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Two Kinds of Complications

by GentlemanJ

First published

Rarity wants a date. Sweetie Belle wants a brother. Lucky Graves just wants a day without headaches.

The fourth story in The Journey of Graves.

After their little trolling adventure, Sweetie Belle has decided that Graves would make a great big brother. Of course adoption's out of the question (after all, parents always say no), so that just means the Cutie Mark Crusaders will have to get creative.

Meanwhile, Rarity has taken an interest in Graves for completely different reasons. Just what does the prettiest girl in Ponyville see in the gruff, stern faced soldier? He has no idea and frankly, isn't sure he wants to find out.

Chapter 1

This is the fourth 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...

Two Kinds of Complications

By: GentlemanJ

Chapter 1

Sweetie Belle sighed, a dreamily happy smile painted across her little face.

“Big brothers sure are nice, aren’t they?”

“Whoa, where did that come from?”

That would be Scootaloo, the spunky, purple-haired girl who spun around to stare oddly at her friend, who in turn leaned on their clubhouse window sill to stare out at the Apple family orchard. Off in the distance, the solid frame of Big Macintosh, the eldest of the Apple siblings, could be seen tilling up the land in preparation for the year’s sowing.

“Now hold yer horses there,” Apple Bloom called out, her pink bow bobbing about as she trotted over to join the conversation. “I already loaned you Applejack for a big sister, and I told you that was for one day. Now you want Big Macintosh too?”

“I don’t want Big Macintosh, silly,” Sweetie Belle replied. “I was just thinking how nice it’d be to have a big brother.”

“Oh, well that’s… Hey, wait a second. What’s wrong with Big Mac?”

“Huh?"

“If there ain’t nothin’ wrong with him,” Apple Bloom challenged, “then how come you don’t you want him for a big brother?” She didn’t even realize her inner salesman was contradicting her previous protective jealously.

“Because I want Mister Graves to be my big brother. Why would I need two?” Sweetie Belle answered, quite confused at having to explain something so obvious.

Scootaloo and Apple Bloom glanced at each other, and suddenly the light bulb flashed.

“Ooooohhhhh," they rejoined, the understanding sounding much more impressive in stereo.

So it was the day after Sweetie Belle’s return from Canterlot with Rarity and the morning after she’d come to the apple orchard with Scootaloo for a sleepover. Once together, she had regaled her friends with stories of all the things she’d done over the past several days: attending the fashion expo, shopping with Rarity, visiting the opera - where the premiere prima donna, Fortissima had performed live - and so much more.

Scootaloo had fallen asleep through much of the fancier, girly portions, but even she was hooked when Sweetie Belle told them about her pre-trip troll hunting adventures with the marshal. As she did, a special kind of sparkle had come into her eyes, a sort of warm, ticklish look that usually only came out when she bragged about her big sister Rarity.

Now her friends understood why.

“Why do you want Graves as a big brother anyway?” Scootaloo asked. Sweetie Belle beamed.

“Because he’s really nice. He treats me to ice cream, takes me along on his adventures, and doesn’t get mad when I mess things up: he’d be the perfect big brother!”

“So what, you wanna go out an' adopt Graves?” Apple Bloom asked as she unconsciously poked her new tooth with her tongue: she’d been lisping for so long, it felt kind of weird to be talking normally again.

“I don’t think that’ll work,” Sweetie Belle sighed. “After the whole Sisterhood Social thing, I found out that adopting has something to do with parents taking in a new kid, but Mister Graves probably already has parents. Plus, he’s kind of too old for new parents, don’t you think?”

“Yeah, probably,” Apple Bloom agreed.

“So what are you gonna do about it?” Scootaloo asked while flopping down on one of the old pillows lying around.

“I dunno,” Sweetie Belle shrugged, “I hadn’t really thought about it. I just thought that if I had Rarity as a big sister and Mister Graves as a big brother, that’d be really neat.”

“Hold on a second,” Apple Bloom called out, a spark of ingenuity flashing in her eyes. “I think you might be on to somethin'.”

“I am?” Sweetie Belle asked.

“She is?” Scootaloo parroted.

“Yeah! I remember Granny Smith sayin’ somethin’ about it when she was showin’ me the Apple family tree. Apparently, if an outsider gets matrimonialized to a person in the family, then they become part of family too.”

“Great!” Sweetie Belle smiled, then paused for a moment. “What’s matrionialized?”

“... I’m not sure,” Apple Bloom admitted. “Granny Smith called it ‘tying the knot,’ so I think it involves rope somehow.”

“Rope?” Scootaloo scoffed. “So what, you’re saying that if we truss up Graves and Rarity together like a bushel of corn, then that makes them family?”

“I think?” Apple Bloom shrugged.

“Well if that’s all it takes, then why don’t I do it?” Sweetie Belle asked. “I don’t think Rarity would appreciate being tied to anything, especially other people.”

“It’s supposed to be people around the same age; not really sure why though,” Apple Bloom replied. “I asked Granny Smith the same question, but she just started mumblin’ somethin’ about a ‘two-timin’ rapscallion runnin’ off with some scarlet hussy’ before fallin' asleep. Whatever that means.”

“Apple Bloom, no offense, but that makes even less sense than the part about tying them together,” Scootaloo smirked.

“Well, I don’t see you comin’ up with anythin’,” Apple Bloom replied by sticking her tongue out. “At least I thought of somethin’.”

“Girls, now’s not the time to be arguing,” Sweetie Belle interjected before turning to her pink-bowed friend. “So what you’re saying is that if we can somehow tie Rarity and Mister Graves together with this whole matrimonializing thing, then he’ll be my big brother afterwards?”

“I think it's a bit more complicated than that, but as far as I can tell, yeah.”

“Well that settles it,” Sweetie Belle grinned. “Come on girls, let’s go and get them matrimonialized!”

“But we still don’t even know what getting matrimonialized means,” Scootaloo pointed out.

“Aw, that’s easy,” the curly-haired girl replied with a dismissive wave of the hand. “We just go to the one place where we can find out anything we want.”

“Rainbow Dash?” Scootaloo guessed.

“That’s your answer to everythin’,” Apple Bloom retorted with a roll of her eyes.

“Well, she does know everything,” Scootaloo defended.

“I meant the library,” Sweetie Belle cut in before the two started bickering again. “With all those books, I’m sure we’ll find something about matrimonializing.”

“That’s actually not a bad idea,” Apple Bloom agreed. “Come on, let’s go hit the books!”

The two girls ran out of the clubhouse and headed for the center of town as Scootaloo trudged along reluctantly behind.

“Ugh, I hate books.”

**********

Chapter 2

Chapter 2

Graves was not in a particularly good mood. A bead of sweat rolled down the young marshal’s forehead as he stared intently ahead, his grey eyes glinting like burnished steel with their focus. Today, he faced a problem completely foreign to him, the likes of which he had never seen before and one where he had no idea on how to respond.

For the first time in his life, the marshal didn’t know what to wear.

Peering into his closet, Graves scratched his head as he struggled to assemble a decent outfit for his date with Rarity. Well, not a date really, it was just lunch. I mean, she had called it a date, but that was probably just a figure of speech, right? She’d also said it was just a thank you lunch for taking care of Sweetie Belle, so of course it must be purely platonic in nature.

Right?

“Confound it, Rarity,” Graves muttered as he pulled out two seemingly identical shirts to compare, “life was hard enough before you came and complicated it.”

Now despite his frustration at current circumstances, very little, if any of it was actually directed at the pretty seamstress. After all, it wasn’t like he disliked her or anything; by all means, that wasn’t it. Like all the other people he met in Ponyville, she had been nothing but kind and welcoming ever since he’d first arrived. It’s just that Rarity, sophisticated as she was, was the one type of person he absolutely couldn’t handle.

Marshals by and large dealt with a much more rough-and-tumble crowd – theirs is a very particular line of work, after all – and beyond the occasional formal meeting or rare public appearance, they never ran into members of the upper crust. That’s why Rarity, who could be called the very embodiment of elegance and poise, made Graves feel like a tongue-tied, backwaters rube whenever he was anywhere remotely near her.

Or maybe it was just because she was really, really pretty. Unbidden, Sweetie Belle’s comments from their day of troll hunting came floating into his mind like unwanted gas.

Why, I bet you’d agree that she’s the prettiest girl in the whole wide world!

“And you, Miss Sweetie Belle,” Graves continued muttering as he finally picked a shirt to put on, “aren’t helping either.”

Of course, it would be unfair to completely blame Sweetie Belle for the thought. Any half-blind simpleton could see that Rarity was undeniably attractive. But ever since the little girl had so bluntly pointed it out, Graves had become distinctly – even uncomfortably – aware of the fact.

“Long as I don’t make a blasted fool of myself, I should be fine,” the young man said as he took one last look at himself in the mirror. With his long leather coat, broad flat-brimmed hat, and cloudy grey eyes peeking out from behind long, black bangs, he didn’t look much different from how he always looked. That was fine, except that it sort of irked him today. For once, he didn’t want to just look okay, he wanted to look nice. He was meeting a beautiful young lady for a date, after all.

“Except it’s just lunch, not a date,” he growled at himself. “Now stop acting like a trigger-happy cadet, you dead-brained fool.”

With that last happy thought, Graves left the house to meet Rarity for their date–

Lunch! It wasn’t a date, it was just… ah, buck it!

*****

Meanwhile…

Rarity was in a particularly good mood as she got herself ready for the day. Humming one of Pinkie Pie’s silly, little nonsense songs, Rarity emerged from her cavernous walk-in closet holding a hanger in each hand.

“What do you think Opal?” she asked the fluffy white cat lazily lounging on her bureau. “Should I go with the sun dress or the pants suit?”

Her cat gave a disinterested mewl before proceeding to groom herself.

“You’re right, sun dress it is,” the young lady smiled as she hung up the suit set and laid out the dress on her bed. “It’s not a business luncheon, and I wouldn’t want to come across as too formal, now would I?”

Opal didn’t bother to look up from her licking.

Unfazed by her pet’s blasé attitude, Rarity continued humming happily as she walked back into the closet and began selecting matching accessories.

The last several days had been particularly kind to Ponyville’s premiere fashionista. Her display at the expo had gotten rave reviews, setting a wonderful tone for the rest of the trip as she and her little sister shopped, dined, and toured the lovely capitol of Equestria.

And it was all thanks to the good marshal. If he hadn’t taken care of Sweetie Belle that day, she would never have been able to so readily complete her display. That in itself was a life saver, and the fact that Sweetie Belle had been too tired from their adventures to cause trouble like usual - well, inordinate amounts anyways; Sweetie Belle was always trouble - was just icing on an already fabulous cake.

“Do you like the sapphire necklace?” Rarity addressed the cat again as she displayed one of her new acquisitions from Canterlot. “Personally, I think it’s the perfect accent to my ensemble. It really does wonders bringing out my eyes, after all.”

Opal looked at her owner disdainfully and gave her a little sniff.

“Oh, don’t be ridiculous,” Rarity scoffed, “I am not trying to impress anyone.”

That was very true. To show her appreciation for the marshal’s help, Rarity had invited him to lunch once she got back from Canterlot and of course, she'd want to look presentable. After all, what kind of thanks would it be to show up wearing any tacky old thing? No, she was simply trying to put together a sensible outfit that would prove suitable for the occasion.

But the bounce in her step and the unconscious smile on her lip hinted at something more than just appreciation. In all honesty, she was actually quite excited about their lunch appointment since it would give her a chance to find out more about the mysterious marshal.

When Graves had first arrived in Ponyville, Rarity had of course been excited like everyone else and possibly more than most due to the unique opportunity he’d presented. As a designer, she was always looking for new inspiration, and the dashing figure of a young, military hero would certainly provide plenty of that. So while she had become well acquainted with him through various chance encounters, she’d always seen him as more of an icon than anything else.

Then Graves had joined the sisters for dinner and suddenly, Rarity saw facets of him she could never have imagined.

Who would have thought that Graves, always so somber with his dark leather coat and stern expression, would actually be good with children? In the course of one day, Sweetie Belle had grown more attached the young marshal than any boy or man she knew save their father.

Or who could have guessed that despite his youth and generally deadpan demeanor, he could be so insightful? At one point during their conversation, Rarity had become quite nervous that he’d see her as cold and unfeeling for putting work over family. Her explanation was far from perfect, yet Graves had managed to capture the true essence of her feelings with a simplicity and candor that, frankly, startled her. I mean, he was a man, after all.

Yet despite these mature qualities about him, Rarity couldn’t help but smile when she recalled just how boyish Graves could be as well. He’d been fine for most of the meal, but once Sweetie Belle had gone to bed, the flustered, blushing stammering had begun. With her level of experience, it hadn’t taken the young lady long to guess why.

The marshal had been as awkward and uncomfortable as a boy trying to impress his special someone on Hearts and Hooves Day, and just as bad about hiding it if not even worse. Rarity had found this so amusing, she couldn’t resist teasing him just a little. A few long stares, a little closeness when helping him with his coat and hat, and of course, the parting date comment just as she had closed the door had left poor Graves in a decidedly frazzled mess.

“Honestly, you’d think a man of his age and standing would be a little more level-headed,” she chuckled, “but I daresay he’s even worse than Spike.”

He was an intriguing fellow. So accomplished in some areas yet so lacking in others, Rarity found the marshal a delightfully fascinating man. She’d soon found herself wondering what other unseen facets he might reveal, and the fact Graves was easy on the eyes certainly didn’t hurt…

A disdainful mewl from her pet interrupted the young lady’s thoughts.

“Really, Opal, you do have the strangest notions,” the pretty seamstress chided as she set the necklace next to her dress. “I’ve already told you, this luncheon is to thank the good marshal for helping me out of a sticky situation; there are absolutely no personal motives on my part.”

Of course that's how it was. So what if he was tall and broad-shouldered? Who cared that under his grim expression, his features were refined and fetching? And what did it matter that every so often, his hard grey eyes would light up and sparkle like moonstones? Why…

Opal hacked again with even more distaste, as if able to read her owner’s mind.

“Well, I don’t see what his looks have to do with anything,” the young lady sniffed, her face flushing half from indignation and half from embarrassment. “Yes, I will admit that Master Graves is a rather handsome fellow, but it’s not like I’m trying to catch his attention. This is strictly a platonic expression of gratitude as one friend to another.”

The cat merely stared back at Rarity with flat-eyed skepticism and meowed petulantly.

“Opal!” Rarity gasped, her cheeks heating up like a well-lit stove, “I certainly have not entertained those notions whatsoever; that would simply be un-ladylike. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a date to prepare for. Hmph!”

With that, Rarity went back into her closet to find the right pair of shoes for her outfit. In her mind, the matter had been firmly settled; Opal’s comments were nothing but wild speculation and baseless guesswork, nothing at all like her own logical, level-headed notions. Opal just didn’t know what she was talking about.

Of course, Rarity had been arguing with a cat…

**********

Chapter 3

Chapter 3

“Hey, Twilight, have you seen myAAAAHHHHH!” Spike ended his words with a with a cry of abject horror. “What happened to the library?!”

Everywhere he looked, books lay strewn and scattered, whole shelves emptied of their contents as if a renegade typhoon with a grudge against literature had torn its way through.

“Oh Spike, don’t be such a worry wart,” Twilight beamed as she walked over to pat her assistant on his spiky, green head. “We can just clean up later.”

If anything, this reaction frightened the reptilian boy even more: Twilight was actually smiling at a mess in her library? And one that involved books?

“Okay, who are you and what have you done with Twilight Sparkle?” he asked, backing away and preparing to bolt at any second. The lavender-haired librarian just chuckled.

“Don’t be silly, Spike, it’s me of course. Do I need to recite all one hundred and eight verses of Dusty Prose’s Poem on Boring Poems to prove it?”

“… Okay, so you really are Twilight,” Spike relaxed, “but I still don’t get it. Why aren’t you mad that there’s a huge mess in the library?”

“Because–” Twilight began, but stopped as she fought to suppress a smile; that didn't last long and she finally burst out into a fit of giggling squeals. “Because, I think we have some girls interested in love!”

“Love?” the young Salamander repeated in disbelief. “Who?”

Grinning like Pinkie Pie in an all-you-can-eat pastry buffet, Twilight pointed at a large pile of books that exploded to reveal the trio of Apple Bloom, Scootaloo, and Sweetie Belle all tugging furiously on the same text.

“Really?" Spike asked incredulously as the three actually began fighting over the book. “You think those three are in love?”

“Not in love, interested in love; a very technical, but important distinction to make,” the young scholar replied with a sagacious nod. “And I was skeptical too, but when the first thing they asked me for was a reference guide to matrimony, well…”

“So, those three were asking about… matrimony? Like, as in marriage?”

“Yes indeed, Spike,” Twilight giggled again. “You see, every little girl has a time in their life when they start thinking about love. It’s not so much about a very special someone, it’s more about all the stuff that goes around it. They’ll start fantasizing about what it’s like to have a perfect wedding, what decorations they’ll have, what the cake will look like, and of course what kind of dress they’ll wear. It's a very big part of every little girl’s life.”

“So, how come you never had a phase like that?” the reptilian boy asked quizzically.

“I did have one,” Twilight replied with a hint of a blush, “but it was when you were much younger: you probably just don’t remember.” Good thing too. If Spike found out she'd planned a pony-themed wedding between her and her beloved Smarty Pants, she'd never hear the end of it.

“Ugh, good thing, too,” the young Salamander bluntly intoned whilst making several unpleasant gagging sounds. “All that girly-sissy frou-frou stuff makes me nauseous.” Twilight just giggled again and ruffled his hair.

“You’ll understand one day, Spike. It just takes boys a little longer.”

“Ew, like… gross!” he frowned, swatting her hand away while sticking his tongue out in disgust. “I’m gonna go clean up the lab: I don’t want to get infected with all this girly cootie nonsense.”

Twilight watched with a fond smile as her little brother bounded down the stairs. Before turning back to her studies however, she turned her attention back to the trio of girls. The sight of them all gathered around a book and intently reading away brought forth a nostalgic sigh.

“Ah, young love."

*****

“Okay, I’m not sure I’m reading this right,” Scootaloo frowned, “but this whole matrimonializing thing just sounds really weird.”

“Yeah,” Sweetie Belle agreed, now incredibly confused. “You’d think that family stuff would be all warm and happy and… simple. But I don’t even know what language this is anymore.”

“Aw, it ain’t so bad,” Apple Bloom bracingly grinned. “It’s all fancy talk, probably to make it sound super extra special.”

“So do you understand it?” Scootaloo asked.

“Er… well… not yet…” Apple Bloom admitted, breaking out into a sheepish smile.

The Crusaders were gathered around a very large and very worn leather-bound book called Ye Olde Compendium of Equestrian Matrimonial Affaires. It had taken them a while to find it since Twilight had mistakenly shown them the romance section - to which Scootaloo had reacted much like Spike - but at least the title had sounded promising. The rest was just complicated.

“None of this makes sense,” Sweetie Belle frowned as she pointed at the page. “See, look at this part:

'When two like-minded spirits wish to be engaged under the sacred communion of matrimonial contract…’ Why are they talking about spirits? I mean, I thought we were dealing with living people here, so what do ghosts have to do with anything?”

“Ah, it’s probably just to scare us,” Scootaloo said as she blew a loud raspberry. “Old folks are always doing that so we don’t ask about the good stuff.”

“Anyways, that’s not important,” Apple Bloom continued. “We don’t need to understand all the fancy talk, we just need to know how to do it, and it says everythin' right here.”

Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo leaned in to check out the section Apple Bloom had referenced:

'Proper Protocol and Procedures for the Matrimonial Process

In the event that two individuals and respective households wish to communeth amidst the sacred trappings of matrimonial union, the persons in question must attendeth to certain rites:

1. The damsel must leaveth her homestead as a sign that she doth be willing to communeth with the sir and his household.

2. To publically declareth their intentions, the two must exchangeth circlets of common design, to showeth that the two beeth of one mind.

3. When the time cometh for them to declare for one another, the sir must espouse his interest and the dame likewise before two or more public witnesses.

4. Once the declaration hath been made, two shall be boundeth together as one.'

“Okay, I think I got the first part,” Sweetie Belle frowned, squinting intently at the page. “It can’t be done indoors, because we first gotta get Rarity out of the house, right?

“Right,” Scootaloo agreed as she scratched her head and worked on the next line. “Then we gotta get them to trade… circles? Just, like, anything round?”

“They have to look alike,” Apple Bloom added upon examining the text again, “But it doesn’t say anythin’ else, so I guess anythin’ round and circular-like would do?”

“Meh, works for me,” Scootaloo shrugged.

“Next, we have to get them to… talk about interests? Like, their hobbies?” Sweetie Belle suggested.

“Guess that makes sense,” Apple Bloom nodded. “After all, family should be able to have fun together, so having matching likes would definitely be a good idea.”

“Okay, so we got all of that,” Scootaloo chimed in, “and then there's this last part... huh. I guess it does say that we have to tie them up.”

“Told you I wasn’t making it up,” Apple Bloom said, sticking out her tongue in righteous victory.

“Hold on,” Sweetie Belle interjected before another fight broke out, “I think there’s more.”

'Following these events, the siblings of the damsel, beeth there any, may wisheth to host an infant shower for her, so as to celebrate future prospects of abundant happiness.'

“…This just keeps getting weirder and weirder,” Scootaloo frowned.

“So you’re supposed to take a… baby... bath?” Applebloom asked. “But aren’t you all outside? And what’s a baby bath anyway?”

“Well, babies are newborns," Scootaloo thought aloud, "so maybe it means the bath is supposed to be new. Like, maybe we're supposed to get creative and do it in a way they’ve never taken a bath before?” Sweetie Belle was so confused, it looked as if steam might start pouring out from her overtaxed brain.

"That's just about the strangest thing I've ever heard."

“… Well, that is what the book says…” Apple Bloom said slowly.

The three girls looked at each other, then back to the text.

“Man,” Scootaloo sighed, “I don’t think I’ll ever get adults.”

**********

Chapter 4

Chapter 4

“Sir, iz zere anything I can get you?”

Graves nearly jumped in his seat as the fancy waiter spoke: he hadn’t been paying attention.

“Uh… no thanks. Still waiting for someone.”

“Very well,” the man replied with an elaborate bow, “I shall be here when you are ready.”

Watching the fancy man leave, Graves returned to sitting stiffly and watching the crowd as he waited for his lunch companion to arrive.

She was late. Which was understandable, considering what little he knew about women, but it didn’t make it any more bearable. On the contrary, it made it worse, as every minute that passed simply made him jitterier. More than once, Graves had found himself checking the marshal’s badge, praying that some emergency business would give him an excuse to leave.

But none came, and his nerves just grew more and more frazzled.

“So sorry Graves,” a musical voice called out from behind, causing him to jump yet again (he really needed to stop doing that). “I simply couldn’t decide what to wear today.”

“Not a problem,” the young marshal said, standing awkwardly and turning around. “I’m sure you look–”

He froze, his eyes grown wide and mouth hanging slack in surprise.

“–fine.”

She was more than fine. She was downright stunning.

Her elegantly simple white dress was matched to a tee by an equally stylish blue-banded sunhat perched atop her typically perfect violet hair. The wide, navy belt cinched around her slender waist and glittering sapphire choker at her neck provided clean contrast while also bringing out her deep blue eyes; those sparkled even more than brightly the gems on her necklace. Neither ostentatious nor gaudy, everything she wore served to flawlessly complement and enhance her natural grace and beauty.

“Well, do you like it?” she asked, giving a small twirl to show off her entire ensemble.

“You look… nice,” Graves replied dumbly.

“Just… nice?” Rarity prodded, a mischievous smile playing on her face.

“Well, more than nice,” the marshal hastily amended. “You look really, really… nice.”

Rarity eyed him for a moment before chuckling merrily, her laughter ringing clear like a crystal bell.

“I suppose I can accept that,” she said with a playful wink as she moved to take a seat. Moving with surprising alacrity, Graves crossed to the other side of the table to pull her seat out for her. Now it was her’s turn to be surprised.

“Why, thank you, Graves,” Rarity delightedly remarked. “How chivalrous of you.”

“It’s nothing,” he mumbled, cheeks growing hot as he took his own seat. “Don’t mention it.”

Fancy man senses tingling, the café waiter returned the instant both were properly situated and handed the two a pair menus.

“Welcome, mademoiselle,” he bowed. “Would you and ze gentleman care to place your orders?”

“Yes, thank you, Pierre,” the pretty seamstress smiled. “I’ll have the summer salad with a bit of red wine vinaigrette – on the side, if you’d be so kind – and glass of lemonade.”

“Excellent choice, madame,” waiter replied as he jotted a few quick notes. “And for you sir?”

“… Ham and swiss panini, plus coffee. Black.”

Rarity gave Graves a funny look as Pierre repeated their orders, but said nothing and let the waiter clear their menus. Once he was out of earshot, however, the young lady leaned in to address the marshal.

“Is that really all you’re going to order?” Rarity asked, a slightly concerned frown appearing on her lips. “I offered to treat you, so there’s no need to hold back on my account.”

“It’s not that,” Graves replied, leaning slightly back as if to counter her forward motion. “Eating a lot makes me sleepy. Messes up my day.”

“Ah, I see. A habit you picked up from being a marshal?”

“I… guess so?” the young man replied with a shrug.

Rarity nodded and casually sat back in her seat, which prompted the marshal to parallel her motion. Picking up the napkin, the pretty seamstress pretended to dab at the lips, though really using the motion to hide a quickly growing smile.

Usually so calm and unflappably composed, Graves was clearly quite self-conscious about their little “date,” what with his rigid adherence to personal space and careful avoidance of any eye contact. Why, if he'd deviated the distance between them by so much as a whisker, then Rarity was second cousin to a mule. All this to say, Graves was probably even more nervous than Rainbow Dash had been at her first Young Flier’s Competition, a fact that Rarity found delightfully amusing and not just a bit endearing as well.

Of course, it’d be no fun it he spent the entire time wound tighter than a clock spring; perhaps a little bit of the fashionista's patented charm would help him loosen up.

“So, what is it like, being a marshal?” she asked with an innocently disarming smile. “I mean, I’ve heard the stories and rumors, but I honestly can’t tell the fact from the fiction in half of them.”

“Things do get exaggerated,” Graves agreed slowly. “What have you heard?”

“Well for starters, that each of you has the strength of ten men, more magical power than a genie, that you can fly like phoenixes without wings, and then some. You travel across the country, fighting monsters and brigands and Celestia knows what else, and are the only force standing between peace and total chaos. Or, something like that.”

Graves finally chuckled, a rich, warm sound that made the pretty seamstress’ own smile grow wider. She had hoped to ease out some of the marshal’s nervous tension by turning the conversation towards more familiar territory. Apparently, it worked because Graves began speaking in the slow, assured baritone that was so much more in line with his nature.

“First off,” he began as he settled more comfortably into his chair, “marshals are normal people. A bit more prepared than most, a little better trained perhaps, but still normal people.”

“So the strength of ten men and what not…”

“Just stories,” Graves finished.

“Well, what about being the last bastion against terror and mayhem?” the young lady continued.

“That’s a bit much,” he replied with a wry grin. “Royal guards do a good job keeping Equestria safe; doubt there’d be – total chaos, was it? – without us.”

“In that case, what do the marshals do?” Rarity asked, now actually quite confused. “I mean, everything I’ve heard about your group is that you travel and protect the people. If the royal guards do that, then what’s your purpose?”

Graves leaned back in his seat and thumbed at his chin, taking a moment to think on how to properly answer.

“…I guess we’re like the needle,” he finally said. Rarity blinked.

“Come again?”

“There’s a needle and thimble in sewing, right? Well, guards are the thimble and keep bad things away. The needle goes out and pokes the, cloth... or… something like that…” he trailed off. He’d tried to use an analogy a seamstress could relate to, but it’d quickly gotten away from him: very little knowledge of sewing, wouldn’t you know?

“So what you’re saying,” Rarity began slowly, picking up from where Graves had left off, “is you leave the actual defending to the royal guards while the marshals take a more… proactive role?”

“Exactly,” Graves replied, his intent finding expression through the young lady’s words. “We go if something particular needs doing; special cases and such. Guards take care of a place, we take care of problems. That’s why we travel in groups of five, so we can move quickly, stay mobile, and go where we’re needed.”

“Five?” the violet-haired girl repeated quizzically. “I know those… other marshals traveled in a group of five, but what about you? I mean, you did arrive to town on your own, and I haven’t seen anyone join you yet.”

“Ah, yes,” Graves said, a slight fog coming over his features and darkening his expression. “I’m… an odd case, so command lets me work on my own.”

Rarity was about to press further, but something about his eyes gave her pause. They'd quickly grown cold and distant, almost as fogged and detached as they’d been on his first day in town. She didn't know what the cause was, but Rarity's instincts warned her it'd be best to let the subject drop.

“Well, you’ve certainly been doing a marvelous job here,” Rarity smiled as she gracefully detoured away from that particular topic. “But as you’ve said, guard duty is more for… well, guards rather than marshals. What did you do before you came to Ponyville, then?”

“Traveled a lot, cleaning up messes that popped up,” the marshal answered calmly. While his eyes weren’t completely clear - they never were - Rarity was glad that at least they were considerably warmer than before. “Toured Equestria for a good bit, but thing’s started clearing up, so I spent several years abroad–”

“Wait, you’ve been outside of Equestria?” the seamstress gasped in astonishment.

“Um… yes?” Graves was surprised to see the young lady across from him literally squeal in delight.

“Oh my stars, this is simply amazing!” Rarity gushed. “I’ve heard so many stories about the wonders outside of Equestria, but I’ve never actually gotten the chance to go myself; it’s always been a dream of mine to see them, you know. Ooh, you simply must tell me all about it!” ” she exclaimed, reaching across the table to grab his hands.

Needless to say, the marshal was rather taken aback.

“Well… what do you want to know?”

“Everything!” she said before catching herself with an embarrassed giggle. “Oh, I’m terribly sorry about that. I just got so excited, I don’t know what came over me.”

“It’s all right,” Graves smiled, and for once his eyes actually lit up with a glitter of excitement, “’cause for once, the stories aren't half as great as the truth.”

“So, there really is a waterfall ten thousand feet high and a hundred thousand wide?” Rarity asked, her sapphire eyes shining with curiosity.

“Jungles on the southern continent. Locals call it The World’s End.”

“And canyons that sound like a full symphony when the wind blows?”

“The Hallelujah Valley in the Griffon Imperium.”

“And massive caves made entirely of crystals that shine like the moon?”

“The Hall of the Dragon King…” Graves replied yet again before leaning in with a conspiratorial grin, “… and that's just the hall: the throne room's even better.”

As the young couple quickly got lost in conversation on the world’s many wonders, neither noticed the unnatural movement of the bush some twenty feet from them in the town square. As a result, neither noticed the eyes intently watching from inside the bush either.

*****

“Move over an' let me see,” Apple Bloom hissed at her purple-haired friend.

“I can’t. It’s not like there's much space in here,” Scootaloo shot back.

“Quiet!” Sweetie Belle whispered at both of them. “Keep up like that, and they’ll hear us!”

After a few moments of intense shuffling, squirming, and the odd bickering slap-fight, the girls finally arranged themselves so all three could observe the two at the table.

“So, what do we have to do first?” Scootaloo asked. Sweetie Belle pulled out a crumpled piece of parchment with notes from their earlier research session.

“First, we gotta get Rarity out of the house, so that’s done,” she replied, making a small check on the list. “Next, we gotta… do the circular thing exchange, get them to talk about their hobbies, tie them up, and if need be… give them a bath.”

“Okay, here’s how I figured it’ll work,” Apple Bloom said as she gathered her friends in for a huddle. “I’ll run back to Sweet Apple Acres and grab some rope an' a bucket. Scootaloo, you go and find some round things that they can trade.”

“What about me?” Sweetie Belle asked. “What do I do?”

“You stay here and keep listenin'. You know the most about Rarity’s hobbies, an' if they start talkin' about that kind of stuff, we’ll want to know.”

“Got it!”

“All right, Cutie Mark Crusaders,” Apple Bloom grinned, “Operation: Get Sweetie Belle a Big Brother is officially a go!”

**********

Chapter 5

Chapter 5

With a quick glance in both directions, Scootaloo dashed across the square and dove into the cover of the bush, a cardboard box carefully tucked under one arm.

“Yo, Sweetie Belle,” she whispered as she settled in next to her friend. “Did I miss anything?”

“Oh, hey, Scoot,” the fluffy one replied, still watching the two persons of interest at the café. “No, they’ve just been talking the whole time.”

“Well, what about?” the tomboy inquired. “Did they mention anything about their hobbies or anything that we could chalk up as interests?”

“Not yet. They’ve just been talking about caves and tunnels and stuff.” Scootaloo just gave her friend an odd look.

“Why are they talking about dirt all day?”

“Beats me,” Sweetie Belle shrugged. “I guess grownups are just weird like that.” Just then, the bush rustled once more and Apple Bloom’s pink-bowed head popped up next to them.

“Hey girls,” she whispered. “Anythin' happen yet?”

“Nope,” Scootaloo replied with a shake of the head. “How about you?”

“Found all the stuff we need,” she grinned. “It was right difficult, gettin’ it all from the farm without Big Mac catchin’ on, but don’t worry; it’s all there.”

“Where’s there?” Sweetie Belle asked.

“In your backyard: nobody’s home, and I figured we’d be able to get them there pretty easy.”

“Sounds like a plan to me,” Sweetie Belle nodded.

“Anyways, what about you, Scoot?” Apple Bloom asked. “Did you get any circle-y things we could use for the second part?”

“Got ‘em right here,” the tomboy grinned as she opened up the box. “Check ‘em out.”

Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle peered into the box, then looked up at Scootaloo with funny expressions, as if unsure what to say.

“Uh, Scoot?” Apple Bloom began.

“Those are donuts,” Sweetie Belle finished.

“Yeah, isn’t it perfect?” Scootaloo beamed. “They’re all circles, and they’re all really similar, so there’s no issue with the rules, and plus, it only cost me like, two bits for the box!”

“… I guess it could work?” Sweetie Belle shrugged.

“Maybe,” Apple Bloom slowly agreed. “I just figured that if we’re gettin’ someone to join a new family, all the stuff should be more, you know… special.”

“Special? Oh please,” Scootaloo dismissed with a loud raspberry. “It’s not like they’re getting married or something.”

“That’s true,” Apple Bloom smiled, “could you imagine that? Rarity getting’ married to the marshal?”

“No way,” Sweetie Belle giggled. “She’d be all like, ‘Ew, you simply must find a more sanitary line of work.’ Brothers don’t have to be all squeaky clean, do they, Apple Bloom?”

“Not in the slightest,” she agreed with a nod of her pink-bowed head. “Big Mac makes more of a mess than me and Applejack put together.” All three of them got a good laugh out of this.

“Anyways, we gotta get these donuts to them for the big switch,” Scootaloo said. Apple Bloom nodded in agreement.

“Okay, Crusaders, let’s get part two of Operation: Get Sweetie Belle a Big Brother goin'!”

*****

“Surely you jest, Graves,” Rarity gaped after finishing a bite of salad. “You mean to tell me that there are whole mountains that simply float in the sky?”

“Stones bigger than the library tree,” Graves affirmed as he set down his sandwich. “Where do you think Cloudsdale came from?”

“The floating city? I’d always assumed it was from complex magical weaves keeping it afloat.”

“Most people do,” Graves nodded. “But it’s actually the city itself, made entirely of sky stone: hard as granite, but lighter than air.”

“And you mean to tell me that they’re all just floating in the air like so many balloons?” Rarity asked with an incredulous smile.

“Not all, of course,” Graves countered. “Obviously, some are stuck in the ground.”

Rarity chuckled at the quip and the light, musical sound of her laugh brought a small grin to the marshal’s face. He liked it when she laughed.

“Graves, had I known you were such a treasure trove of stories, I would have invited you out a long time ago,” Rarity grinned. “The places you’ve been, the things you’ve seen… it’s simply amazing!”

“Glad you like it,” the marshal replied with a tug of his broad-brimmed hat. “But still, I’m a bit surprised.”

“Surprised?” Rarity asked with a touch of surprise herself. “But why?”

“Honestly? I thought you only liked fashion. Never would have picked you as the world traveling type.”

Rarity looked at him for a moment, her expression oddly unreadable, and Graves shifted uncomfortably in his seat. Perhaps he’d gone too far with that last comment. Fortunately, the young lady merely laughed and took a sip of lemonade, her demeanor unruffled by his rather blunt opinion.

“It is true, I do adore fashion and just about everything related to it,” she said with a knowing smile. “But there’s more to it than just the clothes and apparel. You see–”

“–Hiya, Rarity!”

“–Hey, Mister Graves!”

“–Yo, wassup?”

The two diners almost fell out of their seats as Sweetie Belle, Apple Bloom, and Scootaloo suddenly popped up beside their table, all three grinning like Pinkie Pie after a sarsaparilla binge.

“Sw-Sweetie Belle,” Rarity gasped, right hand over her heart, “what are you doing here?”

“Nothing much,” the little girl beamed. “We just happened to be in the neighborhood and thought we’d drop in and say hi.”

“Is that right?” the young lady asked with a dubious eye.

“Yup,” Sweetie Belle replied with an all too innocent smile. “And look! What’s that, Scootaloo?”

“This?” the purple hair girl asked as she pulled out the cardboard box. “Why, only a box of the finest donuts from Sugar Cube corners, is all.”

“Baked fresh this mornin’ and ready for eatin’,” Apple Bloom grinned as she opened the box and gestured like a game show host. “Want one?”

“Er… no thanks,” the violet-haired girl replied with a hesitant smile. “I just ate.”

“How about you, Graves?” Scootaloo asked, showing him the box, “Anything catch your eye?”

“I’m good, thanks,” Graves replied with equal hesitance.

“Aw, come on,” Sweetie Belle pouted. “You’re not really gonna just turn down a Sugar Cube Corners donut are you?”

“They’re really good,” Scootaloo called out, bringing the box closer and waving it below the dining couple’s noses.

Graves looked over at Rarity. From her expression, she was just as clueless as he as to what was going on. But whatever the case, it was just a few little girls with baked goods: it wouldn’t hurt to humor them a bit, right?

“Since you insist,” Graves said slowly, “I’ll have that chocolate one.”

“Great!” Scootaloo said as she jumped back just before Graves could actually get the pastry.

“And what about you, Rarity?” Apple Bloom asked. “It ain’t polite to just turn down a gift, is it?”

“No, I suppose it isn’t,” the older girl sighed with a defeated smile. “Since you’re offering, I guess a French curler wouldn’t hurt.”

“Great!” Sweetie Belle beamed. And with that, she handed each of them the wrong donut.

“Um…”

“… Huh.”

Rarity glanced at the chocolate donut on her plate.Graves looked at the curler on his. Both looked at the three girls, but all they did was stand there smiling as if eagerly awaiting something. More confused than ever, Graves looked back over to Rarity. She just shrugged.

“Well, um… here you are,” Graves said, holding his plate out to Rarity.

“Right, and here is yours,” she replied, reciprocating with her own.

As soon as the plates traded hands, the three little girls gave synchronized squeals of delight. Quickly closing the box, they ran off as fast as their little feet could carry them, whispering and giggling about something or another that made absolutely no sense.

Graves and Rarity could only stare at each other in silent confusion. What the hay had that all been about?

*****

“That was certainly… odd,” Rarity commented absent-mindedly. From the look on her face, odd was probably an exceedingly generous description.

“And how,” Graves agreed as he pushed the plate away. It wasn’t that he distrusted the girls, per se, but after that decidedly suspicious encounter, he was less than eager to actually eat the proffered pastry.

“Well anyways, as I was saying…” The young lady began to speak, but paused for a moment. “Dear me, it seems like I’ve plum forgotten what I had in mind.”

“Is that bad?”

“Well, not particularly, but I feel like it was something rather important.”

“Was it about the places we talked about?” the marshal prompted. Rarity pondered it, but the comment didn’t seem to help jog her memory.

“Ah well, I’m sure it wasn’t anything too pressing,” she said lightly. “What I do remember thinking, is that it’s simply amazing how you’ve been able to travel to so many exotic locales. And so young too: why, you couldn’t possibly be much older than Big Macintosh.”

“Perk of being a marshal, I guess,” Graves shrugged as he took a sip of coffee.

“In that case, maybe I should join the marshals as well.”

The young marshal sputtered into his cup. Rarity coolly raised an eyebrow at him.

“Oh? You don’t think I could do it?”

“I’m sure you could,” Graves replied, his face too expressionless to be natural, “I just doubt you’d enjoy it: it ain’t exactly the… cleanest occupation.”

“So you don’t think I could handle it,” Rarity finished, folding her arms under her chest as she levelly eyed the marshal. “Well I’ll have you know that I’ve had plenty of chances to get my hands dirty.”

Now it was Graves’ turn to raise an eyebrow.

“What exactly do you count as ‘dirty’?” he asked with just a hint of incredulity. The young beauty leaned in with a confident smile.

“Does being kidnapped by a pack of diamond dogs and walking out on my own suffice?”

If the marshal had been skeptical before, he was doubly so now. And surprised too, as his wide silver eyes clearly expressed. Diamond dogs were a devilishly tricky bunch, and many a fine soldier had been humiliated by their fiendish antics.

“You? And diamond dogs? This I’ve got to hear.”

So Rarity – with great relish – told Graves all about it; how she’d been out gem hunting with Spike when she’d been kidnapped; how she’d confounded her captors into putting her in charge; and of course, how she’d whined and complained with such annoying fervor, that her kidnappers had set her free with several carts full of gems for the promised she’d ever to return.

All the through the story, the marshal’s eyes kept growing wider. By story’s end, it seemed his eyebrows had disappeared behind his long black bangs, and this pleased the young lady greatly.

“... Wow,” he finally said, still stunned and rather awed by his lunch partner’s tale. “That was… really quite impressive.”

“Why thank you,” Rarity replied, all smiles and good graces at the compliment, though her big, sapphire eyes held just a hint of a triumphant spark. “While I may be a lady, I do know how to handle myself in a sticky situation. Daresay even,” she continued with a playful smirk, “situations a marshal might encounter.”

“Oh?” Graves said, rising to the bait with an equally amused grin. “You think that makes you marshal material?”

“But of course,” she replied with exaggerated innocence. “I may not be as big or as strong as you, but I’m certainly more than clever enough to compensate, wouldn’t you agree?”

“So you fancy yourself a wit, do you Miss Rarity?” Graves chuckled. “In that case, just answer me one question."

“And what question is that, Master Graves?”

“What’s one thing you should always keep every time you give it away?”

Rarity blinked.

“Come again?”

“Come on, Miss Rarity,” the marshal grinned with almost boyish mischief. “If you’re clever enough for Equestria’s finest, a riddle like this should be easy.”

Rarity’s face quickly changed from surprise to playful interest as she pursed her lips in thought, contemplating the question. After only a few moments, she looked up with a victorious smile.

“Why, I do believe that would be a promise.”

“Very good,” Graves applauded. “Maybe you are as clever as you say.”

“Uh uh uh,” Rarity tutted, “You just asked me a question. Now it’s my turn.”

“Really?”

“Fair is fair, isn’t it?” she grinned.

“In that case,” the marshal replied with a flick of his hat, “ask away.”

“Alright, let’s see… Ooh, I know. What word has all twenty-six letters in it?”

“Simple. The alphabet.”

“Very good,” Rarity laughed as she returned the applause. “I guess you aren’t just a trigger-happy muscle-head, are you?”

“Perhaps not,” Graves replied with a small smirk. “Now tell me this: what’s kind of coat can you only put on when wet?”

“A raincoat.” The seamstress had answered that without hesitation. Graves just stared.

“What?” she asked. “It’s true; otherwise, it’d just be horribly tacky.”

“You know Rarity,” Graves quipped, “marshals don’t exactly prioritize fashion.”

“Well, they certainly should,” she bristled, a spark of her fashionista spirit flashing across her eyes. “But that’s a matter for another time. A coat that can only be put on when wet, you say? Put on… put on… In that case, it must be… a coat… of… … paint!”

“Not bad,” Graves nodded. “Not bad at all.”

“My turn again,” Rarity smiled. “No sooner spoken than broken. What is it?”

Graves pulled his hat low over his eyes and crossed his arms, his brow furrowed in concentration. It took him a bit longer, but he looked up, eyes twinkling with success.

“Silence.”

“Shoot!” Rarity said with a vexed snap of the fingers. “I thought I’d get you with that one.”

“Another one from me then,” Graves said, now leaning in, caught up in the game as well. “Two sisters are born to the same parents, on the same day of the same year, but they’re not twins. How is this possible?”

“… … I’ve got it. They must have been triplets.”

“That one didn’t take you long,” Graves frowned and Rarity laughed again.

“Underestimating me would be a mistake, Master Graves,” the young lady teased, “And now it’s my turn again: what word becomes shorter when lengthened?”

“You really fancy the word riddles, don’t you?” the marshal casually observed.

“A very wise woman once called words jewels of the mind and the only true measure of one’s intellect,” Rarity replied primly. “I believe that makes them a very apt subject for our little match wouldn’t you agree?”

“Maybe," Graves snorted, "if your ‘wise woman weren't a spoiled princess who started the Hibiscan War…”

Rarity froze as she stared straight at the marshal with disbelief plastered all over her face. For all intents and purposes, it seemed that she’d completely forgotten the riddle.

“What did you just say?” she asked.

The raven-haired soldier looked back at her, not really sure what she was talking about. Had he done something wrong? All he’d said was the truth: the wise woman she'd quoted really was a spoiled princess, and she really… had… had...

Oh, pony feathers.

“Uh… nothing,” he said, slowly leaning back in his seat, keeping his face perfectly neutral. “Didn’t say anything.”

“No, you definitely did,” Rarity pressed on. “You described the person I was quoting as a spoiled princess. One who started a war...”

“Sounds like a princess thing to say,” he offered, sweat beginning to bead on his forehead. “Wild guess.”

“No, you even named a specific conflict,” Rarity murmured as she stroked her chin in thought.

“I’m a marshal,” he threw out weakly, “probably something I picked up.”

“Not unless it was from a book,” Rarity countered. “I know I’ve read it in something, something familiar…”

Please don’t say it,” Graves thought as panic started to mount.

“It’s so familiar…” she continued.

I’m begging you,”, he pleaded silently.

“It’s just on the tip of my tongue…”

In the name of Celestia and all that is holy, please! Just don’t…

“No,” she gasped in shock as the light bulb went off in her head. The astonishment, however, passed quickly because a big, excited smile had spread all across her face as she looked at Graves once again.

“Don’t tell me,” she began, her eyes sparkling with restrained laughter, “Graves, have you actually read Charming Quill’s The Lovely Romance of the Three Kingdoms?!”

At that moment, as soon as she spoke those works, the marshal felt something inside him – something that felt an awful lot like his manhood – just wither up and die.

**********

Chapter 6

Chapter 6

“Well, did you?” Rarity continued, still all smiles and excitement. Graves, unable to think of any way out short of outright lying, simply pulled his hat over his face and gave a slight, shameful nod.

The squeal of delight Rarity unleashed had half the restaurant staring at her, but for once, it seemed like she actually didn’t care.

“I can’t believe it!” she gasped, actually fanning herself as if she might faint any second. “You don’t know how long I’ve been waiting to hear that!"

“… You have?” Graves asked, now quite confused and really unsure of how to react.

“My goodness yes!” the young lady continued. “You don’t know how much I absolutely adore that book, but I simply haven’t had anyone to talk to. Rainbow Dash won’t go anywhere near it, and Twilight calls it a bunch of fluff and nonsense not to be bothered with.”

“I see…”

“So, what did you think?” Rarity asked as she leaned in, looking even more excited than Sweetie Belle ever had. “Did you like it?”

“I’d… um… rather not talk about it,” Graves mumbled as he scratched the back of his head.

“But why not?” Rarity asked, rather taken aback.

“I’d just rather not,” he mumbled as his voice dropped even lower.

“Really,” Rarity sighed. “Here I thought we were two like-minded individuals who could share opinions on all sorts of topics, and here you are, saying that… Graves, are you all right?” The violet-haired girl paused, now peering on him with concern. “You look rather ill, are you feeling…” A second glance, however, caused her eyes to widen in shock as she figured out the truth. “My goodness, marshal, you couldn’t be! Graves, are you actually… blushing?!”

Indeed, despite his slouch and the hat pulled low, strong crimson coloring could clearly be seen all over his face as he sat there stewing in his own mortification.

“Can we drop it?” he muttered, his voice so low it was almost impossible to understand.

“But why?” the young lady asked in genuine puzzlement.

“Well, it’s kind of a girly book,” Graves mumbled. “Talking about it’s just… embarrassing.”

Rarity was decidedly stunned by the marshal’s suddenly blunt statement: she certainly hadn’t been expecting anything like that. But then she just smiled, still amused, but also rather sympathetic at the same time.

“Honestly, marshal, you hunt some of the most dangerous creatures in the world on a regular basis, and yet you’re afraid of discussing a novel? Doesn’t that strike you as a bit silly?”

“Well, when you put it like that…” he conceded, but Rarity pressed on.

“And even if you didn’t – hunt dangerous creatures that is – why should you be afraid to admit you’ve read a romance novel? Is there something wrong with them?”

“Not in themselves, but guys just aren’t not supposed to like them.”

“Why is that?”

“Because…”

“Because?”

“You know… just because.”

Rarity sighed.

“Graves, that’s just about the silliest thing I’ve ever heard. I’d expect something like this out of Spike, being young as he is, but you should know better.”

“Well, it is embarrassing,” he mumbled sullenly.

A hint of amusement flashed across her pretty face. It seemed like the marshal, much like most boys, was quite caught up in the macho image of what a man should and shouldn’t like. Yet as adorable as his blushing cheeks were, Rarity really did want to discuss her favorite novel with the young marshal. What to do, what to do?

Suddenly, she was struck with inspiration. Get a man riled up about something, and he’ll charge in without a thought for anything else: boys were so charmingly simple in that sense. If Graves was acting so juvenile and silly in one way, then perhaps…

“But you did enjoy reading it, didn’t you?” Rarity asked with a coaxing smile. Grudgingly, the marshal nodded. “Who was your favorite character?”

“… Princess Rosalia,” he said, which elicited another surge of blood to his cheeks.

“Really?” Rarity continued innocently, “I would have put you as a fan of Prince Lucius.” She was pleased, if a bit taken aback, to find the marshal actually scoffed at this.

“Please, that blowhard? He spouts off pretty words and steals the credit.”

“He most certainly does not!” Rarity replied with mock outrage. “He was a fine gentleman and a man of noble character. It’s a shame he didn’t marry Princess Magdalene in the end.”

“What?” Graves sat forward in his seat, his burning fan spirit starting to overpower his embarrassment. “That would have been awful. The Knight Albion was the best match for her, and you know it.”

With twinkle of mischief in her sapphire eyes, the young beauty smiled as she coaxed the marshal from his shell with one last prod.

“Prove it.”

And Graves did, or at least began to, with great gusto. He didn’t even notice Rarity’s satisfied smile at reeling him into the conversation, just as planned. He simply charged ahead, fervently lecturing and proselytizing about a book that only moments ago, he’d been too embarrassed to even mention.

But soon, the young lady was just as caught up as he, and as the two went back and forth in a heated debate about an apparently very mutually appreciated novel. Neither even noticed the oddly dancing bush just twenty feet way.

*****

“Ooh, ooh, was that it?” Sweetie Belle whispered excitedly, almost bouncing up and down despite the bush’s confining space. “Did that count as the interest thingy in the rules?”

“Ew, not likely,” Scootaloo said with a disgusted face. “There’s no way those mushy love books can be anywhere near interesting.”

“That’s just yer opinion,” Apple Bloom retorted as she stuck her tongue out. “I think that definitely counts as them sharin' interests, and that makes it three!”

“Great!” Sweetie Belle beamed. “Now all we need to do is tie them up and douse them!”

“But how do we do that?” Scootaloo asked. “It’s not like we can just charge them now and truss them up in the middle of the street.”

“Don’t worry,” Apple Bloom grinned, “I already got that all figured out. Come on girls, this way!”

*****

The café waiter came and went, replacing the tepid cup of coffee with a fresh, hot one. Again.

By now, the restaurants other patrons had long since cleared out, but neither Graves nor Rarity really cared. They were far too engrossed with their conversation to worry about the atmosphere.

“But surely you must admit that Rosalia and Damian were a much more likely couple,” the pretty seamstress protested.

“As friends, yes,” the marshal countered. “But they were too similar.”

“But similarities are the basis of any relationship,” the young lady insisted. “While it’s true that opposites do attract, there also has to be compatibility through similarity, wouldn’t you agree?”

“Compatibility, yes,” Graves conceded, “which involves balance. Rosalia and Damian were both stubborn and hot-headed. They make great friends, but as a couple? They’d probably kill each other before week’s end.”

“You do have a point there,” Rarity giggled. “It’d be like Applejack and Rainbow Dash together: if they did anything besides argue, I’d eat my hat.”

“Er... yeah,” Graves agreed hesitantly. “Guess that works.”

Both Rarity and Graves settled back in their seats, as both had been leaning in for their intense discussion for the better part of an hour now. Arms folded below her breasts, Rarity looked over the marshal once more, appraising him as if she saw him anew once more.

“You really are quite a remarkable man,” she said, sounding rather bemused.

“Really?” he asked, “How so?”

“When I found out you’d also read The Lovely Romance of the Three Kingdoms , I expected a lively discussion, but I never would have dreamed you’d have such depth to your opinions from only reading it once.”

“Yeah, about that…” Graves began, color coming back to his cheeks as he absent-mindedly thumbed his nose,. “It wasn’t exactly once.”

“Really?” Rarity asked, interest piqued. “How many times then?”

“… Maybe five or six?”

“Marshal Graves, are you serious?” she asked as she fought to restrain her laughter. “How did that come about?”

“Teammate I used to travel with recommended it. Wouldn’t stop badgering me till I read it. So, I gave it a try.”

“And?” Rarity pressed, still grinning in delight.

“It wasn’t bad,” he answered evasively, his face now bright red once again. “And you can’t get new books in the field too often, so I just… hung onto it for a bit. That’s all.”

“Personally, I think it’s wonderful that you can appreciate a good love story,” the young beauty said with an encouraging smile. “Too many men these days seem all caught up with the machismo of being a man and end up missing out on the finer things in life just because they think it’s embarrassing.”

“It is embarrassing,” the marshal insisted.

“And why should it be?” she countered. “If I can wear combat boots and camo, why can’t a man enjoy a good romance novel?” Graves stared at her in abject skepticism.

“You? In camo and combat boots?”

“But of course,” Rarity replied coolly, as if military garbs were her modus operandi. “I don’t do it often, but they do bring out certain ensembles and make them simply fabulous. It’s all a matter of wearing it with confidence.”

“Confidence,” the marshal repeated flatly.

“Exactly. If I wear something unconventional and act self-consciously, people will see my outfit as awkward and unbecoming. But, if I wear the same outfit with confidence, the very same people will see it as bold and original, daresay even avant-garde.”

“Sounds a bit too simple,” the young marshal said, still unconvinced. Rarity just smiled.

“I thought you might say that. You see Graves, from what I’ve seen of you, you –”

“–Hiya, Rarity!”

“–Hey, Mister Graves!”

“–Yo, wassup again?”

The two diners almost fell back in their seats (again) as Sweetie Belle, Apple Bloom, and Scootaloo once again popped up beside their table, all three grinning like Twilight before a week long research project.

“Sw-Sweetie Belle,” Rarity gasped, left hand over her pounding heart, “you really have to stop doing that.”

“Oops, sorry, Rarity,” the little girl grinned sheepishly. “We’re just here because we need your help.”

“Help?” her older sister asked once she was more composed. “What do you need help with?”

“Well you see, Rarity,” Apple Bloom began, “we were playin' in yer back yard, when we found this really weird lookin' rock.”

“A rock,” the seamstress repeated flatly. “You need help with a rock.”

“More like figuring out what it is,” Scootaloo clarified. “It’s all weird looking, and we figured since you’re so good with gems and stuff, you might be able to tell us what it is.”

“Well, I do know a thing or two about precious stones,” Rarity said as she tried to hide her pleasure at the compliment. “I suppose I could help you girls out.”

“Ooh, can Graves come too?” Sweetie Belle added on, causing the marshal to blink.

“Me? Why do need me?” The three girls looked at each other.

“Because, well, this rock…” Apple Bloom began.

“…was sort of weird looking…” Sweetie Belle continued.

“…but it’s more than just weird looking…” Scootaloo added.

“…because it was… er…” Apple Bloom stalled.

“…moving!”

Scootaloo and Apple Bloom turned to stare at Sweetie Belle. She just smiled.

“Moving,” Rarity repeated with a healthy dose of skepticism. “The rock was… moving.”

“Yeah,” Apple Bloom agreed with a weak smile. “It was sort of… you know… scuttling around."

“Scuttling,” Graves stated flatly. Scootaloo nodded.

“Yup. Sort of like a crab.” And to illustrate, the little tomboy began shuffling from side to side and clapping her fingers much like such a crustacean would. Both the marshal and the seamstress just stared at her, then leaned in to deliberate.

“Something about this seems awfully odd,” Rarity whispered.

“Could be rock turtles,” Graves replied, catching the sweet smell of lavender from the young lady. “Uncommon, but not exactly rare. Maybe they found one?”

“Perhaps,” she sighed in concession. “I suppose we had better go take a look.” Separating again, Rarity turned to their diminutive audience.

“Alright girls, let’s go have a look at this… rock of yours.”

**********

Chapter 7

Chapter 7

“Okay, where is it?” Graves asked as he scanned the boutique’s back yard. If there was a scuttling stone around, it had hidden itself very well: not a single blade of grass was out of place in the immaculately manicured lawn.

“Uh, it must have crawled under a bush or something,” Scootaloo suggested. “I’ll go check it out!” Without another world, the purple-haired girl dashed for a nearby shrub and disappeared underneath.

“Might be too heavy to lift on yer own: I’ll help!” Apple Bloom called out as she dashed after her, also disappearing into the foliage. Graves looked at Rarity, who then looked at Sweetie Belle, who looked up at both of them and smiled.

“Well, while they’re going off to find the rock, why don’t you two go wait over there?” Taking each of them by the hand, the little girl walked them over to a well-pruned oak tree and positioned them under its spreading branches.

“Sweetie Belle, what on earth is going on?” Rarity asked.

“Not much,” her little sister replied innocently. “They should be back soon. In fact, I’ll go and check on them right now.” Skipping back to the bush, Sweetie Belle leaned over and peaked her head in, apparently discoursing with her friends inside.

“What do you suppose it’s about?” Graves asked Rarity, who simply gave a tired sigh.

“I’m not sure I even want to know.”

But know she would, because right then, the bush literally exploded.

“CHAAAARRRRRGE!”

Amidst the swirling mass of leaves, Apple Bloom came rushing out at them, holding onto one end of a long piece of rope. The other end was held firmly in Scootaloo’s teeth, her hands busy steering the scooter she rode forward like a charging battle stallion.

The rope caught the marshal and Rarity around the waist and the two little girls quickly turned, Apple Bloom vaulting over the line to loop it back around. Around and around they circled in a dizzying whirlwind, and in a mere matter of moments, Graves and the pretty seamstress were trussed together tighter than Rainbow Dash’s grip on tickets to see the Wonderbolts.

“Sweetie Belle! Just what do you think you’re doing?!” Rarity shrieked as Apple Bloom and Scootaloo tied off the rope. None of the girls answered her as all three had backed up to look over their handiwork.

“Did that do it?” Scootaloo asked, head cocked to one side.

“I dunno, maybe we should ask them,” Apple Bloom suggested, head cocked to the other.

“Do you feel any different, sis?” Sweetie Belle asked as she looked up at Rarity expectantly.

“Different?” the fashionista repeated, a crimson tint rising in her face as she glared daggers at the girls. “Oh, I feel different all right. When I get out of here Sweetie Belle, ooh…”

“Told you she’d be mad,” Sweetie Belle said to her friends.

“Well, looks like it’s up to the shower,” Scootaloo shrugged.

“Shower? What shower?” Rarity demanded, but was once again ignored as Apple Bloom and Scootaloo scaled the tree like a pair of monkeys. Tracking them with his eyes, a quick flash of surprise crossed the marshal’s face while the young lady tied to him continued her protests.

“Sweetie Belle, if you don’t let me out of here this instant…”

“Uh, Rarity?” Graves said, eyes still up in the tree. “Might want to keep your head down.”

“What?” she asked, turning over to look at the marshal in puzzlement. “But why on earth would I–”

GOOOOOOOOOSH!!!

Completely and utterly soaked, Graves turned his dripping face to address the sputtering young lady.

“That’s why.”

Looking up between her sopping wet tresses, Rarity’s eyes went wide as she saw Apple Bloom and Scootaloo perched on a thick branch. Apparently, the pink-bowed girl hadn’t been able to find a bucket, because sitting between her and her tomboy friend was biggest, emptiest rain barrel she’d ever seen. Empty now, because she and the marshal now stood dripping with its aqueous content.

“How’s that?” Apple Bloom called out as she and Scootaloo slid down the trunk to join their friend. “Did it work?”

“Well, did it?” Sweetie Belle asked again, only this time she directed the question at Graves. The marshal blinked once, half from confusion and half just to get the water out of his eyes.

“Did what work?”

“Do you feel any different?” the little girl pressed on intently.

“I feel… soggy? That’s new,” he offered.

It clearly wasn’t the answer she’d been looking for.

“Sweetie Belle, would you please untie us and tell me what’s going on?” Rarity said, smiling through gritted teeth. She hadn’t quite lost her temper yet, but pushing her any farther would probably just be tempting fate.

“I don’t get it,” the Scootaloo frowned as she fiddled with the knots. “We did everything by the book. Why didn’t it work?”

“Maybe we missed a step,” Sweetie Belle suggested as she pulled the sheet of parchment from her overall pocket. “Let’s see… um… no, looks like we got everything.”

“Girls, just what exactly were you trying to do?” the seamstress asked in exasperation.

“You see, Sweetie Belle was sayin’ how nice it’d be to have a big brother,” Apple Bloom explained. “Then I remembered Granny Smith tellin’ me about how this one feller joined our family way back in the day through some fancy old ongoing. So we went an' found out how this thing was supposed to work an' did it. Only it didn’t work out quite like we planned.”

“Wait,” the marshal called out as he shrugged out of the ropes. “You did all this because you,” he pointed at Sweetie Belle, “wanted me,” he pointed at himself, “as a… big brother?” The little girl beamed.

“Yup!”

“… Oh.”

Graves didn’t know what to say. I mean, what did you say to something like that? He sure had no idea, but he had to admit, it had him feeling sort of warm and tingly inside. It was odd. Nice, but odd.

“But why the rope?” Rarity continued. “Why the barrel of water? Why the donuts?” She paused for a moment. “The donuts were part of this, weren’t they?”

“Yup!” Scootaloo beamed.

“Thought so. So anyway, how do all these make Graves your big brother, Sweetie Belle? And why did you need me?”

“Granny Smith says matrimonializing works better if the people are the same age,” Apple Bloom explained.

“Alright, I can see how that would implicate me,” Rarity acquiesced, “but what about…”

Then she blinked.

“Did – did you say, matrimonializing? As in… matrimony?”

“Er, yeah?”

Wide eyed, Rarity turned to look at the marshal. He stared back at her, the shock of Sweetie Belle’s bombshell statement providing a good foundation for the incredible surprise of this one. For a moment, the two just stared at each other.

And Rarity, soaked to the skin as she was with long, violet tresses dripping around her face, burst out laughing.

“Hey, what’s so funny?” Scootaloo demanded, little fists on hips as she scowled at the older couple. “What gives?”

“Graves, why’s my sister laughing?” Sweetie Belle asked the marshal. She didn’t get an answer though, as Graves had turned away and pulled his hat down, his cheeks already beginning to flush deep red with embarrassment.

“Oh, Sweetie Belle,” Rarity said through tear filled eyes. “You really are the most… incorrigible little sister I know.”

“But what’s so funny?” Apple Bloom asked in utter confusion. “Why’d you start laughin'?”

With a very fond smile, the young lady gathered the girls in, took their list, and began to explain everything. The marshal didn’t hear exactly what she said, but from their slowly enlarging eyes, it must have been a very educational experience indeed.

“…Oooohhhhh,” the three girls all sounded in unison.

“That warn’t nothing like what we thought,” Apple Bloom said in wonder.

“Yeah, looks like we were waaayyyy off,” Scootaloo agreed. Sweetie Belle just frowned for a moment.

“So wait, if that’s what matrimony is, then that means this entire time, we were trying to…”

Instantly, three pairs of eyes grew even larger and three pairs of cheeks immediately burned hotter than any bakery oven.

“It’s like Hearts and Hooves Day all over again,” Sweetie Belle whispered to her friends, to which they could only nod.

“Well, girls, is there anything else you’d like to help us with?” Rarity asked, her expression strained as she fought to keep further laughter from bursting out. The three crusaders took one look at each other and began shaking their heads vigorously.

“Uh… that’s okay, Rarity,” a flushed Scootaloo mumbled.

“Yeah, got loads of stuff to do, so… um,” Apple Bloom gulped.

“We’ll just be…running along now,” Sweetie Belle said with a weak smile.

And with one last embarrassed look at Rarity and the marshal, the three called, “Gottagookaybye!” and ran off.

*****

“Honestly, what am I going to do with them?” Rarity chuckled to herself before turning towards her companion. “I really am sorry about all this, letting you get caught up in my sister’s crazy antics. Are you all right, Graves?”

“It’s fine,” he replied, now moderately recovered from the very unexpected turn of events. He turned to address the violet-haired girl, but as soon as he looked at her, his eyes nearly popped out of his head. Immediately spinning around, the marshal quickly looked away, his face glowing red like a fresh-picked apple.

“Graves?” she called out, a touch concerned. “Is something wrong?”

“Here,” he coughed out, removing his coat and holding it back towards her while still looking away. “Might wanna put this on.”

Looking down at herself, Rarity’s sapphire eyes doubled in size as her face grew just as flushed, if not more so than the marshal’s. The liberal dousing from earlier had soaked her white sundress, and the now translucently wet material stuck to her slender frame, clinging on like a second skin. All in all, it left very little to the imagination.

“Thank you,” she said gratefully as she wrapped herself in the oversized garment. It was old leather, but it was still soft and pleasantly warm.

“Don’t mention it,” Graves mumbled, his face becoming – if it were possible – even redder than before: Rarity couldn’t help but giggle.

“Well now, marshal, what are we going to do about you?”

“Pardon?” Graves asked.

“I certainly wouldn’t want you to catch a cold, not after you so gallantly offered me your coat,” she smiled. “Why don’t you come inside and get dried off?”

“Much obliged.”

Keeping his eyes averted, Graves followed the young lady into the boutique where a bored and irritable Opal greeted them with a petulant meow. However, seeing as both newcomers were still dripping wet, the cat simply hissed at them before hopping up onto one of the displays to lick her paw.

The pretty seamstress stepped behind the silk screen first. A flash of aquamarine light and a few moments later, she stepped out looking as fresh as if she’d had an hour in front of a mirror. More importantly, however, she was now looking decent again, and Graves heaved a sigh of relief.

“Your turn,” she smiled at Graves. “I guess you’re getting pretty familiar with the drill by know.”

“Oddly enough, yes,” he replied. Who’d have thought?

Once properly shielded, the young marshal’s clothes came over the edge and Rarity quickly gathered them. A few flicks of her wand, and the water collected into a large floating mass, which Rarity flung out the window.

“You know, Graves,” she called out as she hung his clothes back on the screen. “I had some spare time while I was up in Canterlot and made some new designs. Would you be a dear and try them on?”

“Long as it don’t involve belts, sure,” came his reply, and Rarity laughed.

“Nothing of the sort. Just a moment, please; I’ll be right back.”

Seeing a now dry Rarity crossing the shop floor, Opal hopped down from her perch to swat at the young lady’s legs, meowing in a very clear demand to be fed.

“Not now, Opalescence,” Rarity said as she retrieved several new shirts and coats from a nearby wardrobe. “I’ll get you your din-din once I’m finished with the marshal.”

This answer, however, was not enough to please her pet, who continued twining herself around her master’s legs.

“Opal, please,” Rarity said again, now slightly upset: full as her hands were, she couldn’t see her own feet and her cat was making it very difficult to walk. “I need to finish this first.”

The cat paid no heed and continued winding her way between her master’s legs. Of course when this happens, accidents are bound to follow. While trying to avoid stepping on Opal, Rarity’s foot caught a snag in the carpet. Pitching forward with a shrill cry, the overladen fashionista crashed into the dressing screen in a flurry of various men’s garments.

“Oh, dear me I am sorry about that, marshal,” she chuckled, picking herself up. “Opal can be such a handful, I almost think she and Sweetie Belle take les–” Looking up, her eyes fell on Graves who simply stared back at her with shirt in hand.

She screamed.

Scrambling back on hands and feet, Rarity gaped at Graves in wide-eyed shock at the sight of him. His entire body, every inch from neck to waist, was literally covered in scars.

Rarity didn’t know how to respond: she could only stare in mute horror at the tapestried chronicle of injuries covering the marshal’s body. Three great gouges from a wild beast’s claws marred his left shoulder. On his forearm, several round piercings showed where another monster had almost bitten his hand clean off. His front and sides were scored with all sorts of burns and gashes, some as long as his forearm with one great, ragged slash crossing his chest like a macabre bandolier. The list went on as well over a dozen other massive wounds, each one seemingly enough to kill a man, with only a few managing to heal on their own: the vast majority bore additional signs of hasty stitching and sewing, which gave the marshal’s entire frame the ragged, patched appearance of a poorly made doll.

“I’m sorry,” Graves said, his voice suddenly gone cold and flat as he quickly donned his shirt. “That was stupid of me.”

“No, it wasn’t your fault,” Rarity answered in almost a hoarse cry, his words jarring her from her stupor as she clambered to her feet. “I was just… surprised.” Her sickly smile added absolutely no weight to her words.

“I can’t blame you,” he stated simply as he hurriedly pulled on his coat and hat. “Not something a lady should see.”

“It didn’t bother me. Really,” she insisted despite her now ashen face and worried eyes. “I’m perfectly fine. In fact–” One look from his eyes, however, his eyes grey like heavy thunderclouds, made it clear he had no intention of hearing any explanation.

“I should go." His words were layered with an icy finality that would brook no argument.

Picking up the rest of his things, Graves paused for a moment a the door, his hand resting on the knob as he seemed to hesitate. Then the moment passed, and without turning around, his last dull words rumbled forth.

“Thanks for today. It was… nice.”

And with that, the marshal walked out the door.

*****

Legs wobbling beneath her, Rarity staggered back till she found a chair and wearily fell into it. For once, Opal showed genuine concern and hopped into her lap to meow sadly at her mistress.

“Oh, Opal,” she breathed out raggedly, her usual immaculate composure now shattered beyond repair. “Why did I do that? Of all the ways I could have reacted, why did I have to pick the absolute worst, most insensitive way?” She laughed, a weary, frustrated laugh of regret that petered away into a haggard sigh.

“After being treated like that, the marshal must hate me now,” she murmured softly. “Can't say I really blame him.”

*****

Graves was able to keep himself together till he got back to his house, but only just. Throwing off his coat and hat, he flung himself onto his bed and simply lay there, pressing the palms of his hands hard onto his eyes.

It didn’t help. Frustration mounted inside him like a volcano, irritation and anger boiling like water on a stove. He’d let his guard down. Things had been going so well, he’d gotten careless and let someone see a side of him that he tried to keep hidden. And of course, Rarity had to be the one to see it. In the darkness of his mind, he could clearly make out her face, usually so beautiful and full of laughter, now contorted in terror at the mere sight of him.

“Well, not like it’s a surprise,” Graves muttered darkly to himself. “You knew it’d be like this.”

The sun eventually fell, and the hour grew late, but Graves still lay awake and watched the stars slowly traverse across the black night sky.

He didn’t get much sleep that night.

**********

To Be Continued

The Journey of Graves will continue with the fifth story: Untangling the Knot

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