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There's a Reason They Call it a Crush

by GentlemanJ

First published

Spike is definitely looking forward to the Ponyville girls coming home. Only... what's he to do when the object of his deepest affections turns out to be taken?

The tenth story in The Journey of Graves.

After much too long away, the Ponyville girls finally make their triumphant return with marshal in tow. Spike, who's been holding down the fort at home, is definitely glad to see them back, especially since it means the return of his beloved Rarity.

Only... what's a boy to do when the object of his deepest affections turns out to be taken?

Chapter 1

This is a short story in The Journey of Graves.

The series begins with the first story: When the Man Comes Around.

IMPORTANT: If you haven't read the series, please head back to the beginning and check it out. While each story stands on its own, the character and relationship developments will build on each other as the series progresses.

And so, the saga continues...

There's a Reason They Call it a Crush

By: GentlemanJ

Chapter 1

“Get back here, you furry little devil!”

With a rolling dive catch that would’ve shamed any pro ball player, Spike finally managed to get his hands on said furry little devil, also known as Angel the Bunny. Resisting the powerful urge to convert the critter into a set of lucky charms, Spike dropped the rabbit into a nearby flower pot, threw down a cushion, and plopped his backside right on top.

It was a testament to the sheer degree of Angel’s irritability that his thrashing almost knocked the Salamander boy clean off his perch. Fluttershy had been gone for almost two weeks earlier that month, much too long for the plucky rabbit to be without his favorite lackey. He’d calmed down considerably in the few days after her return, but when Twilight and Rarity had shown up and instantly whisked her off again, well… it was just too much for his little bunny heart to handle.

“L-l-look,” Spike said as his teeth clacked like a pair of castanets from Angel’s violent struggles. “Twilight sent me a note saying that she’d be back this afternoon, and that probably means Fluttershy’s gonna be back with her. If you stop squirming around and behave, I’ll take you to see her instead of making you wait around. Deal?”

The flower pot shook once, twice more before finally growing still. Cautiously, Spike eased himself off the cushion and peeled it back to take a look. Instantly, a furry white cannon ball shot out and caught him square on the nose.

“Ow! Why you little–” The green haired boy began before pausing. Though Angel had launched a smart retaliatory strike, the antagonistic little creature had in fact settled down. Thumping away with his back foot irritably, the bunny still scowled something fierce, but at least had stopped its mad tear around the cottage.

“So, we got a deal, you little furball?” Spike frowned as he rubbed his nose. After a few moments of consideration, Angel heaved a weary sigh, and with all the pomp and pretension of a king accepting surrender, waved a tiny forepaw in acceptance, deigning to grace his other lackey with agreement to the terms.

“It’s a wonder how Fluttershy even puts up with you,” the spiky-haired boy muttered as he straightened his jacket. “Alright, I’ll take you along, but only after you help me clean things up around here. And don’t give me that look. The last thing Fluttershy needs is to come back to a messy cottage that looks like it’s been ransacked by a wind storm. A mess you caused, remember?”

Stamping furiously and squeaking a series of bunny expletives that would no doubt require censoring had they been translated, Spike simply crossed his arms and waited. Eventually, seeing that his tantrum would get him nowhere, Angel finally resigned himself to the task and began helping him clean up, still scowling adorably as only very angry bunnies can.

Sighing with relief, the Salamander boy reached into the pocket of his purple windbreaker and fished out the note from Twilight one more time. He’d read it several times before, if only to make sure he’d thoroughly memorized the time of their arrival, but he still felt compelled to check the destination one last time.

“Meet at the grazing pasture of Sweet Apple Acres?” he mumbled in confusion. “Wouldn’t the train station have been a better spot? Why the farm?”

Well, no sense in wondering about things that didn’t have an answer. Twilight said to meet at the farm, so that’s what he was going to do. Right as soon as he finished cleaning up the cottage. And taking care of the other pets. Including Opal. At the very thought, Spike let out a weary groan. Angel had been bad enough, but considering Opal was currently the incarnation of hissing fury itself, the Persian’s downright satanic fits could make the rabbit seem a saint in comparison.

“Maybe I’ll just leave Opal for Rarity to deal with,” he idly thought aloud before quickly rejecting the idea. No, that wouldn’t do at all. The violet-haired beauty had been gone for so long, she deserved a proper homecoming, one that didn’t involve a tornado of swiping claws. Even if it hurt, he was going to do his best to placate the cat so his beloved Rarity wouldn’t have to.

“Ah, Rarity,” he sighed with a dreamy smile before a well-placed kick from Angel got him back to cleaning. Darn pets could be such a headache. Ah well, soon it wouldn’t be his problem anymore and he could get back to his regularly scheduled task of wooing the prettiest girl in Ponyville.

Wouldn’t that be great?

*****

It was an odd menagerie that made its way to the open pastures by the Apple family farm. Leading the charge was a small, white rabbit straddled atop a yipping dog like a warlord going forth to battle. Overhead, a turtle… tortoise?... with a mechanical whirlybird rig flew loopdeeloops alongside a discernibly exasperated owl. Finally bringing up the rear with fuming kitty cat and an alligator that stared with the empty eyes of a stone cold killer, came Spike in all his bandaged and lacerated glory.

What had started out with only Angel had ended up with all of the pets in tow, as each by some animal instinct had sensed the return of its beloved master/lackey/food source and/or minion slash peon. It’d taken some wrangling, some finagling, and a whole lot of bumps, bruises, and scrapes on Spike’s part, but the Salamander boy did eventually make his way to the designated meeting spot, all the animals in tow and his own hide still relatively intact.

“Great.” Heaving a huge sigh of relief, fell back onto the cool grass, albeit with tugging, straining leashes still held firmly in hand. Sure, he’d learned to handle the critters for a few days at a time, but if the girls ever left him with them for such a long period again, he was moving back to Canterlot.

“Speaking of the girls, where are they?” Spike wondered. He could somewhat make out the big clock in town, so he knew he was on time. Plus, he’d checked the note again and made sure that this was the place. So where was everybody?

It was Gummy who noticed it first. Slowly raising his toothless head, the small reptile stared toward the sky, as if his unblinking gaze could see into the infinite void into some outer realm of truth. Or maybe he’d just spotted the tiny speck that rapidly grew larger as it rapidly drew closer.

Squinting in the same direction, Spike’s jaw dropped as he spotted the massive ERA airship heading right for them, its eight gargantuan pairs of wings and air sacs that dwarfed the town hall blotting out the sun as it approached. Lifting arm to his face, Spike braced himself against the hurricane downdrafts as the giant vessel slowly descended onto the grassy pasture below. Wings finally beating to a halt, the port side hatch opened and ejected forth a set of levitating stairs leading right to the boy. What came out next was truly a sight for sore eyes.

“Spike!” Twilight cried as she bounded down the stairs and seized up the little boy into a chiropacter's nightmare of a hug. “Oh, it’s so good to see you again!”

“Geez, lighten up Twilight,” Spike replied as he squirmed in embarrassment. “You were just here a few days ago, remember?”

“Yeah, but I was only around for a little bit, and I didn’t get to see spend any time with my most favorite little dragon boy in the whole wide world,” she replied, giggling as she continued the mortifying public display of affection.

Spike would have loved to wriggle free, but it really had been a while since Twilight could really say she’d been back home. She was probably really homesick and had decided that the best cure would be giving her baby brother big, snuggly hugs as soon as she got back in. So, in spite of his glowing cheeks and prepubescent embarrassment, the green-haired lad resigned himself to the embarrassment and let his big sister hug away.

“Aw, isn’t that just so cuuuuuuuuute!”

Glancing up from his squishy hugs, Spike’s face took on a whole new shade of scarlet as he spotted Rainbow Dash floating high overhead with a just about the smuggest grin that he ever did see.

“Lay off, Rainbow,” Applejack chuckled as she Pinkie Pie and Fluttershy exited the hatchway. “I don’t think Twilight’s ever been gone for such a long stretch before.”

“I know, I know,” the hovering athlete nodded, still looking as pleased as a cat with cream on its whiskers. “But that still doesn’t make it anything less than absowutely adowable!”

First jab, Spike could have forgiven. But second jab, what with the baby voice, squished up face, and big googley eyes, well… every boy has his limits. And it just so happens that this boy still had his hands on the leashes of several very antsy animals, an airborne tortoise-turtle being one of them. Whether it was a genuine accident or some moustache twirling malevolence, we may never know, but what we do know is that after Rainbow Dash’s choice comments, Spike’s grip just so happened to slip.

Like a series of biological missiles, the Ponyville critters rocketed towards their prospective masters. It was pleasant for some, like Twilight as Owlicious took a perch on her head with a contented hoot, or Applejack as she and Winona rolled onto the grass in a yipping, giggling wrestling match. As for Rainbow Dash, well… let’s just say that turtles are not known for their flying prowess, especially in the area of braking in close proximity to exposed noggins.

“Uh, Twilight?” Spike wheezed, his face starting to turn a bit blue. “You think you could let me down, now?”

“Oh, sorry Spike,” Twilight giggled as she finally set her little brother down. “Applejack was right. I don’t think I’ve ever been away for so long before. Guess I got a lot more homesick than I thought.”

“Well don’t worry,” the green-haired boy grinned. “What’s important is that you’re all back now.” Once his feet were properly planted on the ground however, he began to glance around. “Um… you are all back, right?”

“Of course we are,” Fluttershy remarked as she cradled a now considerably less irate Angel. “Why do you ask?”

“I don’t see Rarity anywhere.” Indeed, Opal had been the only animal not to move, as her fashionable food source had yet to appear.

“Nope, she’s definitely here,” Pinkie Pie giggled as she tossed around Gummy like a bean bag. “She’s just helping the marshal settle some stuff before heading out is all.”

“Great!” Spike smiled. “And I guess this means that Graves is back as well, right?”

“You betcha!” the bubbly baker laughed as the toothless reptile began gnawing on her ear. “Ooh, that reminds me! I gotta start getting things ready for the super big welcome back slash new Ponyville couple party! I’ll catch you later!” And with a last cheerful wave, the curly haired girl and her deadpan critter friend dashed off.

“… New couple?” Spike repeated as he scratched his head. “Did something happen while you all were gone?”

And with that, the smiles all around faded faster than Discord’s malevolent magics could ever hope.

Exchanging concerning looks, the homecoming festivities were briefly overshadowed by one juggernaut of a dilemma. All the girls had been filled in on the basic gist of what transpired over the course of their trip and thus, were no longer quite so inclined to strangle the marshal as they had been before. However, Spike had been left more or less out of the loop through the entire process. In the hustle and bustle of all the effort in getting everyone back home, they’d overlooked this one, crucial question: how were they going to break it all to the little boy with the really big crush?

Apparently, in the most straightforward way possible. Before anyone could speak, a clattering at the hatchway drew all eyes as the violet-haired beauty and stone-faced soldier made their appearance.

“Hey Rarity!” Spike called out, a big goofy grin plastered all over his face as he picked up Opal and dashed toward the stairs. “Glad to see you’re back!”

“Spike, did you bring Opal all the way out here just to welcome us back?” Rarity beamed as she reached out to pick up the cat, but to no avail. Once the Persian had confirmed that her owner was back, it was perfectly content to go right back to snubbing her and thus jumped out of reach and sauntered away. The young lady, however, was unperturbed and instead returned her smiling face to the green-haired boy. “Thank you so much, Spikey-Wikey. That was incredibly thoughtful of you.”

When she planted that little kiss on his forehead, the Salamander thought he might well die of sheer bliss.

“Anywho, how are you doing, Graves?” Spike asked, still grinning as he turned to the marshal. “I heard you were sick or something. Everything going good?”

“Yeah, it’s all fine,” he replied, a small smile on his face as he answered in his typical baritone rumble. “Glad to finally be back.”

“It’s good to have you,” Spike answered cheerfully. “Lots of folks were saying how things didn’t feel quite right since you left. Guess you’re already a Ponyville fixture.”

“Is that so?” Graves murmured in mild surprise.

“Yup, which is why Pinkie Pie’s party will be just great; she’s already gone off to get things ready, so everybody’ll be able to see you guys are all back safe and sound.”

“That sounds just like Pinkie Pie,” Rarity sighed in tired amusement before turning to the raven-haired soldier and slipping her hand into his. “Are you up for it, Graves? I know you’d like a bit to just get settled back in, but you can’t really say no to Pinkie Pie. Trust me, I‘ve tried.”

“Been gone for so long,” he shrugged, “saying hi’s the least we could do.”

“Ever dutiful, as usual,” the pretty dressmaker giggled, planting a quick peck on his cheek. Though Graves remained as composed as a stone, no amount of composure could keep those stony cheeks from turning just the faintest shade of pink.

“Oh right, that reminds me,” Spike piped up, the display of affection jogging his memory. “Pinkie Pie also said something about using this party to welcome Ponyville’s newest couple. What’s that all about?”

Once again, Spike noted the same strange reaction, the same blank stares and the worried looks. Only this time, it was even weirder because Graves was in on it too. I mean, seriously, the marshal being worried? What, had a civil war broken out that the boy wasn’t aware of?

“Ah yes, about that…” Rarity smiled, looking almost guilty as she did. “Recently, there were some… developments. Of the romantic variety to be precise. However, given the hectic nature of affairs, we simply never had the time to fill you in, Spike dear.”

“Developments?” Spike repeated, now more confused than ever. Why would Rarity feel guilty about not keeping in filled in on romance stuff? It’s not like he liked all that frilly frou-frou nonsense? After all, he only had one person on his mind, and that was–

That’s when illumination hit him like a sack of spuds. The uncomfortable looks from all the girls. The hand holding. The kiss on the cheek. Everything.

“You’re… you’re…” he gaped, looking to the marshal, then to Rarity, then back again. No way. There’s no way it could possibly be happening this way.

Graves gave a single, solitary nod.

“...”

“...”

“NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!”

**********

Chapter 2

Chapter 2

It usually took Pinkie Pie an average of three hours to set up a party. Today, despite the long absence and lack of practice, she managed it in two hours, thirty seven minutes, and twenty eight seconds. That’s two hours, thirty seven minutes, and twenty eight to get the goodies baked, decorations set up, punch mixed, music selected, and whole town invited. How she managed it, nobody really knew. Nobody really cared to ask. It’s one of those things that people simply learned to chalk up to Pinkie being Pinkie.

Anywho, as the sun set on Ponyville that day, the entire town found itself congregated at the spacious library tree for a typically fabulous shindig. The treats were delicious, the DJ was jamming, and life was looking good. Truth be told, nobody really knew exactly why they were having the party. Most figured it was a welcome back for the girls and marshal, who’d taken a noticeably extended leave of absence. But in the end, that was probably just a convenient explanation since really, who needs a reason to attend a Pinkie Pie party?

Still, it’s funny, isn’t it? Just a couple of weeks apart, and someone can come back looking like a whole other person. Graves for one, looked just a shade friendlier than usual, as if the sculptor had added the slightest of smile lines to the stone carving that was his face. Likewise, Rarity had a particular glow about her that night. She was as pretty as ever, but it was like there was an extra sparkle to her that night, an extra polish to those laughing sapphire eyes. Of course, it could have simply been the the way she contrasted with Graves and his generally somber atmosphere. Come to think of it, the two never seemed to be more than a few paces from each other all evening. Huh. Probably coincidence.

In the meantime, the aforementioned couple found themselves standing in the stairwell to the second story, catching a breath from the evening's tumultuous festivities. From the way they stood, all stoically impassive and casually graceful, glasses of punch in hand and eyes out forward, they seemed the same as any pair of good friends taking a moment’s respite.

Of course, looks can be very deceiving.

“You sure about this?” Graves murmured, keeping grey eyes forward even as he addressed the lovely lady beside him. “About keeping quiet, I mean.”

“Trust me, Graves,” the young lady smiled as she reached over and gave his free hand a fond little squeeze. “The last thing we need to do is go announcing ourselves to the whole town like tabloid celebrities. Just let things take their natural course. People will find out eventually.”

The decision had not come lightly. Of course, the first thing Rarity wanted to do was share her happiness with anything having two ears and half a brain to listen. But after seeing the rather... colorful reaction of Spike their test subject, she began to wonder whether such a rapid declaration was really in their best interests. If the very first person who'd found out had reacted so vitriolically, she could only imagine what would happen should her multitude of admirers hear all at once. There would be chaos. Riots. Anarchy. General unpleasantness all around.

So, after managing to catch Pinkie Pie just before invitations had gone out, Rarity had asked the party planner to hold off on mentioning her budding relationship with the marshal. Just for now, of course.

“Whatever you say,” Graves shrugged. “Quiet suits me just fine.”

“Who would have thought?” she smiled with a slight roll of the eyes. Turning her gaze back to the party, the violet-haired beauty gave out a sigh, long and tired, but content as well. “I’m just glad we have a chance to let things return to normal. Celestia knows I could use a break from all this drama.”

“You? A break from drama?” the marshal quipped. “I thought drama’s what you social types lived for.”

“Of course it is,” she smiled with perfect poise. “But even we can take a break from our regular affairs, can we not?”

“I wouldn’t know,” Graves replied, face unnaturally smooth. “I’m just a simple man of simple ways. Fancy talk's just beyond my ken.”

“Oh, stop it you,” Rarity giggled as she turned to give him a playful slap to the shoulder. As she did, however, a sight caught her eye that gave pause to her hand.

“What is it?” Graves asked.

“It’s Spike,” she replied, eyes leading up to the second floor balcony where the Salamander boy sat hunched over his little desk, head buried in a pile of old, dusty books. “The poor dear. I’m afraid he took the news rather hard.”

“He, uh… had a thing for you?” the marshal intoned with just a hint of caution.

“Something like that,” she nodded ruefully. “A child’s first love. You know how it is.”

“... Sure,” Graves nodded. “Let’s go with that.”

“Anyways, I’d assumed he’d outgrow it soon enough, so I never really did anything about it. Then you came along, and… well… things progressed faster than anticipated, and considering the rather harsh way he found out about all of this...” Rarity paused to let out a slow, melancholy sigh. “I can’t imagine it’s been easy for him.”

Graves couldn’t imagine it either, but more for the reason that his understanding of things like crushes and puppy love couldn’t fill a pixie’s thimble. Besides, it didn’t seem like Spike was all that upset. He’d already made several trips to the kitchen to help Pinkie Pie keep the snack table stocked, not to mention holding down the disk table when Vinyl Scratch went to wet her beak. Honestly, how bad off could he be?

“So, what are you two up to?” the hosting bookworm slyly smiled as she sauntered over, cupcake in one hand and mug of cider in the other. “Already making plans for the honeymoon?”

“Not exactly,” Rarity replied, a flush in her cheeks as Graves coughed and suddenly found the ceiling inordinately fascinating. “We were just discussing whether Spike would be all right.”

“Ah, he’ll be fine,” Twilight answered, sounding surprisingly care free. “He’s just taking his mind off things with a good book.”

The young couple exchanged some very incredulous looks.

“So… reading during the middle of a party means he’s fine?” Graves asked, looking slightly askance. He wasn’t exactly an expert on normal prepubescent behavior, but even that struck him as slightly odd. Twilight however, just smiled.

“Of course. What else would you do?”

Graves looked to Rarity, who simply shrugged in return. He had grown up around Twilight. Maybe he’d picked up a few of the sweater vested scholar’s more unusual habits.

“Come on, don’t worry about it,” Twilight smiled as she took them each by the hand. “This party’s as much about you two as it is anything else, so let’s go out and have some fun!”

With that, Graves and Rarity were forcibly dragged off by the amethyst-eyed mage. Between the crowd of friends, the DJ’s thumping music, and a table full of delectable goodies calling their names, concerns over the boy’s odd behavior were soon forgotten.

*****

In retrospect, Spike would consider the following series of events to be moments of monumental stupidity. It’s not like he had a shortage of stupid choices in his life to choose from, but this would certainly make its way well into the top five. Maybe even top three. Nevertheless, there are some things you just feel like you have to, and as the final party comers straggled off in the wee hours of the morning, Spike checked the large leather-bound tome book he’d been reading one last time, closed it tight, and finally put his plan into motion.

“... Hey, Graves. Can I talk to you?”

As the marshal turned his grey eyed gaze to the boy, Spike could feel his heart beginning to pound like DJ Pon3’s cannon of a bass. It wasn’t even like Graves was glaring at him or anything, but his stare was just… heavy, almost like gravity jumped up several notches from one look of his gunmetal grey eyes alone.

“Sure. What’s up?” Graves asked, stopping the sweeping as he considered the young lad, who in turn took a few furtive glances around the library. The girls were still milling about, helping Twilight get the place straightened up before heading on their way.

“It’s, uh… not something I want to say in front of everyone else,” Spike replied, the tempo of his heartbeat starting to accelerate “Mind if we talk in the kitchen?”

“Alright.”

Setting aside the broom, Graves followed behind as the boy in the purple windbreaker lead the way. Once safely out of eyesight, Spike turned to face the marshal, his reptilian eyes oddly bright and intent as they met the soldier’s silver-eyed stare.

“So what’s this all about?” the marshal asked just before a soft, fuzzy… something hit him in the face. Blinking in surprise, Graves looked down to the offending object and, still somewhat confused, bent over to pick it up for a closer inspection.

“Is… is this a mitten?” he asked, eyes seeing but brain not quite comprehending.

“It was all I could find,” Spike mumbled. His cheeks may have been heating up like an oven, but he resolutely maintained eye-contact nonetheless. “I wanted to get a proper glove, but I couldn’t on account of everything being on such short notice.”

It took a few moments, but all the gears finally clicked their way in place.

“You asking for a duel?”

“For Rarity,” the young lad nodded before quickly holding up apologetic hands. “Look, it’s not that I think you’re a bad guy or anything. I actually think you’re really cool. I mean, you're always helping people out and doing dangerous things to keep folks safe, so who can argue with that? But, still..." Taking a deep breath, Spike clenched his little fists to help stem the tides of rambling and began again with all the sincerity he could claw together. "Rarity's... special. She's, like, really, really important to me, and I’m not going to let you go off and take her without a fight. So… yeah. I challenge you a duel.”

Thunderous crashing as a stack of plates fell to the floor.

“No. Freaking. Way,” Rainbow Dash gawked as she stared at the pair with eyes the size of the dishes she'd just dropped. “Are you for serious?!”

“Rainbow Dash, what’s going on?” Twilight called out as she came over to check out the commotion. “Did something happen?”

“You bet your squishy, egg-head bottom it did!” the cyan clad flyer laughed aloud. “Spike here just challenged Big G to a dual!”

“What?” Applejack hollered as she and the other girls came over to stare in wide eyed amazement as well. “Yeh gotta be kiddin’ me!”

“Not even! Seems like Spike here got jealous of Graves and Rarity, so he threw down the gauntlet and called him out, mano-a-mano!”

“Spike, are you crazy?” Twilight gaped as she turned to her adorable baby brother like the adorable baby brother he was. “You remember who this is, right? Graves? The super soldier from Canterlot? The guy who’s took down a freaking chimera not a few months ago? You’re challenging him to a duel?”

“Come on, Twilight it’s not like Spike’s really gonna fight Big G,” Pinkie Pie laughed aloud. “He’s probably just doing it to make a point on what a gem Rarity is!”

“It is rather flattering, I must say,” Rarity murmured with a flushed, but pleasant smile. “It’s not everyday you have a handsome young man such as Spikey Wikey fighting for your hand.”

“Besides, Graves isn’t that kind of person,” Fluttershy chimed in. “It’s not like he would really fight Spike just because he was asked too."

“See?” Pinkie giggled. “You don’t need to worry about it, Twilight. It’s all just for fun.”

"I guess you're right..." With a relived sigh, the sweater-vested librarian finally managed to crack a smile. "Geez, Spike, you really had me worried there for a second."

The six girls turned to the Salamander, all now smiling at him as they would at a small puppy whilst he could only stare back in mute horror. This was the last way he’d wanted things to turn out. It was quite literally, the worst possible way things could have unfolded.

Truth be told, he knew he didn’t really have a chance with Rarity. He'd actually known for quite some time now.

After hearing of Rarity's success in attracting the interests of Equestria's most eligible bachelor during her first Gala, the Salamander boy had come to the uncomfortable realization that the clock was ticking. Rarity was dazzling, no two ways about it, and as beautiful and special and amazing as she was, there would never be a shortage of suitors vying for her attentions. He wanted to try himself and in fact had been for quite some time now, but how could he ever hope to succeed? It would be years before he could even consider calling himself a man and years more till he could hope to make something of himself that anyone would take seriously. By then, Rarity would already have found someone great enough to do justice to the treasure he knew she was, a man she could genuinely and truly be happy with. The clock would run out before Spike would ever get a chance to even try simply because he was too young. He was just too much of a kid.

Yet even knowing that still didn’t stop him from liking her so much that it hurt like having a heart full of wasps. Even if it wasn’t with him, Spike wanted to make sure that whoever Rarity was with, it'd be a man who would truly make her happy. Of course, the green-haired lad had no idea how to do that until the days' shocking announcement prompted him to do a little research. It'd taken some time, several hours into the party in fact, but the boy had eventually found a book explaining the concept of duels for the sake of a worthy lady. Appropriate since just once, Spike wanted to play the real knight to Rarity’s princess.

That's why as he stood there, with the girls smiling along in good-hearted but completely misplaced humors at his supposedly sweet gesture, he found himself hard-pressed to keep hot, angry tears from welling out. It was frustrating, a nasty sort of hot, sticky pressure that begged for release where none could be found. Of course Spike realized that Graves was one scary dude. Of course he knew that the marshal could beat him like cake batter half asleep and with one hand tied behind his back.

Yet despite the completely one-sided nature of the affair and despite the painfully inevitable outcome that would follow, Spike had been dead serious in his request for a duel. Thus, he stood there, waiting for a response while his best and most honest intentions were misunderstood by his closest friends as the silly antics of a love-struck boy. Even through the bubbling frustration and unseemly tears that threatened to burst forth at any moment, Spike held fast and continued to stare pure defiance at the marshal, just daring him to say yes.

Graves returned the look, his stony face unreadable and his grey eyes as infinite as the densest of fogs.

Finally, he spoke.

“… Bare handed combat, first knock out or surrender to claim victory. Do you object?”

Seven pairs of eyes turned to stare in blank disbelief.

“Do you object?” he repeated, his voice the exact same level, baritone rumble as ever.

“Uh… no, I don’t,” Spike replied, still somewhat stunned himself.

“No seconds, then,” Graves remarked. “Time and place?”

“... Noon tomorrow… the canyons outside town…”

“Private affair or witnessed?”

“Private," Spike gulped. "Definitely private.”

Slowly, the marshal nodded his head.

“Terms accepted. Evening, everyone.”

And with a small tip of his hat, Graves threaded his way between the thunderstruck onlookers and walked out the front door.

“Uh… what just happened?” Rainbow Dash asked as she glanced around, as if expecting Discord to pop up in a stray of chaotic confetti. Twilight replied, though more on autopilot response than any actual conscious volition.

“I think… I think my baby brother just challenged Graves to a duel. And he got one.”

The six girls turned to stare at Spike, who in turn stared at the door through which the-raven haired soldier had just left.

He couldn’t believe it. He’d actually gotten a duel with Graves.

He’d actually gotten a duel with Graves.

Oh, buck.

**********

Chapter 3

Chapter 3

Ever had one of those moments where you want something to happen just as badly as you don’t? Like, that night before the big tournament where you’ll finally get the chance to take down your snarky rival. You know, the one who always insinuates you have terrible body odor as a farewell. Whatever the reason, you know you want it to happen so you can go full beast mode and settle the matter once and for all.

But at the same time, you also find yourself hoping that it never comes. I mean, what if you fail? What if you lose? What if instead of coming out the champion, you end up the chump? Sure, you might end up doing something amazing, but you could also end up getting thrashed eight ways till Sunday and immortalized as the most colossal of all colossal fools. The resulting cocktail of emotions – one part adrenaline, one part angst, shaken not stirred and splashed with general worry to taste – ends up keeping you company all night as you count down the seconds to sunrise and judgment.

That’s exactly how Spike felt as he made his bleary-eyed way from the library that morning, all with Twilight Sparkle waving him a cheery goodbye.

Now, some of you might be wondering how this was even possible. Twilight Sparkle, the monarch of misgivings, somehow not worrying about her baby brother’s impending duel with a twice-baked terror? One would sooner expect Prince Blueblood to actually develop empathy than such carefree optimism from the sweater-vested scholar. Well, you have to give Spike some credit in that he really understood his sister. All it had really taken was a logical explanation of the most likely scenario.

Of course they weren’t going to actually fight. Graves was full grown man, a fire-forged warrior while Spike had yet to start worrying about the intricacies of shaving; any fight between them would be about as sporting as hunting rabbits with hand grenades. No, the marshal had undoubtedly played along with the young boy’s whims to help him save face. They’d probably meet in the canyon, share a few words, maybe scrap a just a little bit for appearance sake, and that’d be a wrap. After all, it’s not like Graves would actually beat up a little kid, would he?

Satisfied, the logical librarian had thus sent her little brother off before turning back to a fun-filled afternoon of cataloging the newest texts. Once the door had closed behind him, however, the green-haired boy had let the charade drop as his worry came back in full.

It was easy to think Graves had been playing along, but he wasn’t so sure that was actually the case. Those gunmetal grey eyes were always hard, but last night, they seemed to genuinely be cast from burnished steel. Maybe he hadn’t been serious, but then again, maybe he had.

“Maybe he’ll take it easy on me,” Spike mumbled as he made his way towards the outskirts of town. But hoping for that was about as useful as wishing for a magical pony princess. If there’s anything that Graves wasn’t, that’d be a man who did things halfheartedly. And thus, the Salamander boy trudged on with the joy of a man heading for his own funeral, albeit with just a bit more determination than most. Maybe he was getting put six feet under, but blast it if he didn’t pop the undertaker a good one before then.

*****

Rounding the final turn, Spike looked ahead and saw the marshal seated on a rock, dressed as usual in his long leather coat and broad, flat brimmed hat.

“You’re late.”

With those two words, all the bluster and bravado the Salamander boy had built up on the walk over evaporated like water drops on a hot skillet. He’d thought Graves had been imposing last night. He’d thought his gaze had been oppressive then. That had just been the warm up. Right now, the marshal's stare could have pierced holes through iron. His eyes were hard and heavy, bearing down with all the crushing weight of two ton sledges wielded in the hands of titans.

“Sorry,” Spike stammered as he quickly hurried forward in hopes of appeasing the stern sentinel. “Didn't think it’d take so long to get here.”

“Duels are fights with your pride on the line,” Graves replied in tones of granite gravel. “Every act reflects that pride. Got it?”

“Yes. Sir. Got it, sir.”

Seemingly satisfied, the marshal finally stood and dropped his spell rifle to the ground with a heavy, ominous thud.

“For what reason have we met today?” the marshal asked, his question coming from nowhere and catching the boy by surprise.

“Excuse me?” Spike replied dumbly.

“For what reason have we met today?” the marshal repeated, his words coming slower but with a sharper edge to every one. This time, Spike got it.

“Oh! We meet today, to... uh… settle a matter between Spike and Graves,” the boy replied, the words and forms he’d learned about coming awkwardly to his tongue.

“And what is this matter?”

“The matter is Rarity,” Spike said, the declaration of his purpose offering some small boost to his will. “I challenge Graves to prove that he really cares for her more than I do.”

“What are the terms?”

“Bare-handed combat. First to surrender or… or to be knocked out, loses.”

With the slightest of nods, the marshal walked forward with the slow and implacable tread of a glacial shift until he stood within arm’s reach of the Salamander boy. Spike swallowed as he craned his neck up so he could meet the marshal’s gaze; he hadn't realized the man was quite so tall.

“May the best man win,” Graves said softly, raising a single fist up towards the boy. Spike didn’t respond; the grapefruit-sized knot his throat made sure of that. It had been scary before, but until this precise moment, none of this had been completely real. Now, however, there was no more denying it, no more hoping to someone miraculously get away.

He was actually going to have a fist-fight with Graves.

Working to swallow both the lump in his throat and the bubbling fear in his stomach, Spike raise a hand of his own and replied, his voice hoarse and raspy,

“May the best man win.”

Their fists touched and Spike’s world exploded in pain.

*****

One minute, you’re staring down the steely eyes of an apex predator and the next, you’re lying on the ground, blinking back the tears as you hold your throbbing nose and wonder how the hay did you get there in the first place.

“Get up,” Grave commanded, his gravelly tones devoid of any trace of compassion. “Or are you gonna give up already?”

Spike scrambled to his feet, rubbing his nose as he stared with terror stricken eyes at the marshal. This was bad, and bad in a really capital B kind of way. He’d known that Graves would be good, but he hadn’t figured that Graves would be that good. The blow had come out like a viper, striking with blinding speed before the boy even had a chance to react. To even see.

A slight shift in posture was all the warning Spike had to throw himself back to the ground. Lucky too, because that’s the precise moment when the marshal’s booted foot thrust forward towards through the precise spot where the Salamander boy’s face had been.

“Are you trying to kill me?” Spike cried out as he scrambled to his feet once more. “That could’ve taken my head off!”

“You actually complaining?” Graves asked, eyebrow cocked in question. “Weren’t you the one who asked for this?”

“W-Well…” the boy stammered, yeah, but–”

“Then fight.”

Spike jumped back once more, but couldn’t quite get out of reach as Graves caught him with another stinging jab to the nose.

At this point, the Salamander became desperate. Not knowing what else to do, he sent his best haymaker – a wobbly, loose, and clumsy swing – straight for the marshal’s gut. It missed, sailing through harmlessly as Graves pivoted on one foot and dodged just to the side. A heavy blow into the boy’s side and the marshal leaped back, safely out of his assailant’s shorter range.

From here, it only went downhill. Unable to retreat, Spike continued to charge in, swinging as hard as his thin arms could swing. Yet every time he did, the marshal saw him coming. Those piercing grey eyes spotted out every move and got him just out of the way, but not before delivering one or two more stinging blows as he left. Within minutes, Spike was a mass of bruises and aches, his lip and nose bloodied up and one eye already showing the telltale black.

“You give up yet?” Graves asked, cool as a forest stream with not even a bead of sweat on his face.

“Not… yet…” Spike panted, though even the reply took way more effort than it should have. No matter how hard he tried, Spike couldn’t do anything. He couldn’t even lay a finger on the man, no matter how much he struggled. It was... it was like chasing moon shadows in a midnight blizzard, painful and futile and utterly, utterly hopeless.

Raising a feeble hand, Spike threw one more punch towards the marshal, still somehow thinking he might at least land the luckiest of lucky hit. But there was no room for chance here as a sharp right cross sent the boy crumpling to the ground.

Above the green-haired lad, Graves stood, his eyes cold and hard.

“... You told me you cared about Rarity,” he said, an almost cruel sneer in his voice. “But looks like it was nothing but talk.”

Though the blows had hurt and his whole body ached, it was those words, cutting like jagged razors, that finally brought tears to the boy’s tightly shut eyes.

The girls joked about it mercilessly, but it was true; he really did like Rarity. He’d liked her ever since his first day in Ponyville and he’d always hoped, however unrealistically, that she’d one day like him. But he was too young, too much of a kid to ever be taken seriously. At least once, he wanted to be taken seriously, even if it was just landing a single punch on the man who’d won the heart of the girl he cared for.

But he couldn’t even lay a finger on him, and not just because he faced the marshal. No, laying there on the ground and really being honest with himself, Spike knew that he was just plain scared. Part of him wanted to stay down so he wouldn’t have to get hit again. Part of him wanted to just quit, to tell himself he’d done enough simply by bringing the challenge in the first place. Part of him wanted to surrender and just give up and let his feelings for his first love hang.

So as he lay on the ground, helpless against the marshal and even helpless against his own fear, that's when the pain truly set in. He felt so powerless, so frustratingly weak that unbearably helpless, that he wanted nothing more than to simply scream.

Well then… why not?

Spike roared, but instead of sound, out of his mouth came a brilliant torrent of viridian green flame. The marshal spun, and the sturdy leather of his jacket snuffed out the flame like fingers on a candle wick. Nevertheless, the gaze he returned to the boy now held at the very least, just a hint of surprise.

He wasn’t the only one, because Spike’s emerald green eyes stared back in disbelief as well. He’d never breathed fire like that before in his life. How on earth did he…

You have power, hatchling. Use it.

It was a thought. Or maybe it was a feeling. It was something that seemed to come from the pit of his stomach, the center of his chest, and the back of his head all at the same time. Something called out to him, something older than the mountains and hills, yet somehow still close and familiar…

Slowly, Spike climbed to his feet, eyes ever on the marshal who now stood back at a wary distance. Inhaling deeply, the Salamander boy breathed once more and exhaled another plume of draconic fury. This time, Graves was forced to leap aside, unable to deflect the searing blast as he had before. Filling his lungs to bursting, Spike roared again, blasting out focused jets of green flame over and over, forcing the marshal to dodge time and time again. This was it, the feeling from before. It felt right. It felt proper.

No, not quite. Fire was good, but it was only a start. In the wake of his blast and before the onset of conscious thought, Spike leaped forward, the speed of his movements unlike anything he’d ever experienced, yet still somehow familiar. In the blink of an eye, Spike closed the gap between him and the marshal, swinging not with his fists, but with his claws.

For the first time, Graves parried, sweeping aside the raking strike as he delivered a counter blow to the boy’s jaw. But Spike spun with the blow, bringing his hind leg up into a mulish back kick. The marshal caught the foot, but the strength of the blow knocked forced his feet to skid back on the sandy canyon floor.

And that’s when Spike began to fight. With a speed, a ferocity, and a fearlessness he never knew he had, he fought. Slashing claws and striking legs lashed out in between gouts of green fire even as the dragon boy’s appearance slowly grew to match his savagery. Spiky green hair hardened into razor quills. Skin and nails grew hard to form iridescent scales and iron talons. Eyes narrowed into reptilian slits above a mouth growing long and full of razor sharp fangs, fangs he used to snap and bite at the marshal’s exposed flesh even as his newly sprouted tail lashed out like a darting snake.

Perhaps Spike noticed the changes. Perhaps he didn’t. What he did know was that with this new found energy, he had a chance and he was going to use that chance to the fullest. Graves continued fending off the blows, dancing on the knife’s edge as he dodged and parried by the skin of his teeth. But slowly, inch by inch, he gave way. The Salamander boy continued his relentless onslaught, pressing his advantage to the fullest. The marshal was wavering.

Soon, his defenses would crack. Soon, he’d be left vulnerable and Spike could land his first blow. Soon–

*****

Spike blinked as he found himself staring up at the pale blue sky.

“Wha…?”

“Good. You’re awake”

Turning his head slowly, Spike saw Graves seated next to him, same as ever in his long, leather coat and broad, flat-brimmed hat.

“What happened?” the boy asked, his head full of cotton balls and cobwebs.

“We had our duel.”

“Did we?” the boy wondered as we sat up slowly, rubbing his foggy head. “What happened?”

“You don’t remember?” the marshal asked, eyebrow arched.

“I remember coming to the canyon,” Spike began. “We talked a bit, then you hit me in the face, and then…” Like a broken dam, the memories flooded back in and snapped him wide awake.

“Holy cow!”

“So you do remember,” Graves intoned, the faintest spark of amusement lighting his silvery eyes.

“Unless I’m going crazy,” the boy replied with bewildered confusion. “Was that… was that really me? Did I do all that stuff?”

“Yup.”

“How?”

“You’re a Salamander,” the marshal replied as he cracked his neck and got more comfortable. “That dragon’s blood makes you natural born fighters, and when it fully wakes...

Though Grave trailed off, Spike remained silent as the enormity of what had happened started to slowly sink in.

“I... I... tried to kill you,” he blanched, as memories of slashing claws and snapping jaws began bubbling back to consciousness. “Holy crap, I actually tried to kill you!”

“Tried is right,” the marshal agreed. “Course, seeing as I’m still here-”

“No, you don’t get it, do you?” Spike cried as he jumped to his feet. “If I’m part dragon, and that kind of... stuff’s inside me, then what happens when-”

Before the boy could build up steam, a quick flick to the forehead completely derailed that train of thought.

“Sit down,” Graves said, not unkindly, but clear enough that he wasn’t taking no for an answer. Doing as he was told, the Salamander had a seat.

“So, you’re worried you’ll lose control?” the marshal asked, his voice returning to its typical, gravelly baritones. Spike nodded in absolute earnest agreement.

“... Good.”

“How on earth is that good?” Spike retorted. “I’m a ticking time bomb, a walking disaster, a-”

“-young man who’s got power and the sense enough to be careful with it,” Grave smoothly finished. “Which puts you a sight above most young men, let me tell you.”

“... You... don’t think I’m dangerous?” Spike asked nervously.

“Not really,” Graves shrugged. “If I did, would I have healed you up so good?"

Spike opened his mouth to respond, but paused. Come to think of it, he did feel pretty good actually, tattered clothes aside. Excellent even, considering that he’d been beaten like a drum not minutes ago.

“Oh. Uh... thanks for that,” the boy finished dumbly.

“No problem.”

"But still, don't you think I'm a health hazard or something?" Spike continued, not completely assured by the marshal's confidence. "What if I go completely crazy one day and start hurting the people around me?"

"Do you want that to happen?"

"Of course not! Wh-"

"-Then don't let it." The gravity of the marshal's simple words cutting off the boy in mid protest. "You were born with a gift and it's as much a part of you as the head on your shoulders. May be hard to control, but long as you got a good enough reason to keep it in check, you'll find a way."

"It'd sure be easier if I didn't have to worry about it," Spike sighed.

"Would you rather be powerless when you've got a reason to fight?"

Spike didn't answer because they both knew exactly what he was going to say. A fairly harsh truth to be sure, but one the Salamander was grateful to learn nonetheless.

“... So, is that why you took my challenge?” the boy asked. “Because you wanted me to... I dunno, teach me a life lesson about how with great power comes great responsibility and what not?”

“Mm, not really,” Graves replied. "I figured Twilight's got that covered."

“Then why did you?" Spike asked, now quite perplexed. Surely, the marshal didn't go around beating up little kids for kicks and giggles did he? But then Graves looked to the Salamander and finally cracking a smile, gave a reply that may even have been even more absurd.

“That's easy. You asked.”

Spike blinked.

Twice.

“That’s it?”

“That’s it.”

“So… if Sweetie Belle asked you to toss her off a bridge to help earn a flying cutie mark, you would?”

The marshal’s chuckle was a deep and rich like a cup of quality cocoa.

“Bit much, even for me,” he smiled. "But you seemed serious, and when a man get's that sort of fire in his eye, s'only decent you meet him in kind.”

Viridian reptilian eyes went wide in surprise.

Now, Spike certainly didn’t want to, not when someone was finally treating him like a man, but he just couldn’t help it. Between now his now soft, human hands, a little giggle squeaked out as the Salamander boy basked in the glow of the soldier’s praise. Graves had actually called him a man. Seriously, Graves! The super marshal! And he'd actually taken him seriously enough to-

"Hey, wait a minute!" Spike frowned. "You're lying!"

“... I am?" the marshal blinked.

“Yeah!" the Salamander continued, now getting just a bit angry. "If you were really taking me seriously, you'd have knocked me out with that first hit. But you were... I dunno... playing around with me or something."

"Was I?" Graves intoned.

"Yeah, you were," Spike affirmed as anger gave way to sulking. "And the worst part is, it still didn't make a difference. Even with all that dragon stuff going on, I still couldn't even touch you."

Graves said nothing as he stroked his chin in thought. Then, to the Salamander’s great surprise, the marshal pulled back his coat and revealed, through the holes neatly sliced into his shirt, a faint set of claw marks on his ribs. They weren't much, just enough to tear fabric and mar the skin underneath, but they were definitely there. It was definitely something.

"I'll admit, could have finished it sooner," Graves nodded as he allowed his coat to fall back in place. "But it seemed like you really wanted a chance to fight. Turns out I was right."

"I... actually got you?" Spike breathed in disbelief. "Seriously?"

"You did," the marshal nodded. "Even had to really hit you at the end. No holding back."

Green eyebrows disappeared behind pointed bangs as viridian eyes widened with even more surprise. Okay, so maybe Spike hadn’t actually won the duel. Maybe he hadn’t even come close. But to overcome the pants-wetting terror that had gripped him and make Graves take him seriously, even for a split second? To be able to get some revenge, however small it may have been, for having his first love snatched out of reach?

Yeah, he could probably live with that.

“... So,” the dragon lad began once his satisfied smile had worn off, “what happens next?”

“First off,” the marshal grunted, “we never mention this to Twilight. Ever.”

“Agreed,” the boy replied with a hearty nod. Should the worry-prone librarian ever find out what happened today, well... let’s just say there would be postings for a new marshal in town and Owlicious could expect a promotion in the very near future. “But... after that happens," he continued, levity fading into reality, "what then?

“Then..." Graves paused for a moment, then simply shrugged. "I guess life goes on.”

Spike knew he didn't have to, but he couldn't help it. Some things just needed closure, and for that, one last question had to be asked.

“And for you, that life going... that includes Rarity, right?" the boy said, his words more statement than question.

Graves simply nodded, and Spike could feel the closing curtains fall.

“Well then, you take care of her, okay?” he snorted, doing his best to keep a straight face despite the tears he knew were pooling in the corners of his eyes. “Rarity's really special, so just... be sure you take care of her. Make her happy. Can you do that?”

Graves didn’t respond quite yet. Instead, he extended his hand out the green haired boy beside him and replied with but one simple word.

“Always.”

So Spike took that hand and shook it, sealing the promise from one man to another.

One was even decent enough to look away when the other began to cry.

**********

To Be Continued

The Journey of Graves will continue in the next story: Dating is Hard.

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