hopes of halting Dusk's swift narration. “Hold on! Preci... Precia... Precis...”

Suddenly frantic at the delay to his well-organized train of thought, Dusk turned, eyes worried and voice soft, though tinged with a hint of panic, even as he gave an easier suggestion for his assistant's writing. “Um... Brink?” A blank stare was all Barb offered back to him. The insistent need to get the letter finished caused him diarrhea of the mouth. “That something really bad is about to happen!” Barb nodded swiftly and quickly returned to her writing while Dusk once more began to pace, continuing his well-thought and organized letter now that the interruption had passed. “For you see, the mythical Mare in the Moon is really Nightmare Moon and she is about to return to Equestria! And bring with her eternal night. Something must be done to make sure this terrible prophecy does not come true! I await your quick response. Your Faithful Student, Dusk Shine!”

Barb slowly muttered along as she finished the last few words of the letter, her quill racing across the sheet. “Dusk... Shine! There, done!” She lowered her hands and relaxed, letting out a happy sigh now that the writing was done.

“Great! Send it!” Dusk called, the stallion watching out the observatory’s towering bay window, the glass giving him a view of most of Canterlot that was rivalled only by Celestia's soaring balcony high overhead and across the university at the palace grounds.

Drawing a breath in, Barb hesitated a moment and offered a meek shrug of her shoulders. “Now?” She called out, her voice clearly unsure about the matter.

“Of course!” Dusk called over his shoulder, suddenly confronted by his assistant's reserved nature.

“Uhh... I don't know Dusk. Princess Celestia's a little busy getting ready for the Summer Sun Celebration, since it’s the day after tomorrow!”

Dusk turned and stepped quickly to Barb’s side, unable to hide the worry in his voice as he waved to the landscape before them. “That's just it, Barb. The day after tomorrow is the thousandth year of the Summer Sun Celebration! It's imperative that the Princess is told right away!”

Barb once more started to mumble over the word as she tried to add it to her letter to Celestia, a final nervous habit to avoid pestering Dusk's teacher on so busy a day. “Impar... Impara...”

Exasperated Dusk called out sharply. “Important!”

Barb was blushing fiercely but wrapped up the letter and applied Dusk's seal to it, muttering all the while. “Okay, okay!” A deep breath was drawn to summon the dragon's fire Celestia had taught her years ago. It was able to send any letter burned directly to her presence in seconds and from any measurable distance. The green flame from tiny Barb's lungs burnt the paper to ashes and a trail of magic smoke whispered from the room. A sigh escaped her lips, and she turned to Dusk, voice slightly condescending. “There! It's on its way. But I wouldn't hold your breath...”

Dusk was confident now as he gazed about his library, considering what books on Nightmare Moon he might look into to be of some aid to his teacher, should she request his input on some solution to the new threat. Already, a list was forming in his mind of just what to do next. “Oh, I’m not worried, Barb. The Princess trusts me completely. In all the years she's been my mentor, she's never once doubted me.”

A sudden, sharp burp form Barb followed almost the second Dusk finished speaking. Proud, he stood tall a grin upon his face. “I knew she would want to take immediate action!” The flames that followed were just as magic as Barb's first sending spell, and from it, formed a reply from the Princess, the parchment sealed with the a stamp of the Royal Crown.

Barb took up the paper, and cleared her throat, preparing to practice her professional speaking of a proclamation from Princess Celestia as Dusk had taught her. It was a pleasure to at least have a chance to use some of the skills Dusk had taught her. “Dearest, most faithful student Dusk. You know I value your diligence and I trust you completely, But you simply must stop reading those dusty old books!” Dusk had to gasp, shocked at the Princess’ dismissal of his warning so off hand. Why!

* * *

Early morning of the Last Day in Equestria.

Aboard a golden chariot and being flown by two of Princess Celestia's Honour Guard, Dusk was still stunned by the second half of the letter, asking Barb to read it once more to him. The dragoness had gotten used to this, and could almost recite it word-for-word without the parchment Dusk had insisted they hold onto in case he might find some hidden code in its message at a later date. Voice calm and confident, the young dragoness spoke up.

“My dear Dusk, there is more to a young pony's life than studying. So I am sending you to supervise the preparations for the Summer Sun Celebration in this year’s location, Ponyville!” Barb paused for a moment, looking to Dusk, who hung over the wing of the flying chariot, moping at the the ground as it passed them swiftly. The guard pegasus could really fly with fantastic speed. “And I have an even more essential task for you to complete, make some friends!” This line always drew a groan from Dusk as she spoke it. It made no sense! He was sure that the Princess had specifically brought up that single odd question as a bonus during the test, just for his sake. Why else talk about some moldy, old, long-forgotten foal tale that was so related to her history and rule?

Thinking about it was giving him a migraine and yet he couldn't ignore the incessant way his mind kept picking at the puzzle before him like an addictive new mind game. Hearing his groan, Barb moved a single step closer, excitement dancing on the dragoness’ muzzle at the prospect of such a change of pace from their normal, dreary life in the depths of one book or another all summer long. She spoke up with an attempt to sooth Dusk's worries, her joyful tone giving away her delight at other parts of this adventure. “Look on the bright side, Dusk! The Princess arranged for you to stay in a library. Doesn't that make you happy?”

Realization sunk in swiftly and Dusk shifted around, adjusting his weight to sit a little taller in his seat as the chariot lowered closer to the ground, a grin and twinkle of excitement dancing in his eyes. “Yes, yes it does Barb!” He leaned towards his assistant, a sudden superior grin on his face, and a faintly manic look in his eyes. “You know why? ‘Cause I'm right! I'll check on the preparations as fast as I can, then get to the library to find some proof of Nightmare Moon’s return.”

Barb’s voice dropped, a more sad and worried tone entering it at Dusk's insistence at avoiding any real fun while in the small town. She gave a small, dejected, “Oh.” in reply. Their ride was already lowering into the streets of Ponyville, it’s quiet earth pony thatched roof architecture surrounding them on both sides. It was a drastic change from Canterlot's noble and towering glass and stone buildings. There was hardly even a road, but rather, smoothed, short grass paths lead from house to house. “Then... when will you make friends like the Princess said?”

Still confident, Dusk's answer to his assistant was in cool, righteous tones, displaying just how sure of his plan he was. No longer was he worried over the puzzle that he was determined to unravel. No matter what, he was going to figure this all out soon enough! “She said to check on preparations. I am her student and I will do my royal duty. But the fate of Equestria does not rest on me making friends!”

The sudden impact with the ground at a smooth and even pace let the now-excited Dusk jump free of his ride, magic elevating the saddlebag he had brought with him. Two days’ worth of clothes, a half-dozen notebooks with lists of what to search for about Nightmare moon, and his copy of 'The Elements of Harmony' all stuffed his bag to almost-overflowing. It was only through diligent packing, done with great care that it hadn’t burst apart at the seams yet.

He had found a signature on the inside as he packed. Celestia had given him this copy on his first days at school, and he had somehow managed to forget all about it in the last seven years. A nod was offered to the stallions who had rushed to deliver him so quickly to the small and peaceful-looking town in two short hours, when even the train might have taken him most of a day to arrive. “Thank you, sirs.” He called to the guards out of respect, since after all, the guards were Shining's men, and he had drilled respect into Dusk from a young age, long before the elder brother had ever decided to join their ranks. Besides, they reported directly to Celestia. With luck, they might yet still manage to take his warnings back to the Princess and add extra weight to the argument that Nightmare Moon was soon to return and she needed to act quickly!

Thankfully, an emissary from the Mayor was waiting for Dusk as he gazed around town, the pony had been introduced in Mayor Mare's letter as Statice, a unicorn who had spent a few years at Starswirl U before finding work in Ponyville. Soft features made it clear he was no warhorse, and yet, his cutie mark was a purple flower with lightning shaped petals growing from the yellow centre. Nodding and pointing out a few directions, he spent a few moment’s effort to straighten those few loose locks of his brilliant mane, the odd combination of reds, blue-purple, yellow, and white; a bold sight that stood out. After directions were dealt with, he turned, and quickly took up Dusk's single bag before heading off to the town library to drop the items off. It was clear this was going to save him so much extra time in getting the preparations over, and Dusk was already grateful to have one more thing cleared off his checklist for the day.

From the south, up the main street, a filly calmly approached Dusk and Barb as they oriented themselves with a map of town, carefully inspecting the directions given by Statice to help speed up the process. Dusk considered each of their four stops in turn. Furthest out was the orchard owned by the Apple family. A good walk, but not so far as to eat up more than an hour of Dusk's time, give or take five minutes, to make sure the food was in good shape. It was no big deal. Barb was the first to speak up at last, as they finished the calculations and smiled towards the cheery, approaching cotton candy-pink haired earth pony. “Maybe the ponies in Ponyville have interesting things to talk about.” Her voice almost became desperate as she turned to Dusk, nearly begging him just to have a normal conversation. “Come on Dusk... Just try?”

Dusk's gaze turned to the woman and focused to see just who had captured Barb’s attention. The girl... no, she was clearly a woman about Dusk's age, approached them and flashed the pair a warm and winning smile, crafted to just eat into your heart with far too much sugar drizzled on top. Standing only a few inches shorter than Dusk, the cheerful mare was dressed in bright colours and wore her hair wild, with cotton candy locks, the soft pink hue just as playful. A loose, rose-colored V-neck T-shirt with a plunging neckline was worn open over a soft pink tank top. The result framed her breasts, yet managed to keep her from being called anything inappropriate. The mare's obvious lack of a bra was clearly noticeable from even a short distance, not the normal more modest style he had dealt with from day to day. Jean shorts, custom cut too short hugged her plump hips and revealed a lot of leg. Wagging her tail as she realized the newcomers were talking about her, the girl's grin bloomed into a rich smile full of wonder, her vivid, baby-blue eyes full of wonder.

Suddenly nervous for what felt like the first time in ages, Dusk stepped forward, his voice soft, but warm, if a little unsure. “Um... Hello!” His voice called out, a warm and friendly smile flashed in hopes of getting Barb off his back for the day. The response was far from what either had expected. A gasp escaped those plush lips covered in what Dusk later swore was cherry chapstick, its faint scent and the light gloss to her lips filed away automatically for later consideration. Then the woman took off running to the north at full tilt, a blur so swift, Dusk wasn't sure for a moment what way she went. With an annoyed glance at his assistant, Dusk started to mutter darkly. “Well that was interesting, alright.” Barb’s sad sigh, the only response he needed before then started on the long walk to the Apple's orchard.

* * *

The walk to the orchard had raised Barb's spirits, the little dragoness enjoying the view offered. She pulled the checklist Dusk had put together from the Princess’ orders from her day-bag to inspect it one more time. They reviewed the details while passing the time with idle chatter, even as they passed under a sign that announced they were entering 'Sweet Apple Acres'. Towering apple trees lined the road on both sides, and ripe apples hung from almost every tree, a showpiece of the farmers’ dedication, and how healthy the orchard really was. Barb, taking her turn to speak up again, read from the checklist once more. “Summer Sun Celebration Oficial Overseer's Checklist. Number one: banquet preparations - Sweet Apple Acres.”

From ahead, the sound of a cowgirl at work echoed out as Dusk's eyes lifted from his conversation with Barb, the sight before him reviving the fallen warrior that was his libido. And what a sight she was. The cowgirl towered over Dusk, easily a head taller than him. Dressed in homemade denim shorts cut just above her knees and a white tank-top that was too short, left hints of a six-pack visible in the gap between shirt and hip hugging shorts. Dusk's mind couldn’t help but fantasize over this cowgirl, whose breasts were larger than the pink oddity from before. That thought was quickly pushed to the back of his mind, his libido still fragile and not yet able to step up against his sense of duty so soon after such a tragic loss the day before.

A stetson's broad brim protected her eyes from the sun, while rich blond locks were kept tied back behind her with a leather thong stretching down past her shoulders. Clearly, Dusk thought, this cowgirl had worked day and night to get in such fine shape, only to be proven right as she shifted her weight around and delivered a roundhouse kick to the tree trunk. The powerful blow and accompanying vibrations were enough to cause all the apples upon the tree's branches to fall free and fill six buckets that had been placed about the base of the trunk. “Yee-haw!” The cowgirl’s self-encouraging shout echoed out about the farm. Clearly, this girl was far from the shy flower in pink he had seen earlier.

Pausing a moment to remove her hat and wipe her brow, the green-eyed earth pony was quite the sight to behold. Dusk's mind pushed those thoughts aside again however, and he made to step forward with an introduction to get his checklist over with as quickly as possible. Raising his voice, Dusk stepped towards the cowgirl, speaking with his normal calm and respectful tone he used when he was on business for the Princess, though not without muttering quickly to Barb first, a sigh escaping his lips. “Let's get this over with...” A pause as he neared the mare and an artificially cheery smile spread as he stood as tall as he could before his official tone activated. “Good afternoon. My name is Dusk Shine...”

And before he could finish his sentence a bright smile spread over the mare's lips and she stepped boldly forward to take up his hand in hers and swiftly pulled him into a strong handshake, her voice happy, her hardworking personality overwhelming Dusk's train of thought. “Well, howdy-doo, Mister Dusk, a pleasure makin' your acquaintance. I'm Applejack. We here at Sweet Apple Acres sure do like making new friends!”

Staggering back under her aggressive personality, the stallion could only spit and sputter as he attempted to take back the conversation, starting with the most recent point she had brought up. “Friends?” He gently muttered, not really sure how they had got onto that topic so swiftly. The offer wasn't a bad thing, as he hadn't had any real female friends in school, but that was because most of them had been a distraction from his studies. “Actually I...” He attempted to direct the talk back towards the matters at hand, but once more he was cut off.

“So, what are you here for?” The mare interrupting him once more, yet at least she had returned the conversation to Dusk's working train of thought. Barb however, could not help but find this an amusing situation, snickering a little behind his back. Dusk stiffly cleared his throat, glad to be back to in control.

“Well, I am in fact here to supervise preparations for the Summer Sun Celebration. And you're in charge of the food?” Confident once more, the stallion presented the girl as official a look as he could summon, after how many times she had thrown him off his game.

The mare's grin was warm in response to the question Dusk presented to her, the warm and welcoming girl’s nature landing on him like an avalanche once more. “We sure as sugar are! Would you care to sample some?” And while her question was friendly enough, the mare had already started to drag Dusk towards a nearby dinner table.

Overwhelmed by the kind and winning nature of the aggressive mare and his libido, which continued to insist on being around attractive mare, he started to consider her offer more seriously. Obviously, Applejack was unaware how strong she really was. Unsure just why this was all going on, Dusk relented, his voice hesitant but the promise of food and some more company with the attractive farmer suddenly felt like a worthwhile distraction. “As long as it doesn't take too long... ”

AJ pushed the still slightly reluctant Dusk into a free chair before the great table, thrusting him into his seat before turning to a nearby triangle, her attractive ass presented to the stallion in her tight, hip hugging shorts. But before he could even get a real eyeful of the situation at hand, her violent ringing of the dinner triangle and deep bellow from the depths of her lungs called out, a harsh contrast to how calm the farm had been moments before. “SOUP'S ON, EVERYPONY!”

Like magic, an army of mares and a half-dozen stallions poured in from every direction across the orchard, many of them stopping at the house to pick up serving trays for the food whose scent already called out with the richness of apples. “Now, why don't I introduce y'all to the Apple family?” AJ began to wave around to the gathered horde of family she was clearly speaking about, even already waving for the first to come forward and join them at the table.

Now intimidated by the sudden aggressive crowd about him, Dusk swallowed sharply and sat up taller, a hand reaching to grip the table, hoping to stand up and run away if he was able. “Thanks, but I really need to hurry-”

The mare started to turn and began calling out like a professional announcer at a rodeo, drowning out Dusk's attempt to leave. Her open hand resting on his shoulder kept him from pulling away as she called out the endless list of her family members, each in turn presenting a food that far too often Dusk realized was also their name. “This here's Apple Fritter, Apple Bumpkin, Red Gala, Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, Caramel Apple, Apple Strudel, Apple Tart, Baked Apples, Apple Brioche, Apple Cinnamon Crisp...?” A pause as she at last drew a deep breath and again, she continued her rapid introductions, now pointing to three final members who stood gathered about the rocking chair where their elder member slept. “And of course, my brother Big MacIntosh, lil' sister Apple Bloom, and Granny Smith. Up'n'attem, Granny Smith, we got guests.”

Looking at the stallion Big Mac quickly made Dusk realize that everyone who thought his brother was a titan had never heard of this earth pony. A bare chested, dirty blond wearing loose red britches. he offered a slight nod in return to Dusk's questioning gaze and a quiet, “Yep.” before turning to the far younger filly who was helping her grandma stand up. A cute thing, probably only twelve years old, the little redhead had a giant, pink bow in her hair, though it was still tiny compared to her older sister and giant of a brother. Dusk stood up and offered a quiet nod as he tried to slip free of the crowded gathering and the massive pile of food now on display before him.

The elder mare Granny Smith, on the other hand, took an achingly slow wobble forward, a plump old lady with a cane to support her weight as she approached the table, voice quiet and warbling. “Wha..? Wuh, soup's on? I'm up, here I come, ahm comin'.”

Still shocked by all that was going on around the farm, it was Applejack's next words that really captured his attention and jarred the stallion's fragile understanding just what so huge a crowd had wanted with him. “Look how well you fit in! Why, I'd say you're already part of the family!” Now, how was Dusk to know that was just AJ's way of being friendly? Memories of a trio of fillies attempting to seduce him into something but a day before flared up in his mind and he looked around himself again, realizing just how crazy this day was going.

With a nervous laugh escaping his lips, the unicorn attempted once again to stand and shift away from the pressure of the crowd. “Okay, well, I can see the food situation is handled, so we should be on our way.”

It was the innocent young filly, Apple Bloom, who captured Dusk's hand and gave him the full effect of her deep orange eyes and a heavy pout. The wounded innocence in those eyes stabbed at Dusk's heart. “Aren't you gonna stay for brunch?” A lip quivering, she gripped Dusk's hand as strongly as she could pulling him back towards his seat.

Dusk Shine could feel his heart breaking with sweet a young lady just begging for his attention, and the stallion could hardly pull himself back together to refuse such a request. But, he needed to get to the library. The weak words forming on his lips were sad and half-hearted, and he spoke out in nervous fear. “Sorry, but we have an awful lot to do...”

The collected Apple Family as one being gave a sad sigh and Dusk's willpower broke, he quickly realized that any hope he had of escaping their attention was lost while he nodded with care. “... fine.” He sighed returning to his seat. It was clear the family gathered about him were not after him like the Mares back in Starswirl U. Maybe they really did just want to wish him well. And the food did smell good. A collective cheer was released from the gathered family and he was ushered to the seat of honour at the table, surrounded by a happy and talkative family that simply spent their time making him feel welcome.

* * *

Walking back into town together with Barb, Dusk still couldn't believe how much of the Apple's fine home cooking he had managed to eat. They had been good company and took care to feed him well past the point he really wanted to stop and call himself comfortably full. In the end, they had continued to pressure him with offers of seconds or another cup of cider. It was Barb who at last was able to stop them, saving him due to the fact the small dragoness was able to handle eating like a bottomless pit and had distracted the kind family from Dusk's overwhelmed plate. Now as they entered the town once more, Barb spoke up with delight even as she checked off that item from Dusk's list of duties, still happily cleaning her teeth of leftover apple pie. “Food's all taken care of, next is weather.”

Dusk followed close behind, but still rested a hand upon his belly as he groaned out with pain at the swollen feeling in his gut. “Ugh... I ate too much pie...” Still distracted by this, he had not even realized they were back in town and could start working on the next item of his list, until Barb spoke up, looking down at the next item on hand.

“Hmm, there's supposed to be a pegasus pony named Rainbow Dash clearing the clouds.” Her head lifted to gaze skyward, and looking around for a moment in consideration of the sky above them. The day was bright enough, but everywhere scattered dark storm clouds were beginning to wander in, hardly a grade A job for even so small a town's dedicated weather team, when dignitaries were supposed to be arriving in the morning.

Dusk shifted to join Barb in watching the sky and shook his head, an annoyed sigh escaping his lips as he turned slowly south to look for what he assumed was going to be some overwhelmed team of fliers fighting with the clouds somewhere, yet none were to be seen. “Well, she's not doing a very good job, is she?”

Suddenly, from the north, a rush of force smashed into Dusk, sending him sprawling head over heels and into a large muddy patch he had not seen as they walked back into town. Sitting up and soaked in the sticky brown mud, Dusk give an exasperated sigh at how in an instant an okay day had suddenly gone so wrong. The weight on his lap, however, immediately stole his attention and his eyes shot open, even as a low groan escaped his lips, still stunned from the impact. “Nng.”

The weight in his lap shifted slowly from side to side and offered a sheepish laugh, the shame in her face clear as day when a rather young and athletic filly came to the same realization Dusk had a minute before. She pulled herself from his lap, and with a light flap of her wings drew a few feet up and away without ever landing in the mud herself. The rainbow locks of the athletic pegasus did nothing to hide the fact that she was so much smaller than the earth mare he had ran into but an hour ago on the farm. That tomboyish hair was cut wild and short, with only the bangs left long and hanging half over her eyes.

Dressed more for a race than a day fighting the clouds, she wore boxer shorts that hugged her cute rump, and a matching sports bra that clutched her chest over a slim chest. Truthfully, she didn't have a lot to show off, meaning that while the embarrassed girl looked over Dusk, trying to recognize who she had just crashed into, he could see just how in shape the mare's fine abs and racer's figure really were. “Uh, 'scuse me?” Attempting to smooth over the situation, in hopes of calming down the uncomfortable situation, she smiled at the stallion on the ground.

Dusk just looked up at the woman, and the shy way she started to wag her tail, the rainbow strands dancing from side to side nervous energy. In spite of remembering the pleasant feel of her weight in his lap, Dusk was still disgruntled by the way his day had returned to falling apart, Dusk gave an angry groan “Nnnn.”

Flying higher as she realized just how badly she had started this encounter, and still remembering the way his body had felt against her own, the darkly blushing pegasus continued to laugh a little as she spoke up in hopes of smoothing the situation over. “Lemme help you.” She called before shooting off at rapid speed into the air, grabbing one of the scattered storm clouds and pulling it over Dusk's head. A few quick kicks later, and a torrential rainstorm from the one small cloud soaked him from head to toe, in spite of doing its job and washing away all the mud that had stuck to his clothing.

Standing up again and shivering under the drenching cloud’s output, Dusk turned a dark glare at Barb, who was rolling on the ground in laughter at the awkward way the two ponies were managing their first encounter. Dusk angrily turned back to the rainbow-haired mare and started to form his rage in his throat before he was cut off again.

Hanging in the air over him as she gave the cloud another sharp kick to dispel it, the pegasus saw just what a soaking she had given the poor unicorn. Sheepish laughter caught in her throat as she tried not to make the situation worse for him. She attempted to rush and fix the situation once more, speaking while a deep blush darkened her cheeks further. “Oops, I guess I overdid it.” As soaked as he was, it quickly became clear through the thin fabric of his light shirt just how cut Dusk was himself. No Big Mac, but still an impressive hunk of mea... the girl let her mouth run away with itself. “Um, uh, how about this? My very own patented Rain-Blow Dry! No no. Don't thank me. You're quite welcome.”

The mare took to the air and started to spin around, whirling about to form a mini tornado, wrapping up the air around her and swirling it into a torrent focused down upon the stallion to swiftly blow him from head to toe with a burst of air that thankfully helped to quickly dry him off from all the rain with which she had drenched him. It also inadvertently whipped and swirled his hair around into a chaotic mess of tangled royal blue, with those bold pink and purple streaks thick and fluffy due to the violent pressures of the makeshift blow-dryer.

Barb, of course, only burst out harder in laughter as the sight of Dusk getting manhandled by the shorter mare and her antics with the weather. The mare herself was only too happy to join the small dragoness in that rich laughter. Dusk released a little sigh, but attempted to return to business and get things back on track. “Let me guess. You're Rainbow Dash.”

Instantly the pegasus’ clowning stopped, and she proudly moved to stand tall thumping herself in the chest with a hand and grinning warmly, any blush or shame from before instantly thrown aside. “The one and only. Why, you heard of me?”

Dusk wasn't having any of these games though, and instead gave a roll of his eyes, speaking with less than subtle disappointment at the prideful mare. “I heard you were supposed to be keeping the sky clear.” He waved to the wild clouds that floated about, sighing a little. “I'm Dusk Shine, and the Princess sent me to check on the weather.”

Dash easily waved the accusation of laziness off, her excited and superior smirk never once leaving her face. “Yeah, yeah, that'll be a snap. I'll do it in a jiffy. Just as soon as I'm done practicing.”

Incredulous, Dusk started to shake his head and wave his arms at the mare, an annoyed sigh thrown in her direction. “Practicing for what?” He really wondered just how anyone could take the hyper mare seriously as the head of weather control in town.

Pride shone in her eyes as Dash jumped up into the air, her vivid blue wings flapping with ease and keeping her floating high while she spoke with more than a hint of hero worship on her voice. “The Wonderbolts! They're gonna perform at the celebration tomorrow, and I'm gonna show 'em my stuff!”

Now it was Dusk's turn to look confused. Of course he knew of the Wonderbolts, but how could this wild mare with no sense of duty or rules ever want to have something to do with Equestria's most exclusive wing of pegasus military? In awe at how silly it all sounded he had to ask again to be sure. “The Wonderbolts?”

Spiralling around in place, her eyes dreamy and distant, Dash only grinned foolishly down at Dusk, a happy call out to the unicorn with glee dancing in her voice. “Yep!”

Dusk still wanted to be sure. He was forming a plan now, a way to get her to at least do her job and get this dealt with as little fuss as possible. “The most talented flyers in all of Equestria?” He asked, an eyebrow lifting and his tone showing how clearly he questioned the prideful mare’s skill. If he played his cards right she was going to run right square into her ego.

And Dash didn't even appear to see the trap closing in about her, instead simply floating closer and grinning with wild abandon as she nodded to Dusk's question. “That's them!”

The trap was ready, so he pulled the trigger, letting the steel jaws slam down on her from both sides. Pride could be used to make her feel a sense of duty, and Dusk planned to use that to force her into doing her job at least until after the Princess had left town tomorrow night. “Pfft! Please. They'd never accept a pegasus who can't even keep the sky clear for one measly day.”

Suddenly slapped in the face with the violent impact of her pride being hurt, Dash stepped to push up and glared him in the eye, face-to-face. Dusk could tell she was annoyed that her skill had been questioned so openly. “Hey, I could clear this sky in ten seconds flat.” With a dismissive wave, her grin was gone as she turned her back on Dusk, clearly intending to wander off.

Giving her no time to sulk at her pride being wounded, Dusk leaned in poking her lightly in the ribs, his voice full of wicked condemnation to her claims of skill and speed. “Prove it.”

Her glare intensified at the sudden contact before a grin split her lips again, and she suddenly shot into the air in an impressive burst of speed. A brilliant trail of rainbow hues followed behind her figure as she rushed to the nearest grouping of wild black rainclouds, calling out to herself as she worked, flying around one mass and firing blows of fist and foot to others. “Loop the loop around, and wham!” The burst of bold and coloured hues shot back down before Dusk a happy grin offered to him even while she posed for him and flashed a deep grin. “What'd I say? Ten. Seconds. Flat. I'd never leave Ponyville hanging.”

Dusk was floored by the show of speed. He had never spent much time, even with Shinning Armor, watching what the fliers could do, but a few displays of the Wonderbolts in action had been held that the Princess had requested he be present for in her name. Even they had never managed so swift a flight that he had just witnessed. Jaw slack, he looked at the boasting mare, his eyebrows lifting higher. “You should see the look on your face. Ha! You're a laugh, Dusk Shine. I can't wait to hang out some more.”

Shooting off again into the air, Barb walked easily enough over to Dusk's side and idly poked at the tangled mess that was his tail, still watching as Dash continued her antics in the air over them. “Wow, she's amazing!” The dragoness had to laugh a little, though, as she realized the thick mass of hair really was quite a mess.

Dusk gritted his teeth and grunted in annoyance at Barb's teasing of his tangled tail. Another annoyed sigh escaped his lips as he started heading for the next location on their list of preparations to check. Turning to Barb he called out. “Weather. Check.” Hands balling into fists he gave another annoyed exclamation. “Rrgh.”

Rushing to follow after him, Barb tried to smooth things over, even while she checked off the notes on their duties for the day. “Next is… Town Hall, Decorations.” She turned and realized he had already started to walk away, forcing her to rush after him, calling out in a cheerful tone. “Wait! It's kinda pretty once you get used to it!”

* * *

Pushing open doors to City Hall, Dusk and Barb entered, and were instantly surprised to see that one part of their day was clearly going to go easily enough. The decorations were nearly done, and tasteful banners hung from several walls, while in other places streamers hung from the roof, connecting one section to another. From across the room the call of a mare “Hmm”ing to herself as she used her magic to string up other ornaments to colour the room. Barb spoke out first, her voice lost in wonder. “Decorations. Beautiful...”

Having had more than enough of mares today, Dusk had taken far more interest in the fine work on the banners and other eye-catching decorations that filled the grand hall before him. At Barb’s words he also turned to join the dragoness in complementing the fine work that had clearly been done by those in charge of this part of the preparations. Seriously awed, he answered her quiet words was filled with awe of the wonders before him. “Yes, the decor is coming along nicely. This ought to be quick. I'll be at the library in no time. Beautiful, indeed.”

Barb however, was no longer watching the room at all, but instead, had focused on the mare across the room. Wandering ahead of Dusk, she muttered with quiet excitement. “Not them... her!”

This at last drew Dusk's attention, and he looked to where Barb pointed, shock washing over him as he took in the lady before him. Older than any mare he had dealt with this afternoon, she stood with her back to him, the plush weight of her tail groomed into a spiral of rich purple that twitched and swayed behind her back, as streamer after streamer was tossed into the air, carried by the bold blue hue of her magic aura. Purple heels on her feet gave a small lift, yet the grace of her stride was not affected in any way, as if she had been born to wear such shoes. The hem of her dress hung just a few inches short of the floor, revealing her ankles and a bit of her legs before being covered by the fine white silk of the noble woman's outfit.

Cut close and backless, the woman’s trim and shapely back was on full show, up to the shoulders where two crisscrossing straps wrapped about her throat. Not that much flesh really was on show though, as her hair hung down past the small of her back and was just as dolled up and curly as her tail. As she turned, the low cut of the dress and her ample cleavage gave her already stunning appearance only more weight, while a diamond necklace clung close to her throat. A step to shift further around revealed a slit in the leg of her dress that ran nearly to the right hip, sexy leg on full display to the two newcomers who were captivated by her every motion. Makeup light but sexy, the mare threw a hand into the air to guide another bundle of purple streamers to wrap around the roof’s support beams to hang low, and add to the room’s ambiance.

Now getting picky, she started to sort through what decorations she had left, tossing one after another to the side while hunting for just the right flare to finish off the room. “No, no, no, oh, goodness no.” Crying out in disappointment, she tossed one sliver of cloth after another away and shaking her head with disappointment.

Barb was suddenly very self-aware, and began to lean in close to Dusk, whispering quickly as she straightened her scales and the deep green spines upon her head. “How are my spines? Are they straight?” The fact was that as a dragon, she was but a child, but she was a teen by pony standards, and Dusk had to arch a brow. He had never seen her fascinated by someone like this since... Moon Dancer.

But, he had to forge ahead. Stepping in front of his assistant and calling out gently to the fashionable woman, glad to have someone with some sense for the importance of the work that needed be done. “Good afternoon--”

Instantly, he was interrupted as the mare held out a hand and silenced him with a finger pointed to his lips, her eyelashes draped low while fluttering seductively to him, yet she was already moving on as she returned to her work as if never once had she halted or been distracted by his words. “Just a moment, please! I'm 'in the zone', as it were.” Another reach into the bin she had with her and at last the perfect flare to fix to top off the room her elated voice calling out in joy. “Oh, yes! Sparkle always does the trick, does it not? Why, Rarity, you are a talent.”

Her work done, she now shifted, looking for those who had interrupted her work a moment before. A rich smile offered genial conversation, even while she lowered her lashes to offer a sultry, “Now, um, how can I help yo--” A yelp escaped her lips and as she turned and properly saw Dusk, her voice shattered by the sight before her, a horrified, yet bemused gaze took in the poor condition of his hair and clothing. “Oh my stars, darling! Whatever happened to your coiffure?!”

As educated as Dusk was, it took a moment before he realized just what she had meant. His voice was at first hesitant to speak up, even while this realization dawned, releasing a small gasp out in joy. “Oh, you mean my mane? Well, it's a long story. I'm just here to check on the decorations, and then I'll be out of your hair!”

Something in her eyes told Dusk that the mare wasn't just going to let him go, and as she spoke out it, was clear to him she was already obsessing over him now that her work had been finished. “Out of my hair? What about your hair!” Stepping forward, she swiftly grabbed him by the wrist and dragged him forward and swiftly out of the city hall.

In his shock at her grip and demanding nature, Dusk could only call out, “Wait! Where are we going? Help!” Barb however, was far from aiding him, simply wandering along behind them eyes large and gooey with young love.

* * *

Dusk quickly found himself pushed into a changing room in the boutique across the street. It was clear to him already that something strange was really going on. The mare had overwhelmed him with fast hands, and clear commanding words. Now, he stood alone behind a drape, his clothing stolen away and only wet boxers to protect his modesty. From outside, he could hear the voice of Rarity speaking as she worked on finding him something clean and dry to wear. “No, no, uh-uh. Too green. Too yellow. Too poofy. Not poofy enough. Too frilly. Too... shiny. Now go on, my dear. You were telling me where you're from.”

Wincing as he was suddenly not alone, the mare had stepped into the changing booth, and without a moment’s warning, sat upon the bench, brush in one and hand his tail in the other, and without even asking for permission, she began to smooth and groom out the tangles and snags in his tail. Blushing darkly and trying not to look into her eyes, his voice was strained as she worked at his thick and knotted tail. “I've... been sent... from Canterlot... to--”

The woman gave a gasp and turned to gaze up at him, the angle giving him an endless chance to gaze down into her heavy breasts and the exposing cleavage her dress showed off. “Oh, my!” She cried out, standing suddenly and pressing up against him, pinning him to the wall. Her breasts pressed into his naked chest as she panted in sudden excitement and sudden interest while deep, blue eyes gazed over him in wonder. Her voice continued, even as one hand stroked across his pecs and down over his ribs towards the line of his boxers, her voice hot and low now. “Canterlot! Oh, I am so envious! The glamor, the sophistication! I have always dreamed of living there! I can't wait to hear all about it!”

There was a pause in the conversation, as her body peeled free of his own, much to his sudden regret, and turned to the clothes she had hung from the wall. Her voice was low and soft as she cooed into his ear, holding a white dress shirt to his chest, all the while, gazing deeply up into his eyes. “We are going be the best of friends, you and I... Emeralds?!” She paused, realizing that the buttons of the white shirt were all made of matching fine green gemstones. She shook her head in annoyance to herself, even as she ran from the changing booth. “What was I thinking? Let me get you some rubies!”

Startled, and more than a little confused by the arousing mare’s assault, the stallion took a moment to gasp for breath and quickly slipped out as well, finding Barb in a chair just a few feet away, with a distant look of worship in her eyes and his clothing resting in her lap. “Quick! Before she decides to dye my hair a new color!”

* * *

A short time later found the pair halfway across town. Barb and Dusk stopped and took a moment to get their wits together again. With only enough time spent to pull on his pants and drag Barb out by the hand Dusk was panting and still bare-chested. With his shirt still held over his shoulder, he heard Barb mumbling to herself, “Wasn't she wonderful?”

Wondering if Barb even realized just how close he had come to being molested by the mare, Dusk rolled his eyes and shook his head at his assistant. The tone of his voice was as sarcastic as his rolling eyes. Even as he pulled the shirt on over his undershirt, the simple white cotton felt good to his skin, reassuring himself that he was again safe from whatever all the mares were suddenly up to of late. “Focus, Casanova. What's next on the list?”

At last brought back to reality, Barb pulled out the list again, taking a moment to tick off decorations and looking at the final item on the list. Now focused again, she spoke with excitement, after all, once this was done Dusk might at last calm down. “Oh, uh, music! It's the last one!”

As they walked, the soft and sweet song of birds whispered through the air in the distance. It was shocking, but it almost sounded like someone had trained more than two dozen birds, all from different species, to sing together. As they rounded the corner, Dusk realized that it was no exaggeration. Collected together upon one small tree, every species of bird native to the area he could care to name off had flocked together and were now singing as a single group, lead by a slender pegasus mare who hovered before them lightly swaying a conductor’s baton before the collected birds.

For the first time that day, Dusk slowed and leaned against a fence beside the road, keeping his distance and watching as the mare hovered back and forth gently directing her choir. This mare had silky pink hair, well groomed and long, hanging down her back. Dressed in a heavy, pink sweater despite the sweltering summer heat, and a pair of blue jeans with a loose cut on the leg, which showed off her very modest sense of style. She was a refreshing change of pace after all the crazy events of his day.

Yet, as she shifted forward to speak with one blue jay who had left the chorus behind, and was off in the world of his own. Timidly, she called out, trying to reach the wayward bird. “Oh my. Um, stop please, everyone, umm. Excuse me, sir? I mean, no offense, but your rhythm is just a teeny-tiny bit off. Now, follow me, please. A-one, a-two, a-one two three-” Dusk swallowed sharply, the sweater might be loose but there was no mistaking the massive chest this mare was trying to hide. For all the showy nature of Rarity, or the simple cowgirl style of AJ, this shy mare could put both to shame if she had wanted to.

Swallowing hard, the stallion put that aside and stepped forward to get this out of his mind and move things forward to finish his day, his voice warm and happy, glad to at last have some sight of his freedom arriving with his duties finished. “Hello!” He called out, stepping forward and waving to the pink haired pegasus.

Shocked at the sudden interruption of her otherwise quiet day, the shy mare quickly threw her hands up to her mouth, wild pink bangs hanging over most of her face and covering one of her eyes. The interruption from Dusk sent all her birds away in a sudden flurry of feathers, the choir shocked just as badly as their conductor. Realizing only too late he had ruined the show and disturbed the mare, he blushed and moved to step forward, his voice soft. “Oh my, I'm so sorry. I didn't mean to frighten your birds. I'm just here to check up on the music, and it's sounding beautiful.” He paused, offering her his friendliest smile, even while his eyes lifted to gaze around and look hopefully into her own, somehow now annoyed with himself that she was so startled. “I'm Dusk Shine.” He said,attempting, to smooth things over and calm the startled lass. “What's your name?”

Dusk wasn't even sure if he heard her say anything, but he saw her move her lips as she answered him. The confused stallion stepped closer, even as the mare shivered and tried to shy away, but ran into the tree at her back. “Um... I'm Fluttershy.”

Stepping closer and offering her a smile, even as he realized she really wasn't taking this well at all. His voice was as calming as possible as he cooed to her, in hopes of drawing the mare from her shell. “I'm sorry, what was that?”

And the result? Only softer, quieter tones as she shivered and dipped her head to turn away from him as he tried to face her eye to eye, the mare's shivering growing stronger as he tried to flash her his winning grin. “Um... My name is Fluttershy.”

Sweat dripped from his brow as he strained to hear, and a last ditch effort was made to get some kind of reaction from the mare. For the first time today he was the one pestering someone who just wanted to get on with their day and already he felt a little guilty. “Didn't quite catch that.”

The squeaking tones she gave off when she answered again, made it clear as day that he was only wasting his time as this point. On the tree behind her, the flock of birds had once again returned and were gathering about Fluttershy, even as he offered a shrug and just pushed on with the conversation, knowing this was clearly now a lost cause. “Well, um, it looks like your birds are back, so I guess everything's in order. Keep up the good work!” A happy sigh as the tension of getting things done today to save time for more important research returned to drive Dusk forward, he turned and grinned at Barb.

From behind him, he could hear the mare squeaking some soft mumbled words but content now with his plans for the day. “Oookay. Well thank you Fluttershy.” His gaze returned to Barb and he offered a confident nod. “Well, that was easy.”

Suddenly behind him a voice of sweet tones spoke out with excited delight at the discovery of something truly unique. “A baby dragon!” The sudden explosion of energy from Fluttershy caught Dusk off guard, throwing him to the side and leaving Barb suddenly cuddled to her chest and cheek against cheek. Those bright eyes shone with joy at her discovery. “Oh, I've never seen a baby dragon before. She's sooo cute!”

Barb, now the center of attention for the first time all day, had a grin spread over her lips and the short dragon inflated her chest with pride at all the attention suddenly washing over her. “Well, well, well...!”

Gushing with joy Fluttershy did a small spin in the air, holding Barb high over her head and releasing another gasp of surprise. At this point Dusk facepalmed, groaning sharply. Not that it had any impact on the situation at hand, as the mare continued to heap attention upon the tiny dragoness. “Oh my, she talks. I didn't know dragons could talk. That's just so incredibly wonderful I- I just don't even know what to say!”

Realizing this was likely to never stop if he didn't step in and 'save' Barb from Fluttershy's affections, the stallion slipped in between them and scooped his assistant from her hands swiftly, attempting to make an excuse and escape the suddenly oppressively affectionate mare. “Well, in that case we'd better be going.”

She wasn't about to let them go alone though, following after as Dusk. As he placed Barb on his shoulders, she called out, catching up swiftly and still questioning the little dragoness. “Wait, wait! What's her name?”

Delighted with the fact that Dusk too was now paying her special attention, Barb shifted to sit tall on his shoulders and spoke with confident pride, her ego inflated by all the attention she was getting. “I'm Barb!”

The mare was delighted to float right behind Dusk as he walked, still fawning attention upon the dragoness. At this point, she was totally enraptured with the situation and utterly unaware of Dusk's brisk pace and annoyance with the situation. “Hi Barb, I'm Fluttershy. Wow, a talking dragon! And what do dragons talk about?”

Turning around in Dusk's grip to face the hovering mare, her confident voice lifted as she asked what was the only real reply that fit the question. “Well, what do you wanna know?”

Fluttershy was swift to trill with delight at Barb’s welcoming response and pulled her arms together to hug them against herself in joy, even going so far as to do a back-flip in place, then rushing to catch up again. “Absolutely everything.”

Dusk could only give another groan of annoyance as he facepalmed again, already sure this was going to be another big headache. Barb however, was simply happy to have an attentive audience and joyfully said, “Well... I started out as a cute little purple and green egg...”

* * *

“...and that's the story of my whole entire life! Well, up until today. Do you wanna hear about today?” Barb had talked the whole way home and Dusk had been forced to listen, hoping that the mare might grow tired of her long stories. Unfortunately, there was no sign of this stopping. Attempting to rush things forward, he turned about only to hear Fluttershy reply. “Oh, yes, please!” There was a gleeful look in those sweet eyes.

Even Dusk wasn't so heartless as to attempt to drive off the mare in a rude way, so hoping he could talk her down with kind words, he spun about and pulled Barb into his arms and gently began rocking her a little from one side to the other as he used her as a way to drive the mare to leave them be. “I am so sorry, how did we get here so fast? This is where I'm staying while in Ponyville and my poor baby dragon needs her sleep.”

Of course, Barb wasn't one bit happy with this sudden babying when she was already enjoying the attention from a friendly person who had spent a lot of time stroking her ego. “No I don't-- whoa!”

Dusk had let Barb try to climb from his arms, but as she moved to take her first step, he subtly tripped her, then scooped her up once more, drawing her back up into his arms again. The now-dizzy little dragoness went quiet as she tried to regain her balance. “Aww, wook at dat, she's so sweepy she can't even keep her widdle bawance!”

Of course, that immediately got an instant response from the animal lover. Her eyes went wide as she rushed swiftly forward, opening the door to the city library for Dusk and pushing the two inside. “Poor thing, you simply must get into bed...”

Glad to have finally found a way out of this situation, Dusk moved in a quick stride, thanking her and trying to drive her off. “Yes, yes, we'll get right on that. Well, g'night!” The swift use of his magic to slammed the door behind him, leaving the busty yet shy mare behind.

Inside Barb gave a low grunt, finally realizing just what trick Dusk had pulled. A glare offered up to him in the dark of the lightless treehouse had no effect, yet she she kept it up as she looked at him. “Huh. Rude much?”

Dusk had to blush at that, as he knew she was right. Casting around with his magic to find a lamp to light in the unfamiliar treehouse, he attempted to make things up to Barb, resting a hand on her shoulder. “Sorry, Barb, but I have to convince the Princess that Nightmare Moon is coming, and we're running out of time! I just need to be alone so I can study without a bunch of crazy ponies trying to make friends all the time. Now, where's the light?” As soon as he finished the sentence, a hand landed upon his shoulder and lips pressed deeply to his own.

It took a stunned second for Dusk to realize that the lights had been turned on, and the busty figure now holding him by the hips and pulling him close was the mare from the city hall. “What was her name... Rarity? As his eyes adjusted to the bright light in the room around him, he quickly peeled back to take a step away from the full figure that had pressed so close to him. As she pouted her sultry lips when he pulled away, he quickly realized that everyone from town he had run into today was here, plus dozens of others whom he had yet to even speak to.

Shocked, Dusk turned around slowly trying to figure out just what was going on around him. His eyes went wide in surprise at what he saw. And then, the figure of an earth pony he swore he knew stepped close, blowing a kazoo in his face and grinning warmly. “Surprise!” She exclaimed with a playful grin. Her low-cut V- neck and tiny booty shorts told him he had to know who she was, and his eyes were still wide as he tried to recall where he had ran into this other strange mare. Thankfully she at least answered this part for him. “Hi, I'm Pinkie Pie, and I threw this party just for you! Were you surprised? Were ya? Were ya? Huh, huh, huh?”

Groaning a little, the stallion placed a hand on his head as the first pangs of a headache were already starting to set in. Trying to let her know just how exhausted he was of the whole idea already his voice lifted with a condescending tone of disappointment. “Very surprised. Libraries are supposed to be quiet.”

If she got his point, she sure didn't appear to notice. Pinkie stepped forward and put her hand upon his cheek rubbing thumb over his jaw even as her deep blue eyes and warm grin were thrown in his face, and much to his annoyance her voiced delighted as she refused his point. “Well, that's silly! What kind of welcome party would this be if it were quiet? I mean, duh, bo-ring! Y'see, I saw you when you first got here, remember? You were all, 'hello' and I was all, ‘...’” She paused, giving a sudden gasp and bolting off running across the room for a moment, giving Dusk hope she might just leave him be. Before that hope could take hold, however, she suddenly rushed back again and wrapped her arms around his own, hugging herself tight to his side and grinning warmly. “Remember? Y'see, I've never seen you before and if I've never seen you before, that means you're new, 'cause I know everypony, and I mean everypony in Ponyville!”

As she rambled on, Dusk's strong grip upon his face continued, fingers shifting to squeeze at the bridge of his nose trying to distract from a headache that was swelling quickly even as she carried on with great excitement. “And if you're new, that meant you hadn't met anyone yet, and if you hadn't met anyone yet, you must not have any friends, and if you don't have any friends then you must be lonely, and that made me so sad, and then I had an idea, and that's why I went-” Suddenly pausing for yet another deep gasp, she rushed on just as quickly afterwards. “I must throw a great, big, ginormous, super-duper, spectacular welcome party and invite everyone in Ponyville! See? And now you have lots and lots of friends!”

Dusk at last gave up and wandered to a nearby refreshment table. It had been hours since his meal with the Apples, and the summer heat had made his throat dry. Grabbing a random bottle, the stallion easily popped the cap and quickly moved to chug whatever the cool bottle held. It wasn't until Pinkie finished talking and waved to the crowded room about him that his tongue started to burn, and eyes popping, he looked at the label on the glass bottle in his hand. A single giant chili pepper mascot with a bright yellow background stared unblinkingly back at him with a bright grin upon its lips.

Interlude 1 - Smalltalk at Pinkie's Party

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In Ponyville, there were ways to tell when Pinkie Pie was the host of a party. Aardvark in a tuxedo? Pinkie party. Cotton candy streamers? Pinkie party. Someone being rushed to the bathroom, breathing flames? Pinkie party.

Thus, while Dusk and a few worried party goers might end up in the bathroom, those gathered in the library were hardly going anywhere. Though, one thoughtful mare had slipped out to call on the clinic’s on-duty staff, and thanks to that thoughtful action, Nurse Redheart quickly arrived. With some rather forceful vocabulary from the nurse, the five concerned mares that were collected in the overly-large bathroom, and one worried dragoness, were ordered outside, and the bathroom door was bolted closed.

* * *

With some calm returning to their group, the mares who had spent the day with Dusk now gathered about the fidgeting form of Barb instead, each offering their respective attempts to comfort the lass. With her tail clutched in one hand, her fingers nervously fidgeting with the spade, little Barb continued to glance back at the bathroom door, worriedly fixating upon every pained noise that escaped from within. Pinkie, ever her helpful self, somehow managed to appear exiting the bathroom, an empty bucket of ice in her hands, and called back inside, "And I left some drinks for when he feels better! Glad you could come after all, Redheart!" Slackjawed, the little dragon's gaze was unmoving from the party pony, still trying to figure out how she had slipped back into the bathroom with the door locked... until the soft touch of a hand on her shoulder stole her attention.

"Don't worry about Dusk. Nurse Redheart is used to taking care of Pinkie's super-happy hot sauce victims." The sweet tones that danced in that voice could only belong to Fluttershy, who was currently crouched at Barb's side, allowing them to see eye to eye while she tried to comfort the uneasy dragon. "It was only just last month when she hosted a Super-Sweet Treat Hot Sauce Chugging Challenge. I think half of Ponyville wound up in the clinic that night, and poor Nurse Redheart was working all alone."

Of course, Pinkie couldn't hear that without a joyful grin spreading over her lips. One hand shot into the air as she proudly proclaimed, "It was the hottest event in town. Even Rarity had to admit it!" The bouncy bundle of energy turned the full force of her biggest smile and those huge blue eyes on the older mare. Showing just how eager she had become, Pinkie began shifting swiftly from foot to foot as she awaited confirmation to her statement. Her tail even got into the action, the pink and puffy cloud dancing behind her with every hop.

Rarity had been standing with the rest, though unlike the others, she had a wine glass in one hand and was sipping quietly. With her weight resting back against a bookshelf, the classy woman had been relaxing, and attempting to pretend she didn't notice the harsh stink-eye AJ bad been leveling her way since the moment the lights turned on and revealed her deep kiss to the very surprised guest of honour. Shifting to face the beaming Pinkie, she gave a small smile along with a quiet nod, her silky voice heard only when it was clear nothing less was going to be enough to satisfy her friend. "Of course, darling. In fact, it's still on the tip of my tongue."

While the others gave a gentle chuckle to Rarity's jest, Applejack stomped a foot in frustration against the floor while pinning the older mare with a look of outright distaste, even open hostility, which showed in her harsh glare. She spoke up at last and made it clear to her friends how much this situation was bothering her. "You’re all jokes tonight, ain't you Rarity? But tell me the truth, what's your game with Dusk? Why’re you acting so innocent after what everypony in the room saw you doing to 'im? I've been wanting to ask just why y’all are plucking him like a harp. It’s clear we might as well settle all of this here and now."

Clearly aware of the two mares’ confrontational mood, the rest of that night's party crowd shifted to move away, while at the same time, Fluttershy and the others attempted to cluster around Barb and draw her away from a conversation with which it was clear the tiny dragoness might not be comfortable. Rarity shifted her weight to stand with more aggressive confidence. She brought her glass swiftly brought up, emptied it and then settled it upon an empty space on the bookshelf at her side. Her lush lashes danced once or twice as she blinked and stepped forward, lifting the ponytail off AJ's shoulder and dropping it down her back. She leaned in close, voice rich with scorn at the question of her virtue. "My, Applejack! You’re not one to be jealous of other peoples’ relationships." She turned, rolling her shoulders as she began moving to walk back over to the others still gathered about Barb. Before going more than a few feet, she glanced over her shoulder at AJ once again, halting in her stride and dropping the harsh tone, instead putting on a false voice of woeful concern. "Wait, don't tell me you don't know...?"

When Applejack drew back from the suddenly aggressive response, Rarity took another stride closer. Her eyes were wide, even as she gave the younger mare the full weight of a first pitying gaze, which quickly grew into a firmer, condescending glare. "He is Dusk Shine, darling. Have you never heard of him? The youngest stallion to ever graduate from Star Swirl University? He is also apparently considered to be the strongest unicorn since Star Swirl himself, with many rumors of him challenging his older brother." Her voice dropped several degrees before she continued in an icy-cold whisper. "The Guard Captain Shining Armor, head of Princess Celestia's personal honour guard. Surely you've heard of him, at least?" She offered a pause as she waited to see if AJ had anything to offer more substantial than the already-dumbfounded slow nod she had managed to pull together. When it was clear nothing more was coming, the grin spread, and Rarity took yet another step closer to her towering... friend. At the same time, her voice was returning to a softer, more sympathetic tone.

"Yes, him. It's said in a recent display of the Captain's specialty, a shield spell, the thing for which he had earned his cutie mark, very reliable sources say that Dusk nearly broke said shield. Can you picture it? He nearly overwhelmed a stallion five years his elder using magic connected to his special talent." Her last sauntering stride drew her closer still to AJ, shoulder resting lightly on the taller filly’s side. She lifted a hand to lightly tap her chin, voice far warmer now as she cooed with quiet delight, even as her weight rested against the powerful Earth pony. "Oh, what else is important about Dusk?... Well it could also have to do with the fact that by all apparent and publicly known information, he is Princess Celestia's heir apparent, after Princess Cadance of course... and maybe Prince Blueblood. Then of course, last but not least, did you see him? He may not be as large as your brother Mac, but he is just as handsome, maybe more so. With all those reasons, do you understand my motives well enough now?" Her point well-made, the mare smiled to AJ before wandering off, sauntering to the far side of the room, clearly going to get herself a new drink and letting the air clear.

"She’s wrong you know." The four mares who remained in their quiet social group all looked down at Barb, who was far calmer now than when she had gotten carried away and locked into watching the conversation between AJ and Rarity. As they all turned their attention to her, more than a little shocked at the words from the dragoness correcting the ultra-confident Rarity, the mare now far enough away she wouldn't be able to hear Barb's voice. "It's just... Dusk is only the youngest stallion to graduate, but a mare did it almost a year younger than him." Under the kind attention the others were giving to her, Barb took to standing a little taller inside the tight circle they formed formed as the others gathered ever closer around, offering her still more smiles and soft motions to encourage her to go on with further details. "And, well... umm he didn't break Shining's Shield. But he nearly passed out from trying to find a way to crack, it you see." The pressure of a hand upon her shoulder made Barb look up, quickly realizing it was AJ, who was still more than a little shamed by Rarity's rough words.

Taking the small dragon's feelings into consideration, she was soft-spoken but encouraging. "Yes? And... the other things?" AJ's face was still deep red with the dark blush, a bold reminder of how embarrassed she still was from the recent verbal assault she had just endured, but she wanted to know the rest of the truth.

Barb smiled, releasing her tail as well as a shrug. "Well, I don't know really Applejack. I know that he is the Princess’ favorite student... And it's true that other than Princess Cadance or her nephew Blueblood, she often has Dusk do things that could be considered major affairs of state, but heir? No way. He doesn’t want that kind of responsibility! If I didn’t make him take me out for dinner once a week, we’d never leave the observatory, except for groceries and visiting the library!" The tiny dragoness gave a little sigh looking around as Rarity returned, blushing a little and stepping out past the others and offering her a shy smile. "But, she was right as well. He is strong; younger than almost anyone with his level of skill in magic, and often granted duties reserved only for Celestia's closest kin." With a nod, she blushed and dropped her gaze, still trying to smile towards the fashionable diva who stood so near.

How much that Rarity might have heard was not questioned, however the gorgeous mare slipped a hand under Barb's chin and lifted it with soft ease, presenting her little friend with a deep grin, voice smokey. "And his looks?" she asked, her voice a teasingly low and warm coo to prompt the little dragon to continue. Barb gazed up into those icy azure eyes with deep embarrassment, finally simply nodding, unable to voice herself on that topic. As Rarity turned her gaze to AJ, the mare stepped forward, tone softer as she looked up at her towering friend. "I'm sorry for going off on you, darling. I shouldn't be so aggressive when you’re just protecting the young man from getting his feelings hurt. I promise I'm not just playing with a new toy." A pause as her hand lightly gripped the taller woman's free hand and squeezed it softly. "You of all people should know when I'm being serious, right?"

Whatever the others must have wondered about this personal affirmation of friendship, Applejack's response was to relax, and let her shoulders droop a little, nodding warmly. "Yes, I understand sugarcube. You've got your reasons and I shouldn't have been so worried. It's just after having him an' Barb at the orchard and the whole clan meeting 'im... I guess I just started getting protective of the fella. He seems like such a good natured stallion, I don't wanna to see such an innocent young buck hurt."

* * *

Dusk was doing exactly what he wanted at this moment, there was no question of that. It felt like it had been hours since the bottle of hot sauce had dropped from his hands, and currently all he really saw of the world around him was the bathtub full of ice water. Plunging his face deep into the chilly depths and trying to turn off his mind, Dusk's mouth began to calm down, and the growing chill spreading through his mind slowed down the chaotic thoughts that had been screaming moments before. As the cold got too much for him to stand, his weight fell back to the floor once more, his head lifting from the ice, and freezing water poured down from his soaked mane, drenching his upper body.

A towel was suddenly thrust in his face, soft yet firm tones from a new voice calling him back to the world. He looked up into the eyes of a short but firm mare. Accepting the towel and working it into the mass of his hair, his voice was still quavering, but more confident now. "Thank you, I take it you are Nurse Redheart?" The easy nod to her medical bag, not to mention the tight, white uniform she wore really made the question superfluous, but with the day he’d just had, he was taking no chances.

"I am, Dusk. It’s good to see you've already gotten some of your senses back again. Pinkie's parties can often leave the uninitiated in the clinic for a day or two." Her smile was tender, yet she hardly bothered to wait for his reply, as a hand was pushed under the towel and against his forehead, the other free hand moving to grip his wrist, counting to herself as she took his pulse.

Dusk blushed darkly as the woman suddenly assaulted him, breath drawn back in a sharp gasp. Yet, where before, any mare grabbing him like this so swiftly had followed up with a kiss and then distracting words about his body or compliments about his recent classes, this nurse drew back from his forehead, though still held his wrist tightly, and smiled warmly, head tilting a little to the side. "Well it's clear you’re stressed out over something, but I don't think you'll be burning down the library with your fire breath again." There was a flash of a grin before her stance shifted a little, her voice smooth and low, "Wanna talk about it? Just because you’re the Princess’ student doesn't mean you can't ask others for advice."

A dark blush spread over Dusk's cheeks as he realized the mare was the innocent one in this situation. He tried to clear his mind, voice lowered as he spoke with soft ease. "You are good. You got all that from my pulse and a headache?" When the soft, pink-haired mare simply smiled at his question, he sighed, and at last relented. "Well... it all started with a question on the graduate exam..."

* * *

Outside the bathroom, the party was still in full action. Pinkie was currently leading a moderately-intoxicated cluster of mares in the night’s second limbo contest. Barb had been politely banned from competition this time, as being easily a foot shorter than anyone else at the party, she had stolen the first contest without any effort. Now she sat in Fluttershy's lap, her spines being stroked with tender fingers, eyes half-slitted shut, she stared off at the far wall, not really seeing anything. Rainbow Dash wandered over, having just finished her turn in the game and lifted the little dragon's muzzle grinning warmly. "Sorry squirt, but I'm so taking this round! I hope Fluttershy is keeping you company at least."

Shocked at the suddenly fresh attention, Barb looked up at her, but a grin was all she really had to offer to the competitive mare. "Well when you're the best at limbo like me, you have to sit out to give others a chance." With a warm grin, she crossed her arms and sat up taller, flashing a smile up at the shy mare whose lap she occupied. "’Shy was telling me about her animal clinic and her vet work. It's really nice to hear about just how much goes on in a small town like Ponyville."

Fluttershy blushed, yet offered a nod to Barb as she spoke, her voice almost a murmur underneath the others’ conversation. "Dash, do you think Dusk's going to stay in town after the Summer Sun Celebration? He seems so lonely, and Barb was telling me he spends most of his time in study. Don't you think the town could use someone like him to take over the library?"

Dash was shocked to hear Fluttershy speak so boldly, and twisted her gaze up to look into the eyes of the blushing mare. Releasing Barb and shifting to cross her arms across her small chest, she grinned slightly. "Well, well, well. It's good to hear that you might just be coming out of your shell, Fluttershy. Next thing we know, you'll have a special somepony and won't need me and Pinkie to drag you out in public." She paused to watch as a blush crossed the other pegasus’ cheeks, the quiet meep and whimpering noises that she made really reinforced for Dash just how easy it still was to tease her easily-embarrassed friend. "Oh come on, Fluttershy! Of course I agree. After all, you should have seen him after I accidentally knocked him over in the mud. I'd love to find out how a bookworm like him stays in such great shape!"

Fluttershy had buried her face in Barb's shoulder, but the spines did a poor job of hiding the blush. Glad that she could hide behind her hair until Dash started letting up on her teasing, she finally began to relax again, if only a little. Voice still weak, she offered up her disagreement. "Dash, it’s clear he is Rarity's special somepony. You saw how she claimed him when the lights turned on, and you know once she sets her mind on something, she never gives up."

Barb felt a sigh ripple through the ample pillows her head rested upon. A blush crossed the tiny dragon's face, at last deciding to speak up again, clearly wanting to help the embarrassed woman out in some way. A hand stroking the soft, pink hair of the shivering mare whose lap she occupied, her voice sounded excited by the funny topic she was able to bring up to soothe the frightened mare. "Don't worry Fluttershy, while Rarity isn't the first mare to try and seduce Dusk, he rarely ever really notices. Just yesterday three mares tried to offer him themselves as a ready-made herd just for him. I think that was the first time he ever even noticed the three of them."

Suddenly realizing those around her had gone silent, Barb looked up, eyes wide as the five mares rushed to cluster around her again, their eyes all wide with excitement. Blushing darkly, Barb turned to look at Fluttershy, realizing that even she wanted to know more about this story. Voice a little shaky, Barb recounted what she had learned of the day’s events after talking to Dusk the night before. Finally, she repeated Dusk’s final words on the matter before telling her to drop it.

"In the end, while I was cleaning up after dinner, he told me he was glad his brother had saved him. He said he wasn't sure what he really felt about those three mares and he thought it might not be so horrible to find out weeks after agreeing to such a thing that he didn't get along with some of them. I think he likes the idea of having a very special somepony, maybe even a herd but he likes his study and his quiet time more. I don't even know if he could put up with a mare who couldn't give him his privacy and a chance to continue his studies."

While the quiet murmurs from the other four mares were a mixture of respect and embarrassment, Rarity smiled, her voice low and warm. "You see?! A perfect gentleman, Even when being seduced by harlots, he’d rather think of their feelings first!"

* * *

"And that is when the Princess sent me here to Ponyville, leaving me so busy I have had no time to work on my research for some solution to this mystery. Why would she tease me with the danger of Nightmare Moon, and then push my help away at so critical a day?" Dusk gave a heavy sigh, looking at the nurse, who now sat on the counter across from him. His shirt lay across his lap now, and an ice pack from her bag was held against his brow. He was leaning back against the edge of the bathtub, enjoying the cold that radiated from the ice water it held. He was visibly more relaxed now that he had learned of the pleasure that came with simply sharing one’s thoughts and the stressful things in life with another. Quietly, he added psychology to the list of skills Redheart possessed... as well as topics he clearly needed to research in greater detail.

No longer worried for his health, Nurse Redheart herself had relaxed, the bun holding her hair up undone and laughing at his story. "Well, when you think about it Dusk, doesn't it make sense? She wanted you to be warned, so you could be ready. She probably has some plans for the threat of Nightmare Moon if you're right about the danger. Maybe her plans relate to having you here, now." She offered up a shrug and smiled warmly.

"Maybe she was just jealous of all the mares hitting on you at school. You said you were done with your normal studies, and while we are a small town, we are still very close to Canterlot. She has spent so much money on improvements to our town as well, she could have been planning this for years. Keep her favorite boy-toy somewhere comfortable." A wicked grin spread over her lips at his blush. "What? You never thought of her that way? Look it up, book boy. Where do you think Prince Blueblood came from? She had a lover a few decades ago. Their daughter is Blueblood’s mother. It's rare for her to do it, maybe once every hundred years or so, but it has happened."

Dusk blushed, but as she went on, he realized that she had a point. As he relaxed, his hand lifted, stroking at his chin with quiet care while a smile spread over his lips. "I remember Princess Cadance telling me stories about her childhood. Back when she was my foalsitter, the rumors were still around that she was Celestia's secret daughter. The truth, of course, is that she isn't, but sometimes people still suggest the idea. When I asked her about it years ago she laughed and told me her grandfather was rumored to be the Princess’ nephew, but I don't think she has any such intentions for me. I've never told Barb about this, but years ago when I first started noticing the mares at school and their seasonal heat, well...” He paused, a deep blush radiating over his cheeks, but at Redheart’s gestures to continue he pressed on. “Princess Celestia jokingly suggested to one of my old classmates that I might be able to help get the mare over her distractions. She said that she would never want to take the Princess’ property, yet Celestia's only response was to tell her I was my own pony, and she wouldn't mind seeing her two favorite students happy."

Redheart shook with laughter, while she took a drink from a group of them that Pinkie had left on a plate by the door for the two. Sipping with care, she let her voice tease him, even while her fingers stroked his still wet hair. "And so you and this mare became very special someponies?" The warm but relaxed grin she gave him continued to help Dusk feel far more relaxed than he had been in ages. Reaching for a drink, only to have her push his hand from the alcoholic glasses towards the fruit juice, she spoke with quiet care but level authority. "You've had two. That's enough for someone who hasn't eaten in hours, young man."

Dusk couldn’t help but blush and laugh at her words, nodding and taking an apple juice, drinking thoughtfully for a moment before he at last gave her his answer. "No, we did not even date... well, never anything really serious. See, she and I were paired together to study for a few years, and eventually she started to visit me at my observatory. As time passed, however, and her heats came and went, nothing ever came from it. Eventually, she began to study different topics from my research, and we quickly fell out of touch. It has been almost five years since I heard from her." He paused, emptying the last of the glass. His thoughts wandered as his mind tried to keep up with his tongue. "I wonder what she is studying now. Maybe I should ask the Princess someday. We used to be such good friends years ago."

"So tell me, Nurse Redheart. Are all the ponies crazy in Ponyville or is it a sign of the season?" Dusk's question was really more a joke, but her knowing glance had him sit up a little, laughing to himself. "Surely you are not going to imply it is clearly me who is the crazy one."

* * *

As the night continued, some of the less energetic ponies had found quieter places to relax, some even catching small naps. While tradition called for all to be up for the sunrise first thing in the morning, there really wasn't any rule about staying up all night. A much calmer collection of mares sat around, recounting stories for little Barb, and laughing warmly. Pinkie now sat with her shirt off, a headband over her breasts for some measure of modesty and a large glass snuggled between her breasts, filled with ice water to help her cool off. Her bright eyes lifted to gaze around the room, a little pout spreading. "I wish Dusk was feeling better. This party was meant to help him get to know the other ponies in town better. Now, the only person he’s getting to know is Nurse Redheart, and while she is a good friend to have, she shouldn't have him all to herself."

As the others laughed, Pinkie's pout only grew deeper, arms lifting to cross over her chest and her wineglass was brought up and drained again. Rarity was quick to pour her a refill, even as she spoke with care. "Don't worry, darling. If he is well-rested from today, I'm sure we will have lots of time to introduce him around town during tomorrow's party. And with you hosting, then Dusk will assuredly have a great time making up for how much of today was wasted." Again, the others laughed at the odd conversation.

Applejack stood a few feet away looking out the window, occasionally checking her pocket watch. Turning at last, she drew her hair back up from hanging back around her shoulders to place it once more into a ponytail, grinning a little as she spoke. "Pinkie, I think we ought’a get everypony over to the city hall. It's nearly time for the Celebration to start." Of course, nobody disputed the farmer's sense of time. She had an internal clock that was unquestionable. With groans and sighs, the cluster broke up to start speaking with others about the room.

Barb went alone to the bathroom door, and knocked softly. "Dusk. It's almost time for the Celebration to start. Do you feel up to joining us for Celestia's arrival?"

Chapter 2: The Rise of Nightmare Moon

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Ponyville City Hall, during the dawn battle against Nightmare Moon

The rhythm of Dusk's pulse exploded in his ears like the endless impact of a hammer upon an anvil. So much had gone wrong so quickly, and now as the world shattered before him, the stallion could only marvel at the glass shards as they slipped from his fingertips. The horror was real; Nightmare Moon had returned.

Desperation drove him to clutch once more at the shards, violently pulling things back together, and forcing his way once more into the now. The tattered remains of his shirt hardly covered his bare chest, and he stood alone in the middle of Ponyville's shattered Town Hall. All around him lay the broken forms of Princess Celestia's honour guard, while a weight on his chest reminded him of what had happened mere moments before. Almost lifeless, the form of his brother Shining Armor lay collapsed against him.

As realization dawned, the heat of rage boiled up once more, sending a fresh surge of strength to his aching limbs. With care, he shifted to crawl out from under his brother’s broken body, his voice screaming forth a challenge at the nightmare before him.

Nightmare Moon stood over the crumpled remains of a dozen guards, their helpless bodies now reduced to simple playthings for the psychotic alicorn's amusement. The blast that hit her square in the back was powerful, enough to cause this Goddess of Darkness to stumble, caught unaware as she was. She turned, levelling upon the revived student of her crushed sister a heartless glare. Her voice boomed in the empty hall, the impact of her words alone staggering the wounded boy who had dared to again stand before her. "THOU DARE STAND AGAINST THY ONE TRUE QUEEN? HOW MANY TIMES WILT I BREAK THEE LIKE SCATTER’D TOYS BENEATH MINE FEET?"

He reeled from the volume of her powerful voice as if it were a tangible attack. With effort, he only just managed to draw a breath, the sheer force of her voice enough to knock the wind out of him. The black force of her magic shot through the air, piercing the shield he had half formed and only narrowly passing over his shoulder to obliterate the wall at his back. The black haze began to form once more before his eyes, when a sudden burst of wind slammed into the dark alicorn from behind, throwing her through a nearby wall and out into the town itself.

Blinking to try and force the black haze of exhaustion away, Dusk only now realized strong hands had taken him up and were carrying him away from the battlefield that had once been a celebration of the summer’s official start. In the distance, yet somehow right beside his ear, Dusk could make out concerned voices all speaking over one another.

"You got him? She will be back any second, Mac. You gotta hurry."

"I ain't never seen nobody take a hit from Dash from behind and get up so fast."

"Eeyup."

"What of the others?"

"Ah got Shining. Dunno if anyone else made it."

"The poor guards... what ever has she done to Princess Celestia? What can we do against a goddess like her?"

They were all voices he vaguely recalled, but the glass shards of reality had slipped again from his fingers, and soon, the darkness violently forced its way in and began to take his mind away. The sweet freedom of a peaceful death suddenly no longer panicked the stallion.

The blackest depths of an unknowable darkness swept over Dusk's mind and soon, the pain that tore at his lungs with every gasp for breath was suddenly gone. Now, he floated free of it all in the unfathomable darkness. Unlike the outside, this place was peaceful, and somehow so much better than fighting anymore. In the silence, Dusk began to understand at last that he was dying, and those voices he had heard before... they must be his new-found friends. Strangely, even in this silent place, that somehow managed to tug at him a little despite the nothingness in which this tiny fraction of his mind still floated. Even in the void, where he had accepted death, there was something that called out to him...

"Help!"

What was that sudden flash, that voice that called me? Somehow it is new and yet familiar, and its sorrow tears at my peaceful quiet and the calm of this realm of death. It is like something I have always heard in the back of my mind, but until today I have never been able to understand it, not when it was drowned in the din of everyday life.

"Help!" The voice called out again, throwing apart his peaceful void and tossing him into the violent chaos... and all from the sound of that hopelessly sorrowful voice. Its agonized tones pulled at his emotions, when even his heart had stopped beating.

Even here, in the endless darkness, it tugs at my mind as if it might pull me back to life, to force me awake again with mournful tones alone. But why, I know it not... yet it tears open my soul to ignore the desperation in that voice. I wonder, could it be Princess Celestia? Is she somehow calling to me from wherever Nightmare Moon has her trapped?

"HELP!"

“No... it is not the Princess... but who? Why? And how have they found me here, ruining the formerly-peaceful embrace of death’s endless sleep?”

"HELP ME, DUSK!"

At last Dusk realized who that voice was. That realization was all it took, driving him to fight once more; he knew he must not die this day. Somehow, somewhere, that voice was calling to him, and he was awake.

* * *

The horror had started hours ago and a world away in Dusk's mind. He had been in the bathroom, still quietly enjoying his day for the first time with Nurse Redheart. The easygoing mare had done his nerves a world of good, when suddenly, a light knock echoed upon the bathroom’s locked door.

Barb had come alone to the bathroom door, and knocked with a soft touch, her tender voice still worried as she spoke just loudly enough for him to make out. "Dusk, it's almost time for the celebration to start. Do you feel up to joining us for Princess Celestia's arrival?"

Just for a moment, he glanced sidelong at Redheart and the words almost didn't rise in his throat. But even as he thought it, she was once more tying that bun together again in her hair. A sigh died upon his lips before it could form itself and he spoke at last. "Of course, Barb. It is on her checklist of duties for the celebration, and besides, it will be nice to see her again on a happier note rather than like last time after the exam."

Outside the bathroom once more, Dusk at last realized how early it already was. Only one or two of the guests remained behind to help Pinkie Pie clean up, as all the others had moved on to the city hall already. Smiling warmly at Barb, he started to tenderly rub her head spikes’ green curve, his voice soft. "Sorry for worrying you Barb, I am alright now... just had to blow off some steam." A snort, clearly from Pinkie, got him laughing too, helping to lighten the mood.

Redheart's hand took his own, slipping a card into his palm. "My address, should you have need to talk again. I get most night shifts at the clinic as well." Her voice was light, warm and tender. Dusk fondly cherished that, and the too-long time she held his hand before leaving him behind. Turning to Pinkie, he realized quite quickly that she was blushing as well.

Redheart spoke up again, addressing Pinkie. "Let's get to the ceremony Pinkie, I'm sure the others have saved you a seat. This can wait for another hour or two."

As Dusk stepped towards the pink-haired party planner, however, she shied away just for a moment before her bright nature reasserted itself. "And you Dusk, you've got the best seat in the house. We made sure it was saved by Big Mac, himself." Pinkie suddenly wrapped her arms around his forearm and resting a cheek on his shoulder, and Dusk took it as her method of communicating an apology. With Barb’s hand gripping his free hand, the three turned and left, they be the last to arrive at the hall... save for Her.

* * *

The world around him was suddenly a blinding glare of painful white light, and his heart's strong beat once more flooded into his ears, no longer the overwhelming roar it had been before, instead now a steady, level pulse. Rendered blind by the oppressive brightness, Dusk heard a gasp of breath nearby, too close. And then, the rush of voices returned again to wash over him, and the pressure of the sound prevented him from moving at first; it was a harsh struggle to even draw each breath. The world about him now was a horror, filled with only pain.

"You did it Princess! He.. he is breathing again!"

"But..."

"How is he? Was your magic able to..." That was... Pinkie? But she was cut off by a voice from his youth.

"I didn't have the chance... he just... started breathing again all by himself." A pause then, and that voice whispered from very close to his ear, tone tender. "Dusk? Dusk can you hear me?"

Still trapped in a world of only blinding light and pain, Dusk's insides felt as if they had been ripped up, like he had been run over in the night. Parting cracked lips, he managed to make the agonizing effort to greet his foalsitter in their traditional manner. With a helpless voice hardly above a whisper he spoke out. "Sun... su... sunshine... sunshine... la... la... lady... lady..." A coughing fit came over him and his voice failed him once more, only to feel the sudden assault of cool water on his lips. Someone was giving him a drink.

But here, Princess Cadance, her heart shredded with sorrow and joy at the same time, finished for him, quietly laughing at the silly song for kids she had taught him so long ages ago. "Labybugs awake. Clap your hooves and do a little shake.” Cadance's voice was haunted, the sound of half-sobs stuck within her throat as her fingers stroked through his hair. The sound of the door closing behind someone who had just left made it clear he must be alone with Cadance. Her voice weak, she spoke with tender care even as the water returned to his lips again. “Oh Dusk, you had us so worried. I only just arrived a few minutes ago. It took everything I could manage just to drive Nightmare Moon off... And then... then Shining Armor told me you were gone... what's happening, Dusk? Why is Nightmare Moon back, and where is Princess Celestia?"

Dusk swallowed roughly at the water, his voice at last returning to him. He felt her sorrow for a moment, but they had more important matters at hand. His right arm felt useless at his side, so he tried to lift the left and gripped her by the back of the head, pulling her close so she might hear his whispered words. "Princess Luna... is alive."

* * *

City Hall in Ponyville was as illustrious as Dusk remembered. Rarity's hard work had clearly paid off as the gathered crowds were all engaged in admiration of the decorations. Clusters of ponies stood at the back of the room, speaking in groups while the front two-thirds of the room had packed rows of chairs in tight to the front balcony to allow as many as possible to watch the Princess raise the sun when the celebration began.

As his gaze began to shift over the crowd, Pinkie was directing him through it, and they were quickly joined by Applejack and two younger fillies. Realizing that he knew one girl, Dusk attempted to call out to her, offering both girls a friendly smile. "Apple Bloom, good morning. Who is your little friend?"

Instantly, the two girls turned to stare at one another, the soft-spoken new girl whispering to Apple Bloom, even while shifting to half-hide behind AJ. Strangely, the grey mulberry and rose hair reminded Dusk of someone else who was absent, prompting him to ask gently, "And where is Rarity? I had figured she would want to be front and center for this big event."

This got a response from the girls. First, Bloom stepped up to Dusk, her low but country-bred voice clear and confident. "Hiya Dusk! This here’s Sweetie Belle, she's Rarity's lil' sister." She turned to her shy friend and tried to pull the hiding unicorn filly out from behind her older sister. "Come on, Sweetie! Dusk's super nice and a really powerful unicorn!”

Sweetie had been reluctant to step forward and take the full attention that awaited her, at least until the towering stallion asked about Rarity. Now, she very slowly took a few small strides to stand before him, eyes wide while she pointed up towards the balcony that overlooked the main hall facing the east. Her voice was a quiet whisper, squeaking with excitement. “She is front and center, Mister Dusk. Up on the balcony, she gets to pull the cord to reveal Princess Celestia herself, when the sun rises!” Bringing her hands up before her face, the little filly gave a soft giggle, though still a little sheepish before Dusk. “My big sister's so lucky!”

At last, Dusk understood the situation and turned to grin at Applejack, crouching low and offering to her his hand, his voice low and easy. “Well then, it is a pleasure to meet you, little Sweetie Belle. Shall we find our seats?” he asked, standing up once more. He grinned at the cowgirl as she stepped in close to his side, her hands crossing over her chest as the two followed the girls when they bolted across the room to find chairs in the front row that had been reserved for Dusk and a few guests in his company.

AJ's head turned to gesture towards a curtain where soft birdsong whispered free loud enough for one to hear. The cowgirl softly spoke up, “‘Shy's back there. She required it or she wouldn’t be able to get the birds calm enough to perform publicly.” A knowing glance at him made it clear he should know it was for Fluttershy, and not for the birds’ sake. Then a second casual point of her hand directed him to Pinkie, who was helping Big Mac direct others to the chairs. “Unless I'm mistaken, it’s only five minutes until the Princess arrives. Do you think we should save the Royal Guards a few extra seats?”

Now Dusk shifted his weight and lifted his head to look around, but then shook his head. Things were going so well, he felt a little comfortable being casual with the farmpony. “No. Shining Armor is leading them here today, and he will not sit. And if he will not, neither will they. But it is kind of you to be so thoughtful.”

A blush began to spread across AJ's cheeks and she shifted a little to draw away from him slightly, rubbing her open palms across her arms in a few steady strokes of embarrassment as they arrived at the chairs just below the balcony. Dusk was happy to take up a chair offered to him by Apple Bloom, fluffing the girl’s hair and grinning warmly. With the weight off his feet, he grinned up at AJ and over to Sweetie before the sound of the room falling silent rushed over them all.

Pinkie and Mac had finished their work and stood now at the front of the room, both making motions to silence those who were waiting for the show to start. Behind her drape, the rap of a baton against wood called Fluttershy's birds to full attention, their song sounding out and echoing forth across the crowded hall.

In a single motion, the twin doors on the opposite side of the hall were cast open. Marching in flawless formation, the Royal Guard crossed the hall with quiet but firm purpose. Clearly, Dusk’s brother had been drilling this formation a great deal. Each guard, be it mare or stallion, moved in a surging wave that flooded into the hall. Their order was a grand display, organized in a repeating pattern of each tribe, earth, pegasus, and unicorn, and at the same time, matching that motif were mare, stallion, mare, stallion. Front and center, Shining Armor strode with great dignity and pride, the noble officer stepping forward to stand below the balcony.

One hand lifted, and the music stopped, allowing Armor's voice to echo forth across the room. “People of Ponyville. It is with great pride and honor to introduce to you, Her Highness, Princess Celestia!” With a sweeping shift he cast his gaze up to the balcony, where Rarity reached out and pulled at the cord that held the drapes closed.

And standing in behind them was not the expected sun goddess, who had for a thousand years ruled over her people and protected them from the dangers that filled the world. Instead, a towering black alicorn greeted them, wearing thin black plate mail, crafted with arcane designs carved into every inch of the surface. Her glare was as cold as ice, and she had an ethereal flood of rich purple hair, the depths of the stars visible in that mane. Her voice lifted to echo forth throughout the room with command. “HELLO AGAIN, MINE FOALS. AT LONG LAST THY ONE TRUE QUEEN HAS RETURNED. BOW DOWN BEFORE ME, FOR I AM-”

Another voice called out from below, before she could finish her demand of her newly found subjects. Dusk realized he was standing, already pushing Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle behind AJ, his eyes wide with horror. “Nightmare Moon!”

* * *

It had taken what felt like hours, yet at last, Dusk managed to sit up. How long had it been since Princess Cadance had left the room? It must have been only a few minutes, but in the dark world of pain that was Dusk's mind, it felt like days just drawing up the strength to continue on.

The clinic was so crowded Dusk had been put in the bedroom inside Ponyville's library, and the effort it took to make his way back down the staircase nearly sent him back again into that waiting void of the darkness. It was only through raw willpower alone that Dusk found his way into the library’s main hall.

Gasping for breath and resting his face against the cold wood of a table, he tried to organize his thoughts. Only now was he quiet enough to realize he wasn't alone. Seven mares from his last two days slept clustered around the room. Big Mac had joined them, sleeping upon the floor, his massive body a roadblock propped against the door.

Dusk took a moment to assess himself, getting a feel for some feeble measure of his returned magic. His legs no longer struggled to support his weight under each weak step, and he felt confident enough to continue walking, even without something to lean against. The soft glow of his horn lit as a faint light spell was summoned forth, let him pick his way across the room. The effort of sustaining even this weak spell made his breath feel ragged, preventing him from drawing another proper breath.

A book suddenly slammed closed before him, and from the darkness of a deep armchair the figure of an eighth mare pushed forward. Veiled in the darkness as she was, Dusk strained to see who it was. A flash of ethereal purple-blue hair drifted before his eyes, and one hand lifted to press a finger to her lips. A whispered hush drifted across the room, causing him to gasp and stand up again. He was still in the middle of the room where he had stopped to rest his head upon the cool surface of the table’s wood. He had passed out again, his weakness overwhelming him where he sat.

A hand gently slipped under his arms and a candle was lit. Suddenly, Dusk was no longer alone. The faces of five mares surrounded him, guiding him in silence to the same armchair he had just dreamt about. Setting him down, AJ and Rainbow Dash took a deep breath and nodded to one another.

At last, someone spoke. It startled Dusk that it was himself. "I must find a book... the only one that might have some kind of aid for this night. ‘The Elements of Harmony’... it might be our only hope."

Shockingly, it was Fluttershy who spoke up against this plan first and loudest, drowning out even Rainbow Dash's flippant decry, "A book? Seriously? How is a book going to have any effect on Nightmare Moon!"

The normally-quiet pegasus was now directly in Dusk's face, her small hands cupping his jaw, a determined glare levelled at his half-focused eyes. "Do you know what you're saying Dusk? How do you think you can defeat an alicorn goddess like her when you can't keep your eyes focused? It's hardly been five hours since you came back from the dead, and you are already off trying to get killed again!" A harsh groan escaped her lips and she turned, pointing out the sleeping figure of Barb upon a pillow at Big Mac's side. "It took hours for us to comfort her after you... you died Dusk..." There was a brief pause as her hands rested on his cheeks and her forehead rested against his own, as she drew a shuddering breath, trying to gather herself once more.

From across the room, Pinkie called out with bold delight, hopping up and dancing back across the room to place it upon the desk at his side. "Found it!” When all turned to stare at the overly enthusiastic mare she simply grinned warmly and offered a shrug. “It was under ‘E’!"

Dispirited by Fluttershy's words, their truth stung Dusk deeply. Here he was so weak, yet all around him stood five mares strong and confident, some offering to help him, others trying to save him from his devotion to duty. A smile crossed his lips as he pointed to the book, his voice soft. "If I remember the parts I skipped over before, we shouldn't have to fight her. We just need to find the weapon Princess Celestia used to win before; the Elements of Harmony. With them, maybe we have a chance. Please someone, read to me? Fluttershy's right, I have no strength for it."

A quiet murmur rippled through the group, yet Rarity stepped forward, a lamp in one hand, placing it beside the book. Her eyes were hollow, haunted by the day of horror. But she reached out and with a dainty hand flipped open the book, her voice strong for the small crowd. "Once upon a time, in the magical land of Equestria..."

* * *

Nightmare Moon’s lithe figure swiftly shifted upon her high balcony, an evil grin splitting her lips while a monstrous gaze locked upon the unicorn stallion beneath her. Dusk's words had her full attention, and her voice rippled forth with bold delight. "SOMEPONY REMEMBERS? THEN BOW BEFORE THY PRINCESS AND SHOW THY LOYALTY TO THE ONE TRUE QUEEN OF EQUESTRIA!" The powerful and intimidating aura of the haughty alicorn might have made others bend the knee, the terror of her presence and spiteful aura a crushing weight to almost any who attempted to meet her gaze. With Princess Celestia's disappearance, the disaster of the day was a crushing weight to any soul who witnessed the devastation.

The gathered crowd was frozen, torn by the horror, the despair. Shining Armor spoke then, shattering the eerie silence. “Nightmare Moon, as head of Princess Celestia's Honour Guard, I give you this chance, this one and only chance. Return the Princess and be gone from our realm in peace. Fail this, and you will feel the full weight of the people of Equestria crash down against you.” The gathered soldiers, men and women, stepped into tight formation. Unicorns gathered their will, their horns piling up with power concentrated at a point. The pegasi flexed their wings, shifting their weight, preparing to cast into the fray. The earth ponies drew weapons, many bringing up shields and already using them to push the gathered crowds back out of the room.

Nightmare Moon's eyes slit, tightening down across the tall diamond-shaped pupil with great rage at this defiance. Her weight shifted forward and she stomped one foot on the ground before her. The burst of force caused the balconies railing to shatter, exploding out across the room. The already-worried crowd was showered with violently hurled spears of wood splinters, and while none died, first blood had been drawn from the innocent masses. “YE FOALS! THOU CANNOT HOPE TO STAND BEFORE MINE MIGHT!

A scream rang out across the panicked room as Rarity fell from the balcony from the force of the blast, her body thrown into the air and falling toward the crowd. In that same instant, two spheres of powerful magic wrapped around the falling mare, quickly merging together as the brothers Armor and Dusk realized they had both cast at the same time to save her. It was Armor who spoke however, his voice a call to war. “Loyal Guards of Princess Celestia! This Nightmare must never have her night again!” His protective aura around the mare dropped, leaving Dusk to catch her in his arms as she left the buffering grip of his magic.

Blasts from spells shot forth from over a dozen horns. Archers launched arrows from six points around the room in a single, even volley were matched by six other earth guards’ thrown javelins... yet the response to this violent offensive threat was the harsh laughter of a dark goddess, who cast one hand before her as if lazily swatting at flies. A burst of power rippled forth from that easy motion, and shattered the combined offence of more than a dozen loyal guardians without any effort.

Even as warriors reloaded and guards shifted the mob to escape the room's violence, Nightmare Moon moved to quickly strike back. Her horn glowed with the same odd ethereal black-purple aura that swelled forth, powering the blast of her magic across the gathered crowds. It was matched in turn with targeted bolts of dark power that burst forth and cracked upon the ground before those nearest, throwing them into the air. Over a dozen guards hit the walls about the room, sending them sprawling and spiralling in the violence of this sudden war.

Dusk managed to at last step forward to join the fight, now that Rarity had left with AJ and the young fillies. Drawing forth his strength, he waited for Nightmare to direct her blast before he shot his blow in return. Just like two days ago, he channelled it all into a single tight arrow-point of force, attempting to pierce her guard fast, before she might cast it aside like the others, his reasoning being that this might allow him to find a weak point before she could react.

As the ribbon of light shot forth and blasted up into Nightmare Moon’s chest, the breath was sucked from his lungs, even as she cried out when the impact smashed into her. For just a moment, hope flickered in Dusk's mind. It died just as fast, for as the blast of force dissipated, Nightmare Moon stepped forth once more, her armor blemished, yet far from hurt, and she dropped her gaze to Dusk and fell upon him with the full force of her magic.

In that instant, Dusk dragged together his power, attempting to throw up a shield as he had learned from Shining. As the bubble wrapped about him to absorb the blow, it was insufficient by orders of magnitude. The assault forced him to fall back step after step, even as the few remaining guards let loose their second assault, joined by Armor himself. Her blast waned, dropping off for just a second. It was in that second that his shield fell. Dropping to his knees and falling slowly back, Dusk knew he was out of this fight, likely permanently after today. As Nightmare Moon once again threw the guards about the room like rag dolls, he knew he was going to join them soon.

In a flash, a lost memory came to the fore. It had only been a few months ago when the Princess herself taught him something secret, something forbidden. It involved drawing from somewhere deep inside, where the Princess had shown him that his life-force burned. Here, Dusk forced himself to gather the strength... to be able to pull forth the magic that kept any pony alive, that made his heart beat and his brain work. Dusk drew every ounce of this power he could focus and shaped together into a bolt to shoot forth once again. An incredibly focused blast, this one wasn’t just a single blow to strike down the alicorn in a single strike like before. Instead, it struck harder, faster, and sharper, and was going to be sustained until his life-force might flicker out.

This boundless blow slipped through her guard, and the powerful magic managed to strike home. Of the guards, only two still stood, both powerful earth pony titans in the heaviest of armor. Their training allowed them to spot an opening, and each drew back, twisting to level their spears. With a swift charging stride, the long weapons were hurled violently up to join in with Dusk's relentless assault. A roar of grinding metal echoed forth across the room as under this combined blow to Nightmare Moon's armor ended with a sudden snap, her mail shattering, and the black breastplate cracked from collar to belly.

Dusk at last let go of the well he had drawn upon; let it go free and let his body fall forward, barely catching himself on one hand to rest upon the ground. Coughing hard, blood welled up in his throat, and small droplets burst forth, hitting the floor with his spittle, a stark reminder of the reality of where his power had come from. Hands were on his shoulders, lifting him, and Dusk realized Armor had regained his feet, the proud stallion's breastplate no longer matching his name. He offered a grin down to his younger brother and for a moment his lips formed to speak, only to be cut off by a burst of noise-absorbing thunder that rippled through all in the room.

Reforming on the ground before them, Nightmare Moon returned from the nothingness of a shadow in which she had been hiding after that powerful assault. Evil laughter burst forth as she once more became a physical force upon the world, and drew forth her strength to once again blast at the mortal brothers. In the instant before the blow landed, Dusk could feel Shining's Shield form in a ripple of power, one that was instantaneous, and yet at the same time, it was far too slow, too late to save anyone.

And then, darkness as the evil goddess’ blast hit.

* * *

Dusk's weight shifted, a gasp of pain escaping his lips as the cotton bandages were wrapped around bruised ribs, Fluttershy still fretting one might even be cracked. Nurse Redheart was still too busy to come, thus it was left up to Fluttershy to handle Dusk's broken body while Rarity read out loud for the rest of them. Quiet as the room might be, all could hear every pained sound that escaped his lips, thus, the stallion did everything he could to keep quiet.

The full assessment of the damage had taken over two hours. Of course, the bandaging of his ribs had been the major effort so far, but his right lung had collapsed, his left arm was broken, one cheek-bone was shattered, last of all, he taken a concussion, and the resulting trauma was why his memories had been flowing in random fragments all out of order and broken shards. Fluttershy's regenerative tonic helped with that, but it took time, and Dusk had made her add anything she had on hand that might help dull the roaring pain in his left arm.

As he shifted to stand up, AJ rushed to support his weight on one side while Dash took the other. The strain was unbearable and yet at the same time, was worlds easier than it had been a few short hours before. He expelled a harsh breath and he swallowed sharply to pull away from the supporting mares to take a slow step forward. His legs were weak, shivering with each transfer of pressure, but he could handle the slow and steady pace now. “So we have it. The book says the Elements were last kept in the Castle of Two Sisters, deep inside the Everfree Forest, a place none visit any longer due to the unpredictable magic and magical species that now run wild.” He drew another breath slowly as his weight shifted to rest on his arms upon the table before him, hissing against the pain while resting his forehead on the cool wood of the table once more.

Rarity cleared her throat and shifted her weight before speaking before the others. “It's what the book claims darling, but it’s been a thousand years since anypony has seen the five Elements. Is it even possible they remain? So much could be lost in the ages that have passed.” A slight pout was offered at the sight of the stallion's weak body and struggling efforts to move. In an instant, she was at his side, and tenderly drew a finger over the back of his head while her other hand moved to begin massaging across his temple. “Dusk. We can go without you. It's too much for your body. Your dedication is staggering but you'd never make it, even with our aid.”

Standing up tall and looking over the other mares collecting around him, Dusk quickly realized that despite any argument he might have been ready to make, it was never going to be enough to fend off the girls’ rational debate, so he skipped over rational argument on the matter. His voice level and warm, he locked his gaze upon AJ. “Tell me, Applejack. Do you think that anything you can say will stop me from going, knowing my dedication to Princess Celestia?” A shift of weight to turn his gaze to Dash next, his voice was sure and firm. “You were fighting her with the guards, Rainbow Dash. You saw me tap the forbidden magic. You understand I will sacrifice everything to stop Nightmare Moon, do you not?”

The first two girls were already stammering at his words even as he turned with an easy stride to place a hand upon Fluttershy's cheek. “It is not just for the Princess I go; it is for everyone here, from Apple Bloom to Shining Armor. Who might die in the next attack from Nightmare Moon? The greatest of Princess Celestia's Honour Guard were shattered by the first attack, and few lived through that horror. I am not in this for honour, for pride. I am doing this because I am the only one who can, and that is just the truth.”

His shift turned to look at Rarity and Pinkie Pie. “I can offer you no rational argument, but if my sacrifice saves Ponyville... saves Equestria... it is the least I can do. This argument is over.” He locked a solid glare on one mare after another casting his gaze across them, his breath hissing free in slow effort to keep calm, to stay stable. At last tapping his foot on the floor, he accepted their silence as an answer. “If that is settled... we leave, now.”

And now at last, the girls found a reason to speak up against him. “But Dusk... shouldn't you at least put on a shirt and maybe some kind of pants that are in one... er... piece?”

* * *

The wild forest known as the Everfree had proven to be just as daunting as the others had warned. Dusk could hardly walk without the assistance of Applejack's strong arm under his, the effort of the first mile had torn at his lungs and left him on the edge of collapse, but the girls had long come to understand there was no way he was going to be made to turn back, no matter how many times they insisted. Twice, AJ had attempted to simply carry him back, but he had showed his strength, forcing her strong grasp away and beginning the laborious effort of walking all on his own. Now she had given in, knowing there was no point in fighting him anymore.

As the age-old maps directed, they followed a basic path, one that might once have been some grand highway, but now was simply a near-invisible series of landmarks that had to be picked out. Eventually, their directions broke down to simply going with the forest’s flow, but a fog rose, soaking into every surface and blotting out any source of light save Rarity's magic torch. Limited to but a few feet around them, it forced Rainbow Dash to give up on her attempts to scout the path. The hours crawled by in the world of deep fog, making their progress ever slower in the thick woods.

Clustered close, Dusk's head rested upon AJ's shoulder, offering a slight blush and a smile as she glanced down at him once more, even as the careful group wandered further into the depths of the woods. Pinkie shifted back a little and turned to speak over her shoulder, voice warmly calling back over her shoulder with her usual excited delight. “I think the fog is thinning out ahead! I can see a river too!” walking backwards, the energetic woman grinned wide...

And then suddenly, the world threw them off their feet. The ground collapsed before them, trees washing away in the sudden landslide. Nothing but blackness was visible before them. Ground rolling under his feet, he and AJ uncontrollably began to slide down the incline towards the suddenly too-close cliff edge.

* * *

Thrown around by the quake and the land's shift under her, AJ's strength was suddenly put to the test as she caught herself on a deep-rooted tree stump, her muscles straining and her breath cast from her lungs. Suddenly, she was aware of just what it was Dusk had been put through in the last day’s battle. Gasping for air as the landslide died off, the powerful cowgirl drew herself up to stand once more, about to start dusting off her right side of the deep gravel scratches when at last she realized she was alone. A gasp and sudden twist around to face towards the cliff edge, she saw Dusk flat upon his belly, hanging half over the edge and grasping at the crumbling cliff edge, his one good arm clawing at the dirt for a grip.

Swift, strong legs kicked out, and with three long, powerful steps, she found herself at a cliff-edge that led to infinity below. Bracing her weight and lunging, she threw her weight over that cliff to capture one of Dusk's wrists as he fell from the ledge, the impact of hitting the ledge forcing all her breath from her lungs for a second time as many minutes. Luckily, she had him, and strained with effort as she threw a second hand over to wrap under his arms, doing everything in her strength to pull him back from the brink. “I got you sugarcube. Hold on and leave this all up to me. I swear I won't let you fall.”

Dusk's gaze lifted, his one good arm shifting to wrap around the more powerful woman's shoulders as he cried out in a pained panic, even while the pressure of her grip across his shoulder blade made the limp arm ache. “You... have me?” He almost laughed at the insanity of it all.

Her belly scraped forward inch by painful inch as she tried to catch her legs on something, anything to prevent this continued slide over the cliff’s edge. In the distance below them she spotted Dash and Fluttershy shifting about and leaving Pinkie Pie by the river bank below, turning about and shooting back up into the air once more, towards them, but they were going to be too late. If they both fell, Fluttershy was never going to be able to handle catching one of them, and as fast as Dash was, she might never manage that much weight so fast. A plan formed at last, and she looked down deep into Dusk's eyes. “Dusk... let go.”

Dusk's eyes, bloodshot red with stress and pain suddenly bolted wide open even as she spoke, his voice still panicked, still lost to the depths beneath him. “Are you crazy?”

AJ shifted onto her rump and braced herself, digging the heels of her cowboy boots into the soft earth to save them both from tumbling over the edge. Her gaze returned to Dusk's and she put everything she had into her next words. “You asked us to bring you here Dusk, so we did because your words rang true, now you have to trust me. Trust me Dusk, and let go.”

Dusk's eyes were wide, and they gazed deep into hers before at last he shut his eyes tight and released her grip. With his weight instantly lost to the void of darkness blow, Applejack swiftly crab-crawled backwards from the edge, catching her breath as she found a comfortable place to curl up against safe ground. From below, Dusk's scream rang out as he fell... and was suddenly cut off.

* * *

That look in AJ's eyes... that was what the real trick of it all. She said the words ‘trust me’, and in the depths of her eyes, he simply couldn't argue, no matter how the insanity of her plan shocked him. Releasing her and falling into the open space while his legs kicked in desperation. A spell for falling... he had used Shining's shield spell to help save Rarity from the balcony fall, but that was only twenty, thirty feet. Not like this, and he was so weak right now, how could he hold the bubble even for...

Then hands had him, and his weight was lifted once more into the air. Rainbow Dash was on his right side, Fluttershy quickly joining her on his left. Both working to pump their wings and sustain their flight with the newly added weight. Applejack certainly had a plan. Now, she was jumping from one cliff edge to another as she rapidly made her way down the side of the drop to catch up with the others.

As the ground arrived under his feet, Dash's voice at last began to make sense in his ears over the worried chaos that had been distracting him until now. “Fluttershy, can't you hold a little more of his weight, you are putting way too much strain on his ribs!”

The weaker flier was darkly blushing, doing her best to support Dusk's weight as she attempted to soften their landing, her voice soft and tired. “Sorry... I'm not use to carrying anything more than a few baby bunnies...” she replied, turning away, a little ashamed by her weakness, her shoulders drooping in shame at being nearly no help.

Dusk leaned heavily against the supportive arms of Rainbow Dash, his breath coming in swift gasps, even as the darkness began to form before his eyes. In a moment of blind panic, he thought that he might be falling back towards the darkness from before. But when he felt Dash's hand upon his forehead, the strong touch brought him focus and let his eyes refocus on the things before him again. Nodding in thanks to the strong grip that held him, even while her fingers raked through his hair, his voice’s softness surprised him a little. “Thanks Dash... is vertigo common after such a sudden drop?” When she laughed and nodded he at last began to relax, resting for a moment as AJ stopped to brush off her knees and smooth down her clothing, panting with exhaustion at such a fast scaling to join them. “And relax Fluttershy. You did fantastic... you saved Pinkie while AJ took care of me, and you were able to catch up with Dash to help save me too.”

The shy girl began to turn and look up to him as he grinned warmly down at her. His strength to keep standing, even if he did need another to help, made her heart swell in a way she couldn't really identify. Shifting to stand up again, she began gently nodding even as she said in a soft and tiny voice, “I promise I'll try harder.”

If the others heard her, they didn't answer as Fluttershy shifted to stand a little taller and walked back over to join the others, her hands pulled behind her back to squeeze one with the other. AJ and Rainbow debated back and forth over who should carry Dusk, and in the end, Dash won. “You let me handle it for five minutes, AJ! You act like he’s an egg I'm gonna drop. I wont drop him and he isn't that fragile.” She wrapped an arm under Dusk's while her wing spread to help balance, wrapping protectively across his ribs, to offer some extra support. “And until he says otherwise or can walk on his own, I've got it!”

Glaring back at Dash, AJ joined Fluttershy and Rarity following behind Pinkie, who was singing in the lead of the group, calling back to the others with an excited voice, “I've found a nice big clearing, and even a road! I'm sure this way leads towards the castle! Come on guys!”

Following Pinkie's path through the woods, they finally came across the wide clearing that turned out to have a brick path. Inspecting it for a few minutes while everyone caught their breath, Dusk started going on about the type of stone and how old they were. His delight at the discovery helped to brighten the mood of the group. “You really made a great find Pinkie... are you some kind of a rock-hound in your free time?”

Pinkie's happy laugh echoed forth and she lightly poked Dusk in the nose, a mile-wide grin dancing on her lips. “My family owns a rock farm, silly. You're the part-time rock-hound! When all of this is done, you should come visit them sometime. We have all sorts of rocks that's bound to make your head go ‘wowie zowie’!” Turning away and stepping into the bush at the far edge of the path, Pinkie smacked face-first into the towering figure of a sleeping manticore.

Suddenly, all was panic and chaos around Fluttershy. Rainbow Dash, Pinkie and Applejack all drew together while pushing Dusk off to Rarity as they formed a barrier of bodies and tried to drive off the giant beast. Fluttershy’s eyes were wide, darting back and forth as she followed the fight before her. Her legs felt like jelly, and she couldn't look away from the fight. Her heart filled with panic as friends were suddenly thrown back by the beast’s mighty swipe of a paw... and then she saw it. She called out low and weak, “Wait!”

Dusk and Rarity had fallen back a ways, before nodding to one another and whispering something quickly back and forth to one another. Together, their magic swelled in their horns and shot forth to blast into the beast’s side, throwing it back into the bushes. A sudden roar and a single mighty leap brought the giant monster back to the clearing, rushing swiftly towards them again. “Everyone, wait!” Fluttershy tried to call out as best she could, over the panic and the action before her.

Suddenly, her legs moved on their their own, causing her to charge forward between her friends and the enraged beast, screaming out as loud as she could manage as she physically put herself between the battle. Shock from the noise and the sudden strength displayed by the normally-reserved mare caused all the others to draw up suddenly short, even while the beast still charged in upon stunned ladies.

Fluttershy shifted to turn, and facing down the approaching beast, she grappled with his paw and pulled the thorn she had noticed stuck in it only a moment before, offering her deep and soulful gaze up to the towering beast with a warm and light voice. “Now then kitty, can't you please forgive us for the confusion? I know your paw hurts real bad, but if you give me a second, I'll make it feel all better.”

The giant Manticore wrapped its powerful form around her, the huge bundle of fur and muscle shifting to assault her with long, deep, and soft strokes of its tongue, she herself began to blush deeply, shivering at the bold kitty’s attentions.

Dusk was floored. Little, timid Fluttershy had pushed them all back and stared down the towering beast, then with the simple use of kind words and a thorn removed from its paw, she had done the impossible; calming the great beast. Staggered by the effort of the fight, Dusk attempted to shift, leaning his weight over upon the nearest of the mares, only to find Rarity’s arms about his hips, and her smile gazing warmly up to his eyes. “But...”

A finger went to his lips and she lightly hushed his words. “Darling, look at them. Fluttershy is busy with the manticore, and Dash and AJ are almost as badly beaten up as you are. Even Pinkie is drooping from this recent fight. Let me carry your weight. I can handle it for a while.” A lie, Dusk knew, yet somehow she was managing it, despite the fact he towered a full six inches over her.

He softly nodded, making the extra effort to support his weight to avoid crushing the sweet-natured mare’s lavender mane. Taking a slow breath, he turned to lift his gaze and looked over the others. “I know everyone is exhausted... but once you have caught your breath we need to continue on. There is no telling what other wild animals are here that are not so forgiving as this manticore that haunt these woods.” He was expecting an argument or angry words, instead all that he got were soft nods and agreeable mutters. Everyone that had came with him was still just as dedicated to the mission as he was, and their support reminded him of Rarity's strong grip. “Then, let us continue... Thank you Rarity... Applejack... Pinkie... Fluttershy... Rainbow Dash. You five friends have already made this impossible trip a reality.”

Nods were offered in return. Sweet, kind words of reassurance were offered, and the tiny mare that held his hand squeezed his wrist. Once they were ready to move on, Dusk came to a realization. Rarity was putting up with his crushing weight upon her shoulders, and instead of trying to wiggle out from under his weight she was pulling him to put more of it upon her, as she softly brushed her nails against the back of his head. Every time he tried to stop her or pull his weight back a little she simply offered a smile up at him, squeezed the back of his neck, reminding him of the depths of her altruism, and refusing to let him suffer any more than she herself could take on.

Dusk's realization whispered in the back of his mind. She was willing to suffer as much as she had to, just to make up for being a weak link in the group. Dusk's blush was deep as he at last relented and placed a single soft kiss to her forehead. “Thank you, you silly filly.”

* * *

The fog had returned, deepening around them once more as they entered the thick forest, but this time at least, they had the road under their feet to help guide them. Rarity continued her staggering effort to carry Dusk, even though AJ and Dash felt refreshed, and stood strong, offering to take him from her. She had shot them down, her voice sure and calm, “You each had your turns, now it’s mine to get in close with Dusk. Besides, this way if something else attacks you can fend it off instead of being worried about dropping him on his face.”

As the dark shadows grew thicker, and the fog grew heavier about them, the close group stepped into a thicker canopy that formed overhead, preventing any bright light from piercing the woods. Rarity drew on her magic to light up a torch, and gave it to AJ who carried it high overhead. But as they started on again, a face formed in the woods before them, giant and bestial with gaping jaw and demonic eyes.

Unmoving and unblinking, the dark monster started them down... right up until Dash spoke up. “There... is another, to the right.” Pointing and gasping softly, the group started to move to the left in hopes of shifting away from the gathered hunting demons, only for a third to appear to their right... and then a fourth, a fifth... Soon, they were surrounded, more than a dozen bestial unmoving and unblinking faces each panting for breath and lit by a baleful fire that glowed inside their open mouths, it's blue-grey flames dancing wildly.

Dusk was starting to draw on his magic again, knowing they wouldn't be able to fight so many bestial demons without his assistance. Rarity was doing the same, though she continued to attempt to help Dusk, her hand slipping around his hips to help keep him upright. Then came the sound of... laughter? Pinkie was bowled over before the closest of the beasts, bawling with delight.

All those gathered turned their gaze back and forth from one another in shock at the situation before them. They gasped, even as the face before them suddenly faded as realization sunk in that it was simply a gnarled tree trunk, once the fog’s dim light had faded. “Wh... What?”

Pinkie Pie darted from one demonic face to another, still laughing, while offering an assortment of odd reactions to the monstrous faces that lay before them. She made funny faces in return, sticking out her tongue and acting like a monster herself even as she said, “Bleh. Ooo!”

Dusk gasped quietly in shock as even more of the demon faces winked out, clearing from the woods and revealing still more gnarled trees. He turned to call out harshly to the jester attempting to drive away the demons and their shadows. “Pinkie, what are you doing? Run!”

But again the silly filly’s response was so very different from what the gathered friends could have expected, as in a singsong voice she called out. “Oh Dusk, girls, don't you see?” She paused for a breath, then true singing suddenly broke out:

“When I was a little filly and the sun was going down...”

Dusk's shoulders fell and he nearly collapsed against Rarity's surprisingly secure grip. “Tell me she's not...”

“The darkness and the shadows, they would always make me frown,” continued the boldly singing filly. She continued dancing and darting about from one beastial face to another, laughing out before the faces even as a kick here and a wave of a hand there drove away still more of the ghost lights. Quickly, it became clear something more was happening here. Not one of demonic faces had been real, and still none of them had moved.

Still supporting Dusk, Rarity's exasperated tone confirmed his fears. “She is.”

“I'd hide under my pillow,”

“From what I thought I saw,”

“But Granny Pie said that wasn't the way,”

“To deal with fears at all!”

Dash had to turn to look around, her eyes wide, suddenly realizing what Pinkie had already started, her voice questioning the joyful mare. “Then what is?”

“She said, Pinkie, you gotta stand up tall,”

“Learn to face your fears,”

“You'll see that they can't hurt you,”

“Just laugh to make them disappear!”

“Ha! Ha! Ha!”

Who could question the results of this, as suddenly with this silly song and swift laughter, Pinkie had removed over half the demons’ presence. The dramatic effectiveness of this display of joy before the dark spirits around them drew an audible gasp from the gathered friends.

“So, giggle at the ghostly,”

“Guffaw at the grossly,”

“Crack up at the creepy,”

“Whoop it up with the weepy,”

“Chortle at the kooky,”

“Snortle at the spooky!”

“And tell that big, dumb, scary face to take a hike and leave you alone, and if he thinks he can scare you, then he's got another thing coming, and the very idea of such a thing just makes you wanna... hahahaha... heh...”

“Laaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaauuuugh!”

As Pinkie carried on, the others couldn't resist the joyful display of the delighted fuzzball of pink energy. All were laughing warmly and feeling somehow as though bit of this day’s stress had dropped from their hearts. Again, that flash of realization whispered at the back of Dusk’s mind and tickled something he had read so recently. What it was though? It agitated him that he was missing something so simple, something his mind clearly had already figured out and simply not yet made him aware of it.

* * *

As the path continued and the fog cleared up, Dash had taken over leading the group, able to now see the others from the air after taking flight. The mare scouted high overhead, whipping back and forth in the air above them, hunting. And then, she spotted their objective: a castle ruin on the other side of a short gully. There was even a bridge across the gap, though it couldn't be too sturdy, considering its age. Shooting back to the ground before the group, she couldn't help but offer a proud grin. “I found it! It's only a few hundred feet ahead across a old wood bridge.”

The murmur of joy from the others was clear, and Pinkie Pie cried out with delight. “Way to go Dashie! You've done it.” Grinning with delight, she posed proudly and accepted the congratulations from all those around, before turning to guide them on. Only as they arrived at the bridge did they realize the real problem before them. The bridge looked to be a hundred years old and had been allowed drop, as it hung over on the far side, as if someone had untied it.

“Nutbunnies... well it looked like the bridge isn't an option now, is it?” Pinkie was crestfallen as she spoke, but was nearly be bowled over by Dash's slight nudge to the ribs.

“What? Come on, this is no challenge, I'll just fly the bridge back over again. There was no way such a short flight could be a problem in the thinning fog."

“Oh duh!” The bubblegum mare snorted in a joyful declaration, gently landing a bonk on her head.

Going by the look on his face, Dusk was less than reassured, his voice matching it, weak and tired. “Just be careful, and know we are here, just a short flight away if anything happens.”

Flying into the darkness alone, Dash landed on the far side of the gully and started inspecting the remains of the plank bridge, finding it in good shape and with lots of strong rope still on hand. A voice spoke out from behind, surprising her. Like liquid silk, the low cooing voice tickled at her consciousness, while hands slipped around her ribs and drew her into a hug. “My most interesting of subjects... you don't want to do that. For someone of your talents, I have a thousand better things you could be doing than helping them.” It was a voice Dash had heard only once before: at the battle of Ponyville Town Hall. As she turned her gaze up over her shoulder to look into those snake-like eyes, the diamond shaped slits gazed longingly back into her own.

Breath caught in her throat, Dash realized that the goddess was pressing against her back and trying to seduce her. The attention and kindness of a hand drawing across her belly... those whispered words... She tried to swallow deeply while her gaze lifted and her voice weakly asked, “But... what would you need me for? I'm just another pegasus.”

Towering and powerful, those hands slipped in opposite directions over Dash's bare belly, the lower one slipping across her hip and drawing a line across her inner thigh, causing the athletic filly to gasp sharply. The other cupped her chest, squeezing a breast while the demon goddess’ tongue whispered across the trapped mare's earlobe. “But you are special. A talent unmatched by any other. You were the only one at the battle who could have fought me in Ponyville without others’ support. You even cut me when you struck my back. I enjoy skill and talent, moreover, I want to reward it. Become the star of my Royal Guard. Captain Rainbow Dash, first leader of the Shadowbolts; the greatest of flyers in all of Equestria! You are the best of everything in this world and you deserve the rewards that come to the very most talented.”

Dash was overwhelmed by this, blushing dark and panting rapidly at the sexual attentions with which she was being lavished. Her gaze weakly returned to look across the gully, to the glow of the weak light that floated across the depths even as the voices of her friends called out for her, their words indistinct yet their tugging at her heartstrings compelling. “I want to...”

The Nightmare's teasing touch grew stronger as the filly's heart thundered in her chest, releasing when she turned about to gaze into the goddess’ eyes. Nightmare Moon's powerful voice, demanding and lustful, was nearly impossible to resist. “Then join me, and you will become my shining banner. Above all others and at the head of my personal guard.... Join me, Rainbow Dash...”

Dusk's voice made it across the gap, calling out, worried. “Rainbow Dash, just come back! We can find a safer way around! It's not worth the risk!”

Dash's attention broke and she forcefully pushed away the goddess, her voice strong and sure now. “Thank you for your offer, but they are my friends. And if you can't make them just as good an offer, I can’t accept.” A burst of speed joined her kick off, grabbing the wooden planks and pouring all her speed into the escape before the alicorn’s struck her down... a blow that did not come.

Dusk's eyes went wide as he realized that Dash was fleeing back to them as swiftly as possible. Instantly, he knew something was wrong and he cast out his magic, burning up the fog in the air between them, revealing Nightmare Moon's presence on the far side of the gully. Strangely however, the towering goddess simply spit upon the ground and vanished. “Rainbow Dash, are... how did you ever escape her?”

The prideful mare, with the bridge in tow, landed and securely lashed the heavy rope to the posts before her friends, her voice fast, leaving Dusk to wonder if the odd sound was panic in her words. “She tried to ... to bribe me. Called me the captain of her guard and the head of her army, but only if I refused to aid you all. I might talk a big game about wanting to be part of the Wonderbolts... but I couldn't betray my friends.” She was blushing darkly as she spoke, and AJ joined her at the ropes and helped to pull the cords tight and tie them down.

Pinkie was the one to speak out next, her voice joyful. “And now thanks to Rainbow Dash, we are here at last!”

Dusk was worried though, still casting his gaze around, wary of what might come out of the shadows next. “But... she bowled over more than twenty guards... why wouldn't she have followed after you?”

Dash could only shrug, standing up when AJ was sure the ropes were strong enough to handle their crossing. “Maybe she’s weaker under the bright light you cast? Who knows, right? But does it matter? She’s gone and we’re here. Let's hurry before she gets back.”

The others offered serious nods of agreement, moving cautiously across the bridge, spreading themselves wide apart to not strain the wood and ropes. Dusk was on guard now, even as Rarity's soft grip supported him over the bridge. But nothing else happened as they continued on to the castle, now visible to all in the woods ahead.

* * *

The towering ruins of what had once been Princess Celestia and Luna's home over a thousand years ago echoed with the passage of footsteps for the first time in nearly a millennium. Some parts had collapsed due to age, while others had been overgrown by the forest. Despite all this, the noble marble structure was a still a sight to behold. Tight in formation, the six stayed wary even as they made their way up the staircase and into the main hall. Dusk's breathing was calmer than it had been since the start of their trip. Maybe the raw magic that filled the halls was what made him feel better, made it easier to stand tall and free without the need of Rarity's aid.

Towering picture windows on all sides and marble pillars still decorated the castle despite the weathering and the ages that had passed without any upkeep. In the centre of the hall, a five-armed stone sculpture had been placed on a pedestal. On each arm, a stone ball rested, each with a different emblem carved into the stone. Dusk let out a hopeless sigh as AJ and Rainbow Dash rushed forward to collect the orbs, bringing them to him and placing them in a circle at his feet. “But... where is the sixth?” he asked, his voice worried.

The others could only offer shrugs, as a search of the room had not produced another of the orbs. In the distance a dark laugh echoed, sending a chill up his spine. Dusk summoned up his willpower and turned, his voice strong, sure and low. “It does not matter. We know the sixth Element is magic. Let me try to focus. Maybe... maybe I can manage something. Everyone go back outside, keep an eye out for any signs of Nightmare Moon. And if she does show, do not try to fight her. Run. Please. I do not want this to become a killing field.”

The girls were uncomfortable with his orders, and each in turn tried to find something to use an an excuse to stay. It was Applejack who at last relented first. She strode to his side, and put a hand on his shoulder. “It’s magic talk. And you are right, we can do better as lookouts than distracting you. But won't you at least let Rarity try and help you?”

Dusk swallowed sharply while attempting to shake his head, but lifted his hand to squeeze her wrist, shaking his head lightly. “My magic's weak enough at this point, I don’t think I could keep it safe for her help. Go on AJ, you can trust me.”

This time, the mares’ dissent was weaker, more willing now to accept his words. Dash was next, pulling up to Dusk she took a quiet step in close and oddly enough, swiftly wrapping him in a tight hug, her face on his shoulder for a moment as she drew a deep breath before speaking out softly, “You're a good guy, Dusk. Get out as soon as you activate the elements or call for me. I'll be here in a split second, and I'll drag you out by the ankles if I have to.” With that she swiftly turned, rushing from the room and blushing madly.

Still confused by this, Pinkie came next to slide in from behind him, hugging him tight as well, though hers was far briefer and she stepped away to grin warmly up at him. “Remember to giggle at the ghostly, Dusk!” She said and winked once before scampering off.

Now Dusk was really blushing quite hard. Had they grown to be such close friends after a day of horror? It certainly made sense. He could think back on all the many things that had happened over the last few hours, and for each girl, he could easily see how they had been tested, and grown closer. He was ready now when Fluttershy stopped before him, her head down and bangs blocking her face. One hand was offered out to him with a small pouch that smelled of herbs. With a voice soft and gentle, she said, “These will remove your fatigue for a while, but you won't be able to tell when you've used up all your endurance. I didn't want to let you have them but... it's just safer...” She paused, swallowing hard. “Right Dusk?”

He grinned warmly and offered small nod, gently squeezing the tips of her fingers as he took the bag. “I understand Fluttershy. I'll try not to use them unless the situation is dire.” He flashed her his warm smile before tapping her on the tip of the nose. “Go on. They’re waiting.” The mare blushed and turned to rush from the room. Quietly, Dusk opened the bag and stuffed a few of the mulched leaves between his gums and cheek, letting his saliva soak them and swallowing the juices. He turned slowly, spitting the mushy remainder out a nearby window. With Fluttershy gone, that left Dusk alone with...

Rarity was suddenly in his arms, her lips on his and the feel of her hands upon his back, brushing him with tender care. One slowly began to slide up and into his hair even as her deep kiss persisted, and a wetness began to form upon his chest. When she let go, he realized that she was crying and her breath was hot and ragged. A gentle hand was placed on her cheek while its brother cupped her chin, lifting it up to gaze deeply into her eyes. “I feel it too, Rarity. Don't worry, we will talk again. Life has been far too crazy these last two days, but when things are calm once more we clearly need to talk.”

The mare swallowed once, then slowly nodded against his hands and leaned up high, placing a soft kiss to his lower lip before drawing away, turning to walk down the stairs. At the last second, she paused to gaze back, and softly said, “I can't wait to introduce you to Sweetie Belle... my little-” and then her voice went silent as deep horror spread over her eyes. Dusk could see in the reflection a spreading black aura.

“Run! Get the others, fast!” He shouted as he turned. The dark mare glared with manic glee at the single helpless stallion who stood before her. Dusk attempted to reach out, and began to pour his magic into the stones at his feet, the magenta aura of his magic enveloping the five orbs. Under his power, they started to shiver and float up, encircling his body. The sounds of Rarity's voice and the swift stride of the woman rushing down the stairs reassured him that she was heading to safety, and now he had to figure out a way to use the stone's power.

The powerful goddess formed from the shadows and stepped forward, her intense gaze upon the brilliant aura of orbs and magic that circled around Dusk's shoulders. For just a moment, she shied away from him, and Dusk poured the rest of his strength into the orbs in hopes of getting the power to move on to the next step... and then it failed. The stones crashed to the ground at his feet with a whump. He was out of breath and his eyes blurred with the strain to keep from falling back into that unending sleep.

The powerful goddess only gave a heartless laugh as his strength gave out, and stepping forward she wrapped the five orbs in the black shadow of her power, pulling them back to her so she might linger for a moment inspecting each stone sphere. Her voice was harsh and evil, the promise of violence dripping from each word. “THOU FOAL! THOU COULDST NOT E’EN FIND ALL SIX OF THE ELEMENTS. THOU SHALT NOT HATH A SECOND CHANCE” With a snicker, she turned to walk away, a shadow spilling over her body as she moved off.

But Dusk was not going to give up after so much had happened today. He forced his way to his feet and ran after the dark alicorn goddess. In a single violent leap, he hurled his body into the air, arms reaching for her shoulders as he hoped to grab her before she escaped with the stones. What he grabbed was nothing. She had already gone back into her world of shadows.

The five came rushing swiftly back up the staircase, panting for breath as they rounded the corner. Dusk was just visible against a deep pool of black shadows, the mares all watching helplessly as he slowly disappeared into them. After a moment, the shadows faded like smoke, revealing that nothing had been left behind. Dusk, Nightmare Moon, and the Elements were gone, and panic swept the group. It was Dash who spoke up first. “She must have run to a safe place, somewhere she could deal with the Elements and Dusk without interference. We have to find them. Fast!”

* * *

In the shadows of a world in which Dusk could no longer sense time nor even hear his heart beat, his eyes opened. The... ground? Floor? A shadowy shapeless mass lay under his fingers and against his face, yet it didn't feel like anything he had ever touched before. Moreover, he didn't feel tired anymore. This was not the silent nothing of death, but an unnatural, unnamable something else. His gaze shifted over the shadowy realm around him as he called out, “Girls?” His gaze roamed over the empty expanse and a slow stride directed him towards... the north? The east? He couldn't tell. “AJ? Rarity? Dash? Pinkie?” He paused, laughing a little to himself. “I know Fluttershy wouldn't be here.”

Nothing answered back, but something came to him; a voice, a whisper he remembered once more from what felt like ages ago. “Duuusssk...” It was so distant, yet he could feel it. And then, he knew. This realm of shadow, this world of darkness was a cage.

Newly-found strength flooded his body, and his eyes scanned the distance of the endless fog, until he realized that there was some shape to the world, and miles away he could sense it. It wasn't a light, and it wasn't a building, but still he knew what - or more specifically, who - it was. He turned to the void, his voice calling out with everything his lungs could manage to handle. “I'm here, Princess Luna! I'm here... and it's time for Nightmare Moon to be afraid!”

Chapter 3: The War for Princess Luna

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Panic gripped Rarity's heart. She had come so close to... no. No time for those thoughts now. The others were searching, and she must as well. Walking tall and glancing around the dark halls, the mare quietly realized the torch sconces emanated with an old magic. Magic, and she was the only one left who could do anything about it.

Dusk's voice whispered in her mind from the manticore fight an hour ago. “Draw at your magic. Feel the flames well up and focus upon them. Pull from the fire a single tongue of flame and let it shape into the form you need. Then will it to go where it must.” Combat magic was something she had never even thought to look into. It simply wasn't her style, but this was easy enough. Light the torch and leave a trail for the others..

The burst of flame in the torch sconce before her released a bloom of soft light, illuminating the ivory-white stone carvings around her. With a grin of self-confidence spreading, Rarity nodded smugly. “Well that worked well enou-” A sudden surge of magic echoed through her, cutting off her words, while her eyes went wide. In a rapid burst of old magic, the other torch wells around the hall burst into flame in one after another, brightening the hall in which she walked, and spiralling out of sight with the sound of still more torches flaring up with a sudden pop and gout of flame.

The sound of voices from the far reaches of the castle crying out at sudden arrival of light as if from nowhere were surprising, but amused her to no end. Grinning to herself she turned, and continued on through the halls of the long-abandoned castle. Maybe she was of some use after all; at least, with Dusk missing.

* * *

“Dear Princess Celestia, I am alone in a dark place. I chased Nightmare Moon as she attempted to run away with the Elements of Harmony and currently am wandering her dark shadow world. I have decided to temper my mind and ease the panic in my heart. So while I stop for a rest before searching on, I decided that this time should be spent sorting out my thoughts and filling out a report on Nightmare Moon as any normal student would. I thought this might help me find a weakness in the monster that others had missed in the past, even if my research of their works on her turned up nothing. I close this letter knowing it may never be found if I do not find a way to escape this shadow realm, so I must continue on I can not hear Princess Luna's voice any longer, but I can sense her in this darkness. And so I will sojourn on. Do not worry Princess, your sister will be freed from this black world of shadows, I promise on my life.

As always, I am your Faithful Student,
Dusk Shine.”

It was odd. Dusk almost wondered as he finished his writing just what might happen with the letter. If Barb was here he could have her use her spell to send the paper to Princess Celestia's private study. At least then, someone might find it someday. Alas, he was alone in this world, without his faithful assistant, off of whom to bounce ideas, and without his new-found friends, whose absence was only just starting to sink in.

Speaking to himself, he began to walk once more, his small journal thrown into a hidden pocket inside his jacket. “Of course, there's Rarity. She has an eye for details most others could never have been able to pick up. Here all I see are empty fields of shadows like some lost valley caked in a morning fog, just hiding the little details from me. I bet she would pick out things like... like...” He muttered darkly for a moment, looking for clues he couldn't see. He could, however, sense something invisible in the air around him, quietly beckoning to him. Magic was in the air. Tiny whispering bubbles of it scattered about the empty landscape around him.

Cupping one up and inspecting the mote he found it old, and stronger than anything he had dealt with, except... A grin split his lips his voice whisper soft. “Hello there Princess Celestia. I can see your signature in this. But when were you ever here? It's so odd. Tiny welts of magic. Why leave them in the darkness of this other world.” Dusk forced himself to stop. He had no time to consider, and swiftly turned away from the line of dots, lifting his gaze and reaching out to sense Princess Luna once more. A grin split his lips. “Oh, of course. A path, how good of you to spot so small a detail Rarity.” he snickered, the motes of magic were not a direct pathway, yet for all that, they winded like a hallway to guide him ever onwards.

* * *

Pinkie Pie had reached a dead end. Her casual, yet boundless energy had allowed her to scout out so much of her part of the castle without any real thought, and after Rarity turned the lights on it was easier still. But now, she sat in a room with her head resting against a wall and glaring at the outline of... well, what else could it be? “It's a door! But its just so set back into an archway in the wall.” She sighed, running a hand down across her face and taking a deep breath. “Why is there no way to open it then? I mean, if I was AJ, I'd just kick a hole in the wall. Dusk could probably melt a hole in it.

It had been twenty minutes and the brick door shape set into the wall was still nagging at the back of her mind. Slumped on the floor on the far side of the room, she shifted to place her hands behind her head and put her full, if rather questionable attention to the problem. “Well, no handle. No bookshelves, paintings or even a switch hidden in a candle or torch.” With a pout spreading, she gave a small kick to the shape of the door before her, muttering darkly. “I bet you even Fluttershy's crying might at least manage to guilt you into opening, door.”

The impact of her foot to the stones produced a resounding echo, further proving something existed behind it. “Oh poo. I might as well go admit to Rarity that I need her help.” Her shoulders slumped and head hung low, she stood with one hand on the stone door frame for support before she turned to walk away. “I can't believe a stupid door beat me.”

Yet, as Pinkie started to wander away a voice spoke up muttering derisively “Good riddance!” The voice was a dry and gritty whisper, low and even a little spiteful.

Pinkie swiftly whirled around, eyes huge and a grin suddenly returned to her face. “Who said that? Someone’s here? Can you help me with this stubborn door?” a low and gleeful giggle escaped her lips even as she rushed back the five or six feet she had walked away, swiftly glancing around from side to side and letting her baby blue eyes hunt for the source.

From seemingly nowhere, yet at the same time from directly before her eyes, the voice spoke out again. “Nobody's here you know, Just four walls and a door. No use in trying to pester someone for attention.”

Anyone else might have ran away screaming, or started to question their sanity. Pinkie instead, gently lifted a hand and stroked the doors um.. well, hopefully its cheek. This might make things really awkward if she got it wrong. “I'm sorry door. Do people often ignore you just ‘cause you’re a door? That’s mean! Don't worry though, I'm Pinkie Pie and I'm here to be your friend.”

Even the door was taken back. It's voice lifting a bit higher almost confused or even nervous. “You’re... my friend? I'm a door. Why would you be a door’s friend?”

Pinkie's deep grin flashed over her lips and she could only offer a shrug, her happy voice tender and low. “Why wouldn't I wanna be a door’s friend, friend?”

* * *

“And then there is Pinkie Pie.” Dusk snickered warmly at the idea of just thinking about Pinkie in this other realm. “In this place, I still think she could turn it on its head.” Relaxing in his thoughts, he followed the motes of magic, trusting that they had been left to provide a safe pathway. “I mean, she just thinks about things in such a different way.”

It felt like it had been hours since he had started to wander this shadow realm, and yet, he knew he was closer. That presence that his senses told him had to be Princess Luna was only getting stronger, but still he couldn't make anything out in the shapeless void before him, yet he was so happy to quietly chuckle a little to himself. “But you know. If I was to draw shapes into this shadow world...”

And suddenly, the world around him felt more 'real' around him, the motes of magic felt like torches implanted upon the walls of halls he wandered, and while he could still see into the shadow realm, outside, those walls somehow this made him feel more comfortable. Turning right and letting his gaze lift to the massive 'throne room' before him, a gasp slipped free of his lips at the sight.

Stopping before the window in the world, he could tell something was changing in the shadows, not just in his imagination. In the distance, that place he had picked out where he knew Princess Luna must be, the shadowy fog was twisting around itself, as if whipped in the wind and spiralling into shapes before his eyes.

A sudden burst of light blasted through the world around him, the impact being the first real thing he had ever really felt since entering this place other than the magic motes. His arms lowered and his gaze lifted to look once more up to see... a grey, stone temple in the shadow realm with a domed roof and grand pillars,along with a soaring onyx door, silver filigree decorating its surface. “It's like a pocket of the real world locked in the fog of this realm of whispers.” Shaking his head, he chuckled lightly to himself. “Don't worry Pinkie, I'm still gonna giggle at the ghosties.” Wearing a bright grin dancing on his lips, a now delighted Dusk picked up the pace.

* * *

Applejack shifted to force open yet another door, settling an intense gaze on the room inside. Her scrutinizing inspection of the ruins picked over every detail before giving a sigh and coughing at the dust thrown into the air. “Nothing. Always nothing. Just what is the point of so massive a castle without anything but broken furniture, collapsed roofs, and dust!” Grunting with disgust as the door was again slammed closed, she kicked lightly at the wall nearby.

AJ was stressed, and fighting it. The last two times the girls had met up, Rarity had told them all about lighting the torches. Then, Pinkie somehow found a hidden door that talked funny, and whose birthday they just HAD to go to next week. Even Dash and Fluttershy had cleared their respective sections of the castle quickly enough, Only she hadn't managed to satisfy her personal standard to say that the inspection was over.

Of course, they had all gone to see Pinkie's talking door, who as it turned out, wasn't a bad guy, if a little blunt. But, behind him was something worse. A door of that same strange light blue metal like Nightmare Moon's armor. Her leg still ached right up to the hip from trying to kick it down for a good hour. So, it was back to their respective sections of the castle to search.

For a moment, her thoughts turned to Dusk and his words to them before they each wandered off. She was so use to taking charge of things on the farm, but now she was the one who wasn't able to do anything to help the others make progress except to suggest 'keep looking around'. The words still felt bitter on her tongue.

Rounding the next corner, she continued, forcing herself to walk at an easy stride, working off the aching joints in her legs and trying to think past the problem of this locked door. For just a moment, she stopped before yet another identical side room, her footsteps in the dust a reminder she had already been here and checked this room. She was about to move on, but just as she started to turn away to walk on, a frustrated sigh slipped free of her lips. “No AJ, be sensible. Just ‘cause I looked here doesn't mean I couldn't have missed something.”

With a click, the door’s handle turned, swinging in on rusty hinges. Another room. A broken table. A layer of dust upon everything. Some rotten books. A silver key. Half a dozen rats running for holes in the wall. Broken chandler in the middle of the floor. Another sigh escaped as she finished a mental inventory of the room, comparing it to the list she had made last time and noting the number of rats had decreased.

Turning away she pulled at the door to let it click closed, yet even as the metal mechanism began to slide home, something whispered in the back of her mind. A silver key? Where!

* * *

“Dear Princess Celestia,
This shadow realm has vexed me at every turn! At last, I arrived at the base of the temple structure I had seen before, only to find no staircase or climbable surface to make my ascent to reach the temple doors. The shadowy fog that makes up the mesa is intangible to my touch or magic, so I compose this letter to clear my thoughts and hunt for some solution to my frustration. I am so close to your lost sister. If I had only been born a pegasus... If I'd ever studied teleportation, I could reach her. Instead, I am trapped here, but twenty odd feet below and without a solution.

Seeking peace of mind in this world of dark,
Dusk.”

It felt oddly guilty in a way, writing this second letter to The Princess after a futile search of the base of the damnable rise to the shrine, but, he was so frustrated. For all his strength in magic, his experiments with teleportation hadn't gotten him more than five or ten feet into the air. Still far from being able to grasp the firm ground he could see the temple resting upon and the landing had reminded him. While he felt no pain here, there was no guarantee that in the real world his body wasn't about to break from the strain he was putting it under.

Plus, he had taken Fluttershy's herbs, and had no way of knowing if it related to this world in any way or not. He certainly didn't feel any fatigue, and not one of his aches from the battle just hours...? days? ago against Nightmare Moon had returned to haunt him yet. A sigh, and he lifted to stand again, voice glum yet serious. “What might AJ say it? She was always so straightforward, so rational and... she just had an air of sound judgment about things. I have a problem; a hill I can't climb. I've already searched for a hidden path, or a ladder. I can’t jump high enough, or fly up; can't even magic my way over.”

He grunted, then gave a light chuckle. “Then I guess I just got to search again. Somewhere, I have to have missed something, right?” a light whistle escaped his lips as he walked off, eyes up to make sure he was following the outline of the temple's structure even as he carried on around its base.

Instantly, he knew something had changed while he wrote. And it wasn't even the motes of magic winking into existence before him that first altered him to that fact. The sight of a simple stone staircase that had somehow inconspicuously phased into the world as he made his lap, and he could see it already from some distance off. “Keep calm. It could be another Illusion, or a trick by Nightmare Moon to distract you from some trap.”

An easy stride carried him the remaining distance to the base of the simple, yet grand staircase. One foot lifted, gently tapping the surface of the stone. Testing it for traps, he eventually put his full weight up onto the level platform. “Well, I'll be a horse's uncle. It's really real. But how; why?” he pondered with a grunt, fingers dragging nails across his jaw. “Or maybe its her way of inviting me in.”

Dusk gave a shrug, smile on his lips as he continued up the stairs, testing each for stability before moving on to the next step, his weight always finding solid surface beneath his feet. “Doesn't matter one way or another. I'm here now, Princess Luna. I can't wait to meet Princess Celestia's long lost sister.”

* * *

Fluttershy was still awed by Pinkie's talking door when they returned again, this time with AJ standing tall and walking proud, even if she had finally let Fluttershy apply some ointment to her aching legs. The door's voice was foreboding as it warned them of the danger past the blue steel door, but the determined five pressed on, unlocking it with the tiny silver-white key and stepped inside. Of course, she had cowered at the back. She wanted to help her friends but... this was possibly Nightmare Moon's private study. No wonder Princess Celestia had abandoned this castle.

Bookshelves lined the walls of the room, but left space for towering picture windows that gave a grand display of the endless night sky, as well as the sweeping Everfree forest. As the five girls began inspecting things, Fluttershy hung back, keeping close to the door, and ready to be the first to bolt at any sign of danger.

Of course, when that danger came from behind her, she stood no chance of running. A sudden, strong hand wrapped about her throat, while the other gripped a coil of magic, holding her wrists tight behind her back. A sepulcher voice echoed throughout the room, even as pressure from that hand tore her neck back and razor sharp nails sliced into the curve of her jugular. “Welcome to my study you foolish girls. I see I've chased away the stallion at least. But couldn’t you five have had some similar common sense?”

The room froze for a moment as it dawned on her four friends to turn about, and look to Fluttershy. Trapped in the grip of Nightmare Moon's powerful hands, her head cocked violently back and arms pinned together. Their weakest friend now in the demon’s clutches. The threats and warnings came fast and aggressive.

Fluttershy couldn't hear any of them, her sobbing breath and gasps for air took up what little of her mind wasn't tormented by the pain of that grip. She was so lost in it, she couldn't even feel the wall when she was thrown against it. Her body fell to the ground, even as her friends charged into battle with the goddess.

It was not like she could do anything now. Dusk might have forced himself to stand up again, she realized. He had been broken so badly, yet he kept standing up and facing the next nightmare that this day had brought to challenge them. Even Rarity had started using her magic in ways she'd never heard of the mare attempting. And here she was, a crying mess on the floor.

An impact over her head brought Applejack's fight to an end, the powerful earth pony gasping for each ragged breath as she had been hurled into the wall far harder than Fluttershy herself. Crawling slowly over the frightened Pegasus stroked her friend’s face, words soft. “Oh Applejack... what do I do?”

Impressively, the cowgirl forced herself to roll over, coughing up blood before forcing herself to stand again, ignoring her dislocated shoulder and limp right arm. Her eyes were soft for a moment as she looked to her friend, pity clearly shining through. “Just run, Fluttershy. We can't win this fight. No reason you at least can't escape to warn others. Go on git!” Pinkie was tossed overhead, yet in her oddball way, managed to land on her feet, and AJ was off once more, teaming up with the other Earth mare to rejoin the fight.

Her heart was breaking. Fluttershy turned to one of the massive open windows, and crawled upon the ledge, preparing to leap into the endless night sky. A voice called to her, malevolent tones low, and teasing. “Oh Fluttershy. Don't go. If you go, I'll stop playing so nice with your friends... Why.. I might even kill one of them just for fun if you leave.”

A chill ran down the tormented pegasus’ spine, yet this time it wasn't a tremble of fear. Turning slowly she braced herself to face the giant goddess, her scattered friends a pile of bodies across the room. Taking a grasp on Applejack's neck, the once proud earth pony was limp in the goddess’ arms. Nightmare Moon's free hand gripped the mare's shoulders, ready to snap that neck, an evil glint dancing in those spiteful cat's eyes. One word left Fluttershy's lips, harsh, and low. “No.”

The goddess laughter in response was deafening. The full weight of her level glare upon the silly little filly, chiding voice sharp. “No? And what will you do about it, you frightened little foal?”

No words were needed to give her answer, Fluttershy's sudden blow was all the words needed today. In a single motion she had leapt from the windowsill and let her wings spread to their fullest, beating the air with a strength even Rainbow Dash rarely mustered. The blow to Nightmare Moon's cheek make her flinch backwards, AJ's body dropped in shock of the moment. But that moment wasn't over. Fluttershy was at war.

* * *

The temple was a simple affair on the inside. Dusk marveled at the temple, with its hallways unlit and made of real stone, not the shadow-fog the rest of this world had been. He had to pick his way along carefully, never risking use of his magic to light the path. Who knew when Nightmare Moon might come looking for him. He had made a half circle of the path when at last, the towering inner door stood before him, its undecorated steel a foreboding sight, almost indifferent to the world around it.

A deep breath was taken and his grip slipped around the door handle, twisting slowly and leaning forward only at the last moment to let it swing in silence. Inside was a single room that took up the rest of the temple’s depths, yet none of that was what got Dusk's full attention. In the centre of the room, chained at ankle and wrist hung the naked figure of Princess Luna.

There was no question in Dusk's mind it was her, from the ethereal blue mane filled with stars to the massive crescent moon cutie mark on both of her hips. She was exactly as the legends said, a towering goddess like her sister, like Princess Celestia. With no sign of Nightmare Moon anywhere, he slipped inside, closing the door once more. Walking with care, his eyes were wide as he searched any sign of traps. With nothing around that caught his attention, he dashed the short distance to the middle of the room. A heavy white sheet from a table beside Princess Luna was thrown over her bare chest, and a hand cupped the towering alicorn's cheek. Leaning in close, Dusk whispered quietly. “Princess? Are you alright? Please, speak softly, I've no clue if Nightmare Moon is around.”

Her cheek soft against Dusk's hand, the slumbering Princess Luna was slow to rouse, those deep cyan eyes gazing from a million miles away before looking back into his own. At last her lips moved to shape the words with slow fear radiant in her voice. “Young unicorn... you must flee. The Nightmare walks this realm unchecked. I've not the power to restrain her, this dark revenant who walks in my flesh.”

Dusk's ears rang with hopelessness at her words. His voice lifted with quiet despair. “You... and Nightmare?” A sharp swallow of breath as he looked back deep into her eyes once more, unable to keep from shivering at the implication.

The Princess’ gaze fell away, shame ringing in her low voice. “In my jealousy over Princesses Celestia's adoration by our people... I created inside me the nightmare who now terrorizes the world. Fly young stallion or the monster will come for you next.”

Behind them, a low laugh echoed, a powerful black figure strutting towards her trapped twin-self and Dusk with arms lightly crossed over her chest. “Oh come now. You know you want this just as much as I. Besides, poor Dusk here is far from unwelcome in this land.” The black shadow-mare snapped her fingers and her armor faded from existence and revealing her naked body with ample chest and shaved sex on full display for the stallion over whom she now towered. “Do you like what you see? Nightmare Moon I may be, but I am not an unloving goddess...”

For a moment Dusk suddenly knew how Fluttershy saw the world. Shocked by the situation around him, with Princesses Luna at his back and this dark goddess a towering temptation before him. Drawing a deep breath he locked his eyes upon the foul nightmare’s catlike pupils, his voice soft and unwaveringly calm. “I will not run Princess Luna. Be it this world or another, you need not fear Nightmare Moon tonight. I promised Princess Celestia I would free you and I'll not be made a liar by this shadow of your mind.” A low grin spread his lips, realizing that just like Fluttershy, he was thinking of another before his well being.

* * *

It was impossible, yet Fluttershy's sudden change of personality resulted in a continuous harsh beating that managed to drive the demonic alicorn goddess back into a nearby wall. Rainbow Dash's body shifted to force weak limbs to once more take up the effort of movement. Wings flapped and swayed with violent strokes to aid in her attempts to stand once more. “But, how? Not even with AJ's help could I even slow her down a little... That's just not fair!” And then as quickly as it all started Fluttershy's victory was thrown violently off, the fragile mare hurled violently back again.

Nightmare Moon was through playing games with with her toys. The rage at this sudden, shocking assault had overwhelmed the spiteful goddess' playfulness and pushed her far past the point of return. A single black-purple bolt of power formed, dark and vile purple and green hues wrapped around the outer edges of this display of a god’s strength. Fluttershy lay unaware of the danger upon the ground just feet away.

Dash realized she was already running as fast as her weak body could handle, but it was like she was moving in slow motion. Six long strides, and a swift leap into the air cast her forward in a single motion. Arms wrapped around the older pegasus and twisted their bodies around, protectively putting Dash's body between Fluttershy and the dark bolt of power. It snapped though the air, the bolt impacting square between the her wings.

* * *

The Dark Goddess’ sharp laughter echoed in the silence of the room. Her reaction to his rejection was callous, a violent display of a very different nature. “Then watch your friends die, foal. Watch, and know you could do nothing to help them without the sixth Element of Harmony.” A picture of the real world formed behind her, framed in the shadow-light of this dark world. It all happened in such insane slow motion, Fluttershy being thrown across the room, and Dash so suddenly running across the short distance, Dash’s drawing up the other mare and pulling her in close while turning to put herself in harm's way. Loyal to the end, even to her death... Loyal... to friends.

And then suddenly realization dawned on Dusk, a flash of inspiration that echoed forth and rippled through the dark world. Grinning, Dusk snapped his fingers, freezing the view of the real world and shaking his head. “But don’t you see, Nightmare Moon? I've had the sixth Element all along.” he paused, turning and stroking Princess Luna's cheek. “Do not worry Your Highness. I see it all now. Fear not, for today will be the last time you must fear another nightmare.”

What stopped the goddess from attacking him may never be known, yet dusk leapt forward jumping through that 'window' of reality and...

* * *

Suddenly, he was bursting through the walls of reality. Dusk Shine was back again, returned through a tear to land in reality once more. Falling in the space between Nightmare Moon and Dash, a single sharp wave of his hand deflected that black bolt of magic just as the alicorn goddess had done to him but a day before. His powerful glare levelled upon Nightmare Moon, even as he heard his friends gasp at his sudden reappearance from nothingness itself. The suddenly horrified Nightmare took a step back, gasping. “But how? I took the Elements from you! And you never found the sixth.”

Dusk raised a hand to wipe sweat from his brow. Back in reality, his wounds still existed. Standing tall and alone, he was shockingly exhausted, but he pressed on, grin warm and voice filled with pity. “You think you can destroy the Elements of Harmony just like that? Well, you're wrong, because the spirits of the elements are right here.”

Nightmare Moon drew back violently, edging towards the door while her cat's eyes grew wide. “What? You little foolish colt; thinking you could defeat me? Now you will never see your princess, or your sun! The night will last forever!”

Dusk reached down, hands drawing AJ once more to her feet at his side, a wide smile given to the towering earth mare as he cupped her cheek then turned to glare to the alicorn. “Applejack, who reassured me when I was in doubt, represents the spirit of... Honesty!” And with those simple words, a burst of light enveloped the strong farm mare in a vivid orange-yellow aura emanated from her body, while a solid metal choker formed out of thin air about the woman's neck, the gold polished to a mirror-like shine. In the front, a tourmaline that resembled her cutie mark.

Dusk turned, taking Fluttershy's still panting form from Dash's arms. His hands held her wrists gently before a light kiss landed on the mare's forehead, at last drawing her to look up and gasp sharply from something, Joy? Fear? “Fluttershy, who tamed the manticore with her compassion, represents the spirit of... Kindness!” That same burst of power exploded forth to surround Fluttershy in its rich soft pink aura, edged with a deeper rose-pink edging. She was next to gain a tight metal band of gold about her throat, this one of a kunzite butterfly.

Next came Pinkie, who somehow knew it was her turn. Bouncing up beside Dusk and wrapping him around the neck in a tight hug before glaring at the now clearly aghast Nightmare Moon. “Pinkie Pie, who banished fear by giggling in the face of danger, represents the spirit of... Laughter!” Or as Dusk thought privately, Courage. But for Pinkie... laughter just sounded more appropriate, even as Dusk got lost in his thoughts, a balloon of aquamarine gemstone formed in her necklace.

Unable to do anything more but watch Dusk as he moved to step over to the far side of the room, Nightmare Moon was frozen from shock. As he turned to pull a table out of his way, Dusk found Rarity, still laying wide eyed where she had landed when the fight had overwhelmed her. He took her by both hands and let her lean on him for a moment while she caught her breath before letting his gaze of pity return to the nightmare. “Rarity, who shared my burden when I couldn't walk another step with a meaningful self sacrifice represents the spirit of... Generosity!” Soon enough she too was blooming with a bright purple aura, her choker a single proud diamond of amethyst.

Releasing her and striding forward, he at last put a hand to Dash's shoulder, the mare had yet to move since he intercepted that bolt of dark magic. Yet, the instant he touched her, she melted into his arms in a very unabashed manner, holding him tight for a moment before she took a step back and punched him, playfully but hard in the shoulder. “What took you so long!”

Rubbing at his bruised shoulder, Dusk grinned back at the mare, his need to be playful shoot back. “And Rainbow Dash, who could not abandon her friends for her heart's desire, even at the risk of her life, represents the spirit of... Loyalty!” Suddenly the mare was airborne again, her self confidence restored and a dauntless gleam of determination suddenly flaring in her eyes. The red aura backing her hovering presence matched only by the ruby lighting bolt of the same hue on the gold band about her throat.

Dusk continued forward, towards the now cowering Nightmare, her eyes wide with open fear at the sight of the first five Elements of Harmony as they stood before her. Dusk's voice proud and calm as he pointed back over to his friends. “The spirits of these five ponies got us through every challenge you threw at us.”

Nightmare Moon cried out in frustration, hunting for her only solution to her dreaded nightmare. “You still don't have the sixth Element! No spark of magic made it materialize!”

Cut back instantly, his voice cool calm and filled with a mixture of both world bounding joy and deep, crushing sadness. “But it did! Just a different kind of spark. I felt it the very moment I realized how happy I was to hear them, to see them, how much I cared about them. The spark ignited inside me when I realized that they all... are my friends!” Dusk had stopped, gazing over each girl in turn as he spoke again. Smile warm upon his lips. Resounding with the strength of his words to follow, a aura shaped as he spoke on, spreading to envelope not just Dusk, but all the gathered mares as well. “You see, Nightmare Moon, when those Elements are ignited by the... the spark, that resides in the heart of us all, it creates the sixth element: the Element of... Magic!”

With a burst of power, a crown of gold formed upon his head, resting heavily upon that simple mane of dark, royal blue hair. Formed in its band, was a pink sapphire in the shape of a six-pointed star, just like his cutie mark. Dusk closed his eyes, drawing strength from a new well he had never before felt and shaping it in a way that suddenly came natural to him. A rainbow of energy burst forth from the aura of pink that flooded over him and his friends, and blasted into Nightmare Moon with sudden and terrifying force. Nightmare Moon did not go quietly, her screaming voice ringing forth in raw fear “Nooo! Nooo!”

* * *

It was Applejack who awoke first from the backlash of power that swept over them as Dusk banished Nightmare Moon from the world. Rolling over and standing up, she realized all of her wounds from this endless night were gone. A finger found its way to her newfound jewelry only for the briefest of moments before she rushed to Fluttershy's side, as she was the closest, she called out to the room “Is everypony alright?”

Rainbow Dash was next to recover, a hand rubbing stiffly though her hair and a slight groan at the wash of power that had rippled over her just moments before. “Ugh, my head. Did anyone get the number of whatever it was that Dusk did to us?”

Rarity was to be the next on her feet, but was swiftly at Dusk's side, hand drawing his groaning form half into her lap, released all tension as she took in the fact he too had been healed by some aspect of the magic that had washed over them. “Oh, thank goodness... Fluttershy, I think you should look at this.”

Fluttershy pushed free to from AJ's arms and moved quick to join Rarity and the others as they gathered about Dusk. Her eyes were bright as she drew a hand across the once bruised ribs of their stallion... friend. “Why Rarity, it's so amazing... who knew the magic could heal so much.” A glance at Dusk's crown and then Rarity's choker, and a low gasp her voice warm. “And that gold band... it's emblem looks just like your cutie mark.”

Now all them took a moment to inspect the newly created gifts that represented their Element of Harmony. Rarity's voice a low gasp “What? Ooh. So does yours. So do they all... Amazing.”

Pinkie Pie was all laughter as she bounded around the others, grinning like a madman and pointing to her new present. “Look at mine! Look at mine!”

Even Rainbow Dash, hardly one to get overly attached to something as girly as a necklace spoke up, grinning wild as she stroked two fingers across the emblem. “Aw yeah.”

Applejack took her chance, shifting to turn to the still groaning Dusk, offering him a hand to help stand up even as Rarity pushed him from behind. Her voice was gleeful, if slightly ashamed. “Gee, Dusk! I thought you were just spoutin' a lot of hooey, but I reckon we really do represent the Elements of Friendship.”

A booming voice similar to the one they had been battling the last few days suddenly cast across the room, while outside the sun at last began to rise for the first time in far too long. Materializing from the first ray of sunlight to cast upon the ground before them, Princess Celestia strode forward, her smile warm, simple white dress without any flashy embellishments flowing in the wind of the world while that prismatic mane danced in the air over her shoulders in a totally different breeze. A few polished gold bands, free from any decoration, save some simple engraving lay upon her wrists, ankles, and throat, plus another as a band about her waist. “Indeed you do, dear mares.”

Standing at last, Dusk Shine gasped harshly and dropped into a deep bow before his teacher, his voice reverential and low. “Princess Celestia. You've returned!”

The Princess simply chuckled, watching as each of his friends joined in the deep and respectful bows, save Rarity, who gave a low curtsy instead. Her voice was light as a tender hand landed upon his shoulder. “Dusk Shine, my faithful student. I knew you could do it.”

Dusk was aghast, her words a confusing counter to the last time they had talked in his letter at the observatory in Canterlot. “But... you told me it was all an old mare’s tale; that I should forget it...”

Princess Celestia cupped his chin, lifting it so he might look up to her, voice buttery soft and kind even as she drew an arm around him and started to walk onward, leading the gathered six to the far side of the room. “I told you that you needed to make some friends, nothing more. I saw the signs of Nightmare Moon's return and I knew it was you who had the magic inside to defeat her, but you could not unleash it until you let true friendship into your heart. Now, if only another will as well. Princess Luna!” all turned to focus to the spot their rainbow of magic had blasted into Nightmare Moon, revealing the battered form of Princess Luna, dressed only in a white cloth clutched to her bare breast that reminded Dusk too much of a tablecloth he had thrown over her in another world.

The other Princess of Equestria gasped, shying away and drawing her hands to hide her face from the approaching people. Already fat tears welled up in her eyes and ran across her cheeks while she tried to turn away from those approaching her. It was Princess Celestia who spoke first, her hands softly cradling the weeping form of her younger sister tight while fingers stroked lovingly though that ethereal blue hair. “It has been a thousand years since I have seen you like this. Time to put our differences behind us. We were meant to rule together, little sister.”

All but Dusk gave shocked gasps at this, though only because Princess Luna had all but admitted that very fact to him in the cage for herself she had built inside her mind. The others all muttered their soft confusion at the matter, Pinkie putting it simply but best. “Sister? With Nightmare Moon?”

Princess Celestia offered them a sad nod as she looked to the gathered six even while she huddled over her sister’s bawling figure. Both hands slipped in to draw up Princess Luna's face and she gazed deeply into the younger alicorn's eyes. “Will you accept my apology? I could find no other way back then to stop Nightmare Moon's rampage but to banish you both together.”

Forgiveness from Princess Luna was something she deeply had longed for, so when the younger sister's arms were cast about her older sibling’s shoulders and a tight hug was joined, all knew things were at last going to be better. Voice ravaged with the chest wrenching sobs of sorrow deep in her heart, she spoke directly, almost unseeing those gathered around. “I'm so sorry! My jealousy became my jailer. I couldn't control... I missed you so much, big sister!” Almost. Dusk could feel her gaze on him, something in her eye. As if she wanted to say something to him too.

Princess Celestia's soft tears began to fall as she cradled her dear, long lost sister close, laughing a little in joy at the fact a thousand years of shame for what she had done to her blood was at last beginning to leave. “I've missed you, too. All of Equestria has missed their Princess of the Night.” The soft words drew back Princess Luna's attention, letting Dusk at last relax again.

It was Pinky who turned to break this silence, blowing her nose then gesturing around the room. “Hey, you know what this calls for?”

* * *

Pinkie Pie cried out with delight over the gathered crowds of Ponyville, it had taken all her best work, but in only a few short hours all were gathered to celebrate “It's a welcome back Princess Luna / Goodbye forever Nightmare Moon party!”

All around, damage still remained from the battle. It had been nearly two days that they wandered the Everfree forest, including their time inside Nightmare Moon's Castle. In that time, Princess Cadence had taken care of those who could be saved, and helped by Shining Armor, had given mercy to those who could not. While many still felt sorrow for the lives lost, it was time to move on. The horror of Nightmare Moon's rule needed to be put behind them.

Dusk sat in a chair at the table of honour, with Princess Celestia to his left, and his new found friends to his right. His brother had convinced Princess Cadence to join the celebrations and sat with her on the other side of Princess Celestia, though currently Princess Luna and Cadence were in deep private conversation save the occasional interruption of someone presenting food, drink or even presents to the long lost diarch.

But even here, Dusk's heart was heavy. The day was won, but suddenly, he realized things going back to normal was not what he wanted anymore. A voice spoke out softly to him, yet with great power behind the words, it was Princess Celestia, and her golden tan hand rested on his own. “Why so glum, my faithful student? Are you not happy that your quest is complete and you can return to your studies in Canterlot?”

Dusk had been considering just this issue, and drawing up his strength, he at last took his turn to speak up, his eyes filled with internal debate going on in his head... and heart. “That's just it. Just when I learned how wonderful it is to have friends, I have to leave them.”

The fact that this made Princess Celestia laugh, shocked him a little, his eyes going wider as she turned to the shorter chair between them and lifting her voice to be heard by the gathered crowd. “Barb, take a note, please.” A pause as the little dragoness pulled her quill and some parchment from a rather tear-soaked day-bag, though she had refused to talk about that with Dusk just yet. Quill in hand she placed it to the paper, nodding to The Princess. “I, Princess Celestia, hereby decree that the unicorn Dusk Shine shall take on a new mission for Equestria. He must continue to study the magic of friendship. He must report to me his findings from his new home in Ponyville.”

That resulted in a sudden, loud cheer erupted forth from the gathered crowds, delighted at the prospect the hero of today might be living among them for some time to come. Dusk's blush was a dark red as he felt Rarity's hand on his from the other side, smiling warmly as he looked down across the line of his new friends. “Oh thank you, Princess Celestia! I'll study harder than ever before. And... I finally know what my graduate thesis will be on... The magic of friendship.”

Laughter rang forth at this, and Pinkie was suddenly hugging him and Rarity around the neck from behind, a silly grin upon her face as she looked around at the gathered crowd and spoke in the same rapid-fire manner she always adopted when she got too caught up in the moment. “Isn't this exciting? Are you excited cause I'm excited I've never been so excited, well, except for the time that I went” A pause, the mare drawing a sharp gasp of breath to dramatically re-enact her first encounter with Dusk before she started into her rant again.”but I mean really-”

Interlude 2 - The Princess of the Night

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Princess Luna was still in a haze when her sister guided her to sit upon a bed in a strange house. Celestia had told her the town’s doctor was overworked and a contingent from her new capital, Canterlot was scheduled to start arriving in the next few hours to aid the beleaguered town... this Ponyville. The guilt returned, memories of her time as Nightmare Moon were far from distant. The house she was in had probably belonged to some citizen whose family she had killed, yet she was welcomed by all and given a private room to await the doctor.

"Why didn't you slay me, Dusk? You know the truth of what I did. What I am. But you chose to banish the darkness and leave me naked with only guilt to clothe me." Yet, as memories of the young unicorn entered her mind, its wasn't tears of remorse she cried. Joy had again overwhelmingly replaced the pain in her heart.

A sudden knock upon her door caused Luna to shy away from the emotion again, her blanket turned robe drawn up tightly to her bare figure. Through the door, a voice called for what she realized was the second time. "Princess? I said I'm Nurse Redheart. May I enter?"

Princess Luna... she needed to get use to that title again. Pulling herself together again, she answered before the mare tried a third knock... or stormed away. "Thou mayest enter, Physician, though we are ill-dressed and wish the doorway sealed once more as soon as thou do."

The light laughter she saw dancing in the citizen’s eyes when she slipped inside and locked the door took weight from her heart. If this mare who spent day and night with victims of her dark past self could be so forgiving, maybe she was being a little too hard on herself. Trailing over the Nurse with eyes that had seen many years, she picked out the light and soft hum the mare murmured in soft singsong below her breath. "Is thy song for comfort to the patient, lady mare?" she asked, genuinely curious about what might have the working mare in so good a mood after such foul days.

If Redheart was embarrassed at being called by such an old fashioned title, she showed no signs Luna could pick up. A happy sigh escaped her lips along with a knowing chuckle. "A certain stallion is in need of some nursing, and rather than let the lottery of daily life choose for him, he asked Princess Celestia to send for me. I've never been in Her Highness’ presence before, and now I am blessed not just to care for you, dear Princess Luna, but for him as well." A faintly wolfish grin appeared on the younger mare's lips, causing a moment of concern for this unknown stallion. For just a moment, she considered voicing it, then relented. Maybe this was how things were simply done these days.

As the nurse approached her bed, Luna could at last see what had been hiding on the tray she had carried in. A bucket of warm water with a yellow green rectangular mass floating inside. Now, an eyebrow arched and she asked in a level, if confused voice, "And what kind of medical procedure requires us to eat that... yellow blob... thing." Her incredulous gaze fixed on the smaller mare... only for her to launch into soft laughter.

Her tender gaze locked with Luna's own proud cyan glare the nurse quickly calmed herself and drew the sponge from the water, squeezing from it most of the moisture. "Its not for eating, Princess, but for cleaning. Your sister thought you might enjoy a bath... but with Ponyville's spa acting as a second clinic, this is the best we can offer. The mare paused holding the warm sponge close to Luna's throat.

The Princess whipped her eyes around, looking for why the mare had stopped; abath , even just of the sponge variety suddenly sounded like the greatest of luxuries. "Then proceed. You have our permission to touch us."

The earth mare again softly giggled and reached out with her free hand to stroke Luna's own jaw before moving lower to the edge of her tightly clutched blanket. "It'd be my dearest pleasure dear Princess, but this is in the way." An eyebrows raised awaiting Luna's response.

Suddenly she had no more questions, simply a shocked gasp and slow sigh. The sensuous pleasure of the odd, soft sponge the nurse held as she at last began to relent and to reveal her bare figure, allowing the cloth to descend from her shoulders. As Luna revealed her large and flawless breasts’ pink flesh, thick nipples and broad areola's pink hue an offset to her pale flesh, her eyes inspected Redheart's own reaction. As her hand moved to clutch the sheet to her hips, it sunk lower, revealing the smooth skin of her belly, light definition of abdominal muscles and the hourglass figure of a trim princess. But no lower she declared silently. That was only proper.

And then the soft sponge began its journey across her throat and soon all thoughts were lost to the silky bliss of pleasure that now began stroking across her flesh. A dark blush formed in her cheeks as down in her belly a hot feeling she had long forgotten suddenly returned, sparking lewd thoughts she had not felt in far too many years. Redheart's touch to her jaw with a free hand directed her, guiding her to shift back upon the bed, laying down while the smaller mare sat upon the bed’s edge. Her body laid back and gave in to another’s touch, she couldn't prevent a low moan whispering from her lips. When Redheart's hand went for the sheet to peel it free of her loins, she hadn't the strength to resist, the now wet cloth peeling free of her thighs and letting a rich scent fill the room once its guard was removed.

With this revealed to the Nurse, Luna was shocked at how kind the mare's reaction was. Her hand with the sponge lifted free and returned to the warm water while her voice dropped lower to offer the her a choice. "I can stop my Princess... or I can get a stallion who knows how to keep his lips shut..." the offer stood for but a second in Luna's mind before she drew up her own right hand, cupping the mare's cheek voice whisper quiet. "The Stallion is a kind offer, but you are the one who brought these feelings out... unless you do not find your Princess attractive, please... continue." and before she knew it the sudden rush of a deep kiss enveloped her lips. The strong pressure of ardent passion resounding in the moment while the Nurse drew one hand into her thick mane, the other returning with that damp sponge and drawing wet, silky pressure across her throat and down now, over her right breast, rolling across the tender hard flesh of her nipple all in one smooth motion. It was clear to her now that her question was clearly answered; Redheart was happy to share this moment.

Breaking the kiss and gasping for breath, Luna let her own body lay back to give the nurse full access to her needy body. One hand drew up behind her head to prop it up atop a pillow even while her eyes half slitted until nearly closed in pleasure from that warm, damp, and silky tease across her nipple's pert flesh. Yet all of this was nothing, for just as Luna had begun to relax under her touch, the sponge moved to soak her other breast and Redheart's mouth replaced it, wrapping around the erect nipple, biting down at the tender nub and rolling it between teeth and tongue. Once more, a roar of heat quickly spread through her body, and Luna's free hand slid into the pale pink locks of the nurse's own hair, wrapping around them. She gripped stiffly at the silky hair, tied up as it was into a thick bun that give her a great handle. At last, her husky voice echoed in the nurses ear with great lust. "Thou torment thy Princess, and now she soaks this stranger’s bed."

As she had hoped, the smaller mare drew back from her heaving chest with a grin that matched her own lust. The mare wasn't shy to speak up on this, licking the taste of Luna's flesh from her lips. "Then I will have to clean up after my princess. Even if I must do it with my tongue." Luna thrilled at the aggressive tone the mare gave her, then realized the sponge had been thrust between her thighs’ wet flesh, ripples of pleasure making her gasp in delight, arching her back and lifting her shoulders high up off the bed's surface. Both hands were now deeply entwined in the nurses bun, pulling her face back up and forcing a deep kiss upon the younger mare's own lips. She suckled on the lower one and raked across the trapped flesh, teasing with her tongue over the pink lip.

Redheart was far from shy in response; for even as the deep kiss sucked on her lips and pressed home Luna's lust, the nurse got a rhythm to her stroke of sponge across the princess’ slick thighs. Moving her fingers in steady strokes back and forth between the valley of Luna’s thighs and across the length of her slit, Roseheart indulged in every noise her lover made. Silky teasing tormented over the very pert pearl of Luna's own clit. She would win out in the end, as Luna had to release the mare's lips and fall backwards, moaning harshly into the sweet nurse's ear, at last releasing the strong grip she held upon that pink bun. The alicorn laid back, gasping for her own lustful breath.

With her body free, the nurse didn't delay a moment longer. With her sponge tossed suddenly back to the bowl the earth mare slid a hand across silky flesh to lift Luna's legs, allowing the princess’ ankles to rest upon her shoulders and drawing her lips to the older mare's sex. Luna quickly got carried away with the sudden assault of aggressive lips to her silky, soaked thighs, even as her ankles lifted and turned to wrap around to clutch her across the shoulders with the pressure of firm toned calves digging into the smaller mare's back. Redheart's attentions were given directly to her cunt and its silky depths, with an aggressive assault of lapping tongue and two fingers dragging across the inside walls of that fold hidden inside sensitive flesh.

With pressure building, Luna found herself at the limits of what her body could manage. Her restraint was overwhelmed by the endless aggressive attention of that tongue and those fingers. Gasping harder than ever before under the continued deep thrust of those digits, Luna couldn’t get her mind off how devilishly skilled Roseheart was at raking over the most sensitive inner walls of her sex. She moaned suddenly in pleasure, "By the Night! Do you ever relent?" If she had expected any mercy from Redheart's continued assault, she was given none.

Panting with still lustful need for release, Luna at last drew forth her own magic, pulling with it, and drawing the sponge back from the bowl. Squeezing it out and then floating it up to tease up under Redheart's skirt, she pushed the magically propelled, silky sponge to tickle across the mare's own folds. A gleeful grin spread over her lips as her voice whispered in low and greedy tones. "Why Nurse... you wear no undergarments beneath your uniform? Who is this lucky stallion against whom you are plotting?" But if Redheart took the time to answer, Luna had no time to hear it, as the sudden assault of two more fingers upon her soaked slits’ depths, while a mouth drew away from the wet walls and pressed lower, into the ample flesh of Luna's ass teased a gasp from the mare. This sudden assault proved to overwhelm the last of Luna's reserves, and a harsh shudder rippled through her towering body, pushing over the limit of her orgasm.

All the while, that silky sponge continued to thrust and tease in heavy strokes and dragging pressure across the slit of her smaller lover's sex. Even as her own screaming lust echoed forth, she could feel the shuddering figure of between her thighs give in to her own release. Whimpering with pleasure, the sound of Redheart's release allowed Luna to relax, her head falling back to the bed again while the last echoes of pleasure rippled in the teasing final wave of her own orgasm. Muffled words drifted up from between her thighs, revealing with a coo, the name. "Dusk Shine Princess.. He is a powerful unicorn with no mare of his own yet. I plan to tender some loving care for him soon."

For a moment something whispered in Luna's mind, a slight twinge of... jealousy? She waved it off, unlocking her ankles from the mare's back and drawing her up until she lay chest to chest with the little earth mare, lingering kisses teased across the nurse's jawline, while a quiet coo whispered free of her throat’s base. "He is? And without a mare to care for him..." her fingers twirled in silence though the locks of Redheart's hair, a slow smile spreading. "Then when thou hast thy composure back, thou shouldst take care of the poor lad... but don't be surprised if he is never alone. Five mares hath taken a great liking to him, and thou might not find them willing to share." Even as her low chuckle whispered free, idle nails traced a soft stroke across the curve of the slender mare's jaw when her kisses had ended.

Redheart's reply surprised her. "I don't want to claim him as mine, Princess Luna... just the pleasure of knowing he asked for me for his own medical care... It's as grand a pleasure to being in your arms today." A shared blush was offered to Luna who gently offered her own nod and kiss on the healer’s forehead. "Then clean thyself with the sponge and go care for him, I need rest for we have some party later today." As she closed her eyes and lay back, she could feel the smaller mare stand up and go about quietly cleaning herself. Eyes slitted open just enough to watch this show, Luna was swift to drift off to sleep with a grand smile on her lips, and rested peacefully.

* * *

Early afternoon had come quickly. Princess Luna was at last awake to soft knocking once more at her bedroom door. This time though, it was a voice she recognized; the unicorn Rarity whose voice was like silver bells. "Excuse me, Princess Luna, but Princess Celestia told me that none in town have anything in your size. It's an unsightly, rushed job, but I thought I could at least offer you something better then that old table cloth to wear."

Luna was more than willing to welcome any chance to wear anything other than that thousand year old rag a second time. Swiftly crossing the room and unlocking the door, she peeked out to check for any others who might be in the hallway. The sight of a single unicorn carrying one deep blue dress slung over her arm while a heavy wicker box floated behind. Inspecting the hallway and realizing it was safe to allow the mare inside, Luna stepped back, allowing her full access to the room.

With casual grace, Rarity paused for a moment to allow Princess Luna to look around the hallway before entering the room when she stepped out of the way, stepping inside with her box of 'extras'. Under Luna's watchful eye, the shorter mare glided to a free table, and if she could smell the scent of sex that still hung in the air, she said nothing of it, instead opening a window, while leaving the drapes closed. Her light voice filled the air, "It's far too bright out today, Princess. Would you care for some tea before trying things on?"

Swallowing a tight breath, the princess clutched the thin white cloth tight over her bare body, speaking low and with restrained care. "We would like the clothing first, please. Its been a thousand years since I've felt properly dressed, seamstress Rarity." For only a moment her eyes inspected the box of private things before she was captivated by the dress Rarity hung from the curtain rod above the now open window, allowing it to air out while they spoke.

No sooner had her words been spoken, than did Rarity nod warmly and collected up an odd, long and thin ribbon, swiftly moving to stand before her and lifting the band up high before pausing, gently clearing her throat. "For a proper fitting, you'll need to lower your... robe, Your Majesty." Her words were polite, and those deep azure eyes won her way into her heart.

Again with the nudity! Yet the words had merit, and so with a soft sigh whispering free of her lips, she allowed the robe to lower. "In our day, seamstresses might measure by eye and over our clothing, but we will defer to the craftsmare's keen eye." If the unicorn mare had a poor reaction to the words, she didn't show it; slipping in close to her own towering body, wrapping measuring ribbon across her shoulders, around her breasts, her hips and thighs.

The whole time, she spoke with gentle care, impressing Luna with the detail and effort she was willing to put in so quickly. "I only brought five or six kinds of fabric for bras or breast wraps with me Princess Luna. I hope something will catch your eye. Unless you are of a mind to go with undergarments sewn into your dress? Of course, it might delay any other adjustments I might make to your dress but a comfortable bra can be wonderfully comforting don't you think?"

Luna was left in the dust of Rarity’s rapid conversation, at last speaking up when she saw the mare picking at different cloths from the box. "The... dark purple or black silks should be a nice match to our tastes, seamstress Rarity. And we would like a breast wrap, unless these... bras? you speak of are more comfortable." Shocked at the sudden laughter produced by the tiny unicorn she arched a brow and started to pull the blanket back up over her nudity. "What jest did we make? We are unaware what we had said that was so funny..."

Suddenly, the mare Rarity shifted to stand, hands slipping behind her back and unzipping her own dress a little so she could draw the shoulder straps free and reveal the silky blue bra that cupped and lifted her breasts to put a proud level of cleavage on display. With fingers drawing over the silky material, the little mare spoke in tender explanatory terms. "You see Princess, Bras cup the breasts, and support them. If you wish to be fancy, you can get bras that lift or shape your breasts like mine, to put more va-va-voom in your appearance... err so to speak." A dark blush was offered for a moment before the little mare drew her dress up once more to cover her shoulders and bra again.

Now truly fascinated by the story and display before her, Luna let her eyes linger on the way the bra shifted the smaller mare’s breasts, her eyes then lowered to look to her own. At last, she spoke with carefully chosen words and a neutral tone. "We have no stallion we are currently courting, and with our history with the ponies of Equestria, we doubt any stallion will be wanting to get too close to us unless ordered to.. or by force. And if what we have heard about stallion population is true, they have every right to be picky." A silence was shared between the mares before Luna at last spoke up with quiet words again. "But we like the idea of comfort and support, we have missed our old corset so."

Apparently, that was all that it took for Rarity to decide. The darkest of purple silks she had brought were selected, and using the measurements she already had put to memory, a needle and scissors were brought together with both hands and magic. Thanks to this, she was able to work at quite a quick pace, working swiftly to cut and stitch the princess a bra. It might have been crude and far from one she publicly thought to brag about, but for today it will serve its purpose. "If you return to Canterlot with the princess, I can give you the name of a dozen sewing houses that might do private work for a lady as noble as yourself without question Princess... That way you wouldn't have to deal with public shops and stranger’s eyes." A brief pause as the half finished bra was inspected, and rubber straps were selected of the same hued material was picked so the bra could be resized as needed to fit properly around the shoulders and across the back. "Of course, if you wish to keep things more private and are willing to put up with occasional visits to or from me, I also would consider it to be an honor to try and make things that could delight you... at least something wearable until you pick your own private seamstress."

Shocked at all the mare could say and do about things that she had not yet even began to think about herself, Luna was lost in a stammer for a minute until the now complete silk bra was passed over. Inspecting it with detailed care, before she saw Rarity making motions of how to slip it on and pull it across her back. As soon as the silky material cupped her heavy breasts, it became clear she had made the right choice, as the feel of rich cloth really did make her feel more relaxed and confident. With Rarity to guide her, she learned how to adjust the bra's straps and how to lock and unlock the clasp that lay hidden between her shoulder blades. "And you say with extra work a bra can feel... better then this seamstress? You mustn't brag so much, this already is a new world to us... but one we like.. greatly." And here she offered the talented Unicorn a playful grin.

The mare's response was a broad and knowing grin. "Stallion or not to impress my dear Princess Luna, you look darling already. I can't wait to see how fantastic you will make my dresses look... unless you've changed your mind on that? I dare say I would love to make you something more... fetching." the wink she gave made Luna pause a moment, but her head shook lightly.

"As kind as your offer is seamstress, today is not a day for tempting stallions. I wish to look humble and proper. Respectful if possible. Until I am more comfortable with my guilt, I don't think I'll be wooing anyone." Even at her own depressed words a finger stroked the fabric of soft silk that supported her ample breasts’ weight.

Rarity appeared sympathetic, as she didn't push that issue, instead quickly working with both hands and a deft magical aid to run sewing needle through silk. While the panties resembled a thong, they were at last a matching pair and comfortable. "I hope this will work for a day or two, it really isn't nearly the quality you deserve, Your Highness. Normally, I'd demand a few hours to improve the work, maybe sew in your initials and perhaps a copy of your cutie mark or even just some beading."

That wistful look in Rarity's eyes made Luna quickly shake her hands, her voice rapidly attempting to reassure the younger mare. "No, no, no. It's very kind of you to offer such effort for our sake, but we do not need it this day." A deep blush held on her cheeks as she pulled on the new panties feeling at last clothed again in some sense of the word. "Now the dress dear seamstress?" Thus the day carried on until...

* * *

When Princess Luna at last stepped outside the house that had been her haven while two doctors visited and Rarity worked to make adjustments to the royal blue dress originally designed to fit a mare a foot shorter than the eventual customer. And yet, it was a raw testament to the boundless skill of the young unicorn that the dress had been altered to fit, and look proper to match.

Deep royal blues, nearly black in shade, hung close over her shoulders, the backless dress held up around her throat with a thin silken band, while two wide straps ran down the front, leaving only a thin slit to reveal her ample cleavage but almost no flesh. Just below her breasts’ curve, the cloth joined together on the front, drawing down across slender yet toned abs and flaring wider across her hips. From behind however, thanks to the weight and size of her massive dark blue wings, only a hint of flesh could be seen despite the wide and low back. rapping around and coming together just above her tail with a hole in the cloth so close to that upper edge that it was hardly more than a string hanging above her tail, the dress looked stunning on her curvy figure.

Thankfully, the dress had been a ball gown before the adjustments, so while it was made to reach a normal mare's ankles on her towering Alicorn frame, the dress only made it to just above her own knees, and the slit on the right leg had to be sewn up before she would accept it despite Rarity's protest that it could teasingly show her cutie mark on her hip. In revenge, or so Luna felt, Rarity had found fine, thigh-hugging purple-blue high heels with a matching Tiara to rest in the weight of her hair. Here, even Rarity had relented, the Alicorn's locks were allowed to stay wild and dancing in the ethereal wind that lifted and teased at the loose locks.

Now with a soft stride, she walked past the two pegasus guards who stood watch at the house’s door, moving to look around the town before gaze turned swiftly back at the guards. "We... we wish to see the clinic. To visit those who w... who Nightmare Moon hurt so badly." The stone-faced men gave no sign of hearing her swift change of wording, instead glancing once at each other before giving the smallest of nods.

Red and black mane trapped under his golden helmet, the older guard stepped to her side, a hand lifting to point towards the west. "Then please follow us Your Highness. It is but a short walk a few blocks this way." A pause as she looked in the direction he spoke of and turned to begin walking, only realizing as she went that they had followed her, ignoring it until the same stallion spoke again. "It's sadly inadequate for their needs, princess. Her Highness, Princess Celestia has already called for the building of a proper hospital here in Ponyville, and all towns of this size when she heard from so many of the locals about how overwhelmed their clinic was from day to day."

Her head turned to gaze at the elder guard, arms gently crossed over her belly while she quietly said as she walked, "A shame that it took such a horror as Nightmare Moon's return to make all realize the basic medical needs of a kind town was already overwhelmed."

The pegasus offered her a small shrug, and only soft words. "It's one of the sad facts of life. Bureaucrats tell other Bureaucrats that something’s right or wrong at the moment and the other tries to argue the opposite point. Sadly, only when something goes wrong, does it become truly obvious what the real situation is. Your sister has seen such, and plans to devote more of her time to picking out these matters personally."

And then, the sound hit Luna like a wall. They had not even rounded the corner and she knew were the clinic was. Shockingly, the noise was not of wailing pain and overwhelmed workers, but of serious business being done by many at the same time. Steeling herself against what was to come she stepped around the corner, even while fear grew in her heart. Yet just as the sound suggested, this was no chaotic mess anymore. Over twenty beds had been piled in the street between the clinic and its neighbor a day spa now converted to more serious work. Here, backup from Canterlot had made great progress in relieving the overwhelmed clinic workers, and between nearly twenty effectively working doctors, plus their thirty nurse aids were at work.

As she started to walk between beds, it was not the revulsion, nor fear she expected to feel, but instead, soft whispers of marveled joy, and even hands lifting to touch her fingers, to speak quiet words of reverence and joy. As she made her second pass through the middle of those gathered, she halted in the middle of the gathered crowd, closing her eyes tight and swallowing a hard breath. At last, she spoke, though her words were weak, and torn with joy at how even those she had hurt welcomed her. "Forgive us people of Ponyville... Warriors of Celestia's private guard. It's with the greatest shame We came to you, yet you welcome us with such kindness. We promise you the honor of your kind welcome is not lost on us. We can only try our best to return the kindness you've show to us this day.. Sleep well this night, and know your dreams are once again safe." a promise made, she intended to keep it. It meant returning to duties long abandoned, yet somehow it warmed her heart thinking of such important duty.

It was with that joy in her heart that she took another hour to wander the gathered crowd, stroking hand or cheek of mare and jaw of stallion, offering each soft kind words in turn. The love they poured in return warming her once more in a way no clothing could manage.

* * *

Hours later, and with the grand party over, Luna turned to nod softly to the gathered watching townsponies. Together with her sister Princess Celestia, Luna stepped up on the gold painted chariot that was tied to six, powerful pegasus guards. As she looked once more back to the townsponies, seven now very beloved faces were gathered together in the crowd, plus two she had spent the afternoon speaking with in great detail, her sister's own Captain of the Guard, Shining Armor, and a young alicorn only in her late twenties, the recently proclaimed Princess Cadence. Somehow having family made things feel better, and in Cadence she had found someone reminded her of Polaris in a way. And that thought did bring sudden weight ot her mind. How long had it been since Polaris had died... She pushed the thought away, those were good times long past, no need to worry about such things when they were also some of her happiest memories.

Before the guards lifted off, she turned her gaze again to the six mares who had gathered around one stallion. Swallowing her pride, she spoke out again at last, her voice level and warm, though so soft, it was likely no one else could ever hear her over the powerful noise of a happy crowd. "We wish to thank you once more, dear Dusk Shine. You remind us of the good times long gone, and a daughter lost to time so long ago."

Yet if she expected the crowd to cover her words, the soft nod Dusk offered her in return was a shock. Had he heard, or was it simply a polite motion to whatever he thought she might be speaking of because of the powerful noise of those who filled the city center? And then suddenly they were airborne, the guards taking flight at Celestia's order. Her gaze turned to the elder sister and kindly Princess, only to find her reading a letter with a odd smirk on her lips. "And what is that dearest sister?"

Princess Celestia carefully turned the paper over, her smirk spreading wider. "Before Dusk knew you were Nightmare Moon, he wrote me a letter while trying to sort out his own thoughts. And after seeing my reaction to it today he was quick to rewrite it as a student profile of you according to both personal experience and historical records." Her hand turned to offer the page, Luna gently accepted the thin parchment and quickly began to scan the writing.

Suddenly seeing herself from the outside in those simple words, two ideas came to mind. Her voice tender and low, she returned the folded page to her sister, eyes serious and tone matching. "He sees so much... and yet he misses small things that bother me suddenly. Princess Cadence, she is your granddaughter is she not?"

The words caught Celestia off guard, and yet a smile spread slowly. "Great, great a few times... but yes." There was a pause, but the question Luna was pushing for was far from subtle, and at last Celestia nodded. "Yes. Yes he is."

That topic finished, and Luna's heart now suddenly calmed once more. She managed only to point to the letter from Celestia once more. "Are profiles of people like that common? I should have great use for such knowledge."

Celestia shared a smile and tapped her chin with the page before she replied in a soft tone. "Then we shall make them common for you sister. Dusk will be able to do much of that work for you. He is a good at picking up details and writing with limited bias. Besides, it gives me excuse to tease the poor boy." Quickly, she drew parchment from the pile of papers in her lap, her magic's golden hue floating the page and quill with ease, and her swift writing moved over the page. Yet a pause lingered as she considered for a moment. "Maybe... Maybe I will give him a week on this task. He has had so hard a week."

Considering on her own side, Luna returned her own smile warmly and let her shoulders lift in a shrug. "Why not start easy. Have him write one for himself to test his own bias. Then in a few days one of his assistant Barb. The little dragoness is fascinating in her own right. After that, ramp it up to milk his mind and keep him on his toes."

That drew a laugh from her sister, and a warm nod. Quickly Celestia began to write again. "You're right dear sister... It's a pleasure to have you here once more to bounce ideas around."

Her heart aching again for a moment at those words, Luna leaned in against her sister, resting her head upon her taller sister's own shoulder, her voice a low whisper, "It's just a pleasure to be myself once more."

* * *

It was so many hours later and once more, reality was sinking in to a horrific degree. The white marble balcony of Princess Celestia's lookout offered a view that towered so high over the capital of Equestria, the grand city of Canterlot, that in one lazy gaze, Luna could inspect the wide city that stretched from one horizon to the other. A ripple of power she had not sensed in so many years whispered out across the evening sky, her sister taking a grip upon the sun itself and with quiet calling, ordered it to set at last. This was a ritual they had done together so many times, so long ago. Memories of it tugged at Luna's heartstrings... back when she was a filly, back when she got her cutie mark.

And then suddenly, it was her turn, the sun had set and Princess Celestia stood at her side, waiting for her to take up her duty once more. Her mind now instantly focused, razor sharp need poured into her thoughts, while memories of a thousand nights of doing this very duty poured forth. At last, her wings unfurled, and she braced before launching into the air, to once more take to the sky, her magic pouring forth and willing the moon to accompany her in flight once more. As powerful as her magic might be, this was such a long forgotten act, it strained her in ways she hadn’t felt in so many ages.

When at last she opened her eyes, she was in a sweating heap upon the balcony once more, but the moon had been lifted and stood full and bright declaring itself before the night sky. Footsteps arrived at her side and a soft voice spoke up softly. "No stars tonight?"

Too tired to even stand up once more, Luna cast her gaze to the sky, willing the stars to be there yet not having the strength to pull together and force forth the stars once more. At last after several minutes of useless gazing in silence her voice spoke up in a weak whisper, almost heartbroken at having to acknowledge failure. "I... suppose I am still a little out of practice."

A hand cupped her shoulder, and soft voice lifted with tender care as her sister knelt at her side eyes looking deeply into her own while tender words were spoken with gentle care. "Tell you what..." a pause waiting for her to look back into her older sister’s eyes. When she did, a warm smile was waiting for her, and a warmer voice spoke once more. "I'll do the stars tonight... If you help me with the sunrise in the morning."

Overwhelmed by her sister's kind words, Luna couldn't help but wrap her arms around her older sisters neck holding her tightly close. A single word offered in grateful thanks. "Aye..."

* * *

Alone. This was what had driven Luna to madness in the old days; what had brought up her jealous rage and started the horror of Nightmare Moon. Tonight she found herself alone again. Celestia had gone to sleep hours ago, and yet, Luna did not find that jealous feeling of loneliness returning. This night would be her first chance to take up the pledge she had made today. In seconds, she was settled on her throne, yet her mind was now miles away in another realm and walking among the dreaming minds of Ponyville's clinic patients. Luna poured her will over the poor souls gathered in those two rooms. Stretching out with her power, she entered every dream at once, pacifying a nightmare here, stroking a scared child's head there. It took only minutes for her to care for all those gathered here.

Satisfied with this, she let her strength thin out, and spread across all of Equestria. This had to be done slower, and ate up hours of the night, yet in time, she found the last of those troubled souls and made sure none ever need to pass the night in horror. Only then, did she return to herself, discovering a guard standing at her side silently waiting. "If you had said something... We wished we could have returned sooner... forgive us for making you wait, sir guard."

Shining Armor simply took his turn to shake his head, kneeling as best his battered ribs allowed him before standing up once more. "Princess Luna, it is my pleasure to wait while you care for the sleeping souls in a way only you can... Dusk told me about it when he visited me in the hospital you know. He thought it was just an exaggeration of your duties of guarding the night." Head shaking, he waved off her question. "I have news that's more important than my brother’s ability to research such obscure facts so swiftly."

Stepping aside, he waved a hand to the four guards who stood behind him. But when they stepped forward, Luna felt at home for the first time in centuries. The four bat pegasi bowed in time together, their voices united as one, "We are few, Princess Luna, but the Night Guard is glad to once more have our princess back."

Tears streaking her cheeks she ran swiftly forward, to hug the shocked four guards while her own voice struggled to speak up. "You four... you are the last of your kind?"

Shining knew he had to speak up for them, the men now all too deeply ashamed to speak themselves. "When Nightmare Moon turned on the people of Equestria, much of the night guard joined her. And when your sister banished her, most refused to stand down. The war lasted nearly ten years. Sadly, bad blood is still felt by some pegasi and their bat-winged brothers. But my men know better. We search now daily to find any more of the lost tribe, and hope that with your return they will no longer fear the violence that we do not wish on them."

That sad truth was heavy on her heart, yet it was just another sin with which she would have to learn to deal. Nodding to Armor, she spoke with soft care. "Then if you will excuse us, my four guards are more than enough, and you must get to rest before my grand niece comes to turn her screws on you." The shocked look she was given made it clear she had picked right from Princess Cadences words this afternoon. They were clearly close, and that was sweet. Turning slowly once more, she moved to return once more to her throne, a hand stroking across A Letter her sister Celestia had received just after sunset. Dusk's description of himself was well written, and had been a interesting read.

Her voice soft she spoke only to herself, while the four guards took up position in a circle around her throne. "Dusk... how do you dream?"

Interlude 3 - Private Conversations - Part 1

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My Faithful Student, Dusk Shine,

When I received your latest letter, it was a joy to read. My dear sister Luna has taken a liking to these letters as well, as they help her to learn so much about both what she has missed as well as teaching her of our people. Thus, we have decided to commission you to produce an ongoing series of profiles of other people around Ponyville, and the rest of Equestria as you gather more information for us. First, you should start with your fellow Elements of Harmony. Take the day to consider and please have your reply completed within the next day or two.

With delight at your continued growth,

Princess Celestia.

* * *

It was late in the afternoon when Barb ran into Dusk's bedroom with the letter. The excited little dragoness had not knocked, and arrived in the middle of Nurse Redheart's sponge bath. Dusk lay in bed as ordered by Princess Celestia’s visiting doctors; an order to rebuild his stamina after the exhaustion of the Summer Sun Celebration. They had seen what Dusk didn't notice at first. Though healed by the Elements, he had lost ten pounds in a day from the raw use of magic and endless adrenalin rush that had kept him on his feet that long night. Ten pounds made a difference when it was nearly a fifteenth his weight and he quickly found he was light headed and exhausted by even simple tasks, so the argument had been quickly lost.

Dusk realized that Nurse Redheart was a very striking mare, and it had started to get quite awkward every day when she insisted on this sponge bath. Twice yesterday, he had argued he could simply take a shower, but when she had challenged him to do so unassisted he quickly found himself resting on his knees against the sink, too tired to even step over the bathtub’s high edge. So in the end, he had relented, laying in bed with only a loose pair of boxers for modesty’s sake, while the attractive nurse sat beside him, stroking muscles and rubbing a small amount of some oil based ointment into his chest.

Every day, he became more aware that her uniform was too short... and that she had taken to wearing very dark blue or purple panties that were on full display from were his head rested upon the pillows. And then there was her insistence on doing a 'complete' job. All he could do was lay there in silence, biting his lip the whole time. He waited as she peeled off his boxers, wet sponge kissing across his belly, over his groin and around his privates in what felt like hours of embarrassing fascination on the mare's part. Never once did she ever break eye-contact with him, and a few times he wondered if she was only waiting for him to give even the smallest of nods, what with the way her eyes screamed at him. Was the mare in heat? Or...

“Dusk! The Princesses sent another letter! They liked your little note about me so much that they...” And suddenly Barb's voice dropped to silence. Dusk now wished he had just smothered himself with a pillow at that very moment, rather than have her walk in on this. Yet for Redheart's part, she was calm and polite, her voice soft.

“Yes? What exciting new work did The Princesses come up with for Dusk to do?” She asked, her hands returning the sponge to its warm water and squeezing it tight to a gush of water pouring free. The silky material returned to Dusk's loins, stroking tenderly between his thigh and groin.

“That... That... um... she wants him to do profiles of the other Elements of Harmony over the next day or two... and... um... stuff.” Barb might have been mostly like a normal teenage girl, yet the sight of her near father figure being practically serviced by a woman clearly had her confused.

As his hands drew a blanket over his privates and he leveled a glare at the nurse, Dusk smiled and spoke softly. “Then you had better do me a favor Barb. Go around to the girls’ places and ask them each when they might visit me tomorrow. I'm sure between the five, we can find some gaps in their schedules to get a quick chat in.” When the dragoness paused to hover at the door he spoke a second time, his tone more pleading this time. “And please... do not tell them I am so weak of late that I can not even bathe myself, it is humiliating enough having you see this.”

That appeared to be enough for her. Duty assigned and mind now properly distracted from the unclean thoughts that had sprung up, she gave a happy salute and rushed off out of the library to hunt down his five new friends. Dusk was just about to sit back again when the nurse cleared her throat, voice warm if a little strict. “Five visits? You might be getting stronger Dusk, but you’re in no shape for one filly climbing into bed with you, let alone five. I'd advise against it.” When all she got in return was his deep red blush, a laugh escaped her lips and she leaned in close to whisper warmly into his ear. “Your sponge bath is finished, but maybe tomorrow I can give you a shower before they show up?”

Dusk gasped at the lust hinted in her low tones, and clutched his hands on the blanket’s surface. The offer was... frankly quite tempting, yet he feared just what else she had in mind, knowing she spent far longer with him than needed each day as it was. At last, the courage to speak up arrived, and he easily shifted her weight to lean back a little. “I'll shower myself tomorrow. Thank you Nurse Redheart, you have been too kind in helping me these last few days.” There was a pause as she started to form a pout, and he was forced to offer a concession, but he phrased it as an offer to save face. “I would love it if we could get together sometime when you are off duty, instead of dealing with this this uptight work atmosphere. Maybe go for dinner sometime next week?”

A grin split the mare's lips. He might just be beginning to understand a little more about her than he had guessed up until now. “It’s a date then, Dusk. I will find a hole in my schedule at the clinic, and you can thank me properly... with dinner and maybe some more fun.” As she peeled away from the side of his bed and started to walk off, the way her hips swayed in that too-tight uniform drew in his eyes, and the back had ridden up while she sat on the bed beside him. Eyes wide, he realized the dark blue fabric had a logo on it... no, not a logo, but a cutie mark. A white crescent moon contrasted the darker purple of the fabric. Heart pounding in his chest, he wondered why a simple nurse from Ponyville had the time to have custom-made underwear with Princess Luna's cutie mark on it.

* * *

It was only an hour later when he at last picked up Princess Celestia's letter to read it for himself. A blush spread over his cheeks as he flipped the page to see what was attached to the note. At first, he didn't notice the difference between this and the profiles he had sent in last week. Then suddenly, his breath drew short, and eyes locked on that key change. "She... wants me to ask them about their breasts? Wh... why?" Swallowing sharply, he flipped back to the letter, hunting for any sign that might reveal her secret intent.

It wasn't until Barb returned to his room with a strong knock on the door before entering that Dusk at last gave up trying to understand her intentions. The little dragon carried with her three notes while a strong blush returned to her cheeks, noting that he was still under the blankets. With a polite cough to get his attention, she offered the three letters. "Err... so they all said it would be no problem visiting you tomorrow. Applejack will show up at 7:20 with breakfast from the farm." Shocked at the early hour, Dusk leveled her with a glare. "She insisted Dusk, I swear. Said she might be up at five to work the orchard anyways."

His mind now adjusting the whole day ahead to deal with the sudden early start AJ was used to, a hand lifted to squeeze the bridge of his nose. As the pressure distracted him from a headache, his eyes leveled on the little dragoness, leaving the letters in his lap for now. "And after that, Barb?"

The dragoness was quick to scuttle into a chair at his bedside, scrambling to him a list she had scribbled. "Pinkie Pie offered to come over at nine AM and help AJ clean up. Then she offered to go get Fluttershy at noon and bring lunch from Sugar Cube Corner." She paused before she shook her hands in an attempt to ward off Dusk's confused glare. "She really didn't want to come for what Pinkie instantly called a date. It wasn't until Pinkie offered to make it lunch for three before she finally gave her consent."

At last understanding, Dusk give her a nod. "OK, that I understand. She really is so shy around people; unless they need help for a pet, that is." Gently chuckling, he began softly scratching Barb behind the ears. "OK so that is three down... Dash?"

The question had Barb toying with her tail, squeezing at the spade tip and shaking her head. "Err... She agreed to come as well, but wouldn't stick to a time even when Rarity and AJ Hitting hope to tried to corner her into one. She said something about practicing for the Wonderbolts tomorrow, but promised she'd show sometime late afternoon around two."

Dusk laughed a little and continued the light scratching of Barb's head, his head tilting a little while he softly whistled a low breath from the depths of his throat. "Well, it’s Dash. She might not be on time, but I trust she will show up." With a chuckle still on his breath, he took a shot in the dark. "And Rarity will bring dinner I'm guessing?"

Here, Barb revealed to him what was really bugging her, suddenly wrapping her arms about his neck and hugging tight to his chest while releasing a pouting sigh. "If I go babysit Sweetie Belle, yes... But Dusk, she had that look in her eye. The same as Twinkleshine and her herd did back in Canterlot. Why is it that every mare wants to steal you? Why can't you just tell them you've already got a herd and make them leave you alone?" The tiny girl’s frame shivered with a barely-restrained sob.

Her words and actions tugged sharply at his heart, and made the stallion pull her closer while his deft fingers moved up and across the arch of her shoulder blades, using his nails to rake down and across her thin frame. "I... It's..." He drew a breath to swallow and then smiled gently again, slightly shifting his grip to rest on her spine. "I promise none of them will ever come between us, Barb. You will always be my number one apprentice, no matter what relationships I end up having with any mare."

These words appeared to help to calm the little dragon, her breathing smoothed and she shifted to tighten her arms’ strong grip around his neck, sighing against his shoulder, while she shifted to curl in against his side. Her eyes lifted to look deeply into his own. "And... if you do form a herd like they’re always bugging you to do?"

Dusk lightly laughed and kissed the top of her head, holding her with his hands on her back. "Any mare I might have in my herd first has to to accept you as my daughter/little sister. Just as I'm sure Rarity would require any stallion she takes to understand her little sister Sweetie Belle is very important to her too." There was a pause as he chuckled warmly. "Or as Applejack might break the jaw of any stallion who didn't respect her little sister Apple Bloom."

This had the little dragon join him in the light laughter. "Alright. Then I'll tell Rarity it’s no problem. Besides, Sweetie Belle is really nice company. I'd love to have her as a little sister!" With lazy effort, the little dragon wiggled her way off the bed and hopped to her feet while gazing over her shoulder at him. "Besides, she doesn't really have any friends besides Apple Bloom. I know how lonely that can be!" Her hint made him laugh a little.

His gaze dropped to the three letters, though one was still warm to the touch from Barb's Dragon fire. Yet in a sealed envelope from the Princess? "What are these? Before you go."

Stopping and turning a little she gave a little shrug. "The one with the pink paper is from Pinkie. The royal blue is Rarity... And I felt that a sealed letter from Celestia must mean it’s very personal since she has never done that before, so I saved it for you." There was a brief pause, her tail's spade once more trapped in her digits and squeezed from nervous habit. "I’ll go see Rarity so you can read in private."

* * *

Alone and with Barb out of the library to finalize the setup for tomorrow, Dusk opened Pinkie Pie's letter first. It turned out to be nothing but a short note about how she was glad he was feeling well enough again to have guests over. But when he opened it confetti and streamers burst forth. That extra energy put into so simple a note was endearing and he took his time shaking his head at the silly gesture. "Thank you Pinkie, you can bring a smile even on an exhausting day." At last he picked up Rarity's note, drawing a gaze across the the fine calligraphy in which she had written his name.

Dearest Dusk Shine,

It was a pleasure to hear from Barb that you are at last well enough for a guest. It's teased at my heart these last few days awaiting your health to improve so we might finish our conversation from the other night before Nightmare Moon interrupted us. Everyday, I stop to speak with Nurse Redheart in hopes of her letting me at least join you for a meal or assisting in your treatment, and she has promised to let me come next week, but now with this new work for Princess Celestia, it's a joy to be at last allowed back in. Thinking of you trapped alone and bored everyday pains my heart.

Awaiting when I might see you with my eyes again at last and longing to hear your voice once more,

Rarity

With his heart beating a little faster, Dusk lowered the note once more to his lap. He swallowed softly and shook his head lightly from side to side as he let memories of conversations with the mare return, along with a soft blush which deepened at the sweet mare's kind nature. He loosed a heavy sigh and then the last, sealed letter was lifted. Inspecting the solid white paper and Her Highness’ seal on the back, the tiny wax emblem seemed to stare at him in return, imbued with a blob of magic. A magic lock of sorts, designed to burn the note to ash if it wasn't opened just so. His voice low and whispering with soft confusion. "Why... would you throw this together, Princess Celestia. What is so secret?"

In silence, he unlatched the magic lock, and then peeled open the wax, revealing a letter and some... legal transcripts. With quiet care, he drew the page free, first looking over the banking records. At almost ten years old, they spoke of a bank Dusk hadn't heard of and a family whose name he didn't recognize, but the recipient's name was clear as day. 'Rarity'. Fingers now sweating, he peeled the letter from Princess Celestia open, his gaze roaming over the very short words written inside, a bitter taste suddenly in his mouth.

Dearest Dusk Shine;

I send you this information for your protection, so you might not be shocked by the revelations this matter might bring about, as well as the pain it might cause for yourself and the mare in question. His name is Diamond Masquerade and he use to teach other unicorns outside of Canterlot in magic before his family needed him for business in Las Pegasus. It tears at my heart to present this to you, My Faithful Student, but to hide the truth of matters would only harm you worse.

Begging for your forgiveness,

Princess Celestia

With a heavy heart, Dusk twisted the knot in the mote of magic that had been sealed into letter by Princess Celestia when she sealed the wax over the envelope. A burst of flame vaporized the note to ash. With quiet ease, he shifted to lay back, suddenly very tired. His eyes slipped closed, and he attempted to drift off to sleep. For some time, the quiet breeze that drifted through the room was all he heard. The sound of Barb's feet in the distance came to him as she returned to the library. His quiet breath whispering free voice a low mutter, "She has her history; I have mine. She can tell me when she feels comfortable." At last, the air cleared in his mind he relaxed back once more into the bed and soon was asleep.

* * *

Deep in sleep when Barb entered his room, Dusk wouldn't realize the little dragoness spent an hour cleaning up around him, putting the two remaining notes on his nightstand. When she found the charred remnants of Princess Celestia's letter, concern for him once more welled up, but she took her time to do her work first, sweeping up the ash with quiet care while attempting to avoid waking him up. When she finished, she went back downstairs for her dinner and some other cleaning the tree-house library needed, spending the night alone while she got things ready for tomorrow's guests.

As she ran out of reasons to keep busy, the little dragon stepped to her door at the base of the library’s staircase. Her hand shivered for a moment over the handle and she swallowed sharply, her head turning to glance up to the half-visible door of Dusk's room. Quickly, she whispered to herself. "For just one more night... can things just stay simple Princess?" Her words were low and scared, and she turned and wandered up to Dusk's door, slipping inside and inspecting his sleeping figure in the bed. Soft steps drew her swiftly across the room to her sleeping father figure. In silence, she slid up into his bed and wrapped a tight hug around his hips, her face buried into his back as quiet tears were at last allowed to flow freely.

* * *

Floating over the sleeping Dusk and weeping dragon, all Luna could offer was a single soft nod, her fingers stroking the girl’s cheek from her ethereal realm. "A noble dream; for simpler times and easier days. Very well, dear dragoness. I will watch over you personally tonight, to ensure you get one more peaceful night." The invisible goddess of dreams shifted across the room, taking a seat in a windowsill and looking out to the moon as it stood on the edge of the world watching down on them all. Her voice soft and low, she spoke with longing, "Dream well, little dragoness. Tomorrow will come sooner than you think, and even I have plans for your father."

Interlude 3 - Private Conversations - Part 2

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Dusk turned slowly as his gaze swept around the quiet streets of Canterlot. A thick fog hung in the air and turned everything to shadows at even a short distance, leaving almost all landmarks scattered and confusing. However, he could swear something was out of place today. Setting an easy pace, he started the walk uphill, using the one good rule of thumb on a misty night in Canterlot. The University and the palace were up the mountain, everything else spread out below.

Even as his easy stride ate up the blocks, his gaze passed with lazy inspection over the figures of others who milled in the streets despite the deep fog and dark night that lay overhead. A few streets further and he should reach the mid-court plaza, and from there, he could easily catch a cab. “Why am I down here? I never go south of mid-court!

A voice spoke out from the sparse crowd who stood to the side of the road, around doors, and in clustered groups of friends. "Except that one time."

Dusk halted in his stride and twisted to look around. The voice was oddly familiar, yet he couldn't quite place it. As his eyes swept over the crowd, a few who had been behind him, matching his swift pace brushed past, muttering darkly at him for suddenly forming a roadblock in the middle of the street. Yet, no one stepped forth or even looked out of place. Swallowing, he brushed off the distraction and began marching once more on his path, his destination so close.

And yet as the blocks fell away behind him, it was always the same five streets he passed, looping over and over again, with those same crowds standing before the same doors. Realization setting in slowly, Dusk shifted to hunch his shoulders and started to walk faster, in hopes this was still just self-deception on his part. Barging past those before him and earning shouts of annoyance and anger he attempted to stalk off, bursting into an outright sprint in hopes of outpacing what he now knew was coming.

Again that voice whispered from a street corner, soft and calm yet eternally distant. "But she is waiting just behind you Dusk. You need only turn around." He stumbled and collapsed face first into the bricks. Breath came in a rapid panting gasp while his eyes squeezed shut. His lower lip had been cut... not by a fall, but by the backlash of the blast which had thrown him into a wall.

Vividly, the memories flared up once more and he slowly wiped at his cheeks. Turning and standing slowly, he spoke low, not to the two mares behind him, but to the voice he knew was following his dream. "Why would you want me to remember this night? It is not a good memory; it is a painful one. I was sixteen. Sunset Shimmer and Beatrix Lula had been fighting to show off who was stronger. They asked me to judge."

From the shadows a cloaked woman's towering figure stepped forward, a hand on his shoulder as he took in the sight of the fight before him. It was strong, and comforting, yet never gave him a second chance to turn away, or to see who she was as she forced him to face this memory. "And you tried to stop the fight with your brother’s shield spell. Both turned on you at that moment. It's an important day Dusk, because it is when Sunset Shimmer admitted she had only been using you as a study aid. She had no interest in you personally. And your report to Princess Celestia helped her learn the truth of Beatrix Lula's actions around the school."

Swallowing, Dusk let the memories return from the dark corner into which he had shoved them. He had been asked by Sunset to be the girls’ judge; the contest of power between the two strongest mares in the school had to be kept secret, so they had gone all the way to the low-court plaza on a foggy night. Nopony should be around with the weather so foul, so no one else was around to report their illegal magic duel. With a quiet voice, he watched the fight start over again from its beginning. "Sunset was so proud of her place as Princess Celestia's only other personal student. To see anyone, even me get that level of attention made her jealous. When Beatrix was promoted so swiftly into the same classes as us after finding her cutie mark, it made Sunset angry. For days, she had ranted and raved about how only she should have that level of attention from the teachers. All this, while I helped her with her studies, and she treated me like I was not even present." He shook his head softly

"And then when you interrupted their fight, she got angry. Instead of striking at her opponent, she blasted you instead. Then suddenly, their fight was over and all you got for your trouble was a boot to the gut. But not all mares are like Sunset. Many really do wish only the best for you. Your newfound friends, for example."

Suddenly, things shifted, and he saw himself and the other Elements of Harmony from a viewpoint outside his body. He stood beside the proud figure of Nightmare Moon as she started to flinch at the burst of rainbow magic that poured forth from his activation of the Elements. His voice was hollow as he shook his head slowly. "I understand that. But Princess Luna, why do you show me this in my dreams? Would not a letter have been easier?" He still couldn't turn, yet felt the hand on his shoulder squeeze and a low voice whispered with care a question that went unanswered.

The sight before him was one he could never forget. Those five mares all supporting him from behind while he drew on the Elements’ power, and thrust it into Nightmare Moon. He had never known if it really was going to work, but hope to save Princess Luna inside that darkness had pushed him to continue against the fear that the mounting power was going to be too much for him to mold into anything useful. It was their support that gave him the courage to wield that power. The endurance to withstand its wrath as the magic tried to melt his will. The wisdom to find a way that did not hurt Luna herself despite her being inside its target. The restraint to hold back letting all of that massive power free immediately to free his mind of the wracking pain. And the spark of hope that everything might be alright even if he faltered in the task. The shadowy woman's voice lifted gently but clear, repeating herself when he didn't answer, transfixed on the scene before him. "A letter is but words on paper. It can never convey the power of a moment like this, Dusk. Remember this well, for whatever may come they are your true friends, and will be at your side even when you can not see nor feel them." And then he was alone, and peaceful sleep returned.

* * *

Dusk could feel pressure around his hips as his mind began to wake. Not for the first time this week, he figured that Nurse Redheart had let herself in and was cuddling him in his sleep. The slow growth of his awareness hastened as he prepared to once again tell her off for treating him like a colt... until the shift of a cheek and the brush of scales across his spine made him realize it was not the nurse for once, but Barb who had snuck into his bed. A calm settled over him, a memories of life at school before Barb had insisted she was old enough to need her bed returned. It had only been seven years ago when she declared herself a big enough girl to sleep alone, yet on nights with bad weather, more often than not, he awakened to her curled up against him hiding from the bad weather.

The sweet memory helping to wash away the taste of bittersweet dreams, Dusk shifted slowly so as to not startle the dragon awake. Hands cupping her head gently to his chest for a moment, before he took to idly stroking her scales lightly. When she simply murmured and curled in closer, he let a warm sigh whisper free of his lips and lifted his gaze to the bedroom’s massive picture window, looking for the sun. Just cresting the horizon, it showed he had but an hour left before company started to arrive, and this slow thought set his mind into lazy motion. Lightly, he began to scratch his Number One Assistant around the curve of her jaw, a ticklish spot that was sure to get her attention.

As low mutters turned to giggles and struggling, Dusk whispered, "Come on now, my dear dragoness. I need my Number One Assistant's help this morning. So wake up before Applejack arrives and finds us still in bed!"

The teasing worked, as soon, the little dragon was yawning broadly while bleary eyes focused on him. Her voice was tired as she realized she was caught. "I guess I fell asleep. Sorry Dusk... I just wanted to sleep like we used to."

With a laugh, Dusk tapped her gently on the nose. "No problem at all Barb. You gave me a nice memory to wake up to, rather than the silly dream I was having. Now seriously, let us get going, I need a shower and you had better find me something nice to wear, I have too many guests coming over today."

* * *

It was hardly twenty minutes later when Dusk heard the bathroom door open. His head resting on the shower wall, letting the heat soak into his skin and wash down his back in a steady stream, the proud, young stallion was glad he had managed to get this far without Barb's aid. And yet, already he was exhausted, too tired to lift a scrub brush. As a soft whistled tune echoed through the bathroom he called out, shame dancing on the words. "I... I guess I spoke too soon. Think you can scrub my back after all?"

And without a moment's hesitation the figure outside the shower walked over, the shadow forming behind his back far taller than Barb's own. It might have been a good warning if he had been watching, but with his eyes shut and face to the wall while an arm supported his weight he had no hint at all until suddenly, the shower curtain was pulled aside, and warmly smiling AJ offered him a nod. "It'd be my pleasure, Sugarcube!"

Shocked at the candid nature of the cowgirl as she approached his naked body in the shower, he scrambled for a towel to cover himself in some way. Yet before he could get even that far, her hand lightly touched his. "You ain't got nothing I've never seen before, Dusk. Now turn around and let me have the brush."

Darkly blushing he turned as she requested, glad he could at least use the weight of his tail's hair to give him some semblance of modesty. "You're early, Applejack, but um... thanks." As he spoke, she began take up the short handled back brush, starting with steady effort at his shoulders. Soon enough however he was quickly regretting those words, as the towering mare's method with the brush was far from tender. Leaning into her strokes, Applejack was like a mare possessed wielding an instrument of torture.

With a happy chuckle, she leaned in and said with embarrassing candor, "Oh, it's no problem. When Big Mac heard you were well enough for visitors, he an Apple Bloom got up early to get my portion of the day’s chores done for me." The cheery mare shifted to move back and hang the brush off the wall hook again, and a smaller tail brush was picked out, her weight moving to sit on the edge of the bath while her gaze lifted to watch him. "Barb wasn’t very specific about why the princess wanted you to start these little dates. Nothing's gone wrong, has it? You look like you're in much better shape." There was a pause before she suddenly slapped his ass, adding, "Though you could use a few good meals and some proper work to get you back in shape!"

Shocked by just how forward the earth mare was with him, Dusk had started to relax, the pain of her brushing technique pushed aside by how easily she treated the tangles in his tail. It wasn't until the slap landed and she started laughing, that he realized she was having fun with him in her way. A swift hand shut off the shower while his magic grabbed a towel and quickly wrapped it about his hips, he leveled a glare at her, though quickly enough her quiet happy mood infected his attempt to scowl. "You are a real piece of work, AJ. Next thing you know, you will have me down at the Orchard chopping wood just to keep active." He stepped from the shower, eyes attempting to remain level with her own, even as the titanic mare stood up once again, and stepped back.

Despite himself his eyes roamed a little, noting that she had gotten wet from the shower’s powerful spray, leaving her fine blond hair damp and sticking to her cheeks. Bead of water formed into a slow and steady drip that ran down over her strong jaw, and across her bare neck. Even her simple red and white dress shirt had gotten soaked, leaving it clinging to an ample chest that hung low and free without a bra to hold her flesh back. Blushing darker again, he lifted his eyes once more to her own, but she took the initiative, stepping in and wrapping a towel into his thick dark blue hair and ruffling it to help dry faster. This left his eyes inches from her throat, his breath a strangled panting. "Nah. Big Mac can handle the wood cutting. Little lad like you? You'd be better off helping me in the barn. It always needs patch work of some kind or another."

As she pulled away the towel on his hair, and stepped back to inspect him, the moment had passed. Suddenly she was just AJ again, in need of a dry towel or a new shirt herself, but no longer presenting him with a powerful attractive lure. Grinning, he nodded and took a step towards the pile of clothing she had brought in with her. "How about you step outside and let me maintain at least some of my dignity while I dress? I know you are not one to spread rumors and all that, but a gentleman does not need the Element of Honesty going around town telling other mares how he looks naked."

At last it seemed he had finally gotten her off-balance, her cheeks suddenly blushing as she offered a nod and moved to walk away, but her words came back to him as she hovered near the door, leveling serious gaze at him with something... exciting dancing in her eyes. "Now just because I'm honest doesn't mean I wouldn't happily be out there, bragging about just what you've got to show off, darlin’." She gave a playful wink before slipping outside and closing the door.

Alone at last, Dusk opened his towel, letting his gaze drop and inspect his manhood. A laugh escaped his lips and he shook his head. "I have no yardstick to compare it to, AJ... But I will stick with a 'Thanks' all the same." The warm laughter outside the bathroom door was the only answer he needed.

* * *

Standing before the bathroom mirror and combing out his hair, Dusk took a moment to inspect himself. He still felt weak, but his body was looking just fine. That toned layer of muscle which ran over his figure just as he remembered it seemed a little more defined than before thanks to the sudden weight drop. From the clothing Barb had given AJ to bring to him in the shower was a pair of simple, dark blue boxers. His cutie mark had been sewn into the bottom right corner on the backside. With one hand holding the bunched weight of his tail, he threaded it through the circle cut in fabric to let his hair hang free without getting caught on the clothing. Next, was his loose, black dress pants. The fabric was soft against his skin, and his tail again threaded through the backside to let it hang free, then hunted down his straight razor and shaving cream to apply to his jaw and chin.

Outside the bathroom, he could hear the soft sounds of cooking, and soon the smell of rich apple tarts started to fill the air with its fantastic aroma. When he had a moment, he took the effort to support the razor with his magic, opening the bathroom door and letting in the smell... along with Apple Bloom, who wore a bright grin. Still busy with his razor suspended by his magic, Dusk was miles into the mirror inspecting each stroke of the blade with care, humming softly to himself. It wasn't until he heard light giggles that his eyes dropping and he realized the thirteen year old filly was standing beside him, copying his odd facial expressions as he shaved, trying to make each cut as clean and deep as was safely possible.

Realizing she had gotten quite deep into her little act, the stallion made two more fast strokes of his cheeks, cleaning the rest of the cream off and giving a satisfied sigh. Blade rinsed with care in the sink and dried, he turned his eye to the filly. "If you don't hold your jaw just right, lots of extra hairs get stuck in corners you can't see until you wash it all off."

Jumping at getting caught copying him, she simply began to grin warmly and pointed to his razor. "Maybe next time you need a shave let me try? I'm sure I could get my cutie mark in shaving!" The short filly grinned up at him, arms crossing over her chest while she offered a broad grin. Dressed in simple blue jeans and a once-white t-shirt, she rocked from one heel to the other in beaming glee. "Or a haircut... and try for a cutie mark in being a barber!"

Pulling his shirt on, Dusk laughed as well and reached out to fluff the little filly's hair, stopped mostly by the presence of the ribbon in her hair. "It's a deal Apple Bloom! Now let's go see what Barb and AJ made up for breakfast!"

As the little filly took up his hand in her and started to march proudly out into the rest of Dusk's library, she looked up over her shoulder, her for warm and light. "So Mister Dusk Shine, now that you run the library, does that mean that our teacher, Miss Cheerilee won't have to take extra time away from classes to look after this place anymore?"

Offering a light shrug, Dusk gave her hand a squeeze while following her into his kitchen. "I suppose so. I should go visit her sometime though, to thank her for taking such good care of the library and its books when nopony could work here full time. Is she a good teacher?"

A grin spread across her face as she released his hand and ran the last few feet into the kitchen to grab a chair and pull it back for him. "She’s the best teacher you could hope for. Come on down and sit! Applejack’s made just about every one of the family's best breakfast treats!"

And boy, was the young filly right. Spread before him and covering the table was an assortment of fresh baked dishes. Baked apple streusel pancakes formed into bars; apple yogurt cake with a cinnamon-sugar frosting streaked across the top; rosemary apple turnovers glazed with honey; apple & cinnamon whole grain oatmeal; crispy turnovers stuffed with apple, bacon, and caramelized onions; quince with apple chunks; dried apple chips lightly sprinkled with cinnamon; apple cardamom upside-down cake and cinnamon buns with apple chunks. His stomach's demand for food turned into a sudden, loud roar. Dusk accepted the chair Apple Bloom offered to him, shocked when the little filly pushed the chair back in with him sitting on it without any real effort. "You are quite strong Apple Bloom, do you help out a lot at the farm?"

Applejack stepped back into the kitchen from around a corner, her tightly braided hair held with a simple leather thong while her stetson hat stood tall on her head. With a grin spreading over her lips, she cleared her throat and straightened the fabric of an apron she now wore over her normal clothing. Spattered with bits of batter and hints of apple cinnamon, it was clear why she had taken the time to toss it on. "She does a great job for so young a pony. Me and Big Mac are as proud as peacocks of how far she’s come in just the last year or two. Soon, she’ll be able to buck a tree like nopony's business."

Her praise wasn't lost on her little sister, who blushed and tried to fan off the embarrassment that was pouring forth from a very proud older sister. Besides, she had a valid reason to feel ashamed. "But I've done everything around the farm and I ain’t got my cutie mark yet!"

Dusk took this opportunity to comfort the little filly. "Do not worry, Bloom. Everypony gets their cutie mark when the time is right. Nothing can make a cutie mark appear before its time, but when it does... it can feel like the greatest moment of your life." As he spoke, Barb walked in and he wrapped an arm around her hips to hug her close. "I was lucky, I got mine very young, and ended up with a great friend and a Number One Assistant in Barb here!"

Things calmed down as everyone tucked in to the meal, with all agreeing that the dishes AJ had made with Barb's assistance were a true treat for the tongue and nose. Conversation over breakfast was light and easy, and soon enough, Barb left to escort Apple Bloom back to the farm with the leftovers for Big Mac and Granny Smith. Alone at last, Dusk and AJ moved into the library, each picking one of the deep cushioned chairs with soft red fabric and a lacquered wood frame.

His voice calmer now, Dusk began to flip through the folder on his lap, inspecting the pages and finding the one he had jotted down for AJ with the facts he had already known. His eyes met hers as he asked, "So, to make it all simple, Princess Celestia has asked me to collect more information about all of you, since as the Elements of Harmony, she and Princess Luna need to know everything they can about you. I already filled out a few basic things I knew already. You are twenty now, yes?"

Leaning forward, an eyebrow lifted and she nodded slowly. "Sounds simple enough, and important too. Yeah, I had my birthday back in late March. So I'm twenty now. What else?"

Soon, a swift and simple back and forth of basic info was swapped. "Pureblood Earth Pony?"

"Yes."

"Height?"

"6'4.""

There was a pause as he collected his willpower. "Weight?"

AJ let a brow twitch, while her other arched higher. "Pardon, Sugarcube? I don't think I heard you there." A darker hint of the threat in her glare got through to Dusk quickly enough and he moved to scribble at the page to fill in a few details he wasn't comfortable asking just yet.

"Right, thanks. So the more detailed things. I put you down as the lead hand at Granny Smith's orchard. Do you have any other jobs you do?” A bead of nervous sweat ran down his neck, in hopes she might let that previous question drop.

Letting the issue pass, AJ sat back again in her chair and offered a nod. "Yeah, I took over as lead hand about five years ago, after my parents passed away. It's been hard but with Big Mac's help and Granny Smith’s advice and know-how, we’ve kept things together and brought the orchard back to its full glory."

Dusk stopped and lifted his gaze to look to AJ his voice soft. "I'm sorry AJ. I did not mean to bring up any bad memories." When she waved him off, he took to nodding quietly. "Alright, lets continue. Your cutie mark?"

Here AJ spread her warm smile, and shifted to stand. "I think it’s easier to show you, than tell about that one, Dusk." With a few steps she closed the short distance between them and turned so her right side faced him, fingers slipping down to her belt and unclasping it with quiet care. The cutoff denim shorts were tiny and clung tight across her hips and over her ass. Fingers unclasping the buckle and drawing it down across those round hips allowed them to drop to the ground at her feet. A tiny, white thong clung across her ass and over her sex yet the proud mare didn't hesitate for a moment to draw her fingers across the curve of her ass revealing her cutie mark. Tattooed into her bare flesh were three bold red apples. She gently said. "After my parents death, Granny Smith sent me to live with some relatives in Manehattan, But when I got powerful homesick, I came back a few weeks later to see them once more, and when I realized how much family meant to me, and how much they needed my help, my cutie mark appeared." Her breathing was faster now, deeper too. A sudden soft look of pleasure spread over her cheeks even as she gave Dusk a show.

Writing quickly, Dusk could only nod as she spoke, though his eyes soon returned to gaze at those strong and shapely legs, which inevitably led to the curve of her ass. Letting his tongue draw slowly across his lips as he finished swift scribbling, he slowly placed his quill down at last. His eyes wandered up as he he leaned forward, and with one hand softly traced his fingers across the curve of AJ's cutie mark, whispering softly, "It is dedication to your family and duty to your home. I admire your strength of will, AJ." Lightly tracing the design, he realized the mare was whimpering at his touch. Something in the air was tickling at his nose, and made his blood begin to boil, roaring in his ears. Why was he being so forward? His fingers drifted across her hip...

As his fingers continued their dance over her curvy flank, she turned slowly and sat in his lap with her hands wrapping around his neck, while her eyes looked deeply to his. Breathing swiftly though half parted lips, she gazed deeply into his eyes. "You know Dusk... I gotta go back to the farm soon. Got lots of work I need to do." Hissing a moan between her barely parted lips as his finger traced across her ass, his hand shifted to stroke the blond hair of her tail. "But... I don’t mind if you've got a question or two left."

With her weight settled in his lap but mostly balanced on her knees on either side of his hips, she bit her lower lip as her hips ground against his groin. Attempting to take his mind off the suddenly flirty mare, Dusk let his fingers drop from her hip and tail and turn over the page on the book, his voice shaky as the aroused mare's unbound chest rested against his cheek. "Just... some confirmation on a few things... You have shown great strength; honestly I remember seeing you kick down a tree while we were in the Everfree Forest. Besides that, I can tell from today you are a great cook. Do you have any other skills or hobbies?"

And somehow that question was apparently just what she needed, as the mare swallowed once and reopened her eyes, realizing she had nearly mounted Dusk forcefully, and in a public place, no less. Drawing back and quickly pulling her denim shorts on once more, she blushed and turned away to avoid looking to him, her voice unsure and with shame coloring her words. "Well... me an’ Rainbow Dash love to compete every so often. And I’m always getting blue ribbons whenever we host a rodeo..." Turning to face him again, she suddenly shrank back a little after taking a deep breath which once more brought Dusk’s attention to her impressive bust. She turned and swiftly locked her gaze upon the door. "I... think I should go Dusk. I'm sorry, but somethin’s come up." And before Dusk had time to answer, the mare rushed out of the house, pulling her stetson low over her face to avoid meeting eyes with anyone who had passed her on her way out of town.

Struck by the sudden change in the mare, Dusk looked down and realized his pants had discolored where she had sat. He drew two of his fingers down across his lap and over the dress pants he was wearing. An even breath hissed free of his throat, moisture meeting his fingers and his eyes spread wide in realization. The cowgirl was leaking heavily, a sign she had slipped into her heat sometime recently. That explained why she had suddenly gone so soft and cuddly. A sigh escaped his lips. He’d have to go upstairs and change, the smell was already working its libidinous magic and tormenting his senses. He shivered as the pleasant warmth spread through his loins. "No wonder... poor mare... I hope she can find some relief."

Dusk quickly realized that his letter to Princess Celestia was incomplete. His gaze turned swiftly to look out the window to estimate the time of day. "It is still early... maybe nine. Lots of time before Pinkie should show. I had better finish this before I change." Working quickly over the page, he scribbled swiftly, filling out the rest of the details he had gotten too distracted to finalize. He paused for a moment to briefly scribble the last few lines before tidying up the letter and left it on his desk in the library in an outbox so Barb could send it off to The Princess.

As Dusk turned to start walking up the staircase, a rapid and cheerful knocking echoed upon the door, forcing him to pause. Dusk realized he had better answer the door first and make an excuse to go change before the smell got to him and started its secondary effects. Rapid steps carried him to the front door and upon opening it, he was hit in the face with a barrage of affection from the most energetic of his new-found friends. Pinkie was early and squeezed him tight in her warm hug. "I... err.. Good morning, Pinkie."

Rubbing her cheek affectionately across his chest, the cheery party pony flashed him her warmest of grins while her arms slipped up and around his shoulders to rest her head on his chest, her voice a swift waterfall of words that poured forth. "HI DUSK! How was your visit with Applejack? Was her breakfast as super-fantast-alicous as always? Are you feeling much better? And why are you blushing so much?"

Absorbed in the warm and plush weight that pressed into his body, Dusk swallowed sharply and turned his head up to offer her a grin. "Not so fast Pinkie, you're going so quickly and I can hardly keep up!" Gently lifting his arms up to peel her arms free of his neck and push them together between his body and her own. "I... err, yes, breakfast was great, Pinkie. And AJ and I had a great talk." He swallowed sharply, his eyes on hers as he tried to catch up with her swift chatter of words.

Before he could manage, the effort of sorting out the stream of thoughts with which she had inundated him was suddenly interrupted as she peeled from his grip and dropped to her knees, bright eyes having already picked out the discoloration in his pants. Instantly leaning in close so she could properly inspect the wet patch on his pants, a long slow lick of her tongue dragging across it and indirectly his groin beneath the cloth. Eyes wide, she stood up swiftly and grappled Dusk once more by the shoulders, her voice rapid and excited as well. "Dusk! Did you know that AJ was in heat? You didn't tease her too badly did you? You better not have been too mean to her; she isn't good dealing with guys and you shouldn't be so mean to her!"

Shocked by the sudden attention that Pinkie had given to his loins with that strange sudden lick, Dusk was frozen in place as she stood up and gripped him by the shoulders and locked his gaze with her own. "I ... err.. Pinkie... No I didn't torment her, she was polite until she ... um... until she realized what was happening and ran away."

A sigh escaped Pinkie as she released him, and turned to look out the door, searching for a minute before turning back and closing the door at her back. "Alrighteo, Dusk. Then until AJ says otherwise I will take your word for it and trust you didn't pick on her." A single finger jabbed him in the chest before she pointed across to the library’s main hall as he let her hands push him back to the Library hall. "Now time is short. I have our lunch order all setup for delivery in about two hours, and you know as well as I do that Fluttershy will use any excuse or delay to avoid having to come. She got SOOO nervous when Barb said this was a date!"

* * *

As Pinkie forced Dusk back to the main hall of the Library with a forceful grip, she pushed him to sit once more in the heavy, red cushioned chair. "Okay Dusky, we need to get started. I'll get a wet cloth and help you clean those pants, you start asking questions!"

Deciding to just accept her help at this point, Dusk moved swiftly to sort through the piled papers in the folder sitting on the table at his side. Sorting through them rapidly, he found the paper he had started for Pinkie Pie. His voice was still a little shaken at the odd situation that had so swiftly complicated his otherwise rather simple life. "Okay Pinkie. If you think this is the best answer, I will go with it. First, just how tall are you? And what is your weight?"

From the kitchen he could hear her pull out a rag and soak it in the sink. She bounced back into the room, the grin on her face as she kneeled at his feet and began drawing the rough fabric over the wet spot in his pants left behind by Applejack. The steady stroke of the rag across his groin was the oddest mix of enjoyable and distracting-as-all-hell, leaving him to struggle to get his mind back in order. "Oh I'm five foot ten and one thirty eighth, and one hundred and sixty eight pounds of FUN!!!" There was a pause as she continued to stroke the cloth around pulling it away and sniffing the air deeply several times. "Hmm... I think it's better. Did you need help filling out those kind of details for the other girls? I know that AJ is embarrassed about her weight. And I bet you didn't have the courage to ask her how big she was!"

Dusk blushed at her candidness, swallowing sharply even as his lips formed the words he hadn't realized were so suddenly on his lips. "Well, how big are you? How big is she?" He suddenly realized he had asked that, while her fingers drifted free of the thick bulge in his pants.

Her answer however, was just as suddenly serious and warm, while her weight shifted up and she rested her elbows on his knees, her low cut top allowing her breasts pop free and fully reveal their curves. Drawing a breath, she let him have a full view of her ample breasts. "You can guess if you want, but I wear a 38 F cup, and AJ is a 44 E and she weighs one hundred ninety six pounds." Dusk's eyes grew wide as he closely watched the display put forward by his friend, never for a moment shy about the fact she had so casually put her breasts on display.

Dusk's gaze grew more intense as he realized he was being allowed to study the heavy, exposed breasts now revealed in his lap. Tanned flesh on bold display, the smooth skin was lightly freckled in such a way as to make him want to connect the dots. Small areola circles surrounded the pert tips of brown nipples, the hard flesh semi erect. He noticed that one had been pierced with a cute three balloon cluster. "You are... very open with information... If I... cannot manage to ask the others a question do you think... I can ask you for confirmation?"

Laughing and rolling back to free up her hands and pop the shirt back over her breasts once more Pinkie offered a shrug. "It's no problem at all for me to try and offer you that kind of help Dusk! Now come on, we don't have much time left. What's next? Cutie mark?"

To his credit, Dusk only felt a little sense of loss as the exciting sight she had put on display for him disappeared once more behind the veil of cloth. At last relaxing a little himself, he leaned back, breathing a slow hissing sigh. "Yeah, some stuff about your work, if you have any scars, that kind of thing."

The door slamming, dusk Realized that Barb was home before her voice called out, making him suddenly thankful now that Pinkie had put her breasts away and sat tall once more. "Dusk! I'm back. has Pinkie shown up yet?"

Pinkie was the faster of them to answer, standing up swiftly and turning her back to him to shift her shorts a little lower and put her cutie mark on full display, even while speaking out with joy. "I'm here, Barbypoo!" The full display of her cutie mark was presented just above the curve of her ass, three balloons, one yellow while the other two were blue.

As Barb entered the room, Dusk lightly started to stroke his fingers across Pinkie's ass, just above her cutie mark. "Hello, Barb. I've finished AJ's report and wanted to send it to The Princess right away, in case she had any questions before I finished with Pinkie and we had to go get Fluttershy for lunch. Think you can send it?"

Wide-eyed, Barb glanced at Dusk's inspection of Pinkie's backside, before shifting her gaze back once more to give him a very dark and serious glare. "You're silly. When does Princess Celestia ever question your attention to detail you lecherous fool!"

Pinkie snorted at the words and rushed over to hug Barb tightly. "Don't worry, Barbypoo. If anyone's the lecher here, it's me!" She took a second to deeply kiss the smaller girl, holding her close and stroking her jaw softly.

Suddenly reminded about his sense of shock earlier in the day, Dusk laughed and shook his head. "Pinkie don't tease her, she doesn't know you're just joking."

The kiss ended, and Pinkie moved to step back from the now truly-befuddled little dragoness, softly stroking her cheek before letting go and stepping away. "I'm sorry Barb, you're just too cute when you're lecturing Dusk for being bad." Laughing gently, she hugged the dragon and pushed her to the desk where his letter sat. "Now send Dusk's note so he can finish mine!"

Still shocked and a little overwhelmed, the dragon began to wander wide-eyed over to the desk and with a burst of green flame, sent the note off in a trail of green smoke that sailed from the window, swiftly delivering the letter to the Princess. As the two ponies talked, she tried to process all the mixed and conflicting emotions that ran through her mind. Suddenly, a heavy sensation of weight built up inside her throat, and a harsh burp ripped the magic from the depths of her throat as a burst of fire was released suddenly. "Err... Dusk... I guess you were right."

Their discussion interrupted, Dusk step swiftly over to take the letter up, reading it swiftly with wide eyes inspecting the page, but that only took a second, as the letter was short. His shoulders slumped and he released a sigh from his throat as he shook his head slowly. "She wants me to go see Redheart again. She wants a reference to some specialist to get my head examined again. And she wants me to keep asking extremely personal questions of the other girls. I'll try, but Pinkie... I might need your help again after all."

Laughing and nodding as she jotted notes on the paper Dusk had been writing about her, Pinkie looked up and grinned. "Okie dokie lokie! It'll be my pleasure! But I think you should send this letter. It's done now and I'm sure the princess appreciates getting the letter so quickly. Plus, I gotta go get our lunch and Fluttershy."

Folding up Celestia's letter, he wandered over and started to scan the letter about Pinkie, at last nodding once and scribbling a few last notes at the bottom of the page. "I think you are right. This should go over well, Pinkie. Thanks for your hard work." He paused as he rolled the letter up, handing it to Barb. "I think we are as ready as we can be for Fluttershy."

The trio nodded, for once the same line of thought came to all three at the same time. Barb was the one who spoke up first after the new letter was sent off. "So it’s a casual lunch, not a date, and not a strip club visit." She leveled a glare at Pinkie, who appeared to not notice the dragon's evil eye.

Interlude 3 - Private Conversations - Part 3

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Twenty minutes passed as Dusk sat writing quietly in details for Fluttershy on the page he had set aside for her. Alone now, as Barb was setting up the kitchen for a simple lunch, his eyes remained locked on the page. "So much of this was so easy to fill out, yet... it is just... Why does she have to know such personal details? It is just gonna drive Fluttershy into hiding." He hissed out a low breath and shook his head, squeezing his nose in hopes of driving away a headache that was pouring forth.

A sudden, rapid knock on the door stole his attention from the page. Turning his head to glance out the picture window, he saw a young filly he had not seen before standing by the door. She was a pegasus with bright orange wings, and her cerise hair was cut short, leaving long bangs half over her eyes. She wore a small black t-shirt and long jean shorts. He guessed she must be thirteen or so, likely also in Apple Bloom’s class if he was one to judge. Standing and crossing over to the front door, he moved to pull it open, only to have Pinkie Pie ambush him and wrap him in a hug. "Dusk! Sorry but I had to show the new girl where you're located. This is Scootaloo, she will bring in the food while I go get Fluttershy!" She paused, turning to the filly. "See Scootaloo? He is just as super amazing awesome as Rainbow Dash!"

Dusk was shocked at the sudden weight around his neck as Pinkie planted two or three light kisses on his cheek before suddenly peeling away. Nodding to the young Scootaloo, Pinkie was off and running across town, yet somehow appeared to be simply skipping. Still shocked by all this, it wasn't until the young voice spoke out before him that Dusk shifted his gaze again. "So you're the new unicorn stallion in town? Why did the girls at school make such a big deal about you?"

Shocked at the first person in a long time besides Barb to give him real attitude, a broad grin spread from ear to ear. "The kitchen is the door straight ahead; Barb is my assistant. She can help you carry in the packages."

With her ear-to-ear grin, the lass turned and picked up the first package and ran down the hall, her voice thrown over her shoulder "Well at least you got some balls! Most ponies around here besides Rainbow Dash are such spineless cowards."

Dusk himself turned to follow along, opening the door for her and looking for Barb. "Barb! Food’s here!" He paused as he turned to grin at the young filly. "You know Rainbow Dash? Impressive for such a young smartass. I'd figure a prime athlete like her wouldn't spend too much time around the younger generation except when tryouts for the young flyers started up. You some proud sport star in the making, yourself?"

Dusk's words apparently hit a sore spot, and the little filly turned to level her glare away at a wall. "I'm a great runner, thank you very much."

Swiftly realizing he had hit a sensitive issue, Dusk was relieved when Barb stepped through the kitchen door and thrust a paper into his hands. "Here, Dusk. Princess Luna sent you a letter." At Dusk's slack-jawed gaze, she pushed it into his hands. "I'll help with the food. You go deal with the letter."

Grabbing the letter and nodding heavily to Barb, he shifted to turn eyes on the glaring filly. "I can't wait to see just how good a runner you are, Scootaloo. It's always great to see someone with some balls." Tipping his head to the little filly, he slipped from the room and back into the library swiftly to read the letter. Realization dawned as he started to softly mumble, "Princess Luna... what is with your fascination with Nurse Redheart?" Serious realization spreading at the request, he had to take a moment to sit and quickly jot notes down on a fresh page. Working quickly to fill out this extra letter for Princess Luna, he grinned at how easy most of it was to finish.

While he was sorting through a copy of the Ponyville’s city records for details to finalize a few details on which he was fuzzy, a throat was cleared behind him. Turning and putting the book down, he realized that Scootaloo had joined him in the library, glaring up at him from only a few feet away. As soon as he turned, she said, "So. You know Rainbow Dash too? She is a real star for us pegasi here in town."

Grinning a little, Dusk turned to shut the register and faced her, one leg crossing over the other. "I'm sure she is. She was the only one who held up for even a minute or two in the fight against Nightmare Moon, and she did that without the armor most of the guards wear for protection."

Growing excited by his words, the little mare leaned forward grinning as she clenched hands into fists, obviously delighted at the prospect of talking about Dash. "I know, right! I was hiding behind one of the collapsed pillars the whole time. It was so cool to see Dash hit her when even your magic failed to make a dent in her armor! I'm the head of her fan club you know!"

Dusk laughed, an eyebrow raised as the gruff lass suddenly turned into your normal little girl with the simple shift of conversation to a topic she enjoyed. "That's true. But remember, as cool as Dash is, she was only able to keep that up because she practices so hard for her application to the Wonderbolt Candidate School when she turns eighteen. You should try asking her to help you train, too. I'm sure she just might be happy to help you excel with your running."

As happy as the filly had been, she dropped her head and bit down on her lower lip. One foot lifted and began wiggling against the ground in a clearly embarrassed nervous tick that tipped Dusk off to just how much the girl must really admire Dash... or maybe it was something more. "Nah. She’s way too busy to help me. Besides, she is way more into flying." Her shoulders drooped and those orange wings pulled in tighter to her back. Then a bright smile spread over her lips and she rushed forward grabbing him by the shirt with both hands, eyes wide with delight. "Dusk! You're really good with magic. Do you think you could find a spell to make me a better flier?"

Shocked at the girl’s sudden candor, Dusk quickly moved in close and placed his hands on her shoulders, and took a real moment to look at her wings. They were small for a teen, fragile and thin too. For a moment his heart ached, realizing she must have more than a few reasons to admire Dash. Squeezing her shoulders gently he offered her a nod. "I tell you what. I'll look for one, but only if you let me get a friend from Canterlot come visit you. She is a great flyer too and might be able to help in ways even I can't."

Overjoyed by this, the little filly quickly leaned up and kissed Dusk warmly on the cheek, peeling free of his arms and dancing a little jig around the library. Reaching into his pocket, Dusk fiddled with the strings of his coin purse, a golden twenty-five bit piece displayed prominently in his hand. Clearing his throat, he called to the girl again, "Here Scoots. A tip for your hard work today. Better get back to Sugarcube Corner though, before they think you've run off or we kidnapped you." The mare was only too fast to take the money, shoving it into her pocket and dashing off out the door. Swallowing a lump in his throat, Dusk turned, and violently snapped his quill up in the quill, the feather straining and nearly snapping from the nearly unsuppressed pain he felt in his heart as he shifted, once more trying to take up his quill to write to yet another princess. Softly mumbling to himself as he wrote, a single tear dragged down his cheek. "Dear Princess Cadance..."

* * *

Dusk asked Barb to send that letter as soon as Scootaloo left, his heart still heavy with worry for the young filly. Now he sat in the kitchen, watching as Barb crushed a small box of jewels that Pinkie had brought along with the food, humming delightedly to herself. Hoping to lift his spirits, he poked her with a little comment. "So based on your sense of taste... you would call the addition of gems to food... like we consider putting sprinkles on top? Because I think you have far too much junk food in that bowl."

Barb simply laughed and leveled a grin at him, sticking her tongue out and licking the spoon clean. "No. It's like pepper. It adds the the flavor, it’s not junk food, Dusk! We’ve gone over this a dozen times." A knock at the door broke up the old argument. Just because Princess Celestia presented him with a staggering stipend, didn't mean he wished the little dragon to gorge herself on sweet treats, but for today, he just let it go. Walking to the front door, he opened it, this time taking a swift step back, expecting exactly what was about to happen.

Pinkie launched herself forward, a warm hug spoiled by Dusk's forethought and causing her to stagger a few steps until his hand on her shoulder stopped her from falling face first to the ground. "Aww! Dusk! I wanted to give you a kiss hello." With a pout, she stood up again and crossed arms over her chest in false annoyance.

Grinning and patting her on the shoulder, Dusk was simply happy to laugh in return, shaking his head. "No, you don't need to give a kiss hello every time you come by, Pinkie. Keep that up and people will think you want me to form a herd." He paused as he looked at her, wondering.

The soft titter of laughter from the door caught Dusk's attention, and the presence of Fluttershy soon had his full gaze. She had been laughing at Pinkie's antics and thus was already calmed down from her normal nervous state. Dressed in what Dusk guessed Pinkie had insisted on her wearing, she modeled a yellow sundress that made a fine contrast to her soft pink hair, yet matched her wing feathers fantastically. Clearly Rarity's craftsmanship, it was tight against her enormous chest, yet had nearly no cleavage on display, thanks to the presence of a blue shirt she wore underneath with a far more modest collar than the dress itself. With matching blue heels on her feet, she stepped easily into the library, her voice bright, but soft. "Poor Pinkie. He saw you coming a mile away."

With a grin crossing his lips, Dusk shifted to offer a hand out to the shy mare. His eyes took in the silky white gloves she wore that completed the ensemble. "It is a pleasure to have you visit for lunch, Fluttershy. Please, let's go to the kitchen, Sugarcube Corner made up a fine lunch and it would be a shame for it to go to waste."

Accepting his hand the older mare squeezed his fingers in her for a moment, a low whimper escaping as she began to gently nod. "Okay, Dusk... but just for a while. I really should get back to the animals. I left Angel in charge, and he is a very ... um.." blushing darkly the mare clearly didn't wish to say anything bad about her young assistant.

Pinkie came to the rescue, wrapping her arms around Fluttershy and hugging her tight. "He’s just spoiled ‘cause you're so nice to him. Don't worry; an hour or two for lunch and conversation, then you can rush home and make sure everything is alright. Aunty Pinkie will even come along and help!"

Overwhelmed by the kind attention, but annoyed at Pinkie's words, she swallowed hard to clear her throat, giving the younger mare a glare. "But I'm older than you..." This statement was ignored as she was escorted to the kitchen, and lunch started.

* * *

Lunch went well enough for Dusk. The first few questions passed back and forth casually, while Dusk filled out the easier things. Sitting back as Barb cleared the plates, Dusk let his gaze return to the attractive figure of the shy mare. "So Fluttershy, running the clinic was your idea of a part-time job while you were in school? A surprisingly kind effort for one so young."

Blushing a little, Fluttershy sat forward and smiled as she gave her nod. Her voice was high and clear, while softly gushing with joy as she got carried away with her words. "Oh yes! It was such a joy to find out the vet in town back then was looking for help! And she had so many poor little animals that needed to be cared for. It was my pleasure to take up the slack. When Autumn Darling retired just before I graduated from school, it was really scary, but I was able to convert the little cottage my parents had built for me here in town. Just six months ago, I was able to buy it off them, and now it’s my little home!" A low giggle escaped her throat, fingers clutching together as she lightly bit her thumbs. "It's so nice that Princess Celestia wanted to know so much about all this."

Dusk responded with a chuckle and nodded at her words. His eyes roamed the page of notes, quickly realizing there was really only one thing still missing. With a sharp swallow and slow shake of his head, he released his breath in a low hiss from his throat. It was time. An eye on Pinkie as she helped Barb clean up the dishes, he said softly, "Princess Celestia wanted just a few more small details answered, Fluttershy. Mostly about your health and well-being." When she nodded, his eyes remained locked on hers this time, instead of the paper. "I got most of these stats from Nurse Redheart from your last physical, but just to check, she said you were five-foot nine... two hundred and ten pounds, and were currently wearing a 48GG?"

Instantly, the low meep escaped Fluttershy, her head dipping forward and mane falling heavily across her eyes to shield her face from view, though her dark blush had been very visible to interested eyes before the shift. Pinkie passed her plate to Barb and swiftly moved to Fluttershy's back, her fingers rubbing across the pegasus' shoulders. Leaning in close, she whispered something to the older mare, her voice too low for Dusk to hear. Taking a deep breath, Fluttershy attempted to speak up, but her low mumble was nearly impossible to discern. "Too large". Soft weeping could barely be discerned before her head dipped once more.

Knowing things were not going to go anywhere but downhill from here, Dusk tried to swallow back his concerns for her, and spoke softly, his eyes lifting to look deep into her gaze. His voice low, he replied, "Very well. Just one more question Fluttershy. Your cutie mark, it is three butterflies on your neck right? Can I see it to confirm it exactly?"

Again the low whispered meep whisper free, but this time she swallowed, and shifted to wipe at her eyes. Her head began lifting at Pinkie's continued soft whispers, while her fingers’ soft touch began drawing up the weight of her hair, voice lifting a little to speak again. "S... Sure Dusk.. Here you go."

With a smile spreading across her lips, Pinkie offered her a grin and kissed Fluttershy on the cheek. "You're so brave Fluttershy! Keep up the great work!"

Dusk moved to swiftly continue scribbling at the soft conversation between the two mares before setting down his pen and nodding. "All done. I will get Barb to send this letter off to Princess Celestia, right away. Thanks, Fluttershy. This was a great lunch."

Pinkie managed to suddenly ruin all their progress with the poor mare. "Yeah! Dusk's right. This was your best date with a stallion ever, Fluttershy!" Of course the reaction from Fluttershy was exactly what Dusk had feared after Barb's story of her first reaction to the idea. The mare twisted to look up, wide-eyed at Pinkie's dumb grin, lightly whimpering as she moved away from the group, heading for the door.

To Dusk's shock that it was him that beat her to the door. His hand rested lightly on her shoulder. His soft touch gripped her trailing hand, while he spoke swiftly to prevent the mare from getting away before he said anything. Yet no words came to mind as he gazed into her eyes and his grip on her soft hand felt wrong. As the pegasus looked back and into his eyes, a smile slowly crossed her lips, and she quickly moved to step back into the kitchen. Swallowing sharply and taking up both of Dusk's hands, she looked him in the eye, speaking in a kind tone. "Thank you, Dusk. You were a good date."

Shocked into silence, Pinkie's jaw hit the floor while Dusk could only nod a little. His fingers squeezed her in return, suddenly relaxing at the feeling of their softly linked grip. In the whispered moment as he locked eyes with the mare, a smile slowly spread across his lips. Nodding gently, he attempted to speak with calm care. "You were too, Fluttershy. Maybe in a few weeks, if you feel up to it, we can have another." She blushed, but nodded gently in return.

* * *

It was late. Dash was late. Nearly three in the afternoon by Dusk's guess. He had released Barb; letting her go do some general shopping while he waited for some sign of the wayward pegasus. Notes were piled up on the desk before him. Dusk spent his time quietly sorting through them, lost in his musings. Muttering darkly, he once again shifted to look up, glaring out the window. Still no sign of the town's head weather pony.

With a grunt, Dusk stood and wandered out of the library, to the front door. Shifting the catch open and stepping though, he turned slowly, all the while looking high into the air. A half dozen of the town’s other fliers were in the sky, doing their usual work to keep the air clear of unscheduled weather. Releasing a grunt, Dusk shook his head. "Really Dash? You're over an hour late. Still, at least you got your ponies on duty." A sigh escaped his lips, and as he turned to walk back inside a sudden burst of swift air shot past him. Dash landed at his door and crossed her arms over her chest. "What th- Damn it, Dash. You're late, you know."

While Dusk lifted a hand to smooth down his face under the stress of another mounting migraine, his gaze beheld once more the smooth, svelte curves on the athletic woman. Again, that nervous tick forced itself in and took over, forcing fingers to lift once more to squeeze down at the bridge of his nose, while his lower lip was drawn back between his teeth, raking it between them.

Taking six swift steps forward and putting hands on Dusk's cheeks, she leaned in to look into his eyes, Dash slowly began to tilt her head a little to the right, her voice slightly worried. "Dusk? You OK man? Should I go grab Redheart?" The soft touch of her hand distracted Dusk for a moment, causing his head to lift and his eyes to reopen.

With a voice low and slightly sharp, he responded with a quiet grunt from his slight annoyance. "No Dash. I don't need a medic. But we had a schedule, and you're late." He paused and swallowed sharply, while a hand lifted to smooth his face again, even as he tried to keep calm despite his OCD going into overdrive. He at last took in Dash's appearance, which only deepened his annoyance. She was dressed in ultra short spandex exercise shorts and a matching, tiny sports bra; it was clear as day to him she had been sleeping in it. This was made even more abundantly clear by the way her hair's heavy bangs were flat across her face and over her eyes. "You just woke up, didn't you?"

Now it was Dash's turn to go on the defensive. Stepping back and crossing her arms over her chest she gave a little snort, and lifted her gaze to glare back at him. Her voice sounded annoyed as she replied, "Look, I was busy practicing for the Wonderbolts all day, and wanted to get an hour nap while I was waiting for Pinkie and Fluttershy to leave. I must have fallen asleep for longer than I thought." Turning her back and giving a huff she strutted to the door and jabbed a finger towards it, while looking over her shoulder back at him. "Now, are we doing this paperwork egghead, or not?"

Dusk gave a grunt, but turned and followed her inside his Library, his head aching and a deep need to get this over with before one of them said something to piss the other off.

Inside the library once more, Dusk walked with annoyance to his desk where he sat, sorting Dash's pages before turning to face the mare’s... bare ass. While he had been getting settled, she had stripped off her shorts and panties, leaving her bare ass on full display for him, while her long, muscled legs flexed. She stretched out her back, reaching her arms high over her head and hissed out a low sigh. Stuttering, Dusk asked, "Dash... Why'd you..."

The answer came quickly enough as she looked over her shoulder and offered him a smirk. "I was gonna use some excuse about showing you my cutie mark properly since it’s over my hip and normally half-covered by my shorts, but the truth? I was talking to AJ this morning, and she smells great today." She arched an eyebrow, waiting to see if Dusk got her meaning.

Eyes still wide, he had to sharply swallow. "So you came to tease me since you know AJ's... smell." He left the words about her heat cycle unsaid for the moment. "Your cutie mark is fantastic, as bold as your personality... and your sense of propriety."

Snorting, Dash shifted into an easy strut across the short distance between them and hopped into his lap, facing away and pressing her bare flank down into his groin, her hands gripping his knees and grinding her firm ass back against his groin. Now her gaze leveled at him and she spoke with a quiet pleasure that was barely suppressed. "I want to help you get past the smell I'm sure is still stuck in your nose, you bookworm. Or are you too busy with your writing to realize the effects a mare's heat has on your body? You're already rock hard... or is that my fault?"

Dusk knew she wasn't lying, and the pressure of her firm ass against his groin and the slow and steady grinding of flesh made his breath catch sharply. One hand raked over Dash's ribs while the other slipped across and began to draw up, across the mare's chest, cupping one of her breasts, until his hand was slapped sharply, and put firmly back on the hand-rest at his side. "Wha? Why?"

Dash found her grin again and shook her head, one finger lifting to twitch before his eyes. "Because I'm not some mare for your herd, Dusk. And besides, I'm a minor, you'd get in so much trouble if I told on you." The wolfish grin in her eyes made Dusk question her intent on that fact, but she was right, as she was only seventeen he was pushing the law, if only a little. That said, as far as the law was concerned, it wasn’t that abnormal for a stallion and a mare only three or four years apart to be lovers. Grunting sharply he took a moment to shake his head to clear those thoughts, his attention drawn back to the mare in his lap.

Cautious about the new rules from the younger mare, Dusk managed only to swallow sharply and level his gaze on the paper. "Alright. Then, let me go down the lis..." a hiss and low groan of pleasure escaped as he attempted to restrain himself and keep his mind off his cock and the thrusting pleasure that was now grinding several inches into Dash's ass-cheeks. "List. I got your cutie mark done. And your height is simple enough, about an inch shorter than me. How big are your breasts?" The glare she leveled him at that question was deep and fierce, but he attempted to wave it off by pointing to the page he was writing on. "Seriously. Princess Celestia demanded I ask. You should ha.... have seen Fluttershy's reaction."

Grunting at her pleasure, Dash simply had to pause and swallow sharply herself, her lower lip pulled into her mouth and she bit down sharply at the trapped flesh while it shifted into a low smile. "She is way too shy about her fantastic breasts. It's a real damn shame to tell the truth." There was a grunt and shudder as she hissed her next moan out of her clenched jaw. "Mummmphhhh. I'm a 32 B."

Shuddering a little, Dusk let his hands lift and drew his fingers to rake his nails across the fabric of the chair's arm, the pleasure of her weight and tight ass grinding into his hard shaft driving him to his limits. "Dea... Dear Celestia... Dash. I am going to cum. Please... stop it..."

Laughing at his reaction, the mare took a moment to pause while biting her lower lip, before hissing sharply. "Dammit... fine!" With a grunt, she drew her hips forward and let a hand slip behind her, drawing the zipper down on his pants and slipping her palm into his boxers. Her fingers working with unpracticed fumbling, she drew a breath and tried to swallow quietly. "I... err... Celestia damn it." Blushing, she stood up and knelt between his knees, using both hands to lift the hem of his pants, his cock popping from them and suddenly slapping her in the face with its hot flesh and broad tip. Swallowing sharply and slitting her eyes, she glared up at him. "You... I've... that is..."

Realization dawned on Dusk, and he struggled to swallow deeply. "You do not have to Dash. I have never been with a mare. You do not..."

The sound of the library’s front door being kicked open got both of their attention. Barb’s coming home stole the moment from them. Suddenly, they were in a whirl of swift action, as Dusk shoved himself once more into his pants, while he nervously glanced at the door. Dash had bolted behind the desk, and was busy trying to pull on her panties and shorts. From the door, Barb‘s voice called out as she stumbled through the house. "Dusk! Dash! I'm back! You done with the letter for Princess Celestia?"

Interlude 3 - Private Conversations - Part 4

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After Dash had slipped out, Dusk tried in vain to get away from Barb's pressing questions on why he had ran off to change so quickly. Now nearing seven in the evening and so very tired of this day, Dusk had settled into his chair behind his desk in the library. Dusk took a moment to consider the outfit he had put together, stroking his fingers across the silk of the deep blue suit jacket. Princess Celestia had given him it a gift for some function she ordered him to attend last year. For a moment, Dusk let his fingers linger on the emblem of his cutie mark on the left breast, pausing to admire the twin stripes that matched the streak in his hair running vertically on the right side. "Rarity, will this be good enough for you?" The matching pants were clean and made a great replacement after the stressful day he had already gone through with the other pair, with matching dual streaks continuing the line from waist to ankle in line with the jacket's dual lines. Black dress shoes polished to a mirror shine finished it off, while a light purple silk dress shirt lay under the jacket's double breasted fold.

Tired as he was of the way this day had gone, Dusk allowed his chair to tilt back three tiny clicks, leaving his feet just slightly off the ground as his eyes began to droop low and his breathing fell off. In seconds, the young stallion was asleep once more, his mind slipping away from the waking world while his right hand lay on the armrest, a glass of water lightly held in his fingers.

* * *

“It is .. early summer?Dusk realized he stood in the middle of Canterlot University's magicball court, the outdoor field set up so unicorns could compete while a shield spell, a recent addition thanks to Shining Armor's recent student thesis on the use of such spells to prevent accidents happening to those who watched such games. Dusk was running so hard, his lungs burned with the effort of keeping up so aggressive a pace. High overhead, many of the competing unicorn’s four balls floated, the one suspended the highest, a tiny brilliant pink ball had been crafted specifically for this game, ensorcelled to resist magic gripping it, instead forcing the unicorns to cup it and dance around opponents’ spells to avoid them stealing it with a simple slap.

Dusk supported that tiny ball now, and was already more than halfway across the field. The eight point ball was so hard to grip most didn't even bother to try to hold onto it; instead simply slapping at it to drive whoever had it back to their end. Breaking past another point guard who had managed to erect a wall spell in his way through raw force, Dusk bolted into the open field. He was so close now, there was only the goalie left before him now, and as harshly as his breath panted in this moment of stress, Dusk knew he had enough strength to get past any trick he might pull.

Then, everything froze. Luna placed a hand on his shoulder. This time, he couldn't even move as she softly traced a line across his tense back and pointed across the field to... Sunset Shimmer. Every inch the public image of a devoted marefriend, she was screaming at the top of her lungs while she cheered him on. "Today is important Dusk. You remember it quite well. You were the hero for one day. The champion of Star Swirl U, and the center of attention. And she was there."

Unable to move, his eyes shifted a little to roll around and look to the figure she had picked out to him. Sunset Shimmer, exactly as he remembered. A tall mare, around six feet in height and pressed hard up against the shield spell and pounding on it with both hands. Balled fists were bashing on the surface of the spell while she screamed at the top of her lungs to cheer him on. Her wild and vividly crimson hair was long, falling heavily on her shoulders, with yellow streaks offsetting the darker hue. Her horn glowed with an amber light. She was one of the unicorns picked out to help sustain the shield spell to protect those in the bleachers that watched.

And as he took her in, everything slammed back into motion again. His swift stride returned as he bolted across the field, and smashed the eight point ball past the goalie, throwing it hard into the net, the resounding echo of an announcer screaming out his victory. Before he could take three more steps the bell alarm rang out, ending the game with Star Swirl U up 38 to 34 over Canterlot U. The shield spell dropping, an excited crowd rushed onto the field and soon he was swept up and carried off by adoring fans, with Sunset planting a kiss on his lips.

* * *

Dusk's weight leaned slightly to the right, fingers still clutching at the glass, while a long, low breath was drawn... the weight of glass and angle of his chair began to drag at his hand, to pull it... then with a sudden twitch of a muscle in his sleep and his wrist rolled, breaking the final straw. His arm fell from the armrest, the glass of water he had been holding was lost from his grip and allowed to fall free of his fingers.

* * *

Two hours later found Dusk arm in arm with Sunset Shimmer. He waved to the Princess and all those who followed after her as they left the stadium. With his free hand lifted up to unlock the observatory’s door, and the hand upon the small of Sunset's back gripping gently on her far hip, he stepped inside, letting the door slip shut in silence behind him.

The observatory was silent. Barb was out for the night, on some duty the Princess had requested of her, if he remembered right. Releasing Sunset and turning to face her, Dusk let his gaze met hers. "It has been a great day, Shimmer." His pulse still throbbed so strongly, even while he swallowed a breath.

Shimmer's reaction was to give a grunt and step away, her voice sultry. "And you did very well for once, Dusk. See, just like I told you, once you stop pussyfooting around the norms, someone of your skill can really excel and be the proper star you were always meant to be." She said, her arms crossing over her chest as she leveled her glare on the wall just over his shoulder as if looking through him. She snorted lightly. "If you'd just done as I told you at the start of the season, you'd have been the star of the year, not just one last game."

Dusk's breath grew sharp and his eyes wide as he looked up into her own. A hand lifted to squeeze down on the bridge of his nose while a pained groan turned into an unrestrained rant of frustration, a powerful migraine forming at her words. "I just... Damn it Sunset. We were having a good day, why do you have to keep bringing this kind of stuff up? I do not want to be some silly sports star. Leave that for the egomaniacs like Blueblood! You saw him today. Seven damn goals with the two point ball. That's not strategy, that is just showboating to say he got the most goals, like he did to his aunt the second he got her attention. The fact he was the second star of the game drove him nuts." Throwing his arms into the air, Dusk turned away from her, his disgust coming forth, thick with bile.

Shimmer's attitude changed almost immediately, her arms wrapping around his shoulders as one hand slipped under his shirt. Her flat palm stroked his still sweaty chest and across the toned muscle of his abs. Her lips were on his right ear, biting down and giving a small tug, a purr whispering forth with quiet desire. "Oh, don't be like that, Dusk." She gave a sharp tug to the lobe’s flesh, before her tongue danced slowly up and across the curve of his ear. "We both know Blueblood couldn't hold a five point ball to save his life, let alone the eight. It's only ‘cause the two point sticks to his magic that he gets any goals at all. Besides, you were the real star. Now, all the others at SSU will really understand why they should respect you properly. Why, you're the proper leader for next year’s team. My big Mister MVP."

Dusk shivered at her continued attention, releasing a murmur as his ear’s flesh was tormented by those attentive nibbles and tugs, the drag of her tongue only furthering the distraction. Her fingers teased and soothed his tense muscles, and for a moment, he let his shoulders slump. "So tell me your only reason for caring is not simply so you can lord my new found stardom over Lula and the other mares? That I am more to you than another trophy to hold above them?"

Her fingers stopped, and a grunt escaped those warm and pouting lips. "Oh come on Dusk. You know you're not a trophy. You're my colt. Soon, I'll make you a stallion." She hissed a groan into his ear, but her words afterward were far from as sweet. "If I brag to those other mares, it’s only because I'm better than them. I'm smarter, I've the highest grades in the school, not you, not even Lula can beat me in any class. I'm stronger too, Dusk. I bet I could break Shining’s shield spell if I wanted to. I've been studying it at the magicball games. It's not that strong you know, I've been helping with the games already and nobody ever noticed. A foot gripped here, a little extra weight behind Silver Spade's tosses of the five point ball because he always goes after the extra points that heavy ball is worth." She gave a snort as her nails raked up his abs, her free hand gripping his head and pulling it sharply to the side, so she could nip at the tender flesh of his now-exposed jugular.

Dusk's reaction was instantaneous. Revulsion poured forth from the depths of his throat with that same strong bile. Disgusted by her touch, he threw her off of him, pulling away and taking a few steps away, a heated glare leveled at her. "You... you have been cheating? You have been sneaking a second spell though the damn shields? How long, Sunset? How many games? And why? It is just a damn game!" She leveled a glare at him in return as he grasped the bridge of his nose in two pinching fingers trying to fight back the bile in his throat.

Sunset only snorted, her glare making her opal-colored eyes hard. "Oh come on Dusk, we shouldn't have to put up with those scrubs at Canterlot U. Unicorns so weak and lazy they couldn't get into SSU. Who cares if I cheated to help the team out a little? It's not like anyone will ever know. Now remind yourself that I choose you to be my colt from all the silly boys who wander this school and you should be happy I even give you the fucking time of day, understand?"

His voice was suddenly calm. "That night in low-court. When you and Lula had your little fight. It was not an accident when that spell back-lashed on me, was it? You were just angry you could not best her and took it out on me, did you not?" When all he got was a sneer, he knew it was time; knew it was over. "I am going to Princess Celestia now, Sunset. You can lock the door when you are done here, but leave the key. I am not a trophy, and you have never treated me... treated anyone as anything but another tool to make you look better, look more important, look stronger than anyone else. Enjoy working on your thesis, I am sure you will do great. What was your topic again? The Elements of Harmony, like Princess Celestia asked? That is a laugh. You do not want harmony, you just want control." Storming out, Dusk slammed the door, and never saw Sunset again.

* * *

It was odd. This time, he floated above the memories that followed that angry fight. His only relationship with a mare, and he had ended it by turning her into the Princess. Floating in the sky above this reenactment of himself running to catch up to the Princess and the rest of the team, Dusk lifted his gaze to Princess Luna, and he asked, "And why should I want to remember this part of that day? The one mare I trusted treated me as nothing more than a trophy; not exactly my shining moment, there. She was more interested in getting the other mares to dance to her step than our relationship. Time and time again, I tried to make her proud of me instead of just being proud of myself. Why make me relive today, of all days?"

Luna's response was to tap the air between them, shifting the scene that played out in the void of dreams they floated in together, this time flashing though the events of his present day. Breakfast with AJ. Shaving with Apple Bloom. Plotting out lunch with Pinkie Pie. That soft way Fluttershy looked into his eyes when she stopped trying to run from him. And Dash's teasing moment in his lap. He blushed hard, waving a hand at the image to try to dispel it, realizing only now that he had no power in this place. At last, Luna spoke. "’Tis true, that day was not a happy one, but this? It has already been a busy one. Yet doth it show thou something, Dusk? These five mares do care for thee. Each in a unique way, and all far more than Sunset Shimmer ever did. Even Dash, who claims her attraction is only physical, admires your strength and caring. Thou cannot let thine past experiences with Sunset prevent you from seeing the love that stands right before thee."

Princess Luna stepped through the images, wrapping her arms around his neck and drawing him into a strong and powerful hug. Dusk could only stare up at her, his eyes glazed over while a whimper whispered free of his lips. "Princess Luna... Thank you. You... you are right. I will consider these words, this has certainly been eye opening..." a sigh escaped his lips while he lifted his arms to gently hug her in return. "Thank you Princess, and..."

* * *

The glass smashed to the floor of the library, shattering into a dozen pieces and ripping him back to the real world once again. His breath hissing through clenched teeth, Dusk forced his eyes open and snorted to clear his throat, sitting up and rubbing an open palm across his face. "By The Light! Why is she visiting me every time I close my eyes these days?"

Barb came running at the sound of the shattering glass, her eyes wide with worry. She hesitantly asked in quiet concern, "D- Dusk? Are you Ok? I heard the glass breaking and..." then her eyes spotted the drool on his cheek and the fact his other hand still hung off the end of the chair, dangling just above the broken glass. "You fell asleep while taking a sip!" The little dragoness admonished, slapping her face, and turning to walk from the room. "If you're that tired, I'll tell Rarity tonight is off, I'm sure Nurse Redheart would never sanction it."

Shifting to struggle and sit up taller, Dusk gave a grunt and attempted to shake off the sleep, his voice still heavy with its pressure. "It is not like that Barb... I think Princess Luna is trying to ambush me or something. She keeps giving me these dreams that are always flashbacks to bad memories. I do not know if she is trying to learn more about me, or trying to teach me something." With a groan of annoyance, he moved to stand up, glad for the strong leather of his dress shoes, so he needn’t worry that the glass might cut his feet.

Stopping as she started to bend down and sweep up the shards, her eyes went wide as she looked up to him. "Princess Luna? Really? Maybe she just finds you interesting after that whole incident with the Elements of Harmony."

Now Dusk's eyes went wide and he looked up again, a secondary memory springing forth. "The Elements of Harmony? Sunset Shimmer's thesis was on the Elements. Princess Celestia requested she study them personally. How could I have missed that before?" Sweating, he began to pace the room, his eyes cast about the room while he plucked at his lower lip. "Was she grooming Sunset for the duty of saving Princess Luna? No wonder she wants into my memories so bad."

Barb laughed at this and shook her head. "Really? Sunset Shimmer as the Element of Magic? As the symbol of friendship? Don't make me laugh, Dusk! I'm just glad you finally listened to me and stood up to her!" The glass cleaned up, Barb wandered to the kitchen laughing to herself while ranting gently about the bad days when he was Sunset Shimmer's colt. "A foul day when Princess Celestia introduced you two."

Dusk stormed back to his desk as she wandered off and snatched out another note, scribbling sharply across the page, the note blunt and to the point. This time he wouldn't wait for Barb to send it. He had seen the dragon fire spell more than enough times before and lit a match, focusing his magic until the flame grew into a towering inferno, shifting from the normal yellow to a raspberry hue from his magic aura's powerful influence. He thrusted the letter into the flame, a whisper of magic sending it off... and suddenly he felt as if he had been punched in the gut. It was shocking how much magic so small a spell took. His eyes crossed and his breath dropped to a wheezing gasp. Fingers clutched the desk, even as his body fell across the desktop, and his strength flagged further, cheek resting on the wood as he tried to find something to stop the room from spinning.

A burst of flame flared up from the match's ashes, forming a new letter before his eyes. It was not fast like Barb's spell, the slow materialization took what felt like painful hours though it was actually just a few short seconds. This note was small, a scribbled corner of the page that had been ripped off from another letter. When the spell at last ended, Dusk felt the pressure sucking at his magic, ending at last and his breath finally drew in again without that crushing pain on his chest.

With fingers half-numb from the way his magic had drained from him all energy, Dusk forced the seal open and pinned the page down with the tip of thumb and pinkie. The words made him hiss with pain. The strength to burn the note up was not responding to his summons, and in the end, he shoved the note into his mouth, chewing it slowly to destroy the evidence. Two sentences were all she sent him and he’d remember them.

"Never cast this spell again Dusk, ever! Sunset Shimmer has been gone for four years."

* * *

It took ten more minutes before Dusk could stand and walk again. The fact that Rarity was now late no longer came to mind, he was simply glad Barb had stayed in the kitchen and let him be. At last drawing a deep breath, he shifted to stand up and shake off the fatigue that still tried to send him crashing to the floor. As he straightened the jacket and turned to stroll stiffly towards the door, a quiet sigh escaped his lips. "Barb is right. This night is over." A knock upon the door pulled his attention up and his gaze turned to it. "And now I have to break Rarity's heart. Fantastic."

Cold sweat beaded down across his temple while he took the last few staggering steps to the door, clutching the cold metal while a sigh hissed free. His fingers turned the knob and...

Rarity stood in the doorway, her back turned towards the door while one hand was lifted, her voice bright as she addressed her younger sister, Sweetie Belle, in hushed tones. "And please darling, smile. He is such a nice man and you needn't worry about me. I'll care for you, I promise... I love you, Sweetie Belle."

The sight of Rarity before him flooded his heart to help him stand taller, lift his shoulders and square them as he faced her. A vision in sheer white silks that hugged her fine figure in such a suggestive way, hanging off her shoulders and only just hiding the top of her ass. Her tail hung down over the fragile silken dress, forming a vibrant purple spiral that hung close to her left hip. On the right, three diamonds had been stitched into the fabric, a fantastic sapphire blue to contrast the flawless white. The massive gap in the back put the whole of her back on display for his wandering eyes, from those shapely shoulders to the curve where the small of her back met her pert derriere.

A little shocked, Dusk realized she wore no jewelry at all tonight, and only the lightest amount of makeup, eyeshadow of sapphire to match the stitched cutie mark in the dress’ fabric. Her hair was as dolled up as ever, massive heavy locks of rich dark purple falling in streams across her shoulders and down over her back, the heavy curl at the bottom leaving a bare spot at the small of her back between her hair and tail.

Somehow this simple sight of an elegant woman, dressed up so fine just for him... it plucked at his libido and demanded he stand tall once more. Taking one or two more steps forward, he gently cleared his throat and let a hand slip out to touch the wrist she kept behind her back. "Good evening Lady Sweetie Belle, Lady Rarity. It is a pleasure to have you here."

While Sweetie Belle might have been shocked as she gasped at the words, Rarity was a world of grace and calm. Turning slowly, Rarity lifted both hands to draw up Dusk's in response to his touching her wrist. Holding it in the soft blue gloves that canvassed her fingers, she leveled her eyes on his own. Her voice was softly purring as she said, "Why Lord Dusk Shine, you flatter us. Now may we come inside? Or do you plan to keep two ladies waiting on your doorstep on a cold night?" Sweetie Belle simply stepped in behind Rarity but from the giggles that issued forth, it was clear she enjoyed the banter going on between Dusk and her sister.

Never one to leave a lady stranded and in need, Dusk bowed with care and took three steps back and to the side. "Then enter, dear ladies, and escape the night’s cold air." Offering them his warm grin, he waved his hand towards the library, shoulders shrugging. "Just head into there, ladies, and find a seat. I will get Barb and have Sweetie on her way." He paused, eyes on the short filly, grinning a little despite himself.

Before they had a chance to get any further into the house, he touched Sweetie's shoulder and dropped to one knee, his hands slipping to cup the little mare's while a steady gaze looked deep into her eyes. Tapping her gently on the nose, he said, "Sweetie Belle, I need to ask you a favor. While Rarity is with me tonight, I need you to take good care of Barb. She is like a daughter to me and I could not stand it if any harm came to her."

The serious tone of his voice was heavy with responsibility and confidence, a reassurance for the little mare that he had faith she could manage what was asked of her. Soft eyes looking up into his as the soft grey-mulberry and pink haired mare gave a giggle but locked eyes with him. Her hands shifted to clasp up his holding firmly and nodding with deep and serious meaning. "No problem, Sir Dusk Shine! It is an honor to be given such a major duty as protecting a baby dragon!"

Laughing a little at the game they played together it wasn't until Barb herself spoke up from the kitchen door that anyone realized she had come to watch the show they were putting on. With a thumb pointing over her shoulder to the kitchen, she said, "Your dinner is delivered and set up properly on the table, Rarity. Me and Sweetie had better be off before it gets too cold. I don't wanna get a cold and force Sweetie Belle to have to nurse me back to health."

Her sarcasm clear as day, it left all three deep in laughter until Rarity stepped up and cupped Barb's jaw, affection upon her wondrous eyes. Her lips whispered softly across Barb's cheek. "I know you will take good care of my dear Sweetie Belle, Barb. She means the world to me, and any harm to her would simply... shatter my heart." Her gaze lowered and she drew the dragoness into a strong hug, nuzzling deeply across her cheek.

The stunned silence this left Barb trapped in lingered until just as her and Sweetie Belle headed out the door, and Barb's voice called back over her shoulder. "Don't get too crazy, lovebirds. Remember who cleans up around here!"

* * *

Barb had really pulled out all the stops in taking advantage of Rarity's fine dishes and decorations. The kitchen now looked more like a proper dining room, and Dusk made a silent mental note to get her some of those candied sapphires she was always requesting, as the price he remembered the sweet shop owner in Canterlot quoting felt suddenly very reasonable.

With a soft grip, he guided Rarity to her chair, the blue silk of her glove resting daintily in his hand. As she moved to sit, he pulled her chair out for her, earning him flash of a warm smile. He said with an air of cordiality, "I would like to thank you for loaning us these fine dishes. Princess Celestia said she was going to have some proper hosting dinnerware sent soon in case she had need of me to entertain some dignitary or another for her, thanks to Canterlot being so close and all." The silverware set on the table gleamed with a fine polish recently done with care taken to make each piece stand out.

Rarity smiled warmly in return and lightly patted his hand before answering. "My pleasure, Darling. And really, it’s no rush at all! I've got two or three sets of different table settings for guests. It's all just in a silly collection cabinet though, and rarely gets used except for silly h'orderves from time to time." Flashing him her grin, she leaned back, gently lifting a wineglass from beside his plate and setting it down beside her own. With ease, her magic picked up the corkscrew and lifted it to draw across the tip of the bottle working with silent and carefully measured grace, at last popping the bottle open and slowly pouring the two glasses, softly humming.

Enchanted by her actions, Dusk hardly noticed when she pushed the glass before him as he sat down. Fingers curling around the glass, he drew it to his lips and sipped with quiet delight, the rich bouquet of the crisp wine made him turn his gaze to the bottle, inspecting it with one eye and a brow raised. "Viognier? I'm far from a drinker but it is nice... subtle fruity hints really make it a pleasure."

This had Rarity laughing gently and shaking her head. "Now, Dusk. You're not into wine? Hm... I take it you're not a big drinker at all. Far more interested in your books than a strong drink. Don't worry, I picked this because of its softer flavor and low alcohol levels. It shouldn't go to your head too quickly, Darling."

Laughing gently and drawing the bottle over he inspected it, he held it close while fingers stroked the bottle’s surface, a slow sigh issuing forth. Sipping deeply at the rich drink, Dusk found he was growing more aware... more awake with every sip he took. Sitting up, he lowered his glass, serving out cuts of bottom roast beef, roasted diced potatoes and mushrooms, not to mention the carrots, onion and a whole bulb of garlic.

Indulging in the richly seasoned meat, Rarity whispered with pleasure, drawing fingers to gracefully to pull her wine glass back, she sipped quietly and cooed. "It's a pleasure, Dusk. I was looking at the sheet Barb said Princess Celestia wants you to fill out. I even answered most of them while the two of us were sorting all this out." When he sat taller and started to try and speak out, she cut him off just as fast. "Don't worry, we didn't send it and I'll let you double check all the details later, if you really care to see it."

Nervously grunting, Dusk shook his head and resorted to laughter, shaking his head lightly with his amusement. "So I could sleep more? You are too kind, I really am not that worn out, Rarity. It's just been a crazy day, is all." At her deep pout, he lifted a hand waving it softly as he relented a little ground. "Besides. I have a visit with Nurse Redheart tomorrow. And I have written to Princess Cadance, asking her to come visit in a few weeks. I will get her to give me a checkup while she is here."

Now it was Rarity's turn to be the one who was rather confused. "Pri... Why bother a visiting Princess like Cadance for a checkup? Is she a doctor? I mean, I know she was going to try something crazy with you back when Nightmare Moon had killed you..." Cutting herself off, she swallowed, and set down her cutlery while correcting herself and calming the underlying fears Dusk only now realized she must have. Clearing her throat, she sat up taller. "She is a specialist of some kind, I take it? It's so lucky you're so close with her that you can request she come visit."

Dusk laughed at this, but kept it soft to avoid appearing to dismiss what was really worrying her. His hand slipped forward, softly squeezing her while he spoke, "It's nothing Rarity. I promise you that. She got a double major from Canterlot University even while studying at Star Swirl University and foalsitting me in her free time." He grinned, trying to set her at ease. "And I asked her to come visit to see... Do you know the little mare Scootaloo? A filly a year or so older than Sweetie Belle?" When she nodded, he smiled and then fell silent, sipping at his wine for a while before at last continuing, "She has what appears to be wingrot, but the weakest form of it I've ever seen. Cad..." stopped and swallowed again sharply his eyes lifted again to look to her. "Princess Cadence did a second thesis after she had already graduated. Specifically on the Canterlot outbreak of wingrot that struck ten years ago."

Eyes wide, Rarity began to take in the enormity of just what was going on in Dusk's world. The hidden depths he went to in life made her heart go out to him in that sudden understanding of just how much more he was thinking about than she. Now, it was her turn to cover his hand with her own, and gently squeeze his fingers. Her eyes lifted to watch him closely even while her breath hissed through half parted lips. "S... Scootaloo. Yes, Sweetie Belle told me she joined their class just a week or so ago. Apparently, she has a bit of an attitude. But wingrot? Isn't that something that appears with molting and muscle pain? I've seen her running around town on that scooter, her wings work fantastic... It’s a shock to hear."

Drawing his hand free and shaking it warmly before her, Dusk made quiet, soothing noises. The whole time he spoke in calm tones to reassure her as best he could, "It is ok, Rarity. I do not even know if it is really wingrot. It is just something I think she can look into; something with which I think she might be able to help the girl. Do not worry about it, we are here to have a good time, not to worry about things neither of us can help with." He drew back the wine glass and emptied it, quickly realizing it was his second glass, and his head started to feel a little fuzzy and he put the glass back on the counter, before he broke a second glass in a single day.

Rarity smiled, finishing her chunk of roast as he spoke to calm his fears, yet she was more than happy to support him by relaxing and offering him a warm smile. "I understand, Dusk. Let's talk about other things, instead. You've attended Star Swirl University since you were... what, seven? Eight? Isn't that a little young for even a talented unicorn like yourself?"

The topic changed, Dusk laughed and sat back, rolling his head back to look at the kitchen roof. "It's not that simple. I passed an entrance exam for SSU's youth prep school. I excelled so much, they promoted me into SSU at the age of fourteen. Only two or three others who really specialized were able to graduate as young as I did." He swallowed, the action helping his mind focus and concentrate on memories that kept swimming away on him. "Shining Armor graduated from SSU's military program at twenty one, but they are less about general study and more about a unicorn’s specific powers. Cadance, Lula, and Shimmer all graduated around 21 or 22. They only make a big deal about me because I'm the youngest stallion to ever graduate from SSU."

Holding back her laughter, she gently stroked a hand across his before she replied in a suggestive tone. "You're so modest, Dusk. You really shouldn't feel like you need to explain things in such detail just so it doesn't look like you're bragging." As she turned her eyes to the empty glass, she picked up the bottle with her free hand, drawing it before him. "Another glass, Dusk? You look like you could use another."

Dusk's next breath was drawn slowly as he tried to level his mind out and settle the swimming thoughts that were messing with his world. Still, it was a gentle wine, and he had enjoyed the taste. Lips curling in a grin, he replied, "I would like... to lay down, Rarity. I think... I think the wine has gone to my head a little too fast." Dusk gripped the table to stand, stiff legs resisting his attempt, even while he watched her eyes. "I... Yes... Could you help?"

Now she was worried again, as Dusk's breath was fast even though he had only had two small drinks. Pushing his chair back as he pushed off the table, his steps were weak and slow as he tried to walk across the room. Rarity moved surprisingly fast, wrapping him up in her arms and holding him close. "I... I'm sorry Dusk. I shouldn't have pushed the wine. It's just been such a good night." Swallowing and biting back the tears, she looked up at him, guiding him slowly around the house. It wasn't until they arrived at the stairs she realized he had passed out in her arms. Now getting him up the steps was a real challenge, but this was her fault, and she knew it. All she could think of at this moment, was the stallion that hurt her all those years ago. She was angry, sad, or maybe simply depressed by the situation at hand.

* * *

Dusk realized he was lying in bed as he felt a hand stroking a wet cloth across his cheek. Swallowing a breath, he tried to open his eyes while his voice failed him the first time. Another attempt saw better results, as he leaned into the touch, questioning the shape before him. "I take it... Rarity called for you, Redheart?"

A laugh whispered from her lips as Rarity drew the cloth from her face, her eyes lingering on his as she wiped at her cheeks. Dusk realized she had been crying... and wasn't Redheart. His cheeks darkened with a blush as she spoke, "No, Dusk. It's just me. Wh... when I realized you were just sleeping, I didn't call her. She doesn't need to stress about something like this. But... I had to stay, Dusk. I had to apologize."

He drew in a slow breath and let his fingers lift to stroke her jaw, wiping a tear from her eyes as he flashed his warm smile. "Do not apologize Rarity. I was the one who kept refusing to relax, I could have asked you to go home at any time. But you looked so good in that dress, I just could not resist asking you in just to spend some time..." and as another of her tears hit his cheek he paused. At last looking into her eyes again, voice soft. "What is it Rarity? What has hurt you?"

She had to say it, her head resting on his shoulder and her breath drawn in slowly she put a finger to his lips. "Until I'm done. No more words. I need to say this so you understand everything." The glare behind her words held with him, and slowly he gave a nod. Drawing a deep breath, she took the wet cloth from his face and wiped it over her own, swallowing. "Many years ago... here in Ponyville, a rather talented unicorn spent extra time teaching the fillies and colts about magic. He was a dashing and handsome fellow, only in his late twenties. A rogue of sorts, he seemingly refused every mare and the one or two stallions who made an advance upon him. It was only..." she swallowed returning the damp cloth to his cheek and stroking softly. "I was only thirteen or so when he came over for a class, and to check up on me, with my parents out of town for business. It was late and I had done so well with the magic he was teaching me. He offered me some wine to go with the dinner I'd made for him even said: 'You earned it. You're improving so well.'"

As he raised a hand she swatted it, harsh glare digging into his eyes until he relaxed and relented, dropping the hand and nodding softly. Swallowing, she continued. "I wasn't a silly filly. I knew what he wanted. So I let him get me drunk because the older girls had told me how much it hurt. But he was handsome, and I figured I could have what the mares claimed was impossible if I just batted my eyelashes at him enough times. Af..." Again she drew a harsh breath and shook her head to clear her eyes before at last starting once more, voice low, ragged. "Afterward, I thought I was the star of the town; the one to be with a stallion no mare could claim as her own. But a week later he was caught by another girl's parents. I was crushed. Then... When I..."

Now Dusk interrupted her, sitting up and drawing his arms around her own, pulling her softly into his lap and stroking a thumb across the curve of her jaw. "You do not have to say anymore. I understand. It is not like you were trying to do that to me, Rarity. I am no child with stars in their eyes. And anyway, it’s not like you were the only foal to have an older pony take advantage of you."

Still softly crying, she swallowed and her gaze lifted, her hand trying to touch his lips to stop him. "Dusk I... " The look in his eyes stopped her, and she nodded slowly. "I thought I was over that mistake. Go on. I want to know."

Glad she had relented, and well aware his story was far from as painful as hers, he swallowed and offered a soft smile. "In SSU it is common for a younger student to be mentored by their seniors. Princess Celestia assigned me one nice mare, Moon Dancer, in my first year. She figured that being so far ahead of me, it would not be a problem even though I had entered at such a young age. When I passed the same tests as Moon Dancer in less than two years to her four... there was a fight, and Princess Celestia chose her brightest star to be my mentor instead; Sunset Shimmer." The name drew a soft gasp from the mare and he looked down at her. "They wrote of her in the gossip rags back then?" When she simply nodded he laughed a little, but smiled. "She was ... gosh. Three? Three and a half years older than me? When her heats started, Princess Celestia suggested she should ask me for help with them. But she never did, and I could see her straining with them some days, painful tears running down her cheeks, yet she never let anyone help her."

Rarity blushed, shaking her head. "A mare who refused any relief, even just being alone while in heat? That's... it's shocking how driven she was, but if she didn't force herself on you Dusk... then why? What did she do to you instead? Take her pain out on you?"

Dusk laughed, and shook his head. "No. Like your teacher, she told me she cared about me and for three more years I was pampered and polished by her to be shown off in public. See... to Shimmer I was a measure to show how good she was. If I passed a test? It was because she had grilled me on it. If I scored a point? It was because she made me jog five miles that morning. Yet for those three years she constantly claimed she loved me. She wanted me to do better, to try harder. It took her admitting to cheating during a game for me to really see what she was doing to me. I was not a person. I was a trophy."

Rarity stared at him for a few minutes, slowly shaking her head, but at last realizing the depth of his words, her fingers cupping his cheeks while her voice dropped softly. "I... am as bad as her, Dusk. The night before the Summer Sun Celebration, I might as well have called you one." She swallowed and looked down and away from him. "I even told AJ a shallow list of reasons you were a great trophy to claim... I... I'm sorry, Dusk. I never even thought of it that way."

His response was tender, fingers stroking the curve of her jaw and pulling her gaze softly to look up once again into his eyes. "You thought of me that way Rarity. Past tense. But what do you think about me now? I think you have better reasons than showing me off. I think you and I connected last week in a way I have not felt before." He gazed deeply into her eyes as his slow breath sighed out.

Her lower lip trembling, Rarity looked into Dusk's eyes, really looked, and slowly, in the depths of his gaze she saw it: a spark that tugged at her heart, made her cheeks darken in a warm blush and in a pleasant way she hadn't felt in years, making her long to say more. Nodding slowly, she leaned up, her lips parting to seal his in the softest of lingering kisses. At last, her voice returned to her. "You were so strong for those who can't do anything for themselves. You cared more about their lives than your own, and you'd hardly even gotten more than an hour in to talk with anyone of us before Nightmare Moon arrived."

Dusk dragged his nails across her jawline with great care, his warm smile spreading even while he laughed out with delight. "I... was obsessed. I knew with Princess Celestia gone, it was only a matter of time before Shining and Princess Cadance tried to take her on again. When they fell, nopony would be left with a chance against her. I could not let that happen to my brother or Cadance." He sighed, then swallowed and shook his head. "I saw it in you, too. When you picked me up before I could collapse, even though you could hardly walk under my weight. You pushed yourself to protect others who only you could protect."

She shook her head and attempted to speak up, but his finger touched her lips. "Rarity. I know we both have had bad relationships, but let us start this one with some honesty on both sides. I find you attractive, and think we both agree that we work well together." At her blush and shy nod, he grinned. "Then, let us start from here and build up from that basic fact." He leaned in, softly kissing her again, deep and gentle. His lips pushed into hers while his free hand stroked across her neck.

Deeply enthralled by how simple he made the situation, her eyes fell closed. Her hands settled on his shoulders and her body turned into his while a knee shifted across his hips so she could slide into his lap. When at last they had to come up for air, she shifted on her knees, rolling them back and adjusting her weight to her hips instead. With her open palms resting on his shoulders to help balance herself, his hand shifted to rest on her hips, caressing her sides. "Dusk... You’re right, you know. A basic fact we can both agree on is a fantastic starting point. Like, when I say you're the kindest of stallions. Your company can make me smile, whatever my mood."

Dusk still remembered Dash's teasing earlier in the day. His hands firmly grasping her hips, and his tone was serious as he prevented her from starting what was likely on her mind, at least until he set some facts straight. "Rarity, today I had AJ's heat start while she was showing me her cutie mark. Pinkie pushed her tits in my face just to see if I liked the look of them. Then, Rainbow Dash spent her interview in my lap grinding me like a whetstone. I care for you, but I cannot take another round of blue balls today."

His eyes closed as he waited for the slap he was sure he had just earned, so he never saw the soft kiss coming. Breathing in a gasp of surprise, he returned it, eyes opening to stare into hers. As their lips started to part, he tried to form words, but she simply put a finger on them and interrupted him. "Dusk, I'm not mad the others are after you, too. Most stallions have at least two mares. Some even three. I'm glad you were honest though. I'd hate it if my friends were pursuing a stallion who hides his other relationships." She fell silent for a moment, then tilted her head a little to the right. "W... What about Fluttershy? Did sh- Oh, who am I kidding? Of course she wouldn't."

Now it was Dusk's chance to brag, his grin warm while he lifted a finger to softly poke her on the nose. "She held my hands and smiled at me... she even thanked me for lunch." When she gasped in shock he laughed warmly. "I swear. If you do not believe me, ask Pinkie or Barb, they were both there." Smirking warmly with pleasure he lifted arms from her hips again, crossing them behind his head.

"Ohhh. Well I think that earns you some relief Dusk. No mare or stallion has ever gotten Fluttershy to look them in the eye and admit she had a good time, most of all while holding hands." Her touch was soft she slipped her weight up a little, fingers moving under the weight of her thick locks and to the two thin straps that held up her dress. Slipping both of them from her flesh the dress dropped from her body and piled up around her hips, revealing her slender frame, an hourglass figure with only her ample breasts covered by her arms. She lowered them, letting him watch as she lifted her breasts and squeezed the flesh together, winking and blowing him a soft kiss even as she sat tall in his lap.

He was enraptured. The flawless unicorn mare was a sight that made his heart ache so much. Hands lifting he cupped them when she drew her arms away, his soft grip drawing up from below, cupping their weight up and together with one another while he remained lying back, thumbs drawing together to tickle over the perky nipples erect tips. The pale brown flesh being teased quickly made the mare on top of him call out her pleasure, yet before he could settle in to torment her a any more, she drew back, and with gentle but direct force, pushed his hands back, until they were under the pillow beneath his head. Only when he had both trapped behind his head did she let go and slide her weight from his lap, her voice soft. "You are exhausted, so we will get you some proper relief, and then let you get some real sleep. Alright, my darling stallion?"

Able to only nod with his hands trapped behind his head, he was forced to watch as the elegant mare slipped down the bed, until she lay between his knees. A hand upon his groin, she stroked it delicately with the tips of her fingers, lightly tracing back and forth across his trapped cock with tender loving attention. Her voice was light warm and loving, "Such a fantastic stallion we have found to keep our company this night, not to mention his cock! Why, already it's so hard at a little teasing touch." Fingers lifted, and his belt buckle was peeled open, the button and zipper of his pants very quickly following under her deft fingers’ assault, each relenting quickly to her demands. That left only the loose boxers that lay across his thighs protecting his manhood.

Unashamed, she leaned in, dragging her tongue over the surface of his boxers, until she found the tip of his trapped cock, erect beneath her attentions, she suckled it in though the silk of his boxers and circled the head with the tip of her tongue, wetting the fabric for the pure joy of teasing his meat. Gasping for breath as she tormented him, he at last spoke up. "Please Rarity, you are very good at that but it is also driving me crazy. I really do not know how much longer I can hold back."

She pouted for a moment, but finally gave a nod. Fingers dove under his waistband and pulled the boxers down, past his knees and at last free of his body. She took a few extra seconds to let her dress fall to the floor and join his boxers, revealing that all she had worn under it was a white silk thong that matched her dress. Climbing up and into his bed again, she curled up between his knees, her cheek stroking across his naked flesh and nuzzling him in loving care as both his sweat and scent rubbed into her perfect skin. Lips parting a little, she shifted lower, releasing her tongue and letting it drag over the weight of his balls, a single long slow drag that started at the bottom of his sack, dragging it up and over their sensitive flesh. Soon enough her lips dragged over the deep blue vein that ran from the base of his cock, following it until her lips arrived at his moist cock's head.

Shifting her weight to place one shoulder on his hip, her mouth wrapped around the tip of his hard shaft, sucking it in between two plush lips that suckled upon the heated tip. A harsh groan whispered free from Dusk’s lips at the rich pleasure of Rarity’s continued attention to his hot member, the mare drawing more of its length into her mouth and applying light pressure to rake over the surface. At the same time, her tongue moved in to push across the trapped head, swirling across its tip and attempting to lap up any hints of moisture he might gift her.

Far too soon, Dusk again found himself pushed to his limit, her lips’ attentive pressure to his cock and balls making him shiver, and moan out in hot lust. His willpower was overwhelmed as he felt her suckle up his rich pre. Breaking her rule and pulling his arms free of the pillow, one moved to stroke the woman's jaw line as the other went to stroke her cheek. At last he spoke up. "I... cannot last any longer Rarity..." All he received in return was a deeper pressure and a warmer suck at the hot flesh of his hard shaft, her fingers joining the act. They drew down to cup his balls and stroke them in small circles, teasing and tormenting the twin orbs inside with masterful precision.

Unable to hold back any longer, Dusk came inside her mouth, a hot release of four or five heavy bursts of seed plastering the inside of her mouth with the hot cream. For her part, Rarity continued to milk his balls with the steady twirling and pressure of her fingers over the sensitive orbs. At the same time she continued to swallow, sharply sucking back any cum that attempted to escape from her lips while Dusk shuddered in pleasure and broke the perfect seal she had formed over his cock.

When at last he stilled, she released the tight suction her lips had upon his now-flaccid member, letting it fall against his belly. But she was not done yet, leaning down she dragged a soft lick over his balls, her voice low and loving. "Such a tasty cock, and rich cum to top it off. You’re a keeper, Dusk. I can't wait for round two." When he gasped for breath and started to draw back she shook a finger, voice easy. "Don't worry, not tonight. Maybe... in the morning?" She offered a teasing wink and nuzzled his balls one last time before drawing the blankets back and curling up against his belly and nuzzling heavily into the firm flesh of his toned abs.

A tired groan whispered from his lips but he let her curl up on his belly, his fingers stroking at her jaw's curve as he let his eyes close one last time. A slow sigh whispered free of his lips, limbs going limp as he let sleep overtake him at last. “Such a long day, it is finally done”. His voice whispering free one last time. "Thank you Rarity. You are the nightcap on a fun day. I love you, my dear mare."

Her giggle was gentle and she kissed his belly once in return for the kind words, eyes gazing longingly up at him. "Thank you my noble stallion. I hope you will find me just as worthy tomorrow and after."

* * *

In the other realm Princess Luna was alone, yet enchanted by simple, young love. Unable to help herself, she simply had to smile, floating free of the world and all its cares. Her voice was soft as she whispered to herself. "Tonight, I don't think I need to watch. You will dream well, Dusk. Keep your mares close. You will need them in the days to come."

Chapter 4: The Ticket Master - Part 1

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The soft glow of the late morning sun pierced a gap in the blinds of Dusk's bedroom, slicing through the room and leaving a small warm ray to tease the eyes of two weary bodies still at rest in bed. Dusk Shine lay prone upon his bed, a blanket half pulled across his hip, yet as a knock at the door echoed free throughout The Great Oak Library, he was forced to open his eyes and split his lips in a long lingering yawn. One hand slipped low, to scratch over his groin something silky was tickling at his balls.

Even while his jaw slipped open to release a heavy yawn while his jaw cracked open his eyes squeezed tightly closed. A giggle as his fingers scratched at his thigh drew his attention and as jaw slammed closed, while eyes focused down between his legs... And Rarity's rich grin as she gazed lovingly up at him while his fingers stroked at her jawlines curve. "Err..."

Turning her head, Rarity tenderly kissed his wrist, while nuzzling gently across his bare thighs her voice light and teasingly musical. "You're such a gentleman, wakening me with tender strokes to my jaw... I like that I lot." Offering a warm coo she leaned in, kissing a line of soft passes across his balls and up around to his belly, letting her breasts drag across his leg and up over his hip. Groaning he finally let his eyes slip closed, hissing in low pleasure...

Until another round of hard knock's to the door drew his mind back from the pleasure of her company to the distracting noise. A hard grunt escaped his lips and he cupped the mare's cheek his voice low and tender. "I'd... I'd better go check on that Rarity. Sorry, but it could be important." When she lifted her lips from his belly she simply nodded with quiet ease, twirling up the blanket of his bed and wrapping it around her slender figure. A few seconds later she stood with grace before him, wearing a thin white toga that hung low over her chest thanks to the sexy way the silk hung low to expose a deep line of her cleavage.

Grunting and slipping to stand up while he forced himself to look away from the attractive mare, Dusk grabbed a robe and threw it over his shoulders, pulling it tight in the front and tying together a quick and lazy knot. With a nod to the mare as she sat at his bedroom desk brushing with lazy ease a comb through those heavy noble purple locks he wished again to linger a moment, but the third set of hard knocks to the door sent him running down the stairs his voice lifted high. "Sorry! I'm on my way!"

As the door unlocked and he pulled it open, the cheery grin of a Pegasus in the standard Uniform of the Royal Mail stood outside awaiting him. Long locks of blond... no not blond, a very bright apple green hue in fact, hung loose about her shoulders, trimmed an inch or two short of them. Her bubbly warm grin and happy voice instantly relaxing Dusk from worry something might have been wrong for someone to wait and knock for so long. "Hello there! Are you Dusk Shine?" At his nod, she grinned and continued, her voice soft but delighted. "I'm your local mail mare! You've got a bunch of packages coming in today from Canterlot so I figured I'd come say hi! Oh and letters too." A pause, as she reached down towards the letter pouch she carried at her right hip... Only then realizing she wasn't carrying it. Stomping a foot she cried out. "Oh fiddlesticks! I must have left it behind while I was getting breakfast at the Cake's Bakery. Sorry Dusk Shine. I'll be right back, OK?"

Still half asleep as he stood at the door, Dusk could only nod slightly at her words, watching as she turned and took off running, yet three steps out the door her foot caught on a random rock in the path and she tumbled head over heels, crashing to the dirt. Now it was his turn to dash outside, kneeling down and putting a hand on the mare's soft grey feathers as she started to push to sit up her blush dark red. "You alright?" he spoke struggling to remember a name for her, at last simply sticking in a generic "Miss?" at his realization he hadn't even got her name while staring blankly at the door dawned on him. "Err... I can get you something? Did you hurt your ankle when you tripped?" When she laughed and turned over, offering him a hand to help her stand up. He relaxed after seeing that winning smile still warm upon her face.

With his aid she was quickly on her feet again, brushing the dirt from her knees and laughing at grass stains she was going to simply have to put up with for the day. Her voice a joyful chatter, Dusk Shine was awed by her simple good mood and how infectious it really was. The mail uniform was a simple brown button up top, badges for local service area and rank on each shoulder, with matching light brown shorts for the warm summer. His eyes now hunting, he swiftly found her name tag and shot a glance to her face, voice unsure at what he had read. "It's great to see you're Okay Miss...Derpy?" he said, a little befuddled by so odd a name for a mare.

She offered him her hand again, her voice now proud, as she stood up tall and straightened her wings to lay flat at her back again. "Mail mare Ditzy Doo, Mister Dusk Shine. But most call me Derpy, cause of my winning grin." And here she winked at him, and he finally released her eyes were staring off in two random directions. A moment of unsettling confusion before he realized she didn't appear to have any problems seeing him, so he ignored it, and thrust his hand back into her own, shaking it warmly.

Voice calm and confident despite her eyes odd behaviour Dusk offered a wave towards the house with one hand. "Well, do you want to come inside for a drink of water or something after that fall? It's the least I can offer."

Derpy however laughed and shake her head, releasing his hand and taking a light hop into the air, her wings beating to keep her afloat in place. "I'd love to take you up on your offer Mister Dusk Shine, but I better go get my mail bag before the Cake's turn it into our office. I'll be right back with all your redirected mail!" One word in that statement really stuck with Dusk as he turned to walk back inside. All. He rarely got more then a letter a month from his parents, busy as they were with work even with relations with the gryphon's at an all time high. And it wasn't like he spent a lot of time in correspondence with the other students. Who might be writing him that much mail? And then thoughts of dread loomed in his mind. The magazine had taken his address for their silly rag after his exam. Suddenly a pile of fan-mail from mares who knew him only from that silly tabloid flooded his mind.

Rarity stood in his doorway as he approached, a slight grin upon her lips and one coil of hair teased between her fingers. "I see you finally got to meet Derpy. She is a real charmer our local mail mare, a good heart if a tad... unlucky." At his glance she laughed warmly. "You see, if you don't move that rock she tripped over? I'd give you twenty to one odds she trips over it again when she comes back."

Dusk's wide eyes inspected her own, but when he saw no jest hidden in her words he simply shook his head and stepped forward, a hand on her thigh, slipping through the toga she had made of his blanket, his lips pressing into her own. "I think if we want any more fun before she returns we had better hurry then dear. And I'll not risk taking that bet. You sound too confident you'd win." At her low moan he knew it was time to move back inside, before others started to wonder what they were doing in the doorway.

* * *

Rarity had lasted another hour before at last declaring she had to go home and see to her little sister. Now dressed and sitting alone at his desk in the library proper, Dusk eyed the pile of mail Derpy had left behind when she returned the second time, and made a mental note to check his lawn from more rocks. Rarity might have won that bet if he had of taken it, yet never once did the mail mare's good natured grin ever waver. In his outbox he had quickly written up the last few notes for Rarity's Profile for princess Celestia, and for fun had taken a few minutes to throw together one for Derpy as well just as a chuckle.

He drew one letter from the massed pile that had poured out from Derpy's bag, filling his inbox and spilling off to pile upon the floor. Inspecting the senders address for a moment in silence Dusk at last gave a low sigh and ripped open the envelope pulling a letter out that held dried rose petals and the rich scent of perfume. A groan left his lips as he scanned over the words inside about eternal love and faithful devotion. Once again it became quite clear he really needed to think twice about ever doing an interview like the one he had done post graduation.

Head in his hands, Dusk had no clue how long he sat there before he at last found a solution, a soft grin crossing his lips. The letter was neatly picked up and any loose petals that had fallen free were gently pushed back into the envelope and he set it in a new pile. With quiet dedication he continued, letter by letter, one after another inspecting each note and reading over them in time before adding to the quickly growing new pile. Eventually he was forced to stop, and a heavy box had to be found to properly hold and file the collection of love letters from strangers he that had never meet him.

It was hours later when Dusk realized that at some point Barb had come home, and at some point she had shoved a sandwich before him. When he got obsessive, Dusk often lost track of time like this. At last, he sat back and looked up to see Barb glaring at him from the other side of the desk. When he did so, she finally spoke up. "I spent all night getting scale polish and spike rubs. She wanted me to help her get her cutiemark in a dozen different things." When Dusk only laughed, Barb sighed and stroked a hand through her spikes. "Though I admit... it does look good doesn't it?"

Nodding warmly Dusk sat back and took a bite of the Daisy sandwich, chewing quietly and thoroughly before at last speaking up himself, watching as Barb started to idly sort through the inbox, having sent the letters in the outbox while he was obsessing. His voice smooth and low he spoke with soft care. "I'm sorry Barb. It does look good on you though, all polished up. And I've already placed an order for a few pounds of sapphire shaving's from Canterlot as thanks for your hard work of late." When she grinned he shook his head. "But you gotta make them last, they are a treat, not a meal by themselves."

Pouting for a moment Barb gave him nod at last, and hook a random letter from the pile. "Anything of worth at all in this crazy mess Dusk? Or just a ton of silly mare's hitting on you?" At his groan she shook her head and lightly laughed with quiet ease. "Then why the box? To contain the fire?"

Shaking his head Dusk passed the single letter of value over to the young dragoness, a note from his parent's. "Mother sends her words of encouragement from their work in the Gryphon Kingdom. Apparently relations are improving and a new trade treaty should go though anytime now." A pause and a glare down to the box of letters. Grin spreading over his lips. "I have a better plan and without any need to waste some magic." His meal finished, Dusk returned to working at the letters and hardly noticed when Barb wandered off to start cleaning and likely put something on for dinner.

In the end thanks to his neat filing and organizational skills the box was nearly full to bursting, yet managed to hold the piled mess. A new letter, this one penned by himself was placed on top, for once in his life Dusk was taking advantage of his rank in Canterlot though he wondered if the Princess might care that he abused a fraction of the power he got. Written in his gentle cursive hand the note was polite and warm but the threat bold as day. 'It was a pleasure to receive these fan letters due to our recent exciting conversation. However, I've now been assigned new duties for Princess Celestia and will be unable to deal with these and all future letters. I thank you in advance for your utmost discretion on this matter and hope I need not be forced to inform the Princess about this matter.' Grinning lightly to himself as he sealed the box closed with a layer of packing tape, he scribbled a few notes and the papers address. At least he had a reason to see the charming Mail Mare again soon.

* * *

With a grunt Dusk lifted the heavy apple basket from the base of the tree, tossing it into the cart with twenty others. Sweating hard in the afternoon sun, a rag was pulled from his back pocket, and used to wipe his brow dry before stuffing it back into jeans pocket. It was shocking how worked up you got even just helping out a few hours a day at the apple farm. Tossing the last of the baskets into the cart, little Apple Bloom called out to the towering figure of Big Mac as he tied on the heavy shoulder harness. "Ok Big brother! That's this cartload! Me an' Dusk gonna join AJ for lunch in the south Orchard. See ya soon!" The titan of a Stallion simply nodded to his littlest sister's words before giving Dusk a serious nod and stepping off, dragging the heavy cart despite how its wheels strained under such a heavy load as if it were nothing.

Laughing warmly Dusk dropped his gaze to the tall young mare his voice happy, yet tired. "Ok, I know you gotta be tired Apple Bloom. It's Saturday, you were already helping them apple buck before I got here and that was what?" He glanced to the sun and made a rough guess. "Three? Maybe four hours ago? I'm beat. You gotta be tired too right?"

The mare shook her head and proudly crossed her arms over her chest, the light red cotton shirt she wore showed nearly no signs of the hours of hard labor she had put in, lifting piled baskets of the early ripening apple's from the family orchard with him. A defiant grin curved her lips before she spoke up. "We Apple's can buck for hours like this! It's easy! You'll pick it up Dusk! You only been at it for a week or so anyway!"

Over excited, the mare started leading the way through the twisting maze of evenly spaced trees as if she were walking on some invisible path he couldn't see. Twice this week Dusk had gotten lost when he lost sight of Apple Bloom or AJ and he wasn't about to have it happen a third time, picking up his stride to make up for the fact the young mare was jogging in the sweltering early summer heat. "If you say so Apple Bloom. I don't mind helping you guys out, but I'm only here to get back into shape. Like Nurse Redheart and Doctor Horse said, two hours of jogging with Rainbow Dash a day and three hours on the apple farm."

When she looked up at him, it wasn't an argument about how he might make a good farm hand, nor a suggestion he could stay on longer as he got stronger she had in mind, it was another of her idea's. He knew that look in her eyes and even as the suggestion formed on her lips he started to bite down on a groan. "So Dusk... how's about you let me try sorting your mail? Or maybe 'elping Barb with da bookkeeping at tha library? I could earn my cutie mark as a Mail mare in no time but Derpy won't let me help cause she says it's too dangerous for a little filly around heavy boxes."

The pout on her face made Dusk consider for a few moment's relenting and letting her win her way, but the sound of barking and AJ's warm laughter distracted him from the conversation, up until she grabbed his hand and stared up at him with those big eyes. Relenting a little, he lightly give her a pat upon the head before answering. "We can talk to AJ about it during lunch, if she says so I will let you hang around for a day or two. No harm in that, right?" Releasing a whoop of joy she bolted off again into the Orchard, though this time Dusk wasn't so worried about getting lost, not with the dog Winona around.

Of all his new found friends helpers, Winona was easily the friendliest and the most talkative. At just short of six feet herself, the canine girl was still young, but worked for the apple family as a guard at night, and helped sometimes during the day in the field. AJ had hired her just five years ago and they were clearly good friends. A picnic was already set up, and Apple Bloom rushed to join her sister and the canine girl on the blanket, already misrepresenting Dusk's words with her excitement while shoving an apple tart into her mouth, her words were muffled between chunks of food. "Ah Dusk said I'd get ta help Barb and everything! Pleaze?"

Her sister laughing at the excited young girls eating habits, it was Winona's rich hello that warned the mare Dusk had joined them. Today for the first time all week however, he realized she didn't tense up, she simply grinned and looked over her shoulder to him. "Come on over partner, join us for some grub. You earned it and no question at that." The casual way she acted for the first time in two weeks made Dusk wonder if her heat was at last over, yet as her fingers lifted to linger a soft touch that swept a few stray hairs off her cheek, the look in her eyes remained hungry.

"A pleasure AJ. I don't mind the chance to snack. And Apple Bloom says this is your early harvest? Just how much isn't ready yet?" The conversation was light and soon with the two younger girls absorbed in rapid and silly duologue Dusk focused on the mare, and his half finished apple tart, taking another light bite and chewing fully before speaking up again. "It's a pleasure to see the farm doing so well. But shouldn't you guys have more help with Harvest coming so soon?"

The proud mare laughed sitting up taller and pushing her empty plate away her voice soft but level. "You think we can't handle it? We're Apple's Dusk! We can handle any harvest this Orchard has managed. Just cause this year's the biggest we've ever seen don't mean we can't handle it!" At her leveled glare Dusk this go and returned to more casual conversation while they finished their meals.

The meal was good and quite calm until the sound of Barb's voice and rapid pace running through the orchard was heard, calling out with bold excitement. "Dusk! Dusk! You gotta see this Dusk!" The little dragoness at last arrived to join their picnic by crashing through the bushes at random until she got lucky and stumbled upon their meal. Winona jumped up, with her hackles raised while a low growl lifted in the base of her throat. Only when the dragon collapsed to her knees and panted for breath did the canine girl really realize just who was running around and making so much noise, relaxing herself to the blanket again to let her hackles lower.

Rushing to her side with AJ at his side, Dusk picked the little dragon up, and placed a hand on her throat to check what had happened to send the girl rushing to their company. "What’s wrong Barb? What's happened? Why did you rush out here so quickly?" Her response was to shove a letter up at him, panting for breath.

Able to only just pull together enough to call out to him, voice staggering but low. "Letter..." A gasp and hiss as she tried to clear her lungs and get her head once more level on her shoulders. "The Princess!" And then AJ started to rub over Barb's back shushing her as Dusk took up the note and let his eyes roam over the page in a moments silence, his jaw unhinging, and beginning to creep open wider and wider against his will as what he read swarmed over him.

At last Dusk was forced to drop his gaze once more at the little dragoness, his voice whispering free after he managed to swallow once. "Is... Is she serious Barb?" The note was lifted to offer to the Cowgirl when she tried to take it from his grip, Dusk lowering to his knees and drawing Barb's hands into his own. "You're not just making a bad joke, right?"

Reading aloud AJ recited the letter to herself, worried herself just what could possibly bother him so much, so fast. "Her Grand Royal Highness, Princess Celestia of Equestria, is pleased to announce The Grand Galloping Gala to be held in the magnificent capital city of Canterlot, on or around the 21st day of, eh, yadda yadda yadda, cordially extends an invitation to Dusk Shine plus one mare as his date."

Together AJ, Dusk Shine and Apple Bloom spoke in shock. "The Grand Galloping Gala!" The difference though, was that Dusk's mind was on the terror of Princess Celestia and how she might treat Rarity in such a situation. His letter from the week before now haunted him. Unaware of Dusk's silence, the two farm girls quickly got carried away on a very different line of thought.

Apple Bloom started first, grabbing Barb by the wrist, and gazing with glee in her eyes into the dragon's own. "Wow, that's just great! I ain't never been to no gala. Have you, Barb?"

Suddenly pulled from her kneeling posture and forced to link arms with the excitable filly, Barb rolled her eyes and shook her head at the mare's words. "No, and I plan to keep it that way. I don't want any of that silly frilly frou-frou nonsense."

Dancing around the two shorter girls, Winona was the one to teasingly punch Barb in the shoulder her voice warm as she drifted off into some little day dream, her voice bright in quiet delight as she fluffed Barb's head spikes. "Aw, come on Barb. A dance would be nice!"

It was Applejack who took over now, her excited tones drawn Dusk to watch her as she reminisced with chipper delight. "Nice? It's a heap good more than just nice. I'd love to go. Land sakes, if I had an apple stand set up, ponies would be chowin' our tasty vittles till the cows came home. Do you have any idea how much business I could drum up for Sweet Apple Acres? Why, with all that money, we could do a heap of fixin' up 'round here. We could replace that saggy old roof, and Big Mac could replace that saggy old plow, and Granny Smith could replace that saggy old hip."

As she droned on it was Apple Bloom who spoke up first, a questioning look crossing her face. "But... Granny Smith Doesn't have a saggy old hip." Sharing a shrug with Winona the little filly looked at Dusk, both beaming with excited glee.

For his part, Dusk had gotten carried away by Applejack's story however... Yet however as she turned to face him, her thick eyelashes were suddenly sweeping low and over the bright Sap green hue of her eyes. A step was taken to his side, and her hands slipped forward, to rest on his hips, drawing him to stand against her suddenly warm and welcoming body. Her voice low, drawl thick with warm intentions. "Why, I'd give my left hind leg to go to that gala." Here an eyebrow arched high, while she leaned in cooing the last few words low into his ear.

Realization of the real meaning of the offer was lost on Applejack, forcing Dusk to backpedal and attempt to find some polite way of letting down the suddenly engaging mare, a deep blush on his cheeks. "Oh... well it's just that---" And yet before he could continue any further, the sudden crashing sound of a body dropping from the treetops and landing between the two of them with a slight grunt and low cry for help.

As the dust cleared, Dusk found himself knocked to the ground again, with Rainbow Dash clutching his collar, and staring wide eyed deep into his shocked eyes. Behind her, AJ crossed arms over her chest and stamp a foot to the ground at the sudden interruption. For her part, Dash was far from subtle, shaking the larger stallion with both hands as she gazed into his eyes. "Are we talking about the Grand Galloping Gala?"

A grunt escaped Applejack's lips as Dash shook the stunned stallion, her voice harsher with disappointment at the betrayal and sudden interrogation going on before her between Dusk and Dash. Her tone rich with disapproving overtones to help her with layering on the guilt as thick as possible. "Rainbow Dash, you told me you were too busy to help me harvest apples. What were you busy doing, spyin'?"

For her part though, Dash appeared to be totally ignorant of the situation at hand. Turning her gaze back to AJ for only a moment to dismissively declare her innocence "No, I was busy napping, and I just happened to hear that you have an extra ticket?" The last question was asked with her face now pressing nose to nose with the stallion's own. Her wings standing tall behind her back, and dancing with unrestrained glee.

Attempting to get a grip of the situation at hand, Dusk put both hands on Dash's shoulders, attempting to push her back from his lap so he could get his feet back under himself in hopes of finding his way to stand up once more. The level and strong tones of his voice sure and rock hard. "Yeah, but--"

And before he managed a third word, it was an instant interruption that blew him back to the ground resting upon his ass once more. Rainbow Dash had used him as a launch pad to lead into the air, thrusting a fist high overhead while she exclaimed with bold pleasure. "YES! This is so awesome." Her wings dancing with bold delight behind her body, flicking instead strokes behind her back to slow her descent to the ground again. Now raving like any fan girl with her mind trapped in a world filled in her fantasies. "The Wonderbolts perform at The Grand Galloping Gala every year. I can see it now. Everypony would be watching the sky. Their eyes riveted on The Wonderbolts, but then I would fly past, Rainbow Dash!"

Together, Dusk; AJ; Apple Bloom and Winona got lost in Dash's bold storytelling. The whole time she danced and darted around the sky above them, reenacting her daydream as a showpiece for the small gathered crowd as if they were a massive stadium audience. A joint declaration of 'Huh' was the best answer she got out of them.

If Rainbow Dash was aware the rest of them were far from as into her daydream as she had gotten, it wasn't something she was going to give up on very quickly. "I would draw their attention with my Super Speed Strut... and Then? Then, I would mesmerize 'em with my Fantastic Filly Flash. And for my grand finale, The Buccaneer Blaze! The ponies would go wild!" Darting around in a small loop in the air over them, she whipped up great speed, before dropping low and brushing to a stop before Dusk again, grabbing him by the hands and drawing up into the air a little as she spun him around, waltzing together though the air. Grinning wildly she threw one arm around his hips, holding him tight while the other swung through the air gleeful voice loud and warm in his ear. "The Wonderbolts would insist that my signature moves be incorporated into their routine, and then welcome me as their newest member." Setting him to the ground again, she turned to look up into his eyes again, her hands once more slipped to grip his in turn and her wings still stood tall, pumping with unrestrained excitement behind her slender figure. "Don't you see, Dusk? This could be my one chance to show 'em my stuff. You gotta take me!"

At last Applejack had enough of Dash and grabbed her by the shoulder, pulling her back from Dusk and shaking an angry finger in the smaller mare's face. Glare leveled on the shorter pegasus. "Hold on just one pony pickin' minute here. I asked for that ticket first."

Dash only offered a shrug at AJ's words. Her body turning away from her friend, declaring with level annoyance clear in her tone. "So? That doesn't mean you own it."

Applejack's snort in return was as derisive as ever. A cold glare leveled in return to the greedy behavior of her friend. "Oh, yeah? Well I challenge you to a hoof-wrestle. Winner gets the ticket." Dash was far from one to resist the dare, and soon the two were locked hand in hand, and fighting one another with all their strength to force the other mare's wrist down. A spare tree trunk from a recent pruning of the extra dead or half rotten trunks yet to have been removed served as a table for their competition.

At last Dusk Shine got his feet back under him as the two mares got carried away in their sudden competition. Annoyed at how he was ignored and mistreated so suddenly by such good friends, he took a step forward, pushing them apart and attempt to clear up the confusion the two had built up so swiftly in their excitement. "Girls, these are my tickets, I'll decide who gets it, thank you very much." When they both dropped their shoulders, realizing the point of his words and their respect for his opinion of them... for three seconds.

Then AJ grinned warm and shifted to stand up, grabbing him by the hands, her voice swift with her now suddenly peacemaking attempt to fix the problem as she saw it. "Then whoever has the best reason to go should get the ticket, don't ya think? And for me that means drummin' up business for the farm!"

However Rainbow Dash wasn't about to let AJ get a hand up on her in the sudden new battle for the extra ticket. Thrusting a step in front of her taller friend and grabbing both of Dusk's hands she gazed up into his eyes with glee blazing in her lively cerise eyes. "A chance to audition for The Wonderbolts?"

Of course this only lead to the two mare's pushing one another aside to grab up Dusk's attention one after another as they each attempted to make their reason stronger, more important than the other. Applejack's next declaration was with a low pout on her lips her hand casting a wave towards the farmhouse in the distance. "Money t' fix granny's hip."

Dash shot back, just as fast and hard. "Living the dream." Her eyes were in the stars, the joy at the concept of having her best chance to see and spend time with the hero's of her childhood. To be one with them making her lips whisper a wistful sigh.

Dusk was floored by the sudden new dilemma. It was now a battle between his loyalty to helping out his friends with their dreams and what was clearly the hidden intent in Princess Celestia's letter. Swallowing sharply and shaking his head he backed away from the girls attempting to buy himself time to think of some kind of a solution. "Oh my, those were all pretty good reasons, aren't they?" The sound of Barb's stomach rumbling shot a solution for the moment straight to his lips without a stop at his mind. "Listen to that, poor Barb is starving! I don't know about you, but I can't make important decisions on an empty stomach, so I'll, uh, think about it over lunch and get back to you two, okay?"

Thankfully Winona and Apple Bloom had finished off the rest of AJ's picnic lunch, leaving nothing as an excuse keep them stuck at the moment, A sigh escaping both mare's lips as they gave Dusk a little nod. "Okay" Dash muttered, her eyes rolling skyward as she started to whistle to herself.

Applejack dropped to the basket and when she found it empty leveled a glare at her sister and the canine guard who were busy whispering back and forth to one another and laughing at Dash and AJ's battle. At last standing up and nodding again she let her shoulders droop. "Okay Dusk. you take care of Barb and get back to us. Taking care of your family is whats most important after all." It took Dash a few seconds to pick up on that comment, her eyes narrowing and a low grunt escaped her lips.

Even as Dusk ran off with Barb slung over his shoulders, the pegasus mare realized just what was going on, and cried out. "Hey!" Then the two were quickly once more back at their arm wrestling, fighting hard over who could win the best of five.

* * *

Walking back in town together Dusk had taken to talking over the problem with Barb. After all, she at least understood his dilemma over the order subtly hidden in Princess Celestia's letter and his need to help out his friends. At last Barb simply was forced to shrug, her voice low and worried. "So, who you gonna give the ticket to, Dusk? They both have good reasons, yet it's clear Princess Celestia wants you to bring Rarity since she is the one you're clearly dating..." Strangely enough Dusk didn't notice any resentment in her voice about that situation, maybe she had already accepted Dusk was in the way of her crush?

Walking with his body turned to focus more upon his dear little sister then the road they walked down Dusk remained obsessed over the conversation on hand. One hand lifting and scratching across the back of his neck even while a low sigh whispered free of his throats base. "I... I just don't know Barb, but I really can't think straight about this right now. How about we worry about your hunger first?" At her nod he laughed gently. "So then. Where should we eat?"

Of course, walking with his gaze turned away from the path he walked on to focus instead on Barb had its side effects. Today that result was Dusk crashing head first into Pinkie Pie who herself had been hopping along the street without a worry in the world, her eyes closed as she gleefully walked. Crashing together they fell to the ground, the two tickets shooting free of his pocket and dancing through the air, drifting wildly and at last landing upon Pinkie's nose.

Her gasp of glee at the sight before her was sudden and powerful, jaw crashing wide open even while she started to shake in place where she rested upon her knees. Her voice a shaking with glee at the concept presented by the twin tickets to the gala she cried out with her delight, her voice a rapid rant of pleasure. "These aren't... they... they are! Tickets to the Grand Galloping Gala?! It's the most amazing incredible tremendous super-fun wonderful terrifically humongous party in all of Equestria! I've always always always wanted to go!"

Of course Dusk rolled his head back, to watch the mare as she suddenly jumped up and started to dance around him in a gleeful circle, twisting and spinning about herself while her joy resulted in a dance that carried on with daydream she had thrown together in her creative imagination's endless depths. And of course, as it was Pinkie Pie... she started to sing again.

Oh the Grand Galloping Gala is the best place for me

Oh the Grand Galloping Gala is the best place for me

Hip hip

Hooray!

It's the best place for me

For Pinkie...

Pausing and wrapping her grip to Dusk's collar, she pulled him to his feet in a break of her song. Planting a deep kiss to his lips as he staggered under the raw power of her words and strong emotion, Dusk could only stare back up at her as she once more released him twirling around in a circle and tickling his nose with the fluffy tip of her heavy tail as her wild dance started once more. Her voice was a rapid rant of delightful ideas even as she took time to describe every concept with the same rapid glee. "With decorations like streamers and fairy-lights and pinwheels and piñatas and pin-cushions. With goodies like sugar cubes and sugar canes and sundaes and sun-beams and saraparilla. And I get to play my favorite-est of favorite fantabulous games like Pin the Tail on the Pony!" And pausing a moment to clutch her hands together again, she once more burst out in gleeful song.

Oh the Grand Galloping Gala is the best place for me

Oh the Grand Galloping Gala is the best place for me

'Cause it's the most galarrific superly-terrific gala ever

In the whole galaxy

Wheee!!

Finished at last, Pinkie Pie returned to Dusk's side and wrapped her arms around Dusk's neck again, clinging tightly to his chest and lifting a foot from the ground, pressing her full weight into his chest while she released a low and gleeful giggle, while nuzzling heavily up against his cheek while a light coo whisper into his ear. "Oh thank you, Dusk, it's the most wonderful-est gift ever."

With the tickets in her hand against his cheek, Dusk attempted to reach finger's up to snag them from her grasp. As he tugged she finally let them go. His voice low and whimpering a little as he realized he was going to be forced to let down a third friend. At last though Dusk bit the bullet and attempted to speak out, to let Pinkie down gently. "Um, actually--"

But then Rarity gasped as she stood behind him, her eyes wide with glee at the sight of those golden embossed tickets that could only be for one event. Her words filled with awe as she spoke with whispered pleasure hardly contained. "Are these what I think they are?"

Blushing darkly now as he was suddenly confronted by Rarity even as Pinkie clung to his chest and she nuzzled heavily across his chest and burbled sweet nothings into his ear. Dusk struggled to come up with something to say to excuse his way out of Pinkie's grasp and stammered in an attempt to answer her question. "Uh--"

Yet for her part, Pinkie had no shame. Her deep and gleeful coo escaped her lips as she nodded with a giant and wild grin on her lips. "Yes, yes, yes! Dusk's taking me to The Grand Galloping Gala in Canterlot."

Still in her own little world, Rarity stepped forward, her eyes growing wider as she took up Pinkie's hands voice low and whispering in her soft glee. "The gala? I design ensembles for the gala every year, but I've never had the opportunity to attend. Oh, the society, the culture, the glamour! It's where I truly belong, and where I'm destined to meet him."

More then happy to have another person's fantasy to get carried away with, Pinkie Pie leaned in to Rarity's words, her grin spreading wider as she nodded with joy at the story Rarity weaved in soft tones. Smiling with joy she nodded, her voice lifted with delight "Him!" A moment passing before she suddenly looked around shrugging at Dusk and looking back to Rarity. "...Who?"

With her voice dripping with mystery and joy Rarity continued on with her fantasy world. Ignoring the fact the story she told might not really make sense with her recent relationship with Dusk. "Him." She declared, dancing around in a small circle with herself, before taking up Pinkie's hands again grinning with vapid glee. "Why him my darling, the greatest prince in the land and the most interesting unicorn to roam our kingdom..." Releasing the still befuddled but supportive mare's hands she turned and stepped up to Dusk, a hand slipping over his jawline stroking in teasing dance down his cheek and across his jaw.

Their bodies close and her eyes locked upon his, and she started to tell her fantasy, the whole time, locking tight with Dusk's body, and plastering her body physically to his own, the wanton lewd actions getting even Pinkie's mind to focus on the fact she did all of this to the stallion as if he was clay for her hands to mold... and that Dusk appeared to accept her attentions, even leaning in to her fingers tease across his lips at one point. "Why, can't you see it? I would stroll through the gala, and everyone would wonder, 'Who is that mysterious mare?' " With a giggle she turned, to rest her back against Dusk's chest her hands pulling his arms around her body and using his arms to squeeze her in a hug.

"They might never have guessed that I was but a simple mare from little old Ponyville. My sense of class and stylish dress would cause such a sensation. I'd be invited for an audience with Princess Celestia herself!" She cooed these words, leaning back in Dusk's arms and kissing his cheek once before her gaze turned to Pinkie who was getting lost in the story she wove, the pink bundle of energy nodding excitedly in hopes it might prompt Rarity to continue. "At that point, the Princess would simply have to introduce me to her favorite student. The most handsome, eligible unicorn stallion in Canterlot. Our eyes would meet, our hearts would melt. Our courtship would be magnificent."

Swooning over, Dusk was forced to catch her weight in his arms, shocked at how little she really did weigh. Never once did she miss a beat however, as gazing longingly up at him she spoke in soft delight. "At last, he would ask me to marry him. To be his bride and to spend our lives together. Married to him, the stallion of my dreams." At last she split apart from him, a forlorn wrist cast to her brow while she released a low and sorrowful moan, her head dropped low as she stood with her back to him. "Not... that I'd ever get to go to the gala. No Prince Charming is here to sweep me up today."

Confused by her tale, Dusk started to step forward his hand lifted and voice speaking with soft tones. "Rarity... you know..." he paused, swallowing as he looked to Pinkie Pie, then stepped forward again, his hand on her shoulder. "It's just. Isn't that dream a little far fetched? Right Pinkie?" If he had expected any support from the earth mare, he got none, she was balling in tears at the sad end to Rarity's tale. One for melodramatics she looked seconds away from rushing to Rarity's arms, to soothe her about the lack of a 'Prince Charming' in her life.

Now pouting deeply, Rarity's pout only grew deeper and she twisted around, to look over Dusk again, her eyes wide with deep sorrow while her fingers lifted to return the Tickets she had at some point unbeknownst to him stolen from his grip. "Dusk darling, I simply cannot believe you would invite Pinkie Pie so she can... party, and prevent me from meeting my true love!" Teasing him, she flicked her tail in his face while she turned away, her voice lifted in false disappointment. "How could you? Hmph." Though her actions remained melodramatic, it was clear Rarity harbored hints of hurt feelings in her words.

Here at last Dusk might finally get a grasp upon the situation at hand. Thrusting the tickets to Barb he stepped to Rarity's side, his hands slipping around her hips to hold her a moment his voice soft, whispering low into her ear for no other to hear. But while he was distracted by the attempt to make things up to his new found mare love, Barb was knocked over by one of the only people in Ponyville as short as she was. Knocked on her rump, the tickets were snatched up and in a streak of white fur Angel Bunny bolted away despite Barb's protests. "Hey!"

Hopping along and scooting around Pinkie pie, Angel made a swift bolt across the street to Fluttershy's side, the two golden tickets now thrust up into her hand while the little bunny flashed a bold grin back over his shoulder at Barb, now fuming, was stomping after the short and fluffy male. For her part, Fluttershy was shocked at the sudden gift from her little assistant, her voice a gasp of shock, yet joy, as she inspected them. "Oh my Angel, these are perfect!"

Releasing Rarity as she calmed and had started to blush darkly at whatever it was he was whispering into her ear. Now free after calming down one situation Dusk was forced to turn around and find yet another had sprouted up in its place behind his back. Groaning out and slumping his shoulders, he slapped a hand to his forehead his voice now strained at the sudden realization his fifth friend had just wandered into this situation as easily as everypony before her. "Uh, listen guys, I haven't decided who to give the extra ticket to. And besides... I really think Princess Celestia had a hidden--"

But of course, the excitable mares were far from about to give him time to really explain himself in a moment as important as this. At once both Rarity and Pinkie Pie were at his sides, each taking up one of his arms and leaning in close, eyes wide with glee and unmasked ill intent if that was what was required to get their hands upon the second ticket. Together their voices raised in shocked awe. "You haven't?"

Shocking them all however, it was Fluttershy who spoke up next, her hand on Dusk's shoulder, causing him to spin around and lift his gaze to look to the normally so shy creature who stood before him. Behind her Angel stood stomping a foot to the ground with a rapid impact to the ground. Barb stood beside him glaring at the bunny and shaking her head. Voice as fragile as broken glass Fluttershy stepped between the two mares in Dusk's arms to speak up. "Um, excuse me, Dusk. I would just like to ask, I mean, if it would be all right, if you haven't given it to someone else--"

Of course as soft spoken as she might be, Rarity's shock at the fact that Fluttershy spoke out about so social an event as the gala "You? You want to go to the gala?"

Blushing darkly Fluttershy shook her head and drew back a little, half hiding her face between the two tickets she still grasped, blushing darkly and though her meek voice was still loud enough to be heard over the tickets. "Oh, no." She started, but a light push against her lower back by Angel as she started to back away from the others forced her to glance down to him, then whimpering she cleared her throat and stepped forward again, lowering the tickets and nodding with a more honest attempt to start again. "I mean, yes, or, actually, kind of. You see, it's not so much The Grand Galloping Gala as it is the wondrous private gated garden that surrounds the dance. The flowers are said to be the most beautiful and fragrant in all of Equestria. For the night of the gala, and that night alone, would they all be in bloom... and that's just the flora! Don't get me started on the fauna. There's loons and toucans and bitterns, oh my! Hummingbirds that can really hum, and buzzards that can really buzz. White-blue jays, and red jays, and green jays, pink jays and pink flamingos!"

Realizing that she had gotten carried away in a fantasy daydream just like all the others had been as they obsessed over their version of the night at the gala, Dusk gave a groan and squeezed at the bridge of his nose, hissing out his breath in frustration at how complicated things had gotten with so simple a thing as bringing a date to meet the Princess under the cover of a simple social situation."Gee, Fluttershy, it sounds... beautiful?" He attempted, to smooth things over.

Until Rainbow Dash crashed to the ground behind Fluttershy, her voice angry as she stepped up and pushed her way between Dusk and the more sheltered pegasus mare. Voice aggressive and demanding she asserted her place into the middle of the conversation. "Wait just a minute."

Dusk wasn't about to put up with this however, and stepped forcefully forward, pointing a finger to Dash's nose and glaring deep into her eyes, his voice hurt and angry with no attempts to hide his tone. "Rainbow Dash, were you following me?"

Suddenly forced to backpedal Rainbow Dash blushed and looked up and away attempting to find something to distract from her sudden goof. One hand lifted, scratching across the back of her neck as she strained for a believable excuse. "No. I mean, yes. I mean, maybe." Deflated she sighed, then flew up and crossed her arms defensively over her slender chest, glaring back down at Dusk and the others while hovering in the air over them by a few feet. "Look, it doesn't matter. I couldn't risk a goody-two-shoes like you giving that ticket away to just anybody."

The sudden sound of a lasso whipping through the air and wrapping around Dash's feet signaled Applejack's arrival. Hauling in the struggling pegasus mare and glaring deep into her friend's eyes, AJ grunted, her voice annoyed as she started to pull Dash to ground level. "Wait just another minute."

His headache now in full blown migraine Dusk groaned openly and turn to face the last of his friends as she walked to the growing circle, still fighting with Dash and the rope she held clutched in rippling arms, a bead of sweat traveling down her cheek while she reeled in Dash. "Applejack, were you following me too?"

And at last, someone managed to give Dusk what was at least close to an acceptable answer. Applejack hulled Dash to eye level and thrust one free thumb over her shoulder to point to the pouting pegasus mare who still attempted to float with her arms crossed turning away from them as she gave a snort of derision. AJ's voice still strained by the effort, though leveling out now that she no longer fought Dash with the rope. "No. I was followin' this one to make sure she didn't try any funny business. Still trying to take mah ticket."

Rainbow Dash turned on AJ at this point, and stormed over, face level with her far taller friends, as she pushed the taller mare on the shoulders. Glare open she leveled her voice in plain annoyance at the situation at hand. "Your ticket?"

But Pinkie Pie was the one to step between the two fuming mares, her gleeful voice now joined by the others in annoyance at the others stepping into the matter she had considered settled already, her normally warm voice whining. "But Dusk's taking me!"

As the five mares got quickly carried away in the burst of bitter argument, Dusk was now locked up in the situation at hand, with all pushing and shouting as they surrounded him with a tirade of different arguments, at last forcing the issue he stood up tall and lifted his voice to bellow out in hopes of pushing them to give him a moment of peace. "QUIET!"

And it worked for the most part. As all the mares save dear Pinkie Pie fell silent under his sudden harsh outburst. Carrying on in her own little world, the bubblegum mare ranted on with open frustration. "And then I said, "Oatmeal, are you craz--" A moment of realization dawned on her as she noticed the others had gone silent. Her head lifted she blushed, voice soft. "Oh..."

Turning in a slow circle around as he glares at the gathered mares, all now acting out in different ways to deal with the shame of having started a fight over something that mattered so much to them all and yet at the same time was so small a thing as a simple ticket. Gathering himself, Dusk at last give them the full truth of why he was being so reluctant. "Girls, there's no use in arguing. This is my decision, and I'm gonna make it on my own, and I certainly can't think straight with all this noise..." As Barb's stomach rumbles he groaned and shook his head. "Not to mention Barbs hunger. Look, Princess Celestia's letter had a double meaning, a private one and I don't want to hurt any of your feelings when I answer this. So give me some time. I need to make a choice here and it's really important. Now go on, shoo."

As the others started to melt away Dusk let his eyes linger on each in turn, last of all Rarity and the swelling pain of disappointing them all made his pulse race, and his heart ache. Muttering softly to himself as he wrapped an arm about Barb's shoulders and started to walk over to a nearby cafe his voice was tired, hints of half concealed remorse still present. "And don't worry, I'll figure this out... somehow."

Bonus Clop Scene: The Morning After [Dusk x Rarity; Tame]

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Rarity stood in his doorway as he approached, a light grin upon her lips and one coil of hair teased between her fingers. "I see you finally got to meet Derpy. She is a real charmer our local mail mare, a good heart if a tad... unlucky." At his glance she laughed warmly. "You see, if you don't move that rock she tripped over? I'd give you twenty to one odds she trips over it again when she comes back."

Dusk's wide eyes inspected her own, but when he saw no jest hidden in her words he simply shook his head and stepped forward, a hand on her thigh, slipping though the toga she had made of his blanket, his lips pressing into her own. "I think if we want any more fun before she returns we had better hurry then dear. And I'll not risk taking that bet. You sound too confident you'd win." At her low moan he knew it was time to move back inside, before others started to wonder what they were doing in the doorway.

* * *

The walk upstairs was rushed with close company between the two lovers, with Dusk's hands upon the mare's hips even while strong fingers slipped under her 'toga' and dragged over the toned cheeks of her pale flesh. Deep into a kiss Dusk would push her though the bedroom door and groaned as her finger's dug into his own hair in return tugging sharply as he pushed her back against the bed. Panting sharply for breath, Dusk paused, gazing lovingly down at the figure his new lover, eyes lingering on her heaving chest blushing cheeks. "Your turn now my love..." His words spoken in a soft coo, he dropped to his knees, head thrusting under the thin sheet she wore, a series of soft kisses pressing into her legs even as she lifted them from the floor as his kisses moved up across her inner thigh.

Moaning out in her lust at the trailing pressure of kisses up across her tender flesh, Rarity slipped finger's down over the blanket that clung to her body as she gasped to drawn in each breath. As her fingers searched lower, the tips would dance across her own belly and at last found his head, were it lay nestled in between her thighs, hidden by the thin white sheet she was forced to stroke him though the silk cloth, groaning out low pleasure while his head pushed in harder against her slick thighs. Returning her affectionate attention from the night before, Dusk had buried his face into her slick sex, his tongue pressing deep into her folds while two fingers of his right hand had slipped across her hip and back down, to draw and roll at her clit even as he drove his tongue deeper into her inner walls.

Hissing with growing pleasure, Rarity began clawing at his head though the robe in her attempts to get something to hold onto him with. At a brief break in his pressing attention she at last got her wish, as while he sat back, he gave a sharp tug on her toga, pulling the lose knotted loop open leaving her panting breasts and his wet cheeks at last exposed. Giving a light chuckle as one hand lifted to wipe her juices form his cheeks Dusk leaned forward, kissing over her belly in three places, giving a little nibble at her own tender flesh.

Shifting his weight, Dusk would move to his knees, sitting up taller, while his fingers slipped back down her body, across her hips and to her knees. With strong grip he lifted her legs to straddle his shoulders even while he pushed his face back down into her sloppy slit once more, this time keeping his lips against the surface of her pussy, even as two of his fingers now lifted to thrust deep into her wet walls, raking across her inner walls in deep thrusts, driving in and dragging back.

Shuddering under his continued attentions, Rarity would gasp harshly, and twisted her knees to rub heels into his spine with twitching shudders in her legs as the first hints of her orgasm burst forth. Wild shifts of her hips and shaking of her thighs ripped her twisting legs while dragging heavy pressure across his back. Fingers would at last clamp down on his head, nails scraping though his hair while she curled herself tightly forward, wrapping herself around his head. At last she locked up around him, going still as the waves of her climax poured forth in a wailing scream of pleasure.

Dusk was relentless, the sweet scent of her sloppy wet thighs drenched his brain, driving the stallion to hiss out his own harsh pleasure. Even as she at last began to relax from her tight balled grip around his head he continued the deep lipping tease across her clit while wet fingers slipped from her walls, lifting them free and drawing the sloppy digits to her own gasping lips. Thrusting deep into her mouth so she was forced to lap her own fluids off his digits, the stallion at last relented on his torment, instead taking the time to sit back and enjoy the sight of the rich violet haired mare suckling on his twined digits.

Entranced by her own smell on his fingers, the post orgasmic mare clutched his wrist with both hands to pin his arm to her body, even while nails dug into his wrist to keep his hand from moving away from were she wished to keep it captured. Raking teeth across the two digits, while she suckled and swallowed up the wet juice. Shuddering in her pleasure even while her mouth at last pulled off the fingers, dragging her teeth to nip and tug at his knuckles and across the fleshy muscle of different parts of his fingers.

At last Dusk would shift his weight up, his free hand drawing up and around her shoulders to support her weight while he shifted her weight back a foot on the bed. Pulling free his other hand, Dusk moved to rest his knees on the bed, while he drew her knee's off his shoulders, to straddle his hips.At last he spoke for the first time since they arrived in the room, his words low with light lust while lips raked over her earlobe. "Are you... ready my love?" at her nod, he slipped his weight forward, slipping arms under her shoulders and pinning his chest to her own, pressing lips into her throat and dragging a slow series of bites across the curve of her exposed jaw. At the same time, he thrust his hips forward, the hard tip of his erect shaft driving into the folds of her sloppy wet lips with a satisfyingly slunk of moist flesh sliding into the ready mare's depths.

As he mounted her, Rarity would moan out in pleasure, her knees lifting and legs crossing over his bare back. A quiet hiss of joy such a bold contrast to her previous rich screams of pleasure, sweaty bodies slapping together with a natural rhythm dictated by lust, the shift of his hips grinding against her own, the mare's fingers drove into his hair with her right hand, pulling sharply even as she pushed into the biting pressure of his teeth to her throat. Joining in, her free hand slipped across his body, and found the fall ball of his shoulder, digging in and dragging down across his spine, the whole time his own pace quickening in mounting lust. A lewd scene of spent body fluids pouring forth, the mare's panting breath poured across his cheek, the whole time digging needy fingers deeper into his muscles twisting up in his hair's long royal blue locks.

As his bare share drove faster inside her wet walls, Dusk would angle his hips lower, and pushed to align with her own thighs, to find a better approach, to drive his thick member ever deeper inside her depths even as her screams of pleasure were a begging cry in his ears for ever more. And he would give her all he could manage, his eyes slitting as he rocked into her a tight pit forming in his gut while his balls slapped against her thighs. His own bliss bursting past the breaking point, thick ropey bursts of his seed flooded her womb and clung in sticky strands of hot seed. twisting his face from her flesh he lifted his head, until he could find her lips, pushing his needing mouth atop of her own, locking them together in a deep kiss. This time however his own lips parted, tongue thrusting in against her own lips and teasing at them in a request to enter her mouth.

The feeling of his rich sticky seed on her inner walls was the final extra pressure to awaken her own lustful spirit, pushing her past her own climax, just as his lips pressed into her own and his tongue demanded access to her mouth. Hot and wet, the mare unhinged her jaw to give him entrance as requested tongue awkwardly playing together as both panted in desperate climax and at last shared release. Trapped in his mouth, her hard moans of pleasure would be quieter now as his mouth hid the worst of the noise.

At last they drew still, body's locked together while her finger's continued to tease and stroke at the stallions soaked hair, using her easily dancing nails to play with him locks in her idle post climax bliss. In the end as they lay coiled together in a wild pile of limbs, Rarity would at last speak up in her own low pleasure. "Dusk Shine... MY stallion." The low cooing tone of her words drew his attention, making him laugh a little as he nuzzled at her throat in return, simply enjoying the soft flesh of the mare and the warm wet place his manhood still rested.

At last his voice lifted in quiet ease cooing in return. "Rarity, a name well earned. Your companionship is pure bliss."

Chapter 4: The Ticket Master - Part 2

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Pouring over the menu yet not really seeing what was on the page before him, Dusk sighed low, his voice a steady stream of mild annoyance at the situation that was clearly now well out of hand. His Duty to the Princess and his love of Rarity was in direct conflict with his friendship to the other mares each with very valid reasons to wish to go that he couldn't crassly throw aside. Voice strained he would again ask for her assistance. "Barb, what am I gonna do? All five of my best friends have really good reasons to go to the gala. Applejack, or Rainbow Dash? Pinkie Pie or Fluttershy, Rarity... Oh, who should go with me?"

The waiter, Savoir Fare stepped up to Dusk's table, a pad in one hand as he leveled his gaze to Dusk over the menu, his voice serious and cool he queried them for the second time since Dusk had not answered his first time. "Have you made your decision?"

Not even realizing that it wasn't Barb who asked the question, Dusk cried out in his own frustration, the menu slammed down to the table before him as he cried out his annoyance. "I JUST CAN'T DECIDE!"

Snickering at his overreaction, Barb pointed a thumb to direct Dusk's gaze from herself to the now rather haughty waiter who glared down at them even while his own hotheaded mistake began to sink in. "Dusk, he just wants to take your order." Blushing with his own now very public turn at shame, Dusk moved to quickly speak up to get the matter over with. His voice full of that same embarrassed overtone Dusk ordered without a second thought. "Oh. I would love a daffodil and daisy sandwich."

Writing swiftly but taking no time to bother getting involved with what was clearly Dusk's problem. Barb lifted her gaze from the menu, her voice hopeful "Do you have any rubies?" When his brows lowered and leveled at her she gave a sigh and shook her head. "No? Okay. I'll have the hay fries, extra crispy." Snorting lightly the waiter turned and wandered to off, leaving the two to enjoy the outdoor table.

Relaxing again as they were left alone, Dusk returned his gaze to his assistant, his voice hopeful and sad as he called for her advice on the day's headaches. "What do you think, Barb?"

But it appeared even she could get lost in her own world, as Barb was still glaring over her shoulder at the waiter who had wandered from their table pouting a little and resting her face on her open palm, grunting her own soft annoyance. "I think we have to try another restaurant. I mean, I like grass just fine, but would it hurt anybody to offer some gemstones?"

Groaning heavily, Dusk lifted a hand to grasp her hand in his own soft grip. His eyes large as he gazed into her own eyes in hopes of getting some kind of help "I mean about the gala and the ticket and who I should take?"

Groaning a little she shook her head voice bored by the whole situation, Barb gave her far from helpful answer. "Oh. You're still on that?"

Dusk pulled on that hand drawing her closer as he got more frantic while his OCD took over the situation, his voice rapid and rambling in his own fantasy as he got carried away. "Barb, listen! How do I choose? And when I do choose, will the other four be mad at me? I mean, if I do as Princess Celestia wants, it means leaving the four of them behind and taking Rarity to what might be a very unhappy 'conversation'. but if I leave her behind and take one of the others... I mean, I could give up my ticket and give away two, but that would still leave three disappointed ponies. What if I--"

Here Savoir Fare interrupted his tirade with the delivery of their food, plates placed before them both and speaking up to pull his attention away from his endless rants. "Ah, your food." Glad at last to have a distraction from his headache thanks to the arrival of his food, Dusk drew up the sandwich and drew it to his lips, dragging a sniff of the fresh meal and giving one little sigh of his own delight. Voice now far calmer now he spoke with joy to the waiter. "Oh thank you. This looks so good. I'm sure everything will be much clearer once I eat."

A sudden torrent of other people pushed past Dusk's table, even as he took the first bite from his own sandwich, chewing at it with quiet pleasure as his eyes slipped closed. A quiet sigh whispering from his lips, Dusk got lost in his meal until he heard the voice of Savoir Fare calling from some distance away now, when his gaze opened to look he finally now realize it was because he stood in the doorway to the main restaurant, his voice worried. "Em, sir? Are you going to eat your food in ze rain?"

Looking up, and chewing slowly, Dusk was confused, his head lifting to look around in a brief inspection of what it was that was going on around him. With no others about he looked up voice confused. "But... It's not raining." Yet as he took in his surroundings the fact he sat in the only dry spot in a circle of rain dawned upon him. "What... What's going on?"

From high above, and resting upon the storm clouds, Rainbow Dash beamed down from a rather sunny gap directly above him alone. Her eyes dreamy, she gazed down at him, voice playing innocent yet warm. "Hi there, best friend forever I've ever ever had. Enjoying the sunny weather?"

Groaning at the mare's antics, Dusk dropped his sandwich to the plate before him, glaring openly up at her even as he cast an accusatory glare to the mare. "Rainbow Dash, what are you doing?"

Playing the innocent, Rainbow Dash rolled over on her could pillow, looking down at him while laying upon her back flashing him her own warmest and most innocent of grins. "Whaddya you mean? I just saw the smartest, most generous pony about to get rained on, so I thought I'd kick a hole in the clouds to keep him dry so he could dine in peace, that's all. And besides, you've been working so hard of late, I wouldn't want you to get sick, that would be heartless of me!"

His brows lowered, Dusk's voice was without a moment of humor while he leveled his gaze at the still playfully innocent acting mare. "Rainbow, you're not trying to get extra consideration for the extra ticket by doing me extra special favors, are you?"

Still feigning innocence Dash put a hand to her chest, her voice filled with the best innocent and indigent tones she could summon. "Me? No no no, of course not. I'm just looking out for your health"

Unamused by her game, Dusk continued to level his glare, his voice as dry as he was. "Uh-huh."

Still attempting to get though this with some points in her favor Rainbow Dash nodded excitedly, waving her hand around though the air in hopes that she might get them past this situation "Seriously, I'd do it for any pony. Heh heh, eh." And yet, even as she spoke a random pony charged though the air, drenched to the bone, she pushed her way into one of the nearest stores, even as she dripped from the heavy downpour.

Done with Dash's games Dusk leveled his glare up at her his arms crossing on his chest as he stated his objection openly to the mare. "Rainbow, I am not comfortable accepting unwanted favors, so I'd appreciate it if you close up that rain cloud right now."

Grunting as her game was thrown out at Dusk's refusal to play along, Rainbow Dash sat up and gave her own derisive grumbles. "Ugh, fine." The missing cloud was shoved into place to join the rest of the storm, blasting at the ground below.

Glad that things were being done properly again, Dusk returned his focus to the meal before him, his sandwich lifted once more and drawn to lips, muttering warmly to himself. "That's better." Then a sudden crack of thunder split the air and impacted the ground just a few feet from him. The thick sudden torrent of released rain soaked him in its downfall, its blast ruining the meal and his momentary happy mood.

Dressed in a golden hued raincoat, Rarity walked up and held out her umbrella to help cover Dusk from the still powerful downpour. Her voice disapproving she spoke with bland tones. "Dusk, it's raining."

As annoyed as he was Dusk got sarcastic, and rolled his eyes, turning to lock his gaze up to the mare who was keeping him dry at least at the moment. "No, really?" He waited, head his cocked to the right as he glared at her waiting to see just what next smart remark she had prepared.

Rarity took his words with ease however, gracefully turning and waving her free hand towards her Carrousel Boutique. Voice gentle and kind she cooed with soft ease. "Come with me before you catch a cold darling."

* * *

Back inside the Boutique Dusk stood by the door while the little mare rushed around, taking his jacket from him and hanging it up by the door to help it dry out, the dribbling water falling upon her floor mat. Standing as he did on her entrance mat he raked two fingers though his hair, releasing his own annoyed sigh, yet in the process a soft spray of water drops splattered her in the face. Blushing dark he looked down voice soft. "Heh heh, oops, sorry."

Rarity however appeared to have no issue with the light water drops as they impacted on her face, but her own soft smile and kind voice lifted in ease, even while she stepped in close again, a hand raking through his hair while her voice lowered in soft glee. "Oh no, it's quite all right." Turning she wrapped her arms around his neck, pulling close to press her silky body against his wet chest. Lips pressing heavily up and into the kiss. Her right hand slipped out and stroked tenderly across his naked chest to trace the outline of muscles with the deft tips of her own fingers.

Dusk's world was filled with no one but Rarity, until Barb suddenly cleared her throat and started lightly tapping her foot in impatience. "You two are cute and all but why am I here?", she asked, her arms crossed over her trim figure, her scales beaded with water, leaving her standing in a small puddle, the moisture pinning her light cotton dress to wet scales.

Peeling free of Dusk's body, Rarity was grinning warmly as she turned to Barb, who still stood by the door, the soft teasing tone she had been using instantly dropped when she realized just how enamored Rarity was with the way her damp clothing clung to her frail frame. She cupped up the dragoness by the jaw with both her hands, as she spoke in a rich voice. "And you are so cute too. Oh Barb, I have a dandy little outfit for the noble lady!"

While the little dragon rarely wore much in the way of fancy clothing, she didn't mind the occasional times Princess Cadence had helped her dress up for a celebration. But now with Rarity suddenly pushing a silky dress upon the girl, its soft yellow green hues a nice compliment to her natural purple scales, she started squirming at the sudden attention, yet still stunned by the soft touch of her current crush. "D-ah, ow, oh, hey, wow, watch it, whoa!" Fighting as the dress was forced on her she wiggled and mutter in annoyance at the weight of the dress, even as it was shifted and pinned by Rarity's keen fingers to make it fit as flawlessly as possible.

Watching as Barb blushed darkly under the fawning attention from Rarity, Dusk lightly chuckled, endeared to the way the mare took so much time to primp and groom at Barb's scales and the like. "Oh, Barb you look so cute!"

Nodding her own rich joy, Rarity murmured her own soft agreement. "Now you just need a Tiara that goes with your spikes..." She cast her gaze towards the pile of crowns and other jewellery that might go well with the dress on Barb's slender body. Clinging close to her thin frame and showing off a lot of leg, it really did make the little dragoness look noble.

Even while Rarity softly muttered her own low words in consideration of one Tiara over another, Barb, at last, got fed up and pushed past Dusk and Rarity, her voice disgusted as she stormed out the door still in the dress. "Ugh, I told you, I don't want any part of this frilly gala gunk, see you back at the library." Realization that the sky outside was clear now Dusk relaxed and shifted to gaze up at Rarity as he relaxed in the chair watching fine figure sweeping back across the room to his side.

Laughing softly she drew his hands up into her own, drawing him to stand with her in a dancing pose, turning so they gazed together into the towering mirror. Her voice dismissively casting away Barb's swift escape, she focused instead on him. "Oh, who needs her anyway. This is all about you, and how fabulous we'll look at The Grand Galloping Gala."

Realizing what was going on at last, Dusk released a soft sigh, his head shaking quietly "Wait, I have to tell you something Rarity. It's about the Gala." At last he got her attention, his words catching her as she had moved to pull a sample of outfits to show off for him. Alone with the mare and her attention locked on him alone Dusk stepped forward and cupped her chin his voice soft and low. "It's just that Princess Celestia was asking me so many questions. I don't think this Gala invitation is for fun." Blushing darkly at his words, Rarity let the tux slide back onto its hook while he turned and drew into his arms her voice soft, low and tender. "I don't mind Dusk, If the Princess wants to know about our relationship? I can tell her the truth. I've fallen in love with the greatest stallion in Equestria and it's a joy to know he cares for me in return."

Relaxing at last a little, his hands slipping around her hips and a soft kiss planted on her cheek, rubbing his muzzle against her jaw in tender strokes. For a moment silence passed between them while quiet silence passed, the mare gazing longingly up into his own eyes. At last Dusk laughed and relaxed, nodding once gently. "Alright. So its that simple then. We stand up to Celestia, after maybe she just wants to make sure I'm treating you right." When she cocked an eyebrow up at him he laughed gently. "Sunset treated me so poorly, since then the Princess has been very supportive... But I've always wondered if she felt guilty for introducing us in the first place."

Suddenly from the open door the sound of a very familiar voice called out, while the rich smell of a dozen spiced apple treats tormented at the nose. With a massive grin upon her lips Applejack stepped up to the open door and called out with a booming voice, friendly in nature, yet with the hints of jealousy were not far from her words. "Dusk! I've got to get you to try some of this food. Some new Apple family treats Granny had me whip up. You done enjoyed the others so much, I had to find you first before anyone else!"

A groan escaped Dusk's lips as he and Rarity turned to look to the earth mare, yet as Applejack stepped into the open door that Barb had stormed out though, her rich grin warm as the summer sun, even as she waved to the food cart she had brought with her from the Apple farm. Dressed up in fresh brown shorts that clung to her tight rump and a short white tee-shirt that hugged just barely passing over her breasts, while a matching brown half jacket that was only just a little longer hung to her ribs. Grinning warmly she called with strong and sultry overtones. "Did somepony say lunch?"

Gazing over his shoulder at the mare Dusk slumped his head forward, groaning at how everything just kept going wrong today. "You've got to be kidding me! Applejack... I... Rarity and I were having a moment just now."

Shaking her head with unbreakable courage, Applejack pushed herself onward, waving a hand to the cart she had shoved half into the doorway while fresh steaming food oozed rich scents into Rarity's Boutique. "I got apple pie, apple fritters, apple tarts, apple dumplings, apple crisps, apple crumblers, and apple Brown Betty. Uh, the dessert, not my auntie." Fingers slipped out and wrapped around Dusk's wrist, to pull him away form Rarity, and cling for just a moment possessively to his arm while for a moment a glare was shared between the two mares who were normally such good friends.

Dusk's gaze darted from one mare to the other, realizing it wasn't really him she was talking to with all that statement. Rarity had gone quiet and gazed to AJ dressed up as she was in her best show duds, even while the farm mare started pushing food into Dusk's hands. Her large eyes wide with joy as she pushed forward further. "Is that a yes? I'd..." And here she swallowed, and turned her gaze down to him, her voice suddenly hinting at more then just friendly tones. "I'd sure love to be your date to the gala."

Rarity gasped, her eyes wide as she rushed to Dusk's side and placed herself between him and the taller mare. Eyes massive with pain she put a finger to AJ's chest, pushing her back a little while inserting herself back into the situation. "A... AJ! You know how close me and Dusk have gotten. Why would you do this.... I... We.. were friends." The hurt stood out massive in her eyes.

Suddenly a second string actor in his own life, Dusk was left to watch as AJ stepped back up to Rarity's push, her arms crossing her chest as she glared down at the other mare. "Maybe it's cause I want something too Rarity? Or that you ain"t the only one with an eye for a handsome stallion? It's not like you two have declared yourself or not'ing." Here she turned to look up from Rarity to Dusk her voice tender and easy. "I know I've been difficult of late due..." A cough and then she swallowed starting again. "Cause of my season and what not. But I want to know if my feelings were about you are real or not."

Swallowing she stepped back from Rarity, and leaned against the door-frame her arms crossing over her belly and her voice spoke with a softer, shy nature. "I don"t know what I feel yet, but I'd sure like the chance to get ta know ya better Dusk. But on da' farm? No that's no good! Ma.. Maybe at the Gala? Where else could you see I'm as good a mare as Rarity." And then as they both simply stared at her in shock she blushed darkly and looked down.

Dusk at last understood, and turned to Rarity, a soft smile offered to the older mare as he stepped forward, stroking his hand across the woman's spine in a single easy pass. The touch drew her gaze up to him and when she realized what he had asked without words, she nodded softly. Holding hands they stepped forward, together placing a soft touch with their free hand on the farm pony's jaw. His voice rich and soft, Dusk spoke up first with tender care. "Applejack, it would be my pleasure to get to know you better. You don't need fancy duds or some silly party to get my attention." As she lifted her head to gaze into his eyes, he smiled again just for her, his voice whispering softly for her. “I don't know if it's just your heat or not, but I've had a great time helping you at the farm these last few weeks. I think I owe you at least a date.”

With his words sinking in, the towering mare looked up a little then turned to look to Rarity, her voice breaking when she attempted to speak up. But she didn't need to, as Rarity stepped into her arms and hugged her tightly. Her voice warm and soft as she giggled softly. "You big goof. You should have told me. I'd never have the strength to deny you a handsome stallion. I've shared secrets with you, why should I have a problem sharing someone with a big heart like Dusk." Sniffling a little herself, she poked the taller mare in the belly. "Just don't go stealing him from me completely. Maybe... if you really fall in love with him... well we could always form a herd?"

At last this smoothed things over, and with one strong arm wrapped around Dusk's back, AJ pulled him into the three way hug, laughing warmly. When she had a chance to clear her eyes of tears she blushed darkly before answering her shorter friends suggestion. "I'm sorry Rarity. I just.. I felt so jealous of you laying claim to the best stallion around... not able to do anything cause my heart was too confused by my season." She looked up from Rarity to gaze to Dusk's eyes, her voice tender and low. "I ain't saying I've fallen for you like some silly filly who has read one too many romance novel to think straight. I'm just saying if you like me too, A date or something?" When he simply nodded she relaxed and shook her head warmly. "Look at us, getting all worked up. Now let's get down to what's really important, what's up with this ticket to the gala? Why did the Princess so clearly ask for Rarity?"

It was Dusk's turn to blush darkly now, and with quiet care he explained the night he and Rarity had, along with their fun the morning after. Every time he attempted to gloss over some details she instantly supplied them all, leaving him no chance to be shy around the other mare. In the end he shrugged his voice soft. "I'm guessing she saw that letter and worried I was falling into another abusive relationship like with Sunset Shimmer. I wonder how she will take it when I say two mare's have presented a convincing case that I should form a herd."

They shared a warm round of laughter at the remark, Rarity serving them tea while they sat around munching on some of AJ's treats. Talking about that night with her had released some tension Dusk hadn't really realized was between the two mares and now that it was over, suddenly things were far more comfortable. Speaking up first AJ smacked Dusk on the knee her voice harder but mostly playful. "First thing you gotta understand Dusk. We ain't no herd. I'm just keeping my options open. You might be the best Unicorn stallion around, but you are as weak as water. Maybe learn to apple buck and I'll give you proper chance."

Shared laughter continued as the conversation at last turned back to the tickets to the gala itself. Speaking up first, AJ put a foot down. "I don't need to go. I want to, don't get me wrong on that for a moment. But fancy parties are not my thing. I'd rather try and make the farm a whole heap of money then wind up dancing fancy before of the Princess!"

Snickering a little Rarity dunked her apple tart in her tea, her voice cooing soft teases to the younger mare. "Oh don't worry about it. If you go, I'll give you dance lessons. Maybe even make you a ball gown. Just think of how charming a couple you'd make on the dance floor. Oh sure, Dusk would have to look up at you as he attempted to waltz around the room, but you are---" And here she paused to clear her throat and attempted to copy AJ's tone for a moment. "A rotten apple tree in need of a good bucking."

The three relaxed and sit down to chat together for a while, trying to figure out a solution to today's headaches. While none came forth, at least the three could share the problem between three different viewpoints. Dusk relaxed a little, content in knowing the two mares friendship was as solid as ever.

* * *

Arriving home with a fresh perspective on the situation but no more answers, Dusk opened the door of the Golden Oak Library only to suddenly find the sweetest of singing voices whispering through the air and teasing at his ears as the unseen singer carried on. A little worried now, he wandered inside, knowing that wasn't Barb's singing voice his step was a little slower, and his eyes searched every corner of the room for the source of that song. It wasn't until he stepped into the Library proper that his senses were hit full in the face by a shocking sight.

Dressed up in what could only be described as a skimpy french maid's outfit, its frilly skirt hardly even reaching her knees while a big white bow tied over her plush rump swayed from side to side, Fluttershy was dusting the Library, with the aid of a half dozen of her animal friends. And it wasn't until she turned around upon hearing his jaw drop and the low muttering words whispering free of his lips. "Fluttershy, not you too?" He groaned.

The full effect of this new outfit really struck Dusk when she turned at his voice. While the skirt was short, the plunging neckline of the dress revealed a massive amount of cleavage considering the tremendous size of the blushing mare's breast. Except for the presence of a white dress shirt worn under the maid uniform buttoned up to the throat and giving her some semblance of modesty. Duster still in her deft fingertips, Fluttershy gasped and draw both hands up to offer a cheerful grin, only the fidgeting of her hands making it clear how uncomfortable she was in the moment. "Oh, well, hello Dusk. I hope you don't mind, but we're all doing a little spring cleaning for you."

Eyes wide, Dusk turned his gaze around the room to inspect the cleaning aid done by her animal assistants. Until he saw Angel Bunny walking into the room, a silver platter carried in one hand. Here too he we forced to groan a little, as the short bunny had been dressed up in a fine white chief's dress suit, fixed up in full with tall hat and apron. Having taken it all in, he turned back to glare at Fluttershy, his voice very tired now despite the shockingly appealing sight before him. "It's summer."

Blushing and offering a small shrug Fluttershy played innocent, flying swiftly over behind the bunny and grabbing Angel lightly by the shoulders forcing him to scramble as he struggled to support the weight of the platter in his grip as she shook him around a little. "Oh, well, better late than never, right? It was Angel's idea."

Not fooled for a moment, Dusk crossed his arms over his own chest, his own voice released in a sharp grunt. His leveled glare focused on the shy filly, figuring it might be easier to break her rather than the stonewalling bunny. "You're not doing this for the ticket, are you?"

Attempting to still act innocent, Fluttershy shook her hands and fly around her bunny to float before him, hands taking his own up and her head shaking with mirth and light giggles. "Oh no, I'm doing this because you're my very best friend. Right Angel?"

A little more aware of the whole situation then his boss, Angel turned his glare up to her and turned to Dusk his voice dripping with sarcasm. "Not at all Dusk! Why would Fluttershy ever want to go to the biggest flower show and free range zoo in Equestria?"

Seeing both men turned on her, a whimper escaped her lips, before she gave a solid nod, taking up Angel's lead and dropping any attempts at faking the act of kindness was for any reason but her own greed. Voice warm and smile pleading she relented and returned to give the truth instead. "Oh, yes, we are just doing this for the ticket."

Groaning, but at least respecting the fact they were willing to drop the act and be honest Dusk turned around and pulled open the door to the library a hand waving to direct them out while his strained voice waved near the edge of flat rage. "No, no, no! Well, this was all very nice of you and Angel, but I'm not accepting any extra favors until I've made my final decision, so I'm going to have to ask you to leave."

But it was Dusk, not Fluttershy and Angel, who left, as he was suddenly scooped up by a dozen mare's who together snatched him up and cried out in unison. "SURPRISE!" Thrown head over heels, Dusk landed upon a trampoline, suddenly stuck in a friendly celebration whose origin was not hard to guess at. Arms crossing over his chest he sat back glaring heavily as he waited for this to calm down, or at least until he saw the source of this 'favor'.

Then in the bold blast of trumpets, Pinkie Pie stepped out, her voice lifted high in song as she began to dance around in a circle before the many cheering fillies who were helping her with the trampoline. Confetti in one hand, and a song in her heart she made massive leaps into the air to accent her words with bold actions.

Dusk is my bestest friend

Whoopie, whoopie!

Still waiting with a level glare and his voice sharp in the base of his throat, Dusk waited a moment, maybe two, allowing the mares to toss him into the air twice more, waiting for a break in the song before speaking out in his own calmly stoked furnace of annoyance. "Pinkie..."

Of course, the mare wasn't about to heed any distractions while in full blown song mode, his level polite words never once getting a chance to be heard as the delighted bubblegum mare danced on voice drowning his own out in her glee

He's the cutest, smartest, all around best pony, pony!

Clearly realizing his words were not getting through to any of them, he drew a sharp breath and spoke harder, adding some real volume to the tone as he continued to be bounced in the air. "Pinkie." The menacing addition to his tone attempting to make it perfectly clear to her he was done with her game... and it failed to get though.

In her gleeful parade, the mare was lost to his words, her singing only growing louder as she pressed on in song.

I bet if I throw a super-duper fun party, party!

His rage boiling over, Dusk swallowed sharply, and called out with a more vocal scream of rage, this time at last getting through to the others in the crowd as he cried out his annoyance. "Pinkie!" The trampoline stopped as they let him get to his feet, but the mare? Not even a dent was made into her own joyful dance, spiraling in the air with easy grace.

He'll give his extra ticket to the Gala to me!

Dusk slipped forward, off the trampoline while his arms crossed over his chest again, and he waited for the mare to land before him again in a pause in her dance. All the other mares had started to back off, quickly realizing that Dusk was having no part in whatever show she was putting on, yet now continued hanging around thanks to their morbid interest in the show she was now putting on for them. "PIIINKIIIE!!"

Standing together by the door to the Library, Barb looked up to Angel and over to Fluttershy, offering a soft shrug as she started to push through the crowd to make her way to his side, in hopes she might have a chance to offer him some kind of help. But even as she went, the low voice of Angel called over the crowd loud enough for her to hear at least. "Maybe we should have done that. I think the message would have gotten across a LOT better." At Fluttershy's whimper, he gave sigh and nod a little. "Yeah. You're right, it would have been a lot harder to get them all together to help out before Pinkie collected them first. Besides. I like the hat."

Stopped by Dusk standing face to face with her, Pinkie Pie spread her joyful smile as a counter to his annoyed glare, her hands cupping together behind her back even while she wiggled from hips to the tip of her nose, gleeful that the moment she had been waiting for. "Yes, Dusk?" If she showed any sign of realizing he was frustrated with her insane actions instead simply beaming a gleeful grin in response to his words of rage.

Groaning out under the force of that shameless grin Dusk relented a step or two, and put a hand to his brow voice filled with open despair at her plan to woo him. "At least the other ponies tried to be subtle about the ticket Pinkie..."

The sudden revaluation of Pinkie's words, made real to the others at Dusk's confirmation made the gathered crowd begin to realize that something more was going on here. Stepping forward from the gathering crowd that still grew in size, a mare Dusk had been introduced to the other day by the name of... what was it, Drizzle? As the first to speak up, her voice suddenly full of wonder, eyes soft pink hue wide with glee. "Wait, what ticket? What gala?" Turning to offer a offhanded comment to the pegasus Pinkie Pie laughed gently and offered her warm shrug. "Oh, you didn't know? Dusk has an extra ticket to the Grand Galloping Gala!"

Now the whole crowd spoke up together, as one massive voice in unison "The Grand Galloping Gala?" Suddenly forty mare's all at once turned and pushed together towards Dusk, overwhelming him with their sudden chatter and random offers mixed up was the crowd he wasn't be able to identify more than one or two of those were closest as they spoke.

"Have I ever told you how much I love your mane?"

"I'll wash your dishes."

Pressing in on Dusk, the filly Daisy stroked a hand across his cheek, her voice velvety and soothing "Would you like any help with your gardening?"

On the other side of him, Shoeshine slipped close to draw a finger across his lips, cooing low and warm. "I have a cartload of extra carrots." All the while still more voices pressed in, one after another crying out offers of one favor or another.

"I'll paint your cart."

Realizing the mob that was forming before him, Dusk grabbed Barb by the wrist, pulling her in close and bolting off in the only free direction he could go, away from the one safe place in mind as the horde had already clustered into a wall of body's before the Golden Oak Library. Even as he bolted, Barb called up to him from in his arms, her voice worried, shivering with momentary fear. "What are we gonna do?"

Bolting as fast as he could, Dusk was still scanning for any avenue of escape. His voice panting for breath even as he turned one corner and ran down another alleyway the wild horde mobbing behind them spilling through the streets and stalking them without fail. All he could manage was a grunt and a groan, his mind still wildly spinning for thoughts of somewhere safe, yet all that came to mind was the Golden Oak, now blocks behind him and only getting further way. "We're... gonna... run!"

Still more offers of favors poured forth, one after another whenever Dusk turned a corner only to find himself confronted by a second wind of the ever growing crazed horde. And not just mare's, several stallions had joined in, the one before him shoving a card into his hand his own voice professional compared to the crazed mob. "I'll do your taxes!" An offer so ridiculous in this situation Dusk was forced to halt and simply stare as the smirking stallion. This was a bad choice and soon the mass of bodies surrounded him again.

This time they offered him no avenue for escape, no gaps between two bodies he might dive though. Even overhead a dozen pegasus had gathered to form a net in the air to lock down upon him with the rest of the begging crowd. Panic setting in Dusk dragged Barb up into his arms and held her tight to his chest. Any attempt to think was lost to this situation as he twist and turned around in place even while his hand rubbed the dragon’s back. Swallowing sharply as he shifted and shuffled feet on the ground, he twisted around in one last desperate hope, the idea of safety now all he could think of... and in a sudden burst of power, he popped from sight in a bubble of brilliant raspberry light enveloping him and then releasing its own bubble of silence that washed over the gathered crowd.

Realization dawned on the gathered masses, that Dusk had disappeared before their eyes. Random voices muttered softly even as they began to disperse, "Where is he? Where did he go? he just... disappeared." Of the crowd, five hung around, gathering close and starting to talk, or more appropriately, speaking to the others in a soft voice, Rarity fingered at the thick and silky purple mane of her hair. Whispering of the only other time she had seen such magic, the night of Nightmare Moon.

* * *

A second flash of shocking bright white light that faded to simply scorchingly resplendent tones of light raspberry aura before the bubble unfolded and fell free from two panting figures, the last moment of the spell exploding in a small column of smoke that left the two coughing for breath. Once more in the safety of the Library Dusk and Barb staggered together and sank to sit on the floor, resting back to back as the aftershocks of a spell cast by sure force of will alone still sapped at their strength. It was the little dragoness who spoke first, shaking her head and sticking her tongue out at the taste of the magic that still managed to somehow linger on her taste buds. "Ugh, warn me next time you're gonna do that."

Laughing a little warmly to himself Dusk shook his head grinning to his assistant as he started pulling himself to his feet, staggering on uneasy feet. His voice happy at the discovery of new found magic, yet still drained and strained by the act of power behind the spell, as accidental as it might be. "I didn't even know it was gonna happen. Now quick, lock the doors."

Yet before they could get five feet, the front door slipped open and five bodies quickly slipped inside, locking it behind them before the soft tones of Fluttershy's voice lifted up, calling out with soft care. "Dusk? Please come out. We... We want to talk..."

Groaning as he turned the corner only to walk straight into the five friends he couldn't do anything to help Dusk gave up and flopped to his knees before them. His voice openly ranting at the unfix-able situation at hand. "Yaaaargh! I can't decide, I just can't decide. It's important to all of you and I just can't stand to disappoint any of you, and giving me gifts and doing me favors won't make any difference, because you're all my friends and I wanna make you all happy and I can't, I just can't!"

Unsurprisingly it was Applejack who stepped forward, and gave his shoulder a soft squeeze. "Dusk, sugar, I didn't mean to put so much pressure on you, and if it helps, I don't want the ticket anymore. You can give it to somepony else. I won't feel bad, I promise." Her gaze was swift to shift to Rarity, and a quiet sad smile drifted over her lips as she offered the Unicorn mare a little nod.

The real shock was that Fluttershy of all people, still in that silly black and white silk and lacy maid's outfit who stepped in next, cupping his cheeks with her hands and smiling down to him, leaning in to put a light kiss on his nose her voice warm and light. "Me too. I feel just awful that I made you feel so awful." Outside you might just hear the sound of a familiar bunnies voice screaming out 'Oh come on!'

Next Pinkie Pie blushing dark and drooped her head low, putting her hands on his own drawing him to stand up with her, resting her head to his chest before at last spoke her own soft apologize. "And me too. It's no fun upsetting your friends."

Rarity was the only one who was silent, as swiftly Dash pushed in front of him and cried out in victory, a small dance and twirl on the spot preformed in her own joy at the others retreat from the situation. "Yes! That means the ticket is mine. Ha ha!" Her song grew to a near sing song tone as she danced in place in her own bold joy. "I got the ticket, I got the ticket--" Yet as she looked to AJ and the others a sigh escaped her lips, her body sinking down to the ground and sheepishly she kicked the door lightly. "You know, I haven't perfected my signature moves for The Wonderbolts anyway. I don't need that ticket either." More a guilt trip then really relenting to the others pressure the mare glared at the others but with only a small pout on her lips.

Rarity at last stepped forward, her hands holding one of Dusk's own, her voice soft and easy. "I won't go if you don't want to Dusk. Princess Celestia doesn't need to make you go to some dance just to talk to me. I can make the trip any day of the week if she but asked."

When the others started to mumble in confusion AJ simply leaned back against the wall and crossed arms over her chest her voice level, a hint of... jealousy maybe danced on her words. "Dusk and Rarity are a number now. And you'd all better respect that." When none offered more than a mild shrug, she turned back to Dusk her voice softer now, tone warm as she tried to patch the situation with one last bandage. "We all got so gun-ho about going to the gala that we couldn't see how un-gun-ho we were making you."

All the others nodded and replied together in unison with everyone's statement a joined note. "We're sorry, Dusk." Of one sort or another.

Realization dawning upon him Dusk grinned and turned from the mares, he spoke to his assistant, his voice rich with new found confidence. "Barb, take down a note." The scramble for paper and a quill took only a moment and Dusk wrapped his arms around as many of the five mare's as he could manage in one massive hug as he guided them into the Library to watch over the little dragoness as he spoke on. "Dear Princess Celestia, I've learned that one of the joys of friendship is sharing your blessings, but when there's not enough blessings to go around, having more than your friends can make you feel pretty awful. So, though I appreciate the invitation, I will be returning both tickets to The Grand Galloping Gala." Together the others were shocked at the words, all turning to look from one another then back to Dusk, AJ even squirming from his grip, her voice calm and sure now as she stroked a hand across his cheek. "Dusk.. you don't have to do that." Followed by the others calling out with assorted statements of "What?"

Laughing softly, Dusk turned to hug her again shaking his head warmly as he looked over all his new friends. his voice was relaxed and confident for the first time since the letter had arrived. "If my friends can't all go, I don't wanna go either." As AJ started to form more words he put a finger to her nose and winked playfully up to the mare. "Nope. I've made up my mind. Barb, you can send the letter now."

Barb took a breath and casting her magic she sent the new letter away, along with the two tickets stuffed into its coiled page. Fluttershy stepped up beside him as he watched the magic whisper out into the clear blue sky, her voice sad and low. "Now you won't get to go to the gala either."

Lightly giving her a soft chuck on the jaw, Dusk drew them all into a second massive group hug, his voice brimming with soft confidence this time. "It's okay, girls. I couldn't possibly enjoy myself without my best friends there with me, so I would rather not go at all." For her part only Barb stood apart, suddenly snorting and coughing as if her throat was stuck on something. "Hgh... hgh... urk... urk..."

Laughing sharply at the reaction to their friendly sentiment, Applejack gave the little dragoness a clap on the back, voice teasing to the younger lass. "Well wallop my withers, Barb. Isn't that just like a young filly? Can't handle the least bit of sentiment." Yet the blow was strong enough to clear up whatever was clogging her lungs and Barb released a sudden powerful fireball of that same green magic, bursting into existence a new letter and forcing AJ to draw away from the flames with a cry of shock "Whoa Nelly!"

A little shocked, Dusk peeled away from the others to pick up the letter and unfold it for the dragon while she caught her breath, but leaving her the chance to read it first. His voice light and worried, he almost didn't dare to look down to the words of anger he was now worried what might be written across the page. "A letter from the princess? That was fast..."

Gathering herself up again, Barb took the scroll and inspected it, reading quickly as the others soon started to press in close in hopes of hearing or seeing more sooner, rather than waiting for her to finish. "My faithful student Dusk, Why didn't you just say so in the first place? Here are Six tickets to The Grand Galloping Gala, it would be my pleasure to have all your friends come along and enjoy a night on the town. They have earned it a thousand times over after all."

As a collective, all six ponies gasped, Dusk turning to address his friends with his own soft chuckle of glee. "Well how about that? Now we can all go." As a rich cheer echoed forth from the gathered crowd the sudden rumble of his stomach reverberated through the room, causing them all to laugh and cut short the rich cheer they had just began at the discovery of the new tickets. With a nervous laugh he lightly pet his own belly, eyes dropping to Barb voice soft. "Did you ever eat properly today?"

Turning to Dusk, the little dragon considered trying a bold lie, before giving in and nodding. "Those gems you ordered showed up in the afternoon mail. They go great on a daffodil sandwich!" While the others laughed a little, Dusk shook his head rubbing at his hungry stomach.

Rarity step into his side, linking arms with him and flashing a rich smile up to him, her voice soft and warm. "Please Dusk. Do allow us to treat you to dinner."

Here Dash snickered softly, looping her arm with his free one, her eyes bright with wonder. "After all, how what else could we apologize to you, egghead!"

Hopping onto his back and wrapping arms around his neck, Pinkie Pie thrust one free hand forward her voice filled with that same air of unbreakable excitement at what lay ahead. "And to celebrate. Come on everyone, the cupcakes are on me!"

As the others filed out, Barb alone stared at the note, six tickets and six ponies had wandered away. Her voice soft, and somewhat sad she searched the letter again speaking quietly to herself. "How come I don't get a ticket to the gala?" Then another sharp burp ripped through her gut and a much smaller burst of flame ripped through her clenched teeth. Staggered at being overlooked she took a minute to unfold it, eyes scanning the note, even as the heavy stride back to the front door signaled AJ's return, her deep eyes searching for the tiny dragoness.

Reading aloud to herself she quoted Celestia's letter. "And one for you, Barb." With a bold giggle she tore towards the door to catch up with the others, stopping only when she saw AJ towering above her, wearing a delighted grin. Attempting to play innocent she stopped and turned to lock the door, her tone and behavior pulling a total one eighty. "I mean, gross, I have to go too?" If she fooled the mare no sign was given, just a rich and knowing smile. Then linking arm and arm with the dragoness once the house was locked up, they rushed to follow after the others.

Interlude 4 - The Princess of Love - Part 1

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Masquerade's Law: Passed in the wake of a teacher's abuse of influence over more than a dozen fillies a decade ago; this law makes it illegal for any Doctor; Teacher; or other adult with influence upon a minor to be alone with a minor at any time without a parent; guardian; or a representative of the Crown princesses' government with a clean legal background. The goal was to avoid any future chances of foal fiddlers who might want to abuse their influence with these impressionable and unsuspecting children.

* * *

Ponyville Clinic was so quiet in the early morning, and Dusk was there alone, just after dawn. It was surprising just how much had happened so quickly when a letter from one of the princesses arrived suddenly. It had only been two days since Dusk had received the Gala tickets from Celestia and now suddenly he knew every mare in town, as everyone now wanted to get to know the star stallion better as a person after their daydreams enraptured rampage through town.

Then yesterday Cadence's letter arrived, one for himself, another for Nurse Redheart. All the sudden the staff of Ponyville Clinic were falling over one another to get things ready, with Dusk suddenly being consulted on any kind of random paperwork; the color of the blinds; and what kind of flowers should be planted on the walkway from his home to the clinic as well as the new hospital building site. The fact that she was younger then half the clinic's staff apparently had no factor on today. A royal visit from one of the three princesses' made for a huge event for the town now alight with royal fever.

And then laws suddenly were being thrown around. Even before his supper last night, mayor mare had been knocking at his door nearly faint with shock. His mind wandering in the silence of the quiet clinic's sterile halls, Dusk drifted back to last night in his mind. To the mayor's panic attack over some simple loopholes in paperwork.

* * *

The incessant knocking at the Great Oak Library's back door, where the hall connected to the kitchen, demanding his attention just as Dusk's first bite of a daffodil salad slipped between his teeth. Memories of the endless conversations and tiring assault of requests for what might be served for dinner to a princess. He was sure all of this was at last answered, with the assistance from Rarity to set up a lunch tea to the worried mayor's exacting requirements, even her reputation for class, grace, and style had hardly won the diplomat over. And here she was again, her voice calling, nearly begging though the door for them to answer. "Dusk! Dusk!! We've got a real major emergency! You've got to help us!"

His eyes matched Barb's for a moment as they sat at the table, and when she shrugged, he gave a forced little sigh, fork dropping to the plate, half bite of leafy greens mixed with fresh daffodils likely to go to waste with hours of still more meetings that likely lay ahead if this went anywhere similar to the day he had just had. At last his voice lifted tired but calm while his fingers moved to straighten his shaggy bangs a little and a brave face was put on. "Get it Barb, or she will just break it down."

The dragoness gave a simple shrug and nod, before shoving his plate closer to him before she turned to walk away. His lunch had not been touched, and breakfast had been eaten at a run, she was not about to let dinner be disturbed by yet another asinine list of concerns that even Dusk himself clearly didn't care about. With the door opened, the mare rushed inside swiftly and pushed past the little dragoness without a word of thanks, nearly slamming her back into the door frame as she charged past. "Dusk! It's all falling apart! Her parents are gone from town already and left permission only to Nurse Redheart or Princess Celesta's royal court! And if we don't submit the paperwork, Canterlot Royal Hospital refuses to let the princess visit! Some law about not allowing resident doctors work at another hospital without proper documentation!"

Even with his quick mind, Dusk needed a minute to catch up to just what in Tartarus Mayor Mare was talking about. It was only thanks to Barb's glare at him from behind the mayor that he stopped, and twisted his fork up once more, drawing it to his dinner platter again, forcing the mayor to wait as he ate. While chewing as slowly as he could manage, his hand lifted, waving for Barb to close the door and come to his side. In silence he finished what was left between his teeth, leaning back upon the chair and crossing arms over his chest while his hand lifted to wave gently to Barb. "This is quite the problem Mayor Mare. After all, clearly you need someone other than her physician. Diamond's Masquerade's Law, aye?"

The mayor nodded enthusiastically, her mind still reeling from the weight of the problem at hand and all the sudden effort they had put to a royal visit, now doomed because of Scootaloo's parents absent permission. Dusk lifted a hand, and softly stroked two fingers across the curve of his jaw even while he pretended now to be lost in deep thought. His gaze turned to Barb, speaking with a light, sarcastic edge. "Barb, this is horrible. Cadence will never be allowed to visit if Scootaloo's attending medic does a physical and sends it to Canterlot for their release." Barb nod slowly, but even as she did, the math was quickly adding up behind her eyes and soon she had realized what he was getting at, a sly grin spreading on her lips.

Turning to stand at Dusk's side, her hands lifted up and clasped her cheek's in horror her cat's eyes going wide in shock. "But Dusk! Wherever will we find someone who could stand in as Celestia's representative to satisfy Masquerade's Law?" Her over dramatic tone made Dusk's lips quiver with suppressed mirth, attempting to suppress his glee at the situation at hand. "Maybe we should send a letter to the princess? I'm sure if we wrote her, even this late at night, she might answer us with some kind of helpful advice, after all, you are her favorite student and have acted as her personal representative on a dozen occasions in the past."

At this point, Dusk had hoped that the mayor might have caught up with them, and realized her foolish mistake. She didn't, instead she was turning from one to the other as they spoke, her eyes spreading wide with glee at the hope that some form of salvation to her problems might be found before disaster struck. Thus Dusk suddenly found her clutching his hand, on her knees with tears in her eyes, the thin wire frames of her glasses gazing pleadingly up at him. "Please Dusk Shine! Anything you can do! Oh to have a princess visit us at a time of peace has gotten the people so excited! Can you write her? Even with it being so late?"

A groan left his lips, even as he and Barb both mentally shared a glance that spoke volumes of how poorly the mayor was handling this crisis, though of course for Barb the joke of the situation lay deeper as she had seen Dusk fall apart just as easily when a problem got its grip on him. So, she stepped forward, taking the mayor by the shoulder, and waved a hand towards Dusk. "We can write, but why bother the princess? She has left Dusk as her student and representative already mayor... Why not have him stand in as Scootaloo's guardian while Nurse Redheart conducts the physical? His seal should stand good as any others we could get in so short a time, and I'm sure both princesses' will vouch for him and his record being spotless when it comes to matters of the law." A pause before she grinned softly. "Besides, he is one of the few adults Scootaloo gets along with. Other than Rainbow Dash of course... "

At last Mayor Mare finally caught up with her hosts and in a single violent moment her brain snapped back into place at the realization of just what they had been talking about all along. The mayor attempted to clear her brain out and stand up, her throat cleared as she shifted into a more professional frame of mind. "Err, yes! Yes of course Dusk Shine! If you could stand in as the princesses' representative, it would be a huge assistance!" It was shocking how easily she could manage to shift gears once she caught up with the situation at hand leaning back and crossing her arms over her chest. "It might be the greatest favor you could do for Ponyville if you could give up your free time to help us out..."

* * *

And so Dusk had found himself signing yet another silly pile of paperwork, working for a few hours into the night to clear the paperwork for some nameless bureaucrat in Canterlot who planned to hold out on any tiny technicality possible, right to the very last minute. And when at last Dusk had gotten serious about the paperwork, applying real effort to clearing up each and every silly crossed 't' and dotted 'i' until even this annoying paper pusher had backed down. Thus he was left with five hours of sleep before Nurse Redheart and Scootaloo's scheduled appointment... and somehow he had still showed up early, and was left to wait alone in the nearly empty clinic for a half an hour in boredom.

It was with glee that someone opening the clinic's door drew Dusk back from his idle thoughts. Turning to snap his head over his shoulder the short figure who entered was instantly recognized as Scootaloo, and behind her? Nurse Redheart walked with a muffin currently still in her lips, while the younger filly munched at a grilled cheese sandwich. Even as he stood, the mares crossed the hall, young lass rubbing her limp cerise locks from her eyes as she was still half awake, even while her gaze turned up at Dusk, voice lifting in quiet annoyance. "You're promising to make this worth my time, right? It's too early for this shit if I'm not gonna get something out of this." Her low grunt made Dusk laugh and Redheart sigh, but rather than delay things, the three moved down the hall to one of the clinic's open exam rooms while the two mares continued to finish their breakfast.

Walking into the exam room, Dusk now realized things were still going to be quite uncomfortable for a while yet. Someone had set up a seven foot tall thin white curtain that separated a Desk from the rest of the sterile white exam room. Already having guessed what the rules of having anyone but a relative in the room during an examination of a child, Dusk wandered to the desk, a small mound of paperwork piled up on the table awaiting him as his weight sunk into the doctor's chair. Even as the girls finished off their meals he scanned over the pages, his spoke up with with quiet care. "It might save some time if I did the writing, alright Redheart?"

Here the mare stepped to his side and lowered her gaze to look to the paperwork he was still flipping over page by page in quiet review. Her eyes locked onto a page and a grin spread over lips, fingers lifting to lightly tap the page, Redheart lifting her gaze to Dusk the tone of her voice soft. "Oh I think you're neat enough a writer to handle this Dusk. And it might help out and save us some time. Barb's going to come here when she gets up?" At his nod she grinned warmer. "Good. As much as the others are getting worked up over this visit, I do admit I want to meet the princess as well. Her work during the wingrott outbreak in Canterlot is still talked about in medical circles, even if she had figured out some kind of miracle cure for wingrott it couldn’t have made her any less popular."

Here it was Scootaloo’s turn to speak up, her voice low and hollow. "We learn all about wingrott in school you know." Dusk swallowed and stood slowly, walking around the white curtain and looked at the small girl, sitting low on the exam table, her eyes red from restrained tears.

Three easy steps split the distance and Dusk's hand was on her shoulder with a soft touch, his voice offered in quiet consideration to the now clearly panicked young girl. "Princess Cadence doesn't think it's wingrott Scoots. If it was you'd have started molting months ago." Of course, this was far from supportive for the young mare.

Nurse Redheart knelt, taking the girl's hand into hers, making Scootaloo look up at the taller woman. Her voice was a low coo as she spoke, while her thumb rubbed the back of the young mare's knuckles. "Think of it this way Scootaloo. Your wings are weak, but with someone like Cadence taking direct and personal interest, we will find out what's really wrong with them, and get you back in the game, one way or another."

At last the little mare managed to relax a little, her gaze turning up to Dusk again as she let her hand rest in Redheart's. Her voice was fragile, eyes wide with pain as she looked into his. "Ca... can you make Dash come visit me sometime Dusk? I love watching how beautiful she is when she flies with such easy grace." At his nod she swallowed sharply and sat up taller again, her free hand wiping her eyes before returning her gaze back to Nurse Redheart again, grinning lightly. "Then let's get this shit over with. I wanna see Dash!"

The stress from the room alleviated, at least for the moment, Dusk and Redheart laughed quietly and moved to their respective sides of the room again, to get this exam started. Quickly enough the Nurse began her work, numbers called out over the curtain as Scootaloo's height, weight and a dozen other physical figures were broken down. Even the measurement of her wings was done with detailed specifics from the length of each wing bone, to even the weight and composition of a single flight feather. In the end even as Dusk was signing his name to the last page, Scootaloo pulled down the curtain that had separated them, and crossed arms over her chest, leveling a glare at him, her voice sharp. "You forget about what you just wrote down Dusk. No way I'm putting up with you knowing all those personal details." She then leveled a dark glare, grit her teeth, and waved a fist was lifted to wave before his eyes to emphasize her open threat at him.

Laughing at her threat Dusk gave her a nod, and softly pushed the stack of papers across the counter towards the girl, his voice soft and warm as he tried to reassure the young girl. "What are you talking about Scootaloo? I've no clue." His eyebrows lifted high up and he followed her as she nodded at the quiet seriousness to the young girl. "Now take these papers and go give them to Barb. She should be in the waiting room. Ask her to walk you home and if you're nice, she might even treat you to breakfast." Even as he spoke, Dusk slipped a twenty bit coin on top of the papers, and pushed at the girl’s shoulders, directing her from the room.

The filly grabbed the money greedily and clutched the paperwork to her chest, she rushed from the room, leaving Dusk alone with Nurse Redheart, the mare was still washing her hands... washing them for the fifth time. It wasn't until Dusk's hand rested on her shoulder that she at last looked up, her eyes red with restrained grief, her eyes wide as she looked up at him, slowly shaking her head. "I don't know Dusk. I swear. I've spent the last few weeks since you told me about her wings pouring over everything I could find on wingrott. Everything except her lack of molting makes me swear it's wingrott. But the lack of any kind of Osteoarthritis? Its following no natural pattern." Her tears at last came when Dusk's arms slipped around her hips and he drew her into a soft hug. For a few minutes silence reigned in the room, save for the nurse's raking sobs.

Taking the nurse by the hand, Dusk lead her from the clinic, and across the street to the half finished new hospital. He walked around the much larger facilities new halls. At last they stopped at the recently finished fountain, a tribute to princess Celestia's new dedication to the health of her people. Someone had hooked up the water already, and thus its soft ripples and spray broke up the silence between student and nurse, over ten years separated them in age, but the problem of someone nearly a generation younger had captured both their minds this morning. At last Dusk released her hand turning to look down to her again. "Something that doesn't spread like Wingrott. That doesn't cause rotting or bone decay. It's a quandary... but it's something we will have to leave for Cadence. Maybe she will at last find us an answer."

For a moment Redheart looked ready to speak up against him, but slowly she at last offered him a nod. "You're right. I'm no expert on wing diseases. My heart goes out to the girl, but beyond taking care of her.. she is slightly malnourished... about ten to fifteen pounds underweight for her age." A low sigh escaped the nurse's lips, as Dusk's hand on her shoulder and his warm grin encouraged her. With a solid nod she lifted one hand to squeeze his hand before pulling away. "I have work to do before the princess arrives. After all, I need to get through my backlog of patients before Cadence shows up."

* * *

Even as Cadence stepped from the shower the sounds from downstairs told her Shining Armor had already arrived. Even as early as she had started her morning, already he was here and making her breakfast. Already the smell of freshly cut flowers drifted through the air, tormenting her rumbling belly. Quickly she rushed to dress and rushed down the staircase, for a moment she paused at the kitchen entrance for just a moment wishing she didn't already know what was awaiting her inside. Slowly a breath was drawn, before stepping around the corner and into the room.

Few could make a romantic breakfast as as Shining Armor. Freshly cut roses both, red and white, were mixed together in a bouquet containing five rare Saffron Crocuses, the rich purple hue had a unique presence that sung out between the two vivid roses. Breakfast was piled out exactly to her taste. From the rich aroma that danced through the air she could tell that her vegetarian lifestyle had rubbed off on him, leaving the meal that ran the gambit of her favorite dishes: from the decadent hazelnut almond chocolate spread and freshly baked rye bread, to the simplistic bowl of oatmeal with blueberries. A swell of emotion rippled up in her heart and turning slowly, her eyes locked upon the stallion who had been up for hours to prepare this morning. But just as quickly as her heart began to flutter at the romantic gesture from her love, at the same time an uncomfortable conversation with Celestia flared up in her memory and in an instant her stomach dropped. Walking with quiet confidence she shifted into a more official mind-frame. Dealing with what she knew was going to come this morning might just be easier if she just distanced herself from the situation. Breath calm, shoulders straight and a polite smile drawn upon her lips. "Good morning Shining Armor. It's a pleasure to see you've set up quite the breakfast spread."

Shining Armor had worn his official parade dress, the fine red uniform jacket a professional showpiece even if the white enameled breastplate had been left at home, leaving the stallion a proud example of the royal guards finest men. Grinning as he lifted his gaze to look with longing to Cadence's eyes, while she smiled back, her lips spreading wider than ever. "Cadence! You... you look radiant this morning." His lingered, watching her, a soft breath whispering from his lips in wistful joy. Gesturing to the table he drew back her chair. Trapped now between a rock and a hard place, Cadence blushed and slipped across the room and into the chair he offered, letting him push her chair in for her and sitting while her soft mumbled words were offered to him in quiet thanks. "No problem at all my darling Cadence. It's just a pleasure to get the chance to see you so early in the morning."

Even as he moved to sit down Cadence knew what was to come. For all the times she had helped others with their love life this was the first time she had ever had to think of how to get out of this situation, and yet no answer was forthcoming. Thus with polite grace she accepted a plate he placed before her, his fingers lingering on her hand for a moment even as a soft breath of quiet delight whispered free from her lips. "You're... too kind Shining." She darkly blushed as his hand drifted openly across her palm, before grinning down to her. "Shining... I... we c.." his touch to her lips silenced her even while he dropped to a knee beside her, a small box drawn from the fine red jacket, and placed into her hands.

Gazing lovingly up to her, Shining struggled to swallow and smiled warmly up to her, his voice calm and confident even while his fingers lightly stroking across hers as the box was pushed into her hand. "Cadence... I know for the last few years I've been trying to honor your request to take it slow. But I love you Cadence. Will you... Will you marry me?" Popping the box open in her hands he revealed the fine crystal gemstone, carved in the same shape as her cutie mark, and set in a golden ring that framed it from below in the shape of a shield like his cutie mark. His fingers lifted to stroke her cheek, cooing softly up to her.

In turn, Cadence was now forced to swallow her heart, her eyes wide open even while his words sunk in, and lower lip was sucked between her teeth, raking across its surface as she grasped for words. Her throat ached with raw pleasure and an overwhelming need to say yes, yet Celestia's words echoed in her mind, and swallowing deeply her gaze lifted to lock upon the stallion's. Her free hand lifted and drew out to stroke her soft fingers across his jawline. "I... oh Shining... I. it's fantastic. So pretty... I love it. I..." A sob racked through her chest and throat, while she sat back pulling her lower lip between her teeth and gasping for a breath.

Blushing in return and smiling warmly up to her, Shining Armor grinned and leaned into her fingers stroke voice a low coo of soft delight at her kind attention. "You do? Then, you'll say yes?" His eyes were warm and deep as he gazed up to her, silently murmuring a soft coo of joy.

Cadence shifted a little to draw her body to sit up tall and draw her hands back from his touch her eyes wide even as she swallowed once more. "I... Shining, I need time. I love you so deeply, but... But what happens after Armor? What happens in a hundred years?" Her eyes hung low and her breath whispered free of her lips as she slowly shifted and lifted both hands to cup his cheeks fingers stroking at his jawline slowly while a low breath whispers free from the depths of her throat. "Ca... can you give me some time? Let me thin... think about it?"

Shining was clearly hurt, he ducked his head at her words, yet at the same time even as she drew his hands together and whispered to him, hope flared up, and his weight leaned forward, arms lifting to wrap around her hips and pull her into a warm hug voice soft as his cheek rubbed against her belly. "I... Ca... I understand Cadence. Take all the time you need to think. But know I love you and I will wait for your answer as long as it takes."

Even as he spoke a fist knocked upon the door to Princess Cadence's apartment. Ripping them both back to reality. Cadence leaned in close and wrapped her arms tightly around Shining's shoulders, hugging him tightly and pressing a tender kiss into his cheek, breath released in a low and whispering sigh. "Th.. Thank you Shining my love. I promise... when I get back from visiting Dusk, we will talk properly. Okay?" At his nod she gently smiled as she stroked her fingers across his jaw even while she continued cooing softly and nuzzled against his cheek.

Silence reigned until again the impact of knocking ripped them back to reality, a voice calling for her through the door. "Princess? Your Chariot is ready. Do you need help?"

A sigh escaped Shining's lips and he stood, his hands slipping to gently grip Cadence's, even as he helped her to stand up. His eyes gazed lovingly into hers, and a soft grin spread even as he leaned in and kissed her tenderly in return. A level murmur whispered free from his throat's base, then at last, he called out softly over his shoulder. "She is on her way, thank you Empire Wing." The sound of guards realizing that their captain stood inside, quite embarrassed while muttering was traded between the men outside while Cadence laughed in quiet delight at how aptly he handled his men.

* * *

A rich breeze drifted through the air and tickled at her nose. Alone upon the chariot, Cadence watched as six pairs of wings beat in time and effortlessly drew her though the air. A copy of Nurse Redheart's report on Scootaloo's health was tightly clutched in her fingers, a low murmur escaping even while she tried her best to understand the situation as it read out. "Advanced decay or malformed growths in half the Pinion feathers, but no molting at all." Shaking her head even as she continued to softly mutter to herself, the mare looked up to Empire Wing, inspecting the silver and grey streaks in his powerful flight pinions. Her voice lifted and she called out to them. "Empire Wing? You other guards? You all had sisters right?"

The others offered nods in response to the question even as the lead stallion spoke up first. "Five Princess. South Edge has two. Zephyr and Arctic Gust have fourteen but their father has a herd of eight mares." All of them laughed at this, if gently the twin brothers beaming with pride. "The two trainees have one each. Why do you ask Princess?"

Grinning a little as she inspected the stallions in flight before her, her voice light and tender in her careful phrasing. "It's this case. A girl of thirteen, unable to fly. My childhood biology is a little rusty. Do any of you remember how much their wings weighed at the time? I remember having nearly thirty pounds of feathers myself at the time. But I'm an Alicorn, and was easily six inches taller then this girl."

The stallions only took a few minutes to talk among themselves, at last Empire Wing turned to speak over his shoulder to the princess, his voice gentle. "We didn't exactly weigh our sisters or anything Princess, but I suppose we all agree, about twenty pounds sounds about normal yeah."

Offering them a quiet nod the mare sat back in the chariot's chair, calling out lightly. "Thank you, that is exactly as I feared." Her head dipping again to inspect the page the figure that came up again was exactly as she had figured. "Twenty pounds as an average. And this little Scootaloo ranks in at only twelve. Oh Dusk, what horror did you find..."

Even as she made small notes upon the papers based off her theories, the chariot began to circle and lower into Ponyville's city square. Already a collected crowd numbered in over a hundred had gathered, and many were waving flags and banners, while Dusk stood with the Mayor and a pink haired mare in a white nurse's uniform, a quick connecting of the dots lead her to assume that this must be Nurse Redheart.

Even as the chariot lowered, Cadence launched into the air while her wings unfurled and spread wide open to take up her weight and allow her to glide through the air. Pink feathers danced in the wind as she circled twice over the crowd and spiraled down to land before Dusk and the two older mares, to continued deepening applause. Waving to the gathered crowd and accepting a heavy bouquet of flowers from a cute little filly with pale violet and white streaked hair to go with a cute little tiara she wore. A soft grin flashed down to the short filly, before she drew the girl up into her free arm, holding the girl against her shoulder so she could wave to the crowd. "These flowers are fantastic, thank you so much... but who is this 'Filthy Rich' the note speaks of dear?"

Diamond Tiara smiled glowingly up at Cadence, still waving to the crowd even as she gave the princess a tight hug about the neck. "That's my father! He runs the Rich family business. You know, the only company that sells real Zap Apple Jam?" When Cadence grinned and nodded in return Diamond reached a hand out and separated the flowers a little to reveal three cans of the jam in the flowers. "A gift for the visiting princess. Daddy says it's not a bribe though princess. Just a present to show you how much we appreciate you visiting a boring place like Ponyville."

Laughing gently, Cadence lowered the mare from her hug and fluffed her hair playfully even while she drew away from the young girl, still waving to the cheering masses. She turned to walk to the fountain in town square and passed Empire Wing the heavy bouquet now that he had landed to stand at her side. Striding swiftly forward, the mare step up to stand before Dusk first, ignoring the fact that the mayor and hundreds of others were gathered around, her hands took up his and with a delighted grin crossing his lips he leaned in close in time with her.

As one the two started to sing out, ignoring the hundreds of eyes as the two rested open palms against one another and started to do a small dance in place. "Sunshine, sunshine, ladybug's awake. Clap your hooves and do a little shake!" together the two laughed in glee, clapping hands together in time as they sung, closing together while Dusk wrapped his arms around the taller woman's waist and drew her into his arms, then lifted her up and swirling her around in a circle, despite her being over a half foot taller than him.

Giggling in glee, Dusk hugged her tight once he lowered her to her feet again. He then took her by the hand and guided her to the mayor and Nurse Redheart his voice soft but warm. "It's a pleasure to see you again Cadence, but we don't have a lot of time to talk just now. We should get this stuff over with so we can talk in private, maybe over lunch?"

When Cadence laughed, Dusk guided her to the older female first. A professional woman in a light tan business suit, which included a white blouse with a frilly collar. A rich grey mane that suggested she was older then she looked. "Mayor Mare. This is Princess Cadence, my foalsitter and the inspiration to learn I've ever had. Cadence, this is Mayor Mare, Ponyville's mayor of fourteen years."

Even as the Mayor lifted a hand to shake Cadence's, Cadence used her strength and size to pull the shorter mare into a warm hug, grinning wildly. "It's wonderful to meet you miss Mayor!" Cadence giggled with glee, after planting a happy kiss on the older woman's cheek. When the squealing mayor was set down to her feet and saw a grin from Cadence, it was clear to the shorter mare it was clear the formal rules were out the window and Cadence wasn't going to take a professional stance on meeting strangers.

When the Mayor's soft and pleasant small talk was over with, Cadence turned to face Nurse Redheart, and grinned warmly, as the mare stepped forward with her arms lifted up, already well aware of the princess's method of greeting others. "Cadence. It's a pleasure to see you on a much nicer day than last time." In quiet joy, the towering mare slipped arms around the nurse and for a moment the two of them hugged in silence.

Grinning a little at the attention from the nurse, Cadence lovingly stroked her hands over the mare's back, her grin warm even as she laughed warmly in her soft joy. "While this was a better time than the last, we should keep this trend going. Why don't I sneak out for a few days when both of us don't have any work so we can talk properly without.." A pause as she leaned back to wave to the gathered crowds who of course happily cheered at the attention from the princess. "Such a happy crowd." She laughed gently and leaned back stroking her nails across the nurse's arms before stepping away and offering a soft smile. "So do we get to move on or are they going to require a speech?"

Here Dusk came to the rescue, stepping forward and waving a hand to the gathered crowd, his magic joining his horn and echoing out to the collected crowd. "It's a pleasure to see you all here. The Princess would like to give thanks to you all for coming to see her. That being said, she is here on medical business. Please understand she only has a few minutes to talk." Turning to Cadence, she offered him a calm nod, and let his spell slip over to lift her voice.

With her words echoing forth Cadence spoke for the gathered crowd, her hands lifted to the gathered crowd with her polite and professional waving. For a good five minutes she praised their town, their rebuilding efforts, and the fantastic spirit of community she had seen from them all. When the last of the cheers died out, her quiet smile spread and a light wave ended, hands moving to rest on her hips. Swallowing one last time she spoke up again, voice calm and confident. "Thank you for welcoming me Ponyville. I wish you all a good day until we can meet again soon!" Here she nodded to Dusk who at last dropped the spell. Soon they walked off together, Dusk guiding her to the Carousel Boutique.

* * *

Even as Rarity's teapot lowered back to its knitted pad, her voice lifted to speak once more, tender tones light and dancing in a soft and low cooing tone. "It's just a simple Earl Grey Princess Cadence. I do hope you don't mind?" Her hand lifted to wave over a platter of cucumber sandwiches; berry trifles; vegetarian quiche and a half dozen small cakes and matching sweeties. "It's just a random collection I picked up from the Cakes I asked them to help out by making sure it was all done up vegetarian style. Dusk said it was very important to you. And if it's very important to Dusk?" Here she stopped and giggled a little to titter to herself. "And if it's important to Dusk? It's important to me dear prin--"

And here at last Cadence gave a calm grin, her hands slipping forward and grasping softly at the slightly younger woman's hands, pulling her closer while flashing her warmest grin to the fidgeting younger unicorn. "Please. If you and Dusk are half as close as that kiss you two shared before he left, then you should call me Cadence... or even better, Cady." And here she laughed warmly, and squeezed the other woman's hands tenderly. "Now tell me while I enjoy a cucumber sandwich. How did you two meet? How did you fall in love? I must hear it all, to know someone is making little Dusky-poo so happy!"

For her part, Rarity took the matter in stride and attempted to stay calm as the older woman took her hands and gushed all over her with such affection. Rarity drew her lower lip between her teeth and raked it in joy before speaking with soft delight. "Oh... Pri.." A pause as Cadence leveled a glare at her. "Cadence. I apologize! Dusk is wonderful. I admit I heard of him due to the Canterlot gossip mags." When Rarity saw Cadence's jaw drop, she groaned out a little in embarrassment, lifted her hands and waved them protectively before her to drive off any questions. "I am still obsessed with the silly gossip that comes from Canterlot. It's the best channel to keep up with Canterlot's elite without having to leave Ponyville."

Here Cadence started to warmly laugh at how quickly Rarity got defensive over the whole situation, even as Cadence herself worried that it was getting out of hand. "Oh come on Rarity, it's not so bad. Dusk was telling me on the walk here you care for your little sister? What was her name... Um... Sweetie Belle?" She cocked her head to the side, flashing Rarity a warm grin even while nibbling the crust-less half cucumber sandwich, chewing at it in small light bites.

Grinning, Rarity turned her head, and called over her shoulder to Sweetie Belle with soft joy. "Darling! Please, come say hi to Cadence if you are not busy with something." In an instant Cadence's eyes spread wide at the sight of the young filly who stepped through the dining room door that lead into one of the sitting rooms. Dressed in a light white lily colored silk dress with a bow that was dyed a very pale yellow lily hue in the front. Grinning warmly the girl rushed up to her sister and took a light grip of her arm, standing half behind the taller woman who sat half behind her shoulder while gazing around it to watch the towering princess.

Cadence's eyes flared wide open, joy dancing in her eyes even as she drew raking fingers through the hair of the girl who half hid behind her older sister. The resemblance was striking and the girls dependance and trust on a sister thirteen or so years her elder was so sweet. It made her heart throb in rich delight, her heart throbbing in joy even while a soft murmur whispered free from her lips. "Hello Sweetie Belle... I am Cadence. Can I have a hug?" Her arms lifted and offered a warm hug to the smaller girl her voice soft and eyes warmly begging.

Sweetie's stride was slow at first, stepping forward from behind her sister's chair in soft steps, those wide eyes half hidden by wild locks of mulberry and pale rose hue. Soft steps continued as the thin mare drifted he short distance across the floor with a innocent grin. The distinct sound of Rarity clearing of the throat made the tiny mare freeze up for just one second, then she grasped the hem of her dress, as she dipped into a shallow curtsey for the princess her voice warm and high pitched, a squeak of delight bursting the middle of her sentence. "Hello Princess Cadence, it's a pleaSURE!" She stopped swallowing deeply and then continued again blushing darkly. "Its really great to meet you!"

Laughing at the young mare's gleeful but clearly drilled behavior, Cadence swooped in and pulled the filly into her lap, hugging her tightly and giving her a warm kiss on the top of the head. Her voice was light, warm and soft as she rocked the small lass in her arms sitting back in her chair and grinning with joy. "Someday I want a daughter just like you. You're perfect Sweetie Belle. Just make sure you behave for Rarity, or I'll be forced to steal you away."

For just a moment the princess could have sworn that she saw Rarity freeze up and swallow at what she had just said, a single tear tracing down her left cheek. But why? Her eyes scanned the mare as she made small talk with the young filly and hand fed her a few of the richer treats from the sweets on the table, her manic grin of joy an honest one, even as she secretly continued to study Dusk's lover. What had she said that had set her off, had hurt the woman who acted so calm and happy... Why wasn't she as happy as she acted.

* * *

Even as the mares were eating lunch and getting to know one another, Dusk was across town, knocking upon Scootaloo's door. Just after noon on a weekday, Dusk was shocked when it was Nurse Redheart who answered the door. "What? Redheart? You're still hanging out here? Is Scoots Ok?" His voice short and eyes darting with worry around the room hunting for any sign of the tomboy filly.

Gently laughing, she pulled the door to the house wide open and turned to call out to the girl. "Scootaloo! Dusk's here. Finish cleaning your plate and come help me lock up. You're going to meet the Princess."

Even as Dusk stepped up to speak with the nurse the distant yell of a filly split the air before he could. "I know, I know! They are my dishes to clean! Just cause you're in charge of my medical care doesn't mean you're my mother!" Dusk was impressed, it was clear even though Scootaloo didn't care for Redheart's words, the fact the rebellious young mare was talking with such a casual tone to the woman more than twice her age suggested the two were getting along well enough.

Laughing warmly, Dusk crossed his arms over his chest, leaning to the door frame and glancing down to the nurse mare. "So I take it even grumpy little Scoots is excited to see Cadence?" A grin spread as she started to laugh in return to his question shaking her head.

"It took nearly two hours after you left to get her to pick out her outfit and even then she demanded I watch as she tried all three outfits on." A pause, as she drew closer to Dusk, standing on her tiptoes and whispering softly. "She even tried on a dress. Can you imagine? Our little Scoots showing up to see the princess in a dress?" A snort of laughter was suppressed between their lips, Dusk biting his lower lip while Redheart turned to face the door frame even while Scoots came storming out of the kitchen her voice still at a powerful volume.

The filly was dressed up at least that was clearly her intent. Her short hair had been brushed but still stood tall, while matching white jeans and a dress shirt had been picked out for the meeting with the princess. A soft off pink lilac vest was worn on top, left unbuttoned "Come on guys! You should have way more class than this. Let's get going before the princess gets sick and tired of waiting on you two to stop flirting and leaves me to suffer another round of Red's examinations." At Dusk's glance and a raised eyebrow she snorted. "She tugs too hard on my feathers. They are sensitive! How'd you like it if I pulled your tail?"

The silly threat made Dusk laugh but he backed away casually from the mare, his hands held up defensively. "I yield! I yield! Let's go Scoots, so Redheart can get back to her lunch, while we head to Rarity's for some tea before Cadence eats all the sweet cakes." A nod was offered to Redheart before he turned waving for Scootaloo to lead the way, grinning warmly as he started to whistle, happy for how well the day was going.

* * *

With the hyper Scootaloo leading the way, Dusk found the trip back to Rarity's Boutique took no time at all, leaving him knocking upon the door with two light wrapping blows before opening the door himself and stepping inside his voice lifted in a soft calling tone. "Rarity? Cadence! We're here." A pause as soft voices and happy talk came from the dining room. As he stepped through the door and waved for Scootaloo to follow, the young filly spoke up with slight sarcasm.

"You and Rarity sure must be close. Just storming into her house without any permission. Are you two that hot to trot?" At his leveled glare she only grinned warmer with glee. "I'll take that as a yes Romeo."

Rolling his eyes, Dusk lead his way to the dining room, ignoring the smart mouthed filly's comments. Even as he guided her through the kitchen soft voices and easy laughter reached him, the happy easy conversation a reassuring reminder of just how well both Cadence and Rarity were at getting to know people so quickly. "So then, Dusk managed to accidentally cast a teleportation spell disappearing from the horde of jealous mares and landing safely back in the golden oak library. When I remembered what Nightmare Moo... err I mean Princess Luna's teleporting looked like, I told the others and we tracked Dusk back to the only place he felt safe, the library. Thankfully he accepted our apologies for hounding him so aggressively and now the six of us are good friends..." She paused here as Dusk stepped through the door, blushing darkly at a story about himself being the topic of conversation, but continued when Cadence gestured her to go on. "He err.... We are all good friends still and Applejack plans to invite Dusk out to the farm more often once harvest is over."

With her back to the door, Rarity's face must have given his presence away, for Cadence turned slowly in place, lifted her gaze to him and put a finger to her lips while shushing him gently. Even as she did he quickly realized why, curled up in her lap and clinging to her chest was little Sweetie Belle, passed out and dozing in her lap, a quiet grin on her lips even while the young filly dozed on. Dusk swiftly stepped back, slipping a hand over Scootaloo's lips just as her mouth opened to call out something loudly. Even as the tomboy glared up at him, he pointed her towards the second filly and a grunt was released from her lips before she pulled away from his hand and leaned against the door frame, grunting in her annoyance.

When he was sure Scootaloo was not about to disturb the sleeping filly, Dusk stepped into the room and walked lightly across the room to Cadence's side. Nodding softly to each mare in turn, he stepped in close and wrapped his arms around the tiny and peacefully resting Sweetie Belle, lifting her up into his arms with a soft touch, while he stroked his fingers tenderly across the young girl's cheek while his free hand supported her weight with a hand under her hips. As he drew a soft nod from Rarity, he spoke gently to his foalsitter in a quiet whisper. "I'll take the girls upstairs and see if Opal can look after Sweetie. Redheart isn't expecting us for another hour or two."

Cadence's lips curved into a soft frown as he took the mare's weight from her arms, a finger lingering in a light stroke across the filly's cheek with quiet loving affection, before relenting at his suggestion, nodding softly. "Thank you Dusk. Take care of the sweet filly. She has a priceless heart." Even as she spoke, Rarity offered a small silk hankie to Cadence, who drew this to wipe tiny tears that were flowing from her eyes. Swallowing softly the princess slipped her weight back a little and picked at a random piece of her cucumber sandwich, but her eyes were on Dusk and the tiny filly asleep in his arms as he carried the pure innocent from the room. Scootaloo followed Dusk only after she had slipped in and stolen a few of the sweet cakes from the table.

Interlude 4 - The Princess of Love - Part 2

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Opal had spent much of her day sprawled across a chaise lounge in Rarity's inspiration room. Grooming her faintly turquoise gray fur had taken most of her morning, leaving the lazy feline to idly scribble upon a random chunk of parchment. However, the sound of footsteps intruded on her peaceful day. Low throat-ed muttering noises and a steady grumble whispered free, as she glared in the direction of the disturbance. “This way Scoots. Sweetie's room is just on the right.” The distant sound of voices as they moved down the hallway only just reached her peaceful place, revealed it was Dusk who was fooling around in her domain, yet he was clearly not alone. The feline exhaled a low grunt as she stood and returned her quill to its holder, the silver ink pot's lid locking into place with the deft twist of her wrist.

Even as she slinked out into the hall and locked the door to the inspiration room behind her, the voices cut off to a low mumble. She moved with a stealthy stride as she glided her way down the hallway, her pawed feet cushioning every step she took to aid in her silent investigation. She halted at the open door of young Sweetie Belle's room, squared herself to the wall and glanced around the doorway, as she kept herself tightly pinned to the wall. A new voice she didn't recognize spoke up, a gruffer tone then the fashionista's little sister. “All these dolls. And dresses, and so many pink filly things. Can she get any more girly?”

"And what do you know about girly, poor little colt? Little miss is a fine young lady, far too good for a street rat like you." Opal pointed out as she sauntered though the door, her hips swaying with her stride even while her tail danced in rhythm swishing in the opposite direction. A single long glare locked on Dusk as he lay the still sleeping Sweetie Belle into her bed, and quietly sat down his arms lowered to the bed as he leveled his own glare at her in return yet kept silent, even as his right hand lifted and stroked tenderly over the sleeping fillies cheek.

Scootaloo curled a lip into a small snarl and took three swift aggressive steps to stand before the feline, leveling a glare at her and thrusting a fist in the feline's face. "I'm no colt you pudgy paperweight, and don't make me knuckle your teeth in." Huffing in her rage, her wings flared up, every feather twitching wildly at the tips.

Just as the filly stepped up to confront her, Opal slipped around the raging girl with her own oddly easy grace despite her heavy weight, her tail lifting to stroke across the mare's face even as she slipped to sit half on the edge of Sweetie's bed. Her fingers then idly stroked over the sleeping filly's hairline, toying with with the sleeping girl's mulberry hair. Dusk had leaned back when Opal approached, giving her access, here the feline lifted her gaze to look at him and wiggled her whiskers inspecting him closely. "The mistress trusts you with little miss, so I will put up with you, for now. But if you keep spending time with..." And she stopped glaring back over her shoulder at Scootaloo, curling a lip to snarl. "Trash like that colt over there." The two locked a steady glare at one another.

Dusk laughed gently, and shook his head, the noise drawing the attention form the shared glare to himself. "Stop antagonizing one another. I'll go get some of the sweet cakes from downstairs. You two just... don't wake Sweetie up, do that for me at least?" Annoyed sighs from both females suggested they didn't like the idea but they were going to leave it be for now.

* * *

Even as Dusk stepped into the kitchen, the soft talk between Rarity and Cadence drifted from the other room and reached him. At first he had planned to simply grab the spare tray of cakes and leave, yet the weighty words caught his attention, drawing him to pause. "... but when did you figure it out Cadence? We..." A sniffle. "It's been kept secret all these years. Besides AJ I've never told anyone. She doesn't need that heartache. None of them do."

Dusk stepped lightly across the kitchen, stood close to the door, held his breath, and tried to stretch out his hearing as far as he could manage in hopes of figuring out what was really going on. "I've an eye for these things. Don't worry dear, when you're ready I will help you tell him, until then? It's our secret." A pause and the sound of ... feathers drawing over silk? They must be hugging Dusk realized. "Until then if you need anything. For yourself or her, just ask." For a moment Dusk thought he heard Rarity raise her voice, but she was instantly hushed. "I love Dusk. And he clearly loves you. So I'll do whatever it takes to keep you both happy." Dusk shook his head, picked up the platter of cakes and turned to walk upstairs again, the conversation tormented his mind, what secret had Cadence found?

* * *

As Dusk returned to the upstairs hallway, the sound of softly speaking fillies made him groan a little, clearly poor Sweetie had been unable to sleep with the noise Opal and Scootaloo made. Yet even as he got closer, the sound of conversation was very one-sided, the chipper voice of squeaky little Sweetie Belle was the loudest and quite warm. "And this is my favorite doll. Her name is Princess Platinum! Isn't she so cute?? Just like the real princess she has silky purple hair and the cutest little horn." It was funny, yet cute, how her voice would suddenly crack and suddenly squeak as she spoke.

Dusk stepped around the door frame and looked inside. He was shocked to realize that Sweetie was up and was presenting all her dolls to Scootaloo with her own highly energetic flare. She stepping up to offer the unicorn princess doll to Scoots, the older filly let out a groan, clearly already frustrated with the younger girl's obsession with the toys, as a dozen other dolls were already piled up in her arms, only still being held so they didn't spill into a pile upon the floor. "She is just as cute as the other nine whose names I can't remember Sweetie, but can't we go outside and play soccer or something? Dolls aren't my thing, I'm way more into sports or games."

Even as Scootaloo stood up and pushed the pile of dolls back onto the bed, Sweetie's lower lip began to tremble at being rejected by the older filly. Yet even as Dusk took his own light step into the room his voice cutting in to prevent a future argument. "Afternoon Sweetie Belle, I'm glad you had a chance to introduce Scootaloo to all your dolls. Care to join us for some snacks?" The plate of sweet cakes was placed on a small tea table in the middle of the room, fitting in well enough with the little girl's tea set.

Before he had even shifted his own weight back to stand up, Opal's paw snapped out, stole one of the strawberry frosted mini cakes, shoved it into her mouth, and chewed while her cheeks ballooned out with glee, munching in her own delight, the steady low throated purr that came from the fat cat a reassuring noise to the watching fillies. Giving up, Scoot stepped away from the pile of dolls, took three quick steps over to the tea set, grabbed up another of the strawberry cakes and pushed it to Sweetie. "Here Sweetie," said Scootaloo, in the warmest voice Dusk had heard her speak, outside of speaking about Dash. "I picked this cake for you. To thank you for letting me see your favorite doll. But I would hate to get it messy, so put her down with her friends and have some cake." A pause as she gave the smaller filly a warm smile. "That way we can sit and talk with Dusk, heck we could even thank him for bringing us these treats."

To Dusk's joy this at last had the intended outcome, the smaller filly got up, gently settled her favorite princess doll on the pile of others left behind by Scootaloo, using them to form a throne for her prized princess. That done, she skipped over, accepted the small cake from the taller filly and sat against Opal's leg. She relaxed and ate quietly while grinning warmly up at Dusk and Scootaloo. "Tankths Scootalooguh. It's very good!" She said with her mouth still full of cake. Thankfully, things from there would go smoothly and for an hour, the three of them chatted lightly while Opal napped, holding little Sweetie close, occasional she was heard soft purring in tender pleasure.

* * *

It was an hour later that Cadence and Rarity walked down the hallway together, better moods generated by their new found friendship and conversation over a good lunch. The sight of Dusk having tea with Opal and Sweetie Belle, while Scootaloo pretended to like playing house with the younger and more innocent girl brought laughter from the ladies. Recovering from her laughter Cadence called the older filly, her voice warm. "I'm afraid it's time for us to go Scootaloo. We had best keep our appointment with Nurse Redheart."

As she spoke though, it was Sweetie Belle that stood up and rushed across the room. She Dashed into Cadence's arms and warmly hugged her. Instantly the small girl presented the older woman with her favorite doll, her voice bright and warm. "Don't go yet Cadence! I didn't get to introduce you to Princess Platinum! See she is pretty like you, and has really nice silky hair and a big horn like your own, except you've got wings cause you're an Alicorn were as she was only the princess who lead the Unicorn's from their old homeland to Equestria." And only then did the filly run out of breath and look up to Cadence with wide eyes and a hopeful smile.

Never one to spoil a good moment, and always happy to get a good hug, Cadence would wrap the filly in her arms and knelt down, lightly kissing the girl on her head and hugging her close. "That's fantastic Sweetie, but I will have to wait for another day when we have more time to talk. It's fantastic that you took the time to introduce us though, I think Princess Platinum is one of my favorite of the three leaders from Hearts Warming Eve, even though her assistant Clover the Clever did all the hard work."

While the two got into a quiet private conversation about the legend of Heat's Warming, Scootaloo would shove one last cake into her mouth, munching swiftly and whipping her hands on Sweetie's table cloth, earning her another glare from Opal. Once done, she walked over to Cadence, her voice more serious now that she had cleared her mouthful of food. "So tea was good but we are going to go now right?"

Cadence pouted in time with Sweetie Belle for a moment but at last stood up and fluffed the young filly's head, and voiced softly. "Thanks for the Company Rarity, Sweetie Belle." A sigh whispered from her lips. "Come on Dusk, we had better go before I spend the next week spoiling Sweetie silly." As they moved downstairs and stopped at the door, Dusk would draw Rarity into his arms, softly kissed her while the other two started to walk down the street. It was clear the couple were close and their tender moments made Cadence think only of poor Shining alone now in Canterlot with her words of rejection, even as Scoot muttered comments about too much PDA in town as of late.

* * *

"Now Scootaloo, take a grip on the table and bite down hard. I am sorry, but we need to pull one of your pinion feathers next." Even as Cadence talked, Nurse Redheart offered her a thick rubberized bite guard. It had been nearly an hour since Dusk caught up with them and guided the two mares into Ponyville's clinic and tracked down Redheart and the room the nurse had booked for Cadence's examination. Going over all of Redheart's details had been first of course, then some minor athletic information. At last however, it had come down to the more painful side of things.

Even as she lay her chest on the table, Scootaloo's body trembled at the threat of a feather being pulled. Already her lips worked over the rubber chunk, her face laying on her crossed arms. Behind her the older women worked in a team, Nurse Redheart applying antiseptic to the feather Cadence had picked out, while at the same time Cadence gently pushed a needle into the flesh near the base of Scootaloo's wing, a mild sedative to numb the her wing. Even as a few breaths were drawn and hissed out of her nose, she felt the drug spreading. Against her will her wing drooped flat against her back, and she could feel her whole left side going slightly numb as the rhythm of her heartbeat spread the numbness even further. Suddenly a hand on her cheek drew her back from her numb void, Redheart's voice tender and low. "Squeeze my hand Scootaloo, remember we are here to make you better."

With her right hand trapped in the nurses own fingers, the numbness had not yet spread fully into those fingers. Squeezing gently in response, she drew a breath and felt Cadence's breath on her cheek, then... nothing and a sudden bout of screaming orders stormed around the room over her head. Strange was that she had not felt the pain that Cadence and Redheart had been so detailed and sorry for inflicting on her. In her haze all she really remembered was Redheart forcing Cadence from her unfocused line of sight while Dusk slammed the door closed and locked it, but not before shouting something out at the staff waiting in the hallway.

Dusk was then at her side, stroking her hair and whispering something quietly to her. The faint smell of burning feathers tormented her nose for a few seconds just before he sat, holding her hand and stroking her hair. Alone and silent except for his quite muttering, it took what felt like weeks before the drug started to fade, and she could at last feel her jaw again. Speaking was a strenuous effort, as her body simply didn't wish to act without her ordering it. Her voice was weak and nearly a whisper but she finally got his attention. "Wh... y didn't not hurt. Why Cad leave? Why you crying?"

Realizing the girl was starting to come back from the drugged stooper, Dusk sighed and looked down at her, his voice tender but polite. "Your feather snapped and Cadence got sprayed in the face with what was inside. We had the staff evacuate all the pegasi in the clinic to make sure nobody else could get infected in case it really is wingrott. I'm sorry Scoots but I had to burn a few of your feathers because it was oozing rather badly where it snapped and I'm no good at healing magic."

Swallowing softly, Scootaloo turned her head and placed it face down on the table, a sob rippling though her even as she drew her breath. "So I infected Cadence? So much for a nice visit from your childhood mentor." A sniffle was swallowed back.

Dusk didn't let her have the time to wallow in her depression, his fingers softly stroked her hair, while he tried to comfort the filly in a warm and soft voice. "It's not the first time she has been sprayed with the blood of a person with wingrott Scoots. The popular theory is that Alicorn's are immune to wingrott. And the clinic's lab is still going over the pinion we gave them, we still don't know if it's even really wingrott." Her snort was all he got in response, and for some time after they sat in silence.

* * *

In a nearby room three of the clinic's lab technicians worked with delicate care on the shattered half of a pinion feather. On the other side of the glass Cadence wrapped herself tighter in the hospital gown they had given her while her clothing was sent to be sterilized. Her hair still drenched from the emergency shower, her eyes crossed as she tried to focus on the solution the feather shards were being dipped into. The mixture of chemicals had been made up based off notes she had sent them in the morning. She observed as a shard dissolved in the liquid as it was stirred with a slow, steady rhythm. "Ca... Cadence. You said if it's pink, it's wingrott. This is the third batch we have tried. It keeps developing a slight sheen, but it never turns fully pink. Can't you just tell me what that means?"

Redheart clutched her own gown close, the spray she had taken while forcing Cadence into the shower had soaked her own uniform. Now the nurse clutched Cadence's own arm, her finger's trembling at the mystery before them. Cadence at last released a sigh even as the same faint hint of pink appeared in the fluid, yet it was never fully turning pink.. "It's wingrott. But it makes no sense at all. Her feathers aren't molting. Even with this feather snapping, it's still far stronger then any wingrott would leave it. And she isn't infectious..." Her gaze turned back to Redheart's, and she asked in a stiff voice. "Not a single pagasus in town has shown any wing or flight issues?"

Now it was Redheart's turn to think, the binder she had put together of the last three months of medical histories was opened again and she scanned over the front page, at last stopping at two lines. "Of fourteen pegasus who came in over the last three months... Four cases of molting in children who were simply growing fresh new pinion feathers; seven cases of weakness in flight all connected to a brief outbreak of a lung infection; And three of the weather team came down with scarlet feather who had to be isolated for a few weeks. We lost one of them but that was because she had an allergic reaction to the medication." She snapped the book closed and shook her head. "Scootaloo has been in town for over a month. If she really had wingrott half of the weather team would have been in here by now, right?"

Cadence sighed and nodded again. "What we have is something bad Redheart. Clearly she had wingrott." A hand shot up to deflect the question Redheart was getting ready to ask and continued, her voice quiet and serious. "Maybe she was a carrier, maybe she simply got lucky and it mutated. It's clear it has damaged her wings but it's also clear it has gone dormant, maybe even died off. I've seen two other cases of wingrott that simply died off naturally, leaving the fillies in both cases weak for a few months but then over time, they were stronger then ever before, and both were found to be immune to wingrott afterwards." Now she paused and nodded to let the nurse go on with her question.

No expert, Redheart had spent the last two weeks pouring over everything she could find on the subject of wingrott to understand Scootaloo, in hopes of helping somehow during Cadence's visit. Now her question was lost from the start of their conversation, yet she felt another form just as quickly. "But then as you say, why are her wings so fragile. Is Dusk right? Do we need to look into her family? Do you think its abuse after all?"

Silence passed between them, as Cadence stared at the lab words as they continued further testing on the feather shard, time and time again they all came up negative. A sigh whispered from her lips and Cadence would lower her head. "Get me the paperwork Redheart. Are you sure you want to be the one to take her in? Isn't there any pegasus who could do it?"

In her own turn, Redheart paused and watched the lab workers at last burn the remains of the feather as well as most of the leftover chemicals that had been used in the tests. A sigh whispered from her lips and she shook her head. "There is only one. And she isn't one for responsibility. Did Rarity or Celestia tell you about the head of our weather team... Rainbow Dash?"

* * *

Out in the courtyard of Ponyville's half finished hospital, Dusk sat beside Scootaloo, resting an arm lightly around the girl's shoulders. Since the drugs had worn off, he had been forced to call for Redheart and Cadence to return to the young filly's room. The talk had been brief and inspection of his poor sterilization technique was inspected. Thankfully he had only discolored the neighboring feathers, and he had been complimented for his quick thinking. With no chance of infection, they had been given time off while the real doctors worked on the results of their testing.

Thus Dusk had left a note saying that he was taking the girl to watch the weather team, knowing Dash she was going to be out and showing off, especially with such a slow week of clear skies and lots of sun to make sure the local harvest was kept healthy. Dash was more then happy to take full advantage to show off when the work load was this light. She had lined up her team after they cleared the few wild clouds from the sky and started having them race, often in teams. The whole time she destroyed them with her own raw speed, and after they had put in a few hours of practice, she let them go about their day. Now Dusk realized her eyes were on him, and he grinned at the sound of Scootaloo's joyful voice. "She is so good! Did you see? Even carrying forty pounds none of them could keep up with her! Dash really is that amazing!"

Even as Dash let her wings relax to a soft flicking rhythm to slow her fall to land by Dusk, Scootaloo's words had her grinning, her voice lifting to gloat with pride. "Well thank you squirt! But it takes a ton of practice to be half as good as me." She flashed a bold grin as she let her wings fold to her back and landed against the newly installed statue of Celestia. She crossed her arms behind her thin figure while she puffed her tiny chest out, fresh sweat coating her form from the stress of her workout. In her usual tight breast band top and ass hugging shorts, the head of Ponyville's weather team was showing off her own fine figure for her crowd to enjoy, she even turned a little to the side, letting her tail dance and stroke across her own hips. Locking a suggestive gaze on Dusk, she slowly licked her lips. "When you off babysitting duty Dusk? We haven't gone for our jog today and you're gonna get flabby if you don't keep up your workouts."

Dusk laughed warmly at Dash's teasing, but shook his head and leaned back, crossing his arms over his own chest. "And I told you for the last week Dash. No exercise today. You missed Cadence's arrival and Rarity's tea. I never expected you to pass up a free meal." Offering a wink to ease the sting of the monetary tease, Dusk pushed his arms up behind the filly and gripped Scoot's shoulders, pushing her towards Dash his voice solid and calm. "This is Scootaloo, say hello to her Dash." Even as Dash rolled her eyes, the filly offered her hand stretched out, offering her hand to her hero, even while her growing blush darkened her cheeks ever more. Her eyes wide with wonder. "Scootaloo this is Dash. She is helping me get back in shape after our fight with Nightmare Moon cost me so much of my muscle mass."

As Scootaloo stepped forward, her own bright smile turned upwards even while a unnaturally shy side suddenly overtook her normally brash behavior, the presence of her hero clearly overwhelming. Eyes on the ground and hands clasping one another behind her back she nervously wiggled her foot while the tips of her toe pushed against the ground and rotated in small circles. The best she managed was to quietly mutter a low. "Hi Dash...."

It dawned on Dash that she might be disappointing Dusk by ignoring the younger mare. So she stepped forward, took up the offered hand of the young filly, shook it with her leather gloved hand in return, presenting a dry and strong grip. Dash presented her a warm grin voice kind and welcoming. "Well hello Scoots. Don't take the squirt thing personally, It's a pleasure to meet you kid." When she realized that Scoot had a dark blush and was looking down and away, she lifted her free hand and fluffed the girl's hair, laughing warmly. "You should come hang out with the weather team more often, we could always use someone to bring us fresh drinks and stuff."

Just as Dusk shifted to stand up himself, Cadence's voice called out, "Dusk! Scootaloo! We need to talk!" Dash stiffened up at the tone of authority in her style of speech, setting the normally relaxed mare off her comfortably lazy style. Even as the words echoed out, Dusk stepped up and looked down from the courtyard to get a clear line of sight of Cadence and the small crowd that followed her.

Yet now it was Dash's turn to get nervous as she started to edge back around the statue, her wings already unfolding, while her gaze turned upward towards the sky while nervously scratching at her neck. "I err.. heh... Sounds like important business for egg heads. I'd just get in the way."

Dusk stepped forward and reached his hand out to gently grasp one of her own, and pulled her into his arms, wrapping one of his arms around her hips while his other hand stroked her cheek. Leaning in close, he whispered with soft care into her ear, his voice low but reassuring. "Dash, you should get to know people like Cadence. She can be a great friend, and besides, she went to school with half the current Wonderbolts." Even as his words convinced Dash to relax and stay, Scootaloo slumped when Dash moved away from her, suddenly no longer the center of attention she stepped in behind Dusk watching in silence from around his hip.

When Cadence swept into the courtyard the sudden serious nature of things at hand became clear, towering as she was, it was hard to miss the fact Mayor Mare and Nurse Redheart were flanking her, along with one of the mayor's assistant's carrying a bulky stack of papers. Her eyes darted over Dash in only a second before locking on Scootaloo, voice polite but her tone quicker then Dusk would have liked. "Afternoon ... Rainbow isn't it? I apologize but the day has been a bit of a whirlwind and I think I've lost track of Dusk's introductions. You're the... Head of the Weather Patrol and the Element of Loyalty right?" At Dash's dumb slow nod, she smiled and nodded back then crouched before Dusk to bring herself to Scootaloo's eye-level, her own voice serious, hints of fear marking it. "Scootaloo. We need to ask you some questions. It's very important that you tell us the truth. Think of it as..." She paused and looked to Dusk and Dash for a moment before returning her gaze to the filly. "... well. I wont lie to you Scootaloo. Your parent's haven't been taking good care of you. It's why your wings are so weak, why you're so skinny. We want you to get taken care of properly and it would really help if you give us the truth, ok?"

Now suddenly it was Scootaloo who once more had everyone's attention again. While Dusk had stepped aside to let Cadence she her fully, Dash suddenly stepped forward to stand between the two of them, arms crossing over her chest, a new found courage swelling up in her as she moved to stand protectively in front of the younger pegasus. Her voice was angry yet, she was clearly also straining to keep herself calm. "Just cause her wings are small doesn't mean her parents aren't any good." A breath pulled in, raked over her teeth in a hiss.

Yet it was Scootaloo who defused Dash's sudden defensiveness in this situation, stepping forward and taking a grip of Dash's hand and squeezing as she stood half behind the taller female, even while she looked at Cadence, her voice soft and low. "I... It's cause they work so much isn't it? I've been good at cooking for myself, and mm.... mom still does the laundry all the time." Her voice quivered, breaking down as she spoke on, her eyes going wide as she watched the gathered adults.

Realizing that this was a sensitive moment, the mayor and her assistant backed off, even while Cadence lifted her arms to offer her a hug, one that Scootaloo would not take up, instead reveling in standing tightly against Dash's side. Her hand slipped up to gently grip the older woman's own. Cadence's heart dropped at this, and yet she didn't let the pain of Scootaloo's rejection cause her smile to drop. Her voice soft, Cadence offered Scoot a smile, hands on her knees. "I'm sorry, but you're right Scoot. Your health is fragile, and its not just due to whatever got you sick a few years ago. In truth, you really lucky Scootaloo. You should be immune to wingrott, but you're also very sickly, you need proper nutrition and months... maybe years of physical therapy to make up for the damage done to your wings."

Dusk stepped forward, cupping a hand under Dash's elbow, as he saw the terror slowly forming in her eyes, as talk of wingrott spread between the group. He had a gentle smile as he stroked her jaw, and told her in a soft and tender voice. "We didn't tell anyone about it because we didn't want to start a panic... or to have anyone start attacking her from fear of a disease she doesn't have. You understand right? The panic that can spread though a population if they thought wingrott had broken out?"

With Scoot's wide eyes gazing up at her, while still grasping her hand, the words Dusk spoke took time to sink in, yet as they did Dash slowly smiled, and nodded a little, her own hand squeezing the young girl's hand back with a steady but calm grip. "I understand Dusk. It's horrible how people treat wingrott victims. I've seen ... " her voice fell off and she sniffled, only continuing when both Scoot and Cadence both urged her to speak on with silent but demanding body-language. "It's... it's outlawed, and heartless, but I've seen a filly stoned by her own parents when the molting started."

When Scootaloo stiffened up at Dash's story, Cadence drew both girls into her arms stroking Scoot across the shoulders and Dash's lower back as she comforted them both. At last, she listed her head and shook it, then gazed at both girls with a warm smile. "Dash. We could use a favor. You see, I can't stay here in Ponyville to look after Scootaloo's daily care, so Nurse Redheart has offered to act as her guardian until a permanent one can be found to care for her. But you're a pegasus, and from what Dusk told me, you're likely the best flier Ponyville has to offer. If you were willing to take care of the athletic side of her physiotherapy while Redheart covers the medical it would be a massive favor to us all."

Stiff in Cadence's hug, Dash blushed, but as her eyes lifted to gaze at Dusk, and a grin spread over her lips. At last she turned her eyes back to the princess who was trying to comfort her, nodding her affirmation. Cadence beamed with a delighted grin in return, releasing her from the hug as Dash at last spoke up. "I... It..." Her eyes turned to Scootaloo and then her own grin spread wide. "It would be a pleasure to help Cadence, what do you think Squirt? Wanna start joining me and Dusk for our daily jogs?" The mood improved, soon mayor mare would return and paperwork was signed. Dusk and Dash both stepped up to witness the paperwork placed Cadence as Scootaloo's guardian, with Redheart as her temporary representative for the time being. The whole time Dusk and Dash's attention was on the strength the young girl showed, trying to avoid breaking down before the adults, showing off only with a light quiver of her lip, and the occasional soft sniffle.

* * *

Dusk lay bare chested on the examination table, three of the clinic's experts on unicorn biology had spent most of the last hour referencing Cadence's notes and applying a thick brown paste across his back, starting just above his tail and working up over his shoulders before drawing the last of the required emblems upon his temples. Thick and cold, the mud like mixture had dried onto his bare flesh, leaving him unable to move while awaiting Cadence's return. Trapped as he was and ordered to refrain from using any magic, he had been attempting to recite princes Celestia's last class from his days at Star Swirl U. Muttering quietly to himself he quoted her word for word.

"The Crystal Empire's magic was different from that of unicorns. No single pony in their tribe could cast a spell alone, not like the earth ponies, whose magic leaks out through their body into the land beneath their feet. Even the Pegasus art of weather control is a willful individual act. Instead each acts as a single node in a greater world of magic, giving the holder of the Crystal Heart access to a power that dwarfs even that of an Alicorn. Their last queen, Starlight Secret helped me and my long lost sister Luna master the movement of the Sun and Moon. Before that, it took teams of a dozen unicorns from all over Equestria to complete the act, and it would leave them drained of their magic for weeks if they were not the strongest of mages..."

Cadence's voice had cut in and she finished the second half of the speech, her impersonation of Celestia far better then Dusk's own. "But with Starlight's rise as the new Queen of the Crystal Empire this duty was taken from the unicorns, allowing the unicorns to start using their magic for more then just the act of moving sun and moon. Instead of a population drained to near exhaustion they quickly became a flourishing empire of their own right. While this change ended the old days of the tribute system from the earth tribe to the unicorn out of gratitude for the sunlight that allowed them to grow their crops, the change forced the unicorns to take up the arts and sciences to find a way to support their people. This lead to the unicorn's minting the first gold bit and establishing many fine arts." The main passage of the story finished, Cadence grinning to him, her voice playful. "A good lesson Dusk, but today is about your mind not early Equestrian history."

Dusk blushed darkly, yet as he watched her, Cadence drew a finger tip to her horn, and let a tiny mote of her magic leak free and stick to her slender digit. She then lowered her hand and with the lightest touch to the tip of his horn, allowed the magic spiral down though his body and rippled out across the tattoo designs that had been drawn over his back. The rich glow of her magic was a very light cornflour blue, and as its power spread though his body it expanded past the herbal designs, to bleed into his veins making them all glow bold against his skins surface. "Remember Dusk. No magic until I tell you, when you feel me pulling on it just let me." She whispered in hushed tones.

Dusk's skin felt electric as the odd Alicorn magic poured though his body, searching every pour of his flesh for any hint of his own magic essence. It was shockingly relaxing after a stressful day, as every muscle on his body shivered then went limp, leaving the stallion relaxed. Yet somehow, oddly enough Cadence's version of the spell felt somehow more alive, it made his skin tingle in joy under her focused attention. At last, he found his voice and softly replied, "I know Cadence, I've had this kind of exam before... But why is your version so ... energetic compared to the normal? I haven't studied healing magic properly before but this feels different from the last few times."

Her fingers traced a line across his naked spine, drifting her nails across the sensitive parts of his back in silent inspection. At last done, she happily responded. "It's just the difference between Alicorn magic and Unicorn... that and I've adapted the spell. It's searching your muscles as well, looking for bruising; internal bleeding; infections and the like." When he glanced up at her, she offered a shrug voice soft. "It's shocking how often you find solutions to other problems when you're looking for something else altogether. Now relax, let's see how badly you've messed up your magic with these last few weeks of adventure."

Dusk quietly laughed at her words, yet he was well aware of what she was referencing. After his last letter to Celestia talking about his accidental teleportation, she had asked him to avoid using magic, sure he had hurt something using too much magic all at once. Silence passed between the two of them as Dusk felt her pulling at his magic, twisting in places and drawing at him in small distracting tugs. Once done, she stopped and placed her fingers on his cheek and stroked her thumb across his jaw. "Dusk... I..." She paused and swallowed sharply then she knelt down before him to look him in the eye. Her net words were stern and strong, yet full of hurt. "When did you start chewing Lotus Dusk? You know it's outlawed. Where did you even get it?"

The panicked tones of Cadence's words made Dusk's amused rejection of the concept of him doing drugs die on his lips. Instead he took a deep breath and swallowed before shaking his head a little and, once again, meeting her gaze "I have never chewed Lotus. Just... why?"

The room went silent as Cadence and Dusk gazed at each other with a seriousness seldom seen between the two. Finally, Cadence sighed and nodded softly. "Dusk," she began, "I trust you not to lie to me. I...I've known you too long to question that." She then pleaded with Dusk, "Help me understand, Dusk. Teleporting is a very magic-draining spell, even with Alicorns. That's why very few can perform a teleportation more then once a month, it's why we don't even teach it at the university unless someone shows they have a talent for it. Yet, not only did you accidentally teleport, but you did it just after recovering from your ordeal with retrieving the Elements and rescuing Luna, and your magic is completely replenished. How is that even possible without the use of drugs?" Flustered, but wanting to trust him, she wilted a little, her shoulders slumping.

As she inquired, Dusk took a moment to let his mind inspect his own magic, getting a feeling for the warmth it emanated as his will wrapped around it's flame, enjoying the odd pulsing sensation as he focused his will against it. Exploring, he reached deeper to see how far it went, and in shock realized, that he somehow found a back door in Cadence's magic that left a pathway he could follow back into her own essence. His appetite for learning blooming, he reached in further and traced the link from her spell, only to find his will now holding her own aura. But realization on what he had been doing dawned on him, and he quickly withdrew. This was a massive intrusion into the core of her being, without any permission! Drawing himself fully back to center he released his will and lifted his eyes to her own, his words a low murmur of shock at his discovery.

Cadence swallowed sharply and leaned in close, cut off the spell. She then softly spoke while still gazing into his eyes. "Then sometime in the future we need to test that, but not today..." She gasped and her eyes went wide while a smile crossed her lips. "It's simply amazing. To think half of Celestia's reason for sending me was your foolish attempt to cast dragon magic. Yet here you are, in the prime shape of your life. I wonder if its another abnormality in your cutiemark..."

Dusk's fingers shot to his own neck, stroking his cutiemark, suddenly gasping in realization that it was warm to the touch. "Celestia always said my talent was magic, I never really questioned her on that before." Silence droned between the two of them while Dusk was lost in thought. After a minute or so, Dusk looked at Cadence again and smiled. "So she wanted you to tell me off for using the dragon magic?" Dusk asked in a soft, yet sure, voice.'"

"She did." Cadence sighed as her eyes fell and her head shook softly. A hand touched his shoulder as she explained in a soft voice. "Dusk, even as an Alicorn when I try to cast that spell the drain it has on me is shocking. It creates a loop with the magic, the greater the distance the larger the loop. This loop requires a massive amount of magic to sustain, and I don't care how powerful your magic is these days. I agree with Celestia. Don't ever try casting it again unless its really a massive life and death matter." Her eyes locked with his in a sharp and steady gaze, waiting for him to relent.

Releasing a gentle sigh from his lips, Dusk blushed, rolled over, sat up properly, and rested his open palms upon his knees. "I understand Cadence, I promise I won't try it again. It really did hurt badly enough, and I would rather avoid going though that again." His eyes drifted away as he formed a warming smile. "I'm glad you were able to come today Cadence, it's good to have a stable friend around again." He sighed gently and happily as he watched her writing her notes.

Cadence's rich and ringing laughter at Dusk's words was warm yet echoing as she lowered her quill and smiled as she stroked her own jaw with gentle care. She turned to him, and spoke in a soft and easy voice fulled with teasing delight. "Oh come now. You already have some fantastic new friends, don't you? Rarity is a brilliant mind, a fine business woman and a great friend; Pinkie Pie somehow could manged to remain positive even during the worst of Night Moon's assault on Ponyville; Applejack and her brother put their lives on the line to rush into the hall to rescue you and Shining Armor during the worst of the fighting; and Dash went one on one with Nightmare Moon, plus she clearly is after you, this afternoon with Scootaloo made that clear." When Dusk blushed she offered her own light shrug. "I get the feeling you've got a fantastic new group of friends."

Dusk blushed gently, her words were warming, yet he let a slow sigh whispered from his lips as he smiled quietly but shook his head gently. "Rarity... reminds me of why I shouldn't let my experiences with Sunset rule my future. I love her, she really brings light to my day." At her grin his blush deepened and he dipped his head a little again but kept smiling as he sat up properly once more. "Pinkie is a bundle of crazy, but quite fun because of that. Applejack? I've never had a more reliable and supportive friend, even as she suggested the other day she wants more..." And here he grinned and winked at her. "Apparently I am 'quite the catch' according to both her and Rarity."

Together they both shared a warm laugh at this, even as Dusk realized she was silently crying a little, wiping her cheeks with the back of her hand and offering a warm grin. "How right they are." A silent wistful sigh escaped her lips as he gently tapped his cheek. "Almost as good as your brother." She quickly changed the subject and leaned forward, "What about Dash?" She quipped with a grin and a playful wink.

Dusk laughed gently, and his own warm smile broadened in return. "She is young, and needs to deal with some more of the realities of life, but otherwise? She really is quite a charming girl, and her dreams soar as high as she flies. It's really quite impressive just how much energy and excitement she puts into even her simple work with the weather team." He paused in thought for a moment then continued, "And then there is Fluttershy. She reminds me of you, with how much she loves to care for her animal charges." He let the conversation drop off, standing up and walking gently to her side, a hand placed to rest softly on her shoulder, and squeezing gently. "Thank you for your attention to my life and that of my friends. But what about you. Has Shining ..." He paused and smiled when she froze up, realizing what her body language said instantly. "Well know that I love you Cadence. I will do any thing I can make up all you've done for me." As she blushed and relaxed a little, Dusk wrapped arms around her neck, hugging her close. "I love you Cadence." A kiss gently placed on her cheek he stepped into the adjacent bathroom, the dry mud would require some scrubbing to remove.

* * *

Hours later, a fine dinner still lingered on her lips, as Cadence watched the Moon's rise in silence while her guard carried the chariot across the night sky. Empire Wing guided the team as they flew into the courtyard of Celestia's palace, the torchlight lit up their landing in a flickering eerie glow. Yet as she stepped down from the chariot and turned to thank the old knight for his hard work, a figure behind his back caused her to pause, and her eyes to go wide. Lingering behind her champion, Luna's black robe made her nearly invisible against the dark and starless night. Rather then linger on the presence waiting for her, Cadence stepped forward, gently grasping the stallion's hand and smiling warmly to him. "It's been a pleasure to have your company again, Empire. Please, think of me if you ever want some company."

Elder Guard laughed warmly and shook his head. "You act as if I'm some old stallion about to be put out to pasture. Don't worry." The conversation paused as he grinned at the snickering of his younger companions. "Now it appears you have a guest. You don't have to worry about being polite to us, clearly she needs to talk." With ease he shooed her away, returning to his men and shouting orders with calm confidence. "Zephyr, Arctic Gust. Take the trainee's and polish the chariot before putting it away. Make sure to leave notes for the engineer about the fraying harness and the cracked runner. And warn the colt I'll be back in two days to make sure its repaired properly this time, no more patch jobs with varnish to hide the wear and tear. The rest of you enjoy your night off, but remember we are scheduled to race the Wonderbolts chariot team next week. I expect you all here tomorrow afternoon for practice."

Out of excuses to put if off Cadence turned from the guards and stepped towards Luna who awaited her in silence at the edge of the torchlight. Cloaked by its shadow she realized that four of her own honor guard waited watching everything around them in silence, the black batwings and... "They finished all four sets of armor already? It's fantastic Princess Luna. I... I think your guards really stand out as their own force now." The lack of a response made her swallow sharply, talking a few light steps forward, eyes probing for what was keeping the princess silent.

Luna stepped forward from the shadows, her eyes bloodshot and breath short. A hand reached out and sharply gripped the younger Alicorn's wrist, when she spoke, her voice was shaky and low. "We hast not the time f'r sweet words great niece. The beast is knocking at the do'r and thou ne'd to be prepar'd."

Chapter 5: Applebuck Season - Part 1

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Applejack gave a low grunt as her weight shifted back, rolling her hips and in a single smooth thrusting motion, she forced the oak beam across her shoulders into the air. With a massive barrel suspended at each end of the supportive length of oak, the heavy wood groaned a little under the strain of the weight, guessing they must have approached near two hundred forty or so odd pounds, the strain was enough to make even her sweat due to the need to keep them balanced. With the cart only a good ten paces away, she had just enough time to let her mind wander a moment. It took Winona's laughter and playful punch in the shoulder to get her attention back on the work left in their day. "Sorry Winona, what did ya say? I was thinking about harvest hiring. We've got such a rich yield this year we might need more than the normal crew to help."

Standing in the back of the cart with hands outstretched, the canine girl barked a light laugh before shaking her own head and flashing a bold grin. "I asked when Dusk's coming today? If he was a deft hand at chopping wood you might not have to hire nearly as many brutes to clear this deadwood. Right? He just blasts it and then you and Mac can lift the chunks into the cart. No fuss with saws, and you'd have a lot less fights with the labor shop for taking half their hands a week before harvest." As they talked, AJ would settle the heavy oak beam to the ground and with both hands wrapped about the lower third of the barrel she hefted with a single smooth motion to slip it across the edge of the cart and with Winona's help pushed it back to join the other four full barrels.

Judging space with one eye while the process was repeated to get the other barrel into place. Turning her gaze up to the pleading canine, a hand was used to wipe sweat from her brow, while rich grin spread across her lips. "Sure. We can ask 'em. But no pestering him if he says no." Before the pup could start to argue, Applejack lifted a hand and shook her hand dismissively. "No Winona, seriously. He works hard for the princess already. The doctors say he needs a few hours of exercise a day so he spends three with me and two with Dash. And that's before his new job of running the library with only Barb's help. And every week the mayor or Rarity or somebody is having some kind of problem that he is forced to help them figure out. That said, I'm in no rush to give him extra headaches to deal with by making him spend more time here burning through his magic to do work we can hire a couple dozen laborers to handle." A grunt escaped her lips as she leaned back against the cart and crossed arms over her chest, her head turned up with a grin at the young canine who stood over her. "Besides, we pay good money for help before the harvest, and we get them back to town in time for other farms to still get their own pick of the workers. Then we hire half of them back again two days latter to come work harvest with us too. If they can't respect just how much we do for Ponyville, we will just have to try harder next time they need our help!"

While the girls shared in laughter, AJ walked around to the front of the cart and lifted the harness to rest across her shoulders. The effort to take the first few steps was a strain, forcing her to brace her shoulders and her every step drove her heel into the dirt, even while Winona pushed at it from the back. After two seconds of straining effort, the weight forced the cart to wiggle forward, and once it had started rolling, it soon become an easy effort for her to keep it running. As soon as the cart got rolling properly, Winona marched ahead to start leading them after Mac’s sent, while they fell once more to idle chatter. The girls wouldn't hear the noise of a distant crash, nor the scream of pain that followed.

* * *

Wandering the fields alone, Apple Bloom wondered if her shortcut home from school was such a good idea. The orchard trees towered over her, and even though she helped out with them all the time, it was still confusing to be alone and with nothing in sight in any direction but endless trees heavy with apples. She knew she was somewhere in the south fields. And she had passed a bunch of deadfall not more than ten minutes ago, but still there was no sight nor sound to suggest what direction Mac had gone after clearing this section. Worried, she considered just sitting at the next fallen tree and waiting for AJ to show up. At least that way she would get picked up, and Winona would be with... "Grroott.... Heelap..."

The whisper dry voice that rustled through the trees made Apple Bloom's spine shiver, the icy chill running down her neck as a harsh, demonic huffing noise began to rise and hiss though groaning lips. Shivering a little and steeling herself, Apple bloom shifted her weight to stand up taller and cross arms before her, voice attempting a proud and gruff tone. "I ain't afraid of you, whoever you are. Just ‘cause you're trying to put on a creepy voice doesn't mean you'll scare me! I'm not no scared little girl!"

For all of her brave talk when the leathery dry voice made a series of grunts, it took all of her willpower not to flee from the scene. And then from under the tree before her a hand thrust free of the branches, while the weak tones of a voice that only made the whole situation worse. "Get AJ. Hurry AB... please..."

Horror dawned on Apple Bloom far worse than what she had been dreading only a moment before. Creeping slowly closer she reached into the branches, and with tiny hand stretched out to grasp at Mac's own extended fingers. A sob started to from in her throat and shaking fingers grasped his own. "I.... I will find her Mac! I don't..." a sob ripped through the tiny girls throat and then she released his grip and bolted to the north only sure of that one fact alone, all the while screaming for AJ at the top of her lungs.

* * *

Still drawing the wagon though the orchard, Applejack would only realize Winona had stopped when she started passing the canine. Rock still the smaller woman stood stock still and her normally floppy brown ears extended to stand their full height, tips twitching as she focused on some sound AJ couldn't hear. This was a time for silence; respecting Winona's far keener sense of hearing and ability to sense danger, AJ leaned back against the wagon forcing it to roll to a stop. In silence she reached for her spare bandana to brush sweat from her face, she kept her eyes on every motion the canine took. A worried yip whispered from Winona's lips and she turned bolting into the trees in a sudden hectic flurry of motion, two words from her were enough to make AJ's blood boil. "Mac's hurt!."

Throwing off the harness for the wagon might have only taken her a few seconds but in that time she had already lost sight of the canine through the dense branches of the trees, but right now that was far from a concern. Abandoning the cart and following the canine though the heavy branches, the sound of barking from the guard dog her only guide... until she realized she could hear at last what Winona had already picked up. It was the screaming voice of little Apple Bloom. Smashing her way though every tree before her now, AJ ignored the bruising and cuts that quickly layered her face and arms; desperation growing thick in her throat, until at last she crashed into a new aisle where Winona stood clutching the little filly close, the tiny girl weeping into her shoulder. No time to pant for breath she rushed to the girls’ side, her voice was short, and sharp with her own panic as worry for her brother overrode her concern for the filly. "Mac??? Where???!"

Turning in Winona's arms, the filly showed her strength, and stood up again, grabbing AJ's hand and guiding her through the trees her own voice quick in answer to her older sister's question. "South edge of the Orchard. Near the trail to town." Even as they ran on, the canine was quick to join them, a worried whimper and hand on AJ's shoulder. Her touch was just enough to pierce through the panic that clouded her mind, and halted their mindless rushing.

"Winona, go to town, get ... get... Get anyone who's on duty at the clinic, I don't care who! Get them all! If they argue get Dusk, tell them..." and she stopped, realizing she didn't really know what had happened. She turned to Apple Bloom who was shivering where she stood. Kneeling low and cupping her little sister’s hands she drew her close, and forced herself to speak in a calmer tone. "Apple Bloom, what do we tell them? What happened to Mac?"

The little filly drew strength from her older sister’s grip, her calm words and the clear need for information. Swallowing back tears, she spoke as carefully as she could muster. "A tree. He is under one of the deadfall. Sh.... should we send for Carrot Top too?"

About to bolt the second AB spoke, Winona took a half step then paused at that question, twisting her head and quirking an eyebrow at the boss mare, ears half lifted again in concern and confusion. Swallowing once sharply, AJ shook her head and stood picking up her little sister and placing the girl on her shoulder voice firm. "She doesn't need to know right now, the Doctor's are what is important. Guide me to Mac, AB. Winona please... hurry!"

* * *

It was well past midnight when someone from Ponyville Clinic came to retrieve AJ and Dusk. Apple Bloom had been left sleeping in Dusk's bed curled up with Winona. So, only the two of them stepped into Mac's recovery room. Bruising covered half his face, running down over his chest and most of his ribcage. Standing over his bed, a weary Nurse Redheart poured over a clipboard, her voice tense but calm. "So no Mac, you can't help with the harvest. You’re lucky Dr. Horse is letting you go home so soon." When he moved to speak she crossed her arms and leveled a glare at him, and spoke sharply. "No Mac. Don't even think about it."

Storming up to Redheart's side AJ gave her a single sharp nod before slipping into almost the exact same posture, arms also crossing and glare matched by her curled lips. "Damn right you're lucky Mac. You know I hate it that you do deadwood duty alone! This kind of accident is just what I was warning you about! You’re lucky your fool head wasn't crushed! I can't believe I let you work alone today, if it wasn't for Apple Bloom cutting through that part of the orchard..." Her voice became ragged as she forced herself to swallow and attempted to continue. "You'd have bleed out you damn fool! Then where would me and Apple Bloom be?!" her tirade was silenced when Dusk gripped her shoulder, but it could also have been the glare from Nurse Redheart at the volume her voice had reached.

Without really moving, resigned acceptance settled over Mac's form. His head slumped and his eyes drooped, even his cheeks deflated and he offered a single slow nod to their words. Turning his head to face his little sister he spoke up at least, his voice leathery, still dried out from the harsh day. "You win AJ." his voice was quiet and he spoke only briefly, keeping his eyes on her, one hand slipping out from under the blankets reaching out and forcing its way to grip AJ's elbow since she refused to uncross her arms. "Visit the Labor Board in the morning. Two jobs, deadwood and --"

Cutting him off and shifting her hands to at least uncross and clutch up his own hand with both her own. "And the Harvest workers as well. I know Big Mac, it's practically a standing quota we have with them at this point. I can handle it." Prideful, the mare let her gaze sweep once over his form putting on a hard look that reminded Dusk of her brother's own normally quiet resilience. Her voice was level and calm when she spoke up again. "I know you've let me handle more of the work these last few years Big Mac, but I'm ready to take care of it all. And you're gonna need time off to heal them ribs, not to mention all the cuts that tree left after it tried to hug ya." Bending down and leaning in, she stroked her open palm across his right cheek, one of the few places that had not been scrapped or punctured by the collapse. "I'll stop at the labor shop in the morning, and then bring Apple Bloom and breakfast. Alright?"

Mac's soft nod, and half smile at his sister's firm approach to take control of the situation would stick with Dusk long after that night. It was powerful, the trust the Apple family shared. Their visit ended shortly afterwards, with Nurse Redheart ushering them out of the Clinic as politely as she could, but she was firm on them going, the small clinic now really felt cramped compared to the two story hospital that sat nearly completed across the street, it's shadow swallowing them as they walked back to Dusk's Library; keeping busy with random chatter about the upcoming harvest.

Even as Dusk unlocked the front door he knew Winona would be waiting on the other side, the small canine lass had keen ears and yet knew when to be quiet. Even as he nodded to her and moved into the library hall with AJ close behind. Once he was sure the three of them were far enough away from the staircase that their voices would not carry he turned and waved to the recliner behind his desk. "I will sleep down here AJ, you and Winona might as well join Apple Bloom in the study, no reason to wake the lass up just to walk home and come back in an hour or two when the sun comes up, right?"

The guard dog was chipper, even on a day like today and this late at night. Standing to her full height she turned to face AJ, offering a small shrug but a slight nod. "I can go back to the farm, Granny doesn't need to be alone out there... and it wouldn't take me more than fifteen minutes to get home." The keen pup's tail twitched, half way between freely wagging and a nervous twitch. Dusk realized the girl was far more worried then she let on, simply masking it with her helpful nature while staying keen.

AJ let go a single sigh, at last nodding a little. "It's been hours since I got Pinky to take Granny Smith some dinner... I suppose if you're sure you feel safe walking home alone it would be safer. And if you don't heaven knows what Granny will do. Probably try walking to town herself when she gets up in the morning and finds us still missing.”

As Winona turned to head for the door, Dusk followed to intercept her. From his desk he had taken a small pouch of herbs he had to buy from Fluttershy, Nurse Redheart’s reaction to his request had been very negative. Voice soft he pulled one of the small inner pouches out, offering it to the canine. “This is Dawn Blossom. If you suck on the petal it will keep you alert and reduce fatigue.” A hand lifting to interrupt AJ’s stern look, he offered only one to the canine then pushed the rest back into the large pouch, then spoke to AJ in soft tones, hoping to keep the noise down and avoid waking Apple Bloom. “I keep them only for when something important comes up AJ. It’s legal, but if you are worried, I can give the rest back to Fluttershy.”

Applejack’s face contorted between a broad mixture of emotions, as she started to form a sentence three times, before at last giving up and allowing it to drop. “If Fluttershy thinks you’re safe with them, then you’re safe. But the second she thinks you have been using too many, you’ll find me and Rarity kicking down your door. Redheart might even get an invite if we feel like sharing the beating you’ll have earned.”

Even as she growled out the last few words; Dusk leaned forward, fingers holding the pouch out to her. “I took one while Cadence was here, but I will admit, the temptation is dangerous. Here, if you hold onto these it means I have to walk to the farm before I can take some more.” He paused, winking playfully to her and closing her hand around the thin pouch of herbs, his voice dipping to a more seductive tone. “Besides. That just means I have all the more reason to come visit you more often for the other herbs. The ones for headaches and the like.”

Applejack’s blush at his words was fierce, yet the warmth of his grip on her hand made her want to linger, every factor, even the whisper of his breath on her throat brought back powerful feelings; the reminder that her heat had only been over for a few weeks was strong every time she and Dusk got so close, driving her back into those feelings with the smallest touch and his growing familiarity. Cheeks deep red she at last offered him a small nod, drawing her hand away and shoving the pouch of herbs into her belt beside one hip. “S… sure thing sugar cube. I’d always welcome your company at the orchard.”

This conversation lead her mind wandering back a few hours while trapped in memories, an excuse to have Dusk visit more? Winona had left them at some point in their conversation, yet her request was fresh on AJ’s thoughts now. “Dusk… with Mac hurt we really need all the help we can get this year. Do you think you could spare the time, and use your magic to help us speed the process of dealing with deadwood up?”

Dusk would not even take the time to pause, and consider her question. With a light smile, and an easy nod he shifted to step behind her, hands on her shoulders and pushing her towards the stairs despite her towering over him. “Then I will have Barb tell Dash in the morning that I’ll be missing our workouts. When I explain it’s all for the greater good of your family, she will understand. Besides it will give her more time with Scootaloo.”

Pausing as she half turned to face him on the steps, AJ’s brow lifted, her voice harsh. “That trouble maker from Apple Bloom’s class?” Applejack questioned in a harsh, yet low voice, “Why is she studying under Dash? Isn’t she a bad influence for a filly who had to be taken away from her parents?”

Shaking his head, Dusk returned to pushing her to go to the bedroom upstairs. “We can talk in more detail on the farm tomorrow. You gotta go to the labor board early in the morning. And Dash might be a lot more casual, but you know she takes her responsibilities seriously. Scoots thinks of her like Dash thinks of the Bolts.” When AJ at last relented, Dusk would turn and head towards the Library again, softly finishing his thoughts to himself. “Or how most of the farmers who aren't simply jealous look up to you and Mac, working the biggest farm in the region yet hiring help only for seasonal work, despite easily producing enough to hire half of Ponyville, yet alone just those who work at the labor board.” Applejack released a proud snicker, even as Dusk wandered into the library, and made his way to the comfortable chair to catch a few brief hours of sleep. Dawn would be here soon, and no emergency request for Celestia to push it back a few hours would change that.

* * *

“Wait one apple picking moment!” AJ’s fist slammed violently down upon the counter, the half complete paperwork she had been writing smearing as still wet ink on the second page was mashed against the paper she had just put back on top to let the labor board manager consult. “The Apple Clan pays near double what everyone else does for emergency work like this because we don’t normally require the help and we want to make it up to everyone for pulling their labor away so suddenly!” Fuming, Applejack lifted her fist pointing one finger to the belligerent mare behind the counter, eyes narrowed. “Now you're telling me all those years of making your pocket fat don’t count for anything? Come on Ginger Gold!”

For all of AJ’s rage and fervor, Ginger Gold leaned back in her chair and sternly crossed her arms. When the taller mare at last calmed down a little she cocked an eyebrow, and then, at last fired back her own ice cold retort. “And I told you three times. Its a week before nine tenths of the farms crop comes into season. I got four people working on town hall. Six on the new hospital with another thirty out of towners stealing all the other jobs related to that project for the last two months. The Weather patrol picked last week to tell me part of the reservoir needed to be reinforced, so thats another eight. Filthy is getting his house and shop both reshingled, and he booked months in advance.” Ginger paused as she glared back, while letting that settle in. “That’s another three. Then two days ago Carrot Top let us know their harvest was ready early. She took twelve to get it done before anyone else needed extra labor. Even with the out of towners arriving early for harvest season, that’s thirty three of our local freehands busy with jobs. Even If I gave you all the remaining locals and half the townies, that would only make seventeen. I can’t give you twenty five for a week, even if you payed triple fees for the next five years.”

With a grunt she leaned over the counter and tossed the labor sheet for the week before AJ, her voice worn from the argument. “You can check my numbers. Just ‘cause Mac’s hurt,” and here her tone became softer, more sympathetic. “Bless Celestia that he is ok, that doesn’t mean I’m going to break contract with someone else. Maybe, and this is a big one, but maybe a few extra out of towners will show up over the next few days while the opening crew of local workers get started, you might start harvest two or three days late. So yes AJ, you can have seven today. But I’m keeping all the townies in case someone else has a disaster and drops it on my desk today.”

Seething, Applejack’s gaze dropped to the chart, her eyes roaming the lines and hunting for any mistake, some loophole or a simple fix that would make the numbers work out in her favor in some way. Only one did, and the math on that matter made her mouth bitter. But it was for the farm, and bits could be earned back from the harvest far quicker when the dead wood was removed. Swallowing her pride, Applejack’s hand pulled her coin sack from her hip. “Then I’ll pay triple fees for the out of towners, disaster relief as the Apple Clan contract states, right?”

Even as AJ started to count out her bits, one at a time, Ginger remained silent… until the gleam of the platinum hundred bit pieces reflected on her counter. She did the mental math and nodded slowly, speaking in a shaky voice. “That would make it twenty seven bits a head a day for the out of towners. Round it down to twenty five.” At AJ’s harsh glare at the sudden generosity in the face of so much money, Ginger waved her hand. “For Mac’s sake AJ. And because you Apple’s are always payed up with your annual fees two years in advance.”

Giving a firm nod, while still trying to suppress the trembling rage that grew with every beat of her heart, Applejack rounded her numbers down and spoke in a low, calm tone. “Then for the eighteen out of towners to make it the full twenty five hands I need, we will call it three thousand, one hun---”

Blushing, Ginger shook her head one hand and attempted to reach out and touch AJ’s hand to stop her. “I gotta keep a few hun.. please, at least leave me five? You know, for an emergency?”

Snapping her own hand back before the labor board mare could touch it, AJ rechecked her numbers a third time. She barely kept her anger in check, as she spoke in a sharper tone, the new sum fixed in her mind. “Thirteen out of towners for seven days. Twenty percent in advance and an extra ten percent for food and lodging fees. Makes it six hundred eighty two bits. Another 88 for the locals in advance.” Eight of the fat platinum coins were pushed across the counter to lay with their eyes all turned to stare accusingly at Ginger. “Get them to the farm before noon, Or I’ll demand half that fee back. And you know the boards rules are on my side.”

Even as Applejack stormed out, Ginger snapped up the coins and started yelling orders, the unfinished paperwork forgotten on her desk. Three lead hands were summoned and received their orders: once breakfast was finished, they were to bring their crews out to the Apple farm to pick up the slack caused be Big Mac's injury.



It would be a week before anyone found that half finished paper, the Apple’s harvest labor request would not be filed this year.

* * *

Dusk had taken the time to search the library that morning, hunting for the best maps the town had of the Apple’s orchard, and quickly making a copy so he could bring one with him. He also used his magic to float a book about apple harvesting practices so he could study up on them as he headed out to the farm, all the while forming mental checklists of things to take account of as he went. He muttered to himself as he walked down the lane to the farmhouse, Dusk tried to account for everything he had gathered from his swift skimming. “Depending on the size of the tree, six to eight full-sized barrels can be gathered from each tree. Empty, an average stallion can pull a cart with thirty barrels stacked two by five and three layers deep. Assuming the Apple’s follow the national average standard of between one hundred sixteen to one hundred forty two trees per acre, let’s assume that means approximately six hundred ninety six to one thousand one hundred thirty six barrels per acre. Considering the Apple orchard comes in at eighty six acres that gives us a range of fifty nine thousand eight hundred fifty six to ninety seven thousand six hundred ninety six. Let’s reduce that by -”

Dusk stopped, cutting himself off as he lifted a hand to wrap knuckles upon the door, the sturdy wood echoing the sound into the house. While waiting for an answer, he would pick up his train of thought. “-making that an average seven point six barrels per tree, one hundred thirty two trees per acre. Gives us a solid and reliably accurate estimate of eighty five thousand one hundred forty barrels to cover the whole orchard. Meaning two thousand eight hundred thirty eight cart loads to set up all the barrels. At six days that means we need to average four hundred seventy three cartloads a day to insure a one day buffer on getting everything set up.”

“At seven and a half minutes to reach the farthest corners of the field if they can maintain an average walking pace while pulling a wagon, then make it twenty minutes to delivery a load and return from the farthest corners. Given fourteen, no make that fifteen with AJ helping them doing barrels, makes thirty two loads per day per person. Means approximately ten point six repeating hours to complete said loads without breaks. Make it a solid twelve to include a full hour break for lunch. Start every day around six or seven in the morning and finish no later than seven or eight at night, allowing plenty of time for rest and dinner before the next days shift. And that still leaves me with six others to help with the trees.” At last realizing that Granny Smith had opened the door some time ago and was staring wide eyed at him, Dusk could feel his cheeks darken, and quickly attempted to apologize. “Err sorry Granny Smith. I was just trying to work out the numbers to make sure we can get everything set up before the harvest starts.

As elderly as the old mare was, a grin snuck over her lips. “We don’t normally have everything set up before harvest starts. Don’t know if we even have half that many barrels, but boy? You’re gonna do just fine ‘round here.” The old mare said warmly, leading Dusk into the house.

* * *

Dusk channeled his magic into a pale raspberry beam, that ripped the deadwood into virtually even strips. When Apple Bloom offered him a mug of cider, he gladly accept it, threw his head back, and chugged down another mouthful of the thick herb laced brew, as he thought about getting home after his first day at the farm helping with the harvest.

Nurse Redheart had been waiting at his door after that first day. That heated argument had continued until Fluttershy showed up and offered her own brand of assistance. Dusk’s ears still rang from the Nurses objections, but in the end she had relented.

It had been four days since that fight and thanks to his help, they were all but finished with the worst of the work. AJ was working with the rest of the crew, currently most were busy setting up barrels beneath every tree in the orchard, a major time saver when the bucking started.

Even as the filly took his mug back, the last bitter drops of the lingering herbs tormented the tip of his tongue. The drink had been Redheart's compromise, a vitality boosting concoction from Fluttershy's collection of medicine with low supplements for his magic. It wasn't until the second time Apple Bloom spoke up that her words cut through his own thoughts. “Please Dusk, won’t you talk to AJ? She is making me go to school tomorrow, but I can still help out so much with this work.”

Pulled back into focus, Dusk would swallow down the last of the bitter flavour that lingered on his lips.His gaze shifting down to the young filly, he inspected her eyes for a minute before his playfully said. “Sure Apple Bloom. I’ll just go march up to your older sister, and tell her I think you are ready to skip school for a few weeks to help with harvest.” He rolled his eyes, yet it wasn’t until he looked down and saw the hopeful look in her eyes, that he realized the filly clearly hadn’t mastered sarcasm.

Releasing a sigh, Dusk let a hand pat the filly’s head and spoke in a warm voice. “First of all Apple Bloom, school? It’s really important. Your sister is smart to order you to class even through harvest.” The filly wilted instantly like a flower, her shoulders drooping. Dusk would try to continue with his explanation, hoping the young filly would pick up a little of what he was trying to express. “Secondly, I spent a few hours with your sister mapping out the work we need to do before we start harvesting on Tuesday. Even with allowance for breaks, and keeping to an eleven hour work day, we will still have Monday to let the emergency crew AJ rounded up enjoy a day off before we have to start up the work crew for harvest itself.”

Groaning, Apple Bloom finished for him. “And Filthy Rich’s family pays good money to keep the school up to snuff in partial payment for the Zap Apple harvest, as tradition states. I know schools good for me, but I wanna help more!”

Unable to resist laughing openly at the fillies youthful ambition, Dusk would fluff her hair, careful to avoid dislodging her ribbon. “Now now Apple Bloom, you can help. You can keep helping me with the harvest today, and you can go to school tomorrow without worrying your sister and forcing her to spend the day concerned about you. Deal?” Offering the filly a grin and lightly elbowing her in the ribs, the stallion stood, walking with ease to the next tree. Already the five most powerful earth stallion’s had returned from delivering their last load of deadwood logs to the storage barn and were waiting for him after his extended break to talk with Apple Bloom.

She nodded and scampered to follow him, then sighed in a tone full of disappointment, “Ok Dusk. I promise.” She then quickly realized that there were supposed to be six wagons, not five. She called up to one of the stallions that just arrived, as she jumped onto a wagon and used it to boost herself to the seat just behind his shoulders. “Meadow Song, where is Bulk Biceps? I know he is only a pegasus, but he should keep up!”

Shocked at the girl’s agility, the stallion stopped his wagon and leaned back against it, leaning back to look up at her. “Well young lady, maybe if you were keeping up, you’d notice this tree isn’t split yet anyways. Besides, your sister said something about getting him to bring lunch out for the other crew who are setting up barrels.” His eyes lingering on the young filly, the stallion stood a little taller, straightening his collar. “You know, if you’re not busy during lunch it’d be nice to have some company of someone who isn’t in their thirties.”

Watching over his shoulder to keep an eye on the young filly, Dusk drew up his magic, forming it into a tight band, wrapping it around the trunk of the tree and then in a single smooth motion, he drew the band up from the base, slicking though all the branches while constantly tightening the loop to a smaller smaller circle as he went, leaving the core trunk of the tree spotless while at the same time piling all the branches into two even pools, piled up on each side of the trunk. “The boy must be what? Sixteen? Seventeen? Only four or so years older than Apple Bloom, but still. It would be best to warn AJ”

While the five stallions and Apple Bloom stepped up and pushed the thick log to roll it over the pile of branches, Dusk took up position again, his watchful eye following the way the filly and young stallion talked between work, collecting up the branches and filling Meadow Song’s cart with the lighter load. Dusk spent his time slicing the bulk of the trunk into even sized chunks. Each five feet long, quick and easy work, and soon enough he and the majority of the cart stallions were ready to move on to the next tree, Meadow Song heading back in to deliver his load. Apple Bloom would wave to the stallion before turning and came running with quick strides to catch up with Dusk again.

* * *

Applejack eyes went a little wide, her gaze turned back to Dusk while her dinner plate was put back on the cart. “I. Err. Oh Dusk. You sure he was flirting with her? She is so young!”

Dusk’s own half eaten dinner was put back onto the cart as well so he could pick up the bitter tasting herb blend, sipping at it again. Giving a sigh he lowered the cup again, voice as weary as his body from the days work. “She is thirteen Applejack. I might have been a little more innocent at her age, but I understood what Princess Celestia was suggesting to Sunset Shimmer, even thought I was around the same age.”

Suddenly overwhelmed, Applejack would turn away from Dusk and lean back against the cart, one hand pulling sharply down at her hats brim. Her voice a whisper, Dusk had to strain to hear her. “I knew I would have to at some time. But… what with everything that has happened. I just wanted her to be safe and innocent for a few more years.”

Stepping in close, Dusk slipped his hands to rest on her hips, leaning in against the mare’s towering frame and resting his cheek to her neck so he could whisper into her ear. “Do you want me to ask Nurse Redheart? Or maybe Rarity? I’m sure both would have good-”

Shifting her weight back against the stallion, AJ laughed a little, “No Dusk.” she interrupted, her voice stilted and low but still warm. “She is my sister, and I ain't going to let anybody else talk to her about something this personal.” A pregnant pause hung in the air, broken only when AJ tilted her head back, and planted a brief kiss on his cheek, her red cheeks spread in a grin. “Now you finish your dinner and head back to town before Barb gets worried you're so late getting home. Thanks for letting me know Dusk.”

For the longest moment in his life, Dusk hesitated before leaning in closer to the mare, keenly aware of how much he had come to grow accustomed to her close presence and the soft scent of fruit that always hung in the air when she was around. But Applejack would break the moment, stepping up and drawing away as she moved to look out over Sweet Apple Acres. Quickly finishing his dinner, Dusk cleared his throat, voice hunting for an excuse to offer help. “It is a pleasure to help Applejack. You are a good friend, and Apple Bloom is a smart filly. With Granny Smith and Big Mac’s help, you have quite the team to keep an eye on her.”

The mare laughed a little at his words, shaking her head and turning to face him again. “Thanks Dusk. Now go back to town. We don’t need a worried dragoness out alone at night hunting for her missing brother.”

For a long time after Dusk left, the mare stood alone on a hill, watching the sun set and the stars bloom in the summer sky. Watching, and waiting for a familiar pair of stars to join the night sky.

* * *

The floorboards creaked under her feet as AJ stepped to the flight of stairs, old wood groaning in complaint to the weight of her steps. She had watched the night sky too long, asking for guidance, and now it was late, Winona had meet her at the door as she started her evening patrol of the farmland.

At the top of the stairs, Applejack hesitated for a moment. To her right lay Big Mac’s open door, the stallion’s light was on and she could hear him flipping pages of some kind or another. A book? Possibly, but more likely it was the farm ledger. He had been so firm about doing something when he got home, now he was going over the last decades ledgers, for fun! “Don’t bother me with your fancy mathematics Big Mac. We go over the ledger ever year. You aren't going to find something new just because you spend a lonely night rereading it.”

The mare still lingered in silence for a moment, despite herself, her mind fell to… her. “Would Mac still be with her if it wasn’t for me and Apple Bloom? If we hadn’t come home so young to help with the farm, would he still be happy? Not stuck a single stallion too busy looking after his kin to make his own family?”

Moving stealthily to the stallion’s bedroom door, she peeked inside her eye adjusting to the soft light of a lamp. Mac lay in bed, a light sheet across his chest. A book in his fingers… but not the ledger. It was a thin pink jacketed novel, with hearts on the cover. “Maybe Mac isn’t so alone. Or did Carrot Top visit him when we were busy?”

The mare resolved to leave messing with her brother’s life for another day. She had a harder conversation ahead. Stepping down the hallway to the far end, she had expected to find the light out this late after sunset. Instead, Apple Bloom sat on her bed, her loose red hair hanging wildly around her shoulders, while a badly abused quill lay lodged in her teeth. Still dressed in her blue jeans from the afternoon of helping in the field, the filly was scowling down at the paper that lay before her, jumping when Applejack’s voice shocked her from her stupor. “Apple Bloom? Up so late? Surely Miss Cheerilee didn’t give you homework during the summer for your first day of class.”

Shooting up in bed and looking over to her sister, the filly laughed a little, shaking her head at the question. “No Applejack, she just asked us a question and I’m having trouble answering it. She wanted us all to think about what we wanted to be when we grew up. Twist couldn’t stop talking about how much fun she and her aunt Bonbon had making sweets this summer, but I ain't got any stories that good to share if she asks me.”

School life, something so normal and simple. Something far easier for Applejack to handle her little sister mooning over at night then a boy. The mare would step half up onto the bed and looked down over the paper, inspecting the scribbled out ideas that were scattered over the page. Of course, the real reason for the assignment was to keep the foals busy thinking about things that would direct them towards discovering their cutie marks. These kinds of things always did end up being done with some subtle effort. Picking her favorite, Applejack pointed to the scratched out line. “You did help Rose out in town in the spring when her first flowers were in bloom and she needed a good pair of hands to pull her wagon while she made deliveries. I remember you being really excited when you got home because she had liked some flower arrangements you made to pass the time when she got busy talking. Don’t you think that makes a good story?”

The filly stared for a minute at the words she had scribbled out hours ago, a slow smile dawning on her lips. “You’re right AJ! Roseluck did say she enjoyed them so much, she offered me more part time work when the farm calms down after harvest.” Now a world full of grins, the filly would put quill to page again, scribbling notes quickly on the page. “You’re a genius sis!”

Grinning despite herself, Applejack would find a comb on her sister's bedside table, and started to stroke it though the mess of red hair. Trying to keep herself casual, even while her fingers shook with nervous. “Well, I try to be level headed about good idea’s like work. And your flowers were a nice sight.” A brief lull in the conversation, passed as the younger girl scribbled notes. “Now or never.” Thought Applejack, before breaking the silence. “So down on the farm today, Dusk says you were talking with some young stallion? A boy called Meadow Song?”

Giggling at the way AJ’s brushing tickled at her head, the filly would shiver, her tail’s lazy sway rocking from one side to another from the attention. “What? Who?” She paused a moment in silence, before grinning. “Oh him! Yea well he invited me to eat lunch with him and two of his friends who were helping with the work today. Said it was nice having some good company instead of the grumpy out of town workers who have been showing up at the labor board the last few days.”

Faking a smile when her sister looked back up over her shoulder at her with her own warm grin, Applejack tried to push just a little further. “A nice boy? Good enough to keep on for harvest? Or maybe I sh-”

The coy filly burst out laughing and rolled over so she could look up at her older sister, eyes bright with humor. “Applejack! Were you going to suggest inviting him for dinner? Just cause I talked with some stallion, doesn’t mean I wanna bring him home and show him off to Big Mac!” Bawling with laughter, the younger filly was handling the situation far better then Applejack, who was now dark red with embarrassment.

Stammering to find her voice and get the conversation back under control, AJ would put the brush down, and looked worriedly into her sister's eyes. “It’s not that Apple Bloom. I just worry for ya. I’m not the world’s best big sister, too busy with the farm to look out for you proper, and I don’t want some young stallion taking advantage of you when you're too young to understand when your bodies doing to you when your heat strikes.” Stammering over herself and losing track of her train of thought, the mare ended up staring down at her little sister, frustrated and embarrassed.

The filly would smile, and leaned in to gently hug AJ about the ribs, head resting on one knee. “Applejack… I um…” Suddenly, her own embarrassment began to well up, Apple Bloom’s own cheeks were deepening red. “I know about mares and stallions. And how a mare goes into heat and gets all wobbly in the legs. Just this summer Twist got all gaga over Snips when we were talking with him at the Summer Sun Celebration before everything went wrong, and for a few weeks afterwards she kept wearing this funny perfume. After that I made her tell me what was wrong with her.”

Realizing some of this had been answered for her helped Applejack relax, the mare calming down and looking to her younger sister once more. “You did? You do? And just what did Twist tell you? I don’t want you to misunderstand this kind of thing. It’s important to know the truth Applebloom, not just schoolgirl rumors and romantic nonsense. Misunderstanding this kind of thing can get a filly in a whole heap of trouble.”

The filly frowned a little, looking up to her sister, voice more worried now, but more honest. “Like Rarity and-”

Applejack would cut the filly off with a soft hug, stroking the girl’s hair and holding her close. “Exactly Applebloom. Now let’s start over. What do you know about a mare’s heat?”

The two sisters had talked for a few hours more, leaving one sister educated, while the other found some peace of mind in having the full topic discussed properly, even if only after it was all over. In her own room some hours later, Applejack found herself looking out the window, one of her sister’s questions lingering on her mind. “How do you know who is the right stallion? There are so few of them, and it seems every good guy already has a few girls who get all his attention.”

Her eye falling to the picture sitting on her bedside table, the silver frame an heirloom Granny Smith had dug up for her from the attic. Someone had taken a snapshot of Dusk and her after Princess Luna and Celestia had left. He was so happy, and had leaned in close to her, a bold grin on his face. She still couldn’t remember what he had said to her, but when AJ saw the picture a few days later while visiting Rarity, she had made an excuse to take the page from the paper. A finger stroked the stallion’s face inside the frame, in a soft, low voice she spoke to herself now, hours later and alone. “Because Apple Bloom. Sometimes, the heart just knows.”

* * *

AJ couldn’t believe how well the pre harvest work had gone. With Dusk’s help they had finished so quickly, and now with a full day off to relax and recharge before the worst of harvest starts. Somehow she had convinced both Granny and Apple Bloom to go get Mac something special from Sugar Cube Corner to cheer him up, leaving her and Dusk alone on the porch after dinner. Sitting together on the porch swing, already she could feel her cheeks burning as she gazed over at him, while he continued to ramble on about the deal he had made with Filthy Rich to get the extra barrels they needed to finish setting up the rest of the orchard. The stallion’s normally smooth shaven jaw was covered in short stubble as he hadn’t taken the time in days to shave.

“... So when his shareholders come to town next month, he asked for me to make some silly speech of some kind or another. Apparently my name carries some decent weight thanks to that silly interview I did. Still not a bad deal for the loan of so many extra carts and barrels.”

Dusk’s words fell on deaf ears as AJ felt her weight shifting to the side, until her head found its way to a resting place upon the shorter stallion’s shoulder. Gazing up into his eyes she would grin, and lift her left hand to cross over his body while cupping his jaw. Turning it a little to the side and up so she could gaze into his own eyes. For a second she thought he was working to form his mouth and to speak new words, and she wasn’t in the mood for anymore tonight. Turning her own head up from her slouched posture, planting her lips against his own and letting them linger, while her fingers stroked softly across his cheek.

For a moment she felt the pressure of his own lips pushing back against her own, and she savored the pressure, even while Dusk’s lips began to split open and his tongue pushed forward to stroke across her lips. The weight of one of his hands snuck into her hair, while the other slid up her ribcage, slipping slowly higher as their linked kiss lingered, until it at last it clasped and rested across her heavy breast. Her nipple tingled in pleasure, as the pressure of his hand pushed down against the cloth of her shirt and stroked over her tender flesh. Moaning caused her to part her lips in pleasure and give his exploring tongue full access. Then the pressure of his hand slipped down from her breast and across her ribs, and between her thighs, stroking across--

* * *

AJ shot up in bed, panting for breath while her body shivered in warm sweat soaked blankets, and a moisture that leaked between her thighs, leaking a sweet smell she knew all too well. Memories of the arousing dream still lingered, and as she compared it against the simple conversation she had with Dusk, she began to wish she had leaned in to press for the kiss, rather than simply leaning against his shoulder and holding hands for so long…

Forcing her mind back into the here and now, AJ moved to stand up and walked to her bedroom window, lifting the curtain and gazing out at the pre dawn sky. It was early, likely four in the morning, still hours before dawn proper, yet a nervous energy tingled under her skin and spurred her to life. Harvest proper would start today, and Dusk had promised to pick up some apple, peach and cherry tarts from Sugar Cube Corner on his way out this morning. No time like the present to get up and get started with her day.

* * *

AJ worked fast, and as she walked out into the chilly predawn air, her hair was still damp from the rushed shower she had taken to wash the richer scents and lingering sweat that had tried to cling to her body. As she walked, her long blond hair was twisted into a single long braid that stretched past her shoulders and well down her back. A song upon her lips, as she marched from the house, her second favorite stetson settling in placed on her head, as she crossed the farm.

Dusk had insisted they leave the spare carts scattered across the farm, towards the outer perimeter of the orchard. His goal, he explained simply enough to her the day before. “If we start at the outer edges of the orchard on all sides, it means the carters can transport their loads in from the farthest regions to the barn while those bucking keep up their work at a steady but casual pace, meaning that by the time any cart returns, those bucking will be four to seven trees ahead. The buckers can then load the cart, letting the carters rest while they load. After that, half the buckers can rest while the other half continue working. This way when the carter returns again, the rested half can load the cart again, while the other buckers can start their own rest. Keeping this method up and rotating the pattern of what half gets to rest, and you can keep them working for twelve, maybe even fourteen hours a day without anyone breaking down, avoiding exhaustion and accidents with the extra rest periods.”

Thinking about Dusk made her lips curl slowly up, and a happy train of thoughts distracted her as she crossed the field. Just like Dusk had claimed, it took her about seven minutes to reach the far edge, picking out a cart and a good tree at the edge of the orchard. Stopping to take a few minutes to stretch and flex, bending her legs to ready them for a long day of bucking. Even now, in the early predawn sun her powerful legs gave a few quiet murmurs at the opening stretches, but nothing the mare had never dealt with before.

Four swift steps brought her to the first tree on the very south edge of her field, a talented eye roaming the trunk for that sweet spot, the one that would cause all the apples to fall in a single blow. First making sure the seven barrels were in position, then checking her posture and distance from the trunk, AJ drew a deep breath and shot her right leg out in a smooth roundhouse kick, her steel reinforced shoe heel pinging the sweet spot with flawless precision. The vibration twitched up the trunk while the branches danced in turn. And soon a rain of apple’s fell from the branches, all but a half dozen landing square in the carefully positioned barrels.

Grinning to herself, AJ admired her work, arms crossing her chest in pride. “Dusk, you might be able to do the math, but let’s see you buck a tree in a single kick.”

Two more trees were beaten in a single blow, tossing their load into another thirteen barrels. And that was followed with loading half of those barrels into a cart. It wasn’t until she was locking the hatch in place that AJ head Winona’s arrival. At a light jog, the canine would grin as she stopped to lean against the cart at her side, grinning up to the older woman. “You’re up early boss lady. Is this just ‘cause you're far too excited by Dusk bringing you breakfast to sleep properly?”

Jabbing her guard dog in the ribs for her snark, AJ tried her best to avoid showing her own deep blush to her dear friend. “And you? Took you long enough to arrive. Were I an apple thief, you’d have been twenty minutes too late to stop me from snatching everything in this cart. You busy off daydreaming about some handsome canine lad?”

Even as she took up the cart’s harness, she could hear the canine taking up position to help push off the carts heavy load. Offering light banter all the while, Winona never lost her own keen grin. “Maybe I was. But if I was, my lad had a good beard, not some patchy mess like you’re unicorn suitor.” The girls banter would continue, as the day carried on.

* * *

Dusk would arrive with his promised breakfast of fritters, still steaming from the ovens. Pinkie Pie had given him the sugar glazed treats and refused payment, only planting a quick kiss on his cheek. Her words still teasing his memory. “Don’t worry about payment Dusk, Sweets for the Sweet! and if AJ argues, tell her that’s what I said!” Then she had bullied him out the door, stating she needed to get back to work for the Cakes.

Looking for AJ, it was only when he noticed fresh wagon tracks leading to the barn that he figured out what was up. The mare was up already and at work, even now as the dawn was only just now rising. As he approached the massive barn doors, the sound of the mare inside and hard at work carried on the air, the bang of a massive barrel of fruit being lowered into place among the rafters.

Winona shot up as Dusk stepped through the door, grinning warmly. “You’re finally here. Good, that means I can have dinner and go to bed. You can deal with her.” The canine lift a hand to gesture into the depths of the massive barn. “Two hours we’ve been at it, and she is annoyed she can’t keep pace with your calculations even though she is working solo. Keeps muttering twenty minutes per cartload.” Swiftly, the canine lass snatched the sack of fritters from Dusk’s relaxed grip, and pulled out two of the peach fritters before pushing it back to him, while she ate them in rapid bites. “Thanks for dinner!” The canine called over her shoulder as she was walking away, offering Dusk a wolfish grin.

Getting his balance back, Dusk took a few light steps forward, making his way to the cart and peeling open the sack of fritters, laying it across the seat and picking one of the hot apple treats and nibbling in quiet joy while he waited for AJ’s return. Return she did, walking fast and puffing for breath at her own forced pace. He had to laugh as she realized he was there, stopping to step behind a pillar. When she stepped out again, her hair smoothed and clothing straightened. Walking to his side and leaning in against the cart in profile for his gaze, she would snatch up another of the fritters, wolfing it down in a few swift bites. Speaking up in the end only after a thumb brushed crumbs form her teeth, her voice low but warm. “Thanks Dusk, Pinkie and the Cakes really are the only people I’d trust to make a fritter half as good as my own recipe.”

Breakfast over the rich treats was healthy, and conversation was light and playful. It wasn’t until conversation returned to the fitters, that Dusk really realized how well Pinkie had set him up. AJ’s voice was playful and warm as she asked him. “Now Dusk, I already owe you for all this labor. Let me make some payment for breakfast.”

Flashing back to Pinkie’s words, Dusk grinned, leaning in and tapped her lightly on the nose. “No no, it’s quite alright. Sweet treats for the sweet. No charge” While he had altered Pinkie's words he was rewarded with a deep blush and warm smile in return. The mare offered a nod in her thanks and moved off form Dusk’s side to avoid any continued embarrassing flirtations. Soon enough they returned to the field, Applejack pulling her cart, while Dusk walked quietly behind, leaning against the cart and pushing it a little to AJ’s own swift and easy pace.

But as they worked on, Dusk realized that AJ was endlessly watching the rising sun. Even as time passed the mare’s own nervous nature began to infect him too. By their fourth trip in after sunrise Dusk’s watch of the sun had become constant, yet so far none of their workers had yet arrived. By their sixth trip, Apple Bloom was waiting in the Barn and would help them with the barrels before AJ chased her younger sister off to school.

When they returned sixteen, maybe seventeen minutes later with the the seventh load Mac stood watching on the porch, and walked slowly to meet them at the barn door, a sour look twisting the towering stallion’s lips. His gaze was filled with worry, and before he could speak, Applejack asked the question. “Have the labors already arrived at the other farms?” Mac simply gave a sharp nod, worry screaming in the weary stallion’s eyes. Snorting in her building rage, the mare turned shoving the wagon into the barn and bellowed back to Dusk. “We are going to the labor board. They are hours late. And Ginger better have a damn good reason to be holding out on us.” Seething with rage the mare tore off without waiting for Dusk’s answer, bolting to town at a flat out run.

* * *

Running as fast as he could in an attempt to catch up with Applejack’s own impressive pace, Dusk quickly realized just how quickly the mare could run. Even with his training with Dash as of late, and his own athletic history, it was shocking to realize that he would have to push himself to keep up with the furious mare. Together, they made the three mile walk to town in only ten minutes

Applejack didn’t slow, forcing her way though those few who were hanging around town. Harvest season was a busy season for so small a town, likely of the thousand residents of the town only a good one hundred thirty or forty people were left in town. They found the labor board office was locked up even though it was long past eight am.

Out of breath, Dusk would step up behind AJ, a hand reaching out to rest on her shoulder. “Slow down for a second Applejack. Catch your breath. I’m sure there must have just been some mistake, once we talk to Ginger, I’m sure that we will-”

While Dusk talked AJ was panting for breath, but she refused to halt, still beating on the door. Right up until a voice from behind them stole her attention. “What in tarnation? Applejack? Why are you here? Did something happen to your crew?”” Turning, Dusk and AJ wound up face to face with a sleepy eyed Ginger, still sipping at a cup of coffee. Yet, Dusk could pick up small signs of worry already altering her sleepy disposition, her keyed small signs dusk picked up, the twitch of a hand and her tail frantically sweeping behind her hips. “It’s… it isn’t Meadow? He’s a good worker, I just got him on last week for my sister and I promise he will shape up soon…”

Enraged, AJ would stomp up to the smaller earth mare, snorting in response. “We ain't got a clue about your nephew Ginger. None of my workers showed up this morning. What did we do to piss you off so much? Just cause I had an emergency a week before Harvest is no justification to delay our Harvest crew. Where are they? When are they gonna show up??”

Ginger’s face fell and the hand gripping her cup released its hold, the mare suddenly shoot between the two of them, pulled out her key, and frantically tried to unlock the labor board door. Her frantic voice panicked even as she charged inside to her desk. “Nonononononono! We did the numbers! Four times!”

Realization dawned on both Dusk and AJ, the pair rushing to follow Ginger inside even while the mare rushed across the room and throwing chairs out of her way, until she reached the big board on the south wall. There they had been keeping a display of the harvest breakdown for every farm, business and the few local projects still needing workers. The second Dusk spotted it, numbers started running through his head, recalculating the totals written in chalk across the board and hunting for some error.

He found it before AJ reached Gingers side, and his shoulders fell. Applejack’s voice was frantic as she grabbed the smaller earth mare by the shoulder, panic had filled her eyes. “Come on Ginger. It’s a joke right? A prank to get back at me for being so rude last week. Something?”

“Applejack…” Dusk called out gently to her, his third recalculation of the numbers on the board leaving no doubt. “It’s no jest. The Apple farm isn’t even on the board.”

Chapter 5: Applebuck Season - Part 2

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Dusk had only spent another three minutes at the labor board after that. Ginger had promised to stop and talk with every one of the other farms and explain the situation. She would round out every extra set of hands she could convince them to spare. Dusk had a different solution.

The Library was still unlocked from when he had left in the morning, Barb had been enjoying the peaceful summer days of late, and even with the foal’s back in school, the small town library didn’t get a lot of guests. This left her with plenty of time to sun herself on the balcony and nap during the day while Dusk was away. That was until the loud bang of the front door slamming open echoed through the quiet house, disturbing her mid morning nap.

Even before she had reached the staircase she could hear Dusk’s voice ringing through the house. “Barb, I need you to take a letter. Right now.”

* * *

Even after that oh too brief stop at the treehouse, Dusk return to the Apple farm felt delayed by far too long. It had taken him nearly ten minutes to look up and make a list of the dozen labor unions in Canterlot, sending a form letter for them all though Barb’s magic, while also apologizing to the princess for abusing the magic note method, and requesting she ask one of her servants to deliver the Apple’s emergency request to the labor unions. He expected to hear back from her soon and thus had Barb lock up the library. She promised to catch up with him at the farm as soon as she could.

Even as he leveled his pace out to a jog, the sound of a voice calling to him rang in his ears. “Yo, Dusk! What’s this about then? You cancel our jogs to go running alone? Not good enough company for you this early in the morning?”

Looking up as he kept his pace up, Dusk was shocked to see Rainbow Dash casually flying but ten feet over his head. Her hair was a mess, but her teasing grin was wide and warm. Dusk wouldn’t have time to stop, instead shaking his head as he continued on, heading out of town while answering the inquisitive mare. “The Apple farm’s labor request got lost. Now AJ has no assistance for the harvest Dash.” Even as he spoke, a sudden thought sprung into existence. “Wait. Dash!” He pulled to a stop, watching the mare lazily halt herself and land before him.

Her powerful wings folding up behind her back, their twelve foot span folding enough to casually hide against her back. Standing on tiptoes and leaning in close she inspected him while he formed his thoughts. “Hmmm. Well you’re sweating hard eno…. Wait, what? Why now? I thought with Mac hurt, they’d have given her an extra dozen or so of the grunts just to make it up.”

His idea fully realized, Dusk grinned at the mare and clasped her shoulders, and spoke in a rich voice. “It’s not important right now. You gave the weather team the next few weeks off, right? Except for emergency duties they are all free?”

This time it was Dash’s turn to be embarrassed, as she blushed at Dusk’s close presence and warm hands on her body. But the urgency of the situation got her attention, and she would nod. “Well of course. Except for Flitter and Cloudchaser who were the first two to ask for time off out of town. The weather team rules say they can take up part time jobs, but only so many are allowed vacation time during harvest season. Too important a time of year for real time off. Why, how can we help AJ?”

"Tell them-" Dusk's voice cut off as he did quick mental math based on the figures he had seen on the labor board so recently. Clearing his throat he started again. "Tell them the Apple farm needs anyone who doesn't have work already. That AJ is paying fifteen bits a day and that I'll throw in another ten a day for anyone who lasts the week." With no real personal experience with the Canterlot labor union, Dusk already doubted they would be willing to send that many workers, even as close as Ponyville was.

Grinning, Dash saluted him lazily. "Right Captain. I'll leave a note at the school for Scootaloo. Don't want her thinking I've skipped out on her training. I'll see you when you finally get to the farm, slowpoke!" Before Dusk could answer her proud boast, the mare had shot into the air.

Warmly laughing to himself, Dusk would turn back towards the farm. His own voice lightly muttering. "I would never take you up on a bet that foolish Dash."

* * *

"The weather team? Dash I'm grateful for every extra hand you got, but they can't buck, and besides me nobody is gonna be strong enough to pull a cart." Applejack wouldn't stop her current trip back to the barn for their conversation, but Dash took the easy posture of floating along at eye level with the hard working farmer. "Now I'm far from unwilling to listen but how’s your gang gonna help?"

With a smirk, Dash thrust two fingers into her lips, whistling sharply at the team who had drifted back as the mares argued. Now they all rushed to gather in around their captain. She gave out orders in a big, bold voice, and the team scrambled to comply. "Thunderlane, Cerulean Skies! Take the cart to the barn!" The two stallions would swoop in and lift the harness from AJ's shoulders, and while the two had to work together to keep it rolling at the same pace as she had set, the fact was they could manage the challenge.

Swiftly shifting to face the rest of her gathered weather team, her keen eyes picked out three of the mares, a hand casting to point out four of the nearby trees. “Blueberry Muffin, Candy Floss, Wind Chill! Show AJ we can buck as well as any earth pony! Use those four trees as a focus and keep swapping one tree to the right every time you complete a figure eight!”

The trio of mares would inspect the trees for only a moment before launching into flight, Wind Chill starting them off in, at first, slow and lazy loops to form their figure eight laps, yet as each mare joined in, they also kept switching one tree to the right before starting a new figure eight loop. The continued laps soon speed up dramatically, until Dusk found himself lost telling the three mare’s blur of motion apart. Quickly the breeze kicked up by their swift motion was enough to cause the branches to rock and shake, apples getting caught up in the force of the three mares flight until they were unable to resist being plucked. Each mare would slow down in turn with wings flapping to direct the fruit trapped in the turbulence to cascade into the barrels below.

Turning back to face Dusk and AJ, Dash's smug grin was wiped clean when she saw the two stallions still hadn't cleared her line of sight. Turning to point at one of the mares yet to be picked for a job she called out harshly. "Sunny Rays, go push on the rear and remind them we have lap times to maintain!” Sudden realization dawned on her, and she turned to AJ, voice unsure. "Err.. what is a good lap time anyway?"

Unable to contain their own amusment, Dusk and AJ each took a moment to clear up their laughter and straighten up. "I could make it to the barn with a load like that in six minutes easy from here sugar-cube."

Giving a firm nod to AJ's words and momentarily chasing after her crew, Dash played it cool and ignored her friends' laughter. "You heard the woman! A good pegasus can make it in five minutes forty seconds! Now go go go!"

Turning back to Dusk, AJ let her shoulders lower a little, but a smile had returned to her lips. “Alright Dusk, you and Dash have a point. And I’m darn glad for the help.” There was a lingering pause before she turned to look back towards Ponyville. “And… Barb’s letters?”

Stepping in and taking her hand into his own, Dusk would gently apply pressure. “Do not worry Applejack. She will be here soon enough. It’s just that sometimes sending letter’s gives her heartburn and the burps.” Standing so close together, hand in hand and looking away from the weather mare, both would miss a involuntary twinge of her cheek.

* * *

The sudden arrival of Barb’s voice from somewhere above made Dusk halt, and snap his head back to hunt for her presence. “Dusk! I’ve got your answer, but it’s not promising.” The tiny dragoness had caught a ride from a mare Dusk didn’t recognize, the pegasus wings flap aggressively as she found her way to a safe landing. Hopping to her feet, Barb rushed to Dusk’s side, and offered him a single missive.

Shocked at the young dragon’s sudden arrival with only a single letter, Dusk pushed the last of the apples his magic still had a grip on into an empty barrel before snatching the letter from Barb, voice tinged with an edge of worry. “That bad?”

While he read, Barb waved goodbye to White Lightning, voice lifting high. “Thanks White! You saved me a lot of time!” The mare took off, waving in return as she flew to rejoin Rainbow Dash and the other mares who were harvesting back closer to town. “It’s worse Dusk. They won't send any help unless they get a formal request from Princess Celestia herself. Only one offered help without some kind of commendation or bribe from Celestia, and they wanted half a platinum bit per worker per day plus travel, food and accommodation on top!”

Dusk’s left eye started twitching, as he hurled the letter to the dirt, while hissing a breath of frustration between tightly clenched teeth. “Fifty bits a day? Before expenses? Thats insane! Even with my savings from my retainer from Princess Celestia, I’d only be able to afford to hire twenty workers for a week before going broke. AJ is already uncomfortable with me paying the weather team a bonus.” Giving a sigh Dusk looked to the ground, still working on numbers in his head.

Barb stepped up to Dusk’s side, while she picked up an apple that had fallen to the ground, brushing it off against her arm scales before biting down. With a mouthful of fruit, she questioned Dusk’s next move. “So are you going to ask Princess Celestia to intervene?”

Dusk shook his head, shoulders deflating as he sighed. “No Barb. I can’t be running to the princess with every little problem I have. I’ll just-” he paused, a conversation between AJ and Winona momentarily distracted him. He then let out another hiss in frustration, as he raked his fingers across his bare arm. “I’ll go talk to the other farmers. Maybe even the mayor and… and whoever is running the hospital project. Someone must be able to spare us a few workers for a week or two.”

“- you gotta agree Winona, I never figured the weather team would be half this good at harvesting. And Dusk?” The women's voices dropped low enough that he couldn’t hear them anymore.

While the dragoness continued to munch upon an apple, Dusk turned to finish plucking apples with his magic from the two trees he was working, only to be confronted by Applejack’s arrival. Her mood had at least started to improve. And now it was his turn to ruin it.

* * *

As Mayor Mare’s door slipped closed behind him, Dusk deflated. But a deal had been struck. Turning, he snatched up the sleepy dragoness who had drifted off as she leaned against the porch swing, laying the little lass across his shoulder while turning back towards town. “Seventeen farms down, and I only got thirteen workers. At least Mayor Mare managed to free up four stallion’s from the dam project for two weeks, that just leaves…”

“So just how many more of Fluttershy’s supplements did you take today Dusk?”

“Nurse Redheart.” Dusk suppressed a groan, and shifted the load of little Barb to his other shoulder, offering the nurse a small nod as he started to walk up the path towards town. There was no reason to dance around things, Dusk had found the mare was quick to pick up on any lies or half truths he fed her in the past. “The bitter herb smoothies? Two. The Dawn Blossom? Ask Applejack, I gave her the whole pouch to safekeep last week after Big Mac’s accident. So unless she is slipping them into the smoothies? None.”

Silence stretched between them as the walk continued, Dusk’s fingers stroking idly into the dragoness’ scales. With only two blocks left before reaching the library, the nurse at last broke the silence and spoke up. “I can talk to Dr. Horse in the morning. He and Mayor Mare are in charge of the new hospital project, I’m sure he will be able to free up another two or three workers for a week.”

Dusk would relax at last and offered the Nurse a nod. “He was with the Mayor when I saw her earlier. He said he could spare three at most with how far ahead of schedule they are, but only if you wouldn’t skin him. Apparently you were made head Nurse recently and never told me? Didn’t want Pinkie to host you a promotion party?”

Dusk had expected her to blush, or to fume, instead waiting for Dusk to place the sleeping dragon on the steps of the library while he hunted for his keys. Suddenly his arms were full of something else, warm, soft and yet firm in all the right places. Pressing him to the treehouse wall, the mare gaze lingered on his eyes while her lips locked against his own, leaving him stuck between forcing her off and pulling her in tighter. When she at last broke her aggressive kiss, he slowly shook his head. “You should know me and Rarity-”

The older mare put a finger to his lips to silence him with a low hush, and spoke tenderly. “I asked her weeks ago. She made a joke about you liking older mares. Besides, I might still want you as a stallion Dusk, but don’t worry. I’ve found a mare who enjoys keeping my bed warm at night, so don’t feel guilty for saying no.” There was a pause as she lingered too close, drawing in a quiet sigh of pleasure. “And Pinkie agreed to put off the party to coincide with the new hospital’s opening ceremony. We will be more than busy enough with harvest accidents before then.”

Even as she peeled away from him and walked off, Dusk realized, back towards the hospital, his mind reeled with her suggestive tone. “I need sleep, yet after what she said, I also clearly need to talk to Rarity. The mare was-” he paused his train of thought, and tried to banish it, yet it soon returned in force again. “Rarity suggested it? But why. I’ve no need for a herd. Besides, Redheart could easily have a man closer to her own age, and better company than a bookworm like me. Besides, she and Rarity don’t exactly share a lot of similar interests. Why would they want to be herd sisters.” As he unlocked the door and carried Barb inside, a last thought crept to mind, almost a jest to himself. “Older mares! Ha! Next she will suggest I ask Princess Luna on a date. Just think of the etiquette rules I would have to study just to avoid making a fool out of myself!” As he locked his door, he paused as he had a nagging thought. “I wonder if we have any books on pre-Nightmare Moon royal dining etiquette.”

* * *

The moon hung full in the starless sky as Applejack entered the barn again. Another heavy load rolling to a stop while her shoulders drooped from the stress. For a moment she turned to look to the sky, trying to remember when she had started this morning, and how many times she had empted a cart of barrels at this point. “This must be… load fifty? Sixty? I’ve totally lost count. But without any help from town we are so far behind. Oh Dusk, I wish you were here. I’ve been acting tough, but this feels hopeless. Mac’s not the only one good with math. I figure we are going to take almost thirty days at this pace.”

Forcing herself to step up into the cart as the barrels became too hard to lift out while standing on the ground, her eyes again raised, this time to the iron horse shoe on the wall. Lifting her current barrel, a yawn cracked her jaw wide open against her will. Exhaustion was seeping into her mind, sapping her of her strength and blurring her vision. Yet on that wall was a little bag. And in that little bag was… Dawn Blossom. She remembered Winona’s story about how strong just chewing one of the leaves had made her feel, how the canine had gone nearly a day without sleep afterwards, simply because she didn’t feel tired.

“The farm needs me clear headed for the morning. Even if I went and lay down now, I’d get three hours? Maybe four, then Dusk would arrive. And Rainbow Dash wouldn’t be far behind. If I take one leaf today, just to make sure I can get through the day, we will be so much closer to Dusk’s target. Then I can sleep soundly tonight when Dusk and the others go home. Get a proper rest and when I have time, apologize to Dusk and Fluttershy for taking his herb. Can’t be that expensive to replace.”

Within minutes the mare was out in the field again, pulling the cart while gnawing on the leaf. Already the juice it produced had taken the raw edge off her mind, and the pangs of pain from her back and legs. From the farmhouse, a single lamp was extinguished, and a long forgotten plate of dinner was repurposed as breakfast.

* * *

For the next four days, this hard but sustainable rhythm continued, Dash’s leadership of the weather patrol keeping the skies warm and clear with as few lost hours from the farm as possible. Dusk found himself working comfortably on into the late afternoon of that fourth full day of harvest when Big Mac arrived with a harness strapped to his hips rather than the shoulder straps all the others were using.. The powerful titan, offering a single slow nod to Dusk before Apple Bloom and Winona hopped from the cart to start loading it. Clearly worried, Dusk would step the taller stallion, and asked in an unsure voice. “So soon Mac? Its only been what? Two weeks. Isn’t this a little early to start working again?”

The normally mute titan leveled a pallid gaze on the shorter male, his voice dry and calm. “The nurse would agree. But half loads and no weight on the ribs made her relax.” For a moment the giant looked as if he wanted to say more, but he let it drop, and turned to once again face the farm house. Dusk was about to dismiss it when the stallion spoke to him over his shoulder. “She isn’t sleeping well.” Even as Dusk digested the stallion’s words, Mac had started a steady pace off towards the barn again. With filly and canine stalking him, Dusk knew he would not get another chance to speak with him in private anytime soon. He would have to go to another source to look for answers. Standing tall and gazing across the field, the mare was an easy sight to pick from those hard at work.

Applejack would set down her cart’s harness and stepped around it to start loading the baskets left behind by weather team members who had plucked and filled the load. As Dusk watched her, approaching with a casual pace to keep things natural, little signs started to pop up, all pointing to a short list of answers. She wasn’t just breathing hard from the effort of work, she wheezed a little. Despite her effort and the sun's blazing heat, she wasn’t sweating, but was clammy and shivered when even the smallest breeze picked up. And she was yawning incessantly, yet tried to hide it under her hat and behind her load. From so far away, he could not smell her, but already he would bet her sweat would have a mild hint of sweet grass and peach. All the signs were clear as day as he listed them in his head, she had been taking his Dawn Blossom.

As Dusk stepped up to lean against Applejack’s cart, the mare would wince at the sunlight glaring down in the bold clear afternoon sky. Noticing his close presence the mare would grin and offer him a nod her voice lifting before he could. “Dusk! It’s good you’ll showed up so soon. I was talking with Dash earlier and she reminded me we need to take a day off tomorrow.”

Shocked at her words, Dusk had to take a mental step back and reorientate, giving the mare a nod. “Oh good to hear AJ. After these last two weeks, I was worried I’d be the one asking you to take a day off.” To himself, the stallion found an uncomfortable conversation quickly being put aside. “Maybe she realized how much of a toll all this work has been taking her. I will talk to her about the herbs after she has had a day off to rest.”

AJ offered him a nod, her tone distant as she looked towards town answering him. “Yeah, well the team all needs time off to rest. And I made a promise to help the girls out with various small projects in town. Maybe the time off will get my mind off how slowly things are going so far.” Even while she spoke, Dusk’s chest fell in frustration, realizing she had no plans to rest up herself.

Forcing a cheery smile, Dusk would nod to the mare, putting a hand on her own. “Well, as long as you remember to take a few hours to rest up yourself. Maybe I’ll talk to Rarity about plans for dinner and you can join us once your done with the other’s projects?” Casting aside plans, he began trying to phrase his request to Rarity. “They are such close friends, despite their differences. I’m sure once I tell her about just how hard AJ is pushing herself, Rarity will rush to help show Applejack how much she is hurting herself.” For a moment he paused in thought, realizing the full depth of Big Mac’s presence earlier. “But if Mac hasn’t convinced her to rest, no wonder he is up and working the field already. Anything to take a little pressure off his little sister.”

The mare shifted to stand tall, unsure how to answer. The mare stumbled over her words. “I… err.” She paused for a moment, letting the silence drift between them, before forcing a cheery grin. “Of course Dusk. I’d love to join you two for dinner. If… If I’m not interrupting your date night. I know I’ve been in the way a lot of late.”

Realization dawned on Dusk. The mare really didn’t understand how much he had grown to care for her and her well being. Smiling, he gently gripped her hand over the cart, his eyes focused on her own, while his grip tightened in hopes of showing her the depths of his support. “When you have not had a night away from the farm in nearly a month? Besides, Rarity has missed your company as well. With how busy you have been with harvest as of late, she would love the excuse to have your company.”

The decision made for her, Applejack would nod in thanks, her voice relaxing, maybe even grateful. “Then dinner it is. I’ll be nice to see her again. It has been too long.”

* * *

Dawn the next day would find a painfully tired Applejack still working the field alone as the sun rose. Chewing on the last remnants of pulp that had been a leaf of Dawn Blossom, she fought to hold back a yawn that split her lips and squeezed her eyes tightly closed. For a moment she would rest her weight upon the barn wall, her skin absorbed the cool dew that had collected on the wood while she worked all night long.

What had meant to take a minute or two would last nearly ten as Big Mac cleared his throat, the noise jarring her awake. Staring up to her brother, the mare smiled lightly. “I’m off to town Mac, we are taking the day off. You should rest up. We got a ton of work to catch up on tomorrow you know!”

The stallion only sighed, his palm slapping against his face as the mare took off, heading to town alone. From the bushes behind him, Dusk stepped out, nodding to the older stallion. “Alright Mac. I’ve talked with Rarity and the others. We are going to have an intervention tonight so the others have a chance to see just how bad she is.”

Mac was busy, pulling his modified harness around his hips, buckling cart in place. “Then we work?”

Dusk gave a nod, releasing his own sigh. “We harvest whatever we can to pass the day while they get ready.”

Strolling back in from the fields, Winona called back to them. “She is out of sight down the road now Dusk. We can start whenever you’re ready.” The stallions waved to the caine girl, heading into the orchard for yet another day of work.

* * *

Fighting back harsh and ever growing yawns, AJ would make her way to the back door of Sugar Cube Corner. Pinkie sat waiting at the back step quietly talking with Derpy and the Cakes. The mail mare would grin as she pushed a package into their hands while blushing harshly, her voice only loud enough for the mare to make out from the distance. “Sorry again for the confusion. I’m just glad I made it back before you guys opened her package. I’m sure Bon Bon would have been awfully confused why she got all this flour.” The shared laughter made AJ smile approaching with a wave as Derpy turned to run off, a cheerful hello on her way out of town. “Hi there AJ! Sorry but no time to talk, duty calls!”

Her eyes blurry with the strain, AJ would wave to the mare before stepping in grinning up to the bakers as she leaned against the wall by Pinkie. “You're still here? Didn’t Pinkie say the train leaves soon?”

Laughter lost, Mister and misses Cake would look through the open door to the clock, a look of panic spread on Mr. Cake’s lips. “Oh dear! We had better hurry dear!” shoving the heavy box of flour to Pinkie, Mr. Cake would take his wife's hand, turning to rush to the train station.

For her part, misses Cake would suppress a frown, her own worried voice calling back over her shoulder. “Just remember AJ, we don't need anything big or fancy today. Just some cakes and the like to keep whoever comes in from harvest happy. Don’t need to make anything special!”

Pinky was a bubble of energy and appeared to not notice AJ’s continued heavy yawns. Waving excitedly to her employers, the mare would grin warmly. “No problem mister and misses Cake! Have a good anniversary and I’ll see you tomorrow afternoon!!! And don’t worry! Me and AJ will keep things nice and organized!”

* * *

Applejack’s proud grin flashed as she pushed the last of the load of turnovers into the Cake’s ovens. With Pinkie’s help they had filled the four main ovens in record time, the next load ready to go in once the first batch came out. Moving to join Pinkie in the front hall she leaned against the front counter, unable to resist allowing a yawn to crack open her jaws. With most of the ingredients back in the cupboard. It wasn’t a few hours later when Pinkie and those who arrived to pick up fresh blueberry jam filled tarts discovered that Applejack had confused buckthorn jam. With the powerful laxative coursing through their system it was only a matter of time before Redheart’s staff was inundated by poisoned ponies. By that point, AJ was already out of town, assisting Rainbow Dash.

* * *

Dusk accepted the wet towel that Winona held out, wrapping it around his head and letting the cool moisture soak in. The whole time his horn glowed in bold teal hues, drawing a breath and pushing the three barrels into place on the racks Mac had pointed out. Sweat drenching his shoulders, the young stallion would lean against the wall, panting a while to catch his breath before looking up again to the canine girl and her eager grin. “Any luck with finding the herbs? The bag should have a strong scent of Lavender.” Instantly having her attention peaked at his words, the stallion would answer her quickly. “It’s good for the lungs and helps me focus, so I keep a bottle in the bag regularly.”

Laughing a little, the woman offered a nod before scampering off across the barn. The stallion turned, shoving the last barrel another foot or two to settle it properly on the shelf. At last relaxing his magic, Dusk leaned over the balcony, looking down to Mac on the main floor. “Ready for the next load?”

Ripping a chunk from the apple turnover Granny Smith had brought them, the titan gave a nod, not one for words when they were not needed, Dusk would hop over the balcony landing in the back of the cart and catching his balance on the edge. Quickly moving to hop to the ground again, the stallion would pull the drenched towel off his head and from around his shoulders, tossing it onto the pile with Mac’s own. “Then let’s leave Winona to hunt for the herbs.” Turning to wave to Granny Smith, Dusk stepped behind the wagon again, giving a light push to get it moving, and quickly hopped to sit on the back of the cart, his weight so minor it was almost unnoticeable by the larger stallion.

* * *

Rainbow Dash took a step back and inspected the simple structure she had thrown together. Inspiration had struck while she had stopped to let her mind wander, The result was awe inspiring, a simple launching platform built from one heavily reinforced plank, properly balanced to eliminate any outside factors of friction. While only a simple seesaw up-scaled for an adult, already Dash could see the true potential her new invention offered.

Slapping her hands together, she leaned back against the ladder she had set up, the extra height provided by the jump from the ladder and platform, could probably add a lot of power to any launch. “This is simply… FANTASTIC!” Dash couldn’t help but declare her own brilliance, slapping hands together while patting herself on the back.

“This will go down his history as the Rainbow Dash Wonder Bolt Wonder Blitz Super Launcher Extreme Mark II” Her declaration rang out just as Applejack arrived, thus she really couldn’t have timed it any better. While normally Rainbow Dash would have noticed right away how poorly her friend was looking, with all her own excitement she wouldn’t take in all the extra effort AJ spent to force her eyes open, a dazed gaze inspected Dash’s work only momentarily. Resting her head against the cold stone of the cities reservoir, AJ was unable to help herself from letting out a burst of light laughter when she considered the name Dash had declared as her invention’s title.

At Applejack’s laughter, Dash would turn, forgetting altogether that she had agreed to help try and get AJ to exhaust herself into passing out. Instead, she glared proudly in defense of her invention, and pointed to the ladder, calling out sharply. “Alright Miss Sassy Pants. Just climb the ladder and get into jumping position. I’ll show you just how great this invention really is!”

* * *

Returning to the barn, Dusk could feel the overuse of his magic adding up, leaving him pale and sweating as he stood on the rear hitch of the cart and struggling to catch his breath. It was when Winona shoved the ground fruit and ice smoothie into Dusk’s hand while helping the taller stallion to sit on a chair, a fresh wet towel wrapped around his shoulders. “I found the bag and made up the smoothie you were talking about the other day.” Pausing a moment as he downed the cold drink, she spoke up, worry open in her voice. “I couldn’t find any of the Dawn Blossom Dusk. I think she already finished the last of the petals.”

Dusk leaned back in the chair, his bloodshot eyes closed while the wet towel was dragged over his face, while his aching horn’s hot tip dried out the cloth with its radiant heat. Speaking up only when the strong flavor caught in his throat while he was chugging the second mouthful. “Lavender???”

An embarrassed blush on her cheeks, the canine offered a shrug. “Well… you said its good for your lungs, and last time you came in with a load you were coughing a lot so I figured…”

Laughing a little Dusk looked over to Mac, a similar drink in his own hand, already empty. The tall stallion was lifting barrels from the cart, working with care but flinching with every load he lifted. A flick of his horn quickly snapped up the other four barrels, pushing them into place before the older stallion hurt himself with the heavy load. Mac glanced at Dusk and crossed his arms over his chest. “My bones are not that fragile.”

Dusk laughed, forcing down the rest of his drink and climbing back into the cart to lay down, his towel refolded to wrap around his head with a different wet spot focused on his horn. “Yes, but I can rest while you walk. If you do hurt something, I can’t pull the cart nearly as well as you can.”

A moment of silence passed between them as Mac reattached the harness around his hips, at last speaking up to the unicorn who lay half napping in the cart. “Valid point, but wearing out your horn will land us in just as hot of water.”

* * *

Everything was darkness. For a moment Dusk would turn around in the endless black void he found himself floating in once more. For a minute he was disorientated, twisting around in the void before a voice whispered to him from the distance. This one was a new tone, one he could not place, yet was somehow still very comforting in its own odd way. “You’ve mistaken yourself again. They keep encouraging you to push your limits. But your body isn’t as resilient as theirs.”

Dusk attempted to shift his body around, to look to the voice that whispered to him from behind, the feminine tones somehow oddly familiar as they cooed in his ear. Yet his body failed him, even his head unwilling to accept the simplest of orders to twist his head, or shift his eyes around. Fingers slipped into his hair from behind, while a second hand would wrap around his chest, fingers stroking against his flesh through the fabric of his shirt as it it did not exist.

Silken lips pressed in against the lobe of his ear, whispering across its surface with featherweight pressure. “Stop struggling. You’ve already done yourself enough damage. Now take my words to heart. Try not to show up here so quickly. I am not so lonely, that I wish you to visit this quickly.”

As the voice faded, Dusk’s memory began to clear, his mind piecing together the world, and a cold wet pressure that was surrounding a blazing iron spike that pierced his brain, forged from his overtaxed horn and the resulting mindbending headache.

* * *

Dusk opened his eyes, and realized he had been laid in the back of the cart, his head screamed with the burning pressure of a vision warping headache that refused to abate, even under the cold pressure of the half frozen cloth Winona had rushed out into the field. He still couldn’t even remember exactly when he had passed out, only that he had woken up to see the canine lass wrapping iced blankets around his head and piled up under it. Vaguely, he could hear Apple Bloom fuming at her brother somewhere nearby. “And you both thought this was better than just taking the same day off you wanted AJ to go on? Are you serious!” A groan thick with teenage resentment suggested he might need to say something to help calm the girl.

Forced to lift a hand up and grip down on the frame of the cart, Dusk leaned forward against the frame and looked over to the young filly. “Now Apple Bloom,” Dusk began in a worn voice, “you have to go easy on us. We just wanted to make sure your sister understands why we are so worried for her.”

Apple Bloom snapped around, pointing a finger angrily at the stallion, hands balled into angry fists to shake in his face. “And Sweetie Belle is busy back home now telling her sister how you passed out in the field. Bet that’s going to make her happy, right?”

The volume and anger in the mare’s tone were what really got Dusk’s attention, the stallion attempted to stand up, only to have the canine pushing him to lay back down, while Apple Bloom removed the the barrels from the cart with Winona’s help. The peppy canine girl would smile down to him, her own voice warmer than the filly. “After we empty this load, we are taking you to town. If Redheart’s too angry to see you, Sweetie Belle suggested taking you to the spa until you cool off.”

Relenting only due to the pressure of the resounding heat and pressure that rang in his head, Dusk would lay back down, and wrapped another wet blanket over his head. While Apple Bloom took the harness from her brother and Winona took up pushing to get the cart rolling, Dusk let his eyes slide closed. His last words before leaving was a call out to Big Mac. “If Applejack skips out on us tonight, send someone to get me. I’ll come back out and see if I can talk some sense into her.”

* * *

Young Apple Bloom did an impressive job hauling the cart into town alone, which allowed Winona to run on ahead and check up with Sweetie Belle and Rarity on Nurse Redheart’s temperament. Thus, when Apple Bloom turned the cart into town, Rarity and Sweetie Belle were waiting with the canine, the pair sharing a hushed conversation while watching the cart’s slow approach.

In a single fluid motion, Rarity landed at Dusk’s side, moving to remove the wet cloths from his horn, and applied a clear green balm to the base of his throbbing horn, which was still steaming from how much he had overstressed it past its limit. She spoke in soft whispers, as she leaned in close, brushing her lips across his cheek. “Oh Dusk you fool. You are as bad as AJ! You go out to get some work done while she is in town causing a rampage! And you end up working yourself into passing out at the same time, you are both hopeless and mule headed!”

As soon as the balm’s cool mixture came into contact with his horn, its effect shot a soothing wave of pleasure deep into the painful depths. Even while she spoke his mind shifted, clear thoughts forming up and bubbling to the surface while a tender kiss landed on the mare’s cheek. “What did she do Rarity? Nothing too serious? No big fires?”

Shaking her head the mare would look up answering something whatever it was that Sweetie and Apple Bloom were asking her. “Just go. The girls will have a spare room and something for his head, even if Aloe and Lotus are too busy to help us personally.”

While the muffled conversation continued between the two fillies and the canine girl, Rarity turned back to Dusk and stroked her fingers across his jaw, a deep frown creasing her brows. “I guess I’d better start from the beginning Dusk. And don’t expect any help form Redheart or her staff at the clinic. Applejack and Pinkie gave everyone a horrific case of... Well, have you ever eaten too many buckthorn berries in a day?”

Dusk couldn’t help but wince at the thought of what too many buckthorn berries could do to a healthy persons digestion. Moving to draw the wet sheet back over his face, his voice sad and distant. “Ok. Poisoned everyone in town. Great. Then what?”

Nervous, Rarity drew his hand into her own, her gentle caress soothing, even while she returned to the less enjoyable topic of the day he had missed. “Afterwards she went to see Dash, who I will admit, had done an impressive job building a take off platform. But she got carried away with her own great work and had AJ jump off and launch her from the platform. Well… one thing lead to another and they moved the platform by city hall. AJ landed the jump just fine but the increased force launched Dash so high, hard and fast that… well, Cadence said it was a wonder her wings were strong enough to handle the force and keep her from crashing face first into Canterlot Castle.”

“She threw her so hard she landed in Canterlot? Is Dash ok otherwise? Did Cadence say how long before she would be able to come home?” Worried now, Dusk attempted to sit up, yet even that simple motion was enough to set the somewhat pacified headache roaring, resulting in a painful bolt that shot deep into his brain.

Rarity quickly hushed him, her hands soothing the stallion back down while she smoothed another of the wet towels on his head. “Relax Dusk. She is on the train already, Barb says Cadence even stated in her letter that Dash was getting some attention from the Wonderbolts for breaking Captain Spitfire’s record airspeed. Not that they will accept it for the record books, much to Dash’s dismay.”

While Dusk would offer a little chuckle, glad to hear that at the very least that Dash had turned a bad thing into a good time, even if it had come from a life threatening feat of stupidity on both their parts. Rarity would continue, her voice lower, more worried. “And then there is the warren Fluttershy was helping out, just to the east of town. She was helping them conduct a census of their population for the first time, and Applejack was supposed to help keep them in line and organized because they've never done something so bureaucratic and organized. But even with Angel helping her keep them calm, she quickly started getting more and more frustrated when they made a little mistake, like stepping out of line to talk to a friend, or going to the bathroom. In the end, she started yelling and throwing things, and if you’ve ever seen a single bunny scared and running, you’ll never want to see five or six hundred of them stampeding in all directions, made only worse by the fact some of them had taken to eating the leftovers from Pinkie’s baking with Barb. Well let’s just say, the rabbit elders are NOT in the mood to talk to us anymore today.”

“Just how is Iron Gut? Please tell me she at least was able to handle whatever AJ did to Pinkie’s baking?” Worry tainted the joking nickname, Dusk peeled away the wet towels to look into Rarity’s eyes. “It’s just that I’ve seen her eat so many strange things in the past, surely she could handle these.. baked bads, right?”

Shifting to cup Dusk’s cheeks, Rarity smiled and offered him a nod before she leaned in and rested her cheek on his own. “Don’t worry dear. She appears to be up to anything. I even caught her picking them out of the trash. In the end I had to threaten to banish her from my boutique before she would leave them be.”

Dusk could only offer a nod, any attempt to think about how to fix all this was pushed aside by the roar in his ears every time he tried to focus on an answer. “Then let’s go to the spa. I need you to get Barb and Mayor Mare. I think everyone needs to know what is really going on here. Applejack’s pride be damned, we need people’s help and nobody is going to want to help us without a good explanation.”

* * *

Dusk was surprised how well things finally started going when he allowed Rarity to take charge of matters while he soaked in a hot bath in Aloe and Lotus’ spa. It had been a shock when the mares had ushered him past the family section of the building and into a spare room in the adults only side. With the chaos of the day’s events, the Spa mares had closed up that section, and had once again offered the family friendly side to the general public. Thus, alone with Rarity, Dusk would discover the other side of the spa.

While pornography was no foreign concept to the stallion, it was still something he had not dealt with on a daily basis, and while he was sure Lotus and Aloe would have termed the art on their walls ‘Artistic Nudes’ he had no doubt the real intent behind putting such erotic art in every room. Rarity had the decency to pick him up a pair of trunks from the treehouse before Barb came in, but not without teasing him about inviting the mayor to visit him in the adult side of the spa.

Now as Barb entered with the mayor and set up some paperwork on a portable desk, the stallion would turn to look to his young assistant, smiling fondly at the girl. “Before I get too busy with other things Barb, you sure you are ok? Rarity told me about Applejack’s cooking. Are you sure you are up to this? I can take my own notes.”

The young dragoness turned to grin up at Dusk in his tub, and laughed warmly, while Barb lightly stroked her own belly with an open palm. “I’m just fine Dusk. I don’t see why Pinkie and Rarity had to trash the leftovers and burn them all to ashes. I thought they tasted great personally.” She paused for a minute to stare at the art Dusk had pulled from the private spa rooms walls, all turned away to avoid further damaging the young dragoness’ mind. “But I still think you’re being silly about the art in this place. I think it’s really impressive that Lotus, Aloe and their cousins are so comfortable with their bodies.” She paused a moment before whispering under her breath. “Besides, I’d seen way worse than this before Shining moved out.”

Even before Dusk could answer, Mayor Mare warmly laughed and interrupted him, putting her hands on the portable desk and posing for the young dragoness, while suggestively thrusting her ass out towards the wall. “In my younger days, I use to pose for dear Davenport’s artistic sketch classes. I wonder if he would be interested in starting those up again. It was such a-” she paused as she licked her lips and gave a sultry smile to her husband who had taken over for her assistant today because she was one of the ponies that had taken ill. “-pleasure to have such creative artistic interpretations of my body.”

The older stallion blushed darkly and adjusted his collar, before pointedly changing the topic. “So Dusk Shine, you requested the Mayor come to you due to needing help with one of Ponyville’s most valuable citizens. What can we do to help you and miss Applejack?”

Glad to have someone on his side, Dusk would launch into a proper explanation of the details the mayor might not have found out yet. In the end, his point made, he made his request. “What I need is simple. If you could call an emergency meeting of the entire town, and all of the farms in the area, I will make my request to them all personally.”

Impressed at his solution, but still flabbergasted but the whole situation, Davenport asked the question on hand. “But Dusk. Even if we get everyone to show. How do you plan to get their assistance, other than to beg or resort to bribery?”

Here Dusk grinned, a playful wink offered to the older stallion. “That all comes down to math. You see we currently have done approximately three thousand six hundred of the fifty eight hundred cart loads of apples on the apple orchard. If I can get even two hundred people to help us out, we could be finished in eleven hours at a lazy pace. And with how much the Apple family does for those in town and the local economy, not to mention the fact they took none of their normal seventy harvest workers, I’m sure we can convince that many people to come to our aid if only for a single day.”

Floored by Dusk’s math and the simple logic of the situation, Davenport would jot some quick notes before nodding to his wife. “Miss mayor, I think he has a great solution to help the Apple farm out without serious hardship to the rest of Ponyville or the other farms. I’d even say that if you asked the other shopkeepers in the market, they would all be willing to lend a hand. With all the money the Apple’s spend in the market every year, most of all on post harvest barbecue, I doubt you’d find anyone unwilling to throw a hand in to help Applejack out.”

As Mayor Mare offered a nod in return, she turned to smile at Dusk, and spoke in a conciliatory voice. “I’ll go a step further. I’ll offer any business in the market a week off their stall rent if they or one of their employees volunteer to help the Apples out tomorrow for free. I might be mayor, but I’m also a landowner. If Applejack wants to pay me back, tell her to invite me to dinner after next zap apple harvest. I haven't had a fresh jar of that jam without paying Filthy’s markup in almost five years.”

With matters arranged, Dusk would return to the rich and icy fruit drink Rarity and Aloe had thrown together for him, his horn still hurt to touch, but it no longer throbbed, and when he drew at his magic, it no longer caused those brain splitting headaches.

* * *

Dusk, having just finished his speech, stepped back from the podium, still a little shocked at how many of those around Ponyville the mayor had been able to gather so sudden a meeting, most of all during harvest. As he left the stage before town hall he stopped to offer a nod to the unicorn mare with the electric blue hair. Even with the last four hours to relax and rejuvenate, he could tell his magic would be out of order for a few days to come. Mayor Mare had requested the entertainer’s assistance to set up town’s sound system in a hurry, and only now was he realizing he hadn’t had a chance to pick up her name. Stepping in and whispering a thanks to her while the mayor stepped up to the mic, Dusk wandered off the stage and down to where Rarity and Barb were waiting for him. “Was it any good? Do you think they will show in the morning?”

The mare grinned, stepped in close and wrapped her arms around his neck, while gently drawing him in close and resting her cheek on his chest. “Of course they will Dusk. With the mayor’s offer and how much everyone in town respects Applejack and her family? A day of their time is an easy request.”

From the distance a voice called that caught Dusk’s ears, causing him to release the mare and turn, eyes wide. “So, Weathermare Rainbow Dash. Is it common for Student Dusk to make speeches before the town? Because we would say he did quite well.”

It only took a moment for Dusk’s eyes to pick the speaker from the crowd, but for a moment he was sure he must be confused. In a ring of royal guards, both of the day and night watch, stood Princess Luna herself, dressed down in a simple black-purple silk robe. While the hood was drawn up to hide her trademark hair, the simple fact she towered a full foot over most of her guards made it hard for anyone to doubt who the mare was. At her side, Dash was laughing, and offered a small shrug to the princess. “I’ve never seen him give any speech before. But he is a sight for sore eyes.”

Splitting from Rarity, Dusk rushed to the ring of guards, and dropped to his knee in a deep bow. His eyes glancing once to the mare at her side, he first addressed his sovereign's younger sister, tone respectful and polite. “Princess Luna! It’s a shock to have you visit us here so soon! I hope that Rainbow Dash has been giving you a good impression of Ponyville. For what do we owe you the honor and the delight of this unexpected appearance?”

Even before he finished bowing his head, Dusk could feel the fingers of Princess Luna’s gloved hand stroking through the locks of his hair, her voice soft as a whisper and cooing when he left her a gap in conversation to answer. “We came with Weathermare Dash to insure her safe arrival, and we wanted to see more of this harvest that is giving you so much trouble. Our sister said your last letter was quite brief due to the troubles it has caused you.”

Even as Dusk realized just what Princess Luna was saying, the mare’s tender fingers continued to stroke though his hair, soothing his own frayed nerves while Dash casually dismissed the princess’ words. “It’s like I said Princess Luna. Me and Dusk figured we had it under control, but with the events of today its clear our friend Applejack hasn’t been handling the stress well.” Planting her fists on her hips, Dash would look over her shoulder, and inspected her wings. Still wrapped tight in bandages, the proud pegasus let her lip curl into a sneer. “And I don’t think Princess Cadence will put up with me ignoring her rules about no flying for a few days.”

Rarity would step up to Dusk’s side, offering the princess a low curtsy,taking no effort to break it until the princess acknowledged her presence with a nod before speaking up. “If it would please you Princess Luna, it’s getting very late, and Dusk has overworked himself quite badly today. I think it would be best for his health if we continued this conversation at my boutique. I’m sure I could put together some kind of tea that wouldn’t be an insult to your refined palate.”

With a glance to Rarity, the princess would flash a smile, nodding once in thanks to the mare’s kind offer. “It would be a pleasure to visit your home Seamstress Rarity. Our niece Princess Cadence told us about your kind company and sweet tea, it would be a pleasure to see just what you have to offer.” The mare looked back over her shoulder to the guards, snapped her fingers, and pointed to the one bat pony mare in the group. “Night Daughter Silken Flight, fly out to the Apple’s Orchard. If Lead Hand Applejack is still harvesting rather than sleeping in her bed, order her to bed on our name. If she refuses, inform her will visit her after we finish Seamstress Rarity’s tea.”

The silent guard gave Princess Luna a single nod before launching to flight, soaring into the growing dark of sunset. Dusk moved to at last stand up, several of the Princess’ guards stepped in to his side, aiding him to his feet and supporting him while he brushed himself off. After whispering a quiet word of thanks, the stallion stepped in beside Dash and the princess, speaking the question that was most on his own mind. “Forgive me for asking Princess Luna, but… err. Why do you keep calling people by such specialized titles?”

Flashing the stallion a grin, the princess would slide her arm around his own entwining them and pulling him closer to her side. Her voice bright with mirth, she was delighted to answer his inquiry “But Student Dusk Shine, it’s only polite. You all are constantly naming me with the kind honorific of Princess Luna when I have been derelict in my duties for far longer than any of you have been alive. It only makes sense I should return that respect and honor by calling you by the most appropriate title I can choose for you all, selected to personally signify you as all as best as possible. Princess Celestia, our sister, thinks it a tad taxing and convinced me to use simpler titles with her guards, and the commoners that I do not know well, but in turn she has accepted and will respect my choices to call my personal guard by such specialized names. Thus, you are Student Dusk. I have a feeling your studies will earn you a greater title in time, but for now, I think you will agree. This title best exemplifies your role in the world. A student of life, always exploring all the things that you might learn about the world.”

* * *

It was only forty minutes later in Rarity’s house that Dusk found himself having tea for the second time in just over a month with a member of Celestia’s family. If it wasn’t for all the times the princess had invited him back to her study, he might have found it strange.

What was strange, was Rainbow Dash’s response to the situation. Rather than finding a reason to excuse herself, the mare had joined them, and now sat across from Rarity and Princess Luna, attempting to hold conversation while ignoring every attempt the seamstress made to subtly suggest proper manners for the situation. Soup spoon in her tea glass, the mare chugged at the rich tea, heavy with too much sugar, while at the same time she chewed with earnest at the expensive sweetcakes Rarity had pulled from her pantry. “This really is good grub Rarity. I understand why Dusk makes up any excuse to have tea with you after our jogs.”

Rarity attempted to hold her tongue and instead simply offered her friend a nod, her breezy voice cheerful. “Well, I’m sure it’s not just my food that gets Dusk to come visit dear. After all, we talk about news from Canterlot, our recent reading, even some minor politics what with Dusk’s mother sending him letters about Griffon politics. It can be fascinating stuff. Apparently some onvoy requested permission to come visit some of the Wonderbolts next week.”

Mouth still full of food, Dash grinned back at Rarity. “What, Gilda? She promised she would visit. I can’t believe she got permission after all the crazy pranks we pulled at flight school!” When Rarity gasped and Dusk lifted a brow, the mare just offered them a shrug. “What? I was the top flyer in Cloudsdale. Gilda was studying with us as an exchange student. Well mostly she was showing off how the griffons were stronger flyers in bad weather than us. She couldn’t keep up in a real contest of raw speed.”

It was the princess who spoke up next, her own lips only lightly parted to flash her pearly teeth. “Such an odd collection of personalities you’ve collected Student Dusk Shine. We think the mares’ conflicting personalities will keep you for getting bored anytime soon. Have you already started dating both of them?”

Now it was Dash’s turn to be shocked, while Rarity pulled her cup up and held it before her lips, an attempt to cover her broad smirk. Dusk would swallow his own snack cake before shaking his head, and tried to clear things up for the princess. “No Princess Luna. It was Applejack who I was telling you about in my letter. She admitted she wanted to date me during the whole Grand Gala ticket affair. Your sister was kind enough to give me tickets for all my friends in the end. Rainbow Dash is…” And here at last he shut up, Dash’s foot under the table had shifted to crush his own, effectively delivering the message her eyes were screaming at him.

Rarity dove in with the save, her voice warm. “Me and Dusk have an understanding with Applejack. I am not some jealous filly and we are all good friends.” A sip taken from her tea, she spoke openly again. “Beyond that, if Dash wishes to speak with us about taking up some of his spare time, she can wait for things to blow over. We are far too busy right now for Dusk to go off dating two of my friends.”

The shared laughter between Dusk, Rarity and Princess Luna was broken off by the guards at the door allowing in Silken Flight. The mare marched into the dining room, bowed low to her princess, and spoke in a level voice. “Princess Luna, the mare Applejack had retired to bed at our request. However I have a feeling she won’t remain there long, I’d like to request permission to keep watch over the farm tonight to make sure she respects your order”

With a dismissive wave of her hand, Princess Luna offered the mare a warm smile, her attention turned to focus on Dash’s poor attempt to hide her embarrassment at the previous line of conversation. “Student Dusk Shine has explained his concept for the morning. He and his friends will go to speak with Lead Hand Applejack while Mayor Mare gathers those who are well enough to come help with the harvest. As we are here incognito, we will wait until after the villagers have gone to harvest before we return home. We do request you and as many of the guards who are willing to volunteer stay to help with the harvest Night Daughter Silken Flight. It will do you all good to spend time with normal people doing normal work. To see how they sweat to earn their bread.”

Not long after that the others discovered Dusk had passed out sitting up at the table. With the guards' help he was settled in a spare bed in Rarity’s drawing room while the Princess stayed up, talking with her hosts.

It wasn’t until several hours after they had all retired that the Princess found herself alone in Rarity’s inspiration room inspecting the silk bolts left scattered around on mannequins from one experiment or another. Silken Flight broke her focus when she asked a straight forward question, being careful to keep her voice down. “My princess, I’ve considered your request. We could do better watching him if you simply made an excuse of leaving one of my sisters as a guard for him. Or failing that, pick any of the unicorns. Most of them are already so in love with his reputation alone, it would be no trouble having one of them infiltrate the city and take up work while keeping watch over his actions.”

Dismayed at the distraction from her imagination, the towering Alicorn turned to look over her shoulder at the mare, her voice honest but sad. “Night Daughter Silken Flight, we want someone to guard him and report to us, not to warm his bed. He has taken a lover and several suitors are hounding him. A unicorn mare in town could pass unnoticed, but for the very same reason, we think any one of them would get too close and ruin the test. By the same note, openly posting one of your sisters to him might work, but in order to keep her from interfering, we would have to tell her everything. He is smart, he would notice the small signs that would quickly give our tests away.” Shaking her head, Luna stepped forward, wrapping a sapphire blue bolt of silk around her shoulders, inspecting the way it fell across her bare flesh. “We want his reactions to be genuine, and the griffon is a perfect opportunity to start. If your spies can not handle the surveillance, we will find a better solution, but we trust your judgement and will let you decide.” There was a pause, the pale ivory night goddess shifted to draw the robe low over her breasts, revealing ample cleavage like the mannequin across the room did. “Do the mares really reveal so much flesh? Or is it simply Seamstress Rarity’s style?”

Blushing at the sight inches from her face, the guard would shake her head, and answered softly. “So- so- some of both, Princess Luna. As Rainbow shows, not all mares have the body for such style.” Forcefully attempting to swallow a knot in her throat, the guard pressed on, back to the real reason for their conversation. “We can handle it. I wish you would just let me do it personally. I do not think with my loins, as the unicorn mares do, and you could easily disguise me as a pegasus.”

A finger touched the smaller mare’s lips, the princess released her silk bolt and stepped in close, shaking her head. “You are too valuable to us for other duties. ‘We can not place all our chips on this one hand of cards’ as the guards are fond of saying. Now help us pick something to wear and a color for our hair.” Stepping away, Luna appeared to totally miss the effect her presence and soft touch had on the shaken mare, now staring wide eyed like any schoolgirl in the presence of her secret crush. With an eye on the window, the princess spoke with joy at the day to come. “The dawn will be here soon and we don't want to miss this ‘harvest’. It sounds like such fun.”

* * *

It was still before dawn when Dusk awoke, the soft silk sheets of a strange bed might have been comfortable, but that wouldn’t keep the stallion from feeling like something was wrong. It was only when he rolled over, and saw the threat of dawn through the open drapes that the stallion realized he had spent so long sleeping. Violently rolling over and falling out of the small bed, Dusk grunted at the sudden shock of the short fall to the ground.

It took Dusk effort to stand up again, His body already starting a rhythm that had become common the last few weeks. As he was putting on his clothing from the day before, a soft voice by the door shocked his still drowsy mind “The Princess will not be able to see you this morning she has already left for home. She left a request you continue to write her as you have been, and that you act as host for this griffon emissary, since you could use the practical experience to go with what you have already learned from your mother.”

Before he could even process the fact that the bat mare was in the room with him giving orders, she opened the door and stepped outside. “Just… Just how long was she standing there watching me sleep? And why would Princess Luna leave so quickly?” Shaking his head, Dusk smoothed his shirt and redressed, forcefully attempting to disregard those bothersome trains of thought for now.

Stepping out into the hallway, Dusk discovered a short letter from Rarity taped to the door, the mare’s flowing handwriting resulted in a gorgeous but short note. “Dearest Dusk Shine. I awoke early in hopes of getting Pinkie’s assistance at making breakfast for the Princes and her guards but Luna has already left for Canterlot, and her guards were up and served me before I could offer. I will bring you and Applejack breakfast with Pinkie, see you at the Orchard shortly after dawn my love.”

A scent made him lift the note to his nose, Rarity’s perfume was subtle, but rich. A mixture of soft lavender, vanilla and rosemary notes. Stuffing the letter into his jacket’s inner pocket, the stallion made his way from the boutique, and into the predawn, the faintest suggestion of a cool dew on the air. An early hint to the rapidly approaching fall.

* * *

Applejack had only slept an hour, two at the most when she woke up and discovered the guard princess Luna had sent was gone. It had taken her another hour to decide that it really was safe, and she could return to the field. “My work is too important to lay lazy in bed. Why did you turn against me Dusk? I thought you of all people would understand how important my work is.” But the mare spent no more time thinking on that topic, dismissing the stallion’s betrayal. She would deal with him for turning against her when he had the courage to face her again.

Taking back to the field shortly after midnight, the earth mare returned to her harvest work with the same dedication she had before. Yet quickly two facts reared their head: She was at the edge of her strength, and without Dusk’s assistance she was going to struggle to manage a half hour lap. Refusing to to give up, the mare pushed her body to pick up the pace, lugging back the cart and panting for breath the whole time. Her brow soaked in sweat, yet she shivered from a chill in her bones that was not due to the slight night breeze.

The night would thus continue at a painfully slow pace, twice she found herself waking up face down in the mud, her memory just as muddy as her face. As the dawn sun started to rise she found herself standing before the bar with yet another load, the water barrel upturned on her face to wash the caked mud from her face and chest. With damp hair plastered to her face, she only just now realized Dusk was standing at her side when his jacket was thrown around her shoulders. Squaring herself to face the barn she couldn’t suppress a shiver that ran up her spine. Taking on a sharp tone, she spoke to the barn, not him. “So you’ve come to apologize for sending the princess’ guard after me without even hearing my side of the story first?”

Unable to suppress a sigh from leaking through his clenched teeth, Dusk stepped up behind the mare, placing his hands on her shoulders. “I was planing to talk with you last night, but I ended up overworking myself badly enough that I passed out on Big Mac. I still planned to return after asking for some help form Rarity and the mayor, but then Princess Luna showed.. But forget about that. We need to talk. You can ask others for help Applejack. You don’t have to do all this work alone. But when you started abusing the Dawn Blossom didn’t you think I’d find out?”

Throwing Dusk’s touch off her shoulders, Applejack’s breath was heightened, her eyes wide and filled with mix of shock, rage and embarrassment. Her voice filled with hurt, as she turned on the offensive, pushed away from him, and turned her head up, even curling her lip with a sneer. “What about you? Redheart gave you lots of strict orders, but the second I turned my back, you were begging for help from door to door. And then when I gave you a day off? You returned to the field and tried to set a record for scaring members of my family shitless. At least I know my limits.”

Dusk’s eyes found something more interesting than her words to draw on as his response. He lifted his hand, and brushed a clot of mud from her hair. With a twitch of his hand, he flicked the mud to the ground then looked back into her eyes. “I’m going to guess you were not with Rarity at the spa, so I’m going to say you’ve been suffering the side effects of Dawn Blossom withdraw. Bouts of exhaustion? Momentary blackouts? I wouldn’t be surprised if your not just shivering because of the cold water.”

“I … I didn’t invite you back on my farm Dusk! So why are you here? Go back to your warm bed and I’ll deal with this harvest alone.” In an attempt to hold back tears, AJ’s bloodshot eyes locked on Dusk’s own, refusing to blink.

It was Fluttershy who spoke next. The normally shy mare stepped around the corner of the barn, her eyes wide and ringed with tears “Applejack! We only want to help you! When Dusk and Rarity told me about just how bad things really were here I knew I had to come to your assistance! I’m your friend too, and I’m not as strong as you or good with leading people like Rainbow Dash, but I could still help.” A mug of steaming tea was held out, the normally timid woman stepped in between the stallion and her friend. “I brought you some herbal tea. It will help with the fatigue, but unless you sit down and let us help you, it will still take weeks before you're feeling better. Now drink it.”

Dusk took a step back from the two women, the smaller pegasus squaring hers while the larger earth mare tried to lock an angry glare at her normally sweet natured friend. But the pink haired mare was unrelenting as she pushed the mug into AJ’s hands, and in the end the mare took the offered mug, sipping deeply at the rich drink. Even before she could put it down, Rarity and Pinkie rounded the corner, the rich scent of freshly baked apple fritters strong in the air. Still pale, Pinkie was never the less bright and full of smiles. After shoving the sack of glazed fritters into AJ’s free hand, Pinkie wrapped the taller mare in her arms and standing fully extended on her tiptoes, she planted a warm kiss on the taller mare’s lips. When she finally broke off the kiss, she rested her head under AJ’s chin, tenderly nuzzling the taller woman’s throat. “I’m so sorry AJ! If I’d known you were so stressed out about the farm, I’d have never asked you to help while mister and misses Cake went out of town. I could have handled it myself. Heck, they would have let me close the bakery for the day to come help you properly. Don’t hate me for being a bad friend, please?”

Still trapped between Pinkie and the barn, AJ was given no time to process the situation, while Rarity stepped up, took back the sack, and ripped it open. With ease she pulled out a hot apple fritter, and placed it in AJ’s hand. This was, at last, something she could process quickly. “And you Rarity? Would you have closed your boutique just to help lug around apples if I’d asked?”

While the question had been edged with sarcasm, Rarity took it in stride, shaking her head. “No darling, I would have aided with moving things while my magic held out, but I’d of rather gone after the Canterlot labor board and their exploitation of your hard situation. I’m sure there must be some law that would prevent such ridiculous surcharges of a business in a crisis. But Dusk has solved that for us his own way.” Silent for only a moment, she perked up, grinning. “But I’m sure one or two of my clients are lawyers in Canterlot. It would be a pleasure to inquire for you darling.”

Applejack turned back to Dusk while Pinkie grabbed her elbow and made her start eating the doughnut, while glaze ran down their fingers. Able to only speak up between forced bites and sips, the mare watched Dusk closely. “And what was your solution Dusk? I ran your numbers a dozen times over in the last few days. Even with the extra help and Dash’s weather tea, we are seven or eight days short of finishing harvest.”

Before Dusk could answer, it was Rainbow Dash who answered, marching on the farm with an army behind her. “And what if I brought all of Ponyville to get harvest finished today? Would that be enough to bring a smile to your lips, sourpuss?”

Even in Dusk’s wildest dreams he had never expected to hit the full two hundred hands he had hoped to see come out this morning. Instead with Mayor Mare at her side, and Luna’s private guard in their entirety, the real shocking force behind them was near six hundred strong. From filly to elderly stallion, a massive portion of the collective population of Ponyville had showed up to assist with Dusk’s request.

Her jaw slack, Applejack would turn to Dusk, her head shaking in disbelief. “How could you get them all to help? How could you afford it? You didn’t ask the princess to order them, did you?” Even as she asked it, it was clear she knew that was not the true reason.

Shocked himself, Dusk needed a moment to clear his head before he answered her. “They are here to help you Applejack, because you have helped them in countless ways over the years and when I asked them to return the favor, and told them how badly you needed their help. They have come by the dozen to show you their support. Now let’s get started, and if you pick up another barrel or grab a harness, I will sick Pinkie on you.” While he had been joking, Pinkie flashed Applejack a grin that none could confuse as anything but threatening, even while the smaller earth mare continued to cling to her chest.

* * *

It was shocking how quickly work got done with so many extra hands. Suddenly two earth ponies pulled every cart, a hundred stood in the barns unloading loads and settling them on the endless shelves of the loft and both main stories. In only hours, carts were being sent back to town to Filthy Rich’s own warehouse rather than being left to wait for someone to have the time to spare. Before noon, the Cakes had teamed up with a dozen other cooks to start cooking a proper lunch for the massive collective, all the while Dusk, Applejack and Silken Flight handed out orders, Dusk’s well worn map of the apple orchard now quickly being filled in as entire acres were completed in a single trip. The whole time the line of carts buzzing around the farm moved in a endless stream to the bar and then to the main road to be lashed into a line to be taken back to town like all the others before them.

With Rainbow Dash’s weather team freed from doing all the hard work, a thin cloud bank was driven off to give the best of a sunny day to the workers, even if Dash herself remained grounded. Big Mac could only marvel and sit watching with his sister, glad when she fell asleep resting against his shoulder. They let her sleep through the massive lunch barbeque, and while Mayor Mare gave several speeches, Applejack was allowed to sleep through it all. It was the early afternoon when Dash and Fluttershy came to Mac and Silken Flight with Dusk sleeping in the back of a cart, still exhausted from his own hard work over the last few weeks.

Rarity would offer the best solution. “Rather than wake him, why not put Applejack in the cart with him, and park them in a dark corner of the barn. They both have earned a good sleep and we can handle cleanup without them.”

So it was that while a third the volunteers had finished and headed home before dinner, Mac found himself giving thanks to all those who had poured out to aid his family in their time of need. With harvest done before dinner got into full swing, Mac would draw a dozen barrels of the family's private reserve of cider, handing out mugs to any and every willing hand.

It was not until nearly nine when Rarity found herself checking up on Dusk and Applejack in the barn, surprised to see a quiet unicorn mare, whose name escaped her memory, already there. “You’ve been watching them the whole day?” In an attempt to avoid waking the sleepy pair, Rarity stood close to the pale unicorn, her crystalline sapphire hair tied in a signe massive braid that hung just past her hips. “If I had known someone had asked you, I would have relieved you hours ago. I’m so sorry.”

The quiet unicorn offered a small shrug, her silk shawl pristine, not even a hint of sweat maring the pale cobalt silk dress. For some reason she would speak up only after too long a pause, her voice cheerful, yet her words were carefully phrased. “It was no bother, really. Nurse Redheart checked in on them three times, and I got an excuse to watch the handsome stallions lifting heavy loads all day.”

Sharing a laugh at that, Rarity stepped onto the cart, and brushed a few locks from Applejack’s hair, admiring how peaceful the pair looked curled up in one another’s arms in the back of the cart. Sitting down and quietly brushing the sleeping Applejack’s tail with her fingers, Rarity looked to the other woman, her own mind too distracted by the events of her life to realize, she was being admired or scrutinized. “Stallions come and go my dear friend. It’s when one of value comes along that you need to recognize his presence. I’m glad I have Dusk. And after today, my dearest Applejack, show him you do too.” When the other mare simply lifted an eyebrow and looked at her, Rarity shook her head, leaning into Applejack, whispering to her friend’s ear. “If you want him, I will share him. Just make sure to ask first, because we have started making Sunday tea our date night, and you know how hard it is for me to rearrange my whole schedule when the new fall fashion season starts.” Laughing to herself, Rarity again thanked the watchful mare before turning towards town. “If you wish to go, just ask Fluttershy or Rainbow Dash to keep an eye on these two. Both are likely staying the night and enjoying the bonfire. No reason to keep you from family just because my sleeping friends need someone to watch them.”

* * *

Alone again, the quiet unicorn stepped to the cart once more, an old eye taking time to inspect the sleeping pair. It wasn’t until Silken Flight stepped from the shadows that she spoke up again. “We think it’s impressive that he could pull so many together with a simple speech about a friend in need.”

With no words and only a shrug, the bat pony stepped up beside her friend, watching the breath of the sleeping pair rise and fall. She answered only when a thought came to her. “Did you have fun today? Walking with the crowd and blending in? You are very good at it.”

With laughter that rang like a bell, the unicorn crossed arms with the guard, and placed her head on the mare’s shoulder. “We are good at it because people don’t look at one person out of place in so large a crowd. Now you are weary. Order one of your staff to watch over them for the night. The last train for home leaves in an hour and we wouldn’t want them to have to wait on us.”

Silken Flight would stiffen up at the unicorn’s close and familiar behavior, a dark blush spreading over her cheeks while she offered one rapid nod, quickly turning and marching away to find one of her squad in the mild chaos of a celebratory crowd.

Chapter 5: Applebuck Season - Part 3 [Dusk X Applejack - Handjob, Oral, Titfucking]

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It was two days after harvest when Dusk awoke to find a letter from Applejack in his basket. Shifting last night’s correspondence with Filthy Rich to one side, the stallion popped open the simple apple shaped wax seal on the note.

A short note written in simple words by an uncomfortable hand, attempted to mimic Dusk's flowing formal calligraphy. The expensive paper scented with Sandalwood, left Dusk suddenly with a clear picture of the nervous mare in Rarity’s drawing room, a pile of crumpled scrap paper building around her feet.

“Dearest Dusk Shine,

Now that our harvest is over, nothing could bring me more pleasure than to ask you to join me tonight for dinner and some stargazing. The harvest moon is sure to be out tonight, and its orange hue as a backdrop to the sky is sure to impress.

With loving regards,

Applejack.”

Dusk blushed, the clear strain it must have taken for Applejack to write the romantic letter with an attempt to keep her own honest and straightforward manner in check was deeply touching. Pulling open his bottom drawer Dusk looked over the four sealed bundles of paper Cadence had given him, when she had visited him a few weeks ago, suddenly realizing he would have a better use for some of them then dressing up a letter to someone of political importance. “Or was this your intent all along? Did you really already see so much Cadence? Or am I just an open book to you at this point?”

Laughing gently to himself Dusk drew open the bottom envelope, instantly glad he has chosen the vanilla scented pages. Pulling a sealed pot of ink from the same drawer, Dusk would inspect the note left with the ink pot, reading to himself. “To mix scents take the source of the scent you want to add and vaporise it with magic, add four drops to scent the inkpot for a day, ten for life. All writing done with scented ink will linger for a lifetime.” With his magic Dusk plucked an apple from the fruit bowl on the desk by the library entrance, splitting it into quarters and placing one chunk into his mouth. Even while he chewed, Dusk carried out the directions, a second quarter of the apple vaporized and its volume inspected. With care four drops of the juice were allowed into the inkwell, the rest he would drink.

Enjoying the sweet apple nectar, Dusk wrote his reply, enjoying the mixture of vanilla and apple scents as they teased his nose. So early was it, Dusk could see Derpy’s door open down the block. Opening the library window, Dusk would use his magic to lift the flag on the mailbox by the treehouse front door. The letter folded and sealed was soon put inside for the mail mare to pick up. “Stargazing Applejack? I think you’ve got a wonderful idea for a first date.”

* * *

Applejack pushed into the drawing room, flustered cheeks dark red. Rushing across the room to Rarity’s side, she shoved the letter onto the sketch that her friend had been working on. Short on breath from her run, she stammered a little as she spoke. “Y-you said to write it so I d-did, and now he is g-going to come to s-starg-gaze! Why did I let you talk me into something s-so sappy Rarity?!”

With one deft finger, the unicorn mare pushed her drawing glasses further up her nose, the silver frames were mostly for show, but the weak prescription helped bring the paper before her into sharper focus. Even as she read, a soft giggle burst from her lips, a coy grin forcing her mouth to curl into a smile of mirth. “Why Applejack, wasn’t that the point? You wanted to get him alone. Make it personal, like your dream?” When her friend didn’t answer, she turned from the letter, only to find that Applejack had pulled hat down over her brow and was staring out the window at the street. “You did go apologize to the Cakes like you agreed to over tea, right?”

Forced to shift back to the here and now, Applejack gave a small nod. “I did. I reckon they were way too easy on me, after what happened. They made it clear they were disappointed, but Pinkie already took a lot of the blame onto herself.” As she looked back to her friend, an unsettling feeling began to settle in the pit of her stomach. “Why…”

Shifting on her chair towards her friend, Rarity folded the letter up once more and put it back into its envelope. Placing it back into her taller friend’s hand, she squeezed Applejack’s hand reassuringly. “Then you will host him for a date darling. Buy something he likes, bake one of your favorite dinners and convince Big Mac to let you have one of the smaller barrels of his private reserve.” When AJ gave her a blank stare in return, Rarity rolled her eyes dismissively. “Oh come on dear! You know he keeps his best stock in the cellar. The cider he doesn’t sell to anyone normally.”

“Now Rarity, Mac sells that cider. It’s just that Granny is really strict on how long its gotta be aged and cooked. Granny only let me start learning how to make it two years ago.” The look Rarity was giving her made Applejack pause, and reassess her own words before laughing at herself. “Alright, I get your point Rarity.”

Rarity turned back to the sketch on her desk, her pencil drawn up once more to fill in a few more details, fixing the light smudging Applejack had caused in her excitement. Waving her free hand dismissively to her friend, she offered one last tease. "Good to hear, dear. Now can you dress yourself properly for your first date or should I throw something this afternoon? I don't care to think of you on a date with poor Dusk in dungarees!" The sound of Applejack storming out and slamming the door, was her only answer, the seamstress, couldn’t help but chuckle a little as she returned to her work properly.

* * *

Dusk stopped to look into a mirror, inspecting the casual attire Rarity had insisted he wear. The cotton blue t-shirt felt strange, with no collar or any buttons, it was a slightly tight fit, snug across his chest, while the tartan plaid shirt she had given him to wear on top also had no buttons, leaving it open and exposed. The fact she had taken the time to make such a shirt in his hair color was impressive, the strong base color of dark blue with purple and pink stripes. By comparison, the dark black-blue dress pants were a real step back into what he felt was more normal, even with the twin stripes of pink and purple down his right hip. “I swear Rarity, your taste in clothing makes me wonder. I’m sure Applejack doesn’t care what I wear.”

From the other side of his room, the mare would laugh, her body turning from her measurements of Barb to answer him. “She might not admit to getting hung up on it, but I do and you look simply charming. I think even she will like it.” She paused to jot down a few quick notes of measurements before pushing Barb to lift her arms so she could continue, answering him still. “Besides. I could have sent you there in a three piece tux with cufflinks like my cutie mark.” She paused and her eyes went wide, whispering out a soft “Ooohhh…”

Dusk shook his head, as he released a slight groan. “No Rarity, I don’t need another tux. You’ve made me three already, and I haven’t worn one yet. Its kind of you to offer, but why would I need clothing I’m never going to wear?” When she started to form an answer he shook his hand before her face. “Just… worry about Barb’s new dress tonight. I’m sure the challenge of making something silky yet strong and still able to stand out against her scales will keep you busy all night.”

For her part, Barb was too busy daydreaming about the gorgeous mare kneeling before her, the measuring tape pushed to calculate the height of Barb’s tail and its position on the girl’s back. Waving with one hand she called out lazily. “If she does get bored of it, I’ll help her sew you something else fun to wear.”

* * *

The walk to the farm was quiet tonight, the sky bright with stars while the majority of town was already off to bed. With harvest still at it’s height, almost all the other local farms were working at full swing once more, the effort of making up for helping the Apple’s had only taken a while, and the general attitude of the farmers that had visited Dusk after the BBQ feast made it clear they were all enjoying a massive, healthy harvest.

With the crisp autumn air blowing through his hair, Dusk would draw his fingers back into his hair and cursed himself, as he realized he didn't dry his hair properly. He checked all of his pockets for something, anything useful. Even as his fingers wrapped around a ribbon of extra cloth, he couldn’t help but grin. “You really do think of everything Rarity.” Inspection of the band of band of silk revealed it was a deep blue, with pink and purple tips.. Using it to tie together his wet hair into a ponytail and hold the damp mass back from his flesh.

Applejack leaned against a fence post by the road leading into the orchard, quietly talking with Big Mac and Apple Bloom. Even as Dusk approached the conversation dulled and all three turned to look at him for a moment.

It was Mac who broke the silence, stepping forward and offering Dusk his hand. With a vigorous handshake in progress, the massive titan's lips split with a grin, his deep voice sincere. "Never thanked ya proper. Gave AJ a second barrel of the private reserve. Take it home and remember the hard work that earned it, friend." Before allowing Dusk to answer, the stallion turned to his sister Applejack, speaking with her, while squeezing both her hands in his own. "After I drop AB off with Twist, Aloe and Lotus wanted to take me for dinner, so we can catch up now that harvest is over. I might be late getting back, warn Winona." For a moment both sisters were slack jawed, such a long winded conversation with Big Mac was a rare sight.

Rather than waiting on his sister's answer, the stallion would simply start to casual stroll down the road towards town, a quiet smile mixed well with a whistle that split his lips. Apple Bloom took the opening to step up, tugging at Dusk's hand and when he turned to look down at her, she offered him her best glare. "You're going to be nice to AJ, right? I think you're not a bad stallion, but she is my only sister and I don’t wanna have to sick Mac on you."

Dusk bent down and fluffed at the girl’s hair, being careful around the bow. "I tell you what, if you think I'm not being a proper gentleman, I will let you tell Princess Celestia or Princess Cadence. I am sure after they spent so much time raising me to be a proper gentleman, their punishment would be far worse, and you would not have to get Big Mac all riled up." When both Apple girls laughed, Dusk stood up and gave the filly a light push. "Go catch up with your brother, I'm sure Twist is eagerly awaiting your arrival."

With the filly swiftly dashing off to catch up with her older brother, Dusk was finally able to get a good look at the mare he was here to see. A new pair of blue jeans hugged the powerful mare’s legs, forming a shapely figure that was easy on the eyes. She also had on a warm cotton jacket in a similar sandy yellow as her hair, worn unbuttoned over a thin white tank top that clung close to her ample chest, unrestricted by a bra. Topping it all off was a well worn old leather stetson, carefully hand polished. Somehow Dusk knew instantly it must be a memento of some kind to the mare. Dusk took a step up to her side, and drew a small rectangular black box from inside his open jacket, a golden ribbon tied in a bow. Slipping the thin box into her hand he leaned close so he could whisper softly into her ear. "I'm sorry I couldn't find something better, but Rarity was sure you would like this."

Her eyes wide, the mare unwrapped the golden bow and popped open the box, her lower lip quivered even as a whisper of joy escaped her lips. "Dusk. It's beautiful. Is it glass or?" She swallowed, a single finger ran across the cylinder hair band, which looked like glass at first glance, but as her finger drifted over the surface inspecting it all, including a single hole on the side, it quickly dawned on her that it was really made of a clear crystal. As she continued to inspect the bobble with her fingertip, she noticed three cut sapphires in the shape of small red apples, that instantly reminded her of her cutie mark. "Oh, Dusk!" A glance behind the solid hair band, revealed a single matched crystal spike that lay waiting, a pin to hold the jewelry in place.

While the mare was clearly enchanted, Dusk was busy talking to himself, his voice rambled on. "I am really sorry. We could not get any emerald shards to make the apple leafs out of in time, but when I wrote Cadence to ask if she could stop by town and pic-" The mare silenced him with a sudden deep kiss. Her free hand cupped his jaw so she could turn it up and gaze into his eyes, her other hand still busy clutching the little box tight to her chest. When they at last broke off the kiss, Dusk was left to gasp for breath and blush darker still. "I err... I am glad you like it, Applejack."

With warm laughter, the mare turned and presented her ponytail to him, grinning over her shoulder at him. "Can you slip it on?" Dusk’s fingers worked quickly, slipping into her hair and removing the leather tie from her ponytail. He took a moment to stroke it smooth of knots and then bundling her hair together again, Dusk slipped the crystal tie into place, turned it so the three apples were on display, and slipped the pin into place to hold tight and prevent the hair from slipping free. Dusk then used his magic to scoop up a thin sheet of water from the nearby well, froze it solid and moved the improvised mirror so she could look at how the braid looked.

He was rewarded with one of her hands taking up his own and a soft squeeze of her grip made his heart began to beat faster, the pleasure of the mare's attention made him flustered. Applejack took advantage of that, turned and drew him into a second kiss.

* * *

Dusk sat on the back of the applecart, curled up with AJ in they warm cotton blanket. The mare had set up the cart and blanket with dinner and some of Mac’s best cider on a hill with a clear view of the night sky. He couldn't even remember exactly when they had both settled back into the thick warm blankets folds and now it felt so good, so natural. The soft weight of AJ's head on his shoulder a comfortable pressure, his left arm wrapped around her hips and lay on her belly.

Lifting his right hand the piping hot apple cider burned against his lips and roared down his throat. A small trick with his magic to keep it just as warm as her little coal fire, and allowed them to remain cuddled up together without someone having to get up and tend to the fire.

As Dusk lowered his mug to rest on the ledge of the cart, Applejack took advantage of his busy hands to lean in, and kiss across his neck. While her continued kisses started out light, she quickly became more aggressive, small nips at his flesh while she slipped her right hand down between his thighs, one hand cupped his groin through his pants. Even as he moaned, she giggled in response, her greedy fingers cupping the weight she could feel and giving his trapped a twist and stroke.

Applejack’s aggressive attention got her instant attention, the stallion fought back a cry of pain and quickly took her hand in his own to stop her; his right hand released the cider cup and moved to cup her jaw. Gasping in shock while he looked into her eyes, the male tried to slow her down, his head shaking dismissively to her. “Applejack, you have to be a little more careful. You’re a lot stronger than you think.”

Realization dawned and she looked down even while he squeezed her hand in his own. Her own blush richly returned, and she lowered her head to his shoulder. “I’m… sorry, Dusk. I’ve never been with a stallion, only other mares. Its so exciting.” She nuzzled at his cheek before turning a grin up at him.

“How about we start slower? Maybe just, this?” The stallion’s word were matched by his fingers, as they slipped to open his belt buckle, followed by the button and zipper. Even as she watched, his erect shaft pushed up, forming a balloon in his silk underwear. Enjoying this sight, the mare slipped a hand in to stroke her hand back and forth across the length of his groin, keeping it far more gentle, but still tender.

Happily giving a nod to Dusk, AJ’s fingers continued their work over his member, her voice distant as she talked to herself. “Occasionally, Rarity and I would play with a toy or two, mostly just for relieving the stress of heat, but sometimes for fun. But they didn’t feel half as good as the real thing.” Her slow pace, a tease of easy stroke across his shaft, her thumb moved up to stroke across the head and tease at its tip.

With his lover brought up, Dusk suddenly felt a bud of remorse crop up. His left arm, still around her hips would draw to her teasing digits as they stroked across his groin, his voice soft. “Applejack, I know herds are a common thing. But me and Rarity never really talked about something like that. She knows we are on a date tonight, but-”

The mare’s kiss, deep aggressive and passionate would silence him for a moment, even while her hand slipped lower, and cupped the weight of his sack inside those silken boxers. When she released his from her kiss, the mare shook her head. “Don’t worry Dusk. Me and Rarity have talked about this already, she knows how I feel about you.” She paused and looked into his eyes, her own sap green eyes fixated. “If you feel the same, we have already agreed we can share."

The mare’s hand moving to tease and squeeze over his balls got almost all of Dusk's attention at first. With a look deep into her eyes, the stallion saw the mare's deep passion in those sap green gems. Slowly he relaxed again and pressed his lips to her ear and followed it with four soft nips across the ridge of her earlobe. He was rewarded with a low moan from the mare, and that strong grip began to stroke and massage his sack. Releasing her flesh the stallion let his grin spread lips hovered against her ear as he whispered. "Then if you and Rarity really are comfortable, It would be my honor to share you two wonderful mares."

The mare’s reaction was to roll over while pulling the massive blanket around and over them both. Her strong legs pinned his own knees down and she lowered her body to lay atop his own, her right hand pushing between their own locked hips, into his silk boxers. Strong fingers caressed over his bare shaft, digits wrapped around its base and she began to stroke in long steady rhythmic strokes. Her lips found his neck and a sudden swift bite pressed into the tender flesh.

Suddenly trapped under the aggressive and experimental mare, Dusk relaxed and relented to her affections. As she assaulted his throat he couldn't help but groan out in lust, her hands attention to his hard manhood was rewarded by a hot and wet release into her hand. Blush dark on his cheeks, Dusk struggled to catch his breath to apologize. Instead Applejack slipped her arm from between their bodies, eagerly licking the sticky white fluid from her fingers, her own grin wide as she cooed in pleasure at the taste. "You are delicious Dusk."

Unable to resist a little laughter at her eager reaction to his early release, Dusk drew his arms up her sides, his touch lingered on her heavy breasts, cupping them from below and giving a squeeze. Even that crude attention to her sensitive nipples bad the mare stop in her lapping treat to moan out in delight. "Oh... Dusk!"

With a target in sight now, Dusk moved both hands up from her breasts and followed the line of her white tank top to her shoulders. With hands cupping both her tops under the warm cotton blanket, Dusk’s deft fingers guided them both down her arms. While the tank top's fabric strained for a moment against the weight of her lose breasts and the odd way he was removing it, he was soon rewarded as it popped free of her ample tits and revealed the heavy weight of her breasts. Broad areola with dark flesh formed broad saucers around Applejack's erect nipples. He took no time to pause and admire her beautiful breasts, instead leaning up and wrapping his mouth around one head, his tongue and lips fondling the tender teat aggressively while the mare’s pleasured moans grew louder, into horny whimpers of pleasure.

With Dusk’s continued pressure on the horny mare’s trapped breast, she relaxed a little of her weight backwards, and let her knees lift for a moment. Yet, as soon as the stallion felt blood return to his knees, her body pressed forward and her legs spread so she could straddle his hips and dry mount him despite the fabric in the way. His hard shaft ground against her sensitive mound, as she swiveled her hips and ground them down harder against him. With his mouth still full of her heavy breasts, Dusk’s own moans were muffled into her cleavage. Dusk pulled his head back from the warm pillow, and gathered his own fast breath in rapid and happy gasps. The effort it took to hold back his own drool was too much as she persisted in her aggressive grind of hips against his own, saliva wetting Applejack’s chest.

Delighted by the effect she was able to elicit from him, Applejack slipped her fingers into his hair and kissed him one more time before letting him relax for a second as she lifted her weight off his tormented groin, her fingers moved to peel back her jeans past her hips. Unable to get it any farther, she gives a dejected grunt and lifts her knees from the cart, the warm blanket falling from her shoulders as she rises. Both hands slipped under the lip of her jeans again, and she forced them from her thighs, to pile up on the cart at her ankles. With only a thin white pair of cotten panies, soaked by the excitement of their foreplay, covering her nethers, the mare quickly dropped down atop him again, shivering in the cool of the autumn night and in a rush to claim his heat and the warm blanket again.

Unable to resist a little laughter at her quick strip show, Dusk was caught in mid laughter as she roughly gripped his hips and pulled his pants back only a few inches until she found what she was after. With the blanket pressed against his bare ass, Dusk was quickly distracted from that fact by the mare now cuddled between his knees. Applejack was clumsy compared to Rarity, and it showed as she attempted to both stroke and suckle on his shaft at the same time. With the fat head suckled into her lips, she found herself stuck between heavy licks to steal the salty white seed that coated its tip. But she had to keep stopping, for as she tried to set up a good rhythm of slightly strokes that pumped up and down the length, constantly bumping her own mouth against her hand when she got too distracted by the pleasure of the act and the taste of his sweat and seed on her lips.

Enraptured by the mare’s enthusiasm to taste more of his seed, Dusk drew the blanket back properly over their bodies, and slipped his hands back under the sheet, to stroke at her hair, since it was all he could manage to reach. When she moved one of her hands to balance her body with a hand upon his right thigh, he groaned out a little, and twisted two fingers to scratch deeply across the back of her jaw and the more sensitive parts of her neck. She responded by releasing his shaft with her hand, her focus now totally on the reaction he gave to her lips and tongue. Still excited, and clearly lost in the moment, her mouths thrusts grew ever deeper, more aggressive, and he could feel the underside of his shaft tickled by her tongues pressure across the underside. Her aggressive assault quickly lead her to learn a new lesson, her mouth was depthless. In another drive down his erect cock, the tip of his shaft suddenly ground up against the back of her throat, that sudden pressure shocking them both and causing her to pull back while she caughted for breath.

Also caught up in the moment, the shock of her pull back left him with a whimper on his lips. As aroused as he was in that moment, he took an aggressive step, his hands cupped at her shoulder and he gently pushed her over to her back. When she managed to stop her caught, he would shift to settle on her ribs, taken advantage of her attempt to catch her breath. Now naked, Dusk slipped in and slipped his soaked shaft between her heavy, wet breasts. Applejack was shocked, but didn’t argue, as his fingers began to tease and torment over her painfully hard nipples. But he didn’t stop there, his hands cupped her heavy breasts together while his hips began to thrust and grind that hard shaft between her tits. Occasionally his heavier thrusts caused the head to rub against her chin and throat, but quickly she realized this and while their joined moans mixed together, she took a moment to suckle and lick at the tip of the shaft.

This first attention was enough to make Dusk pause and moan, delighted by the extra pleasure of her tongue and lips as she teased his cock. A warm smile up at him, she spoke up for the first time in what had felt like forever. “Come on now Dusk. I want to taste more of your seed, don’t tell me you’re done already?”

Her words made Dusk realize how serious she was. Rather than answer with words, he did instead with deeds. With a slight twist of her nipples as he returned to his swift series of thrusts, deep thrusts between the heavy tits drove his cock tip further, faster against her jaw and chin. Occasionally he managed to drive his tip into her mouth itself when his frantic pace aligned with her own mouths downward thrust. His body trembled with the continued effort, while Dusk’s back ran with rivulets of sweat, his shoulders quaked while he moaned out in a rich and lustful hiss. And then his own seed burst free of the dam, and as he thrust forward with his next hips movement, thick streams of thick and sticky white cum burst onto her face, spray to her neck and shoulders, even some mounds found their way to her breasts and into the cleavage he was still occupying with his thick shaft.

Now gasps of breath were restricted between Dusk’s clenched teeth, hissing over her cheek as he folded forward against her head. With his own head left to rest on the wood of the cart seat, he let his eyes fall closed, his jaw slack in his pleasure. It was two or three minutes before he felt her hand stroking his trapped cock, to pull at the pooling cum on her breasts and in her cleavage. One eye opened, if only a slit, so he could look at what she was doing. Tongue coated in white seed, Applejack licked up any drops she could gather. Voice soft, Dusk grinned to his lover. “B… better?”

Applejack’s warm smile was rich, and she used her hands to lift his hips up a little, her lips drawn up to kiss his semi soft wet cock, while her tongue circled its head in a few slow circles. When she let him go, Dusk lowered his body to the cart bed at her side, the mare busy cleaning her self of the lingering gooey seed only spoke up to answer him as he let his eyes close again. “That was sensational Dusk, when can we continue?”

A hand drawn up to his face and a groan released from his lips, Dusk dragged fingers to smooth across his nose, over his lips and let it fall to the cart by his head. “Not all of us have the stamina of your clan AJ. Let me at least catch my breath, please?”

Her answer was to wrap him in one arm, strokes of her fingers through his hair were gentle, while a soft kiss pressed against his head. Her voice was like soft whispers into his ear. “Then catch your breath my love, but I want at least a second round. I want to feel this,” and here the mare’s free hand revealed what it was up to, wrapping around the shaft of his semi soft cock, strokes slow and with a loose grip at first. “Inside my walls. It feels better in my hand then any of Rarity’s toys.” Even though she blushed a little at the words, Dusk laughed a little, relaxed under her grip and kissed her cheek in return.

* * *

It was well after midnight when Dusk, his lips parted, a fight against a yawn lost. With one arm still under Applejack’s body, he had to use his free right arm to fetch up the cold glass of cider. While he was never one for hard drinks, tonight was a good one, and he wanted another sip to wet his throat before he gave in to sleep. Even that little movement was enough however, and the dozing mare shifted her against him, a kiss pressed into his cheek while she released a pleasured murmur. “Dusk, you’ll stay for the morning, right?”

Unable to restrict a grin, Dusk lowered the empty glass from his lips, his head still swimming a little from the rich liquor’s disorientating effects. Taking the effort to turn back in against her bare body, while his free arm drew the blanket back around their entwined bodies. As he leaned in to return her kiss, the stallion grinned, curling his jaw in against her throat, with a soft series of kisses across her shoulder. His voice a low tone of comfort. “Dash and I have plans to review what she knows about this griffin, Gilda, in the afternoon sometime. Barb promised to dig up whatever she could from my mother’s letters, so I should go home before Dash arrives to help her sort through all that. Suddenly having to deal with a foreign guest like this, is a real shock.” A yawn cut him off, and he would shrug, his body shifted to curl in tighter to the mare. “I remember a school project years ago about Griffin culture. I am sure I can review it and find some helpful advice.”

The mare raked her fingers through his hair, a smile spread to cross her lips. “Dash never talked much about her school days. I’ve never even meet a Griffin, but if you need a hand hun, just ask. All the rumors I’ve heard suggest they like strong people, maybe let me arm wrestle her?”

Warm laughter was shared between the lovers, while Dusk settled his body in close against her own powerful figure. Eyes slitting closed he offered a nod. “I am sure you will be of help AJ. Your rumors were right. Griffins are prideful but respectful of strength.” Giving her throat a nibble, the stallion grinned to himself. “Let that wait for tomorrow, let’s sleep for now.”

The mare grinned, shifting her left hand to stroke his cheek and stroked her nails into his jawline, lips parting to kiss the bridge of his nose before curling back in against his cheek again. “Agreed love. It can wait till tomorrow, for tonight you’re mine.”

Chapter 6: Griffon the Brush-Off - Part 1

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Dash groaned and let the page in her hands fall to cover her face, her body dropped back to sprawl across more than half the leather couch in Dusk’s library. An exasperated groan hissed out, followed by a huff of annoyance when she realized that she had not earned any attention from her friends through her dramatics. Her voice lifted to complain once again. “Guys, come on! This is so boring! I’ve already told you everything about Gilda, surely you can do all this reading without me, right?”

Rarity lifted her head from the page she was inspecting, her silver framed lenses hung low on her nose. “Really Dash? All you’ve told us about her is that you two were friends at school, that you raced and drilled together, and that at sixteen, -” And here she turned to look at the notes Barb was hanging up on a makeshift blackboard Dusk and Applejack had hung on the wall. “She was six foot one, and had,” she paused, clearing her throat dramatically here. “And I’m quoting here, ‘The most bitching white hair with pale purple tips.’” Shaking her head at the phrasing, Rarity looked to her much younger friend, disapproval clear in her eyes.

Dash sat up quickly, looking to the board and glaring at the notes in an attempt to find the quote Rarity had picked to reference. “What! It’s true. She really did have cool hair. And it was natural, like mine. That and she was as strong as Applejack is. I remember the first time we tried staff fighting drills, she had such a strong overhead swing, that she broke my staff in half! The drill captain gave me a new one with a steel core in the end. It was way too heavy at first, but it really helped with my upper arm strength.” The pegasus grinned warmly, as she lifted a bicep and planted a light kiss on the well toned muscle on display.

Applejack looked up from her spot on the floor, her eyes narrowed, while the pile of papers on her lap were sorted into two new piles at Dusk’s latest request. One pile for letters from his mother about griffon empire politics, culture and society. The other, for letters about the behavior of specific griffons. With a look to the lazy mare taking up more than half of the couch, AJ rolled her eyes, unable to help but release a sigh. “If you wanted stronger arms, you’d have come and helped me out on the Apple farm more often, Dash. We could make you as strong as any member of the royal guard in just a few months, if you cared about anything besides the Wonderbolts.”

For just a moment a grin spread across Dash’s lips at Applejack’s suggestion, but as she remembered the long hard days helping harvest, she balked at AJ’s offer. “But that would eat up all my free time! I only just got the weather team into shape, I’m way too far behind on my Wonderbolts training as it is. And with the Young Flyers Competition only six months away? Thanks AJ, but I’d rather focus on my application to them for now, and except for some simple weapon drills, they don’t focus much on combat.”

Dusk, frustrated by the continued conversation, tossed the two papers he had been reading at the same time onto AJ’s pile of griffon behavioral letters. A hand drawn to his forehead and rubbing deeply, he looked to Barb across the room; the small dragoness was still pinning notes to the board. “Barb, any chance for a cup of tea?” When the dragoness offered him a nod, he turned to the mares, strain clearly in his voice. “Girls, can we please focus on the Gilda issue for now? We only have two days until she is scheduled to arrive, and I only just finished my mother’s notes on etiquette. At this rate, I’ll be up half the night trying to figure out if offering to shake her hand is a sign that I think of her as weak, which she would take as an insult, or a sign of respect for her strength, since I would be leaving myself open for a sneak attack." While Dusk had started out calm and a little admonishing, towards the end of it, he had worked himself into a bit of worry. While he panted for breath and his eyes bugged out, Rarity stepped to his side and hugged his head into her chest.

A kiss from the mare on his head lingered, while her slender fingertips stroked, raking nails through his hair. "Don't worry, Dusk. I've already finished notes with Barb on greetings, proper public attitude, and respectful social behavior." Under her ministrations he began to unwind, his shoulders relaxing and headache smoothed out. Until she ruined it. "Just remember, do not flinch when she punches someone in the shoulder all the time. It means you are weak and will submit to her demands. It only encourages female griffons to demand more outrageous and ridiculous things."

Dash fell over in laughter at Rarity, her words only driving the stallion to worry harder. When the young mare recovered, she leaned over to pet Dusk’s shoulder without getting off the couch. "Don't worry about her Dusk. Me and Gilda are tight. Besides, after three years at flight school, she learned to go easy on you poor stallions. Of course, not until she had stolen half the class’s boyfriends and formed herself quite a cute 'roost' of stallions. It was one hell of a good laugh, seeing the boys who used to have three or four mares begging them for dates suddenly carrying my books just because it might make Gilda smile."

Even Applejack stopped her sorting, turning to glance back at Dash. "Wait, I thought that griffons didn’t normally herd?" Her question was a valid one, and all eyes turned to the day-dreaming Dash.

When she finally broke off her wandering trail of memories to return to the room as Applejack cleared her throat, Dash offered a small shrug. "What? Oh. I don't know. She said they don't normally. Occasionally an alpha male will claim his beta or his beta's mate, or any of his clan's females, as a show of power. But, she figured herding sounded like a pretty good laugh. Said it was like their hunting packs. She even named me her beta and let me use her stallions for a while. When the school caught wise of how many of them had been bullied into the group, she was taken in for discipline. Sadly, after that she ended up going back home when they couldn't come to an agreement with the griffon ambassador on a punishment."

Now even Dusk had leaned in to watch her as she spoke. It was Applejack who squeezed the mare’s knee while Dash wiped a tear from her cheek. Voice tender she pressed Dash on the sensitive topic. "And you never saw her again?"

* * *

Dash burst into her room, the door slamming shut behind her. Straining with the effort, she pushed her dresser in front of her bedroom door just in time to stop it from opening again. When he realized that he was not welcome in his daughter’s room, Blitz started speaking to his child through the door in quiet, private tones. "Dashie, you have to understand, what she was doing to those boys, just cause you-"

"I don't care what those boys said!” Dash cut her father off, her screams breaking through her chest racked with sobs. “She promised me we were going to found our own hunting pack. I’m her beta! I won’t lie about her like they want me to!" Sitting on the floor with her back to the dresser, tears streamed down Dash's cheeks. With her father silenced, she continued screaming her tirade at him. "I won't show up at the tribunal, and if you make me go, I won't read that letter. They fooled me into saying those lies about Gilda! Besides, those colts asked for it. It’s not like they didn't fool around with fillies they were dating."

For ages Blitz was silent while his sixteen year old filly wept on the other side of the door, her violent sobs absorbed into the sleeve of her coat, one that Gilda had given to her when the griffon outgrew it. The griffon's rich scent still clung to the wool and somewhat comforted her torn heart. When he finally spoke up again it felt like hours later. "I love you Dashie, if you say you were not forced like the colts I-" He paused, and a sigh whispered against the door as his head fell to rest against the wood. "I'm sorry Dashie, but after they found her on top of that boy, how could I let you ever see her again?"

* * *

It was hours later when Dash woke up, still wrapped in Gilda's coat and sitting against her bedroom door. Rough echoes of sound called to her. Someone had just knocked on her window. On her feet in a jolt, Dash ripped the window open and jumped out onto the rooftop of the first story of the house. As she turned, she found Gilda leaned against the outer wall of her bedroom, arms crossed over her chest. The powerful griffon towered at six foot two, and at sixteen, she was likely to grow more, still. Massive, glorious brown wings towered behind her back. Even folded up, they showed her raw strength, stretching from above her head and as the tips of her longest feathers were within an inch of dragging on the ground. The wild locks of her pure white hair crudely cut back around the neck, but grew long and was combed straight. Of course, she had on her fine brown leather jacket, specifically chosen to be bulky and loose. It was a near match for the one that Dash now wore, the white wool that lined the inside on display around her collar. Under it, she wore an over-sized, thin white shirt that hung low and exposed too much skin and plenty of her breasts. Only a brilliant purple scarf, one that matched the vivid violet that her hair turned at the tips, kept her somewhat decent. The only clothing she wore that fit properly was her pants, a dark blue, with heavy material that bound it tight to her hips, pinned tight around the cuffs of her boots.

What really captured Dash, what had always captivated her, heart and mind, were those piercing orange yellow eyes. Their gaze never relented once, Dash's eyes unable to break free from hers. In one fluid motion, Gilda pulled Dash into her powerful arms, spun her around, and pressed her back against the wall of the house. One hand raked roughly through Dash’s hair, across the back of her head, while the other slipped up inside her jacket, under her shirt, to fondle her breast, their lips aligned to kiss deeply. They never needed words when they were together. Gilda had come for her even after all the trouble they had given her today.

When their kiss broke, Gilda flashed that cocky grin, a hand casually shifted to fluff Dash’s wild hair before aggressively cupping the back of her head, holding her still. Compared to Gilda, Dash felt tiny, having to look up into her eyes. "Dash. We are leaving Cloudsdale, we’ve got no time for this lame city and the ambassador doesn't wanna put up with any more of these dweeb’s accusations. You will remain my beta back home. You’re coming with us, right n-"

* * *

"Dash! Stop day dreaming! I asked you a question!" Applejack’s cheeks were red as she glared at the younger mare, now really aggravated by the way she kept drifting off.

Throwing a lazy grin on her lips, her arms crossed behind her head. "No. Never did after she was in trouble. Pops wouldn't have put up with it. But don't worry, we were like this!" With both hands lifted before her, Dash linked her two pointer fingers and tugged to show they were tightly tied together.

* * *

Two of Dusk’s fingers slipped into the handle of a porcelain teacup, his grip clutched it into the smooth palm of his hand, and drew the cup closer. Even as he drew the cup to his lips, the rich scent of lemon and ginger mixed to tickle his senses, even as he lifted the cup, letting the rich liquid tease its way across his lips and his throat. Unable to help himself, Dusk let the cup linger there, just under his nose. Its rich perfume coiling in his senses and driving away the budding headache. Dash had used the sudden and unscheduled arrival of a rainstorm as an excuse to slip away and take command of her weather team.

Applejack's head rested against Dusk’s right hand as she sat on the floor by his feet. Even in his library chair, her massive height really stood out, so her body was slouched to allow her head to use his armrest as a pillow. Casually, his slender fingers snaked out, the movement allowing him to stroke into her vibrant blonde locks, the favorable attention elevating a low murmur from the mare’s throat, even though she kept reading. Unable to hide a happy grin, Dusk turned over the letter he had just finished, only to find a childhood report had been sorted into the mess of papers, it's title catching his eye instantly. 'Pony, Zebra, Griffon and Buffalo: The Biological and Sociological contrast of Equestria and her neighbours'. Memories rushing back to him, Dusk quickly flipped the cover, his eye roaming the two notes written on the inside cover.

The first, in green ink and full of boundless praise, was written by his classroom teacher at the time, Cherry Smile. The second, written in a flowing black ink with tiny gold shavings that still glittered in the library's soft lamplight, was by Celestia herself.

"Dusk Shine, after reviewing this work at Cherry's request, I found issues that must be addressed. After speaking with your father, we have agreed you are old enough to be told the whole truth about our neighbors. Report to my chambers with Sunset Shimmer after dinner."

She had not signed her note. She did not need to when it came to school matters. His mind turned, and wandered back six years ago as he read the opening passage of a random page. 'Much is known about the Zebra of the West Prairies, thanks primarily to the past history they share with our own people. Back before the fall of the Crystal Empire, when the Windigo drove five of the six pony tribes from our native homelands, one tribe got lost, and was soon separated by great distances from the other tribes. By continuing far to the west, they found a massive flatland of ideal climate, long grass, and freedom from the other clans oppression. Thus, it was the Zebra, lost Sister Tribe of the Unicorns, who settled in their new homeland as nomads in an endless summer.'

* * *

Dusk stepped forward, quietly clearing his throat to get the guard’s attention, even though they already watched his approach. "Excuse me, but um.. the princess invited us to see her aft-"

Sunset had listened enough to Dusk's quiet, shy and polite tone. Two steps pushed her past him, one hand wrapped around his arm while she tugged him forward with her. Voice serious and straightforward, without a hint of Dusk's meek attitude. "Sunset Shimmer and Dusk Shine for the princess as she requested." The guards, used to the brash mare and her younger ward had already started to step aside and open the door. Its flawless white wood covered in decorative gold filigree in the shape of one massive blazing sun, split in half by the two doors.

Even as she pulled him inside, Dusk could feel her annoyance, the mare muttering to herself, yet was loud enough for him to hear. "They know you by face. They should have known you were here at her request. Why do you insist on being so bashful before the grunts? Your brother is a member of the castle guards. You had Princess Cadence for a colt-sitter for Celestia's sake Dusk, you have to get use to guards at some point.”

Dusk followed her into Princess Celestia's private chambers. While this wasn't his first visit, he was still awed by the impossible luxury. From her changing room, the goddess called out, her velvety voice whisper almost like a smooth whisper. "Sunset? Can you come here? I sent away my maid and now the hooks are caught again."

Dusk froze up at that voice, his gaze on the nearly transparent drapes that separated them in the study from a towering figure behind the blinds. Sunset's attitude had changed the moment that voice spoke out to them, a reverent joy spread over her, from her wide open eyes to the quiver of her lower lip. Even her tails excited shifting and swaying across her hips was a signal to Dusk. He knew that feeling so very well. "Coming, Princess Celestia!" Only a second pause to grin back at the young stallion, prevented her from bolting through the drapes. She spoke to him in a soft, low voice. "Poor Dusk, if you'd been born a filly, she might have asked you to help her instead."

Dusk couldn’t help but wince at the comment, his mind quickly returned to three weeks ago in Celestia's private baths. Memories of that embarrassment left him to shuffle into his chair while pulling his report from his bookbag. Thus he was in silent study of his own project, on the hunt for what prompted this unscheduled class.

Suddenly a haughty new voice called out behind him, her bold tone demanding attention. "Beatrix Lula is not used to being ignored when she enters a room. What exactly has you so engrossed, little colt?"

Shocked, and forced to twist around in place to look back at the new mare, Dusk’s jaw dropped. Dressed in clingy purple silk that accentuated her curves, was a mare... no, a filly still really, probably only a year or so older than him. Her long hair was a pale white, with dual tones of pale cornflower blue streaks. Sitting up, Dusk turned on his chair to loom at the mare more directly, Dusk shook his head. "I err.. I don't know how you got past the guards but you should really go. Sunset Shimmer and Princess Celestia will return soon and you do not want to make them mad."

With a scoff, the mare threw some of her loose long hair back over her shoulder and stormed past him to sit in the chair at his right. Leaning back into the plush cushion, she crossed one leg over the other, while letting her piercing azure eyes scan him. Her smirk grew ever wider, a finger wagged in his face. "Beatrix did not break into the princess’ chamber. She was invited, you foalish colt. It really was a shock and honor, but considering how amazing Beatrix has done on her recent exams, it's a surprise it took her majesty so long to acknowle-"

"What?? Why? Dusk I can understand, but some cheeky mare who cheated on her tests for a few weeks? Princess Celestia please. You can not be serious. We already have to slow down my studies for Dusk why-" Sunset Shimmer's rant was suddenly cut off on the other side of the drapes, while Dusk and Beatrix were left to stare at one another in awkward silence for a minute, the mare’s good mood suddenly turned to a gruff scowl focused on the blinds while Dusk tried to gather his wits.

In an attempt to break the ice, Dusk would turn out of his chair and stepped before the mare, a hand offered to her. "I am Dusk Shine. I am sorry about Sunset Shimmer. She would not talk to me except to answer assignment questions for the first week after Princess Celestia let me into their private class."

Beatrix's glare was blocked by Dusk’s body, as she re-fixated on the younger stallion again. At last relenting, she placed her hand into his palm, her voice passive aggressive. "As Beatrix said, she is called Beatrix Lula. Beatrix is sure you are a proper young stallion despite the behavior of some other students around here."

Even as Dusk gave her hand a squeeze and started to shake it, a throat clearing behind his back made him freeze up, a dark flush colored his cheeks. He heard Princess Celestia's whisper, despite the distance she stood from him, her words carried to him even at so soft a tone. "Do not shake a mare’s hand, Dusk. Kiss her knuckles. You are a stallion now, so greeting a lady properly is a good lesson to learn."

Unable to stop and turn to see her, but as sure as the sun was setting outside the window, Dusk knew both Princess Celestia and Sunset Shimmer stood there watching him now. With the blazing heat in his cheeks, Dusk looked into Beatrix's eyes in hopes of finding some sign of help. But she was fixated on something behind him, likely Princess Celestia herself. Stuck, Dusk flashed back to the etiquette class his mother had taught once a week for the students before Celestia promoted her but a short time ago. Straining his back and lifting Beatrix's hand to his lips, Dusk brushed a brief kiss to her knuckles before returning it to her lap.

Even as he started to shift and look around at the two mares behind him, Dusk realized that Beatrix herself was also blushing hard. Sweeping past him, Sunset stole Dusk’s seat and glared at his report. Her voice was level but bitter tones were hinted in her words. "Is this why we have an extra class today? Because you didn't let Dusk learn about Griffons in an adult class? I keep saying he is mature enough to take it, Princess. Besides, like you keep suggesting, he is a stallion now."

With warm laughter that whispered like silk down Dusk's spine, the princess pushed that away. "I think you are right, Sunset. Dusk, Beatrix, we don't normally teach students quite as young as you about the real nature of Griffon herds, hunting packs as they call them. Sit down in my chair, Dusk. I told the guard to bring a spare, but it appears that they have forgotten." When he moved as directed, Princess Celestia stepped before the towering bay doors that sealed off her balcony. A brilliant golden glow formed around her horn and at the horizon, the three students witnessed the moon begin it's slow rise into the night sky.

Sunset started the lesson when it was clear the princess was busy for the moment. "It starts with an alpha. Male or female, the alpha is the master of a hunting pack. You got all that right, Dusk. But after that, you let the romantic nature of our culture and herd get in the way. The Alpha of a hunting pack doesn't respect ownership or possession of any other pack member. They all belong to him. Often the Alpha will pick a mate, but even then, that doesn’t stop him from deciding to claim one of his pack members as a target for his pleasure."

Swallowing sharply, Dusk began to put the facts together quickly. When she paused, he had to ask the obvious question. "But what if the pack member... be he male or female, is not interested in their Alpha's advances? If a mare says no, a stallion who forces himself upon her.."

Celestia's hands were in Dusk's hair suddenly, stroking and combing his thick and silken dark blue hair. Her words were soft but sad. "The Griffons have no such laws. Unless another Alpha chooses to protect the lower pack members, they are at the whim of their Alpha. I'm sorry to shatter this romantic illusion, Dusk, but you must properly understand the griffons. What we call rape is simply an Alpha marking their property so other Alphas know not to touch their pack members."

Even with Princess Celestia's tender affectionate touch, Dusk shivered as he pictured it. With his powerful imagination, it suddenly become clear as day. "Bu... but you sent mother there. She only has a small private guard. What's to keep-"

The princess silenced him with a finger to his lips, quietly making it clear he should stop that line of questioning. "First, Dusk, relax. Your mother is safe. You can’t think of things in the way that we do. Think of it from their view of the world. Your mother is my voice among their people, thus they see her as a member of my hunting pack. After the Night of the Red Sun, they will never challenge me again.” For just a moment, Celestia’s voice got very cold and distant. While she looked again out at the full moon, Dusk’s eyes instantly drew to the Mare in the Moon upon its surface. He still couldn’t believe how the outline was clear as day on nights like this one.

It was Beatrix who broke the silence, her own voice confused. “But if normal griffons are at constant risk of violation by their Alpha, or any other Alpha out to show off, why do they not flee to our country, for our protection?”

Sunset answered that easily enough, her voice distasteful. “Who really knows? Maybe it’s because that’s what they’re use to? Maybe it’s because they all dream of being the Alpha and taking what they want one day? Some griffons do come to live with us, but with how tense relations were both before and after Princess Celestia was forced to act, few have ever felt comfortable anywhere except Cloudsdale.”

Dusk could swear Celestia’s cheeks were red with suppressed tears when she turned to face her students. Why is it she always gets so sad on nights like this?” Unable to keep his mind from hunting, Dusk would attempt to log everything she had said and done tonight. Surely, if he kept track of when she got like this, he could find an answer. “Let us continue with the lesson. Dusk, you should know the most on this, tell us about the current Griffon Emperor.”

Shifting to stand up, Dusk took a moment to recall his mother’s letters from over the last three years, quickly shuffling and sorting them out before smiling warmly up to the princess as he offered her a nod. “Thank you, Princess Celestia. The current Emperor renamed himself Steel Talon when he killed the last emperor, Broken Beak. Born Cynric, he was the son of Broken Beak, himself son of Silver Feather. Currently, he follows his father’s tradition, demanding he be referred to by full title and heritage despite having killed his father who was the last emperor.” Getting lost with himself, Dusk carried on with his own current train of thought, never realizing Sunset was growing bored by his train of thought. “This means to properly address him, he currently must be called ‘Emperor Steel Talon, son and killer of Emperor Broken Beak, son and killer of Emperor Silver Feather, who ended the rule of the vile murderer Demeiza the XIX.’ This has lead my mother and scholars she has conversed with to fear that if this continues, in fifteen or twenty years, we will soon have quite some difficulty keeping track of the current emperor’s title, as Steel Talon’s son is already in his early thirties and has seven sons of his own, the oldest of whom is already nineteen. Considering this, mother and some of her entourage have already started to encourage Steel Talon to start calling hims-”

Sunset Shimmer’s groan of boredom and annoyance sent a chill down Dusk’s spine, the mare’s glare making her threat clear. When he paused at the noise, Princess Celestia turned to look at Sunset, for a moment, words were forming on her lips, yet she held them back, before finally speaking out. “Very well Dusk, but you are getting a little too much into the theory and not the facts. Please, continue.” Unable to hide his red cheeks, Dusk would nod, and pressed on again, now very aware of every movement Sunset made.

* * *

Even as Dusk continued his idle reading of that childhood report, the sound of Rarity returning to the library drew him back into the present. Her hair protected by a small scarf tied below her chin, the mare stepped in to look at Dusk and AJ before placing a package on the counter, her voice almost singing. “Good news. The Cake’s have a slow week ahead, so Pinkie will be free to help out in an hour or two. I also got some more daisy and cheese wraps from them so is dinner taken care of.”

While Dusk had given a polite hello and allowed Rarity to walk off to speak with Barb, a thought dawned on Dusk, and the icy shiver that ran down his spine made him sure he had to address this, quickly. “Rarity?” Hopping up and dashing out the room to follow her, Dusk called out in a tone rife with mounting worry. “What about meat? Dash said that Gilda only ate meat!”

Even as he turned the corner, Dusk found Barb accepting a second package from his lover. The mare offered him a grin, turning back and stepping into his arms, her voice consoling. “Don’t worry, Dusk. I took the money you had budgeted for dining and had a few words with Burnt Oak, who runs the meat stall in the market. While we are a small town, enough people around here eat meat once every week or two, so a big order like this to feed a griffon will take some time to arrive. He promised his supplier in Canterlot uses fresh meat only, never frozen, and only from feral creatures. I’d hate to think what might happen to a vendor who uses unlicensed or even non-feral animals for their supplies. Fluttershy aside, even little Angel has one hell of a mean kick. Just remember that they eat raw meat, and room temperature. And Gilda will expect you, as her host, to join her in at least a small portion of the meal at her selection. To prove it isn’t poisoned, of course.”

Suddenly feeling ill, Dusk let his weight lean in on Rarity, shaking his head. “You did well. But raw? I like a little meat occasionally, but that… that is just wrong.” When she looked up and started to speak, Dusk shook his head. “I can handle it, it just feels tasteless. It’s no wonder Princess Cadence is a pure vegan.”

Offering him a laugh, Rarity would begin to rub her open palms across his spine, soothing him and nuzzling her jaw into his neck, and tenderly spoke. “The rest is set to arrive by train late tomorrow or early Friday. Barb will empty your cold box tonight, but I’d suggest you get used to the smell of the meat now. It will only get stronger.”

Curling his lip into a weary grin, Dusk called out to Barb in the kitchen, voice still hopeful. "Barb, you like meat. Any chance we could cook it extremely rare without Gilda noticing?"

The short dragoness stuck her head out the kitchen entrance, a quizzical look offered to Dusk. "Yeah, about as well as I could hide sapphire flakes on your salad Dusk. You remember how poorly that went over."

Unable to help himself, Dusk winced at that memory. "You swore they had a faint spearmint flavor. I was brushing my tongue for an hour trying to get the taste off." With one arm extended to wrap around Rarity's hips, he turned to walk back into the library. "If you do come up with any solutions to help me out, please, warn me first. No more sapphire surprises!"

Deflated at his tone, the dragoness gave a light kick to the door frame before returning to the kitchen, grumbling to herself. "Just means more for me anyways."

* * *

While Dusk and his friends spent the rest of the day studying, the only thing on Scootaloo's mind, as she bolted from class that day as soon as the bell rang, were her flight exercises with Rainbow Dash. The filly had intended to head straight to the hill just south of school, Dash's favorite place to show off her newest moves in the afternoon. What better audience to wow than the adoring foals who were easily wowed by her flamboyant displays.

But then, familiar laughter, along with a filly’s cry of distress, sent a chill down her spine. Moving quickly to duck around a corner, Scootaloo peered back to locate the source of the laughter. At the far end of the hallway, Snips and Snails were playing a game of catch... With Sweetie Belle’s treasured ivory brush, the owner of which scrambled between them, trying to get it back.

Already, the younger filly was balling with tears, her magic attempting to snatch back the brush. However, she still wasn't strong enough to tug the expensive brush free from the older colts’ own. "Why isn't miss Cheerilee stopping those dumb bullies!" thought Scootaloo. Turning to look further down the hall, her answer was clear. Diamond Tiara stood just outside the classroom doorway, laughter evident even while she kept watch on the classroom. And if she was alone, Silver Spoon must have been in the classroom, keeping Cheerilee busy.

Chasing her brush through the air, the wailing younger filly tripped, falling to her knees. Even as she lifted her head to gaze her tear-stained eyes at her tormentors, Scootaloo got a clear view of the grief in her flawless, pale, harlequin green eyes, while behind her, Diamond Tiara nearly doubled over with laughter. Something in those puffy red eyes begged Scootaloo for help, and the disgusting chortling from Diamond irked her to no end. Rage flooding her veins, Scootaloo bolted back down the hallway, beating her wings like Rainbow Dash had told her. Not wild and violent but moving together in a powerful swooping beat. Like an arrow, she shot down that hall, performing a last second hop onto a trashcan that had fallen over during the stallions’ game of keep away with the youngest filly in their class. Even if only for a brief moment, Scootaloo was thrilled, realizing she had built up enough speed that she now glided through the air just above Snail's head. Adjusting for this with a quick shift of her wing’s beat, she shifted her right foot out to use him as a platform to shoot herself further into the air. Floating high above them all and gliding on her sustained momentum, she snapped a hand out to clutch that brush, and used her speed to snap it from the unicorn’s spell.

And then everything went horribly wrong. All her speed had been more than enough to snag the brush free, but Scootaloo realized, as she felt the spell’s release, her momentum was now ruined, no longer carrying her flight easily, or even help manage a simple glide, and so she spiraled out of control. It was too late, even as she tried to kick off an open locker, she was unable to find a purchase and tumbled down to the hallway floor, rolling head over heels until she come to a stop at Snips’ feet. Her eyes shot open even as the stallion stared down at her goggle-eyed. The sight of his feet so close to her face sent her mind back to her training with Dash, flaring through her mind just as quickly at the burst of pain from her tumble cleared away. She could remember Dash’s words before the lesson, she might even have been able to quote them if she had the time to catch her breath. "You have to learn how to fall, how to roll with an impact, Squirt. It's not just for now, even when you learn to fly, you'll find the wind slapping you around harder than any stallion can kick. So lay down, and watch my kick. I'll go easy at first, kid, but once you get the idea, we're going to get a little rough. Just remember to tell me when you need a second to catch your breath. Can't accidentally bruise you, or Redheart would be after my head."


For a moment, the hallway was silent and still, than Snips stamped a foot by her head, his angry voice cracking from his annoyance. “Scootaloo! We were having fun with that! Why do you always have ta ruin things!”

With one hand on his left shoulder, Snails walked over to join them, rubbing his fingers over the sore spot Scootaloo had used as a launch pad to throw herself into the air. Groaning with annoyance, he glared down at her. “And why did you have to kick me! I didn’t do anything to you!” Outraged, the gangly young stallion would take a lagging kick to her shoulder in retribution. A quick movement allowed her to twist away from the blow, yet for a moment, terror roared in Scootaloo's mind. Dash had only been helping her for a few weeks. Rough landings and bad wind was a new topic, how could she keep dodging both young stallions' feet. Her answer came in a battle cry from the direction of the classroom. The blur of red hair and blue jean overalls flew over her head and into Snips' body. The fight was over seconds later.

Scootaloo was now sitting with Apple Bloom and Sweetie Bell in the nurse's office. Miss Cheerilee's disapproving tone still rang in her ears, until a hand thrust before her face, the grinning filly connected to it spoke gleefully. "We never had a proper chance to say hi, and after you rescued Sweetie Belle from those grunts, well, I figure I should make up for that. I'm Apple Bloom, and I've been looking out for Sweetie Belle for the last year or so, ever since Diamond Tiara started picking on her in class."

While Scootaloo took up the offered handshake, Sweetie spoke up, cutting into the conversation. "You have been looking out for me longer than that Apple Bloom. With Applejack and Rarity spending so much time together, we have been spending time together constantly, ever since you moved back to Granny Smith's orchard!"

For her part, Scootaloo leaned back, releasing Apple Bloom's hand and pressed at what she found interesting. "So you moved to Ponyville too? I heard you Apples have been here for ages. What happened?"

Her question drew a moment of silence to the room, while Apple Bloom stared at her feet. Just as Scootaloo shifted to clear her throat and apologize for asking about something sensitive, the filly shifted her stance and looked back into her eyes. "Me and my big sis got sent away to stay with relatives when ma and pa passed away. I was only a baby foal and AJ wasn't old enough to help out on the farm. Big Mac stayed here to help granny and the farm. When AJ got big enough, she made them let us visit in the summer, and proved she was old enough to be helpful on the farm. And Granny Smith refused to let me go back to the big city. I must have been four years old at the time, and she didn't want to see us broken up again."

A towering shadow formed on the other side of the door, and with a grunt, a gigantic earth stallion stepped through, ducking his head low to avoid catching his head on the frame. Golden hair, long and thick, tied up behind his shoulders with a single leather tie. As tall as the stallion was, for a moment Scootaloo could only gawk at the titan. From behind him, Cheerilee’s voice could be clearly be made out. “Mac, you may take the girls home, but I want to talk to Applejack when she has the time. Apple Bloom can not keep getting into fights with the boys and Diamond Tiara. I’m going to talk to Filthy Rich tomorrow, but we can not keep having these problems.”

The giant extended an arm to wrap around Apple Bloom's shoulders, pulling her close, his fingers stroked through her hair, while he moved to sit beside the little filly. Voice dry but calm, he offered the teacher a nod as she followed him in. "AJ will come tomorrow before class. She is helping Dusk and Rarity today." As he turned to look at the youngest filly, offering Sweetie Belle a quiet grin. "Your big sis is gonna be busy helping Dusk too. So you and Apple Bloom get to have a sleepover." His gaze swept to lonely Scootaloo, a half frown formed on his otherwise cheery face. "Sorry lil' filly, can't seem to recall your name."

If Scootaloo had been intimidated by Big Mac’s size, it was the way he looked disappointed in himself for forgetting her name that broke the ice and won her over. Unable to hide a blush at his piercing and perceptive green eyes, the filly stuck out a hand like Apple Bloom had just done for her a few minutes ago. "I'm Scootaloo mister Mac... um err. Wow, you're even taller than the stories miss Redheart told." As she realized what was dribbling out of her mouth, Scootaloo slapped her hands over her mouth and dropped her head, unable to ignore the heat in her cheeks or the laughter from the other fillies.

Cheerilee only now realized that Scootaloo was still in the room with the other girls, and turned to look where her voice came from. “Oh dear, Scootaloo. I’m sorry, after talking with Snips and Snails it’s clear you didn’t do anything to start the fight. If you wanna head home, I wrote a note for Redheart, you might as well head home too.”

Scootaloo twisted to look up at her teacher, unable to hide her frown. “But… I’m already late to meet up with Rainbow Dash, shoul-” Her worried gaze was lifted by the soft touch of Big Mac’s hand on her chin, drawing her to look into his own eyes, the warmth in those bottomless sap green pools rang with quiet calm.

“Rainbow Dash? Saw her sittin’ on a tree stump just south of the school as I passed, looked rather distressed about something. Was gon’a see if she was ok after I picked up the girls.” The giant’s rough hand had a gentle touch, and the kindness in those eyes helped mellow Scootaloo’s growing panic at disappointing Dash. His voice returned, easy and calm. “If ya’ want, I can talk to her while we head to the farm. I’m sure she will take my word you didn’t do this on purpose.”

With Cheerilee’s letter in her hand, Scootaloo would nod, while looking up to the towering earth stallion, giving a nod. “I… I’d appreciate it Mac, disappointing Dash-” She let her words fall off, biting down on her lower lip. Then, stepping up, she offered a grin to Big Mac. “Let’s go! I can’t wait to get my practice in!”

The walk to the hill where Rainbow Dash sat was a short one, but in that time Scootaloo learned enough about the girls to relax, and enjoy a few laughs. Scootaloo felt Sweetie Belle’s arm wrap around her own, the younger filly’s energetic grin and soft laughter was infectious, charming and endearing. “So then Dusk and Rarity started dating. They make such a cute couple too! Plus, he has started taking time to help me control my magic. He is really nice!”

Walking behind the girls, Big Mac couldn’t help but grin in delight at the girls’ good mood. But the sight of Rainbow Dash, still brooding upon that same tree stump as an hour before, sent him to lengthen his stride. "It's only been seven, eight months since she moved to town? Just because the mare is acting oddly, doesn’t mean you know something is off." Cutting off his internal monologue he called to the mare as he crested the hill at her right. "Rainbow Dash, you never struck me as one to watch a sunset."

Whatever had the mare trapped in her private thoughts, his words had broken through her shell. Twisting her head to look up at him, the mare offered a lazy grin. "Mac! Hey there. Noticed you passing by before, I should'a said hi. What's up? How can Ponyville’s greatest flyer help the Apples out today?" Observant even in her distracted state of mind she leaned around him, her grin only got wider at the sight of a bruise under Apple Bloom's left eye. "Oh my, quite the shiner you got there, kid. Is that why poor Mac got dragged into town?" Standing now, and shadow boxing with Big Mac despite his stiff stance. "Want me to teach her how to tussle? I was first in my class at flight school for wrestling!"

As she got carried away with her own train of thought, Mac let his suggestive inquiry go, if something really was up with the mare he could find out more later, when things had calmed down. His right arm stretched to wrap around his kid sister's shoulders, offering the weather mare a small shrug. "No Dash, the girls were just dealing with some problems in school. Apple Bloom can clearly fight well enough." Patting his sister's back and pushing her towards the road to the farm, Mac signaled for the fillies to head off. "Just thought I'd let ya know that Scootaloo was late for her lesson because she was busy helping Sweetie Belle get her brush back from some bullies."

Rainbow Dash quickly turned back to Apple Bloom, too excited to care the filly was already thirty feet down the road, her voice booming with pride. "Protecting your filly from intrusive bullies? Well done, kid! Knew you had it in you all along." Even as Mac rolled his eyes at that comment, Dash caught up with the rest of his story, turning back to look for Scootaloo. "Oh yeah, where is the squirt. I got so distracted watching the skyline, I must have missed our workout today."

Seeing a chance, Scootaloo took a few steps forward and flashed Dash a proud smirk. "Sorry for being late, Dash! But you should have seen it! I got a good running start and was pumping my wings just like you taught me! When I jumped it felt like you said, with the wind filtering through my feathers, I had to have been six feet off the ground and still flying forward with solid momentum! At least, 'til I tried grabbing Sweetie Belle’s brush from those colts. Does pulling something from a spell’s grip always kill your momentum like that?"

Happy to listen to the young filly, Dash leaned in, laughter evident in her eyes. At Scootaloo's question, she held up her hand and turned to Mac "Before we get too carried away with talk about flying, I just want to thank you for looking in on the brat, Mac. Catch me for a mug of cider at my birthday bash, all right?" While that had been a question, the mare didn't wait for his answer, turning back to Scootaloo and giving the filly her full attention, her tone more explanatory and calm, much to Mac's amazement. "If you and the unicorn don't get your timing just right, yeah. It’s got something to do with all the power they use when they levitate an object, so for whatever reason it makes it really hard to pull it away without a fight.”

Rainbow Dash's words might have been a dismissal, but Big Mac would linger on the hilltop, a watchful eye on the filly and almost mare as they talked, already getting comfortable. "Well, why not, they really do have a lot in common. Dash is only three or four years older than Scootaloo, after all. Wonder if it does them good, both children of broken families." His thoughts paused as he swept his watchful gaze to little Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle, walking arm in arm and lost in conversation. "How to keep her from getting into so many fights. That's the real question." Relenting his watch over Dash and Scootaloo, Mac waved goodbye to them when they looked his way, a strong but easy pace picked to catch up with his little sister. "One problem at a time Mac. First family, then friends. Besides, what trouble can Dash get into? AJ said they will all be busy the next few days with this griffon guest."

Dash only made Scootaloo listen to theory for as long as it took them both to get bored. Or rather until Dash was bored with the words she was reciting from flight school, then pretense was dumped and she pushed on with the exercises. It had been a near fistfight with Redheart at first, finding a exercise routine she approved of that Dash didn't find lazy and boring. Now as the filly got stronger and faster, it was Redheart who was forced to relent.

With their warm up jog finished, Scootaloo began the stretches Dash had taught her, slow at first, extending her wings to touch the ground during toe touches, and flexing them wide and high while the push ups continued. Even as Dash watched, her mind wandered.

* * *

Celestia's palace in Canterlot was not a war fortress, but a place of comfort. Dash sat alone in a guest room, both awed by the luxury on display about the room, and fidgeting, her eye constantly drawn to the letter, signed in Celestia's own hand. It had only been three days since the defeat of Nightmare Moon, and she alone had been summoned to see the princess.

After almost an hour after guards had escorted her alone into this room and locked the door, a soft knocking rattled the wood. A voice she knew too well called to her through the door, the strong masculine words froze her in place. "Dash, can we talk? The princess and I just finished a long conversation. I love you Dashie, can... I come in?"

Heart in her throat Dash stood, stepping up to the door, her heart in her throat. "I... we haven't talked in a long time. Not since Gilda-" Dash cut herself off, steeling herself and pulling the door open. "Except when I took this temporary job in Ponyville."

Stepping into the open door, Rainbow Blitz gave a smile down to his daughter, swallowing back something, and wiping tears away before wrapping her in a hug. "And that is my fault. I am so proud of you Dash. You saved the world just a few days ago, and I was still angry about-"

* * *

Scootaloo’s standing aerial backflips finally pulled Dash back to the present, a wild grin splitting her lips. "You've really mastered those jumps, kid. Lots more control and confidence. Think you can manage one over my head?"

Her eyes wide, Scootaloo nervously stared up at Rainbow Dash, fidgeting and mumbling to herself. "I- wha- bu-" before at last getting a hold of herself and looking up into Dash’s eyes. The confidence she found there, mixed with something else, something Scootaloo couldn't name, yet even this brief sighting filled her heart with such joy. "If you believe in me, Dash, then I’ll try my best!"

That other thing disappeared from Dash's eyes as they were suddenly back to serious lessons again. "Good to hear, squirt. Now, like during your practice. Stand facing away from me, with your wings fully extended. And remember, as you jump into the backflip, keep your arms and legs straight and tight; don’t want a black eye when I've got a guest coming to visit tomorrow."

Something in the way Dash held her shoulders from behind, making sure they were far enough apart while she focused her mind on the stunt made Scootaloo's heart beat faster, harder in her chest. Everything was suddenly overwhelming, and the smell of whatever scent Dash’ wore made Scootaloo's mind wander to suddenly more lewd thoughts. Suddenly, Dash squeezed her shoulder, that confident voice booming. "Get this right and I'll talk to Redheart about letting you learn some real trick acrobatics. On the side outside these workouts, nach. Just whatever you do, try not to kick me in the head, okay?"

With the sudden pressure of Dash's confidence pressing down on her, Scootaloo took a deep breath, braced herself, and leapt. And landed, her orange feathered wings still quaking with excitement. That same look had filled Dash’s eyes when Scootaloo had looked down into them while soaring in the air over Dash’s head. She knew it now, knew it from watching Dusk and Rarity sitting together, enjoying a treat at Sugarcube Corner. Even as Dash scooped her up into a tight hug, and gave a whoop of victory, the scent of her perfume and that look made Scootaloo's heart quake again. "I love you too, Dash...."

* * *

Dash had suggested a stop at Sugarcube Corner on their walk back to Redheart’s. The fact it nearly doubled the walk home was never brought up, Scootaloo used the excuse of being tired from how long they carried on past the normal exercise routine to lean against Dash in the booth. When Pinkie finished serving a few others that had stopped by the bakery, she stole the empty seat on the other side. "You two are SOO lucky you got here now. I’m taking off early to go help Dusk and the others with this weird request from Princess Luna to host a griffon that is coming to town! It’s so exciting! I never hosted a griffon before, I hope they aren't spoilsports."

Dash kept her own good-natured grin while Pinkie rambled on, following her own crazy train of thought. An eye flicked to Scootaloo as the filly picked quietly at the heavily glazed and toasted cinnamon bun Dash had picked out for her, drenched in butter, the sweet mixed scents flooded the room. “Eat up, kid. After such a strenuous workout, you need the carbs. It’ll do your body good.” Privately, Dash was glad for the strong smell of the buttery, toasted bun. She awkwardly shifted her hips, attempting to mask her own discomfort.

Distracted by Dash’s words, Scootaloo returned to nibbling at the small chunks she pulled off the toasted bun, eating quietly and watching the two older mares talking. With Dash suddenly paying attention to her, Scootaloo flashed her a grin in return. “I know, I know, It’s just so rich and sweet.”

Pinkie laughed at that, and offered the filly a grin. “We make the best treats here, glad to hear you like it! Maybe if you keep up your training, I’ll let you come help me test samples of our new treats!”

Rolling her eyes, Dash pushed a short letter over the counter to Pinkie. “Don’t spoil the little brat too much. She’s a good sport, but I doubt she knows when to say enough is enough.” While Scootaloo stuck her tongue out and blew raspberries at Dash, Pinkie took the small letter, flipping it over and looking at the front, she lifted her eyebrows at the name on the front, ‘AJ’. Answering the bubbly mare before she could start asking too many questions, Dash blushed darkly. “It’s personal, but I have things to take care of tonight. It’s not only important, but private, so if you could give it to AJ for me, I’d be grateful.”

Whooping gleefully, Pinkie snatched up Dash’s letter and shoved it into the protective depths of her cleavage. "Okie Dokey Dashie! Just don't let Derpy find out, or she might think you don't like her and want a new mail mare for Ponyville."

Walleyed, Dash took a minute to process Pinkie’s warning. "Why would anyone want to do something as heartless as that?" Her normally laid back tone aggravated to display open shock at the suggestion.

Pinkie offered her an over energetic shrug in response, her own smile replaced by a warning pout. "'Cause you're Ponyville’s head weather mare. Just ‘cause you can’t hire or fire her doesn’t mean you aren't her boss, doesn't mean some meanie mean pants, whoever held that kind of a job before you, hasn't used their influence to get other pegasi shipped off to other jobs."

Dash could feel her aggravation and shame build as Pinkie rattled on, somewhere, a buried memory called out an echo. "'Cluttershy! Cluttershy! Cluttershy can hardly fly!'

Gripping down on the countertop, Dash hissed out her frustration and turned to look down at Scootaloo. "Hey, kid. You ever have to deal much with bullies?"

Shocked a little by Dash’s strong reaction to the sudden topic change, Scootaloo looked up at Pinkie for some glimmer of reassurance before answering Dash. "I- me- no, none really Dash. But, er- I kinda got in a fight with bullies today, helping out Sweetie Belle."

Disappointed for a moment, then again impressed, Dash gave Scootaloo a playful cuff on the chin. "Right, right! Good work at that." There was something in the way Dash talked with her, almost like she was brooding over something. "Well, let me tell you kid, with bullies, you gotta learn to step up to them, can't always just take their shit. They never give up or go away if they think they have you cowed." A sly grin spreading over her, Dash gave Scootaloo a one-armed hug around the shoulders. "Finish up kid, we better get you home before Redheart’s shift ends.”

* * *

While it had taken most of the day, Dusk sat back in satisfaction as he finished. With Applejack curled up on a nearby couch, and Pinkie and Fluttershy busy in the kitchen with Barb, Dusk looked to Rarity as she pinned the last of the notes upon the board, her tail left laying lazily across her right hip. Dragging his tongue across his lower lip, the stallion pushed himself to stand up, crossing the room with quiet stealth, until his hands cupped her hips and his loins pressed into her hip from behind, his voice whispering into her ear. “It is late and the others are leaving soon. Will you will stay the night? I could use the company, dear.”

Gasping at Dusk’s ambush of sudden attention, the mare enjoyed it, pressing back against the taller stallion and relishing the pressure of his body against her flank. Almost purring with her own delight, Rarity turned around, wrapping her arms around the stallion’s neck, a rich pout offered up to him. “Oh my, dear Dusk. If only I’d sent dear Sweetie Belle to stay with Apple Bloom for the night. Oh wait!” She joyfully tittereded, nuzzling against his cheek. “It would be my pleasure Dusk.”

From the couch, Applejack groaned a little, rolling over and glaring at them. “Could you two keep it down? After all this reading and pointless research, I’m plum tuckered out, and you two aren't making getting sleep any easier.”

All three shared a laugh for a moment, until Pinkie peaked through the door, a broad grin splitting her lips. “You’re all in a good mood? Great to hear! AJ, Dashie gave me this letter for you. I’m going to walk Fluttershy home, gotta go to work in the morning, but I’ll be free to help out with Gilda, I promise!”

Surprised as they were by Pinkie's unexpected, sudden arrival, the fact that the grinning mare placed the letter on AJ's flank and scampered back out of the room just as rapidly as she arrived meant they had no time to register her, except for AJ who called out quickly after the retreating mare. "But you've been here for hours, Pinkie! Why give me this now?"

If there was an answer, Pinkie was already long gone and thus they heard no reply. His playfully flirty mood cast aside, Dusk’s inquisitive mind instantly shot to the note, trying to piece together a mystery while AJ peeled it open. With Rarity slipping into the free seat on the couch at AJ's side, the whole room was now waiting for the answer held in Dash’s letter.

The short note inside could have been better described as four words scribbled down in an unsteady hand. Suddenly filled with worry, Applejack quietly passed the note to Rarity, her tone low and sad. "I- I hadn't even thought about that. Poor Dash. To be suffering from her heat, while we sat here talking about her last girlfriend." A creeping blush spread over her cheeks.

Finished with the short note, Rarity passed it on to Dusk, who suddenly felt once more the outsider in the affairs of mares. Flicking his eyes down, it took reading and rereading those four short words three times before the meaning really dawned on him. "Need relief, please! Tonight?"

"She- you two- err, that is to say, you and Dash used to help one another with your heat?" When a darkly blushing AJ only offered him a nod in response, Dusk, feeling very lost, turned to Rarity. "I- I've felt it, when a mare was in heat. Not just that time when AJ came for her interview." This had Applejack both give a giggle and a snort of nervous embarrassment at the same time. When Dusk looked to Rarity for any kind of solid ground to build on, he found her blushing and diverting her gaze. "Rarity? This is clearly something I need to understand properly. Could you tell me what has been going on between you mares? Does your heat effect you so strongly?"

Dusk’s open honestly about wanting to know everything upfront made both mares pause and look at one another, offering a slightly ashamed silence for a minute. Rarity soon found her focus and locked on Dusk again, though he couldn't miss her slipping her own hand into Applejack’s own hunting for that support. "It is complicated, Dusk. The heat of a mare varies between cycles, frustratingly enough. I usually have a light one every four to six weeks, but every second or third heat-" For a moment she dropped her voice off, until AJ slipped her fingers to interlace with Rarity’s own, applying a strong grip to the dainty mare’s fingers. That show of support helped Rarity to press on, a soft smile of confidence dawned on her, bringing out her glowing radiance. "Applejack asked me one day when we were out for lunch. That lead to a date, and that date lead to a very passionate night together. Since then, when my strong heats hit, I send Applejack a bouquet of Roseluck's best flowers." For a moment, the mares shared a warm and loving look, before Rarity looked back to Dusk. "Other than helping Applejack in return when she asks, I..." She paused, blushing ever redder, yet she pushed on despite her embarrassment. "Fluttershy has special needs. She rarely asks me for help, almost never more than twice a year. I am her... I am her mistress."

Rarity's suggestive phrasing drew even Applejack to lift an eyebrow in confusion, yet rather than let their conversation stall, she pressed forward with her own answer. "I have stronger heats two thirds of the time, with a heat every three to five weeks. Dash challenged me to a race just after she moved to town, and well-" She looked to Rarity and squeezed her hand for some support in return. "After, I treated her to some of the Apple family's best cider while we went to cool off in the steam behind the farm. Then two or three drinks in she slipped in behind me and started kissing my neck."

"It is okay Applejack,” Rarity said softly while leaning her cheek against AJ's shoulder, “I remember how it felt the first time she caught me in heat. The girl gets such a hungry look in her eyes, and yet she is just so..." Rarity paused, releasing a happy sigh. "That filly will make some mare so happy someday."

Dusk's own need to clear the air had been growing, until he felt he had to speak. "Dash smelt your heat on me after you left, Applejack, Pinkie as well. They both made their interest just as clear to me, but Dash got scared when things started getting too hot for her. Ever since, she deflects when I try to ask her if we are okay."

Both mares looked up as he spoke, a shared look of focus as they considered for a minute in silence before Rarity sat up and offered him a smile. "We need to set rules and standards, if we are going to learn how to be a working herd." Releasing her breath and turning to look into at Applejack’s eyes. "I love you, and I love Dusk. I could be happy with only your company for the rest of my life, but the truth is, I enjoy my time with Fluttershy, as rare as it is. Would you two be comfortable with me continuing that relationship?"

Standing, Dusk walked to the ravishing mare’s side and cupped her cheeks, planting a lingering kiss on her lips. When he broke it, he looked into AJ's eyes. "I had never been with a mare excluding that near encounter with Dash, and another with Pinkie that same day. That said, are you comfortable with the idea of established boundaries?" When Applejack gave him a nod, Dusk shifted his weight to slide onto the couch, his hands lifting Rarity to sit in his lap, while he leaned in against taller mare. "First rule, then: all three of us agree that Fluttershy, Pinkie and Dash are good close friends who we are all comfortable sharing company with?" When the mares gave him a nod, Dusk leaned over and gave Applejack a soft kiss, letting his lips linger on her own as he gazed deep into her eyes. "Then for tonight, we are okay. Go to Dash. She is scared and in need, the least we can do is show her comfort, love, and support when she needs it."

For a moment, Applejack lingered with them on the couch, her eyes drifting from the mare she cared so deeply for, to the stallion who had worked so hard to help her out of such horrible times of late. That same loving confident look was shared by both, and her heart swelled and melted at the shared love she found there. "I will. I can’t leave Dash suffering, I ain't that kind of friend. Besides, she really came through for the farm during Applebuck Season, now it's my time to help her before we get swamped dealing with Gilda." With a resolute grin and a firm nod she leaned in, using her larger size to pin down her two lovers, giving each in turn a lingering kiss.

Just as she started to step away from the couch, Rarity called out, still breathless from the wonderful feeling of Applejack’s body pinning her hard against Dusk’s own powerful frame. "Darling, don't forget to stop by my boutique on the way over. I've some of those white chocolate pretzel sticks left that Dash refuses to admit she adores. Something to break the ice with your paramour.”

Suddenly somewhat reluctant, Applejack would look from one, to the other, before at last offering them a soft nod, pealing herself from the hug. “Thank you Rarity, Dusk. I will return in the morning.” Slipping out the door, AJ went to go make Dash a happy mare.

Chapter 6: Griffon the Brush-Off - Part 2

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Dusk felt the faint warmth of sunlight through his bedroom curtains, forcing him to rise just before dawn.Yet as he twisted his head to the side and drew himself in closer to the still sleeping form of Rarity, it was Applejack’s voice that got his attention. “Sugercube, I’m sure you two had a busy night, but I’ve got fritters on your desk in the study, now get up and move it before I got’ta swat your lazy rump.”

As Dusk realized he was not alone with Rarity anymore, he struggled to suppress a yawn and buried his head into his pillow. When he felt Applejack’s hands on his shoulder, he lifted his head and shook it at her, voice a suppressed whisper. “I am up, AJ, but keep it down, I do not want to wake poor Rarity.”

For a moment the powerful towering mare’s eyes lingered on his own before she flashed him with a grin, leaning in close and placing a light kiss on his cheek. Whispering to him in return, the mare cooed into his ear. “Five minutes, darling. Then I get the frying pan and a spoon.” Offering him a playful wink, the mare turned to slip back out of the room.

Dusk pushed Applejack’s threat to the very limits, fully aware she was probably quite serious. The hardest part of getting up was Rarity of course, everything from her soft but sweet scent teasing his nose, to the warmth of her body pressing against his own. But really the fact she was sleeping on his arm was probably the worst part. Now attempting to extract it without disturbing her rest, Dusk longed to curl in tighter with the mare, returning to sleep for a moment. Slipping free, he gave a sigh of relief, leaning in to whispering softly into her ear. “Sleep well, Rarity. At least, someone should.” As he kissed her cheek before slipping from the bed, he heard her murmur and coo something sweet in return.

Unable to shake a grin that had forced its way on to his face, Dusk found a clean pair of casual black trousers, thicker for the brisk hints of fall that were in the air these days. A more casual black t-shirt was found, very thin, while a long sleeved white dress shirt was thrown on top, while he didn’t bother to button it up, it would at least give him something serviceable for both the cold and in case there was any emergencies he might be forced to deal with today.

It only took two steps down the staircase before the scent of AJ’s fritters hit Dusk’s nose, when suddenly everything was better about being up. From the living room, two voices already locked in conversation gave Dusk forewarning, and as he stepped into the main study, the sight of Pinkie Pie and Applejack going over the notes on his board made him laugh. Applejack would snap the pointer from Dusk’s desk to the pinned note, her voice serious and straightforward. “No, Pinkie. See, if you offer to host her a party, she will assume you’re trying to bribe her, or that ya’ll think she’s a bad hunter and can’t feed herself properly. Griffon’s don’t party.”

Pouting at AJ, Pinkie munched down half her fritter in a single bite, shaking her head in annoyance. “But you just said they love having feasts to celebrate a good hunt! So why can’t we have a party to welcome her to town?”

Dusk moved quickly to come to Applejack’s rescue, his own voice still a half sleeping drawl. “Because, Pinkie Pie, she hasn’t earned a feast yet. Maybe if you could find some event to use as proof of her having earned one. Say, if she brings Dash or myself a big enough of a gift to prove her loyalty. But a party for a party’s sake would be seen as an insult. And it’s not like we have to fend off dragons or anything as a daily matter, so I doubt we can try that as an excuse.” Stepping in to place a soft kiss on AJ’s cheek, Dusk stepped past her and to his desk, his eyes set on the freshly baked fritters. “Did you run into Pinkie on your way back?”

Her eyes slitting for a moment in joy at the brief affection from Dusk, AJ shook her head, following after him from the note board so she could slip in against him from behind, she hugged him tightly. “When I went to ask the Cakes for something quick for breakfast, she was already there making us something sweet.” Looking over her shoulder at the smaller earth mare who was now locked in deep study of the blackboard, and almost scowling at all the rules listed there, AJ couldn’t help but grin. “So we talked and finished these sweet treats. Now I’m trying to review everything we figured out yesterday. Turns out Pinkie isn’t the best study buddy.”

Dusk stifled a soft laugh at the suggestion of trying to get Pinkie’s assistance at something like research or study, but was suddenly cut off by Pinkie leaping from her chair and calling out far too loud and harshly for so early in the morning. “I’ve got it! It’s Dash’s birthday next week, right?!! So since Gilda can’t stay that long, let’s have a pre-birthday party for Gilda! Considering everything Dash has done for Ponyville, not to mention saving everypony from Nightmare Moon, I’m sure everyone will agree she has earned an extra party! And it falls under the griffon’s rules of acceptable feasts, see!? Right here!” With the pointer she had suddenly taken from AJ’s hand, Pinkie pointed to the notes on the wall, under the header of ‘acceptable reasons for a feast’, she had picked out the line ‘Celebration of a Champion's victory, or birthday.’

For a moment, Dusk was stunned, his eyes inspecting the notes on the wall, first for references towards what was defined as a champion. Reading aloud, Dusk was suddenly impressed. “A champion is any member of a hunting pack, local or foreign, who has done a deed of such great importance or danger, that even a whole pack would normally have died attempting such a raid or battle.” For a moment he let his voice trail off in consideration, before Dusk at last offered Pinkie a grin. “Anypony who thinks Nightmare Moon’s return could be handled any easier, quicker, or better than how we managed is only blowing smoke. Dash even risked a series of solo attacks on her just to act as a distraction while you and Mac rescued survivors from the rubble of town hall. I’d say that alone makes her Ponyville’s champion.”

As Applejack separated from Dusk, Pinkie puffed out her chest and took a step up to AJ's side, poking her in the stomach while grinning widely. Stepping up to the taller mare Pinkie poked her in the stomach, grinning widely. “See! And you said we couldn’t have a party for Gilda! Now we can have a Dash’s-Best-Friend-Gilda-is-Coming-to-Town party, and just call it a Dash-is Ponyville’s-Champion party!”

The sudden, very loud and violent impact of a foot, shoe, or something else quite hard or heavy being thrown to the ground with a lot of force silenced everyone for a moment. Turning to Pinkie, Dusk attempted to apologize. “We should keep it down. Rarity… well, she isn’t a morning pony.”

Unable to keep from rolling her eyes, AJ would look back to Dusk, trying to shift the conversation to more serious matters. “Dusk, we should review insults and how to respond to them. From what we were reading yesterday, she’s going to consider you and Rarity a hunting pack, with me as your beta. That means, if she thinks she’s been insulted, or refused something she deserves, she might try to challenge you or Rarity. Most of all Rarity since, well you know.”

Dusk was glad AJ was the level headed mare in the room, letting Pinkie’s gloating blow over without an outburst. Turning to look over the notes on Honor and Challenges, Dusk got AJ’s point instantly. “There are few answers for an insult that do not lead directly into a fight. Something she demands can be given over, or refused and if refused, we could have a fight on our hands. And when I say something, she could in theory demand Barb as a war trophy, and the griffons would view it as her simply staking a claim. This is troublesome.”

Munching at her own fritter, AJ gave her own sharp nod. “See, thats the problem. I don’t know how you’re doing, sugar, but if everything I’ve heard about griffons holds true, I doubt I could take on this Gilda in a fight right now. I still wake up after six hours sleep feeling like I’ve had two.”

With AJ admitting her own weakness openly, Dusk’s worry about the notes was abandoned, the mare now his primary concern, a hand on her forehead, while his free hand cupped her wrist, fingers hunting for her pulse. “If you are feeling so bad, you should have told me, Applejack. I can handle this alone, and with Pinkie to help, I am sure we can figure this all out.”

Too proud to let weakness overcome her, but happy to have Dusk’s attention, Applejack let him hold her for a moment before shaking her head, and smiled warmly at him. “I’m fine Dusk, just a little slow, a little tired. But we do need an answer if she does start a fight.”

Here, Dusk flashed the mare a grin and releasing her, turned to Pinkie, who was currently stuffing a fourth fitter down her throat. Focusing, he poured his magic out in an inverted version of the bubble shield that Shining had mastered, wrapping Pinkie in his own raspberry magic, and locking her in place. Sustaining the spell took effort, as the beads of sweat forming on his pointed out, even while Dusk tried to suppressed as many signs of the fatigue as he could.

Suddenly caught up in Dusk’s magic and unable to move her body in any way, Pinkie cried out and tried everything she could manage to shift or scramble free of his grip. After a few seconds, Dusk released her, blushing and shaking his head. “Sorry, Pinkie, it was just a quick and simple little example for Applejack. Are you okay?”

Twisting to look him over once, before offering a shrug and snatching up a fifth fritter, Pinkie gave a casual shrug. “Okey dokey Dusk! But next time, warn me!”

Applejack gave a slow nod, her voice serious but more relaxed now. “If you can keep a spell like that up for long enough, I’m sure you can convince her to give up on any challenge. And I don’t see anything about no magic, right?”

Leaning back against his desk, Dusk shook his head. “Ever since the Night of the Red Sun, they have encouraged use of magic, even weather magic, in any and all challenges. They want to be ready to deal with mages. At least, that was the accepted theory at Star Swirl University.” Inspecting the noteboard again, Dusk shook his head. “This is a lot to go over. And Barb is supposed to be trying to season some raw meat for lunch. Today is just getting better and better.”

Wrapped in Applejack’s arms, while her head moved to rest on Dusk’s own, Applejack flashed him a grin. “Don’t worry about it sugarcube. Just remember, you got a whole day to prepare for Gilda’s arrival.”

Rolling his eyes, Dusk gave a shrug and a nod. “Sure, sure. Just try and keep your celebrating down. If we wake Rarity up before she is ready, who knows what she might do to us.”

* * *

Rainbow Dash only realized Applejack was gone when she heard her front door closing, and even that only got a low moan of delight, before she rolled over and wrapped the blanket tighter around her body, curling up again and returning to her own blissful slumber. Besides sleeping alone was better, more bed for herself, more room to slumber, and nobody to bitch that she snored. After last night, she had earned her right to snore, besides, Applejack really had done wonders with those magic fingers. Already, Dash felt more relaxed then she had in weeks. Cracking one eye open she looked out the window, and groaned a little. “Too early. I’ve earned the right to sleep in a few hours! Besides, who else but AJ gets up at dawn?!”

Three hours later? Four? Who gave a bloody damn? Dash woke up, the sudden realization that she desperately needed to go to the bathroom now at war with the warmth of her bed. The bathroom won out, and Dash went straight from the can, to the shower, a blast of full-powered hot water to drive off the cold and make getting up finally worthwhile.

Drowning herself in the roaring heat of the pouring water, Dash felt relaxed for the first time in a week, the heat in her loins and that aching need at last calmed. Dash let her head rest forward, enjoying the cool contrast of the tiled wall of her shower. Enjoying the shower’s lavish heat, Dash let her eyes droop and her breath fall off. With the call of sleep so sweet, Dash let herself return to the world of dreams.

* * *

Cloudsdale’s racetrack had been set up as an obstacle course, with a series of rings to fly through and clouds to avoid. Dash couldn’t help but watch with fascination as three more wonderbolts flew the track together in a single tight line formation, so close she could swear the lead mare’s feet were inches from touching the second mare’s face. They took every corner and turned every spiral as if they were all one creature. Fascination grew as in a straightaway, they split their formation, instead racing to see who would make the next loop first.

In the hour she had been watching them already, the clear winner of speed had to be Spitfire, second in command of the current Wonderbolts display team. Flustered, Dash leaned against Gilda’s shoulder, unable to hide a small pout. “Look at how good they fly together. I’ve got nobody to practise those kinds of stunts with. Everypony in class is way too slow!”

A light punch in the back of her head nearly sent Dash sprawling off her seat, while Gilda snorted her derision. “Oh don’t be such a dork, Dash. You endlessly go on about those Wonderbolts, but can’t you see? They don't have any real talent, they just fly loop-da-loops and act as if that’s something special. Speed doesn’t win an aerial battle, let one of them come at me, I’d swat her out of the air with one hand!”

Dash was appalled by Gilda’s comments, so much so that she forgot to punch the taller woman in return for sucker punching her. “Gilda, haven’t you been paying attention in flight school? Speed is everything! If I can outfly you, how can you hit me? If I come at you three times faster than you can fly, how do you dodge? If I have the flag, how do you catch me and get it back?” For a moment, Dash was really worried, yet Gilda only rolled her eyes, offering a snort in return.

“Oh sure, you can run away, but in a real fight, that’s all you pony’s can do. Admit it: a griffon is twice your weight and nearly two feet taller. In a real fight, you’re toast.” Gilda’s disdainful snort and folded arms showed Dash she hadn’t even considered any of the points she had tried to present, instead brushing them off and returning to her old view on the matter. Even while Dash deflated, Gilda moved on, pointing to the front row of viewing seats, and the Princess’ throne. “Look, with Celestia busy in Canterlot, they got your dad to host the Ambassador. What a laugh! How long has it been since he flew with the ‘Bolts? Five years? Nine?”

Suddenly, Dash wasn’t feeling so reasonable, even as she turned to look down at her father and Gilda’s uncle, she curled her lip and offered a sneer while she answered in return, her own playful tone lost. “Well I don’t know, birdbrain. He did serve at the Night of the Red Sun as second-in-command of the Wonderbolts, and he lead the strike force on the griffon raiders personally. You have to respect that, right? A real fight, and his unit didn’t lose a single flyer.”

Gilda laughed, openly laughed, at Dash’s words, rolling her eyes. "After what bullshit Celestia pulled on such a moonless night? That was no fight, just a heartless slaughter. You can't think that ambush was a proper way to handle a war Dash."

Dash cut her off, turning to watch final lap of the Wonderbolts performance with giddy delight, her attention stolen as the announcer called out over the speaker. “And once again, Spitfire takes the lead! Another fantastic performance from the ‘Bolt’s second in command.”

Whooping with glee, Dash lept into the air, and turned to face Gilda again, the fight they had been in forgotten as she grabbed the taller womans hands, pulling for her to stand and follow. “Come on, Gilda! They always do a few extra laps with people from the stands! Let’s go get in line and try getting picked! That way I can show off my moves!”

Huffing with annoyance yet charmed by Dash’s sudden girlish joy, Gilda rolled her eyes, releasing a snort. “Why not just let me ask the ambassador? He could get you to the front of the line before anyone else.”

Dash laughed, turning to head down towards the growing crowd all begging for a chance to fly with the Wonderbolts. But she called back to Gilda, big grin flashing from ear to ear. “Because, Gilda. I’m good enough, they should recognize my talent without anyone else having to point me out in a crowd!”

* * *

Something pulled Dash from her reprise, sleeping with her face flat against the shower wall, with hot water pouring down her face and across her face and across her nose. In silence, she tried to remember what had pulled her back from the dreams for a minute, then the sound of sharp knocking echoed through the house again. Scowling to herself and leaning over to the bathroom window, Dash pulled the latch open, screaming out at whoever was at the door. “Alright! Alright already! I get your damn point! Just, give me five minutes you damn prowler!”

From outside, a voice that made Dash’s knees weak called back in sarcastic reply. “Oh, sure. In that case, maybe I should just grab one of these cute little mares and get a proper hello. Get down here now, Dash. A proper beta doesn’t keep her alpha waiting!”

Gilda. The flash of mixed memories competing in Dash’s heart, the fight between memories of good times, and that talk with Celestia and her father just a few weeks ago. Shutting off the water and snatching a towel, she leaned out the window, and shouted in a sharp, yet playful voice. “Don’t push your luck too hard, Gilda! Just cause you’ve got one hell of a cute ass, doesn’t mean you’re always in charge!” Yet even as Dash toweled off, and pulled on her panties, the warming tingle between her legs had returned, the distracting warm torment returned. Biting her lip Dash rushed to dress, storming downstairs in tight jeans while pulling her loose white tanktop on, something easy to get her wings through the holes.

Rushing to the door, Dash pulled the bolt and stopped for a second, trying to straighten up and clear her mind. “Get a hold of yourself Dash. Remember. Remember Dad. Remember Celestia. Remember AJ and Dusk. Rememb-” Pulling the door open, Dash looked up, and those eyes captured her, pulling her in tight, and refusing to let go, just like those powerful arms around her hips and over her ass. Straining to stay serious, calm and in control, Dash spoke up, unable to break that powerful gaze. “Gilda, you’re early.”

* * *

Dusk took another sip from the icy water Barb had poured him, scowling at the noteboard on the wall. Shifting to look at AJ and Pinkie, he crossed his eyes. “So what’s left? We have covered food, polite conversation, activities to keep her busy, and how to deal with politics. We must still have something left to cover.”

"What? You're still nose deep into research? What an egghead! Come on, Dusk! She is already here and can't wait to meet you!" Rainbow Dash's voice pulled Dusk from his reading even as a feeling of dread flooded over him. Leaning against the doorframe, Dash wasn't alone. When Dusk saw the towering woman at her side, he did everything in his power not to panic, as she focused her piercing yellow gaze at him. It almost felt like a clamp tightening over his heart.

Stepping forward casually, Gilda passed Dash and looked over the room. Looming over even Applejack, Dusk’s best guess put her at six foot seven, towering in height even for a griffon. As those hunter’s eyes swept from him to examine the noteboard, the curl of her unpainted lips hinted at her amusement. "Really now, Dash? This is the kind of company you keep these days? I thought you said he was at least a decent runner! Bookworm?" She had paused, sweeping her sharp nail tip to point at Dusk. "You gonna join us for your jog or not? My beta can't be seen with such out of shape lameos."

Rather than waiting for Dusk’s reply, the mighty griffon swept her way out of the room, already marching out the front door before Dusk even had a chance to absorb everything that had just happened. Stunned, the best he could manage was to mumble in utter confusion. "Jwah?"

Almost swimming across the room, Dash scooped up Dask's hands and half marched, half dragged him out into the world. All the while, her ecstatic voice gushed over Gilda. "Isn’t she just amazing! The way she assesses a situation and cuts straight through to the solution! Come on, Dusk! Let's go for that run and see if we can't properly introduce Gilda to everypony later!"

Suddenly left with a much quieter room, Applejack and Pinkie stared at one another for a minute, each attempting to see the other mare’s view of what just happened. At last, Pinkie stapled on a brave face, leaning forward and pointing out the still open doorway. "Well you have to give her credit for being energetic and hone-"

Still wearing her flat stare, AJ cut her friend off in a cold level tone. "Horse Apples!" When Pinkie’s jaw dropped at her sharp language, Applejack shook her head. “I’m serious, Pinkie. This is bad, why was she so gruff and aggressive? I know everything we’ve gone over says griffons are rough around the edges, but she didn’t give us even a moment of courtesy, and what in tarnation is her history with Rainbow Dash, anyways?”

The sound of footsteps on the staircase interrupted Pinkie again, pulling both mares to turn towards the library’s doorway. Still toweling her hair off, Rarity stepped through the doorway, a pleasant grin dancing on her lips. “Mmmmmmphhh. Forgive me for missing breakfast, darling, but your bed is simply too comfortable, and that shower! Divine.” 'It was only after she wrapped the towel over her hair that she looked around the room, frowning a little at the tense confrontation between AJ and Pinkie, and the lack of Dusk’s presence. “What, exactly has gotten into you, girls? And where has Dusk gone? I wanted him to brush my hair.”

Looking up at Rarity, Pinkie’s pout was massive, combined with the quiver of her lower lip, making her look as if she were about to cry. “That giant, gruff griffon Gilda got Dash to drag Dusk out, declaring they should dart deviously downtown!”

Unable to hide her pity at Pinkie’s wobbling lower lip, Rarity slipped onto the couch at the mare’s side, hugging her friend into the valley of her cleavage on display due to the towel wrapped across her chest. But, even as she turned to admonish AJ, the taller mare found herself offering an apology to the younger mare. "I'm sorry, Pinkie, but there’s somethin' going on with Dash that really nags at me."

"It's okay, AJ. I just don't take such a quick disposition to new people. She was kinda meanie grumpy grouchy pants, but I'm sure she will brighten up at Dash’s champion's feast!" Refreshed by Applejack’s apology, Pinkie's goodnatured smile returned. "After all! Who doesn't love a good meal!"

Rarity grinned down at Pinkie, still hugging the younger mare close. "Now then, girls, tell me about this Gilda! Was Dash’s description accurate? I really do wish I could have seen her, I hear griffons do not have a well developed sense of style, but surely I could offer her a makeover. Smooth things over, and show her we mean well, right?"

Unable to hide her own grin, Applejack shook her head, suppressing a fit of laughter that was attempting to break free. "Dash understated the details if anything, sugercube. She’s nearly as tall as Big Mac, her wingtips brush on the ground, and she still has those purple tips on her hair."

Pinkie piped up, filling in the details that AJ skipped. With her own manic train of thought. "She must smoke 'cause I saw the pack in her jacket pocket, and that got me thinking about the jacket, I could have sworn I've seen it before, 'cause it's the kinda heavy brown flyers coat with the extra dense white wool lining on the inside for extra warmth! And that's when it struck me! It's just like the one that Dash wears when the weather is super blustery cold!"

With only a moment of silence hanging in the air as Pinkie paused to prepare another breath, Rarity places a finger on the mare’s lips, gently hushing her. "Alright, alright. I think we get the point, Pinkie darling. The real question is whether or not she, Dusk, and Dash are getting along." As a quiet moment passed between the mares, a memory flared to life from the back of her mind. "Oh, dear Celestia! The meat shipment!"

* * *

Numb. That was the word. His legs had gone numb. Somehow, with Gilda present, Dash's normally casual and talkative jogging pace had been replaced with a competitive, yet silent sprint. Always lagging behind the two female athletes, it had really become clear to Dusk that there was a competition going on, and he was simply here to witness the winner.

Dash had been ahead for the first mile, maybe two, and it appeared that no matter how much longer her legs were, Gilda had no chance of catching up. Then, Gilda suddenly unfurled her wings, and with two powerful beats of those massive appendages, the gap closed.

Rainbow Dash needed only to look over her shoulder for a moment to see how much of her lead had been lost. Flashing Dusk a grin, rather than change her pace, she added something new to the game. As they started to cross the marketplace, Dash lept up, kicking off the wall of Roseluck's flower shop and tapped the bottom edge of the shop's sign with two fingers. All without the assistance of her wings.

Unable to ignore Dash's new challenge, Gilda used her towering size to make up for the fact she couldn't match Dash's agility. Her leap was only a short running jump, but her fingers tagged the sign squarely, setting the wooden board to swing violently on its hinges.

And then, without warning, both females stopped, turning to watch Dusk as he caught up. For just a second, Dusk considered attempting to copy Dash's leap and springboard off the building. But an easier solution flared up, his answer to Gilda pumping her wings. A raspberry flare of magic swelled up his horn, balling up at the tip before firing out two small bolts. Even as he continued to run the magic took shape, forming two crystalline steps in mid air. Judging his timing and leaping forward, Dusk's right foot landed square on the supportive platform, allowing him to push off and forward again, his left foot just reaching the second step. With this added height, Dusk was easily able to tap the sign, before his momentum carried him on, his magic steps fading even as his focus on them shifted away.

Out of breath from the frantic pace Dash and Gilda had set, Dusk reveled in the slower pace he was able to take as he approached the watching women, panting to catch his breath. Gilda's sharp yellow gaze turned from him, to focus on her friend. "Alright, Dash. I'll give you credit on this stallion. He's slow, and could clearly use a proper workout. But he is kinda cute and has the balls to try and keep up." That predatory grin returned to her lips. "How is he in the sack?"

Even as Dusk's cheeks reddened with shock, it was Dash’s turn for a quick answer. "I wouldn't know. He already has two mares for that kind of fun. Personally, I just like Dusk cause he’s the only other decent challenge in town besides AJ."

Finally catching up with their conversation didn't help reduce Dusk's embarrassment. Shocked at their candid talk, Dusk looked to Dash for some strand to follow. The revelation she was feeding him a suggestion came when he realized her right arm was crossed under the left, letting him see her thumb subtly pointing towards the school in the distance. With this answer on hand, and his breath restored, Dusk turned to point towards the school. "Hey Gilda, care to give the school foals a thrill? Dash can introduce you to her new protégé, Scootaloo."

Rather than wait for her answer, Dusk attempted his most confident wink, before bolting off out down the path again, leaving the women in his dust. With her own husky voice calling after him, Gilda declared her amusement. "See what I mean? You picked a good stallion for a toy. Brass balls, thinking he can beat us anywhere!"

* * *

Barb strained under the load now piled into her arms, struggling to adjust the load of meat and other packages Rarity had selected from the marketplace. Charmed by the gorgeous mare, the young dragoness followed after her through the many rows of stalls set up offering an immense assortment of goods, from exotic silk bolts to simple grilled cheese and tulip sandwiches.

“Barb darling, if those bags get too heavy, please do tell me. I would not want you to hurt yourself.” Shifting in place to look down at Dusk’s young assistant, she took a moment to fawn over her with a soft stroke of the spikes on Barb’s head.

Shocked and enraptured by the light strokes across her head, Barb leaned into Rarity’s touch, the proof of her embarrassing infatuation radiating out her cheeks. Pulling her tail around and chewing lightly at its tip, Barb forced herself to look away from the gorgeous mare. Letting go of her tail, Barb spoke up to be heard over the noise of the market. “Nuh… No Rarity, I’m just fine! I can carry twice as much as this, no problem!” Flashing a proud grin up to Dusk’s marefriend, Barb tried her best to keep up with Rarity’s pace.

Clasping her hands together, Rarity gushed over the dragoness again. “What a proud, noble little dragoness you are! Dusk really is lucky to have such a helpful assistant. Oh! Spices!” Her attention stolen by the smell of a nearby merchant opening a pouch of spice, suddenly rushing through the crowd, only calling for Barb to follow her. “Come, Barb! Let’s see if we can find something to help make the raw meat a little more palatable for poor Dusky-Poo.”

Still lost in the joy of that gentle head scratch, Barb drifted along to follow after the mare, eyes distant and lightly glazed over with delight. “Anything you say, Rarity…”

* * *

Swirling around in the air, the two women twisted, turning to lock onto one another. Separated by twenty meters at Dusk’s best judgement, Dash and Gilda held for a moment in the sky over Dusk’s head, the gathered crowd of school foals clustered in the open field. Dusk was still trying to remember who had dared the girls to start a game of chicken, was it a school filly? Had it been Gilda and Dash continuing some age old argument? In the haze of so much going on, and keeping watch over so many of the children at once, Dusk had missed whomever had issued the challenge.

Looking around for the field before turning his gaze to the sky again, Dusk held out Sweetie Belle’s babushka, the bright and clean white silk headscarf had been chosen since it would be easy for both flyers to see. Dusk projected his voice for the gathered crowd, doing his best to sound powerful and calm. “Last chance to call this off…” Darting his eyes from Dash to Gilda, he got no response. “Alright! Three!” Raising his hand high, allowing the silk to dance in the breeze. “Two!” Shifting his weight to one foot, Dusk let the word hang, drawing it out for the foals.

“One!” Even as Dusk released his grip on the cloth, allowing it to float free from his grip and dance through the air, the challenge had begun. Dash and Gilda simultaneously shot forward as quickly as they could manage, each beating her own wings as hard as she might manage. Aligned as they were, it would only be seconds before one was forced to swerve out of the way, before crashing head first into one another.

The roar of the crowd was matched only by the scream of the wind as Dash closed in on the far larger and slower Gilda. They were locked head on at ten feet, unshifting at five, and then just inches from crashing head on into one another, both women twisting to their respective right. Having waited so long to shift even that tiny bit, Dash’s wild rainbow colored bangs and Gilda’s purple tips brushed against one another. So close in fact, their bodies brushed in that instant as they passed one another.

“Of course, I get it now. They must have practised displays like this in flight school. Still shocking though.” Dusk might have been muttering to himself, yet standing at his side, Sweetie Belle was just as lost in the crowd’s noise and joy as anypony else.

Anypony but Scootaloo. The young foal had lept into the air to scream out her own girlish glee at Dash’s stunt, yet was now returning with Sweetie’s silk hanky, shoving it into the other filly’s pocket. Turning to look up at Dusk, she flashed him a big grin. “She told me they practise that kind of thing all the time. Me an’ Dash have already started practising the same idea with what Dash calls ‘jous-tin’. Same idea, just on the ground instead.”

High above, Dash and Gilda would make a second, and then a third pass, every time pulling it just as close as the last. Coming in for a landing, the crowd of foals surged forward, rushing to both women’s side and drowning the world out with their excited chatter.

“That was so cool!”

“Griffons are the best flyers!”

“Dash! When did you make friends with her!?”

“Silver and purple hair is the best!”

Relaxing as things appeared to be going well, Dusk looked down to Scootaloo who stood at his side still, even though Sweetie had been one of the first to join that mob now crowding around the two women. Arching a brow and giving her a light nudge, he jerked his thumb at the crowd. “Not interested in getting closer to Dash and her friend?”

With a beaming grin that stretched from ear to ear, Scootaloo gave a snort and rolled her eyes. “No way! Dash told me we will still have my training even though Gilda’s here. Said something about it being important to keep up practise even when things get busy, ‘cause otherwise you get slow and lazy.”

Nodding with approval, Dusk turned to look back, just in time to see Gilda pulling a pack of Silver Feather’s from her heavy jacket. The sound of a lighter flicking to life, and the whimper from Cheerilee at his right said it all. Suddenly stuck in an uncomfortable position, Dusk stepped forward, passing through the mobbing crowd of foals to Gilda’s side. All the while smiling and agreeing with the excited questions the mob pressed on him. Grinning up to the taller woman to try and prevent an uncomfortable reaction, Dusk leaned in at her side, trying to keep his phrasing carefully selected. “Fantastic showing Gilda, but we have policies here, and one of them is no smoking around the school. Foals are too impressionable, right?” Dusk hoped his own, faked tone of annoyance at having to bring the topic up with her would go over well.

The grip of those eyes darted to Dusk even before he approached, then shot over to Cheerilee and the two other teachers, all of whom were in a small circle, clearly talking very rapidly over what to do about Gilda’s smoking. A snort was her answer at first, yet after one more puff, she crushed the smoke in one hand, snuffing it out before thrusting the empty pack of smokes into Dusk’s hand. “Fine Dusk, kids are dumb like that. But, you owe me a pack of smokes for not warning me in advance. And none of your weak pony brands. Something strong like Silver Feathers, got me, dweeb?”

Palming and pocketing the empty package, Dusk flashed a grin up at the griffon, nodding even as he felt a bead of sweat form on his brow. “No problem. After all, we can’t have our guest smoking something bland. What kind of host insults a mare that way?” Even as Dusk relaxed at smoothing this situation over, rule seven from his noteboard sprung to mind. “A griffon never asks for gifts, or takes presents. They demand them, and take offense if their standards are not maintained.” Sweating a little, Dusk made a quick mental note to visit the marketplace after they were done here. With so many merchants in town with harvest over, there must be someone selling decent tobacco around town.

* * *

Alone, Dusk stepped into the market, Gilda’s empty pack of Silver Feathers clutched in his palm. With classes over, Dash and Gilda returned to the school for Scootaloo’s lesson. He gave the stock of each stall with a quick sweep while trying to hunt down someone who sold cigarettes. Trying to remember what kinds of cigarettes Rarity ordered in from Canterlot, Dusk found his memory failing. He only remembered seeing her light up twice since moving to town, and she kept them in a silver carrying case, hidden away from young eyes.

Turning the corner to dart down the next aisle, Dusk suddenly found himself face to face with Mayor Mare, gushing with pride and wrapping him in a hug. “Oh, Dusk! You’ve really done Ponyville proud now! Bringing a griffon to town and having her and Rainbow Dash put on an airshow at the school? Genius! Are you sure you aren't just out for my job?” The joke was followed with the older mare crossing her arm over his. “What are you looking for in my bazaar? I swear, after Rarity’s shopping spree earlier, we might not have much left, but I can help you find it!”

Shocked at the mayor’s sudden arrival and the hug, Dusk struggled to keep his cool, even as the realization that the mayor owned the market, and would likely be his best guide around the stalls. Accepting the way she took up his elbow, Dusk offered her a grin, while attempting to act calm. “Miss mayor, why would I ever want your job? I would rather take up Ponyville’s long-vacant patrician post instead.” When the mare looked up at him, wide-eyed, he smiled and winked at her. “It’s half the paperwork, and the mayor does all the work and reports to you. Besides, isn’t that title far more charming?”

When his joke sunk in, the mare laughed warmly, shaking her head. “Oh, Dusk! You really are trouble. Ponyville isn’t important enough to have a patrician! Besides, with Princess Celestia living so close, we don’t feel ignored.”

Feeling that pleasantries were covered, Dusk pushed on now, driving towards his real goal. “I need cigarettes, miss mayor. Something for our visiting griffon. Something that can be considered a gift, due to cost or it’s unique qualities.”

Beaming at his request, the mayor took the lead, guiding Dusk to the far side of the market. The booth she left him at was maintained by a silver haired mare he didn’t recognize, and while only a few products were on her table, he knew instantly the mayor had chosen well. Silver cigarette and cigar cases lined nearly two thirds of the table, from flawless polished examples, to engraved artworks. Long black cigarette pipes, and a few other nick nacks of the same posh style covered the free space, save a simple yet elegant notice on the far right ear corner. ‘Luxury tobacco products available on request’.

Stepping up, Dusk let his eye linger for a moment on one of the unadorned silver cases before his eye was caught by another, depicting the scene from a few years ago, when Cloudsdale had drifted near Canterlot. Intrigued, and remembering that week well, Dusk picked up the case, and spoke fondly. “This was quite the sight, I remember how every sunset was tinged in a special hint of red and yellow because of how the light hit their clouds.”

The salesmare, hardly a fool, saw a good opportunity when it came knocking. Leaning in and fawning over his words, she offered her own warm praise. “I had the pleasure of witnessing that myself. A shocking sight to see, it’s why I encouraged Silversmith to keep producing these striking cases. Their distinct nature really does wonders for making a gentleman of class stand out.” For only a second she went silent, appraising Dusk before speaking up again. “You are not much for tobacco, are you sir? No offense meant, but you don’t have the whiff of it about you. An elegant case makes a good gift, but even better with something to fill it.”

Dusk could not help but grin at the mare’s suggestion, drawing Gilda’s empty pack of smokes from his pocket, and offered it to her. “She likes strong flavors like this apparently. Any suggestions for something similar if you do not carry this brand?”

Inspecting the package for only a moment, the mare placed it down near the edge of the counter near him, before pulling a sealed black suitcase from under the counter. With a key from her pocket, the mare unlocked the clasps and opened the case towards him, her voice cheerful and warm. “I just received this shipment from my supplier in Canterlot, so you’re in luck, sir. As you can see, I don’t have the regular brand, but I can at least offer the choice of two of their premium brands. We have the choice between Platinum, or Blacks.” For a moment she paused as she watched for Dusk’s reaction, before quickly recognizing his confusion, and offering additional aid. “The Platinum are a luxury brand, but much smoother, a more gentle flavor. The Blacks are their premium brand, very rich and heavy.”

With the salesmare’s swift response, Dusk was saved from a tough choice, instead now knowing exactly the answer he wanted. “Then the Blacks it is. Will one pack fill the carrying case?” At her nod, Dusk reached into his belt pouch, fishing for his money pouch. “What do I owe you for the two together, dear lady?”

Grinning widely and pulling free a pack of the blacks before relocking the case and putting it away, the mare appeared to do some quick mental math before jotting a small paper receipt. “For Princess Celestia’s student? I’ll give you the best discount I can and call it one platinum bit, or four golden suns if you haven’t got something that big on you sir.”

Shocked at the high price, Dusk did some swift mental math, before cycling through his pocket, drawing the heavy platinum bit and placing it on the mare’s side of the counter. “A hundred bits is a more than acceptable price for such a gift. Thank you, miss... huh?”

Stepping out from under her booth’s canopy and into the sunlight, a pout formed on the mare’s lips. Short cut, her two-toned blue and blue-grey hair flared half-memories in Dusk’s mind, while she put a hand on her hip. Dressed in a soft white blouse and blue jeans, The mare glared up at him, her cornflower blue horn stood out for some reason in Dusk’s passing memories. “Really, Dusk? I know we weren’t friends at University, and you’ve had a busy couple of months, but still, you don’t remember my name?” A coy grin curling her lips suddenly, the mare took a step closer, grinning. “Don’t have a single flashback to Twinkleshine and Lemon Hearts at the very least?”

Even as she spoke, Dusk’s memory flared to his last day in Canterlot, and an encounter with three mares. As sudden as the realization hit, his jaw dropped, and his eyes went wide. “Wait, Colgate!? What are you doing here in Ponyville??” Stunned by the revelation that a mare from his school might be hanging around, running a booth in a small town like Ponyville, his mind demanded answers.

Laughing warmly at the nickname, the mare stepped forward, playfully flicking the older stallion on the horn, while flashing him her bright smile. “My name is Minuette, Dusk. Colgate was just a nickname the mares at school gave me.” At his questions, the mare offered an easy shrug, grin wide. “As for why I’m here, that’s simple enough. My uncle runs a shop for fine tobacco in Canterlot, and during the summer break, I work for him. Last year, he had such success selling to some rich merchant from Ponyville, he figured why not try setting up a booth here.” Leaning in close, the filly whispered to him, grinning excitedly. “Truth be told, except for Mister Rich, I think uncle’s products are a little too expensive for most of the locals, besides yourself of course.”

The jolt of shock that tingled through his body at even that casual flick of her finger to his horn caused a tremor of pleasure to ripple down his spine and echo out to the rest of his body. Wide-eyed, yet amused by her playful banter, Dusk crossed his arms over his chest and shook his head. “Well I do apologize for that, Minuette. I guess hearing their nickname for you so often, I never thought to ask.” Unable to help but laugh to himself at the mare’s suggestion that their product might be out of Ponyville’s price range, Dusk offered her a shrug. “Truth be told, my marefriend Rarity orders her own smokes directly from Canterlot. If you are going to be in town for a few days more, I will try to get her down here. She already has a nice case, but I am sure she would be willing to buy a few packs.” Lightly punching the mare’s shoulder, Dusk, winked to her. “Most of all to help out a friend from school.”

Laughing, Minuette couldn’t restrain her own wicked delight. “Seriously? A mare finally got your attention? That is a real shocker, Dusk! After you evaded our offer, Twinkleshine started to wonder if you were more of a coltcuddler.” Her playful tone, matched the evil grin she wore.

Equally amused, Dusk relaxed, sharing her humor. “I had that kind of reputation at college? Shows how little time I spent worrying about others. Truth be told, I had better go, I am hosting a guest from the griffon empire and really do not have a lot of time left before dinner. I hope we can talk again soon?” At her light, good natured ribbing and easy laughter, Dusk was glad to have yet another friend in town.

* * *

Dash and Gilda sat leaning back against the wooden fence that separated the school yard from the street. Relaxed as they were, the wait had been mounting on Gilda’s nerves, her normally snarky comments growing in number. “So just what’s the point of this wait? I know you said the kid’s under your watch, but is she really worth your time? I mean, come on, you’re the head of the weather team. Couldn't you just order one of your assistants to help her out, and we can go for drinks?”

Dash rolled her eyes, shaking her head up at her taller friend. “Come on, Gilda. You can’t really be serious. Why would I leave the kid’s training in someone else’s hands? You should know better than anyone else, if you want something done right, you gotta do it yourself and get your hands dirty.”

Gilda gave a grunt, rolling her eyes with disgust. “Fine. But, why this kid? You never much acted interested in teaching before. Besides, you said she’s a gimp, didn’t ya?”

Dash shot up to stand at her full height, crossing her arms defensively over her chest and glaring up at the griffon. “Hey now! Her wings are a little stunted in growth, that doesn’t mean that she’s a gimp, Gilda. Besides, she has a lot of talent. In the few weeks I’ve been helping her out, she has already mastered the standing backflip. Underdeveloped wings or not, she has a real knack for acrobatics.”

Dash’s passion for the filly caught gilda’s attention, and drew the larger woman to step forward, fingers stroking across Dash’s jaw. “Mmmm, I like it when you get all hot and fiery like this. How about we blow the lesson off early at the very least, and go back to your place. I can smell how much you want to-”

The sudden boisterous sound of Scootaloo’s voice cut Gilda off mid-sentence. “Rainbow Dash! Gilda! Sorry for keeping you waiting so long!” Running across the field alone, the young filly rushed headlong as fast as she could, panting for breath when she made it to their side, but looking up to the two mares, her eyes dancing with wonder. “I got out as soon as Miss Cheerilee would let me go! Sorry for making you wait!”

Suddenly very torn between exactly what Gilda was hinting at and Scoot’s grinning face, Dash needed a second to swallow back her own emotions, before turning away from Gilda to wrap an arm around the filly’s shoulders and pull her in close. “Now Scoots, this here is Gilda, a griffon mollen, what we call a mare, an adult woman. She’s also the niece of the current ambassador, so don’t screw up or I’m gonna look like a fool, ya got me?”

Like an overly excited fool, Scootaloo grinned widely and nodded heavily, delighted at being able to have a chance to show off what Dash had taught her. Stepping away from Dash’s girp, she stood tall, unfolding the orange expanse of her wings, proof of Dash and Redheart’s hard work clear in her healthy, fuller plumage. “No problem, Dash! I already stretched before during class. Should I start with tumbling? Or maybe the flips?”

Shifting to settle in against Gilda’s side, Dash shook her head and rested herself into the crook of Gilda’s arm. “Do the whole routine in order. And make it good, kid. Time to earn your dinner from last night!”

* * *

“Dashie!!! Do you gotta second!?” The sudden piercing sound of Pinkie’s voice broke Dash from her happy place, cuddled in against Gilda. For nearly forty minutes, Scootaloo had flipped, tumbled, sprung, and rolled to her delight. Now breathless, Pinkie charged into the school yard, bright grin and offered a warm wave to Scootaloo as she interrupted her performance. “Oh, sorry, Scoots! I just really needed to talk to Dash.” Turning back to the mare and griffon resting against the fence, she stepped up, offering Gilda her biggest ‘Welcome to town, friend!’ smile. “Sorry for interrupting you too, Gilda! But Mister and Misses Cake had a bunch of questions for Dash’s special order and I really needed to make sure I got everything right! After all, we’re going to have a hero’s feast tonight in her honor. Can’t skimp on the details or we might make Ponyville’s hero mad!”

For her part, Gilda simply gave a bored half shrug, “Whatever,” she casually responded, “gives me a chance to speak with the kid. You two run along and talk details, I can find my way to wherever it is you wind up. I’m good at hunting down Dash.”

Reluctant to go, yet only for a moment as she looked back over her shoulder at Scootaloo, the way the young filly beamed with joy made Dash relax, and nod. “Fine, Pinkie. Scoots? Take everything Gilda says seriously. She helped me out at flight school, so I’m sure she has some good advice for you, too.”

Even as Dash and Pinkie started to walk into town, Scootaloo ran to the wooden fence, jumping up to the second highest rung and stood with her knees braced against the top waving excitedly even as they walked away without looking back at her. Turning to grin up at the giant griffon, Scoot flashed her a smile. “So, Gilda?? What do you think? I’m really good now thanks to Dash, Right?!”

Rolling her eyes, she turned to check on Dash as she rounded the corner, disappearing from sight. This last detail confirmed, Gilda turned to the filly, leveling her piercing yellow glare on the girl. “Do you want the truth, kid? It’s not good. How old are you, really? Fourteen? Tell me the truth, are your wings half rotten? ‘Cause there ain't no way someone even half your age shouldn't be able to fly by now.”

Shocked, shivering and devastated at the aggressive, brutal words of the griffon, Scootaloo could only stare dumbfounded up at her. Her lower lip quivering in fear, the filly attempted to bring herself to speak. “But, Dash and Roseheart said that-”

Her daunting yellow eyes locking on the filly, Gilda hissed a snort of derision. “Said what? That they can fix your wingrott? That you might fly someday if you eat your greens and exercise every day? Be realistic, squirt. You’re missing half your pinion feathers and most of your flight muscles. You’ll be lucky if you ever learn to glide competently. The fact Rainbow Dash feels so bad for you, that she spends so much time every day hiding that fact from you is a kindness on her part, but really, you should do the mature thing, and stop wasting Dash’s time.”

Her eyes welling up with tears, Scootaloo gazed up at Gilda, lip quivering as she burbled with fear and sorrow. Looking around in hopes of finding Dash, or anyone else, Scootaloo realized she was all alone. Whimpering, she turned away from the griffon and bolted, blindly running off across the field, away from town.

With a snort, Gilda turned to look towards town again, one hand reaching into her pocket for a cheap pack of Silver Feather’s and her lighter. Lighting up a smoke, she took a long, deep pull, hissing her breath out her nostrils. “Well, that’s one nuisance out of the way.”

* * *

Dusk’s insistence to keep the "Hero's Feast" a small and private affair had been met with some resistance, some pouting, and ten tons of Pinkie Pie's unique and homemade brand of circular logic. But in the end, he had argued the scatterbrained mare down to a guest list of eleven. Now sitting around the table with Dusk were Gilda to his left (by griffon custom, so his weak side was exposed to her), then Rarity (another griffon custom, so that his 'alpha' had the same opening on Gilda as she did on him), then came Rainbow Dash, Applejack, Pinkie Pie, Fluttershy, Sweetie Belle, and approaching Dusk’s right side came the last three, Aura (who was happy to talk school gossip with Sweetie), her father Davenport, and at Dusk's right hand the mayor herself.

Despite Barb’s insistence she could handle the work alone, Dusk had gone with AJ to get her some help. Bartering a proper price for the assistance of two mares from the labor board with service experience had been expensive, but thanks to them, the young dragoness was not being forced to handle the whole process by herself. Standing at Gilda’s side, Barb poured her another glass of the drink she had picked out. “Another visit from ‘The four horsemen’, Gilda?”

Dusk did everything he could to try avoiding a wince as Gilda drained the rest of her own shot glass, plunking it down on the table by her plate while grinning down at the dragoness. “Of course! And Dusk wants another too, right?”

Green around the gills, Dusk pulled up his own shot glass, pulling hard at the rich drink and sweating profusely as the harsh liquor stormed his veins. Another griffon tradition was kicking him in the teeth, as a host was expected to keep pace with his guest, and six glasses in, dinner was only just being served. Swallowing back and wiping his brow with a napkin, Dusk offered a nod to Barb, voice quivering a little. “And a large glass of water. I’m a tad parched.”

Worried for him, Barb gave a nod before rushing off back to the kitchen. What the others hadn’t noticed was Fluttershy excusing herself. Meekly, the mare placed her hand on Barb’s shoulder, causing her to jump, which in turn scared the pink-haired mare, causing her to whimper and step back. Once the mare was able to compose herself, she said to Barb in a low voice, “I, um… I thought I could offer something you could sneak into Dusk’s water. It’s an herb that helps absorb alcohol, and its clear like water, so people won’t think he’s playing a trick on her… if you don’t think he would mind, that is.”

Grateful, Barb took the offered pouch, and poured in the measured amount as written on the label, blushing herself. “I’ve never seen Dusk have more than three glasses of wine, four at the most. These griffon traditions are bad for his health, I swear!”

Even as Barb moved to return to the dining guests, Fluttershy at last noticed the platter of raw red meats that had been prepared for Dusk and Gilda. Turning a little green herself, the mare ran to the bathroom, just like she had claimed when she excused herself earlier, only now she really needed the trip.

Rarity ended up finding her there, sobbing over the toilet and chewing on a bitter leaf from her herb pouch to get rid of the taste of her latest ejection. Stepping lightly, the mare sat on the edge of the tub, her fingers stroking tenderly through those luscious pink locks. “I had a feeling you were gone for too long. All that meat was just too much for you, wasn’t it?” When Fluttershy only offered a curt nod, she started to softly hum, her fingers still stroking at the younger mare’s hair, while she leaned in, whispering into her ear. “Don’t worry, my pet, mistress will make all the bad people leave you be. If you wish to go home and lay down until I am done here, I will bring you some dinner.”

Shocked at Rarity’s open use of her status as a pet, the pegasus’ jaw went slack, and the leaf in her lips fell into the remains of her lunch at the bottom of the toilet. Lower lip quivering, she leaned in, wrapping her arms around Rarity’s hips and pulling her head in tightly. But her voice was different, icy cool and level. “No, mistress. I’ll be good, I promise. I want to be here, to support my mistress’ stallion. Please?”

Glad to see Fluttershy getting a grip on herself, Rarity continued her stroking attention with long, deftly affectionate fingers. When the last shivers and quivers left the mare, Rarity gave a small nod, and stood. “If you are good, I will still find you a proper treat, pet. You have earned one, after all.” Leaning in, she gave the mare two soft kisses on the throat, before one was placed on the slight hint of her exposed cleavage, the low moan Fluttershy released at that touch giving Rarity quite the reason to smile. Peeling free of her pet, Rarity straightened her own hair. “Now, let’s get back before we are missed.”

At the dining table, Dusk had long since passed queasy, and was well on his way to outright feeling like everything in his stomach was rotting and revolting simultaneously. But as Gilda extended the silver tongs towards the dinner platter before Dusk, her words made his eyes roll back in his head. “Now, what do you think, Dusk? I rather liked the rump roast. The liver was a little too rich, but the kidneys were a real treat. Maybe try another slice of the rump? Or just go for the loin?”

Shockingly, even as Dusk attempted to answer, it was Dash who interrupted, her voice dull, maybe even bored. “I think you’re just going for thirds to see how far you can really push Dusk. Admit that he’s proven the food isn’t poisoned and the drinks are good so he can relax before he ends up sleeping in the bathtub, Gilda. Or hasn’t he proven himself to be a good host already?”

Gilda’s wings flared, ruffled, and resettled back down again in a single motion as if signaling her own annoyance at Dash without responding to her directly. When she settled back on Dusk, it was almost as if she had looked at him for the first time, her voice almost shocked. “Oh my! Dusk, you’re turning green! You must have gotten the piece someone let spoil. Better hit the can and clean yourself up, we got a heck of a night to go, still.”

Even as Dusk went to the bathroom, the sound of someone opening the door after him and locking it once inside wasn’t really a shock. The shock was that it was Rainbow Dash, not AJ, Barb, Fluttershy, or heck, even Rarity. Swallowing back and flashing her a grin, he stooped low over the sink, and splashed the cold water onto his face and into his hair. As it soaked in, he couldn’t help but groan a little with pleasure as the moisture relieved even a portion of the heat that burned in his cheeks.

When she thrust a cup under the water and poured it over the back of his head, Dusk almost jumped out of his skin, yet the cool moisture did it’s job quickly, further soothing his own headache. When he turned to look up at the mare, she offered a shrug, her voice very quiet and distant. “I don’t know why she makes such a big deal in situations like this, Dusk. She’s the daughter of an ambassador of the Griffon Empire for Celestia’s sake!” Even before Dusk could answer, Dash punched the wall, the noise of knuckles cracking punctuating the vehemence of her frustration. “It’s like she just sees us all as amusing toys to fuck around with from time to time, like she thinks this is all a game or something! She should know how serious tonight is. Celestia told me all about the pardon.” When Dusk’s blank stare was leveled at her in return, it really began to sink in for the mare. “You were never told, were ya? What a fucking laugh.”

Dusk’s mind was now a rush of questions and answers. There had been rumors about why the old ambassador left Cloudsdale so suddenly one night a little over a year ago. Something about a group of stallions and… Dusk gently took the mare’s wrist, pulling her swelling knuckles under the cold flowing tap, letting the water work its wonders while he looked into her eyes. “Dash, I think Luna set this up as a test for me. But if we are to fix things, I need to know it all. I need to know why the ambassador went home, why you got the job here, and why... why Gilda is really here.”

Only now, this close together, holding her as the water soothed her bruised knuckles, did Dusk realize Dash’s heat was still in force. Adding smell of a mare to the list of things he didn’t need tonight, Dusk gave her a grin, and tried to ignore his body’s commentary on everything from her hair, to the way she held her hips against his thigh, and the swishing and swaying, of her tail back and forth, across his- “It started when Gilda got caught with a stallion… No, he was really more of a colt, to tell the truth..."

* * *

Dash moaned into Gilda’s invasive kiss, the press of the powerful griffon’s lips to her own made her heart race and blood boil. In return, she thrust her hands down the back of the larger woman’s pants, cupping the curve of her ass and raking her nails across the flesh. The hiss of breath over her cheek was all the sign Dash needed to know she had picked right, and now her hand lifted, descending to slap the more powerful woman’s ass. But before she could make impact, a hand grabbed her wrist, and twisted it around her back.

After that, it all happened at once. Three mares dressed in royal guard armor were restraining Gilda, while Dash could hardly raise her eyes to look to the stallion who held her. But the voice was all she needed to hear. “Why, Dash? I told you she was trouble. You know what she did to those colts. I trusted you, Dashie…”

The tears on his cheeks hurt more then her wrist as he held her arm pinned at her back. Then came the sudden, violent roar and a mare’s body impacted into the house to her left. Gilda flew after the limp woman, throwing herself violently at Rainbow Blitz, her warcry echoing from the depths of her throat.

Dash was paralyzed, watching the two go tumbling over the rooftop, and into the open sky below, the retired Wonderbolt wrestling with the powerful griffon girl easily three inches taller then him, and fifty pounds heavier. Her father-

* * *

“Dad kicked her teeth in.” Dash almost laughed as she said the words, her cheeks turning red from tears. Yet somehow, it felt good to say it. Resting her head back against Dusk’s shoulder, the mare swallowed and shook her head. “Gilda never really got a handle on weather control, so once he got free of her, he got the clouds moving and let her have it, building up one rager of a storm around her. When she wouldn’t give up, he finally zapped her, probably two or three times. Then, the ambassador showed up. Now THAT was a scene.”

Dusk realized that Dash was still glossing over details, skipping the most uncomfortable parts, and trying to get to the end. But this story rang with a lot more of the truth, and made Dusk relax despite himself. “So the ambassador left Cloudsdale to protect his niece from our legal system. Now things are making sense. So why is she back now?”

Dash pulled a towel in her free hand, and wiped her eyes clear, before shaking her head and looking up at him in the mirror’s reflection. “When we saved Princess Luna, Celestia brought me in. She had seen the ambassador’s request for clemency on Gilda’s behalf and wanted me to have a chance to explain myself.” Dash laughed to herself a little, shaking her head. “Truth is, Dusk? I think until just now, I still felt something for her, bitch that she is. There is… this fire when she looks at you. It’s just so powerful and makes you feel like the only thing in the world when those yellow eyes look into your own. Know what I mean?” When he gave her a nod, she blushed, shaking her head. “So, what do we do now Dusk? Do we ask her to leave? It’s not like she has any reason to stay anymore, I-” Dash fell silent, her nose resting against Dusk’s throat.

Turning off the tap and biting his lower lip to stop the list of things he wanted to do right now with the mare in his arms, Dusk gave her a smile instead, shaking his head. “She is… was your friend, Dash. For now, let us just see what she wants here. Between the two of us, I am sure we can find some way to make peace. And if not...” He let his voice drift off for a moment, before winking to her. “Well, we have learned a hell of a lot about griffons today.” Their shared laughter accompanied them back to the dinner table.

* * *

Scootaloo hadn’t bothered to turn on the lights. It meant the house was dark and cold, but she didn’t care. “Dash lied?” Dinner had been made and left in the icebox for her, yet for some reason, she hadn’t bothered to eat it. She wasn’t hungry. “And Redheart?” Sitting in the dark against the porch window, she was faintly aware her lips were chapped by the cold breeze drifting through the open door, and her cheeks burned. “Why, Dusk? Why, Cadence?” A feather twisted in her fingers, the blood on its tip still wet. The pain on her back was just a dull murmur. “She’s right. Weak, thin, and brittle. No real pegasi has feathers like that.”

* * *

Dusk never stopped to consider just how much of Dash’s scent had rubbed off on him... until he moved to sit down at the table. Only then did he catch a whiff of the clinging scent of mare-heat on his clothing. Wincing, Dusk hoped against hope that Gilda and the mayor would not notice it's lingering presence.

As dinner continued, Gilda’s disdainful attitude appeared to mellow, her sweeping yellow eyes settling on Fluttershy. Calling over the table, her first question was one Dusk had never expected. "So 'shy, do you find Ponyville more your groove? You always felt, I dunno... uncomfortable? Sorta out of place in Flight School."

Mellowed or not, Gilda’s voice carried weight and volume over the rest of the ponies who had been in smaller, and private conversions. As all eyes turned to the meeker pegasus, Fluttershy was too busy gushing with joy while replying to notice she was the center of attention. "Oh, Gilda! You'd never believe how much better things are around here than in Cloudsdale! Instead of just the occasional bird who makes a nest, we have hundreds of little critters that roam around the countryside. Why, we even have a small colony of bunnies near Ponyville! They are so cute! And helpful too! My assistant Angel Bunny is a wonder!"

* * *

“ACHOO!”

Angel's sneeze almost caused the birds that were currently trying to place some boards in front of the windows to drop them. Wincing a little, he returned to directing them again. "Sorry about that. Where were we? Oh yeah, a little to the left... there you go!" Angel adjusted his hard hat, the effort of organizing the animals to help fortify Fluttershy's cottage had been wearisome, but as Harry the Bear took up a hammer to pin down the new boards securing a window, he felt pride in their success. Windows were being boarded up, the door now had many more locks, and a few alligators now patrolled the water under the bridge leading up to Fluttershy's secluded cottage.

Leading the other animals inside, Angel turned to inspect the very long sign that was also placed by the door. Harry's questioning voice took him by surprise. "You sure all this is necessary, Angel?" The bear asked, adjusting the safety vest Angel had forced him to wear.

"You gotta be kidding, right Harry? A GRIFFON is in town! I’d rather be safe than sorry." Angel said with a shrug. "Which reminds me, here." Reaching through the open door he retrieved a metal bat from inside, offering it up to the confused anthro bear. "If you see ANYTHING with brown and white feathers, and a noticeable trace of tobacco smoke and red meat, just give her a wailing."

Harry gave a shrug, resting the metal stick on his shoulder. After they were all done, and all the animals were safely inside, the two went inside, the sound of various locks locking heard shortly afterwards.

Dangling from a nail by the door, Angel's notice made matters clear:

Criteria to enter this cottage:

* Animal in need of care

* Animal whom lives here

* Meek yellow winged pegasus who owns this home.

* Tomboyish blue winged pegasus who is not with a dangerous threat, mostly.

* Bookish lavender horned unicorn.

* White horned unicorn fashionista.

* Green eyed apple farmer earth pony or her family.

* Pink poofy-haired party animal earth pony

* And anyone who can prove they don't have the following qualities: Eagle's eyes, Lion's strength, Giant wings, and taste for raw meat.

Written below in a fine, if shaky, hand in very small writing was a final note. "Thank you for your time and have a nice day! And should anyone possessing those last few qualities attempt to come in, we have a grizzly bear armed with a baseball bat and we're not afraid to use him!"

* * *

Dusk was honestly mildly shocked when Gilda and Dash each asked for a second serving of the decadent strawberry and whipped cream for dessert. Rarity laughed right along with Pinkie as a white gob of the thick and fluffy goo ended up sticking to AJ's nose. All and all, dinner had wound up a success. Reaching into his jacket pocket, Dusk retrieved the silver cigar case, a simple red bow tied over the gift. "Now, at last, Gilda, I’d like..." Dusk paused, laughing a little at himself. "Sorry, sorry. I think I have had a little too much to drink."

Clearing his throat and standing, Dusk presented the silver case to the griffon guest, his voice more official as he forced duty and respect to team up and kick intoxication out the door. "I want to thank you for respecting our rules and laws. You gave up the last smoke you had, it only felt right that I replace it."

Suddenly silent, the room watched as Gilda extended an arm and, for the first time that day, did something delicately. Stroking her fingers across the embossed images of both Cloudsdale and the sunset before drifting over to Canterlot she was in awe. For once, her eyes did not have that hunter’s edge to them as she looked up at the stallion, her mouth agape. When she found her voice, it was far softer, and maybe even a little humbled, if still her usual gruff self. "Dusk, I've no need for such a shiny bobble. I justed wanted a new pack of damn smokes."

Laughing at her friend, Dash called over the quiet table. "It's Dusk, open it up and you'll probably find a pack of smokes and a book on how to stop smoking.”

The laughter from the room was unified, even as Dusk blushed and tried to cover his eyes. Just as Dash had guessed, there really was a small self help book squeezed into one half of the case. He had probably spent two hours finding one in the bazaar's limited selection. Even then, he had to remove the cover and spine to fit the book inside. Shaking her head, the griffon stood, enveloping Dusk in a hug while snorting at his foolish goodnatured attempt to 'help'. "See, Dash? Told you he was a giant walking egghead." Rolling her eyes while walking away, she called over her shoulder. "Let's get going before they try to get us to join some nerd cult or something with all these silly bribes."

And like that, dinner was over. The mayor and Fluttershy found Barb babysitting Aura and Sweetie Belle in Dusk’s room, and with her little sister in tow, Rarity headed home, a single kiss blown back to Dusk before she disappeared with Pinkie and Fluttershy into the night. The mayor and Davenport lasted no longer, the father carrying the young filly on his shoulders as she passed out over his back. In the end, Dusk found himself standing alone on the porch step, when Applejack's arm slipped around his hips.

"You'd better pay the mares and send them home, Dusk. It's late enough and they did well. Already cleaned the kitchen and almost all the dishes too. I'd say they earned a few bits extra since Barb left them alone so early on to help with the fillies."

Applejack’s words made sense, and Dusk might have bothered to agree with her, but the sudden movement and noise of everypony leaving had reminded him of just how many drinks he had tonight. Deciding to linger instead in the senseable mare’s grip, he gave a few soft nods. After a few minutes of mutual silence and comfort, Dusk’s brain knocked back into gear and his voice raised to call out to the two labor board workers. "I am sorry! Bonbon! Junebug! It is very late. Come collect your pay, it is more than time for you to head home."

* * *

Minuette was still getting a feel for her new residency at the bordering house. The tobacco business paid well enough so far, but with as quiet as Ponyville got, she didn't dare risk spending too much of her hard earned bits on an extravagant room.

Now returning to her temporary home after midnight after an 'extended business dinner', she worried, even as the key turned in the lock. "Keep it quiet. She only works part time, but she isn't just your roommate, she’s also the landlord."

Any attempts she made at silence turned out to be wasted in the end, as from up the street, a familiar voice called out just as she stepped through the door. "Minuette! Hold it for me, dear!"

"Damn! Caught!" Freezing up in the doorway, Minuette quickly picked at threads and threw a grin over her shoulder to the mare approaching her. Only when she was close enough to answer without having to yell did she respond. "Oh my! You're out quite late. Have a hot date tonight?"

Stepping inside together and relocking the door, Bonbon put on the voice and attitude of a petulant filly being scolded by her mother. "Not like we could'a had any fun with listening in on the other side of the door, mom!" As both mare’s shared a laugh, Bonbon lifted a heavy container. "You wouldn't believe me if I told you half of what happened tonight! Remember how I mentioned that I take work with the labor board when things are slow?

At Minuette’s cautious nod, she continued, her voice that of an excited gossip. "Well, Dusk Shine and one of his mares came and hired some waiting staff for a big dinner event with the mayor and a griffon! It was super short notice and experienced staff only! You should have seen how many people AJ made Ginger Gold cross off the list. Finally, I just HAD to step in and offer to take the shift!" She stopped, giggling at her renter's dumbfounded look. "What? Ginger has treated me well in the past, and it was an easy excuse to get the best gossip in town!"

Peeling open the tub, she revealed to Minuette a treasure trove of fresh strawberries in whipped cream. "Help yourself. I already have so much to share and it was a gift from Dusk for staying so late."

Minuette daintily took one of the floating strawberries from the collected mass atop creamy white waves of the rich ocean inside the heavy bowl. Swirling it around to collect a little of the rich fluffy cream, Minuette couldn’t help herself, a rich moan of delight hissing between her clenched teeth while a random squirt of fresh juice dribbled down her chin. "That's just... fantastic!"

Laughing at the younger mare, Bonbon dug into a few treats herself before returning to her story. "So then we started the pre-service, and you wouldn't have guessed the weird kind of drinks that griffon ordered!"

* * *

"I think she tried to give him a kiss on the cheek! In Celestia's name, I swear!" Giddy already, the two mares burst out in shared fits of laughter.

Picking the last strawberry and rubbing it around the rim of the bowl in hopes of finding some last hidden lick of cream to scoop up, Minuette popped it in her mouth and groaned a little, shaking her head and planting it on her crossed arms on top the table. "You're really a master of weaving a story. Come on! Sure, she liked the gift, but why would a griffon try and kiss a stallion? I bet she has a full foot of height over him."

Snorting a little in her own amusement, Bonbon took the dry bowl and placed it in her sink, spraying it down with a light mist before leaving it to soak. "Honest." She snickered, shaking her head. "It's way too late. I've got a train to Canterlot just before noon. Can you clean up for me?"

Suddenly perking up, Minuette quickly offered a nod, her voice hardly hiding her own excitement. "Sure. If I give you a letter, can you drop it in the mail when you get to Canterlot? I've been meaning to write to my uncle and a few of my family."

Bonbon gave a nod, grinning to the unicorn mare. "Sure thing. Always glad to help any renter whose as tidy as you've been."

"Then I'll leave it on the table with postage. Thanks again, Bonbon." Running swiftly upstairs, she took up paper and quill, humming softly to herself while scribbling. "Dear Uncle M. Eddler..."

* * *

Dash couldn’t believe how much better she felt with dinner over. She and Gilda talked the whole walk home, enjoying themselves just like they had in the old days. Leaning heavily on her older friend, Dash unlocked her house, the key moving slickly into the lock. Looking up to Gilda, she flashed a grin. “So, I don't normally host or such, but uh... there’s a spare room down the hallw-"

Cut off by Gilda’s knowing grin, Dusk stammered as the larger woman shoved both her hands into her tight shorts, fingers stroking over her private flesh, and lingering in the moisture of Dash’s own heat. Whispering into her ear, the griffon’s voice oozed with lust. "Come on, Dash. We're having a good time, but you're not going to tell me that quickie with Dusk in the bathroom was enough to sate a wild child like you."

Dash’s mind was suddenly torn between the wet and primal need in her loins, and memories of Gilda's abusive treatment, of Dusk, and her friends. Closing off her own moaning throat, Dash forced herself to swallow back the pleasure rising from Gilda’s wantonly exploring digits. Hissing between her clenched teeth, Dash's voice was restrained. "Gilda, not tonight. We've both had way too much 'ta drink. Wouldn't be any real fun." A half-lie by omission, she wanted it so bad, she could feel the moisture coating her thighs and Gilda’s unrelenting digits.

Rather than groan in annoyance like Dash had expected, Gilda flashed her a lewd smile, her wet digits popping free of the mare’s private parts. Lifting her wet fingers to plush pink lips, Gilda’s eyes had returned to that raptor stare, locking it and unrelenting. Licking the moisture from her own digits in painful slow care, she arched one eyebrow at Dash. "Sure. We can play hard to get, Dash. But when you remember who you belong with, you better hope I haven't worn myself out with someone who knows her place... or his?" Cackling, the griffon went down the empty hall, making her way to the spare bedroom. She did not close her door.

Alone and panting for breath, Dash let go of her lip and winced at the pain from biting down so sharply. The thick scent of her heat tormented her all the way to her bedroom, and clung to her sheets. Aggressive work with fingers and the lingering scent of apples got her through the aching need, but lingering lust told her it wasn't over. And Gilda's last words before stumbling to bed, that suggested threat brought back memories she had still not fully found peace with. "Tomorrow. I have to tell Dusk everything this time. If I don’t, then Dusk might be..."

* * *

In hindsight, Redheart should have known something was wrong. As late as she was getting home, Scootaloo was never in bed this early. The breeze blowing through the house made her shiver, and as she stepped inside and looked around, the smell that hit her was as fresh as any source at the clinic she had just left. But before that had even registered, words left her mouth unbidden, her frustration unmasked. “Scootaloo! You can’t be leaving the porch door open like that! Are you in bed already? Or-” And then her nose and eyes caught up with one another. The filly sat not ten feet away, her orange wings unfurled and one bloody flight pinion was held between her fingers.

Twisting that one feather back and forth, the simple way she asked Redheart only one question still managed to feel like a brutal slap in the face. “Why tell me I might fly someday? Was it fun to make me dream the impossible?” The hollow tone of the filly’s voice was not accusatory, but broken. And the distant way her glazed-over eyes looked past Redheart made the mare’s namesake skip a beat.

The sight of the small filly’s still-bleeding root, chapped lips, and wind-beaten face all broke what little restraint Redheart had felt. Forgetting the front door, she ran to the girl’s side, a clean towel pulled from the shelf, along with a bottle of antiseptic alcohol. Pouring some of it over the girl’s wing to kill any possible infection, Redheart wrapped Scootaloo in a hug, pulling her close and holding the back of the filly’s head. “Dear Celestia no, Scootaloo. I swear we did nothing of the sort. If Princess Cadence is right about your condition, in a year or two, three at the most, you’ll be as healthy as any foal in the schoolyard.”

Swallowing back the tears that kept running down her cheeks, Scootaloo looked up at the mare who held her, her voice full of pain, yet with a quiver of hope. “But I’ll never be able to fly!”

Shaking her head and pulling the filly close, Redheat could hardly restrain the questions she really wanted to ask, an aching need to know what had caused the girl such painful doubt. Instead she calmly placed a hand into the girl’s short and wild hair, brushing it down. "I promise you, Scootaloo, everything we told you is true. When Princess Cadence comes back for your three-month checkup, we can go over the other mares she helped in the past, ok? But for now, let me find your good winter coat. It's cold out and we need to take proper care of that wing."

Something in the older mare's calm confidence and concern reached Scootaloo, dispelling the fear she had been wallowing in. After truly looking at her wing, she groaned out at her own stupidity. "Dash is going to notice right away, isn't she?"

Kissing the top of her head, Redheart shook her head. "If we clean it properly, and you promise to never do this again, then I promise I won't tell her. Deal?"

At last climbing free of Redheart's grip, Scootaloo offered the mare a serious look. "Pinkie promise?"

A little startled and set back, Redheart looked down, into the once more hopeful eyes of her adopted filly. Willing to humor her to keep that flame alive, she pressed the girl on the matter. "Pinkie promise? I'm not familiar with that- unless, is it something that Pinkie Pie came up with?"

Managing a small grin despite herself, Scootaloo stood up properly, reciting Pinkie’s pledge from memory. "Cross My Heart, Hope to Fly, Stick a Cupcake in my Eye!" Miming the actions as she spoke, in the end fake shoving a cupcake on her own face. Realizing the odd look Redheart was giving her, she gave a shrug. "What? Pinkie told me a secret at work. And then she made me Pinkie Promise that I'm not to share it with anypony."

Unable to stop herself from laughing just a little, the mare would mimic Scootaloo's performance, including the cupcake-to-the-eye. The warming laughter from her filly made the silly act worthwhile. Done, she offered the girl her winter coat, careful around the still-oozing broken pinion feather's stub. "Now that we're good, Scootaloo. Let's get your wing looked at."

* * *

Ironic, that Scootaloo had made her promise in such a unique way. For twenty minutes later, Redheart found herself helping her own staff out with that very mare, while the nurse on duty tonight was busy with Scootaloo in the next room over. Still torn between a defensive need to protectively care for the filly and the anger swelling in the pit of her stomach. She was so distracted by her inner turmoil, that she wasn't giving Pinkie’s excuse for how she had scraped her forehead got half the attention so wild a story earned. "And then I said 'But it's a surprise sleepover, Angel! Why would I knock if it's meant to be a surprise!??' And poor Harry the Bear was really apologetic, but said with Gilda in town, Angel had ordered him to take no chances with strangers breaking into Fluttershy's cottage, and I was all like-!" And here Pinkie stopped the endless rambling story to take a deep and sudden dramatic gasp of breath.

It was only during Pinkie’s momentary silence that Redheart had a chance to notice the one detail from her story that tugged at her memory. Cutting the mare off before she could continue, she picked at that budding thought. "Who is this Gilda? I don't recognize that name, Pinkie."

Cocking her head to the right, Pinkie’s eyes shot wide and she again gasped, this time in shock. "You haven't met Gilda yet!? She‘s a bit of a grouchy grumpy pants griffon, but she is also Dash’s oldest besty bestest friend, so she's got the best stories about their time in Flight School! She and Scootaloo were getting along well too when I came to get Dash’s help with planning her feast after school."

Redheart hardly realized she was standing until Pinkie’s quiet little 'uh oh' whispered into her ears. Restraint was far from her mind, though, as the scene now played out perfectly on her mind. "You left poor, innocent, impressionable little Scootaloo alone... with a griffon?" Passionate, her eyes blazed with a hate unnatural for her profession. Someone had hurt her dear little patient, and now she had a name. Gilda.

The serious change in Redheart's attitude already had Pinkie’s attention, but as the older mare got more focused on Gilda, Pinkie’s need to help came creeping forth. "I- err well, you see, we-" She stammered for a moment flailing about for a moment before finding some place she could focus her attention. "What happened to Scootaloo?"

The filly in question stepped out of the open door from the clinic room she had been in. The bloody mess from her snapped feather was cleaned up and the feather itself was removed at the root. Trying to hide a wince, she walked up to the station where Redheart was working on Pinkie, the watchful filly's eyes focusing on the the adults. "Hi, Pinkie! Hope you aren't mad, but I told Redheart what a Pinkie Promise is. But, don't worry! I didn’t break ours!"

Any sign of worry Pinkie might have been wearing before the filly entered the hall was thrown aside for a bright and cheery grin for Scootaloo's sake. Noddingly enthusiastically, she replied in her usual cheerful style. "I knew I could trust you, Scoots! You might as well head to the lobby and hang with the nurse, glueing my head back together is gonna take a few more minutes, ok?"

Goodnatured as Pinkie was, the filly was easily convinced to agree and she headed out. Only when she was out of earshot and sight did Pinkie slump, a frown crossing her once gleeful grin. "Something did happen. Poor Scoots."

Somewhere between enraged and empathetic, Redheart returned to cleaning the bruise on Pinkie’s forehead, a cotton swab carefully applied to clean away the last hints of dirt from the shallow wound. Keeping her voice level and quiet, Redheart watched for Pinkie’s reaction. "I found her sitting against the window, with the porch door wide open. She had snapped off one of her pinion feathers and questioned me if she would ever fly." As the bubbly Pinkie mare heard more of her story, a serious and firm look settled over the young mare. "So tell me, Pinkie, do I ask the mayor to summon a magistrate from Canterlot? Do I go to Dusk, when he is hosting the griffon that did that to her? Or do I-"

Pinkie’s soft grip on her arm distracted her enough to let her voice drift off on mid-sentence. When she looked into the younger mare’s eyes, a determined look stared back at her. "Give me until your shift ends tomorrow night. Please? If I can't prove to Dusk Gilda would do something so horrible to Scootaloo by then, call for a magistrate. But give me a chance before Dusk ends up humiliated." If her words spoke of protecting the stallion, however, the way her eyes lingered on the hall to where Scootaloo waited for them to finish spoke words on a different level.

Her anger tempered by Pinkie's serious change in nature, Redheart accepted the easy answer. "I'm not as close to Dusk as you mares are, but I admit that I don't want to see him embarrassed. You will have your day, but no more. I cannot allow someone who would so callously hurt a filly in my care go free."

* * *

Just before noon at the bazaar, the chill autumn breeze blew her short, wild, rainbow-coloured bangs over her eyes. The violent crack of a bolt of lightning rippled through the otherwise clear sky, pulling her gaze up to the sky. “Celestia damn it!”

Turning to look up at the sky with her, Gilda rolled her eyes, releasing an annoyed grunt. “Weather problems? Make the grunts deal with it. Why you gotta be so hands-on all the time?”

Dash bit her lip, her mind now racing between two suddenly conflicting duties. Even as Thunderlane and Cloudchaser shot into the air, she knew a storm brewing this quickly simply couldn’t be left to the part-timers. Yet there was Gilda, crossing her arms over her chest and locking those predatory, yellow eyes on her soul. Shuddering under the weight of that gaze, the second violent crash of lightning ripped her attention away, ending the debate. “Sorry, Gilda, I’ll be back in a flash, I swear!” Three quick steps built up her pace before she leapt into the air, her wings spreading wide and beating the air with casual ease. “Can’t let my crew get zapped!”

Grunting and rolling her eyes, Gilda never noticed two sets of eyes following her through the market. Walking with hauntly ease, she elbowed her way past a few of the crowd that had stopped to watch as two, three, then quickly seven pegasi rushed to cluster around the growing storm front as it began to move out from the Everfree forest, quickly moving to threaten Ponyville and nearby farms that had not yet finished with their harvest.

Giving one last push to shoulder through the last of the crowd, Roseluck suddenly found herself back in her doorway. Crying out at the rough assault, the mare glared up at her attacker. “Hey! Why not give people some warning at least!”

Towering over the mare, even standing on the step of her door, Gilda snorted in derision. “Oh shut up and go back to fantasizing about people that do actual work.” To empathize her point, Gilda turned, the short fur on the tip of her tail flicking out, snapping in the air before the shopkeeper before she stormed away across the open bazaar.

Behind a crate, Pinkie scribbled quick notes of the event before her eyes. “Gilda bashed Roseluck for standing in front of her store watching the weather team at work: Rude, not evil.” Realizing her target was getting away, Pinkie straightened her deerstalker and slipped out from her hiding spot, to scamper through the crowd, doing her best to stay out of sight, by not trying at all, and somehow succeeding. At last, out of Gilda’s line of sight, the rest of Ponyville simply accepted that this was Pinkie Pie, and didn’t question it.

* * *

The rapid and violent knocking at Dusk’s door pulled his attention from the book on his knees, his crossed eyes beginning to glare at the doorway. Before he could shift to stand up, Applejack’s voice called from the hallway, her boisterous tone cheerful. “Keep dusting the low spots while I get the door, Barb.” Dusk fished for his bookmark, slotting it into place and snapping his book closed. From the doorway, AJ’s cheerful voice warned him who was at the door. “Oh, hi... sorry Derpy!... Why the big package?”

Stepping to the library entrance, Dusk was hardly able to see the mail mare around the powerful earth mare who filled the doorway. Brushing a nervous hand through her sunny, yellow hair, Derpy blushed, resting the heavy crate on her knee, against the doorway. “Well um… the mail mare who brought the load on the train this morning said that this was Dusk’s order. Some kind of an emergency griffon-sized supply of raw meat?” She paused and stammered a little, flushing in embarrassment. “Oh, don’t tell me there is some mistake. Lugging this box all the way here gave me such a bad knot in my back.”

Grabbing the heavy crate from the far smaller mare, AJ made to casually rest the heavy crate on her shoulder, but Dusk caught a wince she tried to hide. Looking back over her shoulder, she arched a brow at him. “Dusk? What do you need done with this, sugarcube?”

Pouring his magic out to pull the crate from her arms, Dusk shook his head, his memory returning to Rarity’s warning the other day. “You did that by yourself, Derpy? You should go see Redheart, this was far too big of an order for any one mare to carry. I am sorry if we didn’t warn you properly.”

Even if Applejack had been trying to hide the stiff pain in her back, when Dusk drew the crate away with his magic, she leaned into the doorframe. “See? Ponyville’s most trustworthy mail mare comes through in a pinch! Got time for some tea or lunch? No reason we can’t thank ya properly, right Dusk?”

While Dusk directed the crate into the kitchen and Barb abandoned her work on dusting the hallway, the mail mare was quick to reply. “Oh, thank you Applejack! But Amethyst Star and Dinky were hinting we were going to do something for lunch today, so I wanted to get my rounds done A.S.A.P!”

Waving to the mare as she cheerfully turned and marched off, catching herself as she caught her foot on a loose paving stone on the walkway, but she prevented a spill by cartwheeling, aided by the rapid flick of her wings. Slipping his arm around AJ’s hips, he turned back from waving goodbye at the retreating mailmare. His voice worried, he kept his words soft, to avoid Barb listening in on their conversation. “Does it still hurt you that badly, dear?”

Wrapping an arm about his shoulders and rubbing her knuckles into his heavy bangs, AJ couldn’t help but snicker at him. “Ah, I’m fine sugarcube. Still a little stiff from overdoing it at the harvest, that’s all.” When he gave her his best incredulous glare, she lifted her hands, waving them defensively. “If it’s still bugging me tomorrow, I’ll go see the twins. They got magic fingers for back aches, ah promise!”

* * *

Pinkie’s notes had grown in the hour since Dash bolted off into the sky. Scribbling quickly, she lifted her head to level a glare at the griffon, even while Granny Smith bolted off towards Sweet Apple Acres. “Tricked Granny Smith with a rattle. Gave the old mare quite a shock. Still not evil, just mean.” In inspecting her list, she kept coming across the same issue with everything she had written down. “Roseluck, mean. Shoeshine, petty theft. (Pinkie noted that Dash owed her six bits, since she had left the coins behind to make sure the mare didn’t get in trouble for losing produce.). A half dozen other cases of the griffon gruffly pushing her way past ponies who were waiting politely in line, and three attempts to catcall random mares for a ‘real woman’s touch’. I really have nothing to take to Dusk, or even Redheart.”

A sudden cry from the other side of the booth Pinkie hid behind changed all that in an instant. Crashing into the product on the counter behind her head, Fluttershy’s whimper of pain and fear called to something in Pinkie that she couldn't ignore. Leaping from her hiding place, Pinkie landed upon the stall and called the griffon out. “Enough, Gilda! You’ve terrorized my friends too much already! And nopony, NOPONY pushes around Fluttershy like that! She’s my yellow, pink, and super-cute best friend!!”

The shock of Pinkie’s sudden appearance from behind the booth, not to mention the attention she had already gained by brutally hip checking Fluttershy out of her way meant almost the entire bazaar had stopped to stare at the sight before them. Growling from the base of her throat, Gilda sneared up at the mare. “Right, gimpy. I didn’t do nothing wrong, me and Muttershy just bumped into one another.”

Whimpering as so many turned to watch the scene, Flutteshy’s lower lip began to shake and quiver as thin streaks of suppressed tears escaped, despite her best efforts. When Pinkie turned to look down at her, Fluttershy simply couldn’t take it anymore. Turning and bolting past the gathering crowd, she raced from town, heading blindly towards her home.

Pinkie twisted to watch Fluttershy’s balling retreat, suddenly left with the bag and the whole town glaring up at her. Twisting back, she stamped her foot sharply down on the wood. “We’ll settle this later! And don’t think Dash and Dusk aren’t going to hear about this!” She then leapt down, chasing after the poor, bawling mare, with Gilda smirking all the while.

“Hey! What happened to my bag?” In the distance, the sound of one pony or another crying out in frustration at the discovery that apples had disappeared from her sack. Grinning to herself, Gilda suddenly found a wide berth offered for her passage, wherever she turned in the bazaar.

* * *

Pinkie had to race to finally catch up with Fluttershy, and the low-hanging tree branch really helped her catch up. Still bawling, Fluttershy sat there, hugging her knees against her chest, shivering a little as Pinkie approached. Not looking up, she spoke into her knees. “I… I’m sorry, Pinkie. I know you were watching Gilda for some reason, but I got busy looking at the booth, and the next thing I knew, everypony was glaring at me!”

Dropping to her knees, Pinkie wrapped her arms around Fluttershy’s neck and knees and hugged her close, resting her cheek to Fluttershy’s. “No. It’s not your fault. That Gilda is a bad egg… cub… seed… thing!” Darting her eyes from one side to the other, the mare arched a brow, turning her voice low. “I’ll let you in on a secret. I’m looking into Gilda for abusing Scootaloo for Redheart.”

Shocked, the normally docile Fluttershy suddenly forced her way out of Pinkie’s arms, her timid nature lost as she turned back towards town, ready to storm around Pinkie and back towards the market. “What??! She did what to Scootaloo? Why, I’ll- I’ll…. I’ll knock that grumpy grouch into next week! Nopony should have to put up with a bully like her!”

Shocked at how quickly her friend reacted to her secret mission, Pinkie jumped up, putting her hands out to try and stop Fluttershy from making any more of a public scene. “Wait, wait, wait, wait. Wait! We should go talk to Redheart and Dusk. Now that Gilda attacked you in such a public place, not even Rainbow Dash will protect Gilda anymore.”

Fluttershy’s whimper as Pinkie’s hands touched her ribs ended that line of thought. Against ‘Shy’s protests, Pinkie peeled back her sweater, revealing a growing purple brown bruise on her right side. Gasping, Pinkie glared back over her shoulder. “That Gilda! Someone is going to have to teach her not to push such a pretty pony around.” And so, she grabbed Fluttershy’s hand, having her stand back up, to find medical attention.

* * *

Redheart had quick hands and a light touch, each an asset when dealing with an injured mare. But as Fluttershy shivered and whimpered at even her lightest touch, it made even her practiced hands nervous, her normally deft fingers suddenly feeling awkward. Stopping again, she looked up into the mare’s eyes, her voice strained. "Fluttershy, dear. Please, if it hurts that much, you have to let me give you something for it." The silent mare shook her head once, a firm rejection. "Just a local? Nothing strong enough to confuse you like before-" Again she gave that single sharp rejection, refusing to look up.

With her patience rushing headlong towards her limit, the sound of the door opening behind her instantly gained her full attention. Her leveled glare focused on it, yet as Scootaloo stepped through, she mellowed at the sight of who she had brought in with her. Dusk, Rarity, and Applejack made an imposing trio now that the gravity of the situation had sunk in. Barb followed suit, a clipboard of notes in hand and her quill running furiously over the page. "And make sure to request the magistrate to include the directive granting me emergency powers. I want permission to remove her by force if necessary. This farce has gone on for too long. If she refuses, go to Celestia directly. Gilda is not going to get away with any... of... this." Dusk's last directions trailed off as the sight of Fluttershy's battered figure came into focus.

The timid mare sat on the clinic bed, her heavy yellow sweater rolled up until the edge of her straining white bra was just barely visible, peaking out from under the fluffy top. Realizing what he had just walked in on, Dusk set a foot down and started an about-face, right in time with Fluttershy’s cry of shock at the stallion seeing her in her current state of partial undress. Rarity came to everyone’s rescue, taking four ardent steps across the floor before cupping the whimpering mare’s jaw and part of her ear between two fingers before giving it a sharp tug, her firm voice both calm and serious. “Now stop that, pet. Stop fidgeting for the nurse and stop whimpering. I brought Dusk here for you and you WILL be good.”

Once again, Rarity and Fluttershy’s unique relationship inspired both Dusk and Applejack to wonder about them. Fluttershy had not fallen silent, but instead quietly made soft mewling sounds, nuzzling into Rarity’s touch as she let her eyes close.

Only Redheart ignored the odd relationship, and returned to cleaning the scratches across her bruised side, calling out her report to Dusk. “No need to worry about this mare too much, Dusk. The bruise looks worse than it really is, she will just be a little sensitive for a little while.” Pausing to consider the mare she was speaking of, as Fluttershy tenderly kissed at Rarity’s cheek, Redheart rolled her eyes, correcting herself. “A little more sensitive than usual.”

Dusk shook his head, facing the wall or not, he was sure his point was clear. “That is good to hear, Redheart. And I am glad that Scootaloo is feeling better. I wish you and Pinkie came to me right away, but Gilda’s snarky, duplicitous nature should have tipped me off sooner.”

The sound of a commotion in the hallway was followed by the door suddenly being thrown open as Dash burst inside, Pinkie following close behind her. Frantic, Rainbow Dash dragged Scootaloo by the wrist, before protectively hugging the filly around the shoulders as she stepped up beside Redheart and Fluttershy. “Pinkie told me everything, are you alright, Fluttershy?” The rainbow-maned mare asked, panic clear in her voice as Pinkie looked at Dash with concern. Her whole mood had deflated at how torn up Dash had become when she told her about Scootaloo and Fluttershy.

Dusk turned around, leveling his glare at Rainbow Dash, yet before he could speak up, Barb’s sudden coughing fit signaled the arrival of a new letter. Peeling it open and reading aloud, the dragoness’ voice was kept official. “Dear Dusk, blah blah blah. Associated powers are granted, blah blah blah, Princess Celestia is awaiting your official report on this matter, blah blah blah.” She paused for a moment, her voice suddenly a lot more confused and hesitant when she continued again. “When asked if he wished input on the matter, the griffon ambassador stated and I quote: ‘Any problems Gilda created are the mollen’s own problem.’ ” The dragon fell silent for a while, before turning to look up at the stallion. “Dusk, he might as well have said he is removing his ambassadorial protection!”

Dusk found himself scratching his jaw, his eyes on Dash and her firm, yet protective, grip on Scootaloo’s shoulders. As Barb read the letter, he slowly gave a soft nod, voice level. “Then, if you're done, Nurse Redheart, we need to go confront Gilda. Her time in Ponyville... is over.”

* * *

Ponyville is lame.” Gilda had decided that this was as clear as day that she needed to do something about that. Already forming a mental list of things that needed to be taken out, starting with the stuffy mayor and any pony who even looked her way when she lit up a smoke. Leaning against city hall, the griffon huffed sharply, popping another of the rich Silver Feather’s Blacks between her lips. Gumming at the filter, she pulled her lighter from a pocket of her heavy jacket, fingers flicking the flame to life. Lifting the lighter towards the end of her cigarette, a sudden burst of magic suppressed the flame. “Who in the hell?”

Crossing the city square, Dusk was not restraining his magic as he had days before. His purple horn glowed with the ambient raspberry hue of power, while Dash, AJ and Pinkie moved to warn everypony in town to avoid the square. With Rarity at his side, Dusk’s voice rang out across the square. “Gilda, we need to talk. Your time in Equestria is over, at least, as a free guest. Surrender yourself peacefully. Princess Celestia has nullified your pardon and Dash is willing to testify to all of your past crimes.”

Sneering, Gilda flicked her lighter again, this time holding the flame against the tip of her cigarette, the tip catching flame and turning quickly to flickering red embers. Her haunting yellow eyes turned to lock on not Dusk, but the mare at his side, a grin curling her lips. “So, I get a little close to your Alpha male, and you get all defensive? Turn my own Beta on me too? Just like a pony, following Celestia’s method and ambushing me with your herd rather than a fair fight?”

Rarity wasn’t about to have any part of Gilda’s power plays, the griffon’s words rolled off her like water. Alighting her own white horn, her cornflower blue magic aura focused as she stepped to Dusk’s side. “We have your ambassador’s words on it, Gilda. He has pulled his protection, you’re on your own now.”

Gilda spat at the ground at her side, her wings expanding while she puffed a breath of smoke into the air. Dash and the other mares had turned to circle in on the three suddenly facing off in the center of town square. Gilda had an answer, however, popping a silver ring from the inner pocket of her jacket. Grinning with immeasurable overconfidence, she turned to level her glare at Dash. “You really think you’re better off with these dweebs than in my own hunting pack, Dash? I’ve been protecting you from useless people for years now. I can’t believe you’d turn on me like this, I’m your alpha.”

As Dusk and Rarity closed in on Gilda from one side, Dash, stood tall, her own eyes were reddened yet had a hard edge as she shook her head at her lost friend. “You’re no alpha. Dusk? Rarity? They run a better ship than you do. They look after weaker ponies and would rather suffer themselves a little then see a filly hurt. How dare you say that to her? Your words could have driven an innocent girl like Scootaloo to pluck out her own feathers. And after you forced yourself on those colts back at flight school, I’m just as guilty for not turning you in years ago!”

Gilda hissed and snorted a breath, twisting around and snapping the silver ring in her palm violently down on Dusk’s horn, scraping across the keratin. The effect was instant, as the silver ring impacted the aura of magic around his horn, before his magic cut off. Even as Dusk fell back in shock at the violation of his magic, Gilda continued on, her nails clawing for Rarity's face.

Falling back, Rarity attempted to throw up a shield spell like Dusk had taught her, a faintly blue orb of energy protecting herself from the griffon’s assault. The force of the blow caused her horn to gleam, and the orb to waver at the impact, revealing her inexperience with the complex shielding spell.

In her rage, Gilda finally issued a challenge. “Let us have a proper fight, mare. You win, I come peacefully. But when I win, I take Dash and Dusk back as part of my hunting pack, and leave your rotten dive town.”

Before she could reply, Dusk howled in pain, pulling everypony’s attention. Crouching over him, Pinkie released the silver ring she had been trying to remove from his horn, her attempts to pull off the ring had resulted in arcs of raspberry lightning to shoot from the ring to other random parts of his horn. Shifting away and whimpering a little with horror, Pinkie’s voice was full of remorse. “Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry!”

When she pulled her hands away, the crackling bolts of magic sparks cut off, and Dusk’s breathing leveled out. Voice soft, he struggled to speak up. “Get Barb, send for-”

Applejack cut Dusk off, her arm wrapping around his shoulders while she lifted him to stand again, supporting his weight and holding him close. “We will, just breath, Dusk.” True to her word, it was clear as Dusk’s eyes began to focus again. He could see Fluttershy retreating from where she had been watching at the edge of the square.

Unnerved by Dusk’s suffering, Rarity’s glare carried little weight as she turned to Gilda, her tone sharp. “As if you know what a fair fight is Gilda. Your use of mind games and dirty tactics, while all the time claiming we ambushed you? You are a brute!”

Gilda laughed at Rarity’s response, spitting on the ground between them. “So does that mean you won’t take up my challenge?” Bristling with pride, the powerful griffon let her wings flare out behind her back, her smirk of victory showed she was unashamed of her tactics.

“No she isn’t, Gilda. But you will have to face someone. I’ll take you on, like I should have done years ago.” Dash’s voice was calm, while her fingers pulled the light jogging jacket from her shoulders, taking a few steps to stand between the griffon and Rarity.

Looking over the young mare, Gilda’s lip curled into a sneer, she then sharply spoke. “That really is it, isn’t it ,Dash? You’re just another mare in his herd, pining for a cute stallion to penetrate your loins to calm that sweltering heat roaring between your legs.”

Dash’s cheeks reddened while her actions were questioned. But resiliently, she stepped forward, standing up to the towering griffon, her wings flaring out, extending the blue feathered masses to their full span. “So what if I am?! Dusk is a better stallion than you are an alpha of any hunting pack! I’d rather be a mare in his herd than follow you ever again!!”

Pinkie couldn’t help herself, encouraged by the other mare’s words she called out her own support. “Damn right, Dash!” Her usually friendly demeanor gone, she narrowed her eyes at Gilda, while sticking her tongue out at the blowhard griffon.

Applejack winced, straining her back as she loaded Dusk into her arms before scrambling to carry him back from the sight of what was going to quickly become a brawl between weathermare and griffon. Pinkie was suddenly at her side, pulling the stallion from her arms, showing that while she was nowhere near as tall as the other earth mare, she was at least strong enough to carry the shellshocked stallion.

As they stopped to settle Dusk onto the step of city hall, Rarity swooped in, cupping up the stallion’s chin, looking into his eyes, while a frantic edge entered her voice. “Dusk, what is this ring? Can’t we do something to get it off?”

Panting for breath, Dusk shook his head. “It’s like the magic suppression rings they use in Tartarus to seal off magic users’ powers.” Pausing as his eyes rolled backwards as a new wave of pain surged through his body, he struggled to continue. “Need a keystone to remove it, oh… oh… or a mage who knows the code spell.”

The sound of a shock wave impacting in the sky overhead got everypony’s attention back towards the fight. Already high in the air, Dash and Gilda were battling in a very traditional style. Dash spiraled fast, twisting and turning to gain height, while Gilda circled, preparing for Dash’s attack. Both had taken to the air barehanded, neither having yet wasted any time finding a weapon.

Turning from her rising height, Dash twisted around, shooting down towards Gilda, her angle selected to intersect the griffon in flight. Even as Dash shot towards her, Gilda appeared to predict this, turning up towards Dash’s descending path, and forcing on a burst of speed in response, her massive and powerful wings beating the air as she sought to climb and interrupt the mare before she could reach full speed.

Dash appeared to predict this, however, as she spiraled away, turning off from the normal path of her descending flight and twisted around, pulling away from town, towards the towering treeline of the Everfree Forest. While Gilda might not be able to match Dash in flight speed, the sight of the mare leveling out and flying towards the treeline of the forest was clear as day, due to her greater vision. Like a hunter, she twisted her body around and dove towards the mare. Aided by her weight and massive wingspan, her dive would quickly add on speed at a far faster pace than the mare in a shorter time, even if her top speed was slower.

And again, Dash had a plan for this. Just as Gilda’s descending flight brought her within feet of striking, Dash dove below the treeline, before shooting back into the sky, crashing directly into a black cloud and quickly trailing motes of its mass behind her. When Gilda moved to cut off her dive and follow, she found herself flying through the small, but heavy, sticky black chunks of the broken off cloud that Dash was trailing. Angry at how long this was taking, Gilda drew to a stop, hovering in place, her voice bellowing over the forest. “Stop running from me, Dash. I’m tired of your game! Just surrender and we can go home, and I might even let you borrow the stallion when I’m done with him.”

Dash spiraled higher, before turning about, the sticky black cloud trail still following behind her. Circling around, and glaring down at Gilda, Dash arched an eyebrow. “Really, Gilda? Because I put up with your game for a few days. Shame you can’t even show the same patience for mine!” Twisting back, she divebombed again, the trail of black cloudy blobs collecting in her trail while she flew a broad circle around the griffon.

Hissing her frustration as Dash used her speed to stay out of reach, Gilda turned, following Dash’s circling flight. It was a sudden crack and rumble in the air behind her that finally revealed what was really going on. “Dash, what are you doing?!!”

High over her head, Dash released the stormcloud she had kept pinned against her hips with her tail, the anemic black mass that was left now far smaller as her flight had broken off all the clustered small and sticky black masses in the air around Gilda, forming a loose sphere. Twitching her head to the side, Dash arched a brow at the griffon. “You never did learn how to deal with a stormcloud, did you? A shame, you could have learned so much from dad if you’d just tried.” A foot twisted, and while Gilda’s eyes shot wide, Dash kicked one of the many isolated blobs of black cloud broken off from the mass she had left behind. The reaction was instant, and a series of bolts shot from one cloud to another, the chain lighting turning the sky a blindingly bright white.

In the deeper parts of the forest, a figure in a brown cloak had seen this battle start and quickly moved into a deeper part of the forest, not wanting to be a part of some fight beyond her depth.

* * *

Shining Armor didn’t knock on Silken Flight’s door, the stallion had been in a mood ever since Barb’s last letter from Dusk arrived, and he had spent hours taking it out on his staff. Behind her desk, Luna’s agent overturned the letter in her hands again, inspecting the coded phrasing in silence while the stallion stormed his way to stand before her. His voice was sharp, and eyes hinted with red. “Alright, Silken, let’s try this dance again. You have agents in Ponyville, and your last report to Princess Celestia made it clear, you knew things were going to come to a fight with Gilda. Why did you let things escalate so far? My brother’s horn is likely to be permanently scarred by that black market horn ring!”

Rather than answer the frustrated guard captain instantly, the bat mare finished reading her letter, folding it back and placing it on her desk. Arching an eyebrow high, she pulled the quill from her inkpot, her voice haunting while the quill hovered over a blank page. “And when did you plan on allowing me to direct a military drill in the main square, sir knight?”

Shocked and confused by the bat’s words, Shining attempted to understand the mare’s purpose, his hands balling into fists on the edge of the mare’s desk. “Okay. Use the square. Hell, borrow my troops. But talk to me, Silk. I can help, you have Princess Luna’s trust, as I have Princess Celestia's. Why can’t we work together?”

At last looking up at him, inspecting his face with her own piercing eyes, the mare gave a slow nod, a smile curling her lips. “And I suppose you want to know about where your lady love went with Princess Luna, too?”

As the tension poured out, Shining at last relaxed, shaking his head. “She made me promise not to share that with anypony. The fact we both know is good enough, right?” When she gave him a nod, he let his fingers touch the paper on her desk. “Your spy’s notes?” Another nod. “May I?”

Silken Flight laughed, offering a shrug. “It’s all in code, but I’m sure you can pick up on the rougher hints. The first was sent her third night in town, after she had made contact with your brother and gotten a measure of him. After that, she started detailed surveillance, following both of her targets as close as she might. If we had known about the black market ring, I swear we would have stepped in sooner, but Gilda slept in her clothing, and my agent’s attempt to inventory what she had on hand was severely hampered. She was on hand during the fight, and had a longbow on the griffon in case Rainbow Dash’s efforts failed.” Pausing at his worried look, she shook her head. “The ambassador might have disowned her, but she was using drugged arrows with blunted tips, our goal was to trap the beast, not kill her. We are not as kind hearted as your mare, Princes Cadence. But capturing a chess piece like the Ambassador's bastard daughter? How could we resist?” When Shining Armor laughed, she cocked an eyebrow at him. “How is she liking Tartarus? I have had trouble getting any of my agents into your ranks there.”

Offering his own warm grin, Shining relaxed, reading over the letter from Ponyville and at last sat on the chair across from the spymaster’s desk. Skimming the coded letter, he grinned across at her. “Officially, I am not in charge of that prison, dear, so officially, I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

It was her turn to laugh, while a flask was pulled from her desk, and two small shot glasses of a thick black and milky liquid was poured, one pushed across to him. “It’s Amber Rose, and nothing else. I swear in Princess Luna’s name.” When he nodded and accepted the tiny glass of rare liquor, sipping at its thick texture, she asked again. “But unofficially?”

Shining Armor shrugged, his voice soft. “She is still recovering. Rainbow Dash didn’t pull any punches with that storm cloud business. It might have been easier on her if your agent had shot her, poisoned bolt or not.” Returning the letter to her desk, Shining pointed to the name at the top. “M. Eddler? Surely so childish a nickname stands out of place. Wouldn’t anyone suspect the letter to be for or from a spy the moment they see it?”

Silken Flight offered a shrug, her voice quiet as she sipped at her own tiny glass of the potent black drink. “True enough, but then, with so obvious a title, we have found that most would destroy the note rather than try and decode it. Safer to lose a message or two rather than have them collect in the wrong hands.”

Interlude 5 - Dash's Birthday Blast [Dash x Pinkie Pie; Strapons and Toys; Anal Sex]

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Rainbow Dash sat in the waiting room outside Celestia’s private chamber. For some reason, today it felt different. When she had been summoned here alone, right after the defeat of Nightmare Moon, she had been proud, even a little smug. Today, she couldn’t stop the shaking in her hands. Today was September 27th, her eighteenth birthday. But Princess Celestia had not summoned her so suddenly for that. Yesterday, she had given Dusk a full confession of Gilda’s crimes back in Fight School. Yesterday, she had admitted her feelings for Dusk. Yesterday, Gilda had defiled Dusk’s magic with that silver ring, the same silver ring now in a tightly sealed leather pouch in her lap. She still remembered the way the tears soaked his cheeks as he drew on some magic to put a sealing spell on the knot of the bag, ensuring it could never be opened by anyone weaker than him. He had refused to admit it, but she had seen him straining against the pain caused by those deep gouging wounds in his horn.

Today, she faced Princess Celestia’s judgement for keeping Gilda’s secrets for so long. A powerful hand wrapped around her two fidgeting ones, the voice that joined it was tender, if dry. “Calm down, Dashie. Princess Celestia’s justice may be strict at times, but it is always fair. And I’m here, we will get through this, together.” She wasn’t alone. Rainbow Blitz’s strong grip brought that back to reality, and calmed some of her fears.

The calming presence of Blitz's hands and voice was interrupted, as the two stallions on duty before Princess Celestia’s private chamber suddenly snapped to attention, the doors between them opening. Dash couldn’t help but look up, to see who had been with the princess before her, even this early in the day. The leathery bat wings and simple style of dress told a better story than any name badge, but Dash’s trained memory for observing things made her account for every button on her shirt and the way she brushed her hair. Stepping forward while shoving a rolled up parchment under her arm, the mare walked straight to Dash and Blitz, offering a small smile. “The Princess will see you now.”

Unable to help herself, Dash stood up and gave the bat pegasus a grin in return. “I remember you, you were with Princess Luna when she came to look in on Applejack’s harvest.”

The mare had started to turn to walk away but pulled up short, arching an eyebrow high. “Oh my, impressive. A good eyesight and a keen mind. Maybe I should have fought him harder for you.” When Dash’s confused expression bloomed wide, the mare laughed and turned to walk off, calling warmly back over her shoulder. “If they let you go, consider writing me. Your stallion friend knows how to get in contact with me. I could always use a mare with good eyes.”

Confused, but memorizing every facet of the mare, from the way she walked, to the small battle scars that she wore with pride, Dash remembered the keen hint of her phrasing, and shivered. “If they let you go.” But she had no time to dread over that possibility. Stepping up in front of her father and clutching the small leather pouch close, she stepped into Princess Celestia’s sitting room.

“I don’t see any reason to recall her. You said her report made it clear that the Emperor doesn’t care, and the mollen is no blood relative of his. Everything she taught me about their politics and power plays shows it has made their ambassador weaker in his eyes. But mother? It shouldn’t change a thing about what they think of her.” Shining armor stood at Princess Celestia’s desk, the two pouring over a rather heavy tome. Even Rainbow Dash could sense the thick magic pouring from the book. Oddly, it reminded her of the tingle she felt every time Barb sent a letter to the princess for Dusk.

Princess Celestia was… radiant in the glow of morning sunlight. Her room must have been planned for just this reason, the open balcony facing the rising morning sun. Wearing a simple, yet pure white silken dress, Dash realized the goddess needed no jewelry, a beam of sunlight on her radiant ethereal hair did the same job, and left Dash feeling dazzled, leaving faint after-images of brilliant hues in Dash’s vision. Looking up, and flashing a brief smile to the pair as they entered, the princess turned to look at her captain, giving him a smile in turn. “Very well. If that is settled, let’s move on to the next item on our agenda.” She paused only long enough for him to nod before turning to face Dash again, her voice calm but very serious now. “Rainbow Dash. I have read my student’s report. I have also read his apology, his confession, and his application for equal punishment. I have even read his research paper on how he would apply what he has learned these past two days to prevent a future scene, such as the one that happened yesterday in Ponyville. I have seen your confession, and the transcript of Gilda’s crimes. Can you justify why you did not reveal them all to me when I offered you her pardon?”

Standing at ful