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Happily Ever After

by GentlemanJ

First published

One day, even the hardest of soldiers hangs up his gun to find a chance at happiness.

The eighth story in The Journey of Graves

The Grand Galloping Gala, so far gone yet still shining bright in memory as if it were just yesterday. That night marked the turning point for Graves, the night he found something beyond the sight of his rifle, beyond the endless call to arms. It's a new beginning, a new life to spend with the friends he cares for and the one he loves. For once, the grey eyed marshal finds that he too, has a chance to live happily ever after.

Chapter 1

This is the eighth story in The Journey of Graves. Special thanks go to MrBackpack, my spectacular editor has been an integral part in crafting this story.

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...

Happily Ever After

By: GentlemanJ

Chapter 1

Early morning sunlight streamed through the light blue linen drapes, illuminating the kitchen counter as Graves poured himself a fresh cup of coffee.

He’d always loved this time of day. In that time, the period just after sunrise before the world truly came awake, there was a magical stillness, a solitude that called to him. It reminded him of standing on the ocean shore, only instead of water and sand, he and the few others up at that time bore witness to the untapped potential of a day not yet begun.

Lately, however, the grey-eyed marshal found that he didn’t enjoy this time quite so much as the moments that followed soon after.

“Mmm. Good morning, dear.”

Turning around at the sound of the melodious voice, Graves smiled as his eyes lighted on the lovely Rarity. Wrapped in a terrycloth bathrobe with her violet tresses tossed all about in an elegant mess, the young lady returned the look with a sleepy, but very warm smile of her own.

“Morning,” he chuckled, walking over with another steaming mug of coffee. “Didn’t expect to see you up so soon.”

Receiving the cup with a grateful smile, Rarity too a long sip and sighed in contentment.

“How could I sleep in?” she laughed, the sound sweeter than the gentle tinkling of wind chimes in a soft spring breeze. “After months abroad, my wonderful husband is finally home.”

Husband.

Even now, a full year into their marriage, the word still brought an almost painful surge of joy into the young man’s heart. Every now and again, he would still pinch himself, convinced he must be dreaming, that a single jolt would wake him up from this beautiful life. But no, this was his reality. His wonderful, amazing, fantastically how-could-I-be-so-lucky reality.

“There’s no need for that,” he grunted, trying to sound cool and aloof despite the ear to ear grin that threatened to break out from just one look at her. “You’ve been working yourself too hard; you need your rest.” Once again, Rarity just tossed her head back and laughed.

“Oh, and you haven’t?” she challenged, an amused twinkle coming to her bright, sapphire eyes. “After being away for so long in dealing with that bloodmage coup, you come back to Canterlot only to get shanghaied into training new cadets. Doesn’t that strike you as a bit much?”

“Eh, that’s nothing,” he dismissed with an absent wave of the hand, the platinum wedding band flashing on his finger in the morning light. Truth be told, he'd always thought Rarity would want to go with traditional gold, but she’d said that silver tones suited them much better anyways. “You’re the one who’s been planning the grand opening of Canterlot’s newest dress shop, remember? The one full of celebrity endorsements like Sapphire Shores, Hoity Toity, and that other singer... um... Flank Sinatra.”

“It's called a boutique, dear," she playfully chided, "But yes, everything else you say is true.”

“Then refresh my memory. Who's the one that has to deal with said celebrities and all the headaches they bring?” he finished, shooting her an amused smirk with just the faintest hint of triumph.

“Ah, I see your point,” the young lady laughed aloud as she gracefully conceded defeat. Malevolent maleficars were one thing: big wigs and businessmen were a whole other level.

“So do me a favor, will you?” Graves said as he took another sip of coffee. “Rest.”

“Are you really that concerned?” Rarity inquired, a smile on her lips and a quizzical look in her sparkling eyes. For once, the marshal smiled completely and fully, the warmth of his expression spreading all the way into his eyes that shone like moonlight on a starry summer night.

“Just looking out for the woman I love.”

Love.

The first time she’d heard that word from his lips was when he’d proposed to her on the moonlit deck of the E.A. Serenity. She’d heard them again when he’d slipped that golden ring on her finger at their wedding and many times since as well. Yet a flush of delight still crept into her face and a marvelous heat spread through her chest as she heard that wonderful word once more.

Taking advantage of his beautiful bride's good mood, Graves took away her mug and gently wrapped his iron-like arms around her slender waist, looking right into those big, sapphire eyes as he pulled her in. He could taste the honey and lemon from her tea on those lips, so soft and smooth that the silk of her robes seemed sandpaper in comparison. It only lasted a moment, but the toe-tingling electricity of it was just as intense, if not more than that night at the Grand Galloping Gala all those years ago.

It was enough to leave the pair of them breathless.

“Never gets old,” he chuckled, his silvery eyes twinkling with amusement as he gave her a roguish grin that seemed to be growing all the more common as of late.

“Graves, you are incorrigible!” Rarity laughed as she smacked him on the chest, making the motions of trying to escape with absolutely no intention of leaving his embrace. “I swear, you’ll have me acting like a doe-eyed schoolgirl with all this cavorting.” The look on his face was pure, impish mirth.

“Would that be so bad?”

“Perhaps not,” she replied with a coy grin. “But there is a time and place for everything. And right now,” the young lady finished before finally, reluctantly pulling away, “it’s high time your loving wife made you some breakfast.”

“Rarity, you don’t have to do this every day,” Graves added with what was equal parts embarrassment and bright-eyed anticipation. “I can just grab something on the way to training.”

“Oh, hush,” she tutted, still smiling but firmly setting him down in his seat as she pulled out her wand. “It’s a wife’s duty to make sure her husband is well fed, and you will let me do my duty. Is that clear soldier?”

“Yes ma’am,” he replied, complete with an all too serious salute. Rarity simply rolled her eyes and smiled.

Graves watched as the beautiful woman threw open the jade green curtains and let her lovely face bathe in the morning sun. Having someone cooking for him was a treat. Having Rarity, the love of his life doing it every morning? That was nothing short of a blessing.

With a quick flick of her wand, the skillful seamstress got started. Eggs cracked into a bowl with milk, bread following quickly after, and soon the whole room began smelling of freshly fried French toast. An ornate silver pitcher of syrup and a matching shaker of sugar - housewarming presents from Shining Armor and Cadance upon their arrival in Canterlot - floated over along with glasses of orange juice, a platter of sliced fruit, and a small dish of yogurt.

A truly amazing spread, considering she'd been at it for no more than five minutes.

“So darling, what are your plans for the day?” Rarity smiled, floating the plate of steaming culinary goodness over before joining him at the table and daintily powdering her toast with sugar.

“Not much,” he replied as he drizzled syrup on his own. “Taking a few of the advanced cadets on a training run: see if any of them are quality material. You?”

“Mostly meetings. The shop's construction work is basically completed, so now I just have to review layouts with the interior decorators before checking in with the suppliers to make sure the materials will arrive as scheduled.”

Graves blinked.

“I thought you took care of that last week?” His wife took a sip of coffee before heaving a weary sigh.

“We did. The contract was already finalized, but now they’re balking at actually delivering, saying there were additional fees we have to take care of first. Honestly, I’ll probably spend all afternoon explaining that they explicitly agreed to cover those costs already." As poised as she was, even Rarity couldn't help but let out a vexed little squeal. "Ooh, I just know it’s going to be a terrible ordeal already.”

“Sounds like a real pain,” the marshal nodded sympathetically. He only did so for a moment though, as his expression was quickly shifted from condolence to an evil, little grin. “Then again, maybe not.”

“Come again?” the dressmaker asked, eyebrow arched in curiosity. Her husband leaned in as his mischievous grin now blossomed into a full-on devilish smile.

“I have some spare time this afternoon. I might go for a walk and pay my lovely wife a visit. If it just happens to be during a business meeting, well...”

Rarity’s eyes widened in elated understanding.

“Graves,” she began, her own expression quickly beginning to mirror his own, “are you suggesting we go back to playing the good cop and bad cop?” The marshal grinned.

“Just like old times.”

Now just for the record, Graves was by no means a socialite. Despite Rarity’s excellent tutoring and his own increased exposure to Equestria's elite, the marshal would never, absolutely never, ever say he was a big fan of hobnobbing with the upper crust. That went doubly so for Canterlot which, despite its concentration of genuinely wonderful people, also had some of the snootiest of snoots that ever snooted. But there was one part of it he truly did enjoyed, and that was getting to be the bad guy in business.

When they’d first permanently moved to Canterlot, Rarity had immediately set to work getting her creations featured in all of the capitol's trendiest stores. Despite her reputation as a wonderful designer, few took her seriously as a businesswoman, possibly due to a combination of her youth and good looks.

Then she’d brought in Graves. At negotiations and meeting, the taciturn soldier would simply sit there, occasionally adding in a comment, but mostly just glaring at the opposition with gunmetal grey eyes. Unnerved by his steely gaze and imposing aura, people became much more willing to deal with the violet-haired seamstress, if only to avoid having to tangle with Graves.

By then, it was game over. As clever as she was beautiful, Rarity would take the now malleable opposition and tie them around her finger like a cute, little bow, charming them with her sweet words and sympathetic disposition into giving her the mine to sell the diamond. In most cases, they ended up doing so while thinking the fashionable lady had done them a favor by accepting.

The young couple hadn’t done this in quite a while as most everyone had learned to respect the young lady’s business savvy by now. But every so often, a new fool would appear who thought to blow aside her opinions solely because she had a pretty face. In those times, well... it should be fine to have just a little bit of fun, right?

Rarity laughed, the musical sound ringing through the kitchen as she took the marshal’s rough hand in her own. Platinum band sparkling in the light, she beamed at her husband and gave him a fond squeeze.

“It’s a date then,” she smiled, still giggling with anticipation at what now looked to be a very interesting meeting indeed. “In that case, I’ll see you at the office at around two?” The marshal grinned back.

“Wouldn’t miss it.”

It was then Graves spotted the clock on the wall.

“Ah, have to go now,” he said a he wolfed down the final, succulent crepe and washed it down with the last of his coffee. “Those grunts aren’t going to train themselves.”

“Just a moment, dear.” Standing up, Rarity walked over and straightened his clothes, making sure that his crimson cloak and burnished steel shoulder pad were properly aligned and suitably dashing. With a satisfied smile, she planted one last kiss on his lips.

“Have a good day, Graves,” she said with the warmest of voices.

“You too, Rarity,” he grinned, his own voice rich and strong. “Love you.”

**********

Chapter 2

Chapter 2

“Well well well, looks like somebody’s in a good mood.”

Looking up from the desk where his spell gun lay disassembled, Graves blinked as he caught sight of Shining Armor’s grinning face peeking through the office door.

“... You’re not supposed to be here,” the marshal said with all the emotion of a comment on the weather. He resumed cleaning.

“Ouch, harsh,” the guard captain winced as he came in and took a seat anyways. “I take time out of my busy schedule to a you visit like a good friend, and this is how you treat me?”

“So it would seem,” Graves replied with the blandness of dry toast.

“Aw man, and here I was hoping that bubbly perkiness of yours would make you a nicer guy. Guess I was wrong.”

“Guess you were,” the taciturn soldier readily agreed. “And just what... ‘bubbly perkiness’ are you talking about?” Shining Armor gave him a knowing grin.

“I dunno, you tell me. When I first poked in, I found you smiling like Cadance on Hearts and Hooves Day, and you never used to smile like that.”

Setting down the polishing cloth, Graves leaned back in his seat and cupped his chin in thought. So he’d been smiling, had he?

Well, it had been a pretty good day. The cadets he’d taken out had actually managed to take down a nest of harpies without suffering grievous injuries or soiling themselves. It may not sound like much, but that was actually a significant milestone considering how green recruits could be. That had been followed by a quick bite from his favorite sandwich shop, and then it was off to meet with Rarity and her suppliers.

True to her predictions, the pompous businessmen had thicker heads than full-grown ogres and were twice the pain in the backside to deal with... for all of about five seconds.

Two minutes in, and Graves already had them antsy and nervous. By six, they were openly sweating buckets, and at ten, they'd pretty much agreed to anything his lovely wife had wanted if only to avoid having to sit any longer under that cold, steely glare. Not only had they forgotten the fees, they also graciously forewent payment on the initial shipment: a token of goodwill, they’d called it, and one Rarity was more than happy to accept.

All in all, a very pleasant day for him indeed.

“See? You’re doing it again,” Shining Armor smirked.

“Was not,” Graves retorted despite realizing the corners of his mouth were in fact curling up in a grin. Good lord, Shining Armor was right; he was doing it.

When had that started?

“Alright alright, if you say so,” the navy-haired officer laughed. “But I actually didn’t come all the way here to tease you. I’ve got a message.”

“A message?” Graves asked with eyebrow arched. “From who?”

“Princess Celestia?”

“About what?”

“A meeting.”

“Regarding?”

“Didn’t say.”

“When?”

“Right now.”

“... Now,” Graves repeated, his voice thick with incredulity.

“I think so,” Shining Armor shrugged. “She said whenever you’re ready, but that was after I stopped by Joe’s for a donut so... yeah, probably now.”

“You really do enjoy screwing with me, don’t you?” Graves sighed. His ‘friend’ just grinned.

“It's my calling.”

The marshal just rolled his eyes as he quickly reassembled his rifle. He wouldn’t be bringing it in with him to see the Princess of course - that would be rude - but it was just good habit to have it ready in case he needed it.

“Alright, let’s go,” Graves called as set his cleaned and completed firearm aside. With a jaunty smile, Shining Armor jumped to his feet and after a quick straightening of the sword at his side, threw him a smart, if sarcastic salute... and paused.

“Yo, Graves,” Shining Armor frowned. “Something wrong?” The marshal had stopped and was staring at his friend with an oddly blank expression.

“... Were you always wearing that sword?” he asked.

“Uh, yeah?” the guard captain answered hesitantly. “Why?”

"... No reason,” the marshal replied, giving his head a little shake. For some reason, he couldn’t remember Shining Armor having it on him when he’d walked it. A soldier like him should instantly note any weapon in his presence, so it was quite odd that the saber hadn't registered. But as Graves thought about it, he quickly came to the conclusion that it was just a bit of carelessness on his part. Nothing to really worry about.

“Come on,” he said as he grabbed his crimson cloak and shoulder pad. “Best not to keep the Princess waiting.”

“Right away, boss!” Shining Armor grinned. “Lead the way!”

*****

It was a rather lengthy walk to get to Princess Celestia, though not because there was a great deal of distance to cover. The Academy was just off the central square that lead directly to the palace, which made for a rather brief trip, all things considered. The problem was that people kept stopping the pair to talk, the majority to Shining Armor as a well known figure in Canterlot, but many to Graves as well.

In a strange turn of events, the grey-eyed marshal found that he was actually quite well received in the Equestrian capitol. No longer was he regarded as the dangerous stranger, but instead was treated as one of the honored protectors of the city. A large part of that was due to the increasing amount of time he'd spent in the city, but the fact that he was married to famed socialite Rarity didn’t hurt either. After all, it’s hard to be too imposing when your wife calls you ‘darling’ and straightens your hat in public.

Eventually wading their ways through the sea of small talk and salutations, the two made their way into the palace where a pair of guards escorted them in. However, instead of taking them to the throne room where the Princess typically held audience, Graves found that they were heading to the garden where a very unexpected guest awaited them.

“Graves! You’re finally back!” Twilight beamed in delight as she jumped up to hug the marshal. Needless to say he was surprised, - he'd expected the sweater-vested librarian to still be in Ponyville- but it was definitely a very pleasant sort of surprise.

“Hey there, Twilight,” he chuckled as he returned the embrace of his favorite bookworm. “Long time no see.”

“Too long,” the young scholar said as she broke apart with a smile.

“What, and no hug for your big brother?” Shining Armor said with a mock pout. His little sister reciprocated with a playful - if rather firm - punch to the arm before hugging him as well.

“Of course I’ve got one, you big dope,” she laughed. “But I haven’t seen Graves here in over a year, so I thought I’d start with him.”

“Has it really been that long?” he wondered aloud. He could have sworn he’d seen her just yesterday.

“Yes, it has,” Twilight said, doing her best to give him a severe look. “After the wedding, when you two moved here, it seems like you never come by Ponyville anymore. We’ve come up to see Rarity a few time, but we always missed you.”

“Meh, that’s life,” he shrugged, and Twilight laughed as she punched him as well.

“Now now, there,” a sonorous and regal voice called out with more than a hint of amusement. “You keep this up and both my best soldiers will end up in the hospital.”

Looking up from their little reparté, Graves was surprised to find Princess Celestia smiling at them from where she sat at a table laden for tea. It seemed like he’d been rather absent minded recently, what with not noticing the princess or the furnishings. Oh well, no big deal.

“Sorry for the delay, Princess,” Graves said with a nod of the head; Celestia had been very clear that she didn’t like formalities, so this was as far as he could go. “Shining Armor got a little sidetracked on the way over.”

“Hey, it was two-for-one special on original glazed,” he said with hands raised. “It’d be a crime not to go.”

“A very valid point,” Celestia nodded with much more sagacity than the situation seemed to require. “In that case, I will forgive the tardiness on the condition that you two join us for tea.”

“As the Princess commands,” Graves replied with such a flourished bow, that even Celestia in all her regal splendor couldn’t keep a straight face.

The two soldiers joined the Princess and her protégé at the table where delicate china bordered with blue flowers lay on a pristine, white tablecloth. Pouring each of them a cup of steaming Earl Grey, Twilight then passed around a platter of dainty strawberry shortcakes fresh from the palace kitchens.

“So?” the young scholar smiled as she began her eager inquiry, “Rarity tells me you’re doing quite well for yourself. Is that true?”

“Reckon it is,” Graves nodded as he set down his cup with a soft clink: his skills with fine cutlery had certainly improved. “Got back from a series of missions a couple of weeks ago; been guest lecturing at the academy since.”

“The academy?” the amethyst eyed girl asked curiously. “As in the Royal Military Academy?”

“That’s the one,” the marshal concurred as he took a bite of tart. The blueberries were fresh and delicious, but somehow unexpected. “They wanted someone with current field experience to run an advanced class for some of the cadets. I happened to be back, so they asked me.”

“Oh please,” Shining Armor laughed as he chimed in. “What he fails to mention, Twiley, is that they put the program on hold for three months just for him. They could have had a dozen other marshals come in and run it, but nope: there was only one person they wanted, and that would be...” he finished with a hearty slap to his friend’s back, “this guy.”

“It wasn’t like that,” Graves replied as he scratched his nose, feeling awkward yet decidedly pleased at the praise. “Things just... sort of worked out that way. It’s no big deal.” From the way Twilight smiled at him, he could tell she didn’t believe a word he said.

“And how are the classes going?” Celestia asked, her serene smile doing a poor job of hiding her amusement as she spooned honey into her tea. “Are the newest cadets living up to their esteemed predecessors?”

“Surprisingly, yes,” the grey-eyed soldier answered with a pleased smile. “They’re in good shape, solidly grounded on the basics, and got most of the mission jitters pounded out by now. In fact, I’m thinking about taking them to deal with that harpy nest in the mountains tomorrow.”

“Ugh, finally,” the Princess said as she heaved a huge sigh of relief. “I swear, if I have to spend any more time listening to their incessant crowing, I’m going to have a fit.”

Graves smiled as he sipped his tea, the taste of jasmine washing over his tongue a pleasant contrast to the faint sense of puzzlement in the back of his mind. Hadn’t the harpies already been taken care of? He could have sworn that–

“So how do you like teaching?” Twilight asked again. “I mean, you’re always running around going on crazy adventures and stuff. Don’t you get bored staying in one place and dealing with kids all day?”

“They’re not that much younger than you,” Graves laughed as his previous train of thought disappeared like a puff of smoke. “But no, it’s not boring. In fact, I actually like it a lot.”

“Oh, really?” Celestia inquired, clearly interested. “And why is that?”

“It’s... kind of hard to explain,” he began, his brow furrowed thoughtfully as he worked to put words to feeling. “Up till now, I’ve always been in and out; finish a job and move on. Never really got a chance to see the results. Don’t get me wrong, I still like what I do,” he added on hastily. “But getting to watch these new recruits grow and knowing they’ll go out to do great things is... fulfilling, I guess. Does that make sense?”

“It certainly does, Graves,” Princess Celestia nodded with a radiant smile. “Which is why I am so very pleased to present you with this.”

Pulling out her long, ivory wand, the solar sovereign gave it a quick flick and summoned a roll of parchment sealed with a spot of golden wax emblazoned with a flaring sun. The scroll alighted in front of the marshal, who picked it up with a curious glance.

“What’s it say?” Twilight asked as he popped the seal and read its contents.

“... It’s an official assignment,” he gaped in disbelief, “to a permanent instructor’s position at the Academy.”

“Oh my gosh, that’s amazing!” Twilight cried out in amazement.

“No kidding!” Shining Armor laughed as well. “Congratulations man! You’re going to make one heck of a teacher!”

“But... how?” Graves stammered as he looked to the Princess in wide-eyed astonishment. “I mean, all the Academy instructors have had at least twenty years experience. I haven’t even hit ten.”

“True,” Celestia nodded, “but you’ve done more in those years of service than most men have in three times that long. Plus, Ironside and I were talking about it, and we felt it’s time to bring a fresh perspective to things. You’ve done good work, and your methods are certainly effective. If you were to accept this post and pass on what you know to the next generation, then you’d be doing Equestria a great favor indeed.”

“I... I just don’t know if I’m qualified,” he said, looking down at the scroll once more. “Are you sure about this?”

“Quite sure,” the Princess smiled. “So? Do you accept?”

“... As you command, Princess,” Graves finally replied as a huge grin broke out across his face. Celestia just laughed.

“Then it is with great pride that I officially promote you to officership and hereby instate you as an instructor at the Royal Military Academy. Congratulations, Lieutenant Marshal Graves.”

“Ooh, this is just so perfect!” Twilight squealed in delight before turning to her mentor with big, pleading pony eyes. “Princess, I know it’s supposed to be kept under wraps, but do you think I could go ahead and tell them? Please?”

“I don’t see why not,” Celestia chuckled with an indulgent smile. “Fire away.”

“Tell us what?” Shining Armor asked.

“Okay, so you know that I’ve been visiting Canterlot quite frequently, right?” the young scholar began with a secretive smile.

“Yeah, what about that?” her brother prompted.

“Well, it wasn’t just to visit you and Rarity. I’ve actually been working on a big project, one that could thoroughly revolutionize the world as we know it!”

“And... that would be?” Graves asked dubiously; he doubted anything could surprise him at this point.

How quickly he’d be proven wrong.

“Basically, I’ve found a way to permanently tie two locations together with teleportation magic, thus allowing the instantaneous transmission of matter across defined distances without the need for outside magical energy. In short, I've learned how to create and stabilize distortions in the space-time continuum as a practical means of transportation."

Two very confused soldier blinked in bafflement and befuddlement at the beaming young lady.

“... Wait, let me get this straight,” the guard captain said, the cogs in his head whirling furiously to extract meaning from her words. “Are you saying that you’ve actually invented a real, honest-to-goodness warp gate?!”

“Exactly!” Twilight crowed in triumph. “The prototype is going up even as we speak!”

“That’s... that’s amazing,” Graves breathed in awe. He’d always known she was smart, but she’d just done what every mage in the last thousand years had said was completely impossible. That was beyond smart. It was downright astonishing.

“But that’s not even the best part!” Twilight continued. “So since it’s a prototype, I need to be involved in the installation process and maintenance, meaning that the two fixed locations will be here and another place where I can keep an eye on it. Can you guess where that might be?” she finished with a mischievous grin.

“... No way,” the marshal gaped, his eyes as big as the tea saucers on the table. “Ponyville?!”

“Correct!” the young lady laughed. “Now even if you and Rarity are busy, it doesn’t matter anymore, because we’ll literally be right next to each other. It's like we get to bring you two right back home! Yay!”

As Shining Armor jumped up and began twirling his little sister around, Graves just slumped back into his seat, completely and totally overwhelmed by everything that had just happened.

The move to Canterlot had been a positive, if bittersweet decision for the young couple. As a marshal, Graves had still been on the road with Canterlot being the nexus from which he traveled. While Rarity had always wanted to live in Canterlot, fashion and society had only made up half the equation; the other had been to be remain close to her newlywed husband. Thus, while the decision had been the best for both, it did involve saying goodbye to the town they’d both come to love.

It had been a sad farewell. Even though the Ponyville and Canterlot were connected by train, it was still took a good few hours to make the trip, meaning it wasn't one to be undertaken casually even at the best of times. Between the distance, Rarity’s upcoming business, and his own travels, a gap was certain to form between the couple and their friends, who’d always been no more than a stone’s throw away.

But things were about to change.

He was now officially posted to Canterlot, meaning he’d be home much more. Sure, he’d go out on missions as needed, but those would be the events and no longer the norm. Rarity’s business would settle down, and they’d have much more time to spend together. And now with Twilight’s amazing new invention coming up, they would once again be as close to their precious friends as ever before, maybe closer. They’d been apart a whole year, after all, and time apart does make the heart grow fond.

It was like this, as the crimson-garbed captain cavorted with his usually studious but now gone goofy sister, with the Princess beaming away like a proud mother hen, that Graves found himself laughing right from the core of his being with sheer, unbridled happiness.

How could life get any better than this?

**********

Chapter 3

Chapter 3

“I still can’t believe it!” Rarity laughed in delight as she walked arm in arm with Graves through the cool evening air. “To think, being able to visit Ponyville whenever we want! Twilight’s really outdone herself this time.”

“And that’s still not the reason we’re out tonight,” the silver-eyed soldier replied with a knowing smirk.

“Alright now, out with it,” the young lady giggled as she gave her husband a playful shove. “It’s high time you came out and told me: what’s this big secret you’ve been hinting at?”

He didn’t respond just yet. Instead, he simply held the door open for her as they walked into The Watering Hole, a little bar and bistro combo they’d discovered early in their courtship. With a cozy atmosphere, good food, and superb drink selection, it had quickly become favorite of theirs, and they’d been coming regularly ever since. Today, the soft strains of a young man crooning Coltrein floated over the dimly lit room as the couple made their way between tables, each illuminated by its own little pool of lamplight.

It was a familiar sight, one he’d seen many times over the years. But today, it felt like he was walking in for the first time...

“I met the Princesses today,” he replied, giving his head a little shake as if to clear cobwebs from his mind. “I got a new assignment.”

The young lady paused midstep, a fog of quiet sadness coming over her entire being.

“You’re being sent off again, aren’t you?” she sighed, the words coming out heavy with melancholy disappointment. “I know, I know, we’ve been over this before: you’re a marshal, and it’s your duty to keep Equestria safe. It’s very noble work and you know I couldn't be more proud of you for doing it, but honestly; the thought of you being stuck in some backwater town where the only company you’ll have is violent criminals and vicious-”

“Whoa there, whoa there,” Graves interrupted, his tone soothing and calm as he gently gave her hand a reassuring squeeze. “When did I say anything about me leaving?”

“Wait, you’re not?” Rarity repeated quizzically. “If that’s the case, then what could you possibly be...”

Unable to contain it any longer, Graves broke out into a broad grin, a lopsided, goofy look like a kid on the first day of summer holidays as he pulled out the roll of parchment sealed with a spot of gold - no wait, crimson. Crimson wax. Military documents were always sealed in red, not gold.

“You’re now looking at the newest full-time instructor at Equestria’s Royal Military Academy. Lieutenant Marshal Graves, at your service.”

In took less than half of an instant for his wife’s sapphire eyes to flip from dull sadness to sparkling joy.

“My stars, darling! That’s wonderful!” she gasped as she took the sheaf of parchment and looked it over in wide-eyed wonder. “Does this mean what I think it means?”

“I’ll be staying in Canterlot,” he said as he pulled her close. “Right here. With you.”

Graves grunted slightly as Rarity returned the the embrace with rib creaking enthusiasm. To his momentary disappointment, she quickly pulled away, but that was only so she could look up at him, her sapphire eyes sparkling with delight and shining with love. Taking his head in hand, she pulled him down and brought their lips together for a moment of pure ecstasy. Once upon a time, the soldier would have balked at such an egregious public display of affection: it was incredibly embarrassing after all. But now? All other thoughts faded into oblivion as the sweet smell of lavender filled his nose and the intoxicating softness of her touch dominated his mind.

After a few heart-stopping moments, Rarity finally pulled away, smiling serenely despite the flush in her fair cheeks and the heaving in her breathless chest.

“Well, that was certainly something,” she grinned. “How is that even now, you can make me go weak in the knees like a girl on her first date?” Graves just laugh in his typically warm, baritone rumble.

“Guess I still got it,” he quipped. “But I’d hate for you to go weak in the knees just yet.”

“Oh?” Rarity intone, eyebrow arched. “And why, pray tell, is that?”

“With news this good, we’ve got to celebrate, right?” the marshal grinned. “So I was thinking that after we have a few drinks and a nice dinner, I take you over to The Corral and we can go dancing.”

“You? Volunteering to go dancing?” she gasped in a profound mixture of happy surprise and genuine shock. “You can’t be serious.”

“What can I say? I’m in a good mood,” Graves replied with a casual shrug. “But hey, if you don’t want to...”

“Of course I do, you darling man!” Rarity laughed in delight as she reached out to squeeze his hand, her golden wedding ring glowing in the soft light. “Just don’t expect to get home early tonight.”

“Wouldn’t dream of it,” he smirked with a roll of his eyes. His hand, however, returned the affectionate touch.

*****

After leaving Rarity with the menus and explicit instructions to order whatever she wanted, Graves made his way to the restaurant’s bar to order their drinks. Before he’d gotten within five paces, he was hailed by a cheery voice and an enthusiastic wave.

“Hey there, Graves!” the blonde bartender called out as she caught sight of one of her favorite regulars approaching. “You look like you’re in the mood for something festive!”

“You could say that, Lemon Drop,” he chuckled as he approached to lean on the counter. “Times are good, and we’re for do something a bit special tonight. Anything you can recommend?”

“As it so happens, I do,” she grinned with a secretive wink. “We just got in a couple of bottles of champagne straight from the Roan-Alpes of Prance. Really good stuff.”

“I’ll take your word for it,” Graves laughed. “Think you can bring out a bottle?”

“Sure thing! Just let me grab it from the back.”

Lemon Drop disappeared through the swinging doors and Graves took a seat at the bar. As the soothing music floated through the room, he could feel a broad smile curling up the corners of his mouth. If Shining Armor had been there, his friend would probably have made some quip that he looked happier than Twilight writing a research thesis. The marshal might actually not have minded.

It had been a wonderful day. His duties had gone well, he’d been a help to his wonderful wife, he’d been promoted and stationed close to home, and soon, he’d be able to see his best friends regularly, just like the good, old days. At this point, the only thing he had to worry about was what he wanted to eat and how to get through a ballroom marathon Rarity was surely to put him through. All in all, a fine set of problems to have.

“Really? Cause it looks to me like you got a whole lot more to worry about than that.”

It took a moment for Graves to realize the comment had been directed at him. Turning in his seat, he saw that the speaker was... well... Graves actually didn't know quite how to describe him.

At first, the speaker seemed to merely be a distinguished elderly man having a drink, with striking wings of white at the temples of his otherwise jet-black hair with a similar stripe in his oiled and pointed beard. That impression didn’t quite mesh with his attire, however as the suit he wore - which was of obviously fine cut - was patterned in garishly large black and red checkered squares. Come to think of it his face didn’t quite look aged either. I mean it did, but... it didn’t as well; it was difficult to put an age to it if it were even possible at all.

“Er... can I help you?” the marshal asked, not without some trepidation. He couldn’t say why - perhaps because the man’s comment had seemed oddly specific to his thoughts - but something about this individual made Graves decidedly wary.

The stranger just laughed, a sound as rich as warm honey and as smooth as aged wine.

“Now isn’t that a peculiar question,” the elderly youngster chuckled as he sipped from a glass of something ruby red. “Yes, perhaps you could help me, but only in the sense that you’d be letting me help you.” He turned and gave the marshal a toothy smile.

A slight tightening of the mouth was the only outward sign Graves gave off as every fiber of his being flashed to battle-ready alert. The stranger hadn’t done anything but look at the grey-eyed soldier, yet that had been enough since it was the first time Graves had gotten a clear look at the stranger’s eyes. His bright, piercing, topaz eyes.

“I doubt there’s anything you could help me with,” Graves said cautiously, if not outright coldly. Rarity would have been horrified at his tone, but the marshal couldn’t help it. The way this man’s eyes burned, the way they seemed to roil like cauldrons of molten gold and burned with the unbridled, feverish heat of deep pools of magma, was disconcerting on a primal level the marshal had never felt before.

Once again, the stranger just laughed.

“Are you really so sure about that?” Though the chortle sounded as sonorous as ever, it now came with a wicked keen of amusement as well. “But of course you are. The mighty Graves with those gunmetal greys must see everything. What could I possibly show him that his piercing peepers haven’t already spotted?”

Graves moved to retort, the mocking sarcasm in the odd man’s tone rousing the ire in his own blood, but he stopped. Though there was no special emphasis, certain words seemed to ring louder than others, resonating in his head.

See everything. Already spotted. Why those words?

“Then again,” the glittering-eyed stranger mused as he stroked his beard, “perhaps it’s not a matter of the eyes, but the head. Guess that would make this one a head case, now wouldn’t it?” he chuckled as he took another sip of amber liquor. “But that’s not possible either, is it? After all, you’d never have gotten where you are by being oh, what’s the word... Forgetful? Complacent? Letting thoughts simply drift away and never bothering to think about the hows or whys?”

The steely-eyed marshal turned away from the stranger as the words buzzed in his skull with frightful energy. Complacent? He hadn’t been complacent, had he? Of course not; there was no way. He was always thorough, always thought things through. This was complete and utter nonsense. Why was he even thinking about it? he should just stop thinking about it and forget it; after all, it’d be so much easier to go ahead and-

He froze.

It’d be easier? Where under the seven stars had that thought come from?

“Ah, it seems I’m struck a nerve.” the rich voice cackled with a haughty hint of triumph. “Then perhaps this sleeping wolf isn’t content to just let the devil lie where he may.” Graves spun to face the stranger, his eyes flashing like silver spear tips-

The man was gone.

“If you wish to know more,” his voice called out, seeming a whisper in his ear that came from a mile away, “just head back to where it all began.” And with a last, almost maniacal giggle, the voice too, disappeared.

“Yo Graves, I found it!” Lemon Drop called out as she re-emerged with a foil covered bottle. “Sorry it took so long, but I had to dig it out from under a pile of... Hey Graves,” she frowned. “You okay?”

“... Of course,” the marshal replied, turning to face the blond bartender as composedly as he could. “Why wouldn’t I be?”

“Uh, I don’t know. Maybe cause you look like something not even the cat would drag in?”

Following the direction of her pointing finger, Graves caught sight of his reflection in one of the bar’s mirrored panels. Wow. He did look like crap. Pale, drawn, and dull, his current pallor resembled that of a frozen corpse three days dead. Maybe five.

“You weren’t up to any funny business while I was out, were you?” Lemon Drop asked with a suspicious eye. “I mean, I know you’re on the up and up, but I still gotta check you know, make sure nobody’s riding the white pony while I’m on shift and stuff.”

“No, definitely nothing like that,” Graves replied as he rubbed his temples. “I just... have a headache. That’s all.”

“Really?” she said dubiously.

“Really.”

That part was true at least. Right now, his head throbbed with a painful intensity, almost as if his brain were wringing itself out like a sponge in order to expunge memories from his head. It had been mere moments ago, but even now, the marshal could feel the recollection of the conversation fading. An unnatural sense of ease told him to forget, to simply let those thoughts fade into the misty Lethe.

Like hell he would.

“Graves? Are you all right?”

Turning around, the young man caught sight of Rarity walking towards him, a concerned frown on her face as she approached her husband.

“Say’s he’s got a headache,” Lemon Drop dutifully reported. “He’s been working himself too hard again, hasn’t he?”

“Knowing him, he probably has,” the violet-haired seamstress replied with an exasperated sigh. “Honestly, and you intended to go galavanting around all night long. Well, not anymore,” she continued, her no-nonsense tone crisp and to the point. “We’re going right back home and you’re going to get some rest.”

“You sure?” he said, mimicking his typical protests with no actual intent; his head felt like it was about to split in two and then some. “We’re supposed to be having a night out. I’m sure it’ll pass.”

“Yes, it will,” Rarity nodded, her expression softening with a warm smile. “And it will pass even quicker after we get you home and put you to bed.” Graves simply nodded, the simple motion an ordeal that felt like headbutting a wood axe.

“Alright then. Back home it is.”

“Sorry about the bother, Lemon Drop,” the sapphire-eyed beauty said as she linked her arm with the marshal’s. “Do you mind saving that for when we come back later?”

“Hey, no problem,” she grinned. “Next time you drop by, we’ll bust this out and really get the party started.

“Yeah,” Graves smiled, a motion of the lips that didn’t reach his now stormy, grey eyes. “Count on it.”

**********

Chapter 4

Chapter 4

When Graves awoke the next morning, he had no idea where he was. Bleary-eyed and head throbbing, the marshal heaved himself up from the unfamiliar bed and looked over his surroundings: polished, white furniture, walls painted a light orchid, and an open closet where he could see a selection of men’s coats peaking out amidst a sea of dresses and lady’s garments, none of which he could ever recall seeing before.

His head snapped around as the door opened.

“Oh good, you’re up!” Rarity beamed with a whisk in hand. “Hurry up and get dressed; breakfast is almost ready.” Turning around and happily humming away, Rarity walked out of their bedroom and headed back downstairs.

Of course. This was his room. Their room. The room he’d shared with Rarity for over a year now, ever since they'd come to Canterlot. Certainly he should know that.

But right now, he couldn’t be sure. Despite feeling as if a bucket of sand had been poured into the space between his ears, the strange conversation from the night before stood out clearly in the marshal’s mind. Seeing. Complacency. Details. All these words burned in his consciousness like hot coals, fending off the mistiness that threatened to coax him back into blissful ignorance.

So as he threw on a clean shirt and slacks, Graves continued to look, his hardened eyes scanned his surroundings for perhaps the very first time. Information was power. Details were weapons. A single overlooked fact, a single scrap of information missed during a mission could spell the difference between success and disaster. And so he looked, scrutinizing everything within eyesight as if his own bedroom were a battlefield.

Making his way down the stairs, he was greeted by familiar sights and sounds: light streaming through jade green curtains, the sound of eggs sizzling in a pan, and at the center of it all, Rarity.

“Well, it looks like you were more tired than you thought,” she laughed as she threw a cheery smile over her shoulder. “I don’t think I’ve ever gotten up earlier than you before, and yet here we are.”

“So it would seem,” he agreed, his voice light, but his eyes as hard and sharp as flecks of flint. The curtains... had they always been green?

“Any big plans for the day?” Graves idly commented, his eyes still scanning the environment for more clues.

“Just finishing up a few details with the boutique,” the pretty seamstress said as she brought over two plates with fresh omelettes. “Oh, and I’ll be paying a visit to the doctor’s today.” Immediately, the marshal’s attentions were drawn to her like lightning to a rod.

“Doctor?” he asked, his apprehension now shifting focus. “Why, are you sick?”

“No, nothing like that,” she laughed. “I’ve just been feeling a little green recently, and since it’s almost time for my physical, I figured I’d get two birds with one stone, as it were.”

“Ah,” he breathed, relief easing the furious beating of his heart. “I see.”

The two settled down to another one of Rarity’s delicious meals, during which they chatted away as easily as they ever had. The marshal’s keen, grey eyes never stopped roving, but... there was nothing. The kitchen looked as spotless as it ever did, Rarity was as beautiful as ever, and life was exactly how it should be. Despite all efforts to the contrary, the anxiety and suspicions from earlier slowly faded like fog under a strong sun as the marshal began to wonder.

Had he simply been mistaken? Had all this just been nerves and stress finally boiled over?

“Well then, it’s time I headed off,” the violet-haired seamstress said as she stood and began clearing the table. “Oh, and I almost forgot to mention: I wrote to the Princess telling her you weren’t feeling well. She said that you should take the day off and get some more rest.”

“Bah, there’s no need for that,” he snorted derisively, the comforting sense of contentment beginning to return. "I've never taken a sick day before, and I don't intend to now."

"I suppose it's true what they say about fools never catching cold," Rarity replied with an all too innocent smile.

"So that's how it, huh?" Graves chuckled. "In that case, I guess...”

His words faded away as his eyes fell upon her left hand, the hand where her golden wedding ring glittered in the sunlight.

“Something wrong?” Rarity asked curiously as she spotted the oddly intent look on her husband’s face.

“... No, it’s nothing,” Graves said, giving her an apologetic smile. “Must’ve zoned out. Guess I’m more tired than I thought.”

“There, you see?” she giggled triumphantly. “You just stay at home and make sure you’re feeling better. Don’t think you’ve gotten out of taking me dancing that easily.” The young man replied with a wry grin.

“Wouldn’t dream of it.”

With one last kiss and a final admonishment for him to take it easy, Rarity was off to seize the day with Graves smiling her farewell. Once the door closed, however, the smile disappeared like stars behind a cloudy sky.

Heading upstairs, the marshal went into the closet and pulled out the simple brown jacket and a matching cabby hat Rarity had made for him but he’d never worn. It had always seemed a silly looking thing to him, but today, that suited his purposes just fine.

The devil had appeared. Though he couldn’t say what, something about the wedding ring had bothered him. It was faint, like the barest echo of a memory long forgotten, yet it was certainly, definitely, most undeniably still there. He wasn’t imagining it and he wasn’t being paranoid. Something was amiss.

Making a slow count to a hundred to ensure that his wife would be well out of sight, Graves slipped out of the house, slumping his shoulders and shortening his usual gliding strides into shuffling steps. Few would give him a second look now, and none would associate the shambling figure in the silly clothes with the hero marshal of Canterlot.

Thus, with the flexibility afforded by his simple disguise, the young man set off for the city as the stranger’s parting words rang through his head like brass gongs:

Just head back to where it all began.

There was just one problem: what the hay did that mean? Graves had no idea where it had begun. In fact, he had no idea what ‘it’ even was. How do are you suppose to find the beginning when you don't even know what you're looking for? The marshal had no idea. In fact, all he had was a feeling, just a faint tugging in his gut that seemed less thought than instinct. It certainly wasn't much, but he’d worked with less before. For now, it would have to be enough.

*****

With no clear direction and no goal in mind, Graves set about wandering through the streets of Canterlot, senses strained to catch a hint, a glimpse, anything that would serve as a clue. In this way, he found that at the edge of his vision, from the corners of his eyes, there was always some sort of... flux. An item in one place would seem to be somewhere else, a color of one hue would appear as a different shade. Whenever he looked right at them, however, the differences would vanish and he could never be sure that anything had been wrong to begin with. It was like looking at the world through a lens with faintly warped sides, where flaws could only be indirectly perceived.

“At least I know somethings wrong,” the marshal muttered as he took another turn. “But that still doesn’t tell me anything. What’s the beginning I’m supposed to be looking for?”

He craned his head and looked up at the sun that was already approaching its noontime peak. A morning gone, and nothing to show for it.

Sighing, Graves let his head drop and went to continue on his way. Or, he would have, if he hadn’t frozen in place.

He was back at the royal palace. How he'd gotten here, he had no idea since he could not recall having passed any gates or checkpoints. But here he was, in a large, empty courtyard of flat, stone tiles and neatly trimmed hedges around its four, even sides. It wasn’t a place he typically frequented, nor was it a place en route to any place he had reason to visit. In fact, there was absolutely nothing significant about this courtyard that would draw him here.

And yet, something felt oddly important about this place, like something big was about to happen. No, that wasn't right. It was somehow already important, though for the life of him he couldn't say why.

“Sure wish that crazy guy was here,” Graves muttered, taking his hat off and running a hand wearily through his jet black hair. “Then maybe things would start making sense.”

“Now now,” a deep, mellow voice called out, “don’t you think ‘crazy’ might be a bit strong?”

Turning around, Graves found himself face to face with the strange man from the night before. Only now, the courtyard was no longer empty, as the ‘eldery’ man, today in a decidedly odd suit of yellow and purple stripes, sat at a long table fully furnished for afternoon tea.

“Well, speak of the devil,” the marshal intoned as he took a seat, hardly batting an eye at the sudden appearance of the furniture. Right now, it wasn’t what he could plainly see that had him worried.

“There you go again, using such painful language,” the man replied with a grandiose sweep of his hand. “Really, it’s almost enough to make me weep.”

“Then what should I call you?”

“Well, now isn’t that an interesting question?” the stranger remarked as he stroked his beard. “I suppose given my reputation, you could call me a lot of things. But for the moment, let’s just go with... D.”

“Alright... D. Can you tell me what’s going on?”

“Why, whatever do you mean?” the stranger repeated with an incredibly innocent expression completely ruined by his burning, topaz eyes.

“How about my head?” the marshal began. “My mind’s been really cloudy lately. I don’t seem to remember things I should, and some things I do remember seem to be off.”

“Hmm, very interesting,” D said as he peered through his spectacles and scribbled onto a notepad. “And why do you think this has been happening?”

“I thought I was just tired,” Graves frowned, “but that doesn’t make sense. I’ve been tired before, and I’ve never felt like this. I’m seeing things that shouldn’t be there, forgetting things I should remember, and just...” he took a breath to compose himself. “ It’s almost like... like something’s blocking my thoughts.”

“A very peculiar theory indeed,” the stranger said as he stood up and tossed away the notepad. “And one I’m very glad to say is jolly on the spot. Well done!”

“Wait, what?” Graves gaped in disbelief. “Are you serious?”

“Not in the slightest!” D chortled. “But it doesn’t stop you from being right.”

“Okay, now you’re not making any sense,” the marshal frowned, his grey eyes growing heavy with storm clouds of irritation. “What’s going on?”

“My dear marshal,” the stranger laughed as he straightened his forest green waistcoat, “there’s no need for me to tell you what you already know.”

“If I already know it, then why would I be asking... you...” the marshal stopped speaking a flicker of realization flashed in his grey eyes.

"Yes?" D prompted with a slow, malevolent smile.

“Something... happened to me," Graves muttered, more question than thought happened as he attempted to force the thoughts together through the sudden fog of oblivion. "I know what happened, but I just... can’t remember what it was.”

The 'elderly' man simply grinned as his topaz eyes burned away.

“You know what happened,” Graves continued, the conviction in his voice growing with every word. “I don’t know how, and frankly, I don’t really care. But you have the answers that I’m looking for. So please, tell me. What happened?”

The strange man sat there, lightly tapping his fingers together as he appraised the marshals. His eyes no longer burned. They simply smoldered, two golden beds of coals that only need a good poke to blaze back to life.

“I suppose I could tell you,” he finally said with a languid, almost lazy drawl. “But are you sure you really want to know? The truth can sometimes be quite painful, you know.”

“Perhaps,” Graves nodded, “But I’d prefer to know than not to.”

“Paying the price without checking the tag,” D chuckled richly. “I suppose that's the privilege of youth, to rush along head first without paying any heed.”

With a snap of his fingers, a porcelain teapot floated up and poured its contents into the marshal’s cup. However, the pitch black liquid that roiled and bubbled as if being boiled over a furnace was most certainly not tea.

“What’s this?” Graves asked, eyeing the cup of... stuff before him.

“You said you were having trouble remembering,” D offered glibly. “Just think of it as medicine to help jog your memories.”

“So, you’re saying this will help me figure out what’s going on?” the marshal asked, to which D simply smiled.

“Only one way to find out.”

Graves looked at the grinning stranger, then back to the cup. He relished the idea of drinking it as much as a cup of fetid swamp water, maybe less. And this stranger. He certainly knew what was going on, but how far could he be trusted? Even now, those golden eyes of his twinkled with an almost maniacal light. But right now, he was running out of options, and if it was the only way to find out what was going on...

In one swift motion, Graves picked up the cup and drained its contents.

He was out before he hit the table.

**********

Chapter 5

Chapter 5

Graves was aware that he was moving, but only just. Like the murky consciousness that comes right after sleep and just before waking, the marshal was only dimly aware that he sailed through a black sea of stars. One in particular drew him close, a lodestone pulling him like a tiny bit of iron dust. He quickly approached, the twinkling spot of light growing larger and brighter until…

Graves found himself at the royal palace, the explosions of fireworks ringing through the air and the shrieks of nobles milling around in panicked confusion. For a moment, he wondered how he’d gotten there, why everything seemed so familiar, but those thoughts quickly receded into the back of his mind. After all, there were far more pressing matters for him to deal with.

*****

Moving with swift, but directionless energy, Graves wandered aimlessly through the palace corridors as his mind churned over the events of the last half hour. Half of him was convinced it had all been a dream. I mean, he was just a soldier, a common, rough around the edges normal sort of guy. There was no way, absolutely no bucking way that the most beautifully, charmingly, amazingly perfect woman he’d ever seen had actually come up and kissed him.

Sure, they say that the Grand Galloping Gala was a night of magic and miracles, but even miracles could only go so far. He knew he must be dreaming; he just had to be. But, no the cheek that still ached from the half dozen slaps he'd served upon himself confirmed that this was not the machinations of his subconscious, but the real, waking world. This kiss had irrefutably, undeniably happened.

...

Now what the hay was he supposed to do?

His pace picked up as his mind furiously worried away at the problem. He knew he really liked her, and he did mean really, really liked her. At least, he think he did. Graves didn't exactly have much experience with these kinds of emotions, what with his colored past and odd set of life experiences. Fortunately, he’d overheard more than enough from other soldiers - who seemed to talk of nothing else when out in the field - to make a somewhat educated guess about his own somewhat misunderstood, yet undeniable feelings. And since she’d been the one to initiate, it was safe to assume the feeling was mutual.

So where did it go from here? Suppose they did... get together, or whatever it is people called it; how long would it last? General Ironside had already told him he’d been posted there for R&R, so what would happen when it was time to leave? He supposed he could just break up with her then, but that just didn’t seem right. He could come back and visit, but honestly, how often would that be? It wasn’t like he could stop by every weekend or anything: Rarity might end up waiting for months on end, if not years, and that certainly wasn’t fair to her. No matter how he sliced it, his duties as a marshal made the situation impossible.

Or was it? If he wanted to consider every option, he could request a permanent post in Ponyville. With his current service record and the Right of Petition still in effect, the chances of getting such a post would be almost guaranteed. He could stay in Ponyville, live in the town he’d come to think of almost as home. He could stay close to Rarity.

The marshal paused in midstep, his body reacting to the thought as it would in approaching the edge of a yawning canyon.

Could he really do that? To ask for a permanent post would be tantamount to retiring as a marshal, giving up the fight and handing in his gun. Granted, he’d always be there to protect the town where he lived, but it just wouldn’t be the same. His duty was to fight, and staying in Ponyville meant he’d have to give up that fight. He really did want to be with Rarity, but how could he just walk away from what he knew he had to do? What he knew was right?

Graves sighed and reached over his shoulder, rubbing his neck before sliding his hand down to the marking on his back. He’d always known who he was and what he was supposed to do. But what was he supposed to do when for the first time in his life, he wanted something else?

In his musing wanderings, the young marshal found himself in a large, empty courtyard of flat marble tiles, the wide expanse surrounded by a border of low trimmed hedges. In the open space, Graves had an unobstructed view the starry night sky above. Here, with the moon shining bright and the din of festivities but a faint rumble in the distance, the atmosphere was soothingly tranquil and quietly serene, the perfect place for a man who needed time to think.

“Penny for your thoughts?”

Turning around, the marshal caught sight of Shining Armor striding up, his crimson coat only slightly rumpled and his bright smile undiminished whatsoever. Graves arched an eyebrow in question.

“Aren’t you supposed to be getting things under control?” he asked suspiciously. The guard captain just grinned in response.

“Already did. A few mages with fire suppression spells here, a few enchanters with sleep charms there, and we got that mess cleared out in like, ten minutes tops. Engineering corp’s getting things patched up even as we speak.”

Graves nodded, sufficiently impressed as always. Despite his happy-go-lucky attitude, Shining Armor hadn’t come to his post by accident. In fact, Graves suspected the reason that the guard captain could act so footloose and fancy-free was that his skill gave him time to do so. In a position as demanding as a military officer, that was definitely saying something.

“So,” Shining Armor continued, joining Graves out in the courtyard to gaze up at the moon, “what’s on your mind?”

“What makes you think I have something on my mind?” the marshal countered. The guard captain shrugged.

“Just a hunch. You’ve got this look on your face like you don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Maybe both.”

Graves looked over at the young officer, who simply continued gazing up at the moon. Truth be told, that was sort of how he was feeling. There was no doubt that what had just happened ranked in the top three best things that had ever happened to him, but the crossroads that formed as a result of it...

“You married Princess Cadance,” Graves blurted out before he could help himself. “How’d that happen?” Shining Armor gave his companion a funny look.

“Well that’s kind of an odd question. Why would you be interested... in.... that... ” He froze, his aquamarine eyes growing very large and round indeed as the corners of his lips trembled in barely contained glee. “No. Freaking. Way. Graves, are you... I mean, did you....?”

“Just answer the question,” the marshal mumbled, already feeling the heat rising in his face. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all. It wasn't like the guard captain was exactly known for his sensitivity...

But amazingly, Shining Armor actually had the courtesy not to press the issue, for once in his mischievous life. Granted, it took him a while to fully suppress the shivers of mirth wracking his body, but he did nothing else to add to Graves's already considerable discomfort.

“It was kind of simple really,” the azure-haired captain said, an amused smile still playing across his lips as he turned his attention to the starry sky above. “Cadance was Twiley’s babysitter ever since she became Celestia’s pupil, which was right around the same time I joined you at the Academy. Mom and dad wanted me to check in on her, make sure she was doing okay and everything-”

“So that’s where you kept disappearing off to,” Graves replied, now enlightened. “I always thought it was to raid the cafeteria.”

“Hey, that only happened once,” his friend retorted with an indignant grunt, “... or twice... Anyways, that’s where I met Cadance. First time I saw her, I was so nervous, I introduced myself as Aiming Sharmor, or something equally stupid.”

“Smooth,” the marshal smirked.

“Yeah, “Shining Armor grimaced. “Fortunately, she thought it was cute. I’d stick around and play with Twiley, and then, you know, after a while... we started hanging out when Twiley wasn’t around either.”

“So when’d it turn... you know...”

“Not till after we graduated,” the guardsman nodded. “I didn’t want to move forward till things finally got settled. Once I finished officer's training and got assigned to Canterlot, I felt like it was a good time to go ahead and ask her out. Lucky for me, she said yes.”

Graves fell silent, his grey eyes growing cloudy as his brow furrowed in thought.

“So...” he began, thumbing his nose awkwardly, unsure of how exactly to word his next inquiry. “What would you have done if you hadn’t been able to stay in the same place?”

“You mean if I were posted elsewhere?”

“Yeah.”

“Hmm...” Shining Armor paused and cupped his chin as he considered. “Guess... I would have done the same thing.” Graves blinked.

“Hold on. You just said you waited for things to get settled.”

“True, but that doesn’t mean I had to settle here.”

Graves blinked again.

“That makes no sense.”

“Guess it doesn’t,” Shining Armor laughed. “How do I put this? It’s like... whether I stayed in Canterlot or not, I knew that Cadance was important to me. If I got to stay, that’d be great. But if I had to leave, well...” he shrugged. “I would have found a way to make it work.”

“Sounds awfully convenient,” Graves muttered, and the guard captain just laughed again.

“Maybe,” he admitted. “I guess I’m just lucky that things worked out for me. You, however,” he continued, giving Graves a somewhat sad smile, “aren’t that lucky, are you?”

“So it would seem,” the marshal flatly intoned.

The two stood silent for a moment, the only sound a faint whistling of wind as it rustled through the hedges around them.

“Ever thought about quitting the marshals?” Shining Armor asked. “Don’t get me wrong, you’re good. Really good. But it’s not exactly the easiest lifestyle, is it?”

“No, it’s not,” Graves sighed wearily. “But I still know it's where I need to be. Until that changes, I’m staying put.”

“I see,” the young captain nodded. “Then, what are you going to do about... this?”

“... I-”

Before the marshal could answer, a series of clattering footsteps sounded as three guardsmen trotted forth from the covered walkway.

“Captain, thank goodness we found you,” the leader said as he threw a quick salute. “Your presence is required at the west gate. It seem we have some problems there.”

“West gate?” Shining Armor repeated puzzledly. “I wasn’t aware the issue had spread that far.”

“Apparently it has sir,” the second soldier nodded. “If you don’t hurry, things could escalate really quickly. We need to go now.” Turning to Graves, he gave him a quick bow. “Begging your pardon sir, but we’ll need to escort you to where the other civilians are gathered.”

“Really?” Graves asked, eyebrow arched curiously.

“I’m afraid so,” the third guardsman agreed. “Captain, if you would go ahead, we’ll catch up with you as soon as we can.”

Shining Armor looked over to Graves, who simply thumbed his right earlobe with an idle nod. The guard captain scratched his nose, then nodded as well.

“Alright, I’ll go on ahead,” he said, immediately turning to head off. “I’ll catch you later Graves, alright?”

“Sounds good,” the marshal nodded. “Good luck.”

Graves watched as Shining Armor jogged off further down the walkway before turning at a fountain and disappearing from sight. As soon as he was gone, the three guardsmen turned to the remaining man.

“Sir, if you would?” the asked, hands gesturing towards the other direction.

“Alright, let’s go,” the marshal nodded, turning and walking back towards the palace.

He never even felt the knife sink into his back.

**********

Chapter 6

Chapter 6

He never felt the blade, because it never struck.

Spinning with the thrust, Graves caught the guardsman attacker’s wrist and wrenched, eliciting a cry of pain as the dagger clattered to the stone pavement. A hard kick to the knee followed by a vicious jab to the throat, and the assailant crumpled into a boneless heap.

The two guardsmen hesitated only for a second before raising up their glittering spears. However, before they could so much as frown in the marshal's direction, a thundering roar sounded and both clattered to the ground, matching blackened burn marks smoldering in the middle of their backs.

“Glad you got the signal,” Graves called out as he cracked his neck, “but I could’ve handled it.”

“Just trying to help,” Shining Armor replied as he trotted back, the arcane energy around his gleaming silver sword crackling and fading away to nothing. “I mean, they did just try to kill you.”

“So it would seem,” the marshal deadpanned in tones of supreme boredom before kicking the first attacker over. “Any idea why some of your guardsmen would have it out for me?”

“No,” the young captain said with a shake of his head, “but I have an idea.”

Speaking a few quick incantations, Shining Armor flourished his sword and pointed the gleaming blade at the unconscious soldier. A quick flash of indigo light shot forth, and when it struck, the guardsman began to melt.

Polished golden armor charred and gave way to chitinous black skin. The helmet’s plumes sprouted into a head of spiky, antennae-like hair of a sickly green hue. The face, which softened like putty, quickly hardened into a distorted visage, somewhat human, but with eyes much too large and a mouth too full of fang-sharp teeth.

“I knew it,” Shining Armor grimaced as he sheathed his sword. “Changelings.”

“Huh. Who'd have thought?” Graves intoned as he knelt down next to the unconscious xenomorph for a closer look.

“I don’t get it,” the guard captain muttered. “We’ve got magical sweeps constantly scanning for Changelings these days. How’d they get in?”

“I assume it’s this,” the marshal replied, tossing the navy-haired soldier a roughly hewn pendant he’d pulled from the assailant’s neck. “Null stone. No idea where they'd get their hands on something so rare, but it’d bounce sensory magic off and let a few of them slip through without any trouble.”

“Assassins then?” Shining Armor growled. Graves picked up the fallen dagger and gave it a wary sniff. He nodded.

“Definitely. This blade’s been coated with aconite.”

“Then that means the Princess is in danger. We have to go. Now.”

Pulling Graves to his feet, Shining Armors spared only a moment to bind the three unconscious forms with ethereal cords before he dashed towards the palace center with the marshal hot on his heels.

*****

“So you’re not the Changeling target?” Graves asked as the two rushed forwards.

“Doubtfully,” Shining Armor replied without once breaking stride. “Taking me out would be a bonus, but their goal’s definitely still getting Princess Celestia’s power.”

“So they kill you off to make sure you can’t help her. But to what end? Is Chrysalis planning another invasion?”

“Not that we can tell. We’ve been constantly monitoring the Changelings ever since their last attempted coup: no mobilization, no preparation for war.”

“Which makes this a small-scale operation,” Graves nodded as he continued. “An oddly clumsy one too. They prepared pretty fancy gear, but bad intel just cost them three soldiers. Why?”

“... The gala,” Shining Armor remarked with illuminated, azure eyes. “By now, I should have been at the west gate on patrol, but the mess my sister and her friends forced a change of plans. They must have tried to get me to head there and finish the ambush, but tipped their hand because they didn’t know about you.”

“Then what about the Princess?” Graves asked, urgency apparent in his voice and in his iron grey gaze. “She should have been giving a speech in the ballroom, but that’s not happening. Where would she be then?”

“Heading back to the north tower,” Shining Armor nodded grimly. “In unexpected circumstances, she’s evacuated there. Let’s just hope we get there before the Changelings do.”

Cutting through gardens, leaping walls, and generally ignoring set paths in favor of speed and stealth, the two soldiers raced across the palace grounds towards their target, avoiding contact with all others. The chances were low, but each encounter risked a run in with more Changelings and losing the element of surprise. At this point, it was all they had.

*****

Approaching the north wing of the palace from the outside, Shining Armor motioned for silence: he saw movement. Slipping quietly behind one of the trimmed hedges, Graves carefully eased aside a few branches and peered through the ensuing gap.

A collection of some ten guardsmen stood in front of the entrance to the tower with three or four others lying unconscious around them. Two of their numbers kept oddly luminescent green eyes on lookout while the remainder clustered together around the door, a sickly orange glow illuminating hard-set faces.

“What are they doing?” Shining Armor whispered.

“Dissolving the defensive wards. They’re being quiet about it, but it probably won’t take much longer to get through.”

“So Celestia’s still safe at least,” the guard captain sighed in relief. The fact that they still struggled with such a complex defense must mean that their objective was not yet complete.

“How do you want to do this?” Graves asked as he turned to his comrade. Shining Armor furrowed his brow in thought.

“If they’ve all got null stones, magic’ll do a tenth of the normal damage, maybe less. Could work if you had your spell gun, but-”

“-Ironside said no party favors tonight,” the marshal muttered dryly.

“In that case, we’ll have to make this up close and personal,” the guard captain muttered. “How’re your legs?”

“Not bad. You thinking of going for a Flying V?”

“I can get maybe five or six, if you can finish of the rest.”

In the dark of night, with half a platoon of well-equipped assassins against their own team of two soldier with only a single sword between them, Graves couldn't help but smile.

“Let’s do it.”

*****

The two Changeling lookouts swiveled their heads back and forth, keeping their eyes peeled for any signs of activity, anything that could disrupt their plans. But they were so intent on seeking out the hidden and the unseen that they almost missed the man approaching right in front of them.

Wearing a crimson coat with a blue sash, the man walked straight down the broad avenue towards them, casually, almost leisurely. Reaching to his side, he drew a brilliant, silver sabre, the air rippling as if from a heat haze that emanated from the blade’s cold, polished surface. Holding it out to his side, arm extended to the fullest, the man brought the sabre around in a broad, almost gentle silver arc in front of him…

... and the world shifted.

In one moment, there was nothing. In the very next, a whirling torrent of violent energy, a wall of pure, unrelenting force, blasted forth from the blade. Howling like a gale, the air-distorting wave of mystic might cascaded towards the Changelings with the unstoppable fury of a tsusami summoned by the wrath of an angry sea god.

“Shield! Shield!” the lookouts cried and five of their number rushed to join them. Golden armor melted away as the Changelings let drop their disguises and as one, with precisely trained coordination, they unleashed magics of their own.

A brilliant wall of verdant flame sprang from the stones, fueled by the abyssal energies that flowed through their veins, a gift from their beloved queen. The flames burned and flared, seeming to burn at reality itself with its unholy emerald light. The wall of force struck, crackling and hissing as the two powers collided. For a moment, the flames held the concussive wave at bay. But only for a moment.

Bending under the unstoppable weight of the blast, the green fires finally shattered as the guard captain’s arcane assault blasted through. The null stone pendants absorbed much of the magical energies, but even such powerful relics could only do so much. The wall of force slammed into the Changelings, knocking five of their number aside like ragdolls to lie in crumpled heaps on the stone pavement.

Crying out in alarm, one of the Changelings turned to rejoin his brethren as they worked down the tower’s shielding.

It was then that the lightning struck.

Unbeknownst to the invaders, the magical assault had only been the first attack. Running in its wake, dashing forward swift as an arrow and silent as a shadow, came Graves.

As soon as the xenomorph turned his back, the marshal grasped the back of its neck and channeled, sending pure electric current through his limb and into the creature’s body. He winced as violent pain lanced through his hand, the sensation akin to acid replacing the blood in his veins. Casting spells using your own body as a medium was dangerous at the best of times, and a rapid assault on a team of assassins was far from the best of times. But it was effective, and the Changeling fell into a twitching, spasming heap.

The second remaining assailant exhaled a great plume of viridian flame, but Graves was already gone. Ducking under the fiery blast, the marshal’s fist surged forth and struck the creature’s diaphragm. Chitinous shell cracked and the flames winked out with a choking gasp. A final, surgical blow to the chin knocked it out cold.

“Take cover!” a voice yelled, and the marshal dropped to the ground just as a pair of spears whizzed through the space where his chest had been. Two of the remaining Changelings rushed forwards, arms morphing into vicious hooked blades as the final assassin worked to finish removing the spell. From the way the orange light flared, it wouldn’t be long.

Rising to his feet, Graves narrowly dodged a violent downward slash, the breeze of the passing blade caressing his cheek as it passed by no more than a hair's breadth away. Spinning with the following thrust, the grey-eyed soldier brought an elbow crashing across the creature’s jaw, ducked a horizontal cut that would have separated head from shoulders, and used the momentum to drop down and sweep out the last Changeling’s legs. Before it hit the ground, Graves reached out and channeled once more and brilliant arcs of lightning seared the insectile creature into unconsciousness.

A flash of crimson flew by as Shining Armor rushed passed, sword raised and flashing with golden light as he prepared to strike down the final invader. But just as he was about to bring it down, the tower doors creaked open.

“No!” he cried, unleashing the stored energies in gleaming crescent slash of light. But before it struck, the Changeling ducked into the tower and sealed it shut. The magic wards reset and the arcane beam, strong enough to cleave boulders in two, dissipated harmlessly against the nigh-impregnable defenses.

“Blast! He’s sealed it!” Shining Armor shouted as he pounded on the impervious wooden entryway. “And he’s changed the access spell: I can’t get in!”

“There’s gotta be some way,” Graves replied, his gunmetal grey eyes darting around in search for an entryway. “... There! Upper balcony! I see an open window!”

“That’s got to be a good ten stories up at least,” the guard captain frowned. “How are you going to make it?”

“I might need a lift.”

Shining Armor’s eyes widened in alarm. He knew what the marshal wanted to do. And it was crazy. Beyond crazy. Insanely stupid and borderline suicidal. But time was running out, and they were desperate.

“Ready when you are,” the captain finally replied as he took a two-handed grasp on the hilt of his sword.

With a quick nod, Graves ran. He sprinted as hard as he could towards the tower, leaping as he approached and planted a foot against the stone wall. Leaping again, he soared even higher, the thrust pushing him away from the tower’s marble surface and placing him right above the guard captain’s head.

Shining Armor swung, and another blast of mystic force burst forth, a stone wall of raging wind plowing into the marshal and propelling him straight up. Riding the wave, Graves flew like a loosed arrow, so fast in fact that he overshot the balcony by a good twenty feet.

Graves reached out and channeled once more, the translucent silver spear and spell chain bursting from his palm and sinking into the stone railing with a solid thunk. A spray of blood misted the air as the magical feedback split the skin on his hand like an overfull wine skin, and the wrenching yank on his arm very nearly tore it from its socket. But it worked. Graves managed to pull himself off the concussive wave and tumbled onto balcony with a painful crash, the force of the impact cracking his ribs and driving all air from his lungs.

“Graves?!” Celestia called out, the book she’d been reading quickly forgotten as she stood and lowered the barrier over the window. “What on earth are you-”

“Changelings,” he gasped, standing as he forced air into his chest so he could choke out the words. “Assassins. Coming... for-”

The door to the room swung open and the final insectile assailant dashed in, arm morphed into an organic crossbow. From a quiver on his belt he pulled forth an ominous, black bolt carved with malevolent, glowing green runes. He placed it on the weapon, raised it with practiced precision and drawing a bead on the stunned princess...

Time slowed.

Ignoring the screaming protests of pain and agony that wracked his battered body, Graves willed his legs to move and leaping forward, threw himself between Celestia and her assailant. The bolt left the bow, streaking forward like an onyx wasp, whistling through the air towards its target. But it would never reach.

Graves gasped as he felt the bolt pierce his chest. Instantly, as if it were some fiendish parasite, the cursed quarrel began sapping away at his strength. He could feel his mind clouding, his conscious slipping away as the unholy arrow drained him of his life as surely as a leech draws blood. He knew he wouldn’t last long, moments at most. But he’d last long enough, because he had one last job to do.

Raising his hand, so slowly as if he were forcing his limb through thick, oily tar, the marshal poured every last drop of his rapidly dwindling energy into his hands. Ignoring the exhaustion weighing down every limb, the grating of broken bones, and the flashing pain as his hand split open with bleeding, crimson spiderwebs, he channeled.

It wasn’t much, just a single bolt of lightning to return the favor. But the shining lance of electric wrath shot forth and drove itself straight into the disbelieving, green-eyed assassin.

The xenomorph crumpled to the ground. It didn’t move again.

“Not... bad...” Graves coughed, flecks of blood speckling his lip as he fell to the floor. It would be the last thing he did before his mind drifted into oblivion.

**********

Chapter 7

Chapter 7

Graves gasped as he bolted upright, hand jerking towards his chest where the cursed bolt had struck him. Nothing. Pulling out his shirt and peering down, Graves gave his torso a quick and thorough search.

“... It’s not there,” he muttered, checking once more to make sure he hadn’t missed it, but the fact remained. Of the many scars that served as memorabilia of his battles, no circular wound from the quarrel could be found.

“Really?” D asked in a voice that held no trace of curiosity. “Well isn’t that odd.”

“Indeed,” the grey-eyed soldier nodded as he looked back up, eyes hard and focused. “So why do I get the feeling you still know more than you’re telling me?”

“Why, whatever do you mean?” the strange man gaped, his open expression that seemed an attempt at innocence only succeeding in conveying mockery. “I merely helped you remember what happened, just like I said I would.”

“Remembering’s one thing,” the marshal began. “But that... that wasn’t a memory. It was too vivid, too real.” Indeed even now, his heart pounded as if in the heat of battle and the sensation of seeping cold in his bones was still so fresh in his mind, he couldn’t be sure whether he was remembering the feeling or actually experiencing it even now.

“What,” D smiled as he sipped at a cup of tea. “Are you suggesting I did something to your head? Made you see things that weren’t there? Feel things that didn’t happen?”

“Would it be so hard?” the marshal laconically replied. “I don’t know who you are, and frankly, I really don’t care. What I do know, is that whatever’s going on, you’ve got control. You could make it happen.” The older man’s eyes widened in surprise.

“Wait, you... you think that I...” D couldn’t finish because he immediately began to laugh, a completely undignified, snorting guffaw of delighted, and possibly maniacal, amusement.

“Oh Graves,” he snickered, wiping a tear from his eye. “You’ve got it all wrong. I don’t have... control, as you so put it. I just happen to be a very good navigator.”

“Navigator?” the marshal repeated in confusion. “What does that mean?”

“In a moment, in a moment,” D replied with a wave of the hand. “For now, let’s just start at the beginning. Wouldn’t want to go missing any important details, now would we?”

“This is the beginning,” Graves asserted. “You said so yourself, this was where it all started.”

“Yes, but what is it?” the strange man continued with an enthused smile. “If this is the beginning, then what is it that began? What is it that had to start here?”

“The problems. My memory, my... carelessness,” the marshal admitted through gritted teeth. “I wanted to figure out what was going on with my head. But it doesn’t make sense.”

“Oh? And why not?”

“Because that memory, that vision, whatever it was, took place at the Gala. But that was years ago, before I came to Canterlot, before I married Rarity. It was before my entire life changed. If that was the beginning, why would the problems only start now?”

“Why indeed? Why indeed?” D droned on with a lazy smile. “Why would problems start at a completely unrelated date and time? It certainly doesn’t make any sort of sense. After all, it has been as you said, years.”

“... What are you trying to say?” Graves pressed, his eyes boring forward like iron nails. Everything the man was saying had been in agreement, but the way he said it, the way he sounded...

“Tell me about them,” D continued with a broad grin. “What were those years like?”

“Huh?”

“The years you mentioned, the ones between then and now. Surely you must have some fond memories of that period.”

“Fond memories?”

“Of course!” the man cackled. “After all, you’re a marshal. There must have been grand adventures during that time. And your move to Canterlot, that must have been an experience. Buying a house with the woman you love would certainly have been fun. Ooh, ooh! And of course, let’s not forget the wedding! You are married after all. Tell, me, what was it all like?”

Somewhere in his mind, Graves was sure he could hear the blood whining in his ears with the high-pitched shriek of some small creature in pain. He ignored it and instead focused every fiber of his being inward, delving into his mind for answers to those questions.

But he couldn’t remember. He knew they’d happened. They must have. He was a marshal, and fighting was what he did. He must have been all across the world during that time to ensure the safety of those at home, especially Rarity. They had begun a courtship. It had ended with him proposing, and they had been married. All their friends would have been there, and she would have looked amazing in her gown. It all must have been perfect.

He knew these things had to be true, so why for the love of his very sanity, couldn’t he remember a single detail about anything that had happened?

“Aw, what’s the matter?” D asked, the mocking pity in his voice cutting like a knife, “you seem to be having some difficulties.”

“You...” Throwing aside the table, Graves lunged at the man and grabbing him by the lapels of his suit, lifted him straight into the air. “Tell me! What did you do to me?! Why can’t I remember?!”

“I did something to you?” Even choked as he was, the older man didn’t let an ounce of condescension drop out of his voice. “Please, I knew you were thick, but I didn’t think you were downright stupid.”

“A person doesn’t just forget a chunk of his life,” the marshal snapped as he gave the man a rough shake. “I wouldn’t just forget those times, not for the world.”

“Of course not,” D answered with a wheezing laugh. “After all, it’s hard to lose what you never had to begin with.”

Graves froze.

“... What?” he asked, his voice little more than a hoarse, rough whisper.

“You heard me,” the man smirked. “If you lost something that can’t be lost, the only logical conclusion is that you never had it to begin with. If that’s the case, then where does that leave us?”

Suddenly, everything clicked. The sense of wrongness, the haziness, the constant changes, the unquestioning acceptance, the gaps, the questions, everything. It all made sense. It all fell into place.

Graves felt his heart plunge into his stomach.

“... I’m... dreaming?”

D’s smile could have chilled the heart of a volcano.

“Your words,” he chortled. “Not mine.”

"But... that's impossible..." Graves muttered, trying to wrap his head around that one near incomprehensible fact. "How can this be a dream? It's so... so real..."

"To be fair, you are very deeply asleep," the man smirked. "Daresay even catatonic."

“Then this... all this,” the marshal continued, panning his eyes around the courtyard, passed the walls to the gleaming spires of Canterlot, “is just in my head?”

“Convenient, isn’t it?” D laughed as he straightened his suit. Graves hadn’t realized he’d let him go. “Memories just a scene change away, relivable at a moment's whim while an idyllic malaise keeps you content and at ease, never looking too close, never questioning too much. Everything you could ever hope for, everything you could possibly want, all available through the simple act of willing it to be so.”

“But it’s not really there,” the marshal murmured, his mind not quite able to comprehend what was going on. “None of it’s real.”

“Bah, real is such a strong word,” the older man said with a grimace of distaste. “In the end, what is reality anyway? After all, it’s not really so much what’s there as what you perceive it to be that matters, isn’t it?”

“But it isn’t,” Graves said softly. “It doesn’t work, because I know it’s not really there.”

“Yes, yes you do,” D smiled. “But I can fix that.”

“... What?”

Raising a hand, the strange man snapped his fingers and two freestanding doors appeared in the courtyard. Graves could see that there was nothing but open space behind either of them but somehow, he could hear things. Behind the first door, a light blue wooden panel the color of a morning sky, he could hear the faint sounds of revelry, like a party in full swing off in the far distance and muffled by boards. The other, however, a heavy metal slab marred and battered and stained with rust, stood completely silent.

“As I’ve said before, I’m not in charge here,” D chuckled as he idly slid a hand over each frame. “But I can guide you. Just like I took you to a memory even you’d forgotten, I can lead you someplace else.”

“Really,” the marshal asked, his voice dripping with skepticism. “And where would you lead me?”

“Why, wherever you wanted, of course!” the stranger chortled in glee. “You’re a soldier, a straight arrow, an honest-to-a-fault simpleton who thinks he’s got to save the world. If you want to go back to that, to the endless fighting, then take this door.” He gave the metal panel a hearty slap. The cold, distant echo that sounded was quickly swallowed by whatever emptiness lay beyond the impassive, steely slab.

“I see,” Graves nodded. “And what’s the other choice?”

“This?” D intoned as he gently traced a hand over the beautifully simple carvings that decorated the wood. “This is what men strive their whole lives to find, what you yearned for long before you even knew what it was. Happiness.”

“Happiness.” The marshal’s voice was flat and hard. “How can you make me happy?”

“Oh, I wouldn’t be doing it,” D laughed. “You would. Choose this door, and you’ll forget we've ever had this talk and it’s back to the perfect little life you have right now.”

“So I’ll be happy for what, a few days?” Graves snorted. “I’ll just start noticing the same things and it’ll be the same deal all over again.”

“You’d think, that wouldn’t you?” the strange man chuckled. “But fortunately, you’d be wrong. Your mind’s in a state of flux, trying to work out the kinks as it gets everything set up nice and neat, like props and background on stage before the start of a play. But if you let me take you curtain call, to when the performance really begins, you’ll be fully immersed. Everything will get sorted out and never, ever again will you have to know the difference.”

“... You mean,” the marshal began slowly, “that if I choose to stay, I’ll never know that it’s not real? That it's just in my head?”

“Like I said, reality is what you make of it,” D shrugged. “But to answer your question, no. This will be your world. This will be your life.”

Graves looked from the blue, wooden door to the rust-stained slab, then back. Maybe it was his mind playing tricks on him, but he could have sworn the blue was the same shade as the one on their front door. In fact, he could almost swear that it was his front door.

“Come on, it’s not that hard a choice, is it?” D asked, his voice rich and sonorous, like a haze of sweet, dense smoke floating through the air. “A child could tell you what’s right in a heartbeat.”

“I need to go back,” Graves said, though his words came slowly and without any weight. “It’s my job. My duty.”

“Is it?” the voice continued, the words sounding so mysterious yet musical, they hardly seemed words at all. “Is it really? You’ve given your whole life to serving others, and what have you got to show for it? A body full of scars and a head full of bad memories.”

“That’s not the point,” the marshal replied, his voice growing softer as he spoke. “I have to go back. I have to-”

“-Do what?” the strange man interrupted. “Protect the people? There are dozens of marshals to do that. Hundreds of guardsmen. Protect Celestia? You’ve already done that. You completed your final task admirably, and the Princess is now safe.”

“But... I...”

“Nobody could ask any more of you,” the sound continued, now barely a sibilant caress in the back of his mind. “You’ve given more than anyone could expect, more than anyone could ever dream. For once in your life, think about yourself. Be happy.”

Graves took a step towards the blue door. Everything that had been said was true. Ever since he could remember, he’d been fighting. He’d shed tears and he’d shed blood, throwing himself out on the front line to protect those who couldn’t protect themselves. And he’d succeeded. He’d saved countless lives, won countless battles, and even saved the life of Princess Celestia herself. Who could ask for anymore?

“… I could,” he said, so softly yet so suddenly that it took even him by surprise.

“You could?” D asked, eyebrow piqued with curiosity. “You could what?”

“Maybe there are others who could do my job,” the marshal answered, turning away from the wooden frame. “And maybe I have given enough. But as long as there’s work to be done, I don’t get to call it quits.”

“So... you’re not staying?” the young elder asked.

“No," Graves replied with firm, silver eyes, "I’m not.”

D said nothing, instead peering at the marshal through his burning, topaz gaze.

And he smiled.

“... I was really hoping you’d say that,” he laughed. At that instant, the marshal fell to his knees as thousands of burning needles pierced every part of his body.

“D!” Graves gasped as his skull was filled with molten metal. He struggled to keep his eyes on the man despite every instinct to squeeze them shut and howl in pain. “What are you doing?”

“Me? I’m not doing anything,” he said with a look of complete innocence. “You literally have nobody to blame but yourself.”

“What are you talking about?” the marshal demanded, unable to remain upright and falling to his hands. “What’s going on?" The strange man smiled.

“Oh dear, do I really have to explain everything?” he drawled out with a sardonic smile at the soldier's searing agony. “Very well then. It would seem that a part of you still wants to stay. A large part in fact, and it’s doing everything in its power to make sure you don’t leave.”

“What’s it gonna do, torture me until I give up and stay?” Graves snorted through gritted teeth clenched so tightly he thought they might shatter.

“Maybe that’s what it is,” D laughed, a high-pitched, keening sound that seemed equal parts mirth and madness. “But it’s not going to be your body; you’ve trained yourself too well for that. No, it’s going to be something far, far worse.”

And then the pain was gone.

Blinking in surprise, Graves got up to his feet, a bit unsteadily, but managing to straighten up on muscles made of water. The courtyard was empty. Table, doors, D, everything had disappeared as neatly as if they had never been.

“You can still make it out if you want,” a voice softly crooned, seeming to come from everywhere and nowhere at once. “But how easy it will be, I really can’t say.” And with one last, maniacal laugh, the voice too, faded away.

Graves stood alone in the courtyard. There was nothing around save himself and the hedges rustling softly in the breeze. So why was it that despite being alone, every fiber of his body was taut in alert and every hair on end as a monstrous chill surged down his spine?

“I’m not scared,” he called out, his voice harsh with anger and strong with defiance. “You hear me? I can take whatever you throw at me! Come on! Show me what you've got! SHOW ME WHAT YOU'VE GOT!” Graves had no idea who he was screaming at. Perhaps it was D. Perhaps it was himself. Who knows. But whatever it was, whatever it was that the marshal howled and raged against, it answered.

Graves heard it first, coming from behind. Soft steps, so light he almost didn’t hear them. The almost inaudible rustling of fabric, barely whispers as whatever it was his psyche had sent drew steadily closer.

“All right,” he muttered, his eyes as sharp as silver daggers as he spun to face his challenge, “Let’s see what you’ve got up your-”

His body froze. His blood turned to ice.

No, it couldn’t be.

Not this. For the love of light, anything but this.

“Graves? Ah, there you are.”

With a delighted smile on her beautiful face, Rarity glided forth and embraced her husband.

**********

Chapter 8

Chapter 8

“... Rarity?” Graves breathed, his voice a rasping, strangled whisper. “What are you doing here?”

“Why, I’m here to pick you up, of course,” she replied as if it were the most obvious question in the world. “It’s a good thing a couple of the guardsmen saw you earlier, otherwise I’d never have found you.”

The marshal tried to focus. He tried to think. But regardless of his efforts, his mind kept circling back to one consistent thought. Why was she here? Why was she here?

“Darling? Are you feeling alright?” she asked, a frown on her lips as concern spread over her fair face. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

Ghosts he’d seen before. This was far, far worse.

“I knew it,” she continued as concern disappeared in place of miffed consternation. “I told you to get some rest, but you just had to go running about and tiring yourself out even more, didn't you? Honestly, you can be so childish sometimes. Well, no matter,” she sighed. “We’ll just have to get you back home where I can make sure you get into bed and stay there until you’re feeling better.” Reaching out her slender arm, Rarity moved to take Graves by the hand-

-and he drew away.

For a moment, neither said anything. The young lady’s sapphire eyes stared at her husband in complete surprise, her hand frozen in mid air as if unsure of what to do with it. His eyes, however, were focused on that hand, glaring daggers at it as if it were a hissing viper.

“Graves?” she said softly with a gentle smile. “Darling, what’s wrong?”

He'd hurt her. He could see it in her expression, in that wounded, almost shocked flicker in her sapphire gaze. Of course, she tried to hide it, laying soothing tones and loving concern over the tremor in her voice till it was almost hidden, but he could tell. He’d hurt her, and the thought twisted in his heart like a cankerous worm.

But he could not relent.

“I’m not going back,” he replied, his voice harsh and grating as rusted metal on rough hewn granite. It was cruel, but it was the only way he could speak right now. “I’m going. Now. Today.”

“Today?” Rarity asked as she blinked in surprise. “But where to? And why?”

“Does it matter?” he snapped back. “I’m going and that’s all there is to it.”

The violet-haired beauty stared at him, stunned into silence by both his words and uncharacteristic cruelty. And then, in the most absurd of unpredictable twists the marshal could fathom, she laughed.

“Oh my word, Graves,” she grinned through her giggles. “For a second, you really had me worried there.”

Now it was his turn to gape.

“I should have seen this coming,” she sighed, an amused smile curling her lips as she approached. “You've been on the road for so long, you don’t really know how to settle down. Granted, Ponyville was good practice, but if there’s a man who doesn't panic at the prospect of being tied down to one place, I’ll eat that hat of yours.”

Gunmetal grey eyes the size of saucers, he stared at his wife in disbelief. She thought it was a joke? He tried to move away, but darting forward with surprising alacrity, she grabbed onto his hand. Her touch was gentle and soft, but they trapped him more firmly than any manacles of iron ever could.

“Well, I know how to fix that,” Rarity said with a very suggestive wink. “I think that before I put you down for rest, I’ll take some time to remind you of all the perks being at home with a loving wife will bring.”

He told himself this wasn't real. His mind repeated this over and over, as if it were a mantra that could ward off the fog of illusion. But no matter how hard he thought, he could still feel, feel his blood rising, his heart pounding faster and faster till it seemed his chest would explode. He could feel the desire, the longing. He knew it wasn't real, but it was so... so...

“No,” he said, his voice coming out as a desperate plea, a small pull at his arm the only feeble attempt at escape he could muster. “I can’t-”

“But of course you can,” she laughed again, the musical sound that usually brought a smile to his face now driving into his ears like shards of glass. “You certainly proved that admirably on our honeymoon, and I expect you to prove it again today.”

“Rarity, please-”

“Come now, darling, you’re not going to make me beg, are you?” she pouted, looking up at him with those big, shining eyes, delicately biting her lower lip in that adorable look he had never been able to refuse. “I know we’ve both been busy recently, but that’s all the more reason to enjoy it now. Celestia knows it’ll be hard when there are three of us around.”

“I told you, I’m not goin-”

He froze.

No, it couldn't be. There was no way...

He must have misheard. It must be some kind of mistake. For the love of god, please let it have been a mistake.

“... Did you say,” he asked softly, almost unable to bring himself to speak the words, “the...three of us?”

“Oh!” Rarity gave a small start of surprise.

“I’m sorry Graves, this wasn’t exactly how I’d planned on telling you,” the young lady said with an apologetic smile, “but you know how I had a doctor’s appointment this morning? Well, they were doing a routine magical scan and that’s when they told me.”

His wife's warm, radiant smile was more beautiful than he could have ever imagined.

“I’m already three months along. We’re going to have a baby.”

**********

It was a lie. It had to be.

He’d been ravaged by the claws of more wild beasts than he could count. He’d suffered burns from acidic venom strong enough to melt stone that dripped from the fangs of vile monsters. He’d suffered the necrotic touch of a lich, which corrupted and decayed all living things with a blighted curse. He'd been through terrible ordeals, had pain inflicted on his mind and body beyond what most men could even imagine.

But this? This was agony incarnate.

“We’re... having a baby?” he asked, the words coming out as hardly more than a breath.

“Uh huh,” Rarity beamed, that special, joyous glow shining brighter than ever. “It’s a little bit early on to be sure, but the doctor was fairly certain that it’s going to be a little girl. Now, I know it’s not fair, since I heard it first, but I couldn’t help myself and already started thinking of names just in case. Of course, I want you to like it too, but I really, really do like the name Melody. What do you think?”

“Melody.” He repeated it gently. It was a beautiful name. Of course it’d be. It’d be the name of their daughter after all. Their baby girl.

Graves didn’t even notice the tear rolling down the side of his face.

“Oh don’t you start, or else you’ll have me doing it,” his beloved wife laughed through misty, sapphire eyes. “After all, I doubt our daughter would like to learn that the first thing her daddy did on hearing about her was cry, would she? Now come on,” she continued, pulling out a silk handkerchief from her purse and raising it to his eyes, “let’s dry those eyes of-”

Graves caught Rarity’s wrist. It was a light touch, almost delicate, but the silk never reached his face.

“I’m sorry,” he said, his voice surprisingly calm, still as a frozen lake at sunrise. “I can't do this. Even if it isn’t real, it's just... it's too much.”

“... I beg your pardon?” his wife said, still smiling, but hesitant, as if unsure whether it was a joke and whether laughter was required. “What exactly do you mean?”

“I mean,” he continued, his eyes the soft grey of overcast clouds, “this city. This life. Our time together. You. None of it’s real.”

“Wha- Why of course it is!” she sputtered, a sheen of nervousness appearing at his unexpected and highly disturbing words. “What do mean, it’s not real? I’m standing right here in front of you! How can you say I’m not real?”

Graves had no idea what his expression looked like, but for Rarity to grow so pale, to visibly shiver as if being assailed by an icy wind, it must have been dreadful as he gently pulled away and turned his back on her. The doors were gone. How was he going to get out?

“Graves, this isn’t funny anymore,” his beloved wife called, the tremble audible in her voice. “Can you just talk to me? Please dear, just tell me what’s wrong.”

“I’m dreaming,” he said, his voice as still and tranquil as a winter eve. “I just have to wake up. But how? How do I wake up? How...?”

A surprisingly hard yank spun him around.

“Now you listen here,” Rarity demanded, eyes flashing dangerously as her hands shot up to hold his head still. “What part of me is a dream? What part of me isn’t real?” Her palms were soft and cool to the touch, but they held him firmly, forcing his gunmetal grey eyes to stare deeply into her sapphire blues. Even now, he marveled at those eyes, how they seemed like bottomless pools of water he could dive into forever.

“This is real,” she said, her voice growing hoarse with a multitude of raw emotions. “Our life is real. What we had, what we have, it’s all real.”

“Rarity-”

“Remember when we were first courting?” Rarity pressed on. “You got so flustered at dinner that you tried to order foi gras and ended up saying foul gas.” Her laughter was harsh, but real, and she continued with sincerity and truth ringing in every word. “How about when we came to watch Sweetie Belle’s first recital after she'd spent a whole summer training under the one and only Bel Canto? I was so proud of her, I broke out into tears and you had to walk me out of the hall. Or what about that night on the Serenity, when you proposed? You said that I was your sun, my smile your moon and my laughter your starry skies. Those were real. Don’t you remember?”

He did remember. Like a fog lifting, he could recall each and every one of those memories like it was yesterday: the nervousness of their first date, the crystal clear notes of his soon-to-be little sister’s singing, the surging adrenaline and unfathomable joy when he’d shown her the ring... he remembered it all. It was all so vivid, so lifelike.

And she, his beloved Rarity, was staring up at him, fighting back fear with sheer determination to not let him go, to fight off what she believed must be some kind of creeping madness. Those eyes of hers, filled with tears, yet shining so strongly with a pure and unbreakable love. How could it be a dream?

“... My team,” he said, the words coming as a surprise as they burst forth before thought. “Our last mission together. How did they die?”

“What?” Rarity blinked, her determination wavering in light of the unexpected question. “What do you mean?”

“How did my team die?” he repeated, his words as cold and unyielding as the barrel of a gun. “If I did love you, if I truly was willing to share my life with you, I would have told you. How did they die?”

This was it, his last card. His instinct told him the world was fake, but his senses said otherwise. He’d reached a point where he could no longer separate fact from fiction, no longer tell truth from lies. Or maybe he could. Maybe it was just he no longer wanted to.

However, there was one last memory, one final secret he had tucked in the recesses of his mind in a dark corner where even dreams couldn’t tread. If this were real, if they were truly sharing a life as it seemed, he would have told her. This was the one thing he truly knew.

“I... I... ” she gulped, trying to clear the lump in her throat, "... I don't know."

“... I see.”

He looked down to his hand where his fingers were wrapped around a heavy, iron dagger, marred and battered and stained with rust. D was right: it wouldn't be easy.

Looking up one last time, Graves met his wife’s pleading, fearful stare, and smiled.

“I loved you, Rarity,” he whispered. “I loved you. With all I my heart.”

Her screams were the last thing he heard as he plunged the dagger into his chest and sank into darkness.

*****

“... Ma’am, if you’d take a look at these charts-”

“I told you to stop bothering me with those.”

“But ma’am...”

He heard the words but knew not where they came from. Everything was black. Everything was dark.

“Nurse Hackit, please control yourself. The bolt he took was filled with enough Heart’s Desire extract to put Princess Celestia into a coma. The fact that he’s even alive is a miracle in itself. Anything beyond that would simply be a medical impossibility.”

He heard the words, but didn't understand. What was going on? Who were they talking about? Somehow, he could feel himself slowly rising, as if floating up from the abyssal depths of an ocean trench. He rose higher and higher, the darkness somehow seeming to grow thinner as he rose...

Graves slowly opened his eyes. He saw white.

The white coalesced into a series of tiles, slightly blurred by a field of translucent, magical energy before it. Turning his head was an ordeal in itself, but he managed to do so and caught sight of a vast array of machines and monitors, data gathering cords only part of the mix as a multitude of tubes pumped a veritable cocktail of fluids to the same location. Beyond that, a pair stood off to the side, a stern older lady with hair tied in a tight bun and a younger, mousy looking man with a clipboard. Both wore white coats.

“See, that’s just it,” the mousy man continued as he referenced a machine. “He’s supposed to be completely out, but his brain’s showing signs of activity. Unusually high... Huh. That’s odd.”

“What is it now?” the lady sighed.

“Well doctor, I’m not exactly sure, but according to this, his brain is activating at conscious levels. But like you said, it’s... impossible...”

Two pairs of eyes turned to look at him and met his tired and dazed, but very much awake, grey eyes. The clipboard fell to the floor.

“My... my goodness!” the doctor gasped, pressing a hand to her heart in shock. “You... you’re awake!”

“So it would seem,” he replied, his voice grating like a rusty, iron gate creaking over decrepit hinges. “Where am I?”

“You’re... in the medical wing at St. Stethoscope’s Hospital in Canterlot,” the doctor replied breathlessly. Graves blinked slowly. Ah. A hospital. That would explain things.

“How long was I out?” he rasped, eyeing the multitude of monitors and fluids that he now realized were hooked to him.

“Four days,” the doctor nodded. “We thought it must have been a lost cause, what with so much toxin in your blood and you so far gone that not even Princess Luna could reach you, but the General was insistent that we-” she gasped, hand springing to her mouth. “The general! He’ll want to know! Hackit!” she called to the mousy man as she dashed for the door. “I’m going to get General Ironside. Don’t touch anything!”

“Yes ma’am!” he squeaked just before she dashed through the door.

“... What was she talking about?” the marshal croaked out. “What did she mean toxins?”

“Oh, yes,” the nurse began with a nervous bob. “Well, you see, you were struck with a crossbow bolt that was loaded with - among other things but still predominantly - a concentrated extract of Heart’s Desire, a compound with psychotropic effects as well as magical properties. In small quantities, it can increase energy and motivation. In high doses however, it’s a highly dangerous poison that can put a person into an irreversible, dreamlike coma.”

“How much was in me then?” Graves asked, difficultly considering his tongue felt like swollen sandpaper.

“Well, frankly sir,” the nurse replied nervously, “The fact that you’re alive, much less conscious... it’s a complete and utter mystery.”

“... Huh. Well I'll be.”

For a moment, the soft beeping of the monitors was all that broke the silence.

“Um, sir?” the nurse began hesitantly, “I was wondering, if I may...”

“Hmm?”

“Well, it’s just that... Heart’s Desire has psychotropic effects, as I mentioned earlier, namely in that it stimulates the part of the brain responsible for positive emotions. Larger doses are more dangerous, but these effects are also amplified.”

“So?”

“Well, sir,” Hackit continued. “You were in a coma, but the part of your brain responsible for dreaming was still active. With so much Heart’s Desire in your system, I was just curious... did you have some really nice dreams?”

Graves furrowed his brow as he thought. Dreams? Had he been dreaming? It was kind of hard to say; he was having a hard time remembering. He was fairly sure he’d dreaming about something, something important. What was it? What had he been dreaming about?

And then the memories came back, each and every detail from each and every moment.

He remembered Rarity.

He remembered Melody.

He remembered it all.

“... No,” Graves replied, his voice a hoarse whisper as he turned to hide his slowly dampening pillow. “No I didn't.”

**********

Epilogue

Epilogue

Rarity had butterflies in her stomach. The good kinds, mind you. The very good kinds. Though it had only been a week since the Gala night, what with all the madness and mayhem that had occurred since, it had felt more like a lifetime. Nevertheless, some memories burn brightly even after a lifetime, sparking smiles and churning insides whenever they’re recalled.

She’d kissed him. The thought brought a flush to her cheeks - a potent mix of both pleasure and embarrassment - and quickened her step as she raced down the halls of the royal palace. How could she have been so forward, so bold? Why, it was simply unladylike. Not that she regretted it, mind you, but still.

Face burning like the sun, the young lady had immediately run off before the marshal could blink; not one of her more graceful exits, to be sure. Rarity knew that she wanted to, daresay even needed to talk more with Graves. After all, a man like him would probably chalk it up to a whim of circumstance, a byproduct of adrenaline and excitement. Of course, her intent was much more serious than that, but the intoxicating giddiness of the moment had made explaining it quite impossible. Thus, she ran, fully intent on returning once the tornado in her stomach had died down and the smile on her lips wasn't quite so uncontrollable any more. The chance, however, had never come.

Just hours later, a pair of guardsmen had brought her and her friends to Princess Celestia where they heard the news: Graves had been hurt, and even with the best doctors in Canterlot, the Princess wasn’t sure whether he would last the night.

She hadn’t heard much after that point, but she then again, with that bit of news, what more was there to say?

Dawn came. The marshal still lived, but it was tenuous at best. For the next four days, the situation remained unchanged: Graves still held on by a hair’s breadth as his friends waited. Rarity waited.

Then, on the dawn of the fifth day, Graves had awoke. It was being called astonishing, astounding, amazing, and even absurd, but the fact remained that the grey-eyed soldier had miraculously pulled through. Fluttershy cried, Pinkie Pie partied, and Rainbow Dash set off so many sonic rainbooms, the structural integrity of the ballroom repairs had been compromised. The effect on Rarity had been much more subtle, but just as, if not more intense. The icy claw that had constricted her heart melted away. For the first time in days, she could breathe again.

Nobody had been able to go and visit, not even Twilight despite her begging of the Princess or her pleading with her brother. Graves was to undergo forty-eight hours of constant surveillance to make sure he was actually in as good of health as he appeared, rather understandable considering he had done the medical equivalent of coming back from four days of being as good as stone-cold dead. If he passed the examination, then they could visit.

Which brought us to now as Rarity practically flew down the halls of the East Wing towards the marshal's quarters. At another time, she might have wondered why Twilight had been so adamant about letting her go on her own first and actually bodily blocked Pinkie Pie from joining her. Another time, because her heart was pounding louder and louder with each step that she took as her thoughts whirled away like typhoon winds.

How should she greet him? What would she say? Oh hey there, glad to see you’re not dead? Should she bring up the Gala? How would he react? Would he even remember? She could hardly blame him if he’d forgotten in light of his near death experiences. She hoped he wouldn't, but you never knew...

With a start, the young lady found herself in front of door twenty six, the room where Graves was staying. If her heart had been racing before, it was going at a full-blown Wonderbolts speed run pace by now. Taking a deep breath, she raised her hand to knock-

-and paused as she heard voices coming through the door.

“You sure this is what you want?” The booming voice was gruff and unfamiliar; it didn’t seem too pleased. “I know the Princess said you could make any request, but-”

“I told you, I’m sure.” That was Graves, his rough, baritone rumble as strong and solid as ever. “Is there anything else?”

“Plenty,” the first voice spoke again, the displeasure in its tone now obvious as it petered out into a sigh. “But I can’t stop you. Celestia knows I wish I could, but I can’t, so... take care.”

The door swung open and a massive man with slate grey hair and beard stepped out. He looked down at Rarity, who could only stare back in wide-eyed amazement at meeting such a humongous person.

“You here to see Graves?” he asked. She nodded mutely. Who was this man? And what had they been talking about?

Whoever he was, he didn’t answer. He simply nodded slowly and held the door open for the young lady to enter.

*****

The room was small, with just enough space for a chest of drawers, washstand, and a narrow bed. It was to the last that Rarity’s eyes flew, because sitting on it, chin resting on folded hands, was her grey-eyed marshal. She smiled, a big, uncontrollable smile that was probably more an ear-to-ear grin than anything else.

“Hi.”

Inwardly, she kicked herself. Hard. Really, that was the best she could come up with? Hi?

Graves looked up, his eyes flat and impassive like a pair of river smoothed stones.

“Oh, it’s you,” he said, his voice as expressionless as his eyes. Rarity blinked.

“Why, yes it is,” she continued, his response taking her a bit by surprise. “I see you’ve made quite the recovery. I’m glad.”

“I see.”

Silence ensued. There had been silences between them before and considering how pithy the marshal could be with his words at times, it was certainly nothing new. But something about this one, the way it hung in the air like a dense cloud of acrid smoke, was decidedly different. It felt wrong.

“So, why are you here?” Graves asked, pushing up to his feet as he moved to the dresser and opened it. “Do you have business with me?”

“Business?” Rarity repeated in shock at the coolness in his voice. “Why would I need business to come to see you? I was worried sick about you.”

“Shouldn’t have been,” he stated flatly as he filled his bag with what few belongings he had. “S'you can seen, I'm fine. Anything else?”

The young lady could only stare. This wasn’t right. This wasn’t how things were supposed to go at all.

“Graves, what’s wrong?” she asked, concern lacing every word. “You’re behaving very oddly. Are you sure you’re feeling well?”

“I feel fine,” he replied, now not even looking at her as he shouldered up his bag and spell gun. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go.”

“Go?” Rarity repeated yet again, simply unable to comprehend the marshal’s drastic change in behavior. “But surely you can rest a little longer, can’t you? It’s not like Ponyville is under attack or anythin-”

“I’m not going back to Ponyville.”

His words were quiet, but compared to the deafening silence that followed, he may as well have shouted. Rarity started, her sapphire eyes the size of saucers. Graves stared back, his gunmetal greys cold, hard, and unblinking.

“You’re... not going back?” she gaped. “But why?”

“Have a new assignment,” he flatly stated as he moved for the door. “Note on the dresser there's for everyone I don't see. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to-”

The marshal moved, but found his path was now blocked by the violet-haired girl. If she was still in shock, she hid it well, because from the way her eyes flashed like blue fire, it was clear the foremost thoughts in her mind were of a very heated, and very displeased nature.

“Alright mister, out with it,” she said, her voice as incensed as her look. “What is going on? I know you've had a very trying week here, what with nearly dying and all, but that is still no excuse for your simply appalling behavior.” Graves tried to step around but Rarity held fast, even going so far as to extend her arms to block the door; she was not finished with him yet and he wasn't going anywhere till she was done.

“Is it this new assignment?” she pressed on. “Are you upset that you have to leave? If you are, I’m sure Twilight could speak to the Princess and get you moved back-”

“Why would I be upset?” Graves asked, his voice calm yet as sharper than any sword. “I asked for it.”

Rarity openly stared, completely and utterly dumbfounded.

“You... you requested it?” The disbelief in her voice rang loud and clear. “Why on earth would you request to leave? I thought you liked it in Ponyville.”

“I did,” he nodded. “And now it's time to move on, so if you’ll excuse me...” He moved for the door again, but Rarity stopped him once more, hands gripping the stone frame as if her life depended on it. As if his life depended on it.

“So that’s it?” she asked, her voice still firm, but growing weaker as tendrils of worry ate through her determination. “After all this time, you’re just going to up and leave without so much as a goodbye?”

“That’s how it’s always been,” he said, his eyes as cold and barren as a frozen tundra. “You knew I’d leave eventually, so don’t act all surprised now.” The young lady flinched at the words, so harsh and cruel, they could have been used in place of a scourge. But she couldn’t give up, not like this.

“Yes, I did know,” she acquiesced, the admittance burning bitter on her tongue as she pushed forward. “I also know that things have changed. You have friends now, people who care about you and who you care about in return. You’re not that cold, distant person you used to be. You’re different. Or at least,” she trailed off slowly, “I thought you were.”

The marshal looked down at her, his face expressionless and emotionless, as if stone and steel had replaced flesh and bone.

“Well then,” he said, his voice a rough, gravelly rumble. “Guess you don’t know me that well after all.” Reaching out, he took hold of Rarity’s wrist. She flinched upon contact, but the touch was surprisingly gentle. Moving her arm aside, Graves walked by, no longer even looking at her as he stepped into the hall and turned to go.

Rarity froze, her mind and body grinding to a complete halt. This wasn't happening. This wasn't how it was supposed to be! Spinning around quickly, almost violently, the violet-haired beauty dashed into the hall, her thoughts scrambling for something, anything she could do to stem this inevitable tide.

“Graves!” she called out, the keening edge of desperation cutting harshly through the air. “That night at the Gala, in the tower... Didn't that mean something to you? Didn't you feel... anything?” Her breath caught in her throat. This was her last card. Her final play. Would it work? Would the marshal respond?

The footsteps halted. For a moment, he stood there, his shoulders sagging under a weight that would have made mountains seemed a feather. Slowly, he raised a hand and gave a single wave.

“Have a good life... Miss Rarity.”

Without turning, without stopping, the iron-eyed soldier pulled down his hat and simply… walked away.

**********

To Be Continued...

The Journey of Graves will continue in the ninth story: A Long, Winding Road

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    Comedy
    Slice of Life

    7 Chapters, 14,433 words: Estimated 58 Minutes to read: Cached
    Published Mar 26th, 2012
    Last Update Apr 7th, 2012
  5. Untangling the Knot

    by GentlemanJ
    21 Dislikes, 11,926 Views

    The fifth story in The Journey of Graves. A week has passed since the ill-fated events in Rarity's boutique. The encounter has left a deep impression on Graves as he grows colder and more distant than ever before. Rarity, feeling responsible, wants

    Teen
    Complete
    Adventure
    Romance
    Comedy
    Slice of Life
    Sad

    11 Chapters, 21,467 words: Estimated 1 Hour, 26 Minutes to read: Cached
    Published Apr 14th, 2012
    Last Update May 6th, 2012
  6. Lazy Summer Days

    by GentlemanJ
    18 Dislikes, 10,927 Views

    Life's not just for adventures. Sometimes, the best stories happen on lazy summer days.

    Teen
    Complete
    Comedy
    Slice of Life

    8 Chapters, 19,106 words: Estimated 1 Hour, 17 Minutes to read: Cached
    Published Jun 9th, 2012
    Last Update Jul 18th, 2012
  7. Return to the Gala

    by GentlemanJ
    23 Dislikes, 12,840 Views

    We can all remember how the "best night ever" turned out. Well, looks like it's time for

    Teen
    Complete
    Romance
    Random
    Comedy
    Slice of Life

    12 Chapters, 38,713 words: Estimated 2 Hours, 35 Minutes to read: Cached
    Published Jul 24th, 2012
    Last Update Oct 20th, 2012
  8. Happily Ever After

    by GentlemanJ
    25 Dislikes, 11,129 Views

    One day, even the hardest of soldiers hangs up his gun to find a chance at happiness.

    Teen
    Complete
    Romance
    Slice of Life

    9 Chapters, 23,040 words: Estimated 1 Hour, 33 Minutes to read: Cached
    Published Oct 27th, 2012
    Last Update Dec 16th, 2012
  9. A Long, Winding Road

    by GentlemanJ
    24 Dislikes, 7,467 Views

    The marshal's gone, cutting all ties and making clear his intent never to return. Why? What compels the grey eyed soldier to leave? To find the truth, Rarity and the girls start down a long, winding road that will hopefully bring him back. Hopef

    Teen
    Complete
    Adventure
    Romance

    16 Chapters, 60,772 words: Estimated 4 Hours, 4 Minutes to read: Cached
    Published Mar 2nd, 2013
    Last Update Jun 9th, 2013
  10. There's a Reason They Call it a Crush

    by GentlemanJ
    22 Dislikes, 7,076 Views

    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?

    Teen
    Complete
    Comedy
    Slice of Life

    3 Chapters, 9,720 words: Estimated 39 Minutes to read: Cached
    Published Jul 21st, 2013
    Last Update Aug 5th, 2013
  11. Dating is Hard

    by GentlemanJ
    17 Dislikes, 5,612 Views

    A short story in the Journey of Graves. Join our favorite grey eyed soldier as he navigates the new and treacherous minefield known as dating.

    Teen
    Complete
    Romance
    Comedy
    Slice of Life

    3 Chapters, 6,744 words: Estimated 27 Minutes to read: Cached
    Published Aug 22nd, 2013
  12. Nightmare Night 2: Halloweening Harder

    by GentlemanJ
    15 Dislikes, 6,281 Views

    Nightmare Night is back once more, which means a night chock full of hilarity, hi-jinks, and near apocalyptic obliteration. Need I say more?

    Teen
    Complete
    Comedy
    Slice of Life

    1 Chapter, 3,201 words: Estimated 13 Minutes to read: Cached
    Published Sep 14th, 2013
  13. Casino Battle Royale

    by GentlemanJ
    13 Dislikes, 6,251 Views

    In which a night of glitz and glamour becomes a bit more interesting for a couple of Equestria's finest.

    Teen
    Complete
    Adventure
    Romance
    Comedy

    1 Chapter, 4,459 words: Estimated 18 Minutes to read: Cached
    Published Oct 6th, 2013
  14. The Ugly Side of Right

    by GentlemanJ
    13 Dislikes, 3,771 Views

    Though the world sees the Equestrian Royal marshals as a band of heroes, Graves goes on a new mission that shows just how ugly doing right can be.

    Mature
    Complete
    Adventure
    Dark

    1 Chapter, 7,648 words: Estimated 31 Minutes to read: Cached
    Published Nov 3rd, 2013
  15. Be a Man

    by GentlemanJ
    24 Dislikes, 6,789 Views

    With his crush on Rarity going the way of the dodo, Spike begins to wonder just what it means to be a man.

    Teen
    Complete
    Romance
    Comedy
    Slice of Life

    1 Chapter, 5,140 words: Estimated 21 Minutes to read: Cached
    Published Dec 1st, 2013
  16. Delivery Directive: Do NOT Be Late

    by GentlemanJ
    7 Dislikes, 7,005 Views

    Marshal Graves has simple orders: take the package and deliver it on time. Of course, simple orders never mean a simple time.

    Teen
    Complete
    Adventure

    1 Chapter, 6,755 words: Estimated 28 Minutes to read: Cached
    Published Dec 24th, 2013
  17. Winter Wonders, Winter Worries

    by GentlemanJ
    16 Dislikes, 5,160 Views

    Winter's a wonderful time full of fun and festive frolicking. Just be sure not to catch the sniffles.

    Teen
    Complete
    Romance
    Comedy
    Slice of Life

    1 Chapter, 2,901 words: Estimated 12 Minutes to read: Cached
    Published Jan 19th, 2014
  18. Marshals: The Next Generation

    by GentlemanJ
    13 Dislikes, 5,234 Views

    Four of Equestria's finest military cadets seek entry into the elite branch of the marshal. However, in order to qualify, they have to pass the test of none other than Gunmetal Graves himself.

    Teen
    Complete
    Adventure
    Comedy

    4 Chapters, 12,221 words: Estimated 49 Minutes to read: Cached
    Published Feb 23rd, 2014
    Last Update Mar 16th, 2014
  19. Marshmallows and Cotton Candy

    by GentlemanJ
    15 Dislikes, 5,005 Views

    A collection of fluffy tales around Graves and the best sisters in Ponyville. We start with Sweetie Belle doing business. Serious business.

    Everyone
    Complete
    Romance
    Comedy
    Slice of Life

    6 Chapters, 12,102 words: Estimated 49 Minutes to read: Cached
    Published Apr 13th, 2014
    Last Update Jun 15th, 2014
  20. Old Flames and New Sparks

    by GentlemanJ
    15 Dislikes, 4,071 Views

    When a piece of the marshal's colorful past comes back to town, Rarity starts to wonder whether some things just weren't meant to be.

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