Rarity supposed many shops had a customer like this -- but only if they were lucky.
In the case of Rugula... she had actually been there on the very first day. Part of Rarity's initial plan for opening the Boutique had included some advertising placed in the Canterlot newspapers. She had intended to have her premiere on the very first day of the new train line's operation, anticipating a full flow of fresh, fast-moving tourist traffic from the capital, and... well, the rather unexpected monster attack had delayed the rails, while she had not been able to shift her debut. But still, there had been some ponies, and one of them had been a freshly minted Countess (equally freshly-wed into a minor House, uncertain of what to do about her new title and still frequently uncomfortable with saying it) who'd been intrigued enough to take the day trot.
She had poked her head in, uncertain as to what she was about to witness. Gazed around. And then she had simply, perhaps perpetually, fallen in love.
There were several qualities which made Rugula particularly desirable as a customer. She not only possessed what often seemed like an unlimited shopping budget, but had lucked into a husband who actually enjoyed seeing his spouse parade about in a new dress. As one of the few still-returning members of the First Day Club, she had somehow decided that she was personally invested in Rarity's success, and in more ways than the many thousands of bits which had already been spent. She would pass along useful gossip, report on trends which she'd just spotted in the capital. There had been an attempt to host a house party in the name of seeing other Canterlot ponies fall in love, but... well, taste was both a fickle and variable thing, so the total lack of it among the guests had in no way been Rugula's fault. And she was always willing to try new things.
...admittedly, there were times when that last wasn't entirely a positive. Rugula often seemed to have more faith in Rarity's creative visions than the actual designer could manage to muster. She would see something entirely new at a Canterlot party (for those few she was invited to: it was a minor House) and dearly, openly wish to see Rarity's interpretation of it -- just before she commissioned it. That habit had sent Rarity scrambling for exotic fabrics which ultimately had to be imported, gems that just weren't available locally, there had been a desperate weekend spent galloping up and down the capital's main shopping district because the dress which Rugula wished to inspire her was sold out, hadn't appeared in the trade magazines yet, and her only hope was to spot somepony wearing the thing...
But on the whole, Rugula was a lovely mare to know. She was exceptionally easy to coordinate for: a unicorn mare with a build that just about exactly matched the dimensions of Rarity's standard dressmaker form. This was added to taupe fur and a beige mane: when it came to colors, Rugula went with just about everything. She had an open mind (which also sometimes worked against Rarity), a kind nature, and a townhouse which seemed to mostly consist of trot-in closets.
To see Rugula trot into the Boutique was to know the next hour (or more) would be spent in happy conversation. There would be stories told, and Rarity knew that anything she personally said would be locked away in confidence: Rugula was one of the very few Canterlot ponies to have any true picture for Bearer activities (and had been so happy for her favorite designer), and nopony else was aware of her possessing any knowledge at all. They would update each other on their lives as soon as they possibly could, laugh at the best parts, offer sympathies for the worst.
It had reached the point where the bits exchanged had started to feel like the lesser benefit. For Rugula was something very much like a friend and when it came to keeping that favorite customer happy, Rarity was willing to do rather a lot.
Which, when added to their relationship and that soon-to-arrive request, was a good thing. Because if Rarity hadn't truly and sincerely cared about the mare, there was a good chance she would have thought about killing her.
"...and of course Fancypants was perfectly lovely!" Rugula beamed, watching as soft blue energy carefully folded the eighth selection of the early summer visit, packaging it for transport. "But he was just about the only one. He did his best, I know, and everypony was so polite to me... for exactly as long as he was within earshot." She sighed. "He said I'm welcome any time, and I do want to see him again, but -- just me and my husband, I think. Outside of the parties. Otherwise, the air is just too filled with snob."
Rarity giggled. "I did warn you..." Hard-won lessons had to be passed on to those who could use them most.
"Yes," Rugula ruefully nodded. "You did. But I wanted to try."
Which was another thing about Rugula. She would always try.
"But the way it came out... well, that's part of why I've been going around the little neighborhoods," the Countess-by-marriage (and Tangle resident by birth, native to the oldest part of Canterlot, a place so few nobles ever tread) continued. "Like the Aviary."
White ears perked upon hearing the name of the capital's near-microscopic griffon district. "Really?"
"It was bad enough," Rugula reported, "that I almost felt sick of ponies. So I trotted over to where some of the other species live and -- do you know, if you're careful about avoiding some of the food, you can meet some truly lovely people? I think I've made a few new friends since I started going out that way. I'll be seeing a few of them tomorrow. Wearing one of your dresses, of course. And when you look at what they wear..."
That was the moment. The final instant when Rarity could have changed the subject. The only chance.
But she didn't know, and so it passed.
"...you can get some amazing ideas!" Rugula's corona ignited, took the newest bundle and carefully sent it towards the cart which had been parked just outside the open door. (When it was Rugula, you never knew if she was going to need a cart.) "So I was thinking..."
She smiled. Rugula had a rather lovely smile.
"...I know it's not your usual line of work. I'll understand if you're a little hesitant on this one, because I've never seen you go in that direction! But -- if you tried..." Hopefully, "I'm willing to pay for the commission now. Just to see what you come up with. And you can mail it to me when you're done. Does that sound all right?"
With just about every other pony on the continent, Rarity would have immediately mustered a full fleet of questions, launching them onto waters which were churning with concern. She would have sought details. She might have even, upon being told it wasn't her usual line of work, simply inquired as to what the new line was. And then she would have said no, followed by spending a frantic hour in her storeroom until the shivering produced by having just missed a disaster finally went away.
But this was Rugula.
"What is it?" Rarity asked, and sealed her fate.
Rugula told her.
Rarity was unable to keep her face perfectly neutral. Instead, she felt her lips slowly shift into a rather broad, wholly-unnatural feeling smile.
"Make sure it has the front and back projections, though," Rugula said. "Those looked important."
The first word out of Rarity's mouth upon trotting into the library at five minutes before closing was "Dictionary."
Spike and Twilight, who had both been caught at the typical end-of-day reshelving, mutually turned to look at her. Several books which were being held in Twilight's field turned with her, and one hardcover lazily bumped against a shelf.
"Rarity?" Trotting forward, just a little. "You look tired. It's barely Sun-lowering and you look like you've been up for..." And now concern. "What's wrong?"
"Dictionary," Rarity repeated. "Now." The next step forward nearly turned into a stumble: she wasn't really paying attention to where she was planting her hooves any more, and when it came to looking ahead... well, hours spent in desperate searches through one's entire collection of fashion magazines, catalogs, and history books had a way of wearing out the eyes. "Actually, you may have to read it to me. Or..." Well, there was a chance, wasn't there? "...if for any reason, any at all, you might happen to simply -- know the term?"
Spike was approaching now -- no, he had just gone past her, heading into the library's little kitchen. Moving at the steady pace of long experience.
They both watched the door swing closed behind him. A few more seconds produced the first scent of tea.
"Maybe?" a cautious Twilight tentatively replied. "What's the word?"
She'd looked at every image she had...
"What under Sun and Moon," Rarity wearily inquired, "are 'sandals'?"
It eventually turned up in the International section, and they both stared at the illustration.
"Oh," Rarity said, because even five cups of tea across three hours could only do so much.
"Um..." Twilight tried. "Rarity... a pony asked you for this, right?"
"Rugula," Rarity nodded. "You've heard me speak of her. I should really introduce the two of you at some point."
Twilight took another look at the drawing.
"I am," she eventually concluded, "completely sure that's for feet."
"I agree," Rarity replied, and the weariness added a touch of sarcasm. "As the one who both managed to reach the translated words and blinked until the blurring went away."
"Not hooves, Rarity. Feet. You don't even make shoes."
"Lacking the necessarily anvil, hammer, and forge," Rarity wryly replied, "I tend to stay out of the shoe business. However, the occasional soft-fabric boot with a reinforced bottom to protect against the abrasion from hooves --"
The librarian made a desperate attempt to save her friend, and it arrived in the form of "Feet."
"Yes," Rarity crossly replied. "I can see they are for feet, Twilight. I can also read that they are for feet. I am not particularly fond of feet."
The natural inquiry was "Why not?"
"Have you ever looked at them? Can you imagine the Princess with four of those? Kissing them?" The designer shuddered. "I rather prefer the simple shape and unity of a hoof. Feet are... divided. Ending in those wriggling toe things. There are heels and joints and the arch and a smell. Feet are disgusting."
Both mares simultaneously picked up on the sound of furious scales doing a 180° on hardwood.
"But walking claws are perfectly lovely!" Rarity desperately called out.
The kitchen door slammed behind him.
"Give him a minute..." Twilight sighed. "Rarity, it's still the same point. These aren't for ponies."
"It might be possible to modify the design," Rarity argued. "Now that I have seen what they look like... that is wood for the base, is it not? Wood and straps and open sides. There is very little to work with. But still..."
"Not. For. Ponies."
"...with some special attention paid to the hues --"
"-- and the buckles!" Twilight frantically tried. "Metal not on the bottom of a hoof, but rubbing against fur! Right up against the hock! Rarity, I don't think this can work --"
"There is," Rarity firmly said, "but one way to find out. And that is by making the attempt."
"You," Twilight shot back, "have rejected stupid requests from ponies before. Even paid ones. Like that mare who thought going to the Gifted School student demonstrations in a dress covered with platinum wire would look fashionable, and you finally had to ask her if she thought explosions were in fashion. Why are you trying this one?"
"It is Rugula," Rarity quietly said. "She was there when the Boutique opened, Twilight. She has done everything she could to be there ever since, maintaining the integrity of her own tastes in the face of an endless Canterlot assault. Forever saying that I, and I alone, am suitable for her fashion needs, with everypony else's tendency to look towards the fad of the moment being wrong. When it's Rugula..."
She looked at the illustration again.
"I have to try," Rarity concluded. "But in order to adapt this, I will need an original to adapt from. To see how it performs in use. And I do not currently have the time to scour Canterlot, so I will have to make those as well. Wood and straps -- well, I have enough carpentry to carve the basic form..."
"And feet," Twilight groaned. "That's what seeing the original perform in use means. What are you going to do about feet?"
"You know how I feel."
She nodded, distractedly watched ponies pass by on the cobblestone street.
"You said so."
"Sometimes," Spike muttered, glancing down at the things she had placed upon his walking claws, "I feel like you're taking advantage of it."
He surveyed the front end of the heavy wood. Then the back.
"Those stick out a lot."
"I was told those looked important." She'd added a bit of side width as well, just in case.
"And the top curves. It's curving up into my scales..."
"It's called arch support," Rarity told him.
"What does that mean?"
The mare who was still trying to fully work it out went with "It means your arches are supported."
"I don't think they like it."
"It is," Rarity firmly declared, "good for them. After all, what was supporting them before?"
Which got her a rather frustrated "The ground," and a few giggles from some fillies passing by.
Spike looked down again.
"What's this thing?"
"Which 'thing' in specific?" Rarity patiently inquired.
He wriggled the tips of his walking claws, and found the inner movement range restricted. "This... peg."
"Ah. Well, upon looking at the original design, I felt as if the sandal might shift around quite a bit when in use. One cannot rely on buckles being fastened tightly -- you certainly did not -- and there is quite a bit of excess surface in any case. So I provided a single additional anchor point."
"Between my claws."
"Yes. You can just squeeze it a little from each side --"
"-- it's poking into them."
Hooves. Hooves were so much more elegant. "Is it?"
"It's rubbing my scales at the base," the little dragon insisted. "It feels weird."
"You'll become used to it," Rarity lied.
"And I have three claws. Three on each foot. That means there's two gaps between, and you only did one peg --"
"-- and if you find that one so irritating," Rarity crossly decided, "then be glad I stopped there. Very well, Spike: I have registered your complaints and will be sure to incorporate their solutions into my pony-intended modifications."
"Like my complaining about the peg," he noted with open sarcasm.
"So you might take that out. To keep claws and toes from being uncomfortable and irritated."
He made something of a show of looking directly at her forehooves.
"I guess," the little dragon irritably declared, "that problem more or less solved itself. Can I take these off now?"
There were more ponies slowing in their travels now. Watching and listening, because there was nothing quite like street theater to liven up an early summer day.
"Not yet," Rarity told him.
"Because we have to see how they perform in use. Shall we take a pleasant walk around town?"
A few adults were starting to laugh.
"If you happen to know of a fully private town," Rarity said, "this would be a good time to mention it."
He glared at her.
"Do you know when you get sarcastic?" he asked. "Sometimes, it's when you have a design which you think won't --"
"-- towards the train to start, I think," Rarity cut him off. "There is rather varied terrain on the other side of the tracks. We can test them on different surfaces. And of course we'll be going indoors at some point, to see how they perform on flooring. Multiple shops. Perhaps a public gathering area. Shall we?"
She began to trot, and it was mostly instinct (added to a few rather frustrated hopes) which made him start to move.
She paused. So did he.
"What was that sound?"
"I don't know," Spike muttered. "Can we just get this over with?"
She nodded, although her personal definition of 'over with' was going to require a two-hour approach. Stepped forward again. He followed.
"It's you! The buckles aren't tight enough! The soles are losing contact with your arches!"
"I can't make them too tight! They put pressure on my scales! Have you ever had your scales poking into your skin?"
And now he was glaring at her again.
"I've had dreams," he stated. "About what I would do if you turned into a dragon for one day."
She felt the blush beginning to rise under her fur, was suddenly aware of just how many ponies were watching. "Spike -- I don't feel this is the best place for --"
"-- and I just realized," he mercilessly continued, "that all those dreams were wrong. There's only one thing I should do. I should put you in sandals. And march you around town."
Rarity began to revise a number of plans built around retaining Spike's model services for future cross-species fashion endeavors.
"Only with two pegs for each foot."
And nearly discarded them entirely.
"Follow me," she firmly told him. "We should only have to do this once. For this model. Barring anything else I should learn before attempting a redesign for your use, which would then need to be changed for Rugula. Just -- follow me."
She trotted. It was ten long seconds before he moved.
It was, in its way, a rather comedic sound. It, and the continued grumbling of her very temporary assistant, seemed to promise some degree of amusement for everypony else, and so the crowd began to follow.
The library door opened.
"I was wondering," Rarity began, blinking frequently to clear her eyes of the blur created by hours of redesign, "if I might be able to borrow --"
"He told me he's not speaking to you," Twilight broke in.
"But I --"
"For a week."
"I need --"
"And it would have been three days if you hadn't forced him to cross the playground in front of the other kids."
The library door closed.
The apology basket of gems finally vanished from the tree's entrance after she trotted by for the third time, and she returned to her workroom with a cartful of blank sketchbooks. She'd already used most of what she had in the Boutique, and Opal had taken up the habit of batting the remains across the floor.
When it came to her own mark... well, this was one of those cases when she was uncertain as to just how far her talent went. She'd never had trouble with dresses. Nightwear was well within her range, and she had the pieces (which seldom saw floor display, especially if she thought Spike might be coming by) to prove it. Meeting the little dragon had opened up the possibilities implied by jackets, and with the Diamond Dogs... actually, getting the pack to change their fashion habits was one of her ongoing frustrations with them, second only to her inability to make them wash what they already had.
(She'd even tried the strangeness known as gloves with the most daring of them. Claws just poked through the tips, cloth wore out across knuckles, and then they suffered the fate of all her canine-intended designs: confiscated by the pups for a chew toy.)
But shoes... for a pony, that talent was normally in the realm of metalwork. Softer creations existed, but they were mostly tubes of fabric with a somewhat more solid bottom, generally used for insulation. And there had been a brief fashion for using shoes to make ponies seem taller, but leg proportions tended to be rather standard: it was decidedly easy to tell when an insecure stallion was balancing atop two hoof-heights of painted steel.
Rarity seldom worked with anything intended for hooves, not for more than a little fabric circle to match an outfit, or something to keep Fluttershy that much warmer in the winter. And still Rugula had come to her, because Rugula had always come to her, and...
...the Boutique had been through moons of slow traffic. It was an inevitability from the nature of the business. Rarity could always make a design which she felt was beautiful: getting ponies to agree with her was the hard part. She would find herself surrounded by a perfectly lovely spring line and as customers passed in and (quickly) out, she would learn they felt it was suited for nothing more than a perfectly lovely bonfire. So especially in the early times, there had been moons where no matter what she had done, very little had sold, she'd had to tap into her scant savings, struggled to keep up with the bank's loan payments...
...there had been moons when the only thing which had stood between Rarity and losing the Boutique was a beautifully-hooficured taupe foreleg stepping across her threshold.
She has saved me. Time and time again.
I have thanked her. There was an exceptionally dark moon when she arrived the day before the payment would have been late, and I told her that she was what kept me going. But I don't think she understood. She just laughed and looked for something else she could try on.
She believes in me. She has believed in me during the moons when no others would.
The Boutique still had slow moons -- but things were somewhat steadier now. If Rugula was to turn away from the shop, the business itself would survive. It was just that...
...she has faith in me.
Rarity supposed that many shops had a customer like Rugula -- but only if they were lucky.
I have to try.
When Twilight found her, it was nearly three in the morning, and the white legs were just barely limping past the cinema.
A weary head came up. Filmed eyes slowly focused.
"You missed the card game!" the panicked librarian declared, propping the designer's chin up with a flare of field. "The private practice, remember? So we'd be more ready to go against Fluttershy when we have the seasonal one in a few weeks?"
"...well," Rarity tiredly said, "I'm still not certain it'll do much for trying to read her face through all of that manefall --"
"-- and you've barely been outside the shop for days, I knocked and I knocked and I looked around town and I --" Twilight winced. "-- got desperate enough to try teleporting into the Boutique and -- I got the alarm spells turned off eventually. Plus I think I put everything back where it was, because I didn't know you'd moved that one rack. Rarity, I know when you're overworking yourself, we all do, and --"
Her gaze had been moving down throughout the speech. Part of it was because the process of telling just how much Rarity had been pushing herself was a full-body survey. It was generally possible to determine quite a lot through the state of the eyes, but learning about the fine details required an examination of the fur grain, plus a full check of all joints. Eventually, a surveying pony was going to reach the hooves.
"-- what are those?"
"Ah," Rarity wearily replied. "A plural. So I am guessing you mean the buckles?"
Twilight slowly nodded.
"You know," the designer said, "I have come to a conclusion. Buckles which go near the hooves?"
The librarian waited.
"They are a plot."
"A speciesist plot."
"-- I'm going to levitate you," Twilight told her. "You said you wanted some warning the next time. This is the next time. I'm levitating you, and then I'm carrying you home."
"Think about it!" Rarity insisted with the logic which could only be found after two nights of missed sleep. "As a unicorn, I could barely get these fastened! Although some of that may have been due to oddly blurry vision. But can you imagine the suffering of a pegasus attempting to twist themselves in a way which would allow their teeth to pull on the straps? An earth pony? And that is simply for the forelegs. The hind..." She shuddered. "And then there is the removal. We shall not discuss removal without benefit of horn, because I tried that, just to see if it could be done. Simply know that with is not that much of an improvement."
"You're done," Twilight firmly insisted. "You wanted us to tell you when a design session went too far. This one's crossed the line."
"Admittedly," Rarity continued, because she wasn't really listening, "I did make some progress while working without my field." She twitched. "Incidentally, would you happen to know when the chiropractor opens?"
The designer took a step in what she thought was the right direction, just in case that hour happened to be Right Now.
The purple horn ignited, and the ground went away.
As it turned out, abrupt loss of gravity had a way of temporarily waking a pony up.
"I'm calling it," Twilight declared, staring up as that slim left foreleg stomped. "I'll bring all the others in if I have to. When you get like this, somepony has to stop you. I'm stopping you. This is over, Rarity. You're not making the sandals. I don't care how much she offered you, who it's for --"
"-- it is for Rugula," Rarity protested. "You don't understand --"
"-- I understand that this," Twilight shot back, levitating Rarity's desperately pawing form a little higher before starting the trot towards the Boutique, "is for you. If I have to dunk you in the fountain, if we all have to sit on you until you come to your senses, if it's locking you out of the workroom from now until Nightmare Night, it's going to happen. You. Are. Done."
"It's moons until Nightmare Night!"
"Right. So let me take you home. That or the dunking. We could do the dunking first. Or you're going to have five ponies and one dragon sitting on you for a very long time."
Blue eyes slowly closed.
Carefully, "You'll stop?"
"It's already tomorrow. I spent hours looking for you. And you can't do any more work on this, or you'll just go down the spiral again --"
"It's for Rugula --"
"-- I care about you. Not her --"
"-- and... the least I owe her is to trot down to the post office," Rarity finished. "The very least. And perhaps the last. She wanted to see what I would make of them, Twilight, she has always wished to see what I would make, and... I will send her the final constructs, along with my apologies and a refund of the commission. Whatever happens after that... I have earned."
Rarity forced her eyes open, made herself look at Twilight...
...and the librarian didn't understand.
Well, that was to be expected. She only had patrons to deal with. Customers were different. They could be annoying, irritating, sometimes approached infinity in their quest to tally the total for their various inflicted forms of torture -- but once in a very great while, they were special.
"I'm going to the post office with you," Twilight stated. "Once they open. And then that's it."
"Very well," Rarity said, and closed her eyes again.
She fell asleep before they were halfway to the Boutique, and dreamed of shop windows which were forever dark.
With the exception of having her friends frequently dropping by to make sure no relapse was occurring, it had been a quiet three days. A slow period, even in the tourist season that was a Ponyville summer, something which currently had her alone in the shop. She would have no trouble making her loan payment for the moon, but she was already trying to bring her spending down. Just in case.
The door opened, and a beautifully-manicured taupe foreleg crossed the threshold.
"I've practically been galloping all morning to reach you," the mare said. "Starting from right after the package arrived. When the train was five minutes late in leaving, I nearly thought about taking the trot. But I can't do that right now."
Blue eyes sought the hooves, verified that there was nothing on them.
"I had to tell you. I had to..."
She waited for it.
Tear-streaming eyes focused on the white face.
And then there were more tears, forelegs draped across shoulders, happiness cried into each other's manes. After that came the planning, because of course Rugula was going to need a full line of foal clothing (she didn't care if it was a colt or a filly, but thought a filly might be more fun to dress) and she also wanted Rarity to design buntings and blankets and bath sacks and...
The ledger's tally quickly went to a fresh page, and eventually wound up moving to a fresh ledger.
It took hours, just for the planning. But before Rugula had to leave for the train back (because a newly-pregnant mare shouldn't be taking too many day trots), Rarity risked the subject.
Rugula smiled. "They arrived in the morning mail. It was the second package I opened, after the results from the doctor's test. I know some ponies would say I was being old-fashioned, using the test instead of a spell, but my family's been going to the same clinic in the Tangle for years. If anypony was going to tell me, I wanted it to be Doctor Swaddling."
Rarity's head dipped.
Came up again. "You saw..."
"Yes," Rugula agreed. "I saw that a pony who thought she could wear sandals was being rather silly, and probably shouldn't have asked. I've been talking to more of my new friends, and they couldn't believe I asked. Some of them were very detailed when they talked about what would probably happen with the buckles." She smiled again, lightly shrugged. "But we do talk fashion a lot. I've been thinking about bringing a few of them here. To meet you."
That was the moment. The final instant when Rarity could have changed the subject. The only chance.
But even with the benefit of recent experience, she was too flush with relief to notice. And so it passed.
"And I was thinking... with them right here as your models, you could even try to design something for them!"
The inner flush vanished. Skin began to pale under white fur, which was rather hard to make out.
"For starters -- did I tell you that I recently met this simply lovely ageláda? And I found out they have their very own fashion requirements! Well, what with their anatomy and all..."
A... and then she remembered the word's definition: a female minotaur. Rarity had only ever seen the males --
Rugula gently looked at her, eyes forever focused into the gaze of absolute faith.
"Rarity... I don't suppose you've ever heard of bras?"