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A Long, Winding Road

by GentlemanJ

First published

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

The ninth story in The Journey of Graves.

Graves is gone, departed for parts unknown without so much as a backwards glance. A quick farewell and a cold goodbye is all the marshal left before severing every tie he ever had to Ponyville, including those with Rarity.

Why? He's a soldier and it was obvious he'd one day have to leave. But the way he left, so abruptly, even callously... it just doesn't seem right. Could it be that there's something more to his departure than meets the eye? Or are thoughts like that merely fancy and wishful thinking? To find the truth, Rarity and the girls start down a long, winding road that will hopefully bring the grey eyed soldier back. Hopefully.

Chapter 1

This is the ninth story in The Journey of Graves.

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

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

And so, the saga continues...

A Long, Winding Road

By: GentlemanJ

Chapter 1

Morning dawned on another beautiful day in the Equestrian capital of Canterlot. The sun gleamed bright and golden, the sky sparkled a brilliant, baby blue, and a cool gust of wind rustled through the gardens around the palace, carrying with them the sweet scent of hydrangeas, hyacinths, hibiscus, and all other manners of fragrant foliage.

Twilight Sparkle noticed none of these. Seated back at her old desk in her old room at the palace, the young scholar paid the perfumed breeze no mind as she pored over a stack of papers yet again. The hour was early, but her furrowed brow and slowly grinding teeth indicated she’d been awake long enough for her frustration to fully blossom.

She simply could not comprehend it. Where had everything gone wrong?

Sighing in weary resignation, the young scholar straightened the documents and settled down to review her meticulously rendered notes once more, flipping back to the first page of events and recollections she’s compiled over the past two chaos-accursed weeks.

Day Zero: the Evening of the Gala

The riot in the grand hall had separated the Ponyville party with a sea of frantic finery and fire. Fortunately, the girls had already planned for such contingencies – a necessity considering their historic record with Canterlot social events – and rallied one of the lesser used courtyards as a rendezvous.

Twilight had been the first to arrive, followed by a somewhat scorched Applejack and slightly singed Fluttershy, who were joined soon after by Pinkie Pie and Rainbow Dash. For the record, Rainbow Dash had arrived on Pinkie Pie’s back, apparently inebriated to the point of having difficulty walking straight, or so the curly-haired pastier reported. Considering the way the multicolored flyer continued bellowing army house drinking songs into the night sky, Twilight was willing to give that statement the benefit of the doubt.

As the five waited, it soon became clear that Rarity had somehow been detained. Approximately fifteen minutes had passed before Fluttershy suggested looking for her. Applejack had voted for giving her a little more time, and the rest concurred.

Finally, after some five or ten minutes more, the violet-haired dressmaker rushed in to join them. Right from the offset, it was clear something remarkable had happened. Their friend, usually so composed and refined, was giggling like a school girl and flushed a shade to shame Pinkie Pie’s dress. It took a while, what with catching her breath and all, but finally, the fashionista was able to report the most remarkably delicious piece of news.

She had kissed Graves.

It’d taken a while more, what with the catcalls, whoops, and drunkenly bawdy suggestions provided by her friends, but the violet-haired beauty eventually managed to convey the series of events that had lead up to that magical moment. Hugs had been given, tears had been shed, and it seemed like for certain, this evening would be remembered as the best night ever in one young woman’s life.

But fate can be unkind, and tonight, it was downright cruel. In an instant, that euphoric happiness was shattered like fine-spun glass as two grim-faced soldiers entered the courtyard and relayed their simple, terrible message: Graves had been hurt. Badly.

With speed that defied reason, the girls had bolted for the castle’s medical ward, but were stopped from actually entering by a pair of visibly anxious doctors, never a good sign. The girls pounded them with questions, desperate to know what had happened to their friend, but the doctors hardly knew more than they. The marshal had been seriously injured and his condition had rapidly deteriorated, but the cause at this time was still unknown. As it stood, even the most advanced medical treatment available could only keep a tenuous tether between his life and body.

With such dire circumstances, the girls would simply have no choice but to wait.

Day One through Day Four: Limbo

Wait they did. For the next four days, they waited.

Never before had any of them felt such… such helplessness. Sure, all of them had come across their share of adversities, but in each case, they had been able to dig deep, find a solution, and overcome. They were used to doing, to acting. But now? There was nothing to do save let the slow crawl of time bring them an answer.

Time seemed to come undone as seconds dragged into minutes and minutes into hours. A day had passed, and then another as the girls grew increasingly weary with each tick of the clock. Nerves had frayed, tempers had flared, and Twilight found herself breaking up irritable confrontations between Rainbow Dash and Applejack with increasing regularity. But in the end, these too had faded away in light of an increasingly serious worry.

Though each of them was worried for their friend, the one hit the worst by far was of course, Rarity. To lose a friend is one thing. To lose that person you hold dear and special is something else. To lose that person mere moments after you discover they feel the same way for you, to go from the highest of heights straight into an ordeal like this? That was just unfathomable. The longer they waited, the paler and frailer Rarity seemed to grow. By the fourth day, Twilight almost wished her friend would go back to the screaming, hysterical rage she’d shown that first night. Anything, even weeping and frantic crying must be an improvement to this mute, wasting silence. As it stood, it wouldn't be long before the weight of worry snapped the gossamer strand holding young lady together and sent her plunging into true despair.

Then, just as it seemed like they could bear no more, a runner had quite literally tumbled through the door with news as welcome as rain to a drought-blighted land: Graves had awoken. He was going to pull through.

Once more, the ladies had dashed towards the hospital and once more, had been stopped by a gauntlet of doctors. True, he was recovered, they’d said, but he was still in critical condition and very weak. The idea of the stalwart soldier infirmed and emaciated had struck them all as rather comical, but the doctors insisted he required rest and had quickly shooed them away.

They’d left a bit disappointed, but that was a single rotten apple in a thriving orchard. The nightmare was over with. Soon, Graves would be back on his feet, they’d all head back to Ponyville together, and Rarity could begin a new, wonderful stage of her life with the grey-eyed marshal.

Everything was going to be just fine.

Day Five to Day Six: Oncoming Celebration

Considering the miraculous nature of the marshal’s recovery, the doctors could prescribe no treatment beyond forty-eight hours of bed rest and observation. If at the end of this time Graves was still hale and hearty, he would be free to go. Or, almost.

Though the events of that night were sensational enough to grace every tabloid and every harlequin novel for the next decade, it wouldn't do the public moral much good to know that their beloved monarch had almost departed this world at the hands of undetectable assassins. As such, the Equestrian Armed Forces – in their typically discrete manner – cleared up all signs and evidence of the event. Blast marks were scrubbed away, demolished architecture and foliage repaired, and any shred of proof that the struggle had taken place summarily vanished into the ether. No parades would ever be held in honor of those two valiant men, no songs sung. This was one event that, however great it was, would be condemned to the secret annals of history.

But even the secret histories are recorded somewhere. It was Luna who suggested it first, if only because she’d beaten her sister and the general by a whisker, but there was unanimous consent that these brave acts be given the recognition they deserve. It would never be public, but that didn't mean they couldn’t have a small, private affair to commemorate gallantry, right?

And so, the next couple of days passed rather slowly as well, but for a very different reason. Instead of a dreadful malaise slowing time to a crawl, these days were full of anticipation. Like children on Hearth’s Warming Eve, all aglow with thoughts of holiday gifts, the Ponyville girls were nearly beside themselves with excitement as the wonderful day, the day when they'd finally be able to see their friend once more, steadily approached.

Day Seven: Grand Entrance

The seventh day dawned and the girls, welcomed as honored guests into Celestia’s personal audience chamber, got their first real glimpse of the marshal from what seemed like an eternity ago. His eyes were shadowed and his face was hard, but nothing could diminish the joy of seeing him striding forth, strong and confident once more. Clad in a pristine while uniform alongside the azure-haired captain, each was presented the Equestrian Star of Gallantry by the Royal Sisters, awards they received to the strong applause of the gathered military elite as well as the decidedly more raucous catcalling of the Ponyville troupe.

They had been unable to approach, as the two had instantly been swallowed by stern-faced elders who wished to regale the youngsters with tales of their own past exploits as much as to congratulate them. But it wasn’t long before Graves bade the crowds farewell and made a hasty retreat, his claims of exhaustion and needing to rest eliciting knowing smiles from each of the Ponyville girls. Of course, Shining Armor wasn’t one to let him get away so easily, and with a few whispered orders, some of the guardsman quietly ushered the girls aside and down a side corridor so they could finally get a chance to greet their friend.

Six of them went into the hall, but only one went ahead. It’d taken all of half a second for them to conclude that Rarity should have the chance for a bit of privacy. The young lady had feigned protests at first, not wanting to monopolize the marshal’s time, but her uncontrollable grin and glowing flush quickly betrayed her intent. So it was with a skip in her step and a hum in her throat that Rarity went to meet the grey-eyed soldier.

Day Seven: Calamity

Nearly half an hour passed before the remaining Ponyville girls decided they’d given the two lovebirds enough time alone. Snickering and chortling as quietly as they could, the five crept down the hall and towards the marshal’s quarters as more than one guardsman eyed them with the utmost perplexity. Outside the door, they’d spared a few final moments to stifle their mischievous laughter before bursting in–

–to find Rarity quietly sitting on the bed of an empty room.

Confusion. They’d been told Graves would be here. Rarity should have been right next to him. But he wasn’t there. Why? When they’d asked Rarity, she’d given no reply. She’d simply stared at them, her large, sapphire eyes oddly cloudy, as if she were dazed or dreaming. Odd.

It was Applejack who’d found the note, a small square of folded paper sitting on the dresser. Crowding around, the freckled farm girl unfolded it and read the contents aloud.

Going away on a mission. Won’t return to Ponyville. Forward my things to Canterlot; someone will deal with it soon.

Graves.

That was it.

The confusion had only increased. They’d looked at each other. They’d read the note over once more. They’d asked Rarity what was going on. But through all their pondering and all their questions, they really only ever found one answer.

Graves was gone.

Day Seven to Day Nine: Dispersal

They’d thought it a mistake at first, some kind of cruel prank as a result of his recent trauma. But Rarity, still in her catatonic state, had confirmed it as true. Softly enough to make Fluttershy seem a riotous loudmouth, she’d told them everything that had happened. In a voice that seemed as devoid of life as a graveyard, she told them everything, every word he’d said, every gestured he’d made, everything he’d done to completely sever any ties that might connect them.

The day had ended quietly after that. The girls dispersed, each going back to her own room and silently settled in. At times like these, it seems best to gather together and take solace in comfort of friendship and companionship with one others. But this sort of abrupt exit, this sort of cold… betrayal has a tendency to poison those feelings and make one doubt those bonds even existed. And so the girls had separated, each to the privacy of her own room and the privacy of her own thoughts.

When Twilight awoke the next morning, Rainbow Dash was gone. A note said she’d caught the first train out of Canterlot and that she was heading back to Ponyville. After lunch, Applejack had departed as well, softly drawling that she’d been gone far too long and the farm would need her back. Fluttershy and Pinkie Pie had departed the day after. Kind hearted as they were, they’d wanted to stay and find some way to bring the marshal back. But word had come that Graves had shipped out long before to destinations few could confirm. And so, one nearly in tears and one with curls hanging in dull, limp strands, they too boarded the train and left.

Of Rarity, there was no sign.

Day Ten: Present

Twilight leaned back in her chair and sighed. The day was young, but she could already feel a headache coming on. Massaging her temples, she let out a groan of frustration at the tangled mass of an unsolved equation before her.

Why had he left? Okay, she could understand if he was called away on work. Despite the incredibly low odds of it occurring considering he was only a week removed from kicking the bucket, she could see it happening. She could even see him going so far as to volunteer for it, a little excursion to get the blood pumping, or something along those lines.

What she couldn’t see was why he’d abandoned them. Though it pained her to, she used the word abandoned with the utmost of intent, as it was the most accurate description of his actions. Graves had not only decided to leave in a manner that would offend a Diamond Dog, he’d gone out of his way to make it perfectly clear there was no recourse for reconciliation. He’d made sure to sever ties with the Ponyville group, and with Rarity especially, as neatly as a surgeon would excise a tumor from his patient.

But still the question remained. Why? It was an enigma, an infuriating puzzle that defied all attempts at comprehension, but when had that stopped her? Twilight had never met a problem she couldn’t solve and Luna have mercy on anyone who thought that would start now.

That’s why she’d stayed in Canterlot and meticulously recreated the events that had led to now in an attempt to understand the marshal’s mind. The problem was his behavior defied reason. According to her research, people who had near death experiences instinctively drew closer to friends and family. Considering the relationships he’d built in Ponyville, he should have drawn closer to the girls, especially Rarity. But instead, he’d completely drawn away. Why?

There must be something, some key to this puzzle that she couldn’t see. But what was it? What was she missing?

The purple-haired librarian was so wrapped up in her thoughts that for a full minute, she didn't hear the knocking at her door.

**********

Chapter 2

Chapter 2

Twilight almost fell over the back of her seat as the door to her room burst open, heralding the inward march of a very stern-looking older woman. With a granite grey bun and a wardrobe that seemed like it hadn't been updated in decades, her age was obvious but in no ways diminished the briskness of her pace or the severity of her steps.

“Hmph, I should have known,” she sniffed in tones used to scold unruly children. “This early in the morning and just look at you, already disheveled enough to shame a ragamuffin.”

“Dusty!” the young mage cried in flushed embarrassment. “You’re supposed to knock before you come in, you know!”

“I did,” Feather Duster, head maid of the castle, one time nanny to the young prodigy, and constant disciplinarian in balance to the fun of babysitter Cadance, replied with a dry smile. “You just didn't hear me.”

A quick snap of her fingers, and another maid entered the room with a serving cart and exited just as quickly, a hasty curtsy accelerating her departure from under the eyes of the stern domestic. Twilight could understand the sentiment as she found herself unconsciously straightened her hair and sweater vest in a valiant attempt to reduce the ragamuffin factor of her appearance. Feather Duster just had that effect on people.

“Honestly, Miss Sparkle,” the maid tutted as she strapped on an apron. “You've been a young lady for quite some time now. It’s high time you started paying attention to details and taking better care of your appearance.”

“Maybe I would've if you hadn't surprised me like that,” Twilight mumbled.

“What was that?”

“Nothing!” Twilight squeaked as the maid fixed her with a piercing stare. It was amazing. Even after all these years, one look still had the magical prodigy feeling like a kid caught with her hands in the cookie jar. Fortunately, Feather Duster seemed satisfied with the response and turned away, allowing Twilight to heave a sigh of relief.

“I suppose I should give you some credit,” the elderly woman answered with a tiny, but approving nod. “I’d half expected you to be lazing away at this hour, but it seems you've already been up and about for quite some time now. I daresay at least some of my lectures on diligence have started to pay off.”

“Yeah, I've been… busy,” Twilight sighed once more, the very thought of the marshal bringing weariness rushing back like the tide. Feather Duster arched a curious eyebrow.

“Oh? How so?”

Twilight hesitated for a moment. Should she bring another person into this? It was sort of a private issue, and it’s not like her former nanny would know much about the marshal anyway. Then again, she’d certainly have a lot of life experience that could prove useful, and a outsider's opinion could do wonders to shed light on a situation.

“So I've got this… friend,” Twilight began. “I mean, my friends and I do. He’s been in Ponyville for a while now and we've gotten to know him pretty well, Rarity especially. She's one of the friends I was talking about. Only just a few days ago, he leaves without saying a word and tells us he’s not ever coming back.”

“And you’re up working because…”

“Because I can’t understand why he’d do it!” Twilight cried out in explosive frustration. “I mean, sure, he’s not the easiest guy to understand, on account that his default expressions shows about as much emotion as a tree stump, but he seemed like a really straightforward guy. He also seemed to be enjoying his time in Ponyville, and he definitely seemed to be enjoying his time around Rarity, but then he just… leaves. Okay sure, he’s had a pretty rough last couple of weeks, but it’s almost like he’s a completely different person now. It just doesn't make sense.”

“… Well, it certainly seems like you've thought this through,” Feather Duster blinked in mild surprise.

“Not that it’s done much good,” Twilight muttered with a sigh of resignation. “I've been looking at it from every angle and still, nothing’s coming up as a logical explanation.” The stern-faced caretaker nodded in understanding.

“Perhaps what you need is a fresh perspective. I'll have you know that Princess Celestia sent me up because you haven’t been showing up to meals regularly. While I prepare some breakfast, you take the time to tell me everything you know and we’ll see if I can’t offer a new outlook on your conundrum.” And with a practiced flick of the wrist, the masterful maid snapped off the cover of the serving cart to reveal a fully stocked breakfast buffet, complete with fresh-baked honey rolls, fruits, yogurt, cereals, and even a portable stove for eggs made to order.

“You don’t have to go through all the trouble, Dusty,” Twilight said while a faint flush of embarrassment coloring her cheeks. “I’ll just have an apple or something, and I’ll be-”

“Oh no you don’t, young lady,” Feather Duster interjected, her words cutting in with the finality of a judge's sentence. “I know you too well, and the minute I turn my back, you’ll forget all about eating and bury yourself back in your studies. No Miss Sparkle, you’re going to sit right there and have yourself a decent breakfast, even if I have to spoon feed it to you myself. Is that understood?”

“Yes ma’am,” Twilight squeaked, instinctively straightening up like she was six years old again. The young scholar may have been good at lecturing, but even the best quail in comparison to their masters.

“Good,” the grey-haired maid smiled as she returned to her usual stern serenity. “Now, how would you like your eggs?”

*****

By the time breakfast was over, Twilight had demolished two omelets, a handful of sweet rolls, several servings of berry-laden granola, and washed it all down with an almost never-endingly full glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice. The sweater-vested girl hadn't realized how hungry she’d really been, but once she’d taken the first bite of Feather Duster’s excellent cooking, the void created in her stomach from several neglected meals came to life and clamored like a wild beast till it was finally satisfied. How she’d managed to tell the spectacled maid about Graves and the events leading up to the present between bites was, to put it succinctly, quite the little miracle indeed.

“There, now isn't that better?” the former nanny said in a satisfied huff as she cleared away the last of the plates. Twilight let out a small burp before returning a sheepish grin in reply.

“Yes Dusty, that was really nice. Thank you.”

Feather Duster said nothing, but the tiny wrinkle of her upper lip plus the lack of chiding at the somewhat uncouth post-repast etiquette were clear enough indication of her internal satisfaction.

“Now, about this friend of yours, this…”

“Graves.”

“Right, Graves. From what you've told me, he’s a young man who’s spent a good amount of time in the marshals. Am I correct in assuming he’s a career soldier then?”

“I think so,” Twilight nodded. “I’m not really sure how long he’s been doing it, but I get the feeling he’s got a lot of experience. So… yeah, I guess that’s true.”

“Hmm, I see.” Though there was no outward change in her impeccable posture, something about the aged caretaker seemed to darken at the words.

“… Is something wrong?”

“In a matter of speaking, yes,” Feather Duster sighed. “I’m sorry to say this, Miss Sparkle, but I really don’t think there’s anything wrong with him. In fact, I think he’s behaved the exact way you should have expected him to.”

“What?” Twilight gaped. “But… why? He’s wasn’t like that at all in Ponyville. Why would he suddenly change?” A small trace of discomfort appeared on the Feather Duster's face, which in turn prompted a strong foreboding in the young mage’s mind. The last time Twilight had seen seen an expression like that was just minutes before her nanny had told her that Shining Armor couldn’t make it to her twelfth birthday party.

“I don’t think it’s an issue of whether he’s changed,” Feather Duster began, speaking briskly as if speeding through the words could make them more palatable. “I think that’s simply how he’s always been.” Twilight gaped in disbelief.

"What on earth would make you say that? You don’t know Graves. You don’t know what kind of guy he was. Is.”

“You’re right, I don’t know him,” the elderly lady agreed with complete acquiescence. “But he’s a soldier, and if there’s one kind of man a maid knows, it’s a soldier.”

“What exactly do you mean?” the young scholar ask, eyes narrowed in the utmost of suspicion. “Why would you know about soldiers?”

“Here around the palace,” Feather Duster began, wearily as she took a seat at the foot of Twilight’s bed, “there's never a shortage of the military sort lollygagging around, and the only thing a maid likes more than idle gossip is a man in uniform. Most of the time, it never goes beyond a little light hearted banter or possible a little – ahem – canoodling out in the gardens, but there were certainly occasions where it went a good bit farther.”

“A good bit farther, as in…” Twilight prompted.

“Relationships of a more… adult persuasion,” Feather Duster coughed, the faintest shades of color coming into her angular cheeks. “Most girls get silly romantic notions into the head, imagining a fairy tale of their very own. The young hero comes back on shore leave, meets a nice girl, they fall in love, and it’s happily ever for the two of them. The sad fact is, however, that it never works out quite as nicely as that.”

“Why not?”

“By and large, if a man’s in the Equestrian Royal Army, he’s there because he feels it’s his duty to be there. Some men think that their lives don't mean much unless its spent serving and protecting, and those types invariably find their way into the armed forces. Now, there were some who willingly gave up that service for a special someone to be sure, but the more common story by far is that when it’s time to go back to the field, they still go back.”

“Which leads to a lot of broken hearts, I’m guessing,” Twilight finished with a grimace. The head maid nodded ruefully.

“I've seen more than one girl weeping her eyes out after her sweetheart left. Celestia knows, it happened to me back in the day as well.”

“Wait, what?!” Twilight gaped in wide-eyed astonishment. Feather Duster, the maid extraordinaire, always so straight-laced with her polished glasses, tight, grey bun, and more propriety than a roomful of monks, actually got into those kinds of shenanigan? It was difficult, if not outright impossible to imagine, as Twilight half expected that her nanny had been born old and simply grew more grey and strict with the passage of time. Logically fallible, of course, but still…

“It was a long time ago,” Feather Duster sniffed, her usual decorum unable to prevent her cheeks from pinking even further with embarrassment. “Even I was young and foolish once, silly enough to fall head over heels for a pair of sparkling green eyes and an easy smile.”

“What happened?” her one time ward asked with wide-eyed interest.

“Haven’t you been paying attention?” the elderly maid frowned with more than usual orneriness. “One day, he was called back to the field. I went to see him off at his barracks, but… he wasn’t there. Just a note, saying he was going and he wasn’t coming back. Thanked me for the memories and said he’d never see me again.”

“But… why would he do that?” Twilight asked, her brow furrowed in confusion. “If you two liked each other, then why’d he just leave you behind?”

“Back then, I truly had no idea,” Feather Duster replied. “Oh, there were rumors about the lad, ranging from how he’d been called away on a top secret mission to notions that he was off to visit the other sweethearts he’d met in towns all across Equestria and beyond.”

“Well that couldn’t have been too pleasant,” Twilight scowled.

“Like I said, they were just rumors,” the grey-haired lady serenely stated. “I didn't put much stock in them. No, I knew he was a good man and that he’d never do something like that. Looking back on it now, I believe that in the end, he left in the manner he did because as a good man, he wanted to protect me.”

“Wait, seriously?” Twilight repeated quizzically. “How does that make any sort of sense?”

“It doesn’t, and if it’s one thing you need to understand about soldiers, it’s that they rarely do,” her nanny nodded, a slight smile finally breaking out on her aged face. “Men like them typically do more thinking with their chest hairs than their heads. Why, I'd bet barley corns to bits that each and every one of them shares the same silly notion that just because there’s a good chance they’ll never come back, it’s best to cut ties cleanly and save the heartache later.”

“You're right, I don’t get that,” Twilight frowned in confusion. As smart as she was, despite all the reading she’d done and the learning she’d acquired, there were some things that were beyond rational comprehension.

“A sign of a good head on your shoulders,” Feather Duster nodded primly. “It’s a foolish notion, isn't it? You hurt the people who care about you to save them from hurting later. Never made sense to me, but then again, it’s just the kind of thing men stupidly, selflessly noble enough to risk their own lives for a good cause would do.”

“So, do you really think that’s why Graves left?” Twilight asked tentatively, not so much that she was unsure of her question, but more that she was afraid she already knew.

“I honestly don’t know this Graves, so I can’t really say,” Feather Duster shrugged. “But from what you tell me, he’s as much a hero as they come, and it’s a fine, fine line that separates a hero from simply being a colossal fool. If you consider the close call like he had, I honestly wouldn't be surprised if this is exactly what he did.”

The young librarian’s brow furrowed in intense thought. Was it really that simple? Graves was as selfless as they came, maybe even to a fault. Always thoughtful and kind under his rough exterior, he certainly fit the bill of someone as “stupidly, selflessly noble enough” to follow exactly this kind of mad rationale. Had that brush with death awakened him to his own mortality and caused him to draw away out of concern? Was he really doing it just to protect them in case one day he didn't make it?

“I can see you have a lot to think about,” the elderly maid commented as she regarded her one time ward’s thoughtful visage. “But don’t let it take up all your attention; you have other things to worry about too.”

“I do?” Twilight blinked in surprise. “What do you mean?”

“I mean,” Feather Duster continued as she stood up and gathered the remnants of breakfast onto her cart, “that regardless of how heroic the thought or noble the deed, cutting ties will always hurt people, some more than others. Who do you think is hurting the most right now?”

The image of a violet-haired girl, sitting pale and frozen in the room where she’d been all but abandoned, crashed its way into Twilight’s mind with the force of a blacksmith's hammer strike. Feather Duster simply placed a hand on her shoulder and nodded.

“At times like these, she’ll need a friend to lean on, a friend to help her forget him and move on with her life.”

“Forget? Just like that?” Twilight gaped. “But… but isn’t there something we could do? Can't we try to bring him back?”

For once, the serenity of decorum cracked and a genuine, pained expression appeared on the aged caretaker's face.

“There’s…. always hope,” she acquiesced slowly, “but not much. And sometimes… sometimes hoping for something you’ll never have just makes a bitter reality that much worse.”

Twilight said nothing, and with a final, gentle pat on the cheek, Feather Duster gathered up the cart and softly wheeled it out of the room.

Alone with her thoughts, the amethyst-eyed scholar slumped back into her seat. She wanted to believe that there was a chance of fixing things and setting everything right. But if Graves had already been prepared enough to leave, resolved enough to sever all ties with the cold precision of a surgeon, then what were the actual chances of a happy resolution?

And it was one thing to chart her own course of action, but what about Rarity? Obviously, the pretty dressmaker had far more at stake in this whole messy ordeal than any of the others. In light of this, what should Twilight, as Rarity’s friend, even say? Should she try and convince Rarity that it was all over, that what Graves had done was for the best and to just move on with her life? To forget him? Or should she encourage that small spark of hope that said maybe, just maybe, he’d one day return and they could be reunited? Should she encourage that even if it was far more likely to just make everything that much worse?

Twilight wished she had a text to read or some reference to consult for guidance. Deep down, however, she had a feeling that no book in the world could make this choice anything less than hopelessly impossible.

**********

Chapter 3

Chapter 3

It was with no small amount of trepidation that Twilight Sparkle climbed the steps leading up to the glittering palace tower. It was a climb she knew she needed to make and one that she probably should have made earlier. Still, the knowledge of its necessity didn't assuage the anxiety gnawing at her heart or ease the tension that wound her stomach tighter than a clockwork spring. Necessity never equated with ease.

Somehow, she had to convince Rarity to give up on Graves.

Logically, it was the only sensible conclusion. The marshal was a consummate soldier and as such, was almost assuredly driven by the calling cards of duty and service. The only reason he’d gone to Ponyville in the first place was because he’d been assigned, and even if he’d made friends there and found a place where he belonged, the evidence clearly indicated he’d give it up at the drop of a hat should necessity dictate.

At that point, the only thing left to do would be to say goodbyes, or in his case, say nothing at all. It hurt, but in some perverse way, it also made sense. After all, clean wounds do heal the quickest. Even if it left a bad taste in everyone’s mouths, even if Rarity hated him for it, it would probably be worth it because in the end, everyone could accept he was gone and move on with their lives.

It all made a sort of sad, unforgiving sense. But as the sweater-vested librarian approached the polished wooden doors, she paused as her trepidation grew to nearly full blown pre-exam level anxiety. How exactly was she supposed to approach Rarity on the topic? “Hey, I know you just got dumped, but that’s okay, he did it because it's all for the best?” Twilight knew her friend could be… emotional, to say the least, and if the histrionic fashionista could wail up a storm over missing cutlery, how would she react to such a decidedly painful truth?

Well, it wasn’t like standing around worrying would make things better. So with one last, bracing breath, Twilight raised her hand to the gilded door and with only the slightest of pauses left, gave it a few, tentative knocks.

No response.

Trying again, Twilight knocked just a bit harder, leaning in close to the entryway and listening for sound. Still nothing.

Alarm bells started going off like the signal for class to start. It had been three days since anyone had seen Rarity leave her room. She’d certainly been upset when she’d gone in, but three days was enough time to come to your senses, right? Surely, she wouldn't have gone and done anything desperate. Would she?

“Rarity? Are you in there?” Twilight called out as she tested the polished brass doorknob and – surprisingly – found it unlocked. Pushing the door open, the amethyst-eyed scholar poked her head in, scanning around for her friend as she took a step forward. She probably would have been better served watching her step because with a yelping cry of alarm, Twilight tripped and fell with a marvelous crash to the floor.

Shaking the stars from her vision, Twilight glanced back to see what offending object had impeded her entrance.

“… Books?” she blinked, somewhat puzzled by the sight. Indeed, her foot had caught itself against a stack of large, leather bound texts that screamed of operating manuals. Why on earth would have Rarity such a large pile of boring and almost assuredly useless books, and so close to the door?

Turning back around, that question was promptly answered as Twilight looked up and found the room in a chaotic state of disarray, just as she’d expected of her despondent friend’s woeful mood. Only, the mess was of a nature that the young scholar never would have in a thousand years predicted.

It was a veritable mess of books. Big and small, old and mint-conditioned, tomes and texts of every kind were stacked in haphazard piles wherever there was space to squeeze in a volume. Further in between those stacks, bundles of papers, binders, folders of documents, and sheaves of parchment were stuffed tightly enough to shame even the most zealous of pack rats. Every single spare bit of space was occupied by writing in some form or another, all save for one small island of open area at the room’s very center. There, sitting at a small desk with spectacles perched on her dainty nose, sat a very cool, very calm, and very un-hysterical young lady.

“Rarity?” Twilight repeated in disbelief. The scholar had expected her friend to be frantically sobbing in her favorite pink bathrobe, hair in disarray and eyes red-rimmed from crying. Tissues at least. But no, the pretty seamstress was fully attired in her usual white blouse and pencil skirt, violet tresses done up in their usual immaculate curls, and her signature perfectly applied make-up invisibly accentuating her natural good looks. So all in all, Rarity actually looked quite… normal.

“Oh, hello Twilight,” Rarity smiled, sparing only a moment to look up and confirm her friend’s identity before returning to the text before her. “How are you today?”

“Uh, fine, Rarity,” the puzzled purple poindexter pensively pronounced. “How are you?”

“Quite well, in fact,” the young beauty rejoined as she scribbled a few notes down in her elegant script, ever careful to keep the ink from staining her sleeves. “Is there something I can help you with?”

“Not really, no,” Twilight replied, now thoroughly confused and not a little worried to boot. Had her friend snapped? With experience in her own psychotic episodes, not to mention the mental breakdowns of all her friends over the past few years, it wasn’t a far cry to suspect that Rarity, too, had decided to take a vacation from reality.

If she had gone off the deep end, Rarity hid it quite well. Nothing broke the silence save the scratching of the quill and the rustling of paper.

“So… you’re doing well?” Twilight prodded again. “Anything you want to talk about?”

“Not really, no,” Rarity said, albeit rather distractedly as she dissected a particularly dense section of prose. “Why, is something bothering you?”

“Me?” the young scholar repeated in disbelief. “Why would anything be bothering me? I was going to ask if there was anything bothering you.” The dressmaker paused for a moment, nibbling on the end of her quill as she thought.

“Can’t say there is,” she shrugged before returning to work. “Oh, and would you be a dear and hand me that reference guide next to you? That would be ever so helpful.”

Normally, Twilight loved assisting others in academic-related endeavors such as this. Normally, however, she wasn’t plagued by a curiosity that burned like the core of a molten star. So instead of obliging the request, the purple-haired girl responded with a most elegantly worded reply.

“Okay, what the hay is going on?!”

Rarity blinked.

“So it looks like you’re doing well, and I’m really glad for that, but seriously, what gives?” Twilight blurted, her words tripping over each other in their haste to get out. “A couple of days ago, you were acting like the world had just ended, and here you are, writing a report like it’s midterms or something. I mean, it’s not like I want you to be upset or anything, but logically you’re supposed to be and the fact that you’re not is just… just plain weird!”

The dressmaker stared at Twilight who took a deep breath and straightened her hair as a few stray strands had popped up with the force of her tirade. Slowly, Rarity sighed and set down her quill.

“I suppose you’re here regarding Graves, are you not?”

“It’s about him, yes, but it’s because I’m worried about you,” the young scholar replied, her tone a shade softer than before. “The way he left was shocking for all of us, but... I mean, you two had something special, didn’t you?”

“I suppose we did,” Rarity replied with a sad smile. “It was all rather unsettling. One moment you think you’re the sort of couple the poets will write of in song and story. Only, it doesn't quite work out that way, on account of the fact he dropped you like last season’s fashion.”

“Oh Rarity, I’m so sorry,” Twilight said, sincerity ringing true in every word. “It must have been a horrible experience.”

“Yes, yes it was,” the violet-haired girl nodded primly. “Which is why the next time I see him, I’m going to make him account for each and every word he said. Right after I give him a good, sound thrashing.” With that, Rarity plucked up her quill and dove right back into her books, a new fire alight in her sapphire blue eyes as they danced across the pages with the speed of darting sparrows.

Her friend, however, was decidedly less enthused and rather more confused.

“Wait, what?” the young scholar asked, even more puzzled than before. “But... Graves left on a new assignment.”

“That he did,” Rarity nodded.

“And you told us that he told you that he wasn’t coming back,” Twilight continued.

“Uh huh.”

“So… how exactly do you plan on making him, uh… account for what he said?”

“Quite simple, really,” Rarity smiled as she closed one book and opened up another. “I’ll just have to go after him.”

Gears ground to a halt as the words entering Twilight’s ears jammed the inner working of her logic-calibrated mind.

“But… why?”

Looking up at her friend, the dressmaker saw that Twilight had a most peculiar expression on her face. It looked almost like she’d eaten a sour plum and remained unsure whether to go ahead and swallow the offending tartness or spit it back out.

“I’m not quite sure what you mean,” Rarity hesitantly prompted in hopes to elicit a clarifying response. “What exactly do you mean by ‘why?'” The nudged helped as Twilight, however reluctantly, continued her discourse.

“So, I’ve been thinking a lot about this,” she began, carefully choosing each word to be as delicate as possible, “and I think that, well… maybe Graves doesn't want to be followed. I mean, it’s not just the note, or even the way he left, it’s… just who he is, you know?”

“I’m not sure I comprehend,” the fashionista frowned in puzzlement.

“Graves is a soldier, right? He knows that he’s got a dangerous job, and he might not make it back. If he’s thinking that, then maybe, just maybe, he left the way he did to keep us from waiting and hoping when something bad might happen. After what happened that night, it seems like a logical thing to do. Do you see what I’m saying?”

The violet-haired beauty gave her friend an inscrutable look, pursing her lips as she folded hands and rested them beneath her chin.

“So what you’re saying is,” Rarity began, “is that Graves intentionally made a harsh exit from our lives so that we’d willingly forget him to spare us the hardship of when he inevitably doesn't return from the battlefield. Was that it?”

“Um… yeah,” Twilight nodded, quite surprised at the clarity of her friend’s statement.

“That would make a good deal of sense,” Rarity murmured as her brow furrowed in contemplation. “Celestia knows he’s wool-headed enough to think that we’d be better off if he left us before something happened. But…” The young lady paused and her visage clouded with uncertainty. “I don’t think that’s the reason.”

“Hold on a second,” Twilight began, slowly so she could order the jumbled thoughts in her head. “You’re saying you can see the reason he’d leave, you can see that he’s the kind of guy who’d do it, and despite that, you don’t think that’s why he did it?”

“Well it certainly sounds sillier if you say it like that,” Rarity grinned in flushed embarrassment, “but yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying.”

“Then you’ve got to have a reason for thinking that way,” the sweater-vested scholar pressed on, her intellectual side rising at the prospect of new knowledge to be gained. “Do you have any facts or information that would back up your position?”

“Not facts, no,” Rarity grudgingly admitted. “It’s more like, oh how do you say it… a feeling I have. That’s all.”

“Feeling?” Twilight repeated. “What do you mean?”

“So, we can both agree that Graves is quite the honest and, how shall we say it, painfully straightforward man, is he not? Granted, sometimes it’s hard to tell whether he’s giving you his default glower or a happy one, but it’s not like he’s particularly adept at hiding his emotions, correct?”

“Yeah, I guess so,” the Ponyville librarian nodded. She’d never really noticed it before, but it actually made a strange sort of sense. True, to most people it would seem like Graves was perpetually suffering from a sore tooth. But after getting to know him, it had gotten much easier to tell what he was thinking behind that stony stare of his. She’d never have thought it, but in that sense, he was actually pretty expressive, albeit in degrees so small an ant would have a hard time distinguishing.

Huh. Who’d have thought?

“The marshal might not be given to extreme displays,” Rarity continued, “but it’s not too difficult to figure out what he’s thinking. That’s why when I approached him about joining me at the Gala back at Ponyville, I could tell he was genuinely remorseful about not being available to attend. Even more than that, he clearly told me that he had every intention of returning back to us when his work was finished.”

“But maybe that’s changed,” Twilight rebutted, squashing down the optimism she wanted to embrace in favor of playing the devil’s advocate. “Maybe that was before he had his whole near-death experience. You have to admit, it’s kind of a thing that leaves an impression on you.”

"An impression, certainly," Rarity acquiesced, “but it still doesn't explain how he became such a good actor in so short a time.”

The lady scholar blinked.

“An actor.”

“Yes,” her friend nodded, “a performer. One who says what is not genuine in a convincing manner. You see, when I first saw Graves after the awards ceremony, he…” she stopped to take a quick, shuddering breath to steady the tremble in her voice, “he was by far the coldest he’d ever been since I met him.” Seeing her friend's tremble, Twilight reached to take the dressmaker's hand in a firm, but gentle squeeze.

“Rarity, you don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to.”

“No, it’s alright,” Rarity replied, returning the squeeze along with a grateful smile. “It was painful, I’ll readily admit, because it was so thoroughly convincing. There was no warmth in his words and no remorse in his actions. He expressed about as much regret as Rainbow Dash would in forgoing a chance to wear frills.”

“It was his job, wasn’t it?” the scholarly girl countered, albeit very, very reluctantly since it prolonged her friend’s painful recollection. But if she didn't, then the act of reliving that last encounter would have been wasted, so on she pressed. “He’s always given it his all when it came to his job, so maybe he’s just pushing himself to be as convincing as possible.”

“And that’s just it!” Rarity breathed out with surprising vehemence. “Even if an honest person like Graves pushed himself, putting on that kind of performance should be plainly out of his reach. I mean, even when Applejack truly wants to, she can’t tell a fib to save her life. So how is it that Graves, a man just as bad – if not worse – than Applejack at hiding his feelings, could make even me tell think he was telling the truth? I mean, I’m a socialite, for Luna’s sake; I eat subtleties for breakfast!”

Twilight blinked in surprise, a bit at being blown back by the force of Rarity’s frustration, but even more at the sense in her argument. Applejack was a terrible liar, and even being corrupted by Discord hadn't improved that one whit. Graves was terrible at hiding his minute emotions, whether it was happiness, irritation, or in most cases, flat-out embarrassment. How had he managed to fool Rarity who in all respects should have been able to read him like an open book?

“I see I’ve made my point,” Rarity nodded, taking a moment to steady herself before resuming her discourse. “The point is, if Graves were trying to convince me he didn't care about us anymore solely because of his own efforts, I should have been able to tell. That’s why I’ll bet there’s something else, something more which makes him believe it’s the truth. The only way he’d convince me he felt that way was if he’d somehow managed to convince himself.”

“What is it then? What made him change?” Twilight pressed on, her curiosity now fully sparked by her friend’s bold new hypothesis. However, she was startled to find that instead of pressing on with more wonderful insights, Rarity seemed to visibly wilt and fade.

“I… I don’t know,” the violet-haired beauty sighed as she slumped in her seat. “I wish I did, but I honestly don’t know enough about Graves to guess why.”

“You? Don’t know enough about Graves?” Twilight scoffed in disbelief. “Rarity, you've told me more about Graves in the past five minutes than I could figure out in the last three days of analysis. You know him better than anyone else, so how could you of all people not know enough?”

“Because he never tells me anything!” Rarity wailed as she made a beautiful transition from the dumps of depression into woeful tantrums. “Even during all the time we spent together, he never really told me anything about himself. Sure, we would talk about topics of mutual interest, likes and dislikes, ideas and philosophies, but… never the facts and information to speak of. To this day, I still don’t know where he was born, what his family is like or... or anything!”

“But how could you go this long without finding out?” Twilight gaped in amazement. “Weren’t you ever curious? Didn’t you ever ask?”

“Of course I did,” Rarity sniffled. “And I got the same answer as you probably did. ‘Oh, I wouldn’t want to bore you with stuff like that.’” Her impression of the marshal, while not quite as deep and gravelly, was so spot on that Twilight couldn’t help but giggle.

All laughter ceased, however, as Twilight realized that in the several months that Graves had been in Ponyville, he’d never actually told her anything about himself either. Ever. Granted, he’d tossed out anecdotes of past excursions and what not from time to time, but never the basic background that almost always got mentioned in the first few days of meeting a new friend. How had that even happened?

“You see what I mean?” Rarity pouted as she read the realization on Twilight’s face. “After some time, I realized that Graves was actually quite deft at avoiding the topic. He’d always throw you just enough to satisfy you, but never really answer the question. So one day, I decided to directly ask him to tell me about his life before the marshals. It was probably one of the bigger faux pas I’ve made with him to date.”

“Really? Why’s that?”

“Because he gave me the most peculiar look. He was still pleasant and polite as ever, but his eyes went all foggy and hollow, like there was nothing behind them. I don’t know if you remember, but it was very much like the way he came to town. Seeing it come back so suddenly gave me such a fright, I dropped the subject and never went back.”

“Wow. I didn’t know it was that bad," Twilight breathed. To this, Rarity merely heaved a heavy sigh as she folded her arms across the table and plunked her head right on top.

“Maybe I should have pressed the issue,” she mumbled, her words muffled by the wooden desk she spoke into. “If I had, then maybe he would have opened up to me and we could have avoided this entire mess. But I didn’t, and now I’m stuck wading through dry, dusty texts for answers instead.”

“Yeah, I’ve been meaning to ask about that,” Twilight said as she turned to scan the book-filled room. “What exactly is all this anyway?”

“My only lead,” Rarity groaned as she straightened up and massaged her temples. “I’ve been requesting every reference and every record that might relate to him, trying to see what I can find about that man’s past on account of I know next to nothing about him.”

As hot, frustrated tears began to brim in the dressmaker’s eyes, which she brushed away furiously with her sleeve, Twilight mentally kicked herself for being so thick-headed. Though Rarity might whine and complain a great deal about the little things, she could put up a surprisingly brave face when push came to shove. She was so good, in fact, that it was often all too easy to forget that underneath her composed exterior, the hurt still remained.

“Anywho, what’s done is done,” Rarity continued, taking a shaky breath to steady herself and returning the composed smile to her face. “I can’t change that our last meeting went less than desirably, so I’ll just have to make sure the next one goes more smoothly.”

“So you went and got… books?” Twilight asked, not quite following the logic.

“Military books,” Rarity clarified, “and records. Since he’s a marshal, I figured some of his personal information must have made its way into writing. If I can find anything, whether it be something on his parents, possible siblings, friends, or even the name of his hometown, I feel like I’ll be one step closer to seeing what makes him tick.”

“Wow, I’m really impressed, Rarity!” Twilight applauded with genuine respect. “I didn’t think you’d be willing to go this far to learn about Graves.”

“Yes, well, good men like him are hard to find,” the sapphire-eyed beauty replied with a flushed smile. “And besides, it’s as much for his sake as mine: you know he’d be hopelessly lost without someone to look after him.”

“Guess so,” Twilight giggled. “So, what have you found out so far?”

Rarity paused. Once again, the words that should have encouraged her friend only served to wipe the smile from her pretty face.

"They've been about half as forthcoming as the dear marshal ever was,” the young beauty muttered through gritted teeth.

“And you’ve been going at this for how long?” the surprised scholar asked.

“Two days,” Rarity moaned. “I was too despondent the day that he left, but after some time to clear my head, I realized I could either sit around crying and do nothing, or I could take some initiative and do something about it.”

“So, you’re dead set on trying to get Graves to come back?” Twilight asked, if only to confirm what she already knew. From the crystal clear firmness in her friend’s deep blue eyes, the answer came back like bold-faced print.

“Oh, I’ll make sure he comes back,” Rarity declared with intense severity. “And when I do, I’m going to make him work long and hard to make up for all the aggravation his silly notions have caused. Of that, you can be sure.”

Twilight, for one, was genuinely impressed. Maybe it was the marshal’s gung-ho attitude rubbing off on the dressmaker, or maybe it was some inner strength she’d always had, but this was the kind of attitude that just might make miracles happen. With a little help of course.

“In that case,” the sweater-vested bookworm beamed, “you can count on me to help!”

“Really?” Rarity gasped in delight. “Oh, thank you so much! I’ve been having a simply frightful time getting anything of use out of these books, but two heads will certainly be better than one.”

“That is true,” Twilight nodded, “but if that’s the case, then six heads will definitely be better than two.”

“Six?” the pretty dressmaker repeated in puzzlement. “But the others have already gone back to Ponyville, and considering the way Graves bade them farewell, I can’t really expect them to come back. To be perfectly frank, I’m rather surprised you’re so eager to assist to begin with.”

“I will admit, I was a bit skeptical,” the librarian agreed. “The theory I decided on certainly seemed to make a lot more sense, and it’s not like you have much to back your ideas off of.”

“Then why did you agree?” Rarity asked. “Why help me if all I’m heading out on is a wild goose chase?”

“Because you convinced me,” Twilight giggled. “It may not be the most scientific reasoning, but you’ve certainly got more than geese leading you on this chase. You obviously have reason to believe there’s something about Graves that needs understanding, and that’s good enough for me.”

The puzzlement in Rarity’s eyes gave way to misty gratitude as she bounded up and squeezed Twilight in the biggest hug she could muster.

“Thank you,” she squeaked out as her voice cracked from an abundance of raw feelings. “I was afraid this was all going to be too much for me to handle. Having you here really means the world to me.”

“Hey,” Twilight coughed as she felt her ribs creaking inside, “what are friends for?”

After one last internal organ rearranging squeeze, Rarity finally let go, and – after a quick glance in her pocket mirror to make sure her mascara hadn’t run – got right back down to business.

“So, about the others,” she began, her previous resolution coming right back, “how are we to get them to come back to Canterlot?”

“I figure we pay them a visit back in Ponyville and you could just convince them like you convinced me.”

“I’d really rather not have to spend so much time travelling around,” the pretty dressmaker pouted, "but I suppose that is the only way.”

"Not exactly,” Twilight grinned a special grin that usually signaled the formulations of ideas one novel short of a full series. "What if I told you there was a way we wouldn't have to?

“I beg your pardon?”

“Meet me back at my room in about ten minutes,” the young scholar called out as she dashed out of the room. “I think I have a way to get us there in the blink of an eye!”

As the door slammed shut behind her, Rarity stood still, jaw slightly agape at her friend’s sudden departure. She couldn’t say why, but something about the gleam in the lady mage’s eye had sent a distinct chill down her own spine. Whatever it was that Twilight was up to, it would undoubtedly be something complicated and, quite possibly, dangerously so. But if it meant expediting the search for the grey-eyed marshal…

Rarity wearily sighed one last time and went to gather her things. Honestly, the things she'd do for that man…

**********

Chapter 4

Chapter 4

“Alright now, Spike, what’s all the commotion about?”

Shaking off the last few bits of leftover hay from a morning in the barn, Applejack walked into the hollowed-tree library where her friends Pinkie Pie, Fluttershy, and Rainbow Dash all awaited in various stages of patience.

“Yeah, let’s get on with it,” the cyan-clad flyer groaned as she flitted around like a candy-addled toddler. “I’ve missed enough flight practice as it is, and I really need to get back before my skills start to rust. Not that they’d ever rust or anything, but you get the idea.”

“Hey, don’t shoot the messenger,” Spike retorted with uplifted hands, “If you have any problems with this, take it out on Twilight.”

“Why, what’s Twilight got to do with this?” Pinkie Pie inquired as she idly flipped through one of the library’s many comics from a nearby beanbag chair.

“She’s the one who asked me to get you all to the library before lunchtime.”

“Did she say why?” Fluttershy inquired softly. The green-haired Salamander simply shrugged.

“Beats me. The only other thing she said was to get that big horse head statue and the table out of the middle of the room and to sit tight.”

Four very confused girls exchanged four very confused looks. That was certainly one of the odder requests they’d ever gotten, and that was including what they knew Pinkie Pie could request. Nevertheless, the level-headed librarian wouldn't ask for something ridiculous unless she had a good reason. 'Course, she could have lost her marbles again, but it was best to remain optimistic. Anyhow, the girls did as they were asked and shifted aside the equine statue and stand before settling back down to wait.

A few minutes passed with nary a word said between the group. Applejack idly whistled, Pinkie Pie checked out another comic, Fluttershy sat with hands demurely folded in her lap, and Rainbow Dash slowly bounced from wall to wall.

“So… how you guys been?” Spike asked, somewhat confused by the odd display but with a bright smile on his face nonetheless. That smile sagged, however, when all he got was a few noncommittal murmurs in reply.

“Yeah… that Gala sure was something, huh?” he continued, racking his spiky green head for more conversation topics. “Never thought I would have spent the night hanging out with Fancy Pants, but it turns out he’s a pretty cool guy. How was it for you all?” Once again, halfhearted assents, vague mumblings, and general malaise prevailed once more.

Just as Spike was starting to get annoyed and revved up for some serious grilling, a strange popping noise came from the center of the room. It was almost like a series of snapping fingers, but with more snap than fingers would normally bring. Quickly, the snaps coalesced into the crackling of magical energy, heralding arcing flashes of purple lightning before the entire room exploded into blinding cascades of searing light.

*****

“Did… did it work? We’re not dead are we?” a musical voice called out before unleashing a truly terrified gasp. “My hair! How’s my hair? Twilight, if your maniacal plan has done anything to my coiffure, I swear with Celestia as my witness, I’ll–”

“What in tarnation? Rarity? S’that you?”

Coughing as she waved away the cloud of smoke, Applejack approached and found in the middle of a scorched runic ring at the center of the room, the sprawled forms of Rarity and Twilight Sparkle lying in a tangled mess. The two were certainly a bit disheveled and somewhat worse for wear, but fortunately still relatively whole and unharmed.

“What the hay?” Rainbow Dash blurted as she floated down and helped the scuffed sorceress to her feet. “I thought you two were still hanging out in Canterlot? When’d you all get back?”

“Just now,” Rarity replied, giving Pinkie Pie and Fluttershy a grateful nod before quickly straightening her violet locks. “We were in a bit of a rush to get back, so Twilight suggested an alternative mode of transportation, one I hadn’t expected to involve quite so much… exploding.”

“But it worked!” the aforementioned Twilight beamed in complete and utter ecstasy. “Oh my goodness, I can’t believe it actually worked! I mean, sure, long distance teleportation was always theoretically possible; all you had to do was increase oscillation of the space-time continuum to a degree that would create a worm-hole connection to allow the transportation of matter and energy between two locations. But still, I can’t believe the targeting matrix accounting for fourth dimensional interference was so spot on!”

“Well that’s just great Twilight!” Pinkie Pie grinned. “But now I just gotta know why you two had to use experimental quantum shifting to get here? I mean, there is a train, you know.”

“… Wait a second,” Applejack blinked. “Yer telling me yah actually understood all that fancy magic hooey?” The bubbly baker blew a loud raspberry and rolled her eyes.

“Psh, duh! Doesn’t everyone?”

Several pairs of very curious eyes locked onto her for a single, very curious moment before they unanimously reached the same conclusions; with Pinkie Pie, it was sometimes best just not to ask.

“So, like the Pinkster and her freaky knowledge of… whatever it was… was saying," Applejack blinked, "what’s the rush that you guys came poofing into Ponyville for?”

“Oh, right,” Twilight nodded as she regained her senses and settled down. “So, Rarity and I were talking this morning, and we think that if we all work together, we can get Graves to come back to Ponyville.”

To the young mage's great surprise, the reaction of her friends was significantly less than enthused. In fact, it was downright dismal. Applejack merely gave her an awkward grimace and Pinkie Pie’s usually wide withered and greyed into a shadow of its formerly bright glory. Fluttershy coming to the verge of tears could probably have been expected, but she certainly hadn’t expected Rainbow Dash to outright scowl like a child in a dentist's office.

Maybe this wasn’t going to be as easy as she’d thought.

“Hey, did Graves go somewhere?” Spike piped up as he looked from one unexpected expression to another. “I guess I should’ve figured; he is a marshal, after all. But why do you need help bringing him back? Ponyville’s his home now, so he’s bound to come back eventually, right?”

If words were weapons, then Spike’s were a sniper’s arrows that pierced the heart of each and every girl present. Twilight had sent him home the day after Graves was injured, protecting her little brother with a cover story of how he’d gotten sick and they were staying to help look after him. She’d later written about his recovery, but his departure was a delicate subject that had yet to be broached. There'd be a time for it, of course, but his innocent inquiry had led him straight into the heart of a matter that Twilight wasn’t quite sure just how to explain.

“We can get to that later, Twilight darling,” Rarity suddenly interjected with a bright smile. “Before all that though, I thought that since it’s been so long since we were all together, we should have a girl’s day in full of makeovers, dress up, and long hours talking about all the juiciest gossip. You’re welcome to join us too if you’d like, Spikey Wikey,” she beamed, batting her large, sapphire eyes at the little Salamander boy.

“Uh… thanks for the offer, Rarity,” he replied with a sickly grin, “but I gotta go… uh… do some shopping! Yeah! Lot of shopping to do, like groceries, more parchment, and uh… other stuff, you know... anywayIgottagoseeyoulaterbye!” And despite his great affection for the violet-haired dressmaker, Spike the Salamander scampered out of there as fast as his little clawed feet could carry him.

“Nice save, Rarity,” Twilight heaved with a huge sigh of relief. “I wasn’t sure how we were going to get out of that one.”

“So that was a cover, huh? Hoowhee, that’s good tah hear,” Applejack whistled. “Fer a secon’ there, I was jess about ready tah high tail it after the little feller.”

“In all honesty, you could use a little work on your complexion,” Rarity said with lips pursed in consideration of the straw strewn figure of her friend, “but as Twilight said, we really do need your help getting the dear marshal back.”

Though the miserable looks didn’t return quite as quickly, they were no less obvious as the four homebound girls exchanged considering looks.

“Look, no offense, or nuthin’,” Applejack began with an apologetic smile, “but I don’t see what you two’re after. Graves made it pretty clear that he don’t want nuthin’ tah do with us anymore.”

“You kidding?” Rainbow Dash snorted, “He dropped us faster than Fleet Foot in a nosedive. That punk made absolutely sure we knew that he doesn’t give a flying buck about us, and I say good riddance to him!”

“Rainbow, it’s not like that,” Rarity replied in a consoling voice. “I mean, at least I think it’s not like that. I don’t really know, you see, which is why… oh, I’m no good with this. Twilight?”

And so the purple-haired scholar taught, telling them everything she knew. She recapped for them everything that had happened since the beginning, from the night Graves had spent with them at the Gala till his sudden departure that fateful morning. She told them about the things Ironside had passed onto her, news that the violet-haired beauty absorbed like a cloth absorbs dye. She shared with them about her conversation with Feather Duster, of her own theories, and of Rarity’s insights into the young soldier's mind.

It wasn’t the best lecture she’d ever given. In fact, it probably wasn’t even technically a lecture at all, just a dumping of all the things she could think of. Twilight knew it wasn’t given with her normal eloquence, but she hoped that if anything, the girls would hear how much she believed in this idea and how much Rarity believed in Graves. If only the others could just believe as well…

*****

When she finished, quite breathless and emotionally drained, four silent faces awaited her. Rarity put a gentle hand on her shoulder and gave her friend a comforting smile. Twilight mirrored it faintly before returning her attention to the four as she awaited their verdict.

“So lemme get this straight,” Pinkie Pie began with a face scrunched up in concentration. “You’re saying that Graves told us he doesn’t like us, but he really does like us, except it’s bad if he lets us like him, so he made us not like him, which is why we should like him, especially since he really does like us, and now we have to get him to un-not like us?”

“I have absolutely no idea what you just said,” Rarity freely admitted, “but I do feel that the good marshal’s true feelings were constrained by some outside force. I don’t know that that is, per se, but I want to find out and for that, I’ll need your help.”

“I dunno about that,” Applejack intoned with upfront reticence. “Doncha think yer readin’ into this a little too much? I mean, he was pretty durn clear where he stood with that letter.”

“I’m not so sure about that anymore,” Fluttershy murmured softly as she surprised her friends by actually voicing a contrary opinion. “I mean, I can’t really be sure, but I think that Graves really did like it here in Ponyville. If you think about it, it is kind of odd that he wouldn’t at least say goodbye, isn’t it?”

“Exactly!” Twilight chimed in. “I know it doesn’t make the most sense in the world, but we all know what Graves is like. He obviously really loved Ponyville and he’s certainly got a lot more reason to stay than he used to.” Gracious as usual, Rarity pretended not to notice the knowing glanced directed her way. “That’s why we feel like there’s got to be some reason he’s hightailed it out of here so fast, and we need to figure out why.”

“Hey, if you two think there’s a reason, that’s good enough for me!” the curly haired baker brightly beamed. “I like Big G just as much as you two – well, maybe not as much as Rarity, here – but I still like him a whole lot anyways! So if he’s got some junk putting him in a funk, then I say we find him and give it what for!”

“Pinkie Pie’s right,” Fluttershy declared in quiet yet profoundly firm insistence. “He’s our friend, and if he’s going through tough times, we’ve got to do everything we can to help.”

“I’ll be honest, I ain’t so sure about this,” the blonde cowgirl shrugged. “But I gotta say, I’m mighty curious just what’s goin’ on in that funny little head of his. And if y’all are so keen on findin’ him… ah, what the hay, count me in!”

It was with a great deal of giggling and hugging that the five girls came together. However, the general atmosphere of good will was popped like a soap bubble by some particularly choice words from a certain multicolored flyer.

“I don’t get it you guys,” Rainbow Dash cried out. “Why are you all getting so excited about getting that backstabber to come back? He ditched us, remember?”

“I know it seems like that,” Rarity said, once more trying to sooth her irate friend, “but there just has to be something–”

“I don’t care!” the cyan clad flyer screamed as her voice cracked from the strain. “I don’t care what reason he had, friends don’t do that kind of thing to their friends! If he really liked us, why’d he have to go pulling the biggest jerk move in the history of all jerks? No, if he’s going to treat us like that, then he can just crawl back into whatever hole he came out of and rot, for all I care!” With those last, heated words, Rainbow Dash bolted through the open door and out of sight.

The five remaining girls couldn’t have been more blown back had they been caught in the wake of one of her famous Sonic Rainbooms.

“Whoa, where did that come from?” Pinkie Pie blinked, her curls now extra frizzy from the heat of her friend’s departure. “I didn’t know she hated Big G that much.”

“I didn't know that she hated Graves at all,” Fluttershy replied. "Actually, I thought they got along really well.”

Twilight was thoroughly perplexed. She was certain that all of them liked Graves, or else they wouldn't have been so bothered when he left. But still, that kind of outburst from the usually happy-go-lucky Rainbow Dash, one of the most reliable of friends and the most loyal of all…

“Oh… I see,” Rarity intoned as the spark of understanding lit up behind her sapphire eyes.

“Yah do?” Applejack said. “Well then would yah mind fillin’ us in on why she took off like it was cider season or somethin’?”

“I think it’s precisely because Graves was a friend that it bothers her so much. Rainbow Dash does represent the Element of Loyalty after all, and I wouldn’t be surprised if in her mind, the marshal’s abrupt departure was tantamount to betrayal.”

The same light of lucidity quickly spread to the other. Of course. It’s those closest to you that hurt you the most, and those who cared most were cut deepest. Rarity certainly had the most invested, but she also had the benefit of a much more intimate understanding of the marshal to help her work through the departure. For Rainbow, however, who probably placed greater value in friendships than anyone else, the marshal’s actions were probably akin to being tossed out into a storm with no shelter and a few choice insults to boot.

“So what do we do?” Twilight asked Rarity with a pensive frown. “I think we could let Rainbow Dash sit this one out if she wants, but…”

“No, I’ll go and talk to her,” Rarity said. “You tell the others of your plan, and I’ll bring her back here when we finish.”

“Yah really think you can convince her tah come in jess like that?” Applejack asked incredulously. To this, Rarity replied with a confident smile.

“Applejack darling, who’s idea was it for you to wear high heeled boots to the Gala, hm?”

“Well, it was mine, I guess,” the freckled farm girl frown. “I thought that since I was goin’ to one o’ them fancy parties, I might as well do it right fer once.”

“Did you really?” Rarity slyly grinned, “Did you really come up with that all by yourself?”

Applejack paused just before her eyes went as wide as Granny Smith’s fancy china plates.

“Oh, yer good,” she muttered.

“Naturally,” Rarity replied with a toss of her violet tresses. “I’ll be back soon.”

*****

"Rainbow Dash? Are you up there?”

The irate athlete looked down from the perch of her favorite tree branch to find Rarity's eyes on her, hands on hips with the expectant look of one dealing with a petulant child.

“What do you want?” Rainbow Dash muttered, the sullenness of her tone only outdone by the sullenness of her expression.

“Well, I was hoping I could talk to you “without having to crane my neck," the pretty dressmaker replied. "Would you mind coming down?”

“Don’t wanna,” the cyan flyer snorted as she turned over and crossed hands behind her head. “I know what you’re gonna say, and I ain’t interested.”

“I see,” came the sighing reply. Rainbow Dash closed her eyes, thinking it would now be a prime time to nap, but was suddenly disturbed by the loud rustling of branches and some very uncharacteristic grunts slowly approaching her.

“What the hay?” Turning around, Rainbow Dash found the prissiest of all Ponyville girls actually climbing – with no small lack of grace – up the tree towards her. And in a pencil skirt no less.

“If – oof – you’re not going to come down,” Rarity gasped as she finally pulled herself onto the branch next to her friend, “then I may as well come up here and join you.”

“... You can climb trees?” Rainbow Dash blinked.

“I most certainly can,” the fashionista replied with just the slightest bit of offense. “I just happen not to enjoy it very much is all.”

That was clearly a gross understatement. The short but ungainly struggle had left her usually immaculate cloths scuffed and stained, her hands covered in sticky tree sap, and her hair an unruly mess liberally bedecked with twigs and leaves. All things considered, it was a rather sordid mess that would usually leave the usually fussy female in a state of abject horror, yet Rarity seemed about as concerned about her state as… well… as Applejack would have been.

“... I don’t get it,” Rainbow Dash muttered sullenly, “Why are you working so hard for that idiot? He ditched us.”

“Yes, he did,” Rarity readily agreed. “And it’s probably some mistake he’ll be in no shape to fix unless we step in and help him out." The young athlete replied with a dark grimace.

“Well he sure doesn’t deserve it.”

“No, he doesn’t,” the violet-haired beauty agreed once more. “But sometimes, the ones who deserve it the least are the ones who need it the most, wouldn’t you agree?”

“… Do you really think Graves had a good reason for ditching us like he did?” the blue clad girl finally asked. “Like, a reason that after we hear it will make us not wanna punch his face in anymore?”

“I honestly don’t know,” Rarity sighed. “I’d like to think there is, but right now, I’m just going on feelings and ideas. That’s why I need all my friends to help me figure it out.”

The two girls sat in silence for a moment, Rarity with earnest and hopeful expectation and Rainbow Dash with – while certainly not good humor – at least less open hostility than before. Finally, the irritated athlete let out a very long and very noisy sigh.

“I’m not the kind of jerk who’d leave my friends hanging,” she said as she at last cracked a smile. “But if the marshal doesn’t give me a really good reason for why he made us go through all this crap, I’m gonna knock the living daylights out of him.”

Rarity couldn’t help but let out a bright, chiming laugh that rang from the tree branches like silver bells.

“You can be first in line,” she smiled as she pulled her friend into a warm embrace, “but only if I get to be second.”

**********

Chapter 5

Chapter 5

“Bwah?! Wha… What in the world?...”

What should have been a luxuriously restful afternoon nap was summarily ruined by thunderous crashing, never a good sign in a library. Righting himself from where his upended seat had unceremoniously dumped him, Professor Dewey grabbed his cane and hobbled from his office as fast as his wizened legs could carry him. What he saw almost blew his prodigious mind.

“Twilight Sparkle?” he wheezed, clutching at his heart as if the shock might send him to his knees. “What in the name of logic and reason is going on here?”

Bear in mind, the elderly academic wasn’t surprised to see his favorite bookworm amidst a large pile of books; he’d grown used to that sight long before she’d even grown larger than some of the texts she’d devoured. The only thing was, he’d been used to her being on top of the books, or at least next to them. As it stood, he could hardly make out her purple and pink striped mop as she’d been completely buried under a literal avalanche of dusty tomes.

“Oh, hey Professor,” Twilight winced as a cascading copy of Practical Matters of Military Affairs tumbled straight onto her head. “How’s it going?”

“My goodness, child, are you all right?” Professor Dewey fretted as he pulled his wand from the sleeve of his robe and with a few quick flicks, restored the fallen books to their proper places on the empty shelves next to the young scholar. “How on earth did you manage to get yourself into such a predicament?”

“Well, I was doing a summoning charm for all books relating to the marshal branch of the Equestrian Army,” she began, climbing to her feet and giving herself a liberal dusting off. “Only, I wasn’t expecting to get such a thorough response.”

“The marshals?” the ancient academic blinked. “But why would you suddenly be interested in the marshals? Mind you, I find no quarrel with your endeavors to explore different subjects, but it’s just that you’ve never shown much interest in the more… martial subjects, so to speak.”

“Very true, very true,” Twilight nodded before breaking out into distinctly conspiratorial wink. “But that was before I found a lead on the Dragonslayer’s Mark.”

It was a good thing Professor Dewey was so healthy for a man of his age, or else his heart really might have exploded from pure, distilled excitement.

“You… you have?” he gasped, his eyes sparkling to life behind his massive spectacles. “But how? I must have searched through every text here twice and found nothing!”

“That’s because you were looking for references to the badge through the event Operation Elder, which I’ve found out is highly classified information,” the amethyst-eyed girl explained. “However, I’ve also found out, from General Ironside no less, that one of the soldiers involved in said operation was a marshal named Graves.”

“… Tell me everything you know, Twilight Sparkle,” the old librarian said with an almost childlike giddiness in his voice. “From the beginning, mind you, and don’t spare the details.”

So Twilight did, recapping all the information she’d gleaned since departing from that very library near two weeks ago. Facts and data, she told without reservation, but as close as she was to the professor, the young lady still held back the details regarding why she was so keen to find information on Graves. Some things were personal to the point you didn’t share with anyone but those directly involved, not even those as close as family.

“I see,” Professor Dewey nodded slowly as he stroked his chin in thought. “That… is a most peculiar set of circumstances. And you say you’re familiar with this Graves, but know nothing about him?”

“More or less, no.” Twilight shrugged. “He hasn't told us much, and we have no idea where he was deployed, so it's not like we can really ask him. I thought we might talk Shining Armor to see what he knew, but apparently he's been shipped off too, and nobody seems to know where. That’s why Rarity and I figured we’d go the indirect route and see if we could find any records on Graves. The library still archives the files and records of all military personnel, doesn't it?”

“For the last sixteen hundred years,” he confirmed with a proud smile. “But I doubt you’ll need to go that far back. This Graves of yours can’t be that old, so we should have a fair time tracking him down.”

“You mean you can help us?” the young scholar asked in delighted surprise.

“But of course!” he harrumphed, drawing himself to his full, if somewhat diminutive stature. “You didn’t think to keep this fantastic treasure hunt to yourself, did you?”

“Perish the thought,” she replied with a wide grin.

“Good. Now, it will certainly be good for us to start with the records, but at some point we’ll have to track down witnesses and get some first person testimonies. If this Graves fellow was important enough to send on a mission like Operation Elder, there are bound to be people who know a thing or two about him."

“Oh, you don’t have to worry about that, professor,” Twilight grinned, looking very much like a cat with cream on its whiskers. “I already got that part figured out.”

“You did?”

“I did,” she nodded smugly. “I’m grabbing books to meet up with Rarity who’s back at the central table. While we’re looking here, I’ve got friends of mine doing interviews in the barracks as well as tracking down a lead we have with the Wonderbolts. With any luck, they’ll be back with news before we even finish checking the indexes.”

“… You've truly grown into such a wonderful young scholar,” Professor Dewey sniffed, his voice choking with emotion as he dabbed at his eye with the corner of his sleeve. “And to think, it seemed only yesterday when you thought picture books were Celestia’s gift to man.”

“Hey, Puffy the Purple Hippo was one of the greatest literary works of all time,” Twilight retorted, her cheeks turning a brilliant shade of red as she did.

“Of course, of course,” the elderly academic chuckled. “But we can discuss the merits of story time later. Until your friends get back, let’s see what light we can shed on the subject of your elusive Graves!”

*****

It was only through supreme force of will that Soarin managed to stifle a whimper as he sat down for a brief respite in one of Canterlot’s many parks. It wasn’t so much the pounding headache that came from exerting too much magic during extended practices or even the multitude of muscular pains and general, miserable soreness that came from the extra training that followed said extended practices making him groan.

No, what nearly drove the man with a head of blue quills to tears was the state of his lunch.

The Wonderbolts were going to be putting on a show to commemorate the grand opening of the new Canterlot history museum. A big show like that meant extra practice, and more importantly, special diets. All snacks, alcohol, fatty foods, excess salts, extra sugar, and generally anything containing a semblance of taste had been banned and replaced with the blandest of bland health foods. It was this sorry state of affairs that caused Soarin to sniffle as tears welled in his eyes.

“It’s not fair,” he sullenly mumbled as he stared at his designated plate of undressed salad and – he shuddered to think – soy-based tofurky cutlets. “Just because we’re practicing doesn’t mean they need to treat us like rabbits. Would it really be that bad if we had bacon while we practiced? Or at least some real eggs? How do you even make–”

“Hey there, Soarin,” Rainbow Dash grinned as she abruptly slid onto the bench next to him. “How’s it hanging?”

“Oh, hey there, Dash,” he smiled in reply. “Business as usual. How you doing?”

“Good, good,” she casually replied. “I see you’re getting ready for a big show. Special diet and everything, huh?”

“Unfortunately,” he grimaced as his former dejections returned full force. “I swear this isn’t real food. I mean, I’m no science guy or nothing, but I don’t think we’re meant to eat something that looks like it’s already been eaten, if you know what I’m saying.”

“Ugh, I think I do,” the cyan clad girl nodded with a look of horrified revulsion. “So why don’t you just get some real food, like a burger or something?”

“Tch, yeah right,” Soarin snorted. “Spitfire’s put all of Canterlot on alert. Nobody in the entire city’s gonna sell us so much as a french fry.”

“So…” Rainbow Dash began as innocently as a newborn bunny rabbit, “You’re telling me that there’s no way for you to get real food, so all you’ve got to eat is that… stuff, right?”

The Wonderbolt nodded his head in dour acceptance.

“Well then…” Here, the young athlete quickly glanced around to make sure no bystanders were in earshot before sliding closer and whispering. “What if I told you that I know a gal who can hook you up with a little something something, if you catch my drift?” Soarin’s eyes slowly widened.

“You sure?” he asked, not quite daring to believe his good luck. “Who is it?”

“It’s me!” Pinkie Pie squealed as she flew from the bush and landed squarely on the bench next to him. “If you’re looking for some sugar, then look no further, cause Auntie Pinkie’s got everything you need!”

“But… I’m older than you,” Soarin blinked. The curly haired baker merely waved a hand in dismissal.

“Details, details,” she giggled. “We’ll worry about those later. Right now, I want you to take a look at this and tell me what you think.” Reaching into her backpack, Pinkie Pie pulled out a white cardboard box and opened it to reveal the golden treasure inside.

“Is… is that…?” the flyer stammered, his eyes sparkling with desire as his mouth began to water like the World’s End falls.

“Yes, yes it is,” Pinkie Pie grinned. “One genuine Sweet Apple Acres home-style apple pie, made with extra cinnamon, extra sugar, and extra love by master baker Applejack herself. And it can all be yours… for a price.”

“Deal!” Soarin cried as he pulled out his wallet faster than Storm Stepper's barrel rolls. “Here, I got twenty bits with me; that should be enough, right?”

“Whoa, not so fast,” Rainbow Dash called. “Who said anything about money?”

“Then what do you want?” Soarin asked, his eyes never for one moment leaving the delicious pastry sitting so tantalizingly close by.

“What we want is information,” Pinkie Pie replied, enunciating the words with all the aplomb of a 1920’s B-movie gangster, “specifically about our mutual friend Graves.”

“Graves?” the flyer blinked. “Okay, sure! What exactly do you want to know?”

“Anything," Rainbow Dash replied. “Facts, stories, personal affairs, anything that we didn’t know about him before that helps us figure out what’s going on in that thick skull of his.”

“Well, I don’t think I know anything that detailed about him,” Soarin admitted with an apologetic grin. “Graves isn’t exactly the kind of guy you get cozy with in the mess hall, when he’s even there to begin with. But that guy’s got a reputation, so if you’re interested in some stories about him and what everyone says around the barracks, I can definitely help you out with those at least.” The two girls exchanged alerted looks before turning their attentions back to him.

“Alright then, whaddaya got?” Pinkie Pie prompted, all ears and eagerness.

“Well…” the blue haired flier paused and swallowed, his stomach rumbling audibly as he longingly gazed as the pie. With a quick nod from Rainbow Dash, Pinkie Pie pulled out some utensils and sliced off a not large, but substantially savory sampling of pastry for the hungry performer.

“Oh man, that’s good,” Soarin breathed with the biggest, goofiest grin ever as he almost literally inhaled the delicious morsel. “Okay, so you wanna hear about Graves, that right?”

“Duh,” Rainbow Dash snorted. “That’s what we just asked you, wasn’t it?”

“Oh, right. Well like I said, Graves has got a reputation for being one of the baddest marshals ever to hold a spell gun.”

“Bad?” Pinkie Pie frowned. “But I thought you had to be good to be a marshal.”

“Naw, I don’t mean bad as in not good or bad guy kind of bad,” he amended. “I mean bad as in really good.”

“Well if he’s really good,” the curly haired girl continued, “then why’d you call him bad?”

“That’s because… well, I, uh… ... huh. I don’t really know.” The look of befuddlement on his face wasn’t the first of its kind Pinkie Pie had caused, nor would it be the last by far. Rainbow Dash, seeing the mental gears beginning to freeze up, interjected.

“So Graves is really good at being a marshal, is that what you’re saying?” she pressed. “Just what about him makes him so good?”

“He’s more than good, let me tell you that,” Soarin smiled as he came out from his fog of confusion, “he’s downright brilliant. According to my sources, Graves has cleared enough missions in the last few years to qualify for veteran status. That means he’s cleared the equivalent of ten years’ worth of missions in about a third of that time. Crazy, isn’t it?”

“Well how did he go about doing that?” Pinkie Pie asked. “It’s not like he can be in three places at once.”

“He may very well be,” the blue haired flyer replied, his voice approaching something almost like awe. “Out in the field, he fades away like smoke in the wind, and the only reason you know he's there is the pinpoint destruction he dishes out like whipped cream on a good sundae. Once he's done his job, everything goes quiet for a while and then... poof. Pops right back up at camp, maybe a bit worse for wear, but always ready for the next mission. No matter how bad the odds or how dangerous the situation, he always makes it back. Some say it's because Graves can walk through walls and ride the shadows. Others say it’s because even if you kill him. He. Won’t. Die.”

“... Okay, that sounds just a little farfetched if you ask me,” Rainbow Dash incredulously drawled.

“No, it’s totally true!” the Wonderbolt insisted with utmost sincerity. “I heard that from a guy who was roommates with a guy whose unit worked with him one time a couple of years back! This is seriously legit stuff!”

“…”

"..."

“Okay, maybe that’s not as reliable as I thought,” Soarin admitted as he scratched his head. “But it’s definitely true that he’s been on a lot of successful missions.”

“How would you know that?” Pinkie Pie asked again. “It’s not like you go out on missions with the marshals, do you?”

“No,” the Wonderbolt grinned, “but I did happen to be in on the pool betting on when Graves would clear that veteran mark, which was run and verified by Form Filer down in bookkeeping. Graves cleared the hurdle faster than anyone else on record, and they’ve got records of everything. And I do mean anything.”

“Alright, we’ll check into that later,” Rainbow Dash nodded. “Now is there anything you can tell us about him as a person? Anything about what he was like before he came to Ponyville?”

“Like I said earlier, I didn’t really spend much time around him,” Soarin continued. “He wasn’t a flyer, so I never trained with him, and being a marshal, he was out of Canterlot more often than not, especially with his work load.”

“Yeah, about that,” Pinkie Pie frowned. “Why exactly did they give him so much to do, anyway? You’d think that there are enough marshals around that they wouldn’t lump so much on one guy.”

“Now that you mention it, that is kind of odd,” the blue haired performer mused, “cause from what I’ve heard, the marshal’s aren’t usually assigned missions at all.”

The two girls exchanged a pair of very puzzled looks.

“Huh?” they called out in unison.

“Okay, so I’m not clear on the details,” Soarin disclaimed, “but I’m pretty sure the marshals operate on a notice board system. There’s like, a big, central list of all the missions available, and marshals choose which ones to go on; lets them focus on certain areas and bring their best skills to bear. Of course, everyone has a minimum number to clear and some missions are assigned because of priority, but generally, it’s a come as you go kind of system.”

“So you’re telling me,” Rainbow Dash began with brow furrowed, “that Graves has been doing the work of three people because he wants to? Why?”

“Yeah, why?” Pinkie chimed in. “Of course, I don’t get why anyone would want to be a marshal in the first place. I mean, no big fluffy bed to sleep in at home and no friends or family to play with? Nuh uh. So why’s Big G hauling his butt all over Equestria when he doesn’t even have to?”

Soarin tapped his chin for a moment before responding.

“I guess it’s because he has to.”

Needless to say, this answer did not go very far in clarifying the issue for the Ponyville girls.

“But… you just said that it’s on a volunteer basis,” Rainbow retorted as she scratched her head in confusion. “So what do you mean he has to?”

Now it was Soarin’s turn to cast furtive looks around. Once he was sure nobody else was in earshot, he waved in again, beckoning the girls closer to further ensure the security of his words.

“Okay, I’m not really supposed to talk about this, on account of it’s kind of sensitive information, but… the marshal’s aren’t exactly doing so hot these days.”

“They’re not?” Pinkie Pie blinked.

“Nah, not really,” Soarin replied with a small shake of the head. “Thing is, Equestria’s been doing really well for a while. I mean, besides that bit with the Changelings at the Royal Wedding, there hasn’t been any real trouble around these parts for years now. Because of that, recruitment rates have been dropping and it’s been hard for the marshals to keep their ranks up, even with the more relaxed standards.”

“But if everything’s all hunky dory, what do you need marshals for anyway?” the curly haired baker asked. “It seems kind of silly to have a bunch of people sitting around not doing anything.”

“Just because everything’s swell in Equestria doesn’t mean that things are good all around,” the aerial stuntman corrected. “One of the reasons we’re so well off is because the marshals were always really good at sniffing out trouble and pinching it before it gets to be a problem. But if people don’t know there’s trouble, they don’t know they need to do something about it, which makes it even harder for the ones who do know.”

“Then why does Graves have to do it?” the cyan flyer frowned in confusion. “Sure, it looks like he’s been doing this for a while and gotten pretty good at it, but don’t they have like, super soldier types who can take on more of the work? There’s got to be a few Shining Armors around who can blow away the bad guys without breaking a sweat, right?

The strange look on Soarin’s face could have meant anything from concerned apprehension to irritable bowel movements. From what he said next, it almost certainly wasn’t the latter.

“…You girls do realize that Shining Armor’s a once in a hundred year prodigy… right?”

Their mutual blank stares were more than enough to confirm his suspicions.

“Shining Armor is what you would call a... a special case,” Soarin explained. “He’s got, like, more ridiculous natural talent and raw magical power than anyone outside of the royal family and even some inside as well. There’s only one of him, and probably only ever will be one of him in our entire lives, maybe more. So no, there really aren’t others like Shining Armor sitting around.”

“… Huh. Who knew?” Rainbow Dash blinked.

“Yeah, it’s a real shame,” Soarin nodded. “Fortunately, we’ve got Graves, and if there’s anyone who can give Shining Armor a run for his money, it’s him.”

“But how can Graves compete if Shining Armor’s so freaking amazing?” Pinkie Pie asked.

“Because he is one of those ‘super soldier types’ you were talking about,” the blue haired performer grinned. “I mean, he managed to make lightning magic viable in combat. You girls have got to realize how impressive that is.”

Once more, blank stares did all the talking.

“Hoo boy,” the uniformed flyer heaved. “Alright, how do I explain this? So in magic, there’s this thing called the Morgan le Hay Principle. The more powerful a type of magic is, the more uncontrollable, volatile, and downright dangerous it is. Lighting's near the top of the food chain, which is why few wizards even bother learning it and soldiers never use in combat. Just too hard to handle.”

“How hard is it, exactly?” the cyan-clad athlete asked.

“Can you imagine making a 180 peel out of a Mach 2 nosedive plus triple inverted spiral directly into a simultaneous Kamikaze Corkscrew and Hail Mary Hornet combo?”

Rainbow Dash swallowed as her pallor dropped a noticeable few shades of color.

“… That bad huh?”

“Fact is, most didn't think it was even possible till Graves made it happen,” Soarin shrugged. “And when you combine his powers of shooting electric death with his pinpoint accuracy, ability to disappear like a ghost, and all the dozens of other things he does, well… in a proper magical duel, Shining Armor would squash him like a soft biscuit, but throw them out into the woods and just see who comes back? I wouldn't bet lunch money on the Captain and expect I’d get it back.”

“Holy moley,” Pinkie Pie gaped in surprised astonishment. “I never knew Graves was so special.”

“He’s definitely something special,” the Wonderbolt nodded. “I’m guessing that’s why he takes on so many missions and why he’s been operating solo for the last few years. He probably knows better than anyone there's a need for more soldiers in the field and he also knows that only someone like him can pick up the slack. Guy like Graves? He does whatever he can to make sure the job gets done.”

The two Ponyville girls exchanged knowing glances. Whatever he could, huh? That sounded an awful lot like what Feather Duster had told Twilight about the fine line between fools and heroes

“Then…” Rainbow Dash began, her voice quavering slightly with hesitation, “do you think that Graves would feel it was his job to do this? A job he’d have to do even if it meant leaving all his friends behind and being a total jerk about it?”

“I don’t know what being a jerk has to do with anything,” Soarin intoned, scratching his spiky blue head in thought, “but he’s shown that he’s willing to put himself through the wringer because duty calls, so… yeah. I guess he would.”

“…”

“…”

“You… girls okay?”

“Yeah, totally,” Pinkie Pie smiled with almost her usual level of brightness. “Thanks a bunch, Soarin, you've been a really big help! And as promised, here’s the rest of your pie.”

“Oh boy! Thanks!” Soarin grinned like a fat kid at the post Hearts and Hooves day candy sales. “Hey, you two want to sit down and have some with me?”

“Thanks for the offer,” Rainbow Dash replied with a crooked grin, “but we’ve gotta get going. Lots to cover today, don't you know?”

“Gotcha,” he nodded. “Well if you’re ever back in town, call me up and we’ll hang out!”

With a decidedly more enthusiastic response to the promise than his earlier inquiries, Rainbow and Pinkie headed off for parts unknown as Soarin sat down to enjoy his pie.

However, just as he was about to dig in with full force, the Wonderbolt paused.

True, the pie would be the most delicious thing he’d ever get to eat for the next several weeks… but it probably wouldn’t do his flying much good. To most people, that wouldn’t be a big deal. The difference it would make in his flying would be minute, maybe even infinitesimally so. Even if his performance wasn't textbook perfect, it wouldn't matter as long as he put on a good show. After all, he was just a performer, right?”

Maybe he was. But he wasn’t just there to put on a good show; he was there to be spectacular. It was his job not just to show off some fancy tricks, but to really give people something to remember, a sight to behold that would have them gasping in awe and watching with wide-eyed wonder until the final dive. And considering what he’d told the girls about how Graves busted his butt to do his job, could he really justify eating a whole apple pie at the expense of his performance? Could he really?

“Hnnngh,” he groaned, torn between his great love of flying and his equally great love of food. “Oh man, I’m so totally gonna hate myself for this…”

With a whimper, Soarin set down the fork and closed the box on his hopes and dreams.

“Smart move you made there,” an audibly grinning voice called from behind. An audibly grinning and very familiar voice, mind you. Spinning around on the bench, Soarin's eyebrows jumped as he saw Spitfire smiling down at him like a shark who’d spotted the fat kid swimming after the post Heart’s and Hooves Day candy sales.

“Spitfire… what are you doing here?” he smiled oh so nervously.

“Nothing, just checking in on my favorite flyer, is all,” she smiled back as she picked up the box and opened it. “I see you managed to say no to a genuine apple pie. I’m impressed.”

“Yeah, well… I guess there are some things more important than apple pie.”

Spitfire looked down at him, her fiery orange eyes considering him with the twinkling humor of glowing embers.

“Tell you what,” she said. “It’d be a shame for this to go to waste. Why don’t we take it back to the barracks and share it with the team? Just this once.”

“You serious?” Soarin cried in joyous surprised. “Holy cow, Spitfire, that’s totally–”

“Of course,” she continued with a wicked little smile, “you’re getting extra practice for sneaking a piece before the rest of us.” The blue haired athlete’s mood dropped faster than Spitfire when divebombing the field.

“Aw man,” he groaned. “You always ride me so freaking hard.”

“Funny,” she replied innocently. “You weren’t complaining about that last night.”

“Yeah, well…” He blinked. “Wait, what?”

“Better eat well today, lover boy,” Spitfire grinned, “cause I’m gonna be putting you through your paces. All. Night. Long.”

For the rest of the day, his teammates would ask why Soarin had such a ridiculous smile on his face. But for now, that was just his and Spitfire’s little secret. After all, it’s not like the whole world needed to know that Gala night had been the best night ever for the two of them, right?

**********

Chapter 6

Chapter 6

Hemmingmane heaved another weary sigh as he rolled his neck under what was becoming an increasingly hot and heavy helmet.

Those sighs seemed to be coming a lot more often as of late as he realized the life of a royal guard wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be. Not that he’d taken the job with any high hopes, mind you. His end goal had always been finding inspiration for his novel, a work that would rock the literary world with bold prose, ageless characters, and revolutionary insights into the human condition. He’d thought that the life of a soldier, one filled with danger and adventure, would serve as the perfect fuel for his creative fires. However, after being stationed in Canterlot where the biggest disturbance was an accidental case of littering, he was beginning to think his muse might be hiding somewhere else.

“I could probably find more inspiration in a bowl of alphabet soup,” he moaned as he rolled out his stiff shoulders once more. What he wouldn't give to get that clunky suit of armor off and get back to his beloved desk and quill. “Man, I’m so bored. I wish there was something to do!”

“Well in you got some time on your hands, mind helpin’ a couple of gals out?”

“Sure, what do you–”

His jaw dropped faster than a dive bombing falcon.

“–need?”

Ladies and gentlemen, his muse had arrived. Standing in front of him, heralded by shining light and the singing of cherubs, was the most downright gorgeous girl he’d ever laid eyes upon. With big emerald eyes, flawless freckled face, and a braid that glittered like a cord of spun gold, the vision before him was a goddess of the harvest in a ten gallon hat.

“Oh, are you alright?” her friend with soft, cherry blossom hair asked quietly. “I’m sorry if we startled you.”

“N-no, it’s not that,” Hemmingmane stammered, working to get his wits back about him. “It’s just I wasn’t expecting anyone like you to come and talk to me out of the blue.”

“Like us?” the gorgeous girl frowned in puzzlement. “What do yah mean by that?”

“Oh… um… I meant, uh…” he struggled to find a way out of the hole he’d dug for himself. “It's just that, I meant most people in Canterlot don’t usually talk to us guards, so I guess I was caught a little off… guard. Or something.”

“Well that’s a might strange, but I guess it makes sense,” the beauteous blonde chuckled. “ We've been tryin’ tah get some of you fancy soldier types to answer some questions, but the answers've been about as plentiful as strawberries in the dead 'o winter.”

“Really? Maybe I can help.” the sentinel grinned, elated by the chance to help out such a lovely lady. “My name’s Hemmingmane, and I've always been told that I talk too much for my own good.”

“Applejack, pleasure to make yer acquaintance,” she smiled back and took his hand up in a surprisingly firm handshake. “This here’s Fluttershy.”

“Hello,” the meek girl squeaked.

“Pleasure to make your acquaintances,” Hemmingmane replied as he surreptitiously stretched out his hand. His own grip wasn’t anything special, considering it was mostly used for pen and paper, but her hand could probably have squashed his digits like so many stale pretzels. “So what is it that you had questions about? Directions? Sightseeing spots? A chance to meet the Princesses?”

“Naw, we already dropped by and said hello earlier,” Applejack drawled. “Seemed plumb tuckered out from worryin’ about some big ol’ mess goin’ on way out yonder.”

“Um… okay then,” the slightly befuddled soldier replied. He must have heard wrong, because it sounded an awful lot like she’d just referred to the sovereigns of Equestria like… close, casual friends or something. But that couldn’t be right. “Then if not the usual stuff, what did you want to ask?”

“Well, we were wondering,” Fluttershy said as she peeked from her halfway hiding spot behind her more forward friend, “if you knew anything about a marshal named Mister Graves?”

“Graves? As in Gunmetal Graves?”

“So yah have heard of him!” Applejack whooped in delight. “Thank heavens, I was jess about to start thinkin’ that he mighta been a ghost or somethin’, seein’ as how near every person we asked didn’t seem tah know a lick about ‘im.”

“So, I don’t exactly know him, per se,” Hemmingmane corrected hastily, not wanting to give the two ladies any false hope. “He’s a marshal, and they’re in a class all their own. But I’ve done some research into him at least, and I have heard most of the stories there are about him, at least.”

“Stories? What kind of stories?” the Fluttershy quietly inquired.

“Pretty much what you’d expect from him,” the soldier shrugged. “Most of them are just retelling of his missions, like most soldier stories are. Of course, you've got some class E and D mission, like dealing with a rogue drake or a ghoul nest, like you’d normally expect. The real interesting stuff, however, comes in– ”

“Whoa, slow down a tick, partner,” Applejack chuckled as she held up hand for pause. “I’m not too familiar with yer fancy soldierin’ lingo. What’s all this spelling bee nonsense about E’s and D’s and what not?”

“Oh, my apologies,” Hemmingmane grinned in embarrassment. “I guess I should explain that part, huh? So, in the Equestrian Royal Army, different incidents are graded on a scale of different kinds of danger. The lowest level cases are H, where a standard soldier shouldn't have too much trouble handling on his own. This increases up the alphabet – G F, E, D, C, B, A – and finally S, for the really serious stuff.”

“What… what does really serious mean?” the pink-maned girl timidly asked.

“I think the technical definition is ‘immediate and complete mobilization of all armed forces in response to a national state of emergency,” the would-be-writer intoned. “But you don’t need to worry about that. We haven’t had an official S class incident in hundreds of years now.”

“Well that’s good tah know,” the blond cowgirl smiled appreciatively.

“Indeed,” Hemmingmane grinned in return. “So marshal teams, being collections of very high caliber soldiers, spend most of their time dealing with cases rank and file issues all the way to class C, the highest level a single team of marshals would have a solid chance of success with. Graves is rather peculiar in that he almost always concentrates on class D and up missions, even reaching into the occasional rank B. Top quality performance, to say the least.”

“Hoowhee, that team of his must have been somethin’ real special,” Applejack hooted. “I knew he warn’t jess any run o’ the mill private.”

“He certainly isn’t,” the soldier agreed, glad to see his muse in a good mood. “But, ah… I think you’re mistaken. As far as I know, Graves hasn't actually served on a team; he's pretty much always been all by himself.”

“… Say whut now?”

“I’m sure he must have been on a team at some point,” Hemmingway continued as she straightened his helmet, “but there's absolutely nothing in the records that would indicate that, and if anybody knows otherwise, they're not talking. The only information I have to work with are anecdotes from the past three years, where he’s been conclusively established as operating in a one man unit.”

“I’m sorry, I’m just a teensy bit confused,” Fluttershy interrupted with the assertiveness of a butterfly. “You said that the… class C problems took a team of five marshals. But then you said Graves went and did B things, which are supposed to be higher than C things.”

“I know, it’s amazing isn’t it?” the aspiring author grinned, a genuine, palpable excitement bubbling out as spoke. “As a single man, Graves has managed feats unheard of. He single handedly took down the dread knight haunting the ruins of Hollow Shades. He was also sent on special loan to Saddle Arabia to help them deal with a mad djinn not to long ago. And just this last year, right before his mysterious disappearance, he cleared the San Palomino Hills of the Sand Spider gang. The entire Sand Spider gang!”

“Huh,” Applejack intoned. “You know, fer a guy who hasn't even met the man, you sure do know a lot about him.” Excitement that shone in the soldier’s eyes gave way to embarrassment as Hemmingmane flushed a bright shade of red.

“Oh, that,” he sheepishly grinned. “I mean, the five man formation’s a custom, and daresay even a necessity, that dates back to the formation of the marshals back in the days of General Blitz. It’s an ideal balance of small group dynamics with sufficient manpower for flexibility. The fact that Graves managed to recreate that same functionality in a single person is nothing short of astounding, so I thought it would be a good idea to look into him so I could… you know… use him as a… um… base… in my… book…” The final words came out in such an embarrassed mumble that even Fluttershy, expert in all things quiet and hushed, had a hard time hearing.

“Shoot, I think it’s jess swell that yer workin’ on a book like that,” Applejack smiled once Fluttershy had translated, adding a bracing slap to the back that rang his suit of armor like a gong. “If the marshal’s done as many interestin’ things as you make out he has, then I’m sure your books gonna be one mighty fine read.”

“You… you really think so?” Hemmingmane blinked in surprise. The few people he’d spoken to had told him to give up: popular books these days were all about sparkly vampires and nobody would want to read about some tired, old cowboy type like in decades past. To have someone give him a positive review was refreshing to say the least, if rather unexpected.

“I’m sure it will be wonderful,” the demure little lady added with a warm, encouraging smile. “It sounds fascinating just from the way you talk about it. In fact, I’d love to hear more about what you’ve learned about Graves, if you wouldn’t mind that is.”

“Of course not,” the soldier replied with an ear to ear grin. “What else do you want to know about him?”

“How’s about how he got all crazy slick with the marshalin’?” Applejack prompted, throwing Fluttershy a wink on the sly. “A man doin’ that manner of work’s got tah have somethin' up his sleeve by my reckonin’.”

“His fundamental skills are spot on, of course,” Hemmingmane began, delighted to have a captive audience for once. “Marksmanship, tactics, stealth, multi-facet combat ability, he’d be a stellar soldier with just those. But his real advantage, and daresay his defining trademark, is definitely his mastery of lightning magic. Incredible power for a truly miniscule mana cost, it can be flexibly adjusted to stun targets or alternatively focused for superior power effective against even the most resilient of creatures. It’s truly a magnificent skill that sets Graves apart from the rest.

“Well hay, if it’s so durn practical, how come everybody ain't using it?” the cowgirl girl asked as she scratched her head.

“That’s kind of like asking why everybody isn’t out writing symphonies or painting masterpieces. I’m no mage myself, but from what I’ve read, lightning magic is really, really reactive to emotional fluctuation. It takes perfect calm and absolute mental control to keep the magic from back-lashing, which is hard enough in controlled setting and near impossible in a heated combat situation.”

“If it’s so hard, then how did Graves manage to do it?” Fluttershy puzzled.

“Okay… I’m not one hundred percent sure about this, but…” Hemmingmane glanced around, then waved them to come in closer. Once they approached, he waved them in closer yet again. When they were so close that a parasprite would have trouble squeezing in between then, the young soldier finally whispered,

“... I'm almost certain that Graves is a robot.”

“…”

“…”

Fluttershy and Applejack tried to be nice. They really did. But at the utterance of those words, the only expression they could muster were ones of absolute pity for a sad, sad little man.

“What, it’s not that crazy,” Hemmingmane retorted at their painfully disappointed looks.

“A robut? Seriously?” Applejack repeated with more incredulity than even if the statement had been ‘oranges are better than apples’.

“Okay, maybe not a robot,” the imaginative writer conceded, “but a golem probably, or at least some other kind of artificial construct.”

“What on earth would make you say that?” Fluttershy asked in absolute non-comprehension.

“Well, the toughness, for one thing. Graves has gone missions that should've sent him back in the shape of mashed bean soup. Instead, he's still on his feet and fighting like the day he was commissioned. Plus it’d explain why he’s so good at so many things; it was simply programmed into him to be that good. But the real kicker, the winning point, is the issue of his magic and emotion. Lighting magic is impossibly difficult to use, but Graves manages it with as much ease as some people deal with the simplest earth magic.”

“Maybe he’s jess got a knack for it,” the freckled farm girl offered.

“That’s really unlikely,” Hemmingmane said as he shook his head. “The kind of natural talent required to do that would put him well on par with Shining Armor, and there’s no way that kind of talent could remain hidden from both records and public eye. However, if he were a newly commissioned construct, he'd have no records to speak of anyway, and instead of the incredibly unlikely scenario of a person completely controlling his emotions, he could just not have them instead.”

“Not have them?” Fluttershy repeated. “As in, he doesn’t feel anything at all?”

“It would get rid of the mental fatigue and consistency problems," the young writer nodded. "It’d be simply too exhausting for a person to constantly maintain perfect control all the time, and too dangerous to boot, since small mistakes can lead to huge magical backlash. A robot, or golem however, doesn't have emotions to deal with in the first place, which makes it the perfect candidate for the job.”

“Alright, now I know yer barkin’ up the wrong tree,” Applejack retorted, whether miffed or somewhat disturbed, even she couldn’t say. “We’ve been around the marshal plenty and I fer one, know that he’s definitely got feelin’s, even if he only shows ‘em once in a blue moon.”

"Then instead of a golem," Hemmingmane continued, "what if he were a revenant?"

"... A reve-whut now?" Applejack blinked.

"Revenant. A conglomeration of memories and souls bound into a single body through black magic. It's not as pretty, but it's actually a better theory."

"And... how would this be better in any way?" the freckled farmgirl asked askance.

"It's better because it's a more complete answer," the writer replied. "First off, a revenant is just as tough, if not tougher than a golem. The vessel body can be treated with sorceries and potions to make it as strong as an ox and tough as iron. These kinds of things usually end up killing a living person, but you don't get that kind of problem with a corpse. Also, instead of programming in skills, which might glitch, a necromancer can simply pick apart a soul and attach the pieces it wants. You could get memories and training, all field tested and proven to work, from dozen different sources and collect them in single person."

"T-then what about the feelings?" Fluttershy stammered in dismay. "If this is, um... a new person in a way, then... then wouldn't he be able to feel things like happy and sad just like the rest of us?"

"Not necessarily, Hemmingmane replied with slow shake of his head. "Instead of including emotions, a necromancer could just include the memories of emotion, so the revenant can pretend to be a normal person without actually having to feel them. Golems were advanced to be sure, but they were banned after the Tyrannus Rex insurgency and probably never got advanced enough to pass as human.

"Of course, a revenant who only had memories of emotions wouldn't be perfect either," he mused as he scratched his chin in further thought. "They'd be normal most of the time, but probably would end up with gaps in the way they behaved, almost like a skip in a scratched record or something."

Fluttershy looked to Applejack, who’s usually confident viridian eyes now mirrored the exact same worry as her pink-haired friend. They worried, because they knew exactly what he was talking about. Even now, after half a year in Ponyville, there were still moments when Graves would just disappear. Not that he went anywhere, but he’d get this far off look in his eyes, like he was staring at something a thousand miles away. Those usually firm, silver eyes would grow foggy and empty, as if there were nothing behind those eyes but mists and shadows.

It was a far-fetched theory to be sure, but… what happens when you start to see bits of truth beginning to poke out?

“Anyway, that’s my take on things,” Hemmingmane smiled brightly, if a bit embarrassed at having been caught expositioning for so long in front of such a pretty girl. “No idea whether it’s true or not, but it would make a great plot twist if I wanted to go for a more sci-fi feel, wouldn’t you agree? Of course, the horror vibe from the other version wouldn't be bad either, especially if you went with a whole conspiracy plot. Just think about it: the Equestrian armed forces, using forbidden black magics to create the ultimate human weapon. Riveting, no?”

“Oh… right. Fer sure,” Applejack smiled weakly, trying to bring back her usual cheer and not quite succeeding.

“So, is there anything else I can help you all with today?” the young man grinned, now returning his efforts to winning brownie points with the golden-haired girl. “Any other questions? Comments? Concerns? A tour of the city, perhaps?”

“That’s a mighty temptin’ offer,” the freckled farm girl answered, giving herself a little shake to throw off the bad humors, “but we best get goin’; lots tah do an’ only so much daylight, yah know.”

“Oh, okay,” he replied, unable to keep a bit of dejection from coloring his voice.

“Anywho, like I said, we gotta get goin’,” Applejack continued as she tapped Fluttershy out of her fugue, “but if you ever find yerself comin’ out tah Ponyville, drop on by Sweet Apple Acres. We’d love to have you over some time.”

“You… you would?” he gaped, hardly able to believe his ears. “Seriously?”

“Of course!” the blonde said with a beautiful smile. “Always nice tah have new friends over fer company!”

Oh. Friends. Right.

“So we’ll be headin’ off now, Hemmingmane,” she called back with a cheery wave as the two headed off. “See yah later!”

Hemmingmane waved them off, more than a little bemused by the whole situation and a good deal disheartened by the last comment. Just friends. 'Course, he couldn’t really have expected more from such a short period together, but still, he’d hoped that there’d be something more.

“Ah well,” he shrugged with a small grin. “I’ll just have to spend a little more time around her and show her that we can be more than just friends. I mean, if I can make friends with her in the course of a single afternoon, how hard could that be?”

**********

Chapter 7

Chapter 7

“Yo, Twilight! Rarity!” Rainbow Dash called as she kicked open the library door and dashed in in a dashing manner, “me and the Pinkster got some stuff that you might be–”

She abruptly stopped mid-step and the aforementioned curly haired girl bumped right into her.

“Hey Rainbow Dash, why’d you–” Pinkie Pie began before joining her friend in staring with silent wonder.

“Um… Twilight?” the cyan clad athlete frowned, “I know you like reading and all, but is it really a good idea to be building a book fort in the middle of the library?”

It was a good question, though it would technically be more accurate to call it a book palace than a fort. Huge piles of texts and tomes were stacked to dizzying heights to form perimeters and parapets, piled so high that the girls actually had to crane their necks to get a glimpse of the top. It was from behind one of these massive, literary constructs that the purple-haired scholar poked out her head.

“Oh, hey girls,” she called with a loud crack of her stiffened neck. “What’s up?”

“Apparently you are,” Pinkie Pie giggled from her lower vantage point as the terrible pun elicited generous eye rolling all around. “So me and Dashy here went to talk to Soarin and he told us some pretty interesting stuff about Big G.”

“I say, is someone there?” a dry, raspy voice called from somewhere amidst the books. It took a moment, but Professor Dewey finally popped his head out next to his protégé and peered down at the girls with large, bespectacled eyes.

“Ah, these must be the young ladies you were telling me about,” he smiled as he straightened his glasses. “Pleasure to make your acquaintances. I’m Professor Dewey.”

“Hey there, old timer,” the colorful flyer called back with a grin. “Name’s Rainbow Dash, and this here’s Pinkie Pie. Hurry up and get down from there so we can tell you what we found out!”

“Please tell me it’s something substantial,” the musical voice of Rarity called out as she, too, popped up from the tower of texts and blew a wayward, violet curl out of her face. “We’ve been at this all day and we haven’t uncovered so much as a birth certificate.”

“Wait, seriously?” Pinkie Pie frowned. “But you’ve got enough books there to fill a library! Well obviously, it’d have to be a smaller library because we’re already in a library, but you get what I’m saying, right?”

“Unfortunately, we do,” Twilight smiled wryly. “One thousand, four hundred, and thirty eight journals, profiles, reference guides, codices, restatements, and even a dictionary or two. Not a single mention of Graves in the entire lot.”

“Now are you absolutely sure that you’re looking up the correct person?” the elderly academic asked with a scrutinizing glance. “It’s highly unlikely that we could go through so much material without finding any mention of this elusive Graves. Perhaps you were thinking of someone else?”

“Believe you me,” Rarity replied with a slightly strained smile, “that is certainly the person we’re looking for.” It was clear this wasn’t the first time the question had been asked, and with the mounting frustration of unsuccessful efforts, tempers were definitely starting to mount.

Fortunately, the potential conflagration was pre-empted by another loud clattering of the library’s doors.

“Hey there, everyone!” Applejack whooped in greeting. “Me an’ Fluttershy found the nicest feller who told us a whole heap ton about–”

She paused, and Fluttershy softly bumped into her back with a tiny squeak.

“Uh, Twilight? I know yah like readin’ and all, but is it really a good idea tah be buildin’ a book fort in the middle of the library?”

The sweater-vested bookworm let out a long, weary sigh.

“Let’s just hear what you girls have to say, shall we?”

*****

“Er, I’m terribly sorry if this comes across a bit short, but… is that all?” Rarity asked with genuine befuddlement.

The six young ladies plus one wizened old man were seated around the large mahogany table at the center of the library for the mutual sharing of findings. The book party had already established the futility of their efforts, so they sat and listened as the two parties who ventured forth recalled their tales. However, the end of their journey, in the minds of some, wasn't much different from the beginning.

“Aw come on, seriously?” Rainbow Dash cried out in disbelief. “We got you some real dirt on Big G out there. Primo, grade A news. What do you mean, 'is that all'?”

“Don’t get me wrong, Rainbow dear, I’m very grateful for your assistance,” Rarity hastily added in gracious gratitude, “but it’s just that I get the feeling we didn’t learn much that we didn’t already know.”

“I kind of have to agree,” Twilight interjected with a sad frown. “It was all very interesting, having some more eye witness accounts of the marshal's behavior and escapades, but it still only confirms what we already knew about him: he’s a pretty untalkative guy who’s got a gift for some very difficult magic. That’s certainly impressive, but once again, we already knew that Graves was an impressive person to begin with.”

“But what about all them things they was sayin’ about him? You know, how he might be one of them magical doohickey’s an’ that he ain’t even human?”

“Applejack, certainly you don’t put any stock in such... chicanery, do you?” the violet-haired beauty exclaimed with mild alarm. “People honestly think that Graves is some sorcerous construct, or even more outlandishly, some kind of reanimated cadaver? Of all people, I’d expect you to keep a level head on the issue.”

“My head’s as flat as a fresh cut board,” Applejack retorted, “but yah gotta admit, it does kinda seem like it’d fit. We've all seen how Graves gets every now an’ then. I don’t know whether it makes him one o’ them magically fangled thingamabobs, but even you've got to admit that Graves is a sight different from normal folks.”

“Yeah, but Graves a robot?!” Pinkie Pie snorted with laughter. “That’s gotta be the funniest thing I ever heard! Imagine, a machine that doesn’t make pies, but eats them! What’ll they think of next?”

“It is a pretty far stretch of the imagination,” Twilight murmured, “But it does raise some interesting questions.”

“It does?” Fluttershy asked softly? "How so?” Indeed, the question seemed unanimous as all eyes were directed towards the purple-haired scholar. Lightly clearing her throat, she began.

“So the reason we’re here is to figure out more about Graves, what he was thinking and what motivated him to leave, correct?” Twilight asked and received assenting nods in return. “So to do that, we tried to find more facts about him, and while it seems like we’re a bit light on the facts, we’ve at least been introduced to a couple of theories that might explain his behavior.”

“Uh, guess I kinda missed out on that part,” Rainbow Dash said as she scratched her head. “What theories are you talking about?”

“Namely whether Graves is motivated by a sense of duty or nothing at all,” Twilight replied. “This morning, Feather Duster suggested that Graves might be motivated by misguided heroic tendencies, seeking to separate from us before we get hurt. What Soarin told us seems to confirm that fact, if we equate the so called heroic tendency to doing things that need to be done. Now we have Hemmingmane, and whether or not we take stock in his golem or revenant theories, it does raise the question of how much Graves actually feels. He may very well be far less emotional than we think and really was just faking the whole time he was with us for the sake of his mission.”

“Huh, I never thought about it like that,” Applejack murmured. “So what yer sayin’ is Graves might either be too good for his own good, or too blah to bother givin’ a hoot?”

“Er… not in those terms, but… yeah, I guess,” Twilight tentatively agreed. It all sounded right, but sometimes Applejack’s turns of phrases could get a little too rustic for easy comprehension.

“Still, something doesn’t quite add up,” Rarity added with pursed lips.

“How so?” Fluttershy inquired once more. “I mean, I certainly don’t know Graves as well as you, but they all seemed like they sort of, just might possibly make sense.”

“And that’s just it,” the pretty dressmaker replied. “Both of them seem very close to the whole truth, but there’s still just something missing. Graves is certainly selfless, but that still wouldn’t explain how his attitude took such a chilling turn. Being naturally apathetic might explain it, but then do we really believe his behavior in Ponyville was just a sham? However good something may be at recreating emotions, I doubt it would ever be good enough to pull off such a convincing performance as… as the Gala evening,” she finished with a flush.

“Maybe it’s both then,” Rainbow Dash shrugged. “From the way you say it, it sounds like it could be a little of this and a little of that.”

“Perhaps,” Rarity frowned, “but it still feels like there’s something missing. It's like... oh, how should I put it... it's like I’ve seen a dress from every angle except the front. I can’t say why, but it still feels like something’s not quite right.”

“Professor Dewey, you’ve been listening to all of this,” Twilight said as she turned to the elderly academic. “What’s your take on this?”

“… Listen to what’s not there and you might hear the truth instead.”

The room fell silent.

“Uh, say what now?” Pinkie Pie asked as that incredibly odd statement bounced around in her head like a smaller version of her on Nightmare Night.

“It’s like I’ve told young Sparkle before,” he began, pushing up his spectacles with a gnarled finger. “Sometimes it’s what’s not said that’s the most informative.”

“Oookaaaayyyy,” Applejack intoned. “So what wasn’t said?”

“A very large portion of young man’s life,” he smiled. “Rainbow Dash, how far back did Soarin’s tales of the elusive marshal go?”

“Probably two, maybe three years?” the cyan clad flyer shrugged. “He told us about what’s happened since he came to Canterlot, and he didn’t transfer from the Manehattan team till two years, eight months, and twelve days ago.”

“I… see. And you, Miss Applejack. Just how far back did master Hemmingmane’s anecdotes go?”

“Er, probably about three years too,” she replied, the wheels slowly starting to churn in her blonde head. “Why, what're you sayin'?”

“Only this,” the Professor began. “From what we've seen, readily available information only goes back for three or so years, which just so happens to be right in the time period of the mysterious Operation Elder, if the records on the Dragonslayer's Mark can be trusted. Beyond this point, we have nothing. Of course, this could indicate Graves has only been active for three years, but let us set aside rather improbable conspiracies theories till we have ruled out simpler explanations. If we operate under the assumption that Graves is in fact human and that this human must have a history, then it logically follows that either nobody knows what happened to him before three years ago, or that nobody can say.”

Silence again, but of a very different, much more considering sort.

"That does make sense," Fluttershy murmured, " But what I don't understand is why? Why would someone go through all the trouble to hide everything about Graves? It couldn't have been easy to make sure everything about him was so well hidden that people couldn't even talk about it anymore."

"Indeed," the aged scholar mused. "My only theory on that matter is that it must have something to do with this elusive Operation Elder we keep routing back to. Considering the secrecy with which it's been dealt, I can only fathom that it was of such great import that even those involves were concealed in the deepest veils of confidentiality. So much so, in fact, that one could very well say that they no longer exist."

"Well that doesn't help us,” Pinkie Pie frowned, "if everything's all hush hush and nobody's talking, then we're sunk like a frog on a log in a bog. I mean, it's not like we can find something that isn't real anymore.”

“So you would think,” Professor Dewey grinned, “but what if I told you that even when knowledge no longer exists, it still exists?”

For the third time, Professor Dewey rendered them speechless just before their unified reply.

“… Huh?!”

**********

Chapter 8

Chapter 8

The bushes outside the palace’s east wing rustled most suspiciously. Fortunately, there were no guards close enough to notice said suspiciousness.

“Now are yah sure this is a good idea?” Applejack whispered as she tried to shift into a more comfortable position in the prickly confines of shrubbery.

“Actually, no,” Twilight replied. “But if Professor Dewey’s right – and he pretty much always is – then the information on Graves will be at the top of that tower in the general’s study.”

“Okay, I think I missed something,” Rainbow Dash interjected. “Why’s Big G’s stuff tucked away up there? And why can’t I just fly up and get it?” The sweater-vested librarian sighed, her patience more than a little tried at having to repeat this. Again.

“Because it’s classified. The only logical explanation for how Graves is so well known and so unknown at the same time is if his records were sealed. According to the professor, this is only done in very rare circumstances for highly sensitive topics, but that a copy of the records is always transmitted to the general’s office for safekeeping. And obviously, if they’re that important, there are going to be enchantments on the windows to keep people from flying in, right?”

“Oh. Right.”

“But… um…”

“Yes, Fluttershy?” Twilight said, turning to where her friend in the yellow sundress sat huddled as small as possible so as not to inconvenience others.

“Well, I understand why we’re here, and I understand what we’re going to do, but… why did we have to sneak in the bushes again?”

“That’s… um…. Huh.” The young scholar paused, stumped for an answer. “That’s actually a pretty good question. Pinkie, why did we have to sneak through the bushes?”

“Because we’re on a secret mission, duh!” Pinkie Pie hissed from behind the shinobi mask and matching black gi she’d somehow procured, though nobody could quite say how. “Everybody knows that when you do secret missions, you have to sneak through the bushes. It’s the rules!”

Though the bubbly baker beamed from behind her mask, she was the only one as the others let out a collective groan. Of course.

“In that case,” Rarity sniffed, “if there are no objections, I move that we vacate the premises post haste. I’m as much a fan of green as anyone else, though not when it’s quite so… au naturale.”

“Agreed,” Twilight nodded. “But I just have to ask one last time. You girls sure you want to do this? I mean, when – and I do mean when – we’re caught, we could get in a lot of trouble. You sure you’re up for it?”

“No need tah ask that, sugar cube,” Applejack smiled. If this’ll help straighten out that crazy marshal, then you can count us in.”

“Yeah, let’s go already!” Rainbow Dash grinned. “The sooner we get this done, the sooner we can find his stupid butt and get back to Ponyville.”

“我々の敵の血をこぼす!”

Pause. Stares.

“Oh! That means ‘let’s get ready to party!’” Pinkie beamed. “At least, I think it does. I don’t really know, sometimes things just come to me.”

“Er… right.” Twilight blinked. “Like Pinkie said, let’s get this party started!”

*****

“I’ve had just about enough of your attitude, you freaky, freckled farm girl!”

“Oh yeah? Well I’ve had it up tah here with you an' your high flyin’ sass!”

One doesn’t usually expect yelling in the Canterlot gardens, especially one involving insults that would be far more suited in a barroom brawl. Naturally, this lead to a great deal of curiosity as just about all within the conversation’s considerable earshot came out of the palace to see what was all the commotion was about.

What they saw was a couple of young ladies circling each other, glaring like rattlesnakes and spewing off continuous streams of venomous, verbal abuse.

“You’re so stupid,” began the one with short, prismatic hair, “if brains were cider, you wouldn’t have enough to give an ant a buzz!”

“And yer so ugly,” retorted the blonde girl in the cowboy hat, “when you was born, the doctor done slapped yer mother.” The girl in the blue tank top snorted, eyes flaring wide.

“Oh no you didn’t. You did not just bring Momma Dashy into this!”

“I can an' I did,” the cowgirl replied as she stuck out her tongue. “Whatcha gonna do about?”

“This. YEAAAAAAAARRRRGH!”

With a fantastic lunge, the girl with multicolored hair caught the other in a fantastic spear tackle, taking them both to the ground in a fantastically tangled mess. However, the farm girl quickly recovered first and replied to the aggression with a nasty chokehold. This in turn was countered by a flawlessly executed ippon seio nage followed by a full on body slam.

As the crowds grew and – quite surprisingly – began cheering whilst the cowgirl tossed the radical one aside and hit her with a spinning lariat, three other girls and one ninja crept their way into the now abandoned atrium of the palace's east wing.

*****

“Oh, I do hope they’re going to be okay,” Fluttershy murmured as she spared a backwards glances towards where her two friends continued their clash.

“Ah, they’ll be fine,” Twilight grinned. “They did volunteer to be the distraction as soon as it came up, after all.”

“Indeed,” Rarity smiled. “Personally, I think they just wanted a chance to settle their old Running of the Leaves rivalry, but who am I to look a gift horse in the mouth?”

The girls progressed crept silently along, three of their numbers keeping low and sneaking as best they could whilst one of their number proceeded to backflip and somersault her way between stone columns and gilded desks. Inconspicuously, of course.

“So where do we go now?” Pinkie Pie asked from where she hid under a particularly handsome bureau near the center of the room. Pulling out her wand, Twilight uttered a few incantations and with a faint, purple glow, the small rod floated above her hand and pointed towards a carved oak door.

“Looks like that’s the way,” she said as the girls rushed over to proceed onwards. However, as Rarity and Pinkie each grabbed a large brass ring and pulled, they found their way inextricably barred by the unyielding panels.

“Oh my!” Fluttershy gasped. “What do we do now?”

“Give me a sec,” Twilight whispered as she leaned in to inspect the door. It was certainly locked, but there was no keyhole and no visible mechanism that would indicate a means of opening the way. Unless…

“Hoo boy,” the purple-haired mage heaved. “This is isn’t good.”

“What? What is it?” Pinkie Pie asked.

“It’s a Magic Eye ward,” Twilight explained, pointing towards a small, red jewel embedded into the wood. “See this here? This gem scans for a certain image or key magical signature and unlocks the door. Without the key, though, we can’t get through.”

“Can you undo it?” Rarity asked with obvious consternation. It would be simply dreadful for their efforts to be thwarted simply by a locked door.

“Possibly,” Twilight replied with furrowed brow as she scrutinized the jewel before her. “The enchantments are fairly complicated, but they’re designed to be self-sustaining. That means the mechanism can’t be too complex or else the spells would deteriorate and require-”

“Yes, but can you undo it?” Rarity repeated, just a touch of impatience coloring her tone.

“Oh. Right,” Twilight blushed. “Well, let’s find out.”

With that, the young magic savant aimed her wand and got to work. Whispering a few spells, the red jewel glowed with an aura of amethyst light before projecting out a matrix of gossamer-thin tendrils of arcane energy.

“Oh, I see how it is,” she murmured. “Light enters the gem in a certain way and acts like a key hitting the tumblers of a lock. Very clever. In that case, if I adjust the energy influx at this point, manipulate the configuration here, and apply a little extra spell work here, then I should be able to…”

With Twilight engrossed in her work and the others engrossed in watching her being engrossed, nobody was paying much attention to their surroundings, a very unfortunate state of affairs since it meant they didn’t hear the sound of approaching conversation till it was nearly too late.

“Somebody’s coming!” Pinkie Pie called out in wide eyed alarm. “Hide!”

“I can’t!” Twilight whispered back. “If I stop now, I think this entire spell might collapse on itself and lock us out permanently!”

“We need another distraction!” Rarity hissed. “Can somebody–”

A yellow blur flew passed as who should step up to the plate but… Fluttershy?

The two royal guardsmen, who’d up till now had been thoroughly engrossed in their conversation on the latest developments on the Pro Magic Circuit, were distinctly surprised to see a startlingly pretty girl with cherry blossom hair nervously approaching them.

“Um… excuse me,” she whispered, so quietly that they almost didn’t hear her. “I’m so sorry to trouble you, but… have you seen my pet bunny? His name is Angel, and he’s the sweetest little white rabbit in the whole world. Has he been here?”

The guardsmen exchanged very surprised glances.

“Uh, sorry ma’am,” one of the soldier replied with an abashed grin. “Haven’t seen any rabbits around here. Have you tried the gardens?”

“I did,” Fluttershy, replied, only now her voice audibly trembled as tears began to well in her eyes. “But he wasn’t there, so I started looking all over the castle, but… but….”

Surprised glances gave way to outright alarm as the young lady broke out into the most heart wrenching sobs this side of a daytime melodrama.

“I just can’t find him!” the delicate girl cried. “Oh, my poor Angel Bunny! What if he’s hurt? If something were to happen to him, I… I….”

"Hey there, take it easy now,” the other guardsman said, awkwardly attempting to soothe her by patting her head much like he would his old basset hound. “I’m sure he’s just taking a nap under a tree somewhere. Everything’s probably just fine.”

“Are… you sure?” Fluttershy sniffed, looking up at him with the big, tearful pony eyes.

“Definitely,” the other soldier replied with a reassuring smile. “Tell you what. Why don’t we go out and help you look for him? Three heads are better than one, right?”

"Oh, thank you so much!” the demure girl beamed with a radiant smile. “That’s just so wonderful, I… I don’t know what to say!”

So with more reassuring words and more pats on the head, the two royal guardsmen led Fluttershy out on a search for the ‘sweetest little white rabbit in the whole world.’ On the way out however, Fluttershy turned and gave her friends crouched by the door a quick wink.

“… Wow,” Pinkie Pie blinked. “I didn’t know Fluttershy could turn on the water works like that. She’s good.”

“Indeed,” Rarity intoned with a very thoughtful expression. “I might just have to take notes.”

A solid click, and the hidden mechanisms inside the large oak doors came apart, opening the way forward. With mutual grins of triumphant excitement, the remaining three girls crept through the door and continued on.

*****

Neither guard noticed the black-robed figure peeking out from the stairwell at the end of the hall. I mean, not being seen is kind of the whole point of being a ninja isn’t it?

“So what’re we looking at?” Twilight whispered as Pinkie Pie oozed back down to where her friends crouched in hiding.

“Apparently each other,” the curly-haired girl replied, “but that doesn’t help us get passed the two guards at the end of the hall there.”

“Drat,” Rarity said with a faux snap of the fingers. “I don’t suppose another sob story about lost pets would do here, would it?”

"They’d probably just ask how we got passed door in the first place,” Twilight grimaced. “Probably not a good idea.”

“Ooh! Ooh!” Pinkie Pie called out as she waved her hand furiously. “Why don’t you just teleport us in there? You can do that, right?”

“If I could, wouldn’t I have just done that in the first place?” the lady mage replied with a weary smile? “No, I can’t teleport to a location unless I've built up a sufficient frame of reference. Since I’ve never even been in there before, that’s a no go.”

“Then we’ll just have to find a way to lure them away from the door, down the stairs, and out of sight before we sneak up once they're cleared," Rarity frowned.

“Any ideas on how to do that?” Twilight asked. Both she and Rarity turned to stare at Pinkie Pie as the curly haired party-enthusiast began to giggle uncontrollably.

“Don’t worry your pretty little heads, girls,” she grinned from behind her mask, “Auntie Pinkie Pie’s got this all figured out.”

*****

“Man I hate getting guard duty up here,” Stormchaser sighed. “Nothing ever happens up here.”

“Could be worse,” Thunderhead shrugged. “You could’ve gotten slotted into KP duty.”

“At least then I’d be able to sneak some snacks from the pantries, or something. Up here, it’s just a bunch of standing around and being bored until the… next shift… ... comes?”

The armor clad soldier’s train of thought was promptly derailed as a small, silver ball rolled down the hall towards their feet.

“What the…?”

With a resounding roar and a flash of light, the small orb exploded into a torrent of brightly colored confetti. The two guards blinked, understandably confused as tiny bits of paper rained down around them like a sprinkle-colored snowstorm. And as if that wasn’t odd enough, then came the assault.

“Take cover!” Stormchaser yelled as he tackled his companion to the floor. Just in time too, because at that precise moment, two red velvet and cream cheese frosted pastries sailed through the location right where his head had been.

“Uh, Stormy?” Thunderhead winced from where he lay on the ground, “You do realize those were just cupcakes right?”

“Yeah, but… they could have been dangerous cupcakes, you know?” his now somewhat chagrined friend replied with a sheepish grin.

“Right,” Thunderhead nodded. “Where did they come from, anyway? And who the heck throws cupcakes to begin with?”

“Um, how about a ninja armed with bandolier of bear claws and handfuls of biscottis in each hand?” Stormchaser suggested.

“Is your helmet on too tight or something? Where in Celestia’s green pastures did you–” The question was succinctly answered as Thunderhead turned and saw a ninja armed with a bandolier of bear claws and handfuls of biscottis in each hand standing at the end of the hallway, plain as day.

“あなたの家族の宝石を失うための準備!” the ninja – or technically, the kunoichi, given its high-pitched, girly voice – cried as it flung a fistful of bake-hardened bread at the pair.

“Ow!” Stormchaser cried as one struck him squarely on the nose. “What the heck’s going on?”

“あなたのお母さんはロバだったとあなたのお父さんは牛の息子だった!” it cried again as the second handful of biscottis sailed through the air.

“I don’t know,” Thunderhead replied as he ducked the delicious projectile, “but I have a feeling we’d better stop it before snacks are permanently banned as lethal weapons.”

The two guards gave chase, attempting to take hold of the mysterious assailant, who kept up a steady stream of donuts and commentary as she fled. Dashing down the stairs with the grace of a puma, the ninja girl executed a perfect triple backflip over a row of desks before dashing out the door with the guards hot on her heels.

*****

“Do I even want to ask where Pinkie Pie learned to do that?” Rarity asked as she peeked out from behind a potted plant.

“Sometimes, I feel it’s best to chalk it up to Pinkie Pie just being Pinkie Pie,” Twilight shrugged as she crawled out from a nearby workstation.

“Indeed. Well, she’s done an admirable job clearing the way, so let’s not let this opportunity go to waste.”

Dashing back up the stairs, the two girls came to the heavy, bronze doors, the final barrier standing between them and their goal.

“You ready for this?” Twilight asked, her heart starting to pound in anticipation. This was so wrong; they were breaking into classified military documents, for crying out loud. But the look in her friend’s sapphire eyes confirmed that sometimes, rules just had to be broken.

So taking a deep breath, the two girls took hold of the handles, paused a moment to steady their nerves, and pulled the door open to find…

A fairly empty room with only a couple of bookshelves and a desk to show it was in any use at all.

“Twilight, are you sure this is the right place?” Rarity asked incredulously as she stepped in.

“Positive,” the purple-haired poindexter replied as she pulled out her wand. “Yup, the locator spell’s working just fine. This is definitely the right place.”

“It certainly is very… spartan,” Rarity commented as she walked towards the bookshelf to take a look. “To be honest, I was expecting a little bit more in the way of decorations and general content.”

“That’s what most people say,” a booming voice called out as both girls yelped in surprise. “But then again, it’s not their office, so that doesn’t really matter, does it?”

The large leather bound chair, which had been turned to face the open window opposite the door, slowly spun around to reveal a very large man who smiled with ice blue eyes.

“General Ironside,” Twilight replied with a sickly smile. “What a… pleasant surprise.”

**********

Chapter 9

Chapter 9

It took a few moments for Twilight to loosen her shock-stunned jaw up to the point where she could once again speak.

“General Ironside,” she smiled, doing her best to sound nonchalant and failing like a badly prepped midterm. “What are you doing here?”

“This is my office. I work here,” he replied in a thunderous rumble, his face impassive behind his granite-colored beard. “What brings you two all the way up here?”

“Oh!” Twilight started. “We were um… just, uh… taking a look around?” The smile on her face slipped another notch as the burly commander’s scrutinized the pair of them with ice blue eyes.

“Just looking around, eh?” he intoned, his chin resting on the back of his folded hands, his gaze as sharp as permafrost icicles. “In a place that happens to be locked and beyond a door where two armed guards are blocking the way? You just… happened to stumble upon this room, where some of Equestria’s most confidential secrets are locked away? Is that what just... happened?”

“Um… well, when you put it that way…” Twilight gulped. This was bad, bad as in worse than being sent back to magic kindergarten bad, which was really, really bad. The princess had always given her some leeway as a student, but that probably wouldn’t protect her from the ramifications of breaking into highly classified areas of the palace. If Celestia found out about what she’d done today, if she heard about the nigh treasonous activities her “most faithful” student had pulled, then…

It was only at this point she realized Ironside was smiling.

"In that case, I’ll ring us up some tea.”

*****

In a state of understandable bewilderment, the two young ladies soon found themselves seated before the general’s desk, two cups of steaming Earl Grey before them and some very confused looks between them.

“Most people prefer coffee in the afternoon,” Ironside intoned as he stirred a couple of sugar cubes into his cup, “but I find it gets me too wired up. A man ought to keep a level head during the day, make sure his wits are about, wouldn’t you agree?”

“I guess so,” Twilight smiled nervously as she sipped her own drink. “I just stick with tea myself because I like the taste.”

“There’s that too,” Ironside nodded. “But I guess taste is a matter of, well, taste. Some people would prefer a cup of tar black coffee to even the finest tea. Some people, like, say… a certain marshal?”

Two cups froze in midair.

“… So, I take it you know the real purpose of our visit?” Rarity delicately proffered, a reserved smile on her otherwise immaculately composed face.

“Wasn’t really hard to figure out,” the general shrugged. “Library automatically notifies us whenever extra attention gets paid to one of our own. That, plus that outrageous, if highly entertaining stunt you all pulled in the courtyard, and I figured you’d be stopping by sooner or later. That’s why I told the guards not to give you two a hard time if you came by.”

Twilight took a long drink, if only to shield her burning cheeks from view. To have her carefully laid out plans dissected so casually made her feel uncommonly silly.

“I see,” Rarity nodded as she consolingly patted her flushed friend’s leg. “Well then, it seems we've reached a rather sticky situation, haven’t we?” Ironside glanced at her with casual aplomb.

“What do you mean by that?”

“Frankly,” she began, “the reason we tried to enter so… clandestinely, was because we aren't exactly permitted to see the information we seek. And while you’ve been most accommodating of our efforts, I doubt that you’d be willing to let us, say, sneak a peek at the records anyway?” The final words were painted with just a touch of a suggestive smile and the big soldier couldn’t help but chuckle.

“Actually, I wouldn’t mind at all,” he grinned as he reached behind his desk and pulled out a thick, cord bound folder with the word “Graves” stamped across the top in blocky, black letters. “But it’s not going to do you any good.”

Setting down the folder before the two poleaxed girls, Ironside slid the heavy packet towards them. Twilight looked to the folder, and then at Rarity, then back to the general, who merely settled back in his seat and sipped his tea.

Could it really be this easy? After all their interviews and research, their fruitless hunting and scrambling around, could it really be as simple as opening the folder before them? Had they actually done it?

Reaching out a tentative hand, as if afraid the clandestine file would disappear into thin air, Twilight undid the cord and pulled back the cover to reveal–

–a blank page.

She blinked.

Flipping it aside, she found the next page was blank as well. And the next. And the next. And the next one as well. Picking up the folder, the puzzled mage flipped through the entire binder only to find that each and every single page was as white as a pre-dinner tablecloth.

“… Is this some kind of prank?” Twilight asked, doing her best to be polite, but unable to keep a slight tint of indignation from her voice.

“Not in the slightest,” Ironside replied calmly. “I was completely serious when I said it wouldn’t do you any good.”

“Well what good does it do at all?” Rarity interjected? “I can hardly expect a packet of blank parchment to be of service to anyone.”

“… But they’re not blank,” Twilight intoned as her amethyst eyes sparked to life with understanding. “It’s a Single-Eye Spell, isn’t it?”

“Celestia certainly picked herself a smart one,” Ironside chuckled in approval. “That’s exactly the case. I usually keep copies of the more commonly referenced ones up here, enchanted for my eyes only and set to go up in smoke the second the spell's broken. The actual files - the ones you're looking for - are stored in a much safer vault, the location of which not even Professor Dewey knows about.”

“So you’re saying that we made this whole trip for nothing?” Twilight gaped in disbelief.

“If it’s any consolation, the file probably wouldn’t have done you any good even if you’d read it,” the general added with a bracing smile. “They’re mostly just technical reports on all the missions he’s been on. Lots of record keeping and tabulations, hardly anything of interest to a couple of ladies, such as yourselves.”

“He certainly has been keeping busy then,” Rarity remarked as she hefted the folder in one manicured hand. “This is almost a novel in itself. There must be, what… two, maybe three hundred pages here at least.”

“Something like that,” Ironside grinned. “That boy’s got more missions under his belt than porcupine’s got quills.”

“So you’re familiar with his history?” the pretty dressmaker asked, a spark of interest coming into her sapphire eyes.

“I should hope so,” the general replied. “I knew him before he even joined the marshals, and that’s a long time, all things considered.”

“In that case,” Rarity said, pausing to bite her lower lip in pensive hesitation. “Do you think that you could perhaps be so kind as to… tell us about him?”

Ironside gave her a very pointed look.

“You do realize that by telling you anything about those missions would be tantamount to treason, don’t you?”

“Oh, I’m certainly not asking for that,” Rarity airily laughed. “But you said yourself, the classified portions are only the technical matters, which wouldn’t interest us anyway. That means if you were to talk about anything but those subject, then everything should be fine, no?”

“…. You sure are a clever one,” Ironside chuckled richly, sounding like the rumblings of a tropical thunderstorm. “And pretty as a summer sunset to boot. I can see why the boy’s so head over heels for you.”

Twilight watched in fascination as Rarity’s cheeks heated to match the color of a ripe cherry.

“Well! I… um… wouldn't go that far,” Rarity stammered, fumbling with her cup as she desperately tried to compose herself. “I mean, I would never think to say that he’s 'head over heels', for me, per se, considering how level-headed he is and what not, but… is it possible that he said something to you? Mentioned me, perhaps?” This, the young lady asked with hope ringing in her voice and anticipation shining in her eyes, but all Ironside could return was an apologetic grimace.

“Sorry, not to me. He hasn't been in a really chatty mood recently, not ever since that fiasco on Gala night.”

“Why? What happened on… oh, right. Missions classified. Sorry,” Twilight sheepishly grinned in response to the general’s level look.

“Like I said, missions and the others are off limits. But pretty much everything else is free game. Course, that’s a lot of material to cover, so why don’t you tell me what you know so far?”

“Honestly, we haven’t learned that much,” Rarity reluctantly admitted. “The people we talked to gave us more hearsay and gossip than a week spent at the salon. I mean honestly, some of the outlandish things people will say."

“And what kind of outlandish things are these?"

"Beyond the normal myths and legends about his battle prowess, that he's become such a soldier because he's actually some sort of robot. Maybe a zombie. Possibly both.”

The general’s booming laughter echoed through the room like dropping shells on an artillery range.

“Well, he certainly fits the bill on those, I’ll give you that,” he chuckled as he wiped a mirthful tear from his eye. “Graves smiles almost as much as a turnip and speaks as if every word cost him a bit. Given that, and the fact that he's put in more shop time than the average three marshals combined, I'd say those rumors were less outlandish than you'd think."

"But, he's not really a revenant, is he?" Twilight chuckled half from the amusing description and half to assure herself it was only amusement she felt. "I mean, there's no way that Equestria would actually authorize the unholiest of dark magics to reanimate an undead warrior to serve the nation from beyond the grave. Right?"

"Stranger things have happened," Ironside replied as he sipped his tea. It wasn't until the purple-haired scholar had openly gaped for a good five seconds that his impassive facade cracked into a smile.

"No, he's not a revenant," the general finally replied. "At least not from what I know, which is a lot, let me tell you. That boy entered the academy just like any other man. With a whole lotta blood, sweat and grit, he made his way through and began his days as a marshal. Everything he's done till now has been a choice of his own free will, or at least as close as any of use ever gets to a free choice. No, that boy may be a lot of things, but a soulless puppet is definitely not one of them."

It wasn't until the tense knots of apprehension faded from her back that Twilight realized they'd been there at all. The answer hadn't been perfect, but it was enough to dispel the single, greatest fear they'd been dealing with ever since his departure: whether everything they'd known up till then had been nothing more than a farce. A man makes his own choices, and the fact that he chose what he did meant everything was blessedly, mercifully real. Even if that was all they'd learn today, that piece of news alone had made the whole trip worth it.

"Whew. That certainly put's my mind at ease," Twilight sighed with the same, genuinely relieved smile she usually reserved for post-finals unwinding. "For a second there, I was starting to think that there was nothing more to him than being a really good soldier."

"Come on, just a 'really good' one?" Ironside chuckled. "I'd have thought a scholar like you would be able to come up with a better description than that."

“I thought it was pretty accurate,” Twilight frowned, not quite understanding. “I mean, what else would you call him?”

“Me?” Ironside replied as he pulled back the file and flipped it open, “Based on his record, I wouldn’t call him anything short of bleeding brilliant. Graves, currently of the special twenty sixth marshal unit, has completed over two hundred and fifty missions during his eight year tenure, a good third of them occurring during the his current three years operating as a solo unit. He’s earned just about every major medal Equestria has to offer, several more than once, and lead to the brass making up more just to keep up. To say that Graves is a really good soldier would be making a house cat out of a mountain lion. That boy’s not just good; he may very well be the best marshal we've ever seen.”

...

“… Wow,” Twilight blinked as the monologue came to an end. “I knew he was really good, but... yeah, that's way more than just really good. I never thought he was that... that bleeding brilliant.”

“Most people don’t,” Ironside chuckled, his ice blue eyes twinkling upon hearing his words repeated. “I'm guessing everything you’ve heard about are just the tidbits and rumors gathered by the occasional observer. The only one who really knows is Graves himself, and you both know as well as I that he's not one to brag. I mean, could you even imagine Graves giving himself the name ‘The Ghost of Thunder?’”

“Wha?” the purple-haired scholar snorted. “Where did that come from?”

“His funny habit of disappearing. One minute he’s there, and bam. Gone, just like a ghost, invisible till you hear the thundering roar of his rifle. A bit overly dramatic, but you know how people like a good story, right?”

“I certainly do,” Twilight nodded in complete agreement. “What do you think about all this, Rarity? I mean, you’re the only one of use who’s ever really seen Graves in actions. Do you… uh… Rarity?”

“Hmm?”

The violet haired-beauty blinked like she'd been woken from a nap.

“You sort of blanked out there,” Twilight said. “Is something wrong?”

“No, not wrong,” Rarity replied. “I was just a bit surprised. I never quite imagined that Graves was quite so… old.”

“Old?” Ironside snorted. “Now just what makes you think a whippersnapper like him is old?”

“Well, you just said he’s been a marshal for eight years," she began. "I didn’t find out much about Graves in the library, but I did learn a lot about the marshals and the academies. In the advanced Canterlot branch, the average cadet doesn't enter until he's at least eighteen, usually after establishing some kind of lesser service record elsewhere. It then takes three years to finish the basic curriculum, plus another year for live field training and placement tests into the various branches, if you managed to pass everything the first time around..."

“…. that would mean joining at eighteen at the earliest, plus four plus some extra to get all his crazy skills, plus eight for service makes him … what, over thirty?” Twilight blinked in surprise. “Really?”

“Isn’t it odd?” Rarity frowned with equal perplexity. “The kind of life he lives can’t be good for his complexion, and yet he certainly doesn't look that much older than we do. I’d always thought he’d be around Big Macintosh’s age, but the numbers seem to indicate otherwise.”

“So… you two are saying that you don’t even know how old Graves is?” Ironside interjected, an odd, almost puzzled look on his own face.

“We can both attest to how reticent he is with personal information,” Rarity replied with a grimace. “No, he never actually told us that either.”

“I see,” the general frowned as he scratched his beard in absent minded thought. “Well, I’m not sure how to say this any other way, but… Graves isn’t that old. Not even close.”

“He’s not?” Twilight blinked. “But you just said–“

“–I said he’s been a marshal for eight years. I never said any of the other stuff.”

"Wait a second," Twilight frowned as she narrowed her eyes suspiciously. "What are you trying to say? Are you saying that's not how it happened?”

"Pretty much," Ironside shrugged. "First off, Graves didn’t spend any extra time at the academy; he graduated in the three year average much like everyone else. The second is… uh, let’s see… how old is that Big Mac fellow you were talking about?”

“Big Macintosh?” Rarity repeated with furrowed brow. “I don’t see how this relates, but…. hmm… He’s seven years older than Applejack, who’s a year younger than me, so that would make him... twenty five, give or take.”

“Alright,” Ironside nodded. “So to put this in the easiest way I know how, Graves is more than a full year younger than this Big Mac. Fact is, it wasn’t but a month before going to Ponyville that he turned twenty four.”

The room slowly fell silent as the mental gears in the young ladies’ minds ground to a nasty, grinding halt.

Twenty four.

No. Wait. That couldn’t be right.

Twilight ran through her figures again, then once more, then a few more times to triple and quadruple check , firmly convinced she must have made some mistake in the absurdly simple arithmetic. But no matter how many times she checked her work, no matter how many times she crunched the numbers, the answer came up the same. Eight years of service as a full marshal. Standard four year graduation and placement. If Graves was twenty four now, then that would mean…

“No way,” Twilight gasped, her mind initiating critical meltdown by the absolutely insane conclusion. “Are you… are you saying that Graves enrolled at the Academy when he was twelve?!”

**********

Chapter 10

Chapter 10

“Or maybe he was thirteen. No, wait. Hmm… nope. Twelve. Definitely twelve.”

As General Ironside calmly sipped his tea, Twilight was left to face an unprecedented dilemma. The commander was as reliable a source as she could find, being one whom Princess Celestia trusted with some of Equestria’s most delicate affairs. But she was a lady of logic and the words coming from this source were anathema to reason in a very foundational sense. The resulting paradox of hearing something impossible from a source that meant it had to be possible produced consternation of a density comparable to the heart of a star, which produced a thermonuclear fusion reaction of disbelief that served to fuel one of her most eloquent responses to date.

“Nope! Nuh uh. No way. Nope. Not happening. Absolutely not. There is no way that Graves could possibly have entered the Academy at twelve when Shining Armor didn’t even enter until he was fifteen. That is just a big old stinky pile of absolutely not even remotely possible nope.”

“Pardon me dear,” Rarity interjected, “but is that because it’s really impossible, or because Shining Armor is your big brother?”

“It doesn’t even matter!” she huffed. “My point is, the Academy’s a place designed to take the best and or craziest people and make them into the cream of Equestria’s military crop. Even Shining Armor, the one hailed as the second coming of Medicus Fati, couldn’t start that young, and I refuse to believe that there is someone who is even more talented than he is!”

Yup. Definitely a big brother complex.

“And you’d be right,” Ironside nodded. “Graves isn’t talented at all.”

You’re darn right he’s not! In fact–” The young mage paused, making a mental double take of the last, somewhat unexpected statement. “Hold on a second. What do you mean, ‘isn’t talented at all’?”

“Exactly what I said. He isn’t a talented person at all.”

“… He’s not?”

“Heavens, no,” the big man snorted. “Sure, he’s tough and smart as a whip, don’t get me wrong, but his ability to convert mana to magic is subpar at best and he handles the resulting magic like a drunken sailor attempting fine embroidery.”

“So…” Twilight blinked, “he’s not a prodigy.”

“I believe I just said that,” the general smiled.

“Not even talented?” she continued.

“No way or how,” he agreed.

“But he’s actually… below, average?”

“A textbook case.”

“Then… then how on earth did he ever get to being a marshal?” Twilight gaped. “Hay, how’d he even make it through Academy?”

Ironside drained the last of his tea.

“The simple way. Lots of good old fashioned hard work.”

For even the greatest of minds, there comes a point where mental strength may fail. For the purple-haired mage, that moment was now, as the now critical mass of the general’s absurdity collapsed on itself, creating a swirling black hole of impossibility from which no logic could escape. Twilight had, in fact, reached a spontaneous cosmic explosion of pure incredulity.

“Twilight? Darling, are you all right?”

Nothing. Rarity’s hand waving and finger snapping had no effect on her friend’s vacant stare.

“Well, it seems she’s a bit indisposed,” the young lady replied with as much gracious aplomb as she could afford the semi-comatose scholar. “But I can safely guess what she would ask anyways.”

“And what would that be?” Ironside chuckled.

“How? I’m sure none of us here deny that hard work is integral to any amount of success, but to reach the levels that he did with what you indicate to be no natural talent, whatsoever, well… in some ways, it seems even more far-fetched than the theories we heard earlier.”

“Yeah!” Twilight agreed, the smell of a fresh debate bringing her out of the fugue. “I mean, the Great Vulcanos spent his lifetime perfecting his flame spells, and fire is much easier in comparison to lightning. I don’t care how much hard work you do, you can’t master lightning magic with just a few years of hard work.”

“Well, when did I ever say he was a master?”

Once again, Twilight paused at the hints of misunderstanding.

“You said he was the first person to ever make lighting magic viable in the field,” the she began cautiously. “That’s why he’s so famous and that’s how he got his weird nicknames like the Ghost of Thunder, right?”

“Indeed it is,” the general nodded. “But when did I ever say that that made him a ‘master’?”

“… What are you saying?” Twilight asked, her eyes narrowing with all the suspicion of a detective in the interrogation room.

“What I’m saying,” the general smiled, “is that there’s a world of difference between mastering a field of magic and making it usable. Fact is, Graves only uses the most basic lightning spell there is.”

“Really?” the mage girl blinked. Ironside nodded.

“Really. Spell guns already focus and amplify power as it is, and with his modified long range cannon of a rifle, even the most basic spell would pack plenty of punch. Plus, it takes a whole lot less mana, so even a shallow bucket like Graves can make a fair number of shots.”

“But, but even so, “she continued, “it’s not like the basic spells are easy either. Even a simple lightning blast would require–”

“– what, a thousand repetitions?” the big man interjected. “Ten thousand?” Twilight nodded.

“Maybe more. They say that for average people, that’s the number of times it takes to become merely proficient. Even with the simplest spell, a soldier who has to do it time and time again in different, difficult circumstances might need two or even three times that much practice.”

“Congratulations,” Ironside chucked. “You’ve covered about the first month of that boy’s training.”

“… Wut?”

“To learn that spell, Graves had to repeat the same litany ten thousand times a week, every week for two straight years. Shocked himself more often than a steel porcupine in a thunderstorm, but he did manage to get it eventually.”

“Okay… I guess that makes sen– hey, wait a minute! No it doesn’t!”

“It doesn’t?”

“No, it doesn’t,” Twilight frowned. “If he spent that much time working on a single spell, then how on earth did he manage to find time to do the mandatory spell work for his classes?”

“By not doing them?” the general shrugged. “Except for a handful of absolutely vital utility spells, he pretty much didn’t bother. Sort of explains why his grades were so low, come to think of it.”

“… Oh.”

An obvious answer, of course, but understandably overlooked. For a studious girl such as herself, the concept of not doing classwork was about as foreign as sanitation to a troll.

“Well, even if he didn’t do his classwork,” Twilight continued, albeit awkwardly as she admitted such a scandalous notion, “he’d still have to learn some spells, right? I mean, charms like Iron Soul, Zephyr’s Swiftness, and Revitalizing Spring are all basic to the marshals because they’re super useful. There’s no way he could just skip those.”

“Those are some very crucial spells, that’s true,” Ironside nodded as he stroked his beard in careful contemplation. “Making your body hard as metal is fantastic for both offense and defense, especially in conjunction with enchanted speed. And of course, the ability to reenergize a tired body can mean the difference between life and death. But you have to remember, no matter how useful a spell is, it’s only in relation to how much mana you have, which is why marshals are almost always naturally gifted mages.”

“But for a person like Graves,” Twilight continued in quiet contemplation, slowly fitting the pieces together, “who’s not naturally gifted–”

“–it’d be like pouring water into a bowl with no bottom. Even if he bothered learning them, he’d never be able to use them.”

“So what then?” the young scholar asked. “How’d he make up the difference?”

“Same way as he did with the magic,” Ironside replied. “Lots and lots of hard work. You don’t need a spell to make you tougher if you’re already solid as a rock to begin with, and you won’t need to bother with energizing a tired body if you just don’t get tired.”

“Still, is that enough?” Twilight countered once more. “Those spells can boost a person’s natural abilities to technically superhuman levels. Even if Graves pushed himself to the pinnacle of physical performance, he’d still be a good bit shy of the levels other marshals could do.”

“And that,” Ironside replied, “is when you stop relying on ability and look to skill. You’re right, Graves just didn’t have that much potential, and that's why he got the skills and techniques needed to maximize the potential he had. I mean, you don’t need to fire a dozen spells if your first shot always hits, and you can probably guess that martial skills create countless ways to help the weaker man win. Course, it’s much harder to learn these things, which is why people prefer to use spells, but it is possible. Very difficult, very time consuming, and incredibly painful. But… possible.”

Amethyst eyes met icy blue, considering them as she might pawns on a chess board. A small curve appeared on the corner of her lip.

“So, Graves reached this point through hard work, correct?” she asked levelly.

“Indeed. Had to put in more than three times as much effort as a normal cadet, but he did it.”

“Three times as much,” the sweater-vested girl impassively repeated. “Every day?”

“Far as I knew,” Ironside nodded before narrowing his eyes in a return of suspicion. “Why do you ask, anyway?” Here, Twilight’s smile finally came to full, smug fruition.

“Because I’ve finally caught your story in a snag,” she beamed. “You say that Graves isn’t anything special, that he got to where he did with lots of hard work. But then you said he put in three times the normal effort on physical training every single day. This, dear general, creates a logical impasse. If he’s as normal as you say, then his body would break apart from an unsustainable amount of wear and tear. The only way it could happen was if he did have some sort of special traits or abilities that set him apart.”

“And this is relevant how?” Rarity prompted, eyebrow arched in query.

“I’m… not actually quite sure,” Twilight admitted. “I sort of just figured that if I found a flaw with his story, it’d indicate he was trying to pull a fast one on us and we might be able to use that to leverage the real story out of him.”

“Pretty good thinking there,” Ironside grinned. “Ever considered a career in intelligence?”

“Thank you, but no,” the young scholar replied with prim glee. “I would just like to hear your explanation for the situation. Is what you said true?”

“Every word,” Ironside nodded.

“In that case, please explain how a normal person could do an impossible amount of work without any special attributes?” As she finished, Twilight lifted her cup and took a long, satisfied draught of tea.

“Oh, that’s easy,” the big man answered. “He just used a Lazarus Pit.”

*****

Rarity was grateful that she was sitting next to Twilight and not in front, as with bulging eyes and puffing cheeks, the sweater-vested scholar did an honest-to-Celestia spit take.

“What?!” she sputtered, coughing and hacking as a good portion of the Earl Grey went down the wrong pipe instead of out. “Did... did you just say Lazarus Pit?”

“I… did…” Ironside nodded, if rather distractedly as he stared at the suddenly formed puddle on top of his desk.

“Why? How?” Twilight asked, never taking her surprise struck eyes off the general even as she waved her wand and cleared the mess. “How on earth did Graves get his hands on a genuine Lazarus Pit?”

“Oh, that. We keep one in the Academy infirmary. Part of the whole educational process, don’t you know.”

“WHAAAAAAAAT?!”

“Er, pardon me,” Rarity interrupted with a hesitant hand raised. “I seem to be missing something. What exactly is this Lazarus Pit you two are speaking of?”

“Old form of magic,” Ironside explained as he traced a finger over his now spotless desk. “Pool of enchanted potions that rapidly accelerates the body’s healing process. Anything from minor cuts and scrapes to broken bones and even internal damage gets healed up in a matter of minutes.”

“Except what the general fails to mention mention,” Twilight scowled, “is that the Lazarus Pools are a highly, highly regulated form of magic as they teeter on the border between pyrrhic utility and just plain torture.”

“And… how are they a problem, exactly?” Rarity prompted, still in the dark about the subject.

“Ever heard of the phrase, ‘the cure’s worse than the disease?’” Twilight asked.

“Yes? the pretty seamstress nodded uncertainly.

“Well, that saying preeeeetty much came straight from those pools. Sure, they can cure lots of injuries in a matter of minutes, but they say that those few minutes feel like every inch of submerged skin is being stung by wasps.”

“I’d say it’s more akin to being boiled like a potato,” Ironside corrected, “but wasps are a fair description as well.”

“My point,” Twilight shot back through gritted teeth, “is that either way, Lazarus Pits are completely pointless and inhumane methods of treatment given today’s developed medical magic. Which raises the question why the Academy has something like that in the infirmary in the first place?”

The stink eye she gave the general contained all the odors of a dirty rag cloth soaked in month-old milk.

“Like I said," Ironside shrugged, “education.”

“I think what Twilight is trying to say,” Rarity began, intervening before her rather riled compatriot to get revved up and going, “is what lesson could you possibly need such a barbaric device for?”

“Why, the simplest lesson of all,” Ironside laughed, his booming peals echoing through the room. “We’ve got to teach the cadets not to be complete idiots.”

The blank stares he got in return prompted him to continue.

“See, most people who join the army have a certain… wild streak to them,” he began. “That’s not a problem in itself, but it does become an issue if it leads the cadets to do stupid things and take stupid risks. Training accidents and serious injury get normal treatment, of course, but for genuinely bonehead moves, like getting gored when you decide to moon the gorgon, well… they can choose to live with a hole in their butts, or take a quick dip into the pool. Either way, it’s a lesson they don’t soon forget.”

“And despite the very purpose of these pools to be dissuasive,” Rarity began with the utmost of incredulity, “you’re telling me that Graves, as a child, decided to use them on a regular basis?”

“Hay, I bet he used them more than the showers. Broken blisters from running too much? Hit the pool. Hand broken on the sand bags? Hit the pool. Magic backlash, internal bruising, exposure, and even just a common cold? All into the pool. He used that sucker to keep his body in perfect condition just so he could break it back down again without needing to rest. Or at least till he got to the point where he didn’t need it anymore.”

*****

Twilight slumped back into her seat, the figurative weight of a mountain’s worth of information bearing down onto her weary head. It was a stretch, and by stretch, she meant attempting a trip to the moon with nothing more than a spring board kind of long shot. But if it what Ironside had just told them was true, that Graves was somehow mad enough to subject himself to the Lazarus Pits over and over again for the sake of his absurdly spartan training, then maybe… just maybe…. an ordinary man could in fact become a marshal on pure grit and ornery stubbornness alone.

It was outlandish, daresay even fantastical, but the puzzle piece fit too perfectly to be anything else but true.

“It’s a lot to take in at once, isn’t?” Ironside prompted with a small, knowing smile. “But I promise you, with Celestia as my witness, that every word here is the honest truth.

“No, I believe you,” Twilight nodded dumbly. “It’s just that, I always thought I was a pretty hard worker, but Graves is… is…”

“Crazy? Obsessive? Borderline and possibly clinically insane?” the general offered, to which the purple-haired girl replied with an amused, if not quite completely joking smile.

“Not the words I would have used, but something like that,” she admitted. “I just… can’t comprehend why somebody would push themselves to that extent. It almost makes him seem inhuman.”

“You can say that again,” Ironside replied ruefully. “But it takes all kinds of crazy to get into this sort of career. Guess Graves just happened to be a bit crazier than most.”

Twilight’s sagacious nod was cut off by an abruptly unexpected yawn. It was only upon looking out of the window that she realized the sun had already begun its descent, painting the skies warm orange and bright scarlet as the day drew to an end.

“Good grief, we’ve been at it for quite a while, haven’t we?” Ironside remarked as he too took note of the time. “Maybe it’s best that we call it a day and let you two get some rest.”

“Yeah, that’s probably a good idea,” Twilight replied with a weary smile as she stood up and turned to leave. It was with a start that her amethyst eyes alighted on the third person in the room.

“Oh geez, I’m so sorry, Rarity,” the purple-haired scholar blurted out in shocked embarrassment. “I was so caught up with asking my own questions, I never let you get in a word edgewise.”

“It’s quite all right,” the pretty dressmaker replied with a gentle smile. “You did such an admirable job leading the discussion, I really didn’t need to involve myself at all.”

“You sure?” her friend queried curiously. “We’ve been here for a while, and I know you probably have more invested in this than anyone. I don’t want to get in your way.”

“If it concerns you that much, then maybe I’ll remain for just a bit longer, in case I think of anything you haven’t covered,” Rarity replied reassuringly. “But you really should go and get some rest: you look like Applejack after zap-apple season.

“I guess I am pretty worn out,” Twilight garbled out through a muffled yawn. “Make sure to fill me in on anything new?”

“Undoubtedly,” Rarity smiled. So with a quick hug farewell, Twilight opened the large doors, passed by the two guards who smelled suspiciously like cake frosting, and stumbled her way down the stairs.

*****

Rarity and Ironside sat in silence for a few moments, ice blue and sapphire eyes appraising each other expectantly.

“So, is there anything I can help you with?” Ironside smiled genteelly from his side of the table.

“If you would be so kind,” Rarity replied with the utmost of decorum. “It’s true, Twilight handled everything remarkably, but there was one slight issue that appeared at the end I was hoping you might address.”

“Of course. What would that be?”

“You said you’ve spoken the absolute truth, and I on that point, I believe you,” she began with a gentle smile. “But that would limit the truth to only what was said, wouldn’t it?”

“You’re… going to have to explain that,” Ironside answered, his tone as polite as ever, but now tinged with the slightest hint of reservation. “I’ve answered all your questions to the best of my knowledge.”

“Indeed you have,” the violet-haired beauty nodded, “which might be more of a failing on our part for not asking the right questions. Twilight asked you about hows and whats, which you provided splendid answers. But… you never addressed the why. Why does Graves behave as he does? What serves to motivate his actions? What is the reason? To have answers to everything and not this is akin to someone specifying the type of stitching and the sort of fabric for a dress without ever making mention as to the style.”

“Hmm…” Ironside leaned back in his seat as he slowly stroked his beard. “That’s certainly an interesting notion you’ve got there. But don’t you think you’re reading a bit too much into this?”

“Really?” the young lady replied with arched eyebrow. “How so?”

“Well, you’re saying motivation this, and reasons that, but have you ever considered that maybe he’s just born like that? Some people work hard, and some people are just lazy bums. Seems like Graves is nothing more than a pretty extreme case of the first.”

“General, there’s hard working, and then there’s this,” Rarity replied. “I consider myself a rather industrious individual, but I can only go to feats of extreme diligence when there’s a deadline looming. Graves may be hardworking, but to go the extremes you’ve laid out, there must be some underlying goal that compels him to do so.”

“And you think I know what that is?” the general queried.

“Well, you certainly know more than you’re letting on.”

“How do you figure that?”

“By what you didn’t say,” she smiled. “In our various other queries, you would always expound on what we asked to some degree, letting us learn more than what we asked. All save for this subject where you were very diligent to stay strictly within the bounds of the topic. To do so would usually require some knowledge of what to avoid, and considering how forthcoming you’ve been on the restrictions of our conversation, the matter must be something that you could say, but would if fact rather not.”

Rarity leaned in closer, her sapphire eyes sparkling with earnest intent.

“So what is it, General Ironside? What exactly are you hiding?”

**********

Chapter 11

Chapter 11

Ironside burst out into bellows of thunderous laughter.

“Miss Rarity, you really are one of a kind,” the big man chuckled as he wiped a tear from the corner of his eye. “But I guess you’d have to be to go after that boy.”

“Some things are just worth the effort, she replied with a weary shrug. “Now please, what can do you know about Graves? Why exactly was he so driven? Why does he feel compelled to push himself to such unreasonable lengths?”

Ironside didn’t answer immediately. After stroking his beard for a spell, he instead decided to reach into the side drawer and pulled out his bottle of Salamander fire whisky. Pouring a finger’s worth into each of two crystal glasses, he handed one to the young lady, who accepted with a wordless nod of thanks.

“… Do you know where a soldier’s worst injuries are?” he asked, taking a slow sip of the fiery drink. When the lady gave no response, the burly officer raised a finger and tapped the side of his head.

“They’re in the mind. We've gotten really good at patching up the regular stuff, what with spells for everything from heart palpitations to wart removal. But what goes on up inside people’s heads, well… even the best mages haven’t been able to do all that much with them.”

“I sort of understand that part,” Rarity slowly acknowledged, “but frankly, I don’t see how it applies to Graves. He was already like that before he entered the service, or else he would never have made it in. How then, does something that would only apply afterwards, affect what happens before?”

“Ah, I see how my statement could be misleading,” Ironside nodded. “I said soldiers because they’re usually the ones who get it the worst. But it’s very possible for other people to get it just as bad.”

“What do you mean?” the young lady frowned as a creeping tendril of apprehension wormed into the pit of her stomach. Taking another sip, the general peered deep into his glass, his blue eyes as somber as an overcast morning.

“It’s odd, isn’t it?" he murmured. "Most parents would never let a child go through such a strenuous test like the Academy entrance exam, much less let said child join in the impossibility that they passed. I mean, just how irresponsible would a parent have to be?”

Though Rarity opened her mouth to speak, her voice caught as the meaning of the general’s words struck home like a two-ton sledge. Still, it took a while for the true magnitude of the idea to sink in, as seen by the ever so slow widening of her sapphire eyes.

“When… How did it happen?” she asked, the words coming out faint and strained, like fabric on the brink of tearing.

“The Warblood Uprising. Must have been, oh, something near fifteen years ago now,” the general sighed. “You were probably too young to remember, but several tribes of orcs in the north began attacking our borders. Eventually, we managed to drive them back, but by then the damage was done and the ruins were... well, let’s just say that you don’t arrive a week later and expect to find survivors in that kind of aftermath. But we did find a very small few, one of them being a little, grey-eyed boy.”

The young lady could say nothing.

“We brought him back to Canterlot and placed him in the Tender Heart Children’s Home. Must’ve been just shy of ten years old at the time. The caretakers there are some of the best in the country, and kids can be surprisingly resilient, but still, that boy had seen things to make a grown man fall apart like shattered glass. Probably why his eyes got so blasted cold. Anyways, it would have taken a miracle for him to get over the trauma, but I don't think anything under this sun could help a kid deal the guilt as well.”

“Guilt?” Rarity blinked, the shock of the last word bringing her out of her stunned silence. “But why on earth would he feel guilty? Surely, nobody would claim that any of this was his fault.”

“Of course not,” the general agreed with a surprising amount of vehemence. “But you have to understand that some things just don’t make sense. Many who survive terrible ordeals, especially if those close to them didn’t, often think that it’s somehow wrong for them to be alive.”

“But… but that…”

“If you think that's utter bollocks, you’d be right,” Ironside sighed. “And that’s what makes it so blasted awful. You can’t help but feel guilty, but you know you shouldn’t. You know that you shouldn’t think like this and that you should get over it and move on with your life. After all, you’re still alive; what right do you have to feel upset? Some people manage to overcome it and move on with their lives. For others, the pressure just becomes too much for them to bear and ends up tearing them apart.”

“Then Graves…” Rarity began, forming a question she wasn’t sure she wanted answered. “Which one was he?”

“…Maybe both?” Ironside shrugged. “He’s still around now, so we know he didn’t take the most drastic route. But I think that somewhere along the way, he got it in his head that he needed to… I don’t know… atone for surviving? Maybe he thought that if he suffered enough, or did enough good, then maybe it’d justify how he still drew breath.”

“And that’s why he pushed himself to get into the Academy?”

“More or less, from what I can tell,” the general nodded. “He was chewed up like twice trampled roadkill by the time he finished the entrance exam, but he’d put enough work in during those two years to just scrape a pass, and according to our military laws, any Equestrian citizen who passes the exam has a right to serve. Might need to take another look at that now, but what's done is done, no?"

"Then, when he got to the Academy," Rarity queried. "Did things get better?"

"Er, not exactly," Ironside reluctantly admitted. "Truth be told, Graves was pretty much all by himself as the other cadets didn't take much of a liking to him.”

“Really?” Rarity remarked in surprise. “I would have thought that those in the academy would sympathize with him better than anyone.”

“Eventually, yes,” the general agreed, “but not at the offset. Most go for years without ever experiencing that kind of ordeal, and few if any go through it as bad as he did. In short, they just couldn't understand what he was going through. Consider that, plus the age difference, his outright manic work schedule, and a gaze that could bore holes through steel, and you end up with a boy who's pretty much always on his own.”

“But, surely he must have had someone to talk to,” the violet-haired girl protested in disbelief. “What about Shining Armor? They were in the same class for training, were they not?”

“That they were, and thank the princesses it was so,” Ironside called with the utmost of fervent sincerity. “I don’t know how or why, but Twilight’s brother took a shine to Graves and absolutely refused to leave him alone. Even joined him on his insane training binges just to create a chance to talk. I bet that rubbed our dear marshal wrong for a good bit, but eventually, the persistence wore him down and Shining Armor became maybe the only real friend Graves ever had.”

“There, you see?” Rarity smiled. “Surely a friend who’d be willing to go that far would be willing to lend Graves an understanding ear when he needed it, no?”

The general’s sigh sounded like the last warm breeze of summer.

“Willing, yes. Understanding, not so much. Keep in mind, Shining Armor was the exact opposite of Graves: loving parents, an adoring little sister, that Princess Cadance whom he got married to, he had it all. He was a good friend, no doubt about that, but even so, there’s no way someone like him could really understand what Graves went through, no matter how much he wanted to.”

“That just doesn't seem right,” Rarity murmured, “to not even be able to confide in your closest friend, especially when you have no one else.”

“Probably not,” Ironside agreed. “But he was there for Graves, and that counts for more than you know. He’s the one who taught Graves to open up, however little it was, which was more than can be said for anyone else. That is at least, until graduation.”

“What happened then?”

“That’s when Graves finally found his home in marshal team twenty-six. Usually, we only have twenty five teams, but we decided to create an experimental unit of highly skilled, if somewhat odd individuals, to see if we could create an exceptionally high performing group. Normally, we try to keep new recruits together under a senior captain, but given how good Graves had gotten at his specific skill sets and how... unique his disposition, we figured it’d be as good a place as any to stick him. Plus, they needed a sniper.”

“And… how did that turn out?” Rarity asked hesitantly. Truth be told, the thought of such a young man joining a team of hardened soldiers, what with their rough lifestyle and undoubtedly uncouth behavior, was enough to curdle her stomach. To her surprise though, the commander burst out into booming peals of laughter.

“Not sure if Graves liked it, but they took to him like pigs to mud. Everyone was a good bit older than him and thought he was just about the cutest little thing to ever happen to their squad. I don’t think he went a full day without somebody teasing him for being a baby-faced cherub or something of the like.”

“Dear me,” the young lady intoned. “I can’t imagine that was pleasant at all.”

“Maybe not, the general smiled fondly, “but it was good for him, because for once in his life, there were people who understood him. Everyone on that team had been through the same kind of thing, maybe not quite so young, but enough to understand what it was like. Graves finally had people who weren't unnerved by his frigid eyes and actually wanted to help him through what he’d experienced. They became his brothers and sisters, the family he'd lost, and they were the ones who finally helped him patch up that gaping rend inside.”

“But…” Rarity’s voiced dropped, so low as to make a whisper seem a shout, “he’s not on a team anymore.”

Ironside nodded wearily as he drained his glass.

“No. No he's not.”

“Operation Elder?”

The general nodded once more.

For a moment, the young lady paused, pensively biting her lip as she considered her next question. It was a daring one and almost certainly beyond the reach of her station. But there were some things she just had to know.

“General," she began, hardly daring to breath, "on that operation... what exactly happened?”

For a moment, Ironside simply looked at the young lady, appraising her as he might a cadet’s uniform before parade.

“You do realize that you’re asking me to tell you highly confidential information that bears directly on the safety of Equestria, correct?”

“I do,” she nodded, a good deal more firmly than she felt. “And I also know you’re going to tell me anyway.”

“And how’s that?”

“Because if you weren't going to, you’d have simply said so.”

Despite the gravity of the subject, Ironside couldn’t help but chuckle.

“Again with the subtleties,” he remarked with a slight smile. “I guess you have a point. Graves has got some serious baggage he needs to deal with, and he’s certainly not going to do it himself.”

“And it’s worth breaching law and order by divulging secrets to do so?” The young lady replied with a faint, but amused grin. The general merely gave an airy wave of his hand.

“Rules are meant to be broken. And besides, he’s a bucking good soldier; it’d be a shame to lose him to something that could be solved with a good talking to.”

“Then I guess we’re in agreement,” Rarity nodded, hiding the trembling of excitement by finally picking up her glass and taking a dainty sip of the rich liquor. “In that case, please tell me. What exactly happened on Operation Elder?”

“… It’s kind of funny, really,” Ironside remarked as he settled back in his chair. “Truth be told, the mission was never actually supposed to happen.”

“That, you’ll have to explain,” the young lady frowned. “Marshals only go where they’re needed. How could the mission not have been intended to happen?”

“At first, it was just supposed to be a scouting mission. Back then, we were getting reports of a strange miasma coming from somewhere in the Crystal Mountains. There wasn’t much, but it was nasty stuff that drove creatures to violent madness. Made them twice as dangerous through sheer, unbridled ferocity. Naturally, we had an interest in finding where this was coming from and putting a stop to it.

"That’s where team twenty-six came in: we sent the on a reconnaissance mission to get in, find the source, and plug it if possible, but get out and report if not. Granted, it was deep in the Crystal Mountains, which would have made it a good C Class mission at least, but nothing that team couldn’t have handled in their sleep.”

“So what went wrong?” Rarity asked.

“It’s sort of a good news, bad news thing. Good news is, the team found the source, some kind of underground vent deep in one of the mountain crags. The bad news was, that crag also happened to be occupied by a full grown dragon.”

The Ponyville dressmaker couldn’t help but shudder at the thought. Though dragons were highly intelligent and often reasonable, that still didn’t mean they were anything less than terrifyingly powerful and very, very dangerous.

“And that’s only the start of it,” Ironside continued. “The reason there was so little miasma leaking from the mountains was because most of it was pooling in the crag where this particular dragon had taken residence. Now, dragons have some of the strongest natural resistances to magic of any known creature, but considering a little of this miasma was enough to cause insanity and this dragon had literally been bathing in it for who knows how long, well... I think you get the idea.”

The young lady nodded in mute understanding.

“To make matters worse, this wasn’t just any old dragon. If it were, then the team may still have been able to take it out and gotten back in one piece. But just to show that bad luck travels in packs, this one happened to be none other than…”

The general took a shuddering breath to steady his nerves,

“… than Typhon himself.”

Rarity blinked.

“… I’m sorry, but did you just say Typhon?” The young lady repeated.

“Oh, so you’ve heard of him.”

“Well of course,” the young lady frowned in confusion. “Typhon the Terrible was the bad dragon who tried to steal the sun in the fairy tales my mother used to read to me. Surely, you can’t be suggesting that Graves and his compatriots ran into a character from a children’s storybook.”

“Correct me if I’m wrong,” Ironside replied as he stroked his beard. “But who was it exactly that ran into the infamous Nightmare Moon, villain of old wives’ tales and subject used to scare children into behaving, hmm?”

Though Rarity opened her mouth to respond, nothing came from it. After all, it’s rather hard to argue with fact.

“Truth be told, many of those fairy tales are actually based on real events, some so old that the only way they've been remembered is through bedtime stories and legends; Typhon is one of these. One of the four Firstborn, the Lord of Dusk was a founding fathers of the dragon race and a direct descendant to the Dragon Mother herself. He was there when Celestia sought to establish the nation of Equestria and it was he who challenged her right to do so.”

“But… but that was thousands of years ago!” Rarity sputtered in stunned disbelief. “True, dragons are undoubtedly long lived, but to have been alive at that point and still around now would make him positively ancient!”

“Hence, the codename Elder,” Ironside replied with a wry grin. “And keep in mind, a normal dragon like Razorfang of the Everfree Forest is dangerous enough, but it’d be like a kitten compared to a tiger when put against Typhon. The Firstborn are far larger, far wiser, and far, far, far more powerful than just about any creature in existence.”

“And this marshal team happened to run into one of them.”

“Yup.”

“Who’d been exposed to a miasma that makes them twice as dangerous and vicious.”

“Exactly.”

“… Well, what exactly are they to do?!” Rarity asked in bewilderment. “It’s not like you can expect them to challenge a creature of legend with just five people and that many spell guns!”

“Actually, four,” Ironside corrected. “One of their numbers was an aura mage with spell wings and power armor.”

“Oh, well that makes all the difference,” the young lady retorted with a roll of the eyes. “My point being is they’re completely outmatched. Surely, you didn’t give the order for them to fight the creature, did you?”

“We didn’t have to. They did it themselves.”

“…”

“….”

“Surely you jest.”

“I wish I were,” the general grimaced. “Unfortunately, I’m not.”

“Well why on earth would they do that?” Rarity asked in something akin to outrage. “I’m no soldier, and even I could tell you that the intelligent thing to do would be to withdraw and wait for assistance.”

“That’s the textbook response, yes,” the general nodded. “Problem with that is, while it’s definitely the safer choice for them and by far the smarter choice, it’s the one choice they couldn’t make.”

“Couldn’t? And why not?”

“Think about it. If Typhon ever decided to leave that crag - and with that much maddening miasma, you can bet it'd be an unpredictable event - then there would be no way Equestria could escape unscathed. Even if the entire army and the entire royal family stood together against him, it would still be a super S class threat, the likes of which we haven’t seen since the rise of King Sombra. You let that dragon leave, and there wouldn’t be enough space in the country for all the graves we’d have to dig.”

“Then if the threat was so large, then how on earth would you expect a team of five marshals to deal with it?” Rarity asked in utter disbelief. “Regardless of how amazing Graves is, to expect him and four others to stand against a force even Celestia and Luna couldn’t repel… it’s unthinkable.”

“It is, the general agreed, “except for the only advantage they had: the element of surprise. If one of the Firstborn got going, it would be like trying to stop an avalanche. But thank heaven for small favors, that team managed to find him while he was still asleep. They could ambush him and stop the avalanche before it could become so much as a snowball.”

“But it didn’t work,” Rarity said softly. “They didn’t make it in time.”

“No, no they didn’t,” Ironside sighed. “Though Graves doesn't have the talent, all those years of hard work and constant practice taught him how to focus the magic he did have to the utmost, to sharpen his lightning and create a bolt of thunder so powerful, even a mythical dragon could be felled by the blow. To do that, all he needed was five minutes.”

Rarity tried to swallow the lump in her throat.”

“What happened?”

“Typhon woke up. Now, Graves was the only one who had a shot at getting through that dragon’s armor, but he needed time to make it happen. So the rest of his team, capitalizing on the confusion of just waking and the madness of the miasma, went out to provide distraction, doing what they could to give Graves those precious few minutes he needed to make the shot. Of course, even team twenty-six couldn’t do much against a beast like Typhon, and one by one, they fell.”

“Didn’t Graves do anything to help?” the young lady gaped. “Couldn’t he have done something to assist, to save his comrades?”

“And then what?” the officer snapped with surprising force. “If Graves had abandoned his post, yes, he might have been able to keep the others from dying for a moment, but what happens next? Typhon would have turned on him, and if he went down, then everything would be lost.” With a dull crunch, the crystal glass in Ironside’s hand shattered under the force of his grip. He didn’t seem to notice.

“No, the thing he should have done, and really the only thing he could have done, was stay in hiding and make the shot. No matter how much he wanted to, no matter how much it hurt, Graves knew that his job was to take down Typhon then and there, whatever the cost. So just like a good little soldier, he stood his ground, gritted his teeth, and did nothing as his team went down.

"But he made the shot.”

**********

“Well, I guess you now know pretty much everything,” Ironside sighed, pulling out a handkerchief and idly mopping up the shards of liquor-soaked crystal. “After that, Graves disappeared from the sensors and somehow ended up making it back to Equestria, broken eight ways till Sunday, but with Typhon's heartstone and the badges of his comrades in tow. From there, he started his solo career and began putting out the workload of a whole team all by himself, probably as a way for him to keep his team alive, considering we couldn’t even recognize they’d ever existed at all.”

“You couldn't?” Rarity gaped. “And why ever not? Surely sacrifice such as theirs should be honored and remembered for ages to come!”

“More than anyone I can think of,” the general wholeheartedly agreed. “But if we did, then we’d have to recognize that Equestria was responsible for killing one of the dragon’s most revered patriarchs, which could have lead to a full blown war between us and them, which may have been even worse than Typhon’s rampage. The only way to avoid that chance was to hide away all evidence until cooler heads could prevail and peace be brokered in truth. To make that happen, team twenty-six just could not exist.”

“How ironic,” Rarity grimaced with all the bitterness of wormwood. “Just when you think they've given everything, they’re called to give more. It seems that not even the dead can rest in peace.”

“It’s even worse for the living,” Ironside said with an identical, if not even more pained expression. “For anyone, watching your entire team fall, the people who in many ways are closer than natural family, would have been unbearable. For someone who’d already gone through that kind of loss before, well… words can’t do the feeling justice.”

“He seemed so different after being with us, though,” Rarity murmured, her voice growing soft and tender at the thought of her raven-haired soldier. "He seemed so much better. I thought he was happy."

“He probably was," the general nodded. "Don’t know what you did, but Ponyville worked wonders on that boy, like I’d hoped. When Celestia told me about you girls, I figured that if anyone had a chance of salvaging what remained in that tattered head of his, it’d be you all. Turns out I was right.”

“Then what about the Gala night?” the young lady pressed on, her eyes gone wide with urgent need. “Before it, everything seemed to be perfect, then he awoke and he had suddenly changed. Or maybe not changed, but… reverted, like how he’d been when first arriving, only even worse. Do you have any idea why?” Ironside shrugged.

“Doctors told me he had a whole bunch of Heart’s Desire pumping in his veins. My guess is it showed him something that brought back the guilt he felt for surviving yet again. Guys like him just don’t feel like they have a right to be happy, so he probably left to make it so he couldn't. ”

“That’s patently ridiculous,” Rarity scoffed, though without much in the way of emphasis.

“Maybe,” the general nodded. “But that’s just how he sees the world and let me tell you, it’s not a pretty view.”

They sat in silence for a spell, the gray-haired commander watching the young lady as she stared into the scarlet contents of her glass. Whatever answers she sought, they apparently weren’t to be found in the sanguine depths.

“What now?” Ironside abruptly said. Rarity blinked.

“Pardon?”

“I said what now?” he repeated. “I’ve probably aired out more of that boy’s dirty laundry than I had a right to. I’m just wondering what you plan to do with it all.”

“Do?” the pretty dressmaker replied. “Why, I just supposed I’ll have to wait, won’t I?”

“Er… Wait?”

“Well, yes,” Rarity blinked once more, seemingly confused at having to explain herself. “I really have no idea where Graves could be, so I’ll just have to wait for him to come back to me. I daresay, he won’t be returning to Ponyville any time soon, but I should have enough contacts in Canterlot that I’ll be able to catch him on his return.”

“So… you actually plan of waiting for him?” the general asked in simple surprise. “Despite everything I told you?”

“I most certainly do,” Rarity replied, her eyes clear and firm like pure, polished gemstones.

“It won’t be easy,” Ironside grimaced.

“It never is,” she nodded in wry agreement, “but it’s precisely the difficult things that are worth doing. After all, fashion would never have taken off if we went with the easy route, and you’d most likely be wearing a shapeless sack instead of that fetching tunic. Quite the worthwhile endeavor, wouldn’t you agree?”

“I most certainly do,” the big man replied as the corner of his mouth curled upward, “but this isn’t just some little fix it up project. After what that boy’s been through, it’ll take nothing less than a miracle for him to become any semblance of normal.”

To his astonishment, Rarity flung her head back and in one fell swoop, consumed the entire glass of eighty proof whisky in one – somehow graceful – gulp. Delicately slamming the glass to the table, the young lady returned a sweet smile while her sapphire eyes blazed like blue fire.

“General Ironside,” she replied, her voice as polite and musical as ever, but unyielding, like crystal wrapped in silk, “I was in attendance when Nightmare Moon made her thousand year return. I’ve faced off against the Spirit of Chaos and Disorder reincarnate. I’ve confronted dragons and minotaurs, fallen to my supposed doom on numerous occasions, and felt the ire of a particularly vengeful – if somewhat illiterate – shadow being bent on wiping out an entire city.

"I played a part in all those fiascos not because I particularly wanted to, but because I knew I had to. But with Graves, I am perfectly serious when I say I have never wanted anything so badly as to bring him back. To think that he’s been suffering all alone for all this time, thinking that he doesn't even have the right to live...” The young lady took pause, steadying her hand and nerves as she quelled the pent up emotions threatening to burst forth as she spoke. She once again continued, if not as steadily, with an even more brilliant light in her sapphire blue eyes.

“Graves needs help. He needs someone to get it through that thick skull of his just what a silly notion he’s holding onto. Guilt from being alive, indeed. Hmph. Well, I intend to be that someone; I’ve grown too fond of him to let him disappear off into some corner of the globe to suffer alone when I can be there by his side. Of course I know it won’t be easy, but if you think I’m going to back down now just because he has a little more baggage than most, them, I’m afraid to say that you, good sir, are sadly, and sorely mistaken.”

...

Like thunder, like an avalanche, like booming artillery, Ironside burst out into peals of raucous laughter. Unable to contain himself, he clutched at his sides, hooting and snorting till tears streamed down his face.

“Hoo boy,” he wheezed between laughs that continuously wracked his body, “I don’t know whether to envy that boy or pity him.”

“Perhaps both,” Rarity smiled sweetly, all genteel composure once more. “He’s certainly caught my eye, but his simply atrocious conduct will certainly get its reckoning, believe you me.”

“And you’re absolutely sure you want to do this?” the general asked once more.

A single, coolly arched eyebrow was all the answer he needed.

“Well then, let me be the first one to wish you luck,” he smiled, extending his hand to take the young beauty’s in a firm shake.

“Thank you very much” Rarity replied, albeit with a touch of rueful acceptance in the smile. “Celestia knows we’ll need it. I’m not even sure how long it will be before I get a chance to speak to him again, if ever.”

“Right, about that,” Ironside began, his expression quickly growing to resemble a certain navy-haired officer. “I might be able to expedite that process a little.”

“Really?” the violet-haired girl replied with obvious interest. “How so?”

“Obviously, I can’t tell you where he’s assigned or anything; that’d be against regulation,” the general said, pulling out quill and parchment and jotting down notes as he talked. “However, if I just so happened to say that a certain cargo ship was leaving for a certain front, and that it just so happened to be that this front was where a certain marshal was posted, and a certain young lady just so happened to be on board because I decided to allow it, well… I guess we could chalk all that up to a fortunate coincidence, no?”

For just a brief moment, a look of pure, unbridled delight flashed across the young lady's face. Just a moment, though. After all, it wouldn’t be proper to jump across the table and bear hug Equestria’s top military officer in gratitude, now would it?

“Of course,” Rarity smiled, perfectly serene and composed as ever, though unable to keep the glowing smile from lighting up her beautiful face. “Merely a fortunate coincidence.”

**********

Chapter 12

Chapter 12

The Changeling Nation is vast, but insidious. Disguised as ordinary men, women, and children, the members of the hive dwell amongst every tribe and every people, gathering the positive emotions that serve as food for their queen and brood. To a Changeling, its existence is merely an extension of the whole, its being merely a means of serving the body. But of course, for there to be a whole, there must be a center, and to have a body, there must be a heart.

Deep within the jagged Snowspire Mountains, far beyond the reach of common man and civilization, stood a massive onyx monolith, a conglomeration of needle-like spires and soaring towers that seemed a construct designed to stand in defiance of the sun. Though it seemed more monument than building, this lone structure was in fact the Hive: it was the birthing chamber from which all Changelings spawned, the nexus which direct their lives, and the home of their one and only, the metamorphic Queen Chrysalis.

Surrounded on all sides by wind-swept crags, the Hive was all but unapproachable, a fortress by virtue of its solitude and location. But even these natural barriers, enough to deter all but the hardiest of souls, are not enough for the Changeling. Dispersed around the stony barricades, numerous fortresses and strongholds stand, bristling with soldiers and spell weavers ready to release unholy fury on any who would dare approach. To defend the Queen was paramount, and the fanatical loyalty of the Changeling forces, in conjunction with the impenetrable walls of iron and stone, made the Hive a fortress among fortresses, an impenetrable bastion and unbreachable core of a nation.

Until now.

In the still of time just before down, the misty silence between the mountains was rent asunder by thundering explosions that rang to the heavens. Like steel hammer shattering stone, the gold clad armies of Equestria crashed into the Changeling perimeter, storming a single stronghold with the relentless force of a typhoon focused with the precision of a surgeon’s blade.

The xenomorphs fought back, but every officer knew it was only a matter of time before they were overwhelmed. With the fortress all but cut off from the rest of the world by dissonance charms hanging heavy through the air, the Changeling commander selected four squads to sneak through the encirclement and contact the other bastions for reinforcements. The chance of capture was high, but certainly with sixteen well-trained shapeshifters, at least one would be able to return with aid.

One did return, but he did so alone.

Brought back before the commander, the lone survivor began his disjointed report, luminescent green eyes wide with panic bordering on dementia. They’d been hunted. It had been slow at first, so subtle that they almost hadn't notice. But by the time they did, a whole squad had already disappeared. One squad decided to break off, hoping to increase their chances in a smaller group. As soon as they’d peeled off and disappeared into the mist between the trees, the remaining two had been met with screams of terror and booming thunder. Then, silence.

They tried to fight. Forming a circle, several Changelings charged their verdant flames as others chanted the incantations to seek and find that which assailed them. But before the spell could fully form, bolts of lightning had struck, striking the mages and searing one of their members with electric agony. Emerald fire flashed out, but no sooner had the burning blasts surged forth when another bolt of lightning struck again, only this time from the completely opposite direction.

They tried to run, changing shape between every tree, hoping to throw off their unknown assailants with their shifting forms. But they were hunted. One by one, they dropped, some with screams of agony as they were struck by lightning from above. They tried to disperse, to create distractions by spreading attention to many targets instead of one. But as soon as one disappear into the mist, the horrible cries and the booming thunder roared into silence.

As the numbers had dwindled, the terror increased. Panic set in and soon Changelings were sending blasts of fire in every direction, desperately seeking to find what it was that attacked them. But it was as useless as trying to attack the mist itself. Whatever it was that hunted them was a ghost, a being without form or shape, something that couldn’t be hurt and couldn’t be stopped.

And thus the Changeling stronghold fell.

*****

Through the gloomy halls of the palace, a single soldier drone ran, green ichor clouding his vision as he threw open the doors to the cavernous palace center. Running half way forward, the drone fell to his knees before the soft, verdant glow of the massive crystalline throne that sat on the high dias overlooking the expansive space.

“What news?” a voice called out. Cold and regal, a pair of emerald eyes considered the prostrate creature from beyond the shroud of darkness.

“Your Majesty,” he gasped, gulping down air as he forced out his report. “The Solids approach. They breach the palace walls even as we speak. Our soldiers do everything they can to repel them, but it is only a matter of time before they are upon you.”

The voice said nothing as the viridian eyes continued watching, waiting.

“Your Majesty, you must flee at once,” the drone called out. “The Seventh Guard has secured the lower tunnels for your escape. If you leave now, you can –” the rest of the statement was cut off by laughter, as rich and sonorous and it was full of contemptible mirth.

“Flee? Flee from my own castle?” the voice called out with a smile full of fang-sharp teeth. “I think not.”

“But your majesty–”

“Enough. I will not be driven like some helpless cur from my own palace. And besides,” she added at the sound of rushing wind, “I believe we have guests.”

The massive doors to the throne room burst open and unleashed a tempest into the cavernous hall. There, standing in the eye of the storm, azure hair unruffled by the gale that raged around, strode in Guard Captain Shining Armor.

“Insolence!” the drone snarled as he charged, his arms morphed into jaggedly hooked scythes. “You will pay for–”

A flash of silver, a tiny spray of green blood, and the Changeling fell to the ground as the young swordsman sheathed his blade. The winds died down and Shining Armor stopped, looking upwards into the gloom where the viridian eyes peered out from their black silhouette.

“Well well well, what an unexpected surprise,” the voice purred, pleasant with just the faintest hint of mocking. “I didn’t expect a visit from my old lover so soon. What, regretting the fact we never got to the honeymoon?”

“Hardly,” the captain replied with tones as dry as old parchment. “And technically, I don’t think you can call me that, on account of you were brainwashing me while disguised as my fiancé. Not exactly the basis for a solid relationship, wouldn’t you say?”

“Details, details,” the queen laughed, the sound echoing through the darkened chamber. “It hardly changes the fact that you’re here before me now, does it?”

“Strictly business,” the crimson clad captain replied. “By authority of Princess Celestia, I am placing you under arrest for violation of the Equestrian-Changeling Armistice. You will be brought back to Canterlot, where you will be tried for your crimes.”

“Interesting,” the voice replied, the flash of white teeth revealing the sneer that came with it. “And what if I choose not to come with you?”

“As much as I hate to use terrible clichés,” Shining Armor smiled, “we can obviously do it the easy way or the hard way. Your choice.”

“In that case,” shes replied with uplifted hand, “I choose hard.”

At the snap of her fingers, two monstrous ogres leaped out from the shadows and lunged for the singular soldier, faster than a charging bull and with more than enough force to reduce their target to unrecognizable stains on the stone floor. The young captain didn’t even move a muscle.

Flashing light, roaring thunder, and the pair of ogres fell to the ground in spasming heaps, slowly reverting back to their original Changeling shapes. From high upon the dais, the xenomorph queen’s eyes widen ever so slowly in surprise.

“Not bad,” Shining Armor intoned as he looked down at the fallen drones. “Always thought you lot could only morph into creatures of the same size. Looks like you’ve been holding back a few tricks, haven’t you, Chrysalis?”

“I should say the same to you,” came her reply, as cool and unruffled as a swan gliding across a lake. “Spells of that destructive force with no gestures or incantation. As your one-time fiancé, I’m rather hurt you never shared that talent with me before.”

“How inconsiderate of me,” Shining Armor answered in tones as bland as unflavored gruel. “Except, I’m not the one who did that.”

“Oh?” An eyebrow arched in curiosity. “And pray tell, who did?”

Raising fist into the air, the crimson garbed officer flashed a series of quick hand signs and from nowhere, seeming to coalesce from the shadows themselves, came a lone soldier with hard, grey eyes and a very big gun.

“So, you brought company,” Chrysalis intoned, casting an appraising eye over the new arrival. He certainly didn’t look like much, what with his rifle slung over one shoulder and body slouched under his long brown coat. “What’s the matter, didn’t trust yourself to be alone with me?”

“A sentiment you’ve already shown to be well-placed,” Shining Armor replied. “Don’t worry, he’s just here to make sure you don’t try anything funny. Well, anything funnier than you’ve already tried, I guess.”

“Oh, Shining Armor,” the Changeling queen chuckled. “You mean to tell me that you came into the heart of my palace with only a single companion?”

“Don’t need any more,” the gunman said, his gravelly voice rumbling like his shots had in the vast hall. “I’m more than enough to keep you in check.”

“Is that so,” Chrysalis replied with a slow smile. “And who said I was alone?”

The xenomorph raised her hand once more–

“Wouldn’t bother,” the grey-eyed soldier intoned, tugging his hat down low. “Nobody’s gonna answer.”

“Really,” Chrysalis smirked, hand still poised in midair. “You think I wouldn’t be prepared for a situation like this?”

“Four bowmen, two barrier mages, two additional pyromancers, plus a squad of other assorted soldiers waiting in reserve,” the gunman drawled with all the interest of reciting a grocery list, “stationed at the four corners of this room, behind your throne, and in various alcoves. They're gone now. Nobody’s coming.”

“Except for one mistake, the queen replied with a triumphant grin. “There were three pyromancers; you missed one.”

“No. I didn't.”

For a moment, Chrysalis froze, somewhat taken aback by the response. Normally, such an answer would ring of petulance or obstinance, but this one… he spoke as if it were simply disinterested fact. To call her bluff out with such confidence and such indifference… who was this man?

“It seems you keep better company than I thought,” the xenomorph replied as she slowly lowered her arm back to the side of her throne. “There’s more to this mutt than meets the eye.”

“Yeah, he’s got a nasty growl, alright,” Shining Armor smirked. “And his bite is ten times worse.”

“I see,” Chrysalis intoned dryly. “I suppose I am outmatched then. I concede defeat.”

“So you’ll come along quietly?” the guard captain inquired, hopeful, but hand never straying from the saber at his side.

“Not just yet,” the queen replied, her voice all regal aplomb and calm collection. “I may concede to superior force, but I still admit to nothing. Tell me, what crimes have I committed?”

“You’re really gonna act like you don’t know?” Shining Armor asked with the utmost of incredulity. At Chrysalis’s silence, he sighed and continued. “Approximately two weeks ago, on the eve of the Grand Galloping Gala, several Changelings infiltrated the palace and made an attempt on the Princess’s life.”

“And how would doing that benefit me?” Chrysalis yawned. “I seek to gain her power, and to end her life would mean I could not feed.”

“But you did, or at least tried to,” the guard captain responded. “The Changelings used a quarrel loaded with Hearts Desire to induce a comatose dream state, where the curses on it would siphon the ensuing energy right back to you.”

“Hmm, that would explain the odd burst of energy from a few weeks ago,” the xenomorph intoned, “but it was certainly nowhere near the level of Celestia’s power.”

“That’s because we stopped you. Or at least, he did,” Shining Armor replied, pointing a thumb at his silent companion.

“Ah, so this pup intercepted the bolt and took the dear Princess’s place, did he?” Chrysalis chuckled. “Not many get a chance to live their wildest dreams like this one has, so it seems that he should be thanking–”

A needle-thin lance of lightning shot by the queen's face, scoring her cheek and shattering one of the crystal growths on the back of her throne.

“That was a warning,” the soldier replied, his voice hard enough to cleave through iron and cold enough to freeze the sun. “There won’t be another.”

“… I’ll keep that in mind,” Chrysalis nodded with tones that almost seemed bored. But even her highness’s regal demeanor couldn’t prevent the drop of sweat from trickling down her face to sting the now bleeding cut.

She hadn’t even seen him move.

Shining Armor gently placed a hand on his companion’s shoulder to signal a lowering of the gun. Though from all outward appearances he still seemed relaxed, the guardsman could feel the tension in his palm: Graves was like a coiled spring, every steely fiber of his being taut and ready to lash out with pure destructive force at a moment’s notice, as he’d already so aptly displayed. A deceptively calm demeanor for a man so ready to do violence.

“Look, Chrysalis,” the captain said once he was reasonably assured Graves would not fire again. “If you’re going to play dumb like this, there’s not going to be much in the way of leniency for you.”

“I’m not playing dumb!” the xenomorph snapped from her throne, her royal equilibrium finally cracking. “I did not order any such attack on your precious Celestia!”

“So what, you’re saying a bunch of Changelings just decided to launch a highly risky operation that could and very well did incite a full-scale war simply on a whim?” Shining Armor challenged. “I’m sorry, but you’re going to have to do better than that.”

“You seem to think I have complete control over my subjects,” Chrysalis replied, her voice now back to its normal, haughty composure.

“You’re saying you don’t?”

“While I do have a high degree of… influence,” the queen explained, “my minions do have the capacity for autonomous thought.”

“Which are always colored by your interests,” the guard captain countered.

“Indeed,” the xenomorph conceded. “And in such trying times, some of the more radical elements may be tempted to act out for my good in less than predictable ways.”

The young officer’s brow furrowed in confusion.

“Trying times? What are you talking about?”

After a moment of consideration, Queen Chrysalis finally stood up from her throne and descended the dais stairs to meet the two Equestrians face to face. Stepping into the light, the Changeling sovereign revealed herself, emerald eyes flashing beneath her silken hair as she stood with arms crossed in elegant defiance.

Shining Armor blinked.

“You’ve… er… lost some weight,” he stated dumbly. “Been working out?” Chrysalis replied with a throaty laugh.

“Ever the eloquent one, as always.”

Though still strikingly beautiful in a cool, imperious fashion, even the queen’s royal demeanor couldn’t hide the frailness of her body. Her arms were thin, her cheeks sunken, and though her eyes still shone with almost arrogant confidence, there was no hiding the darkened circles that bespoke of exhaustion just beneath.

“What happened?” Shining Armor asked, his stoic military face now softening to show signs of concern.

“Things have not been as cheery as one might think,” Chrysalis smiled, the expression losing some of its bite in light of her almost infirmed look.

“Have you not been able to eat?” the guard captain inquired. “I thought that your drones were still gathering sufficient energy to sustain your subjects.”

“They were,” the queen nodded. “But this last year has been different. We harvest and feed as we always have, but… it is not enough. We waste away.”

“Why? Are you all sick?” Shining Armor asked, professionalism thrown aside in light of genuine worry. “Is there some sort of plague or disease spreading among the Changelings?”

“A plague? Perhaps,” Chrysalis chuckled. “But not just among the Changelings. We are merely the first to suffer its effects.”

A sudden spark of dreaded realization lit up the officer’s azure eyes.

“Is it the west?” he asked, though with more statement than question. The queen confirmed his suspicions with a nod.

“The darkness spreads and grows stronger. My powers sustain us as best it can, but even I will not last forever. It would seem that some of my subjects grew concerned and acted rashly in an attempt to aid me. Foolish, and in violation of our treaty as you say, but out of concern for me above all else. Please keep that in mind.”

Shining Armor fell silent, his mind working furiously as he considered the revelation before him.

“… I’m still going to have to insist that you come with me,” he finally said, the corners of his mouth turned down in distaste as he pronounced it. “Rest assured, we’ll consider everything you said as we conduct a thorough investigation. If what you say is true, then in light of the circumstances…” he paused and shrugged. “I can’t promise anything, but I’ll do what I can to make sure you’re treated as fairly as possible.”

“Such a sweetheart,” Chrysalis laughed as she reached out to pat him on the cheek. “Almost makes me wish I’d stayed on as Cadance.”

“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” he said as he politely – but firmly – removed her hand. “We still need to confirm your story, so remember that any cooperation you provide will go a long ways in helping your case.”

“Anything for you, dear,” the queen smirked with obvious sarcasm. “All you have to do is ask.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Shining Armor dryly replied. “So anyways, Graves, I think we’re all done here, so why don’t…” Upon turning around, the guard captain realized that the grey-eyed marshal had already vanished.

“Impressive,” Chrysalis nodded in approval. “One would think he were more specter than man.”

“Yeah,” the young man agreed with a sad grin. “Makes you think that, doesn't it?”

*****

Back at base camp, Graves silently made his way through the hustle and bustle of military activity towards his tent. Not that he had to try particularly hard, mind you. There were enough veterans around who recognized the marshal to help clear a path out of respect for his reputation. For the others, one look at his grim, steely-eyed face and the way he strode on, silent as a shadow and implacable as nightfall, was enough to convince them to steer well clear.

Back inside his tent, Graves tossed off his hat and coat and went to rinse himself off in the basin of clean, cold water. He’d only been out in the wild for a week, but he already felt grimy and unclean: it seems like his time in Ponyville had softened him up more than he’d-

No. He wasn’t going to think about that anymore.

Toweling himself off, Graves took a seat at the small desk and examined the stack of documents that awaited his attention. Now that he’d successfully played his part in the Changeling incident, he had to find his next assignment. The various notices stacked before him represented not only marshal specific missions, but also aid requests made by various divisions and branches of the armed forces scattered across the world.

“Um… sir?” a voice called from behind. Turning around, Graves, caught sight of a young lad, probably some cadet brought out to help with odd jobs and chores to give him a taste of the battlefield.

“What is it?” he asked, almost sighing in exasperation as the cadet visibly jumped upon being addressed. Granted, it wasn’t exactly fair, considering he couldn’t what he looked like himself; the thunderhead of his expression could have frightened a scylla.

“It’s um… a guest sir,” the lad stammered, quailing under the pressure of those gunmetal grey eyes. “You have a visitor.”

“Not interested,” the marshal replied as he turned back to the documents. “Now go away, I’m busy.”

“But… sir…” the cadet replied. However, one backwards look from those piercing eyes was enough to send him scampering on his way.

Sighing to himself, Graves returned his attentions to the documents. He needed a change of pace. A new location, something that would get him out of Equestria and give him a chance to clear his mind. The reports of mummy activity in Saddle Arabia sounded promising: a good tussle with upper tier undead and their ancient curses might be interesting. Or perhaps mediating a civil war between some of the minotaur tribes would be better. Of course, there was always...

The gentle rustling of the tent fabric served to announce the arrival of his unwanted visitor.

“I’m busy,” Graves grunted, not even bothering to turn around. Bucking cadets. Couldn’t even follow a simple order. Honestly, what were they teaching in schools these days?

“I’m sure you can make some time,” the musical voice of a young lady called out. “After all, I’ve come an awfully long way to visit.”

The marshal froze, every muscle, every sinew, every nerve completely seized up in uncontrollable surprise. It seems liked he’d finally gone off the deep end and started hallucinating about things that weren’t even there.

But upon taking a deep breath to calm himself, that sweet, intoxicating, and completely unforgettable smell of lavender filled his nose.

No, he wasn’t crazy. He wasn’t hallucinating.

She was really here.

**********

Chapter 13

Chapter 13

It's strange, isn't it?

Rarity had so many things she wanted to say. Ever since she’d left the general’s study, from the moment she’d boarded the airship heading towards the battlefront, her mind had been a churning maelstrom, full of questions for the raven-haired soldier, full of things she needed to hear and things she needed to say. But now that she was really here and he was once again before her, she found she couldn’t speak at all.

Had it only been two weeks since the Gala? It seemed like a lifetime ago, and Graves… he seemed so different. He was the same as he ever was, of course, but to the young lady, it seemed like she was seeing him for the very first time. In a way, in light of all she’d learned of him, maybe it was.

“What are you doing here?” Graves asked suddenly, his gravelly voice flat and dry like a windswept desert as he continued to sit and read his reports.

“Exactly what I said,” the pretty seamstress replied with a small smile. “I came to see you.”

“Civilians aren’t allowed here,” he replied coolly as he flipped to a new page. “How’d you get in?”

“Twilight Sparkle and I paid the good general a visit,” Rarity answered, taking a seat on the cot on one side of the tent. “When he learned of our concern, he made an exception and allowed us to come and pay you a visit.”

“Hmm. I see.”

Graves continued to review the documents. He never looked at Rarity. In fact, ever since she’d entered the tent, not once had he even laid eyes on the violet-haired beauty.

That had to mean something. But what exactly did it mean, and how could she use it? At this point, talking to the marshal was akin to walking a razor wire tightrope while blindfolded in a thunderstorm over a bottomless canyon. Push too little, and his stony, immutable nature would make sure that the conversation lead to absolutely nothing. Push too hard at the marshal and he was likely to clam up, locking away all chance at discourse with irreparable finality. She needed to push, yes, but just enough. Just enough.

“How are you doing?” she began broadly. Surely a general inquiry such as that would be a good place to start.

“Fine,” he replied, flipping to a new page. He said nothing else.

“Are you sure?” Rarity pressed on. “It’s barely been a week since you woke up, and you were out for a very long time. You’re not overworking yourself, are you?”

“Medical exams came back clean. I’m fit and ready for service.”

Nothing. No reactions.

“So, what does your service involve?” the young lady asked anew. Maybe engaging on work would be a good segue into more important matters. It was worth a shot at least.

“Sorry, that’s classified.”

“Ah, of course.” Though Rarity smiled on the outside, she inwardly kicked herself. Of course it’d be classified. Just about everything he did was classified. His entire life had been bloody well classified.

“In any event, I suppose you’ll be heading off for locales exotic once everything here is properly wrapped up?” she tried again. Don’t ask about details. Just… get him talking.

“Probably,” Graves grunted.

“I know it’s probably confidential as well, but I don’t suppose you could tell me what sorts of places you might visit? Just for curiosity sake?” Rarity asked with a hopeful smile.

Though the marshal didn’t see it, perhaps he heard something in the tone of her words because for the briefest of moments, he paused. His recovery to normal, unreadable indifference was so fast however, the pause would have been completely unnoticeable had Rarity not been specifically watching for it. It was certainly small, but it was still a reaction. It was something.

“Las Pegasus, maybe, “he replied. “Possibly the southern continent or the Griffon Imperium. Haven’t decided yet.”

“Goodness, those are rather far away,” Rarity intoned, glad to have some material to work with. “What would that be, two, maybe three days by airship?”

“Something like that.”

“Well, at least this is a rare opportunity,” the violet-haired beauty smiled, her mind working furiously at a tiny window of opportunity she’d spotted. “The Griffon Imperium is said to have metallurgy of a most curious nature, and Saddle Arabia’s silks are said to be on an entirely different level of quality. If you’d be so kind, would you mind picking me up some while you’re there?”

“I suppose I could mail you some,” he shrugged. “Just send me the money and I’ll take care of it.”

“Oh, that won’t be necessary,” Rarity laughed despite the fact her stomach was starting to tie itself into knots. Though an opportunity it might be, the risks were substantial to say the least. But nothing ventured, nothing gained… “After all,” she continued, “you can just drop them off when you come back to Ponyville.”

Another pause, one much longer and much more abrupt than before. Maybe too much so.

“… I told you I’m not going back to Ponyville,” Graves said, his voice perfectly composed, yet hard enough to make granite seem like butter.

Deep inside, the young lady sighed in relief. She’d been afraid that he’d shut down at any mention of Ponyville and that the conversation would simply end there and then. But not only had he responded, he’d reacted, letting her know that at least this was still a topic that inspired feelings. This, she could work with.

“Of course I know that,” the pretty dressmaker replied with a light-hearted wave. “Obviously, a man of your talents is needed elsewhere. But that doesn't mean you can’t at least visit, right?”

No response. There wasn’t even the rustling of pages as the marshal fell stone still.

“It will probably be a while before you’ll be able to return, considering how long you’ve been away from your work, but I guess that’s just a part of life, no?”

“I’m not going back to Ponyville,” Graves said once more, his tone now with a hardened edge like chipped flint.

“In that case, we’ll come visit you,” Rarity smiled as she feigned immunity to his words. Don’t engage. Redirect. Try to throw him off balance. “I suppose any trip out would be rather difficult, so we could always come out to see you when you return to Canterlot. I’m sure Sweetie Belle would love more opportunities to visit the capitol, and seeing you would only sweeten the deal, pardon the pun.”

“That won’t be necessary,” the marshal replied, flipping through the pages so quickly he couldn’t possibly be actually reading.

“Few things in life are,” the sapphired-eyed beauty answered smoothly. “But as I’ve always said, some things are just worth the effort.”

“And this is? Making trouble for everyone just to pay a visit?”

“I think you’re worth it,” she said softly. “I thought I made that perfectly clear after our dance.”

Silence.

“Adrenaline does funny things to person,” Graves said, his icy composure now returned. “Plays tricks with your mind.”

“Something, you’re intimately familiar with?” Rarity innocently asked.

“Guess so.”

“So what you’re saying is, you think my actions and sentiments then were simply due to the heat of the moment?”

“You wouldn’t be the first.”

“Perhaps not. But I’d think you give a little more credit to my discretion, considering it was my first kiss and all.”

Graves paused once more. At first glance, it seemed like his standard reaction from any other piece of unexpected news. But it wasn’t. This was not a simple cessation of movement, but a total, almost violent seizing as every fiber of his person activated in full, primal alert.

Slowly, with the calm and caution of a stalking panther, he turned around.

“That was… your first?” he asked, his tone level and controlled, but his steely eyes flashing with the energy of alarm.

She nodded.

“Not exactly the way I would have preferred to tell you,” she admitted with an embarrassed smiled. Embarrassed was good. Embarrassed would make the situation seem less threatening, a necessity considering his eyes looked like that of a caged predator. She needed to push, but carefully; things were becoming increasingly delicate.

“Why?”

“Because I fell in love with you, isn’t it obvious?” she answered, the embarrassed flush in her cheeks in no ways an act. “Honestly, you really can be so dense at times.”

“I’m sure you’ve... felt that way about others before,” the marshal replied, his words awkward and unsure. He was unstable. Good. Continue.

“Not like this,” Rarity countered, pushing her offensive. “Hence, the first time.”

“That night was different,” Graves pointed out. “Might have felt that way about anyone.”

“Do really think me so shallow as that?” the young lady sniffed, using her indignation as she would a rapier. “The night merely made an apparent choice even easier.”

“And what’s so apparent about it?” the raven-haired soldier reposted. “You barely know me.”

“Surely several months together and several rather… memorable experiences must count for something,” Rarity retorted, now drawing upon the past as new arms.

“Something, yes,” Graves conceded. “But not much.”

“And why is that?” she pressed, sensing a weak spot. “Why doesn't that time count for much? It’s not like you’re an old man with a lifetime of experience behind him.”

“You don’t have to be old to have a lifetime behind you,” the marshal deftly countered. “And mine’s not exactly one that’d support your choice. Not that you'd know of course.”

“Ah yes, the fact that you so rudely pointed out at our last encounter,” the violet-haired beauty said with a much too innocent smile.

“Just stating the facts,” Graves replied with complete blasé.

“And do you ever intend to share your past with me?”

“Why would I do that?”

“Obviously, so we can get closer as individuals. I’ve made it abundantly clear that I’m incredibly fond of you, and I feel I wouldn’t be mistaken in thinking you would like the same, am I?” Though the pretty dressmaker said all these things with a playful smile, even her practiced calm couldn’t keep the scarlet from her cheeks. Goodness, it was embarrassing, being so brazenly forward, like that. But desperate times require desperate measures.

The marshal, however, remained unfazed.

“… Miss Rarity,” he began, his voice cool to the point of being frosty. “I think there’s been some mistake. I appreciate your feelings, but I have no desire to get that much closer to anyone, even one such as you.”

That hurt. Those words stung like shards of ice driven in a blizzard, even more so because Rarity could hear the ring of truth in them. Perhaps not the whole, complete, unadulterated truth, but enough that Graves believed everything he said.

“I see,” she replied, fighting not to let the hurt show in her expression. She had to hold it together, to keep pressing forward. At least she now had an opening. “Why?”

“… I’m not sure what you mean,” he answered slowly, a wariness coming into his gunmetal greys at the unexpected direction of the question.

“I mean, why do you always intended to keep yourself so removed?” the young lady asked, working to keep some of the bitter sting out of her voice. “Do you find me repulsive?”

“Where did that come from?” Graves gaped, his façade cracking from such a surprisingly abrupt and vehement self-debasement.

“Logic, of course,” Rarity replied, now allowing some more of her genuine hurt to show. “Normally, people who have no desire to get close to someone is due to some failing on the latter’s part. It’s my looks, isn’t it? You think I’m tawdry, some… cheap glamour wannabe. You think I'm an eyesore, don’t you?”

“Of course not,” the marshal retorted, leaping to her defense without even realizing it. But the sapphire-eyed girl continued the attack.

“Then it’s the fashion, isn’t it?” she continued, channeling more of her innate frustration and ire into her words. “You must think that I’m a fool whose frittering away my life on frivolities. It’s natural, considering you’re risking your life for a noble cause while I spend all my time fretting about lace ribbons and pretty stones.”

“There’s nothing wrong with liking fashion. You of all people should know that," the marshal sighed in exasperation as he now began to show signs of irritation at the young lady’s irrationality. Sensing such cracking of the armor, Rarity attacked once more.

“Ah, in that case, it must be my personality,” she said with a sickly sweet smile, every bit of it dripping with caustic sarcasm. “Mother did warn me it would get me into trouble, what with my putting on airs, my vanity, and my incessant, unending whining. It’s no wonder you want to cut all ties with me. In fact, I’m starting to wonder why you even put up with me as long as you did.”

“Alright, now you’re just being stupid,” Graves snapped, his tensions finally coming to a boil. “We both know you’re none of those things, so quit with the fishing for compliments already.”

Rarity leveled her sapphire eyes at him. They still shined with some sparks of annoyance, but they were considerably cooler than they had been moments before.

“So, your lack of desire was not because of me,” she said, only the faintest trace of a question coming into her voice.

“No, it wasn’t,” he sighed, his brief burst of anger dying back into stony calm.

Rarity nodded. This vein was exhausted. Time to change tactics.

“In that case,” she murmured, as much thinking aloud as addressing the marshal, “If it’s not an issue with me, then it must be something on your end."

“I told you–”

“I consider myself a fair judge of character,” Rarity continued, calmly steamrolling the marshal’s comments as she proceeded with her musings, “so I doubt I missed any major sociopathic tendencies. No, it’s probably something much more subtle, something about you as a person.”

She narrowed her eyes to peer at him, looking like she sought to dissect him with a pair of sapphire scalpels. Of course, that was merely a ruse, as she already knew the theories she would pose. The true value would lie in the reactions.

“You’re a marshal, and by all accounts a fantastic one to say the least,” she stated, throwing a few looks to his hanging spell gun and long, brown coat. “Of course, renown doesn't mean quality of character, but tales do speak of your heroism as well.”

“Tall tales and exaggerations,” he snorted. Derision. Good. It was a response. She could continue.

“Even exaggerations contain a grain of truth,” she replied. “In that case, the fact that they speak of your heroism, of your self-sacrificing nature, must mean something.” She pressed a slender finger to her pursed lips. “Could it be… that you’re acting the hero still?”

“What, like some kind of martyr?” he scoffed.

“Why not? You know of the perils of your line of work and the effects it could have on friends and family. Is it so unreasonable to assume you’d sever ties early to avoid imparting greater pain later?”

“I think you’ve been reading too many novels,” he smirked, the expression positively dripping with contempt at the idea.

Rarity said nothing. The fact that he so smoothly transitioned into this state of derision indicated that the theory didn’t ring close to home. Plus, from what she knew of him, that condescension was probably at the idea that he would be so noble a character. Consistent and accurate. Good.

“Perhaps I have,” she airily agreed and dropped the topic. “Then perhaps I wasn’t as good a judge of character as I thought. Maybe you really are a sociopath, one who cares for no one and sees nothing of importance outside the scope of his rifle. Perhaps you're just an empty shell, a hollow corpse that still can somehow move."

“Maybe that’s it,” he shrugged, the smirk fading, but still enough of it's antipathy remaining to color his gesture. “Marshals don't think like normal folks, and snipers least of all. Maybe I really am just a dead man walking.”

“Perhaps,” Rarity nodded, “but that would make your corpse a truly spectacular actor.”

“... How so?” Graves asked, arching an eyebrow in curiosity.

“Your time in Ponyville. If you truly felt nothing, it’d certainly be no small feat to have made so many friends in so short a time.”

“Ponyville folks are… different,” the marshal replied hesitantly, showing some slight signs of discomfort on the topic. Like a shark smelling blood, Rarity dove forward.

“Now I think you’re the one fishing for compliments,” she smiled sweetly. “We in Ponyville may be better at making friends than most, but that also means we’re much better at understanding how others feel. To hide the fact that you felt absolutely nothing for us would take a truly remarkable level of duplicity, and one I highly doubt you possess.”

“Okay, so maybe my time in Ponyville was alright,” Graves admitted, albeit grudgingly as it seemed his straight forward nature compelled an answer he’d much rather not give. “That still doesn't mean I’m going to break my back making sure I can spend the rest of my life there.”

Over exaggerated statements? He was not a man prone to emotional outbursts. Perhaps...

“I think there’s more to it than that,” the young lady began, circling the topic like a jaguar would stalk its prey. “It’s one thing to move on when the time comes. It’s another thing to burn the bridges behind you without looking back.”

“What are you implying?” the marshal asked with narrowed eyes.

“You enjoyed yourself at least to some degree, and we enjoyed having you there,” she pressed on, sapphire eyes flashing as she closed in for the kill. “And unless I’m far off my mark, things only changed after your unfortunate accident that… night…”

Oh no.

Even as the words passed her lips, Rarity regretted the utterance because she knew, with cold, sinking certainty that this time she’d gone too far. Immediately, Graves’s demeanor completely changed. His face, which had contained at least some humanity in it, became an impassive mask of stone as his eyes grew harder and colder than the spell gun hanging at his side.

“Maybe it did,” he admitted, his voice a deadpan, baritone rumble that was about as human as a rough-hewn statue. “But I guess the whole almost dying kind of changes things doesn't it?”

No, no, no. This wasn’t how it was supposed to be at all. She was finally getting somewhere. He had started to open up!

“It should change things for the better,” Rarity said, swallowing apprehension and continuing her push, frantically thinking of a way to salvage the situation. “Typically, it makes people draw closer to the ones they care about, not farther away.”

“I’m not most people,” Graves replied. “I’m a marshal.”

“And that means you’re a superhuman?”

“It means I’ve got a job to do,” the marshal replied simply. Flatly. “That night was a wake-up call, let me know I’d gotten soft. If I wanted to continue, I’d have to get rid of the weaknesses holding me back.”

“Oh, so we’re just a hindrance now, is that it?” young lady shot right back, hoping to antagonize him, goad him into responding once more.

“It’s a tough job,” he shrugged.

“And just why do you have to do this job anyway?” she asked. Engage him on his level. Talk about work. That must mean something. “Why are you so obsessed with being a marshal anyway?”

He leveled his steely eyes at the young lady, who barely managed to suppress a shiver. There was no threat, no animosity, no… nothing.

“It’s just who I am.”

“… Is that you talking? Or is it your past?”

Graves paused, his steely grey eyes meeting her sapphire blues. There had been no real change in inflection, in tone, but something about those words jarred him.

“… You know something I don’t?” he asked slowly.

“You don’t want to talk about yourself, a fact you’ve made abundantly clear on more than one occasion,” Rarity primly sniffed. “Since you insist on pushing us all away and refuse to let us learn anything about you, we had to turn to other sources.

A spark lit up in the marshal's eyes as realization dawned.

“Ironside.”

Rarity nodded.

Graves let out a long, slow sigh.

“… What did he tell you?”

“He told us about how he found you,” she began softly, uncertainly. “How you pushed yourself out of a… a sense of guilt for surviving, to make your life some kind of atonement for being alive? That you can’t even allow yourself to be happy?”

“I see,” the marshal replied with a slight nod. “I suppose that would be a rational explanation. Once. Truth is, I don’t feel guilty anymore.”

Rarity blinked in surprise.

“You… don’t?”

“Why would I?” Graves asked with clear, hard eyes. “Sure, I did at one point, and for a good while too. But I got over it. After all, they were soldiers, just like me. We all knew the risks of the job, but we took it anyway.”

“But… what about your home? Your family?” Rarity asked, trying to elicit some sort of response.

“Got over that too," the young soldier shrugged. "Course it took a bit longer, but why should I let my life fall apart over something I couldn't control? I was just a kid.”

“I… guess that makes sense,” the young lady agreed, somewhat dumbfounded by the coherence of his statements. The marshal, however, moved on at his own implacable pace, as cool and relentless as a glacier.

“Guilt didn't dictate my actions that night,” Graves said as he went for his hat and jacket. “My duties did. Speaking of which, there’s still fighting going on, so if you're done giving me the third degree, I'd best be on my way.”

“Wait… that’s it?” she blinked. “You’re just leaving?”

“Why not?” he asked as he donned his garments. “Nothing left to say.”

“But that can’t be it. You can’t expect me to believe that you can talk about your family and teammates with all the emotion of ordering a sandwich.”

“They’re already gone,” he said simply. “That's never gonna change.”

Rarity had to think fast. If she let Graves out that tent exit, she doubted she’d ever seen him. But this calm rationality of his was so unexpected, she couldn’t think of anything to say.

No, wait. Not unexpected. Wrong. Graves wasn’t a man without emotions; she’d seen enough of him to know for a fact. Despite what others may say, she knew he was capable of deep, honest feelings. So why on this, on the topics that should have the most visceral reactions, did he show nothing at all? Sometimes, the lack of reaction could be signs of the greatest reaction of all. But then again, she could also be terribly wrong; maybe it wasn’t these events at all. His strange behavior had only started after she’d mentioned the Gala night so perhaps it was only thoughts of the night itself that prompted the icy pall. In that case–

The soft clink of the spell gun settling into place at the marshal's shoulder brought Rarity out from her internal considerations. There was no more time left. She had to do something, say something to keep him engaged and present. But what? She didn’t have any more information or any more clues. Yet as she watched him, time seeming to hitch as he made a step for the door, a crazy, completely irrational idea came into her head. It was horribly cruel and would probably blow up spectacularly in her face, but since she had nothing else to lose…

“Remarkable,” Rarity said in tones of wonder, almost as if she were talking to herself. “If a comrade of several years and next of kin can’t even bother to care for the fallen, I shudder to think what sort of bastards those people were.”

It was a goad, pure and simple. Insult the persons and sully their memories, do something to get a response, even if it’s purely anger. Certainly, it was crude, calloused, and completely obvious, but at this point it was all she had left.

And somehow, as a miracle upon miracles, it worked.

Pausing with his hand on the flap, Graves turned to fix her with his piercing grey eyes.

“What... did you just say?”

His voice was steady and quiet, but only in the same way a dragon is steady and quiet before incinerating its prey with searing flames. But the mere fact that he prepared to attack at all gave the young lady a small, glimmer of hope.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” the pretty dressmaker started, acting as if she hadn't completely intended for him to hear. “But I was just thinking if you, the person closest to these parties don’t even care about them, then they must have been truly horrible wretches indeed.”

“Now wait a minute,” Graves began as he turned around. “Who said I–”

“Though I shudder at the thought, I suppose it happens,” Rarity sighed. “Not all parents can be wonderful people; for all the fine mothers and fathers out there, some must be slovenly, negligent, and possibly even outright abusive.”

“What are you talking about? My parents never–”

“And to have a child growing up amongst a group of filthy, disgusting soldiers,” she shuddered, reacting the same way she would to the smell of an open cesspool. “It’s no wonder you were so poorly adjusted when we first met you.”

“… Let’s get something straight,” Graves said, his voice low and so thick with menace it was almost more growl than words. “I’ve been more than patient with all your poking and prodding, but nobody, and I mean nobody, says anything bad about them. Got it?”

Though she truly didn’t want to meet his gaze, the one that would make a ravenous mountain lion quake in stark, raving terror, the young lady did so with frightened, but firm blue eyes.

“And why not?” she challenged. “You’re supposed to be the person closest to them and you obviously don’t care much for them at all.”

“Who says I don’t care about them?”

“You do, obviously. You’ve spoken about them with as much interest as a litany of what you had for breakfast. Never have I seen anyone speak of the memory of loved ones with such callous disregard.”

“Look, just because I don’t break down every time I think about them doesn't mean I don’t care,” Graves challenged, his voice rising in both heat and volume.

“Of course not,” Rarity scoffed with clear, biting sarcasm. “You just go on your merry way, gallivanting across the globe and off to your next adventure without so much as even cracking a smile at the thought of them. Why, I’ll bet you were actually thrilled to be rid of them, weren't you?”

“What?” Graves cried. “How could you even–”

“Home too stifling for you, was it?” she sneered. “Small village in the north not good enough for you? Tired of always being under daddy’s thumb, always being nagged by mom, is that it?”

“Of course not!” the marshal snapped in outrage, “I never–“

“And your teammates,” Rarity pressed on, surging forward relentlessly in her verbal assault, “probably tired of them holding you back, weren't you? I’ll bet you thought of them as nothing but dead weight, always slowing you and dragging you down.”

“My teammates were the finest soldiers to ever serve the twin crowns,” Graves said, his voice audibly shaking from barely suppressed wrath. “How dare you insult them like that?”

“I’m the one who’s insulting them?” she snapped back, standing up and thrusting a finger right into his chest. “I’m just going by what you’ve told me.”

"Told you? Told you?” he gaped in disbelief. “When did I ever tell you that?”

“By your every word and action,” she replied with a disdainful sniff. “If they were such wonderful people, how could you forget about them so quickly?”

“I’ve never forgotten–”

“You obviously forgot about them to be able to speak like that,” Rarity laughed in harsh, cruel notes. “Just like you forgot about Ponyville. Just like you forgot about me.”

“That… That’s different,” Graves said, for the first time averting his eyes in discomfort.

“How? Because you care about me even less than them?”

“That’s not what I–”

“I matter so little, even though I laid my heart bare to you? Am I that insignificant?”

“I never meant that you were–”

“Was I simply a nuisance to you? A hindrance for you and your oh so noble quest?”

“That has nothing–”

“Why, I’ll bet that your injury was a relief since it gave you such a convenient excuse to leave me behind as well.”

“What? I–“

“Is that what your happy dreams were filled with? A life where you didn’t have to deal with me anymore, where you were free to go off on your own and–”

“GOD DAMMIT RARITY!” Graves roared, “MY DREAMS WERE ALL ABOUT YOU!”

**********

Chapter 14

Chapter 14

“I… you... what did you say?”

It was hard to say who was more surprised, Rarity, who blankly stared as if she hadn't quite heard what had been said, or Graves, whose gunmetal grey eyes went full round at what had just been uttered.

“It’s… it’s nothing. Forget it.”

The marshal made a dash for the door, but Rarity, whether by instinct or by decision, reached out and took hold of the sleeve of his coat. It wasn’t a forceful seizing, just a small tug near his elbow, but it held him more securely than forged prison manacles.

“Graves, please,” she said softly. “Just... talk to me. Tell me what happened. Please?”

For a moment, the raven-haired soldier did nothing. He stood frozen, standing on the precipice of a cliff where a single step would lead him plummeting into inescapable consequences. He wanted to leave. He desperately wanted to pull away, to escape everything right there and then. But the slight tug at his sleeve and the delicate quaver in that musical voice…

He had never been quite able to say no.

“… We were… together,” he mumbled, the gravelly roughness making his words almost unintelligible. He didn’t turn around though. He didn’t think he could turn around and continue. “At some point, we’d both made a move to Canterlot, where we’d… gotten a… a house. Together.”

“You… d-do you mean,” the young beauty stammered, “were you and I…”

“… The rings were platinum. You said it suited us better.”

For the moment, Rarity was glad that the marshal’s back was turned, for despite the gravity of the situation, she could feel her cheeks heating up to shades that would shame even the richest rubies. To think that his supreme bliss, his greatest joy involved her to such a degree was distinctly unexpected and somehow shocking. But not in a bad way. Not in a bad way at all.

“Did you enjoy it?” she asked, her tones the gentlest touch.

“… Yeah,” he rasped. “I was happy. You seemed happy too.”

“I’m sure I was,” Rarity replied, her flush growing even deeper at the admittance.

“You were right about to open up a fancy shop in town, and I’d just gotten an appointment to teach at the Academy. Then Twilight came and built some kind of magic portal that would let us travel to Ponyville in the blink of an eye. Best of both worlds, in a way.”

“I see,” the violet-haired beauty smiled. “It seems like we had everything we could have ever wanted.”

“Not just yet,” Graves whispered, so softly she almost couldn’t hear. “It wasn’t till later that you told me you were going to…” The marshal swallowed, trying to clear the knot in his throat before he could continue.

“… going to have a baby.”

The quiet gasp was all he needed to hear.

“... What happened?” the trembling voice asked.

“I left,” he said, a rough, angry laugh bursting from his lips before he could contain it. "Canterlot, my peaceful life, our baby girl, you... I threw it all away so I could wake up and come back to this.”

Graves allowed himself to be turned around, to let the most beautiful woman in the word look up at him with those amazing, shimmering eyes. Once, he thought he’d like to get lost in those sapphire pools. But that felt like an eternity ago.

“I don’t understand,” she asked, her dulcet voice cracking from the cacophony of emotions resounding in her chest. “Why didn’t you let me know?”

“What good would it have done?”

“I could have been there for you!” she snapped, beginning to pound on his chest with all the force her slender arms could muster. “Instead of being the only one to suffer, you could have talked to me, let me know that you were hurting!”

“What good would it have done?” he said once more, his voice soft and tired. So tired.

“Well for one, it would have kept you from running off and cutting me out of your life like you did!” she cried, her hands quickly starting to smart from the beating. It was like pounding a slab of stone, but she persisted, raining more and more blows before finally subsiding into a panting, exhausted huff. “You had a wonderful dream life, one that made you happy. If it was so great, then why would you leave behind the people that could help you make it a reality?”

“Obviously, it’s because I didn’t want it.”

“I… You… wha?” Rarity gaped.

“You heard me,” Graves said, his voice cold and flat. “I didn’t come back to chase fantasy. I came back to do my job.”

“Fantasy? Fantasy?!” Rarity cried out in abject confusion. “Graves, the only fantastic thing about all of this is your complete and utter stupidity!”

"... What?”

“You heard me,” she repeated in a perfect parody of him. “You say it’s fantasy because it appeared in a dream. But you have the means to make every single part of it real. What reservations could you possibly have for pursuing the things that make you happy?”

“… You don’t get it, do you?” he grimaced.

“What? What don’t I get?” Rarity replied, a sudden chill running down her spine as the strange look in the marshal’s iron grey eyes. She’d expected them to be calm and hard, as usual, but now, they seemed… angry.

“Let’s say I do everything just like the dream,” he began in tones that were so frosty, they almost seemed to have a heat to them. “Let’s say I get everything I ever wanted: a peaceful life, fulfilling work, and a loving family. What then?”

“Why you do what everyone else does,” Rarity hesitantly replied. “Live your life and be happy.”

“You think it’s that easy?” he challenged, the frost giving way to obvious irritation. “Have you ever stopped to think about what you would do if something bad were to happen?”

“What, you mean like if you go off like a lone ranger into the sunset?” the young lady replied with a nervous smile, hoping to lighten the mood in some way, if any. “You’ve been through so much, I doubt even the Spirit of Chaos would be enough to stop you.”

“I wasn’t talking about me,” Graves said, his voice more solemn than an ancient tomb. “I was talking about you.”

“…Me?” Rarity blinked. “What could possibly happen to me?”

“War breaks out, Canterlot gets attacked, and you’re caught in the crossfire,” the marshal began his voice tight from the tension of restraining his ire. “Maybe you and the others are called out to wield the Elements of Harmony, we can’t protect you, and you’re the one who doesn't come back. How about if someone with a grudge against me takes it out on you? A Changeling could slip a knife between your ribs before you even had a chance to scream.”

“I-In that case, I’d expect you to ride back and rescue me,” the young lady stammered, fighting desperately to keep the smile on her face. She couldn’t get sucked down his morbid train of thought. She had to–

“And what if I can't?!” the marshal snapped, his control lost and his anger boiling over into thunderous shouts. “What if I have a job to do where hundreds of lives, maybe thousands depend on me staying right where I am? What then? What if I can’t just toss down everything and come running back to you like a dog on a leash? WHAT IF I HAVE NO CHOICE BUT TO LET YOU DIE? HAVE YOU EVER THOUGHT ABOUT THAT?!”

Rarity could only stare in stunned disbelief as Graves, chest heaving from exertion, sank heavily into his seat, weary palms pressed hard against his eyes. This wasn’t like him. Though the marshal may have dwelt on the negatives rather than positives, he’d always been realistic in his view. In fact, that cool, unflappable stoicism had been one of his constant defining features from the very first moment she'd met him. But these assertions, these… rantings, were such stretches of the imagination, that the only way she could describe them would be nonsensical. In fact, it almost seemed like he were…

“Graves," Rarity began slowly. “You don’t think those things would actually happen… do you?”

“… Would it be so strange if they did?”

And as the marshal looked up, meeting her gaze, Rarity saw the last thing she’d ever expected to find in those gunmetal grey eyes.

Fear.

And with that, the final piece fell into place.

**********

Of course. It was all so simple.

All this time, she’d been trying to come up with some grandiose theory to explain the marshal’s behavior. She’d tried to understand it as a hero, one of personal sacrifice to protect the heart of another. She’d tried to reconcile it as a man numb to the world, detached from reality, unable to connect with another human being. She’d even made him out to be a martyr, one who lived his days in order to atone for a sin he felt he must bear.

They may have been true. In fact, they probably were. Each may have been a part of the whole and merely a different facet of the man known as Graves that played some role in his thoughts and actions. But beyond these, beyond the imposing visage, the heroic persona, the reputation of strength and even of invincibility, the simple truth was that Graves was a man. He was a man who’d had those he cared for torn away not once, not twice, but three times. He was a man who’d had his soul ripped apart time and time again, each time rending a wound deeper than the last. He was a man who learned that happiness was just the first step to pain, a man who now sought to prevent that pain by ensuring he had nothing else to lose.

He was a man who’d just been hurt too much and was afraid of hurting again.

“Graves,” Rarity said softly, taking a seat on the cot opposite him. “Those things you said… they’re just… ifs. Speculations and conjectures. The chances of any of them happening are slim to none.”

“Are they really?” he mumbled, his voice hoarse from the strain of maintaining control. “I’ve already had to give you up once. Who’s to say it won’t happen again?”

“Then… then why not stop fighting?” the young lady asked, only to receive a rough bark of laughter in return.

“Me, give up being a marshal?”

“Why not?” she challenged, a hint of desperation in the words, almost as if she needed to persuade herself of her own rationale. “With your incredible willpower, you could do anything you wanted, be anything you wanted. Why resign yourself to a life of fighting?”

“Why do you subject yourself to a life of deadlines and whims?” he replied, a tired smile faintly curling the corners of his lips. “Why devote your life to sewing dresses for others when you could just as well be the one others design for?”

“Because it’s who I am, Graves,” Rarity replied. “Surely you know that.”

“I do,” he nodded. “And that's why I fight.”

Slowly, sapphire eyes widened as understanding began to dawn. Began, because even though she knew what he was saying, what must be true, there was still some small part of her holding out for another alternative. That part of her, the part that wished it weren't so, shined in her eyes in wordless question. And likewise, with wordless understanding, the marshal assented.

Standing upright, Graves turned and upon unbuttoning his shirt, shrugged off the garment to reveal his bared back.

It was hard. So hard, it looked as if his flesh had been hewn from a slab of weather-worn steel. Every inch of him, from the broad expanse of his scarred back and shoulders to the corded muscles of his marred arms was machine-like, brutally efficient in form and function. It was a body where every ounce of weakness had been scoured away, hammered down and forged into a weapon of war. In a way, it made perfect sense as she laid sight on the miraculously unmarred sigil resting between his shoulder blades.

A sword.

It wasn’t an elegant rapier. It wasn't a ceremonial saber. It wasn't anything that held even the smallest ounce of beauty or grace. It was simple tool, wrought of heavy, grey iron and bound in rough leather. From the unadorned pommel to the curved hand guard to the single blood groove running down the surface of its flat, double-edged blade, this sword was nothing but a simple, serviceable weapon, designed for an equally simple purpose that had long since been met. Though perhaps once it had shone more brightly, the metal now stood dull and stained with rust. The surface was marred with scratches, the edges nicked, and even the handle seemed smoothed, worn from years of unending service.

And yet the sword was still strong. Even from a glance, one could see the razor's edge, sharp despite the damage, the blade strong and stable despite the wear and abuse. It was a weapon that had seen much use, perhaps more use than could have been expected, yet would continue to see use as long as there was need.

It would continue to see use because there was need.

Standing silent, Rarity stepped forward and laid a cool hand on the mark, tracing the image with a delicate forefinger. Though he tried to remain still, she could feel his back tense at her touch, growing even harder, if that were at all possible. It was a slight response, but that he responded to her touch at all was still somewhat comforting.

“… I finally get to see the real you.”

“Not what you were expecting, was it?”

“Actually, it was,” she smiled. And truth be told, she meant it. Though it was the first time she’d ever seen the mark on his back, once she’d laid eyes on it, she couldn’t imagine it being anything but what it was. In reality, it truly did serve only to confirm everything she had learned about the grey-eyed soldier, both the good and the painfully sad.

“So your fight...” she murmured. “It was never forced?”

“Once, it was just something to do so I’d be too busy to remember, too tired to dream,” he replied in weary baritones. “Before I knew it, it’d become as much a part of me as my flesh and bones. Maybe more.”

“I don’t suppose there’s any chance you’d give it up,” she asked, despite knowing full-well what the answer would be. For decorum sake, the marshal still responded with a shake of the head.

“We both know that’d never work. Denying who you are is the first step to despising what you become. Who wants that?”

“Who indeed,” Rarity responded softly.

For a moment, the two stood there in silence, the beauty with a cool hand that slowly warmed against the hardened back of the soldier. There were so many things to talk about, so many questions that still needed to be asked. But in the end, the young lady decided that there was only one thing she truly needed to know.

“Graves, please just answer me this,” she began, each word shimmering like a perfectly clear crystal. “Do you… I mean, did you… did you love me?”

“… I did. Still do.”

It was amazing. It was amazing how something she’d once desired so much could fill her heart with so much pain. Though she’d told herself that this would be enough, that the answer to that question would be the end, the tempest roused in her heart by those words carried her passions far beyond what her mind could control.

“Could you stay with me?” she blurted, the question coming out on a frantic tide of longing and hope. “I wouldn’t be asking you to end your fight, but could you… would you… stay? Share your life with me beyond that?”

The marshal’s back tensed tighter and tighter till even diamonds would have seemed as brittle as chalk.

“… I… could…” he admitted, the words coming from his mouth like a declaration of surrender. “If it's what you want, then I… could.”

Joy surged through the young lady's heart and shone through her sapphire eyes. This, this was exactly what she’d hoped for, exactly what she’d wanted. Graves, the man who’d so deftly stolen her heart, had given his in return on a silver plate. All she needed to do was reach out and take it, to utter those words and ask him to…

to…

To what? What exactly would she be asking for?

Joy gave way to slow, creeping horror as Rarity realized exactly what the request entailed.

Graves would never be able to give up his fight. It was simply a part of him, as much as the muscle and sinew of his body or the thoughts of his mind. He would forever be called to arms, and with that call, there would always be the risks he feared.

She could call it a fancy, frights and spooks better relegated to the realm of bogeymen than given any real concern. But for him, a man who’d had every loved one he’d ever cared for ripped from him and whose heart had been mutilated time and time again, those fears were and would still be very, very real. His words sounded of defeat because by giving his heart to another, he was doing so with the full knowledge that the act would not bring happiness, but pain. To stay could only lead to suffering as it always had before.

Could she do that? Could she really ask for his heart, knowing what it would mean?

“Well Rarity?” Graves asked, the tenderness with which he spoke her name ringing clear, even amidst the fear and suspense his voice carried. “What do you want?”

“… Nothing,” she said, gently removing her hand from his back. “Nothing at all.”

Though Graves turned around with alacrity fueled by surprise, the beautiful young woman had already turned her back to him, violet tresses swinging with the motion of turning away.

“Rarity…”

“You’re a good man, Marshal Graves” she said, her voice singing like silver chimes and ringing with honest, heartfelt sincerity. “I hope… I hope that one day, you find the happiness you truly deserve.”

As she ducked around the tent flap, careful to ensure the raven-haired soldier caught no sight of her tear-filled eyes, Rarity still almost laughed aloud.

What did she want?

It was ironic. What she wanted, more than anything she’d ever wanted in the entire world, was to ask for the one thing she couldn’t have. What more, it was this realization, the pain of giving up what she desired for a greater need, that brought her closer to understanding Graves than anything ever had before.

It also served to push him out of her reach once and for all.

Truly ironic indeed.

**********

Chapter 15

Chapter 15

Like a puppet with severed strings, Graves fell limply into the seat, grey eyes fixed on the tent flap that fluttered to stillness.

She was gone. She was really gone.

That meant… that meant that it was over. There was no need for him to return to Ponyville anymore, no need to concern himself with its citizens. He could go back to his old life, focus on the work he knew he had to do with nothing to hold him back. He didn’t have to worry anymore either. After all, what was there to worry about? He was beholden to none with no weaknesses to exploit. No longer would he have to concern himself with attachments and relationship. No longer would he have to fear the loss and grief and pain that seemed to have cursed him all his life. He was free.

Freedom. It should have brought with it feelings of relief, a sensation of lightness as the burden of fear was lifted from his shoulders. But it didn’t. Instead, he just felt… empty. Hollow, like the remnants of a decaying house long since abandoned.

He didn’t understand. This is what he wanted. Wasn’t it?

Weary and confused, Graves leaned back and closed his eyes, pressing his palms against them as he tried to make sense of the ringing void in his chest.

“Tut tut,” a smooth, silky voice crooned from behind. “If this is what the mighty Graves has been reduced to, perhaps I shouldn’t have gotten involved at all.”

“… If this turns out to be another dream,” the marshal mumbled, “I swear, there’s going to be hell to pay.”

Laughter rang out, sweet as warm honey and rich as well aged wine.

“Blaming the messenger, as always,” D chortled as he strolled forth to stand before the marshal. Lifting one hand up, Graves laid eyes on the strange man once more, wings of white in his otherwise jet black hair and pointed beard. Today, he wore a navy blue pea coat, which might have looked quite striking if it weren't for the hot pink paisley designs strewn all across. It seemed less of a pattern and more a snowstorm of garish, eye-searing color.

“What are you doing here?” Graves muttered, returning hands to face as if attempting to shut out sight of the strange character and with him, the rest of the world.

“Oh, I happened to be in the neighborhood,” D replied in all too innocent tones as he twirled a walking stick painted to resemble a large candy cane. Actually, it might not have just been paint. “Thought you might need a shoulder to cry on, possibly a box of tissues and a tam-”

“Were you watching?” the marshal called out, jolting upright and fixing the man with a steely stare that could have skewered an ox. The elderly youngster instantly threw up hands in a gesture of peace.

“Calm your horses, boy,” the man said in soothing tones, though the effect was somewhat spoiled by his sardonic grin. “Even I wouldn’t intrude on a private moment like that. But you must admit, when you've got a teary-eyed girl and a man looking like death warmed over, it doesn't take a genius to put two and two together, no?”

“She was crying?”

“Less than a lot, more than a little I suppose,” D shrugged. “Why, does it bother you?”

“… Doesn’t matter,” Graves sighed as he sagged into his seat once more.

“It doesn’t?” the odd one asked with eyebrow arched. “But don’t you want to make kissy faces with her like the characters in those bad novels you’re always reading?”

“I know the difference between books and life,” the marshal replied flatly. “Besides, this is for the best.”

“For the best, huh?” D repeated with a rich chuckle. “You certainly don’t sound like you believe that.”

“I’ll get over it,” Graves shrugged, even that small movement seeming to sap his strength. “Better to get it over with now than when it’s too late to turn back.”

The strange man looked the young soldier over with his bright topaz eyes, their golden depths for once not shining with maniacal mirth. They seemed considerate, daresay even lucid in their measuring of the man. His fingers came to his pointed beard as he stroked it in thoughtful contemplation.

“You know something Graves?” he finally said. “You’re a very odd man.”

Even as worn out as he was, the irony of the statement brought a faint, wheezing laugh to the marshal’s lips.

“Really. Like you’re one to talk.”

“Of course I am,” D smiled jovially. “As an expert on the absurd and the outrageous, I take great pride in my ability to spot strangities from a mile away.”

“Alright, I’ll bite,” Graves answered as he sat upright. “What’s so odd about me?”

“Simply put, never have I met a person who was so averse to being happy. It’s like you’re allergic to anything that might bring pleasure to your dismal and dreary days.”

“I don’t hate being happy.”

“Please,” the strange man chortled, “I’d take my life over yours any day, and I’m spending my days doing impersonations of the Venus de Milo.”

Though the grey-eyed soldier returned a quizzical stare, he refrained from asking what such a peculiar turn of phrase meant. Something told him he wasn’t likely to get an answer anyway.

“I don’t hate being happy,” Graves repeated, if only to search for the reason why he denied it. “I just… don’t want to pay the price of being happy.”

“Namely the cost of losing that happiness, correct?” the elderly man offered.

Graves nodded.

“Are you afraid?”

“… I guess I am.”

“Well then,” D continued, his golden eyes lighting up as a devilish smile split his face, “what if I told you I could take the price away?”

“Wha-?”

Before the marshal could blink, D thrust the cane out, striking with young man squarely between the eyes with the deadly precision of a champion fencer.

The sounds of maniacal cackling quickly faded away as everything fell to black.

*****

Graves blinked in the inky blackness that surrounded him. Or at least, he thought he blinked.

For one thing, it was so completely dark, that it made no difference whether his eyes were open or not. For another, though he got the impression of making the motions, there was no sensation of the physical, no feelings to serve as evidence that anything had happened at all. It was a strange feeling, yet one that seemed somehow familiar.

“What’s going on, D?” he called, or thought aloud. He knew he had no throat to speak from, but he was still somehow sure the query had gone forth. In response, the rich, echoing laughter of the strange man rang out through the inky blackness.

“Merely started you out on a little journey,” he chortled, drifting into view with a clarity that contradicted the surrounding darkness.

“What do you mean?” the marshal asked again. “Where are we?”

“Why, we’re in you, of course. Surely, you haven’t forgotten your last visit to the world that lies inside?”

Ah, so that’s what it was. This disembodied sensation. This lack of light that was darker than dark and still somehow not. It was the feeling of that strange realm between dreaming and waking, the place where he’d relived the memories necessary to return to the world of the living.

“Why’d you bring me here?”

Raising a sequined glove clad hand, D snapped his fingers and instantly, the blackness was lit up by thousands upon thousands of glowing orbs of light, each one twinkling to life like a newborn firefly. As numerous as the stars in the night sky, each glittering sphere flickered with images and motion, tiny movies drifting in glass globes through the emptiness of space.

“What is it you’re really afraid of?”

“Huh?”

“Aw, don’t play coy with me, marshal,” D pressed, his liquid golden eyes fixed intently on iron grey. “You said it yourself, you’d like to be happy. And yet I find you here, throwing away an opportunity that most men would give their right hand for. You give it up because you’re afraid, but what is it that scares you so?”

“… Pain,” Graves admitted, the word springing to his lips from somewhere not quite in conscious thought. “Being with people really does make you happy. But if you lose those people it… hurts. Feels like someone carved a hole in your chest that never heals.”

“The pain of loss,” D nodded in something one might even believe was understanding. “Some think that the worst pains are the physical ones of the flesh and body. But you’ve been there. You’ve seen pain in all its forms, and you know that the worst ones, the worst by far, are pains of the heart.”

Graves fell into still, mute astonishment. This was more than simple understanding. From the way D spoke it almost sounded like-

“But at the very core,” the elderly youngster continued, interrupting the thought, “at the core of all kinds of suffering, do you know what they all share in common?”

“What is it?” Graves asked, to which D simply tapped the side of his head.

“Thought. Pain exists in the mind and cannot exist without being known. To think is to give pain form. To feel is to give pain life. It’s thought that makes pain real. Wouldn't you agree?”

Slowly, the marshal nodded. Countless times, he’d walked off the battle field covered with wounds and no idea where they’d come from. By all accounts, the afflictions should have been agonizing, yet he’d paid them as much notice in the heat of combat as he might the weather. Probably less, on account of the weather having its uses. It was only when you thought about the injuries and accepted the idea that it really should hurt that pain appeared.

“That’s all well and good,” Graves cautiously continued. “But what’s that got to do with why we’re here?”

“Isn’t it obvious?” the bearded man chortled, drifting along as freely as a fish in the ocean. “I’m here to help you get rid of the pain.”

Raising his cane, D gave it a grand flourish and with it, began to move the stars. Following his motions, hundreds of the flickering lights spiraled inward, drawing close enough so that the pair were surrounded by a slowly swirling curtain of shimmering orbs. As close as they were, Graves was finally able to start making out the images they contained. What he saw nearly stopped his heart.

“Is… Is that…?” he gaped, reaching a trembling, non-existent hand forward towards one of the glittering scenes. The strange man nodded in affirmation.

“Team twenty six. Exactly as you remember them.”

It was amazing. In each and every one of the glittering spheres played a different scene, a different memory from those years he’d spent with his squad. In one, he saw the first mission they’d ever been on, a werewolf hunt that’d sown the seeds of camaraderie amongst them. In another, a harrowing escape from collapsing ruins, the point where he’d begun trusting another person to watch his back. Countless memories swirled around him, some fond and close and others so long buried they’d nearly been forgotten. Of course, it’s one thing to remember, but here, in this space with the twinkling orb before him, he could truly see them as clear as the day it had happened. He could see them, his comrades so vivid and real and lifelike, you could hardly believe that they were already gone.

At that instant, a sharp spike of agony lanced through the marshal’s heart.

“Thought is pain,” D repeated, returning the cane to his side as he drifted along in the same invisible current. “And memory is thought. You think because you remember, and you hurt because you think. In that sense, you can say that the cause of all your pain is memory.”

“… What are you getting at?” Graves asked suspiciously. Had he been in his body, this would be where that familiar shiver would creep down his spine, raising his hackles at soon to come danger. D did not disappoint.

“What if,” the bearded man began, a languid smile playing across his lips, “instead of carrying those burdens with you wherever you go, you just… let them go?” He reached his hand out toward the glowing light and gently took hold. “What if you simply forgot about them and freed yourself from the pain once and for all?” D began to squeeze, the glittering sphere slowly bulging out like a water-filled balloon. The image distorted, warping as the growing pressure distended the surface further and further.

“Stop it,” Graves said and instantly, D released.

“If you insist, but why?” the topaz-eyed man asked with keen interest. “What good could you possibly have of dragging those four with you wherever you go?”

“Those four,” the young soldier replied with enough edge in his words to shave with, “are the reason I’m here today. They’re the ones who taught me what it means to be a marshal, what it means to fight for the sake of others. They’re the ones who gave their lives and let me live. I will not disrespect them by treating them as burdens.”

“You’re absolutely right,” D agreed, surprisingly with no detectable sarcasm in his voice. “These four crafted you into the hero everyone knows. Not that you care about being a hero or anything as simple as that. No, what you care about is your mission. You need to keep on fighting for Equestria, and to forget these four would cut out such a big piece of you, the whole person would come falling down like a house of cards. Am I right?”

Graves blinked in surprise. Once again, D provided surprisingly clear insight.

“No,” the young elder intoned as he stroked his beard. “Even if it hurts, the memories of these four have to stay, if not even for the sake of Equestria, but simply to keep you as who you are. That makes certainly makes sense, but… what about her?”

Flicking his cane, the curtain of glittering orbs flitted off into the dark as others flowed into their place. Only, instead of the images of his fallen comrades, these spheres were all centered on a single, beautiful, violet-haired girl.

“The life of the marshal isn’t easy, less so with excess baggage and useless emotions,” D continued on in his lucid, logical monologue. “The memory of your team isn’t baggage; it’s fuel for the fire that keeps you running. The memories of your hometown aren’t either. If not so clear, they still provided the foundation for your drive, the desire to prevent others from suffering the same fate as you. In a way, they’re just as important as your comrades."

"But what about her?” he asked once more, plucking an orb from the current, letting it gently float over the palm of his hand. In its shimmering depths, the marshal could make out their first lunch together, that first eye-opening conversation where he’d begun to discover the fabulous depths of a remarkable young lady.

“What does remembering her do for you? For your work?” It neither confirms your intent, nor strengthens your resolve. It just… hurts you. Saps away at your will and undercuts the drive with painful longings you know you can’t fulfill. What good is there in holding on?”

Graves opened his mouth to speak, to challenge the words with sound reason and rational. But nothing came forth from his mind’s blank slate.

“All she does is make you weak,” the elderly man said softly, a strange melancholy in his topaz eyes. “All she does is open you to pain once again. So instead of dragging on the suffering, instead of waiting for time to run its course, why don’t you just... let it go?”

The young soldier moved to protest, to protect the memory. But with a quick, almost merciful gesture, D clenched his fist and the sphere burst into a million motes of light, shimmering like golden sparks for one brief instant before fading into nothingness.

And as the lights disappeared, Graves forgot what it was he could no longer remember.

“Just let it go, boy,” D called out, his words rich and sweet and almost kind in their urging. “Let yourself forget. Release those memories into oblivion and set yourself free.”

One by one, the orbs of memory all around him began to burst. To his left, the memory of that first dinner after bringing back Sweetie Belle from an impromptu troll hunt. To his right, a lively debate over one of their shared novels. There went a scene from the Gala. A day in Ponyville. Their conversation in the canyon cave. One by one, with rapidly rising tempo and energy, the orbs and their contents continued to disappear.

And as Graves watched and felt the memories fade, he felt… better.

At first, the shock of loss had been palpable, a strong right hook that came from nowhere that would have floored him had he been in corporeal form. But the more memories that disappeared, the less it hurt. With each memory that vanished, a portion of the longing in his heart, a portion of the emptiness vanished as well. He could feel himself growing calmer and freer, as if each disappearing bubble was a chunk of stone lifted from his shoulders. After all, a man couldn’t long for what he didn’t know, could he? And so Graves watched as one by one, the memories faded and a calm spread over his mind.

Soon, there was only one orb left. Drifting forwards, the elderly man placed it into the marshal’s hand, the final memory that glittered with the faint light of a dying star. In its shimmering depths, he saw a young woman, standing in the sunlight of a Ponyville street, violet tresses encircling a beautiful, almost familiar face. She was smiling.

“The last step is up to you.”

Just a touch. Graves knew that if he moved, if he put even the faintest pressure on that glowing sphere of light, then it would burst. Once it did, then the growing sense of well being in his heart would be complete and he would finally be at peace. All he had to do was move, to throw away that solitary image of a young woman he no longer even knew, and he would be truly and completely free.

So why was it that, no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t bring himself to do it?

*****

A pulse.

At first, it was hardly more than a shudder of the darkness, a spot where black became infinitesimally less so. But it happened again. And again. And again, growing stronger and stronger each time. The pulsing quickened till it resembled a beating heart, one that began beating faster and faster, pounding louder and stronger. And from this pulsing, from this beating, a single, tiny mote of light flickered to life. Less than a firefly’s tail, the tiny speck drifted forward and alighted onto the orb in hand, bringing with it the memory of a single word.

Rarity.

All at once, with the brilliance of a thousand of supernovas, the memories returned, exploding forth in radiant bursts of light of every color and hue imaginable. In an instant, the blank void was filled once more with a starry host, each glittering point bringing back some portion of the marshal’s lost memory.

And with the memories came emptiness as well. Graves gasped, unable to even cry out as if a ragged hole had been punched through his very soul. To go from peaceful contentment back to complete awareness of what he’d gone through and what he’d given up… some part of him had known it would hurt, but no part of him had realized quite how much.

“What… what happened?” he grunted, fighting to maintain his mental posture despite wanting to do nothing more than curl up and forget once more. “I thought you got rid of them.”

“I’ve told you before, I’m merely a guide,” D replied smoothly, sardonic smile on his lips once more. “I couldn’t really destroy any of your memories; that’d be outside of my jurisdiction. No, I merely showed you what it’d feel like if you’d gone through and forgotten everything, leaving the final choice to you.”

“And I chose… not to.” the raven-haired soldier said, almost not believing it himself. “Why?”

“Why indeed, why indeed,” the elderly youngster repeated in impish delight. “You know the reasoning. You know the rationale. A woman like Rarity could only serve to get in the way of your work. As long as thoughts of her remain, you expose yourself to the pain of loss once more. If that happens again, even your mind may break, and your life as a marshal would be over. Your journey would end. And yet you hold on. Why?"

Graves paused.

Why? Why had he stopped? Everything D had said was true. He knew exactly what being around Rarity meant, which is why he'd run away. He’d eviscerated her from his life, cutting her out like he would a piece of shrapnel in his flesh so that he would never again have to undergo that kind of hurt. And yet, when it finally came to be rid of her once and for all, he still couldn't let her go. It served no purpose and yet he held on. He knew the absurdity of the situation, so why did he choose to remember? Just what was it that made him cling on?

"Tell me Graves,” the strange man grinned, leaning in with eyes roiling like cauldrons of melted gold. "What is it that you want? What is it that you really, truly desire?”

The marshal opened his mouth to speak, to try and put words to his thoughts.

“I… I…”

**********

Chapter 16

Chapter 16

Military airships weren’t known for their luxurious accommodations, especially freighters and cargo transports. Designed to transport the maximum amount of supplies at the most efficient costs, it was a rare occurrence to have a private cabin aboard, and rarer still an occasion to need one.

But today was one of those occasions, and Twilight quietly thanked Celestia that the room was there.

“How’re you feeling, Rarity?” she murmured, gently stroking the violet tresses that lay in a tumultuous mess on her lap. The young lady in question sniffled softly, bringing her handkerchief up to her reddened eyes once more for a now well-practiced dab.

“Terrible,” she mumbled, curling up a little tighter on the small cot. “Just… terrible.”

Twilight said nothing. She merely continued stroking Rarity’s hair, soothing her as she had Spike when he’d been a frightened child. Considering what the pretty dressmaker had been through, it was all she could really do.

The scholar and her friends had opted to remain at the airship, sending Rarity off on her own to deal with the marshal. It’d taken some convincing and more than one lassoing to keep Rainbow Dash and Pinkie from charging in head first, but the girls eventually came to agreement that if anyone could make something happen, it would be the resolute fashionista handling affairs on her own.

After a period longer than they’d wanted, but shorter than they’d expected, Rarity had come back to them. Alone. A thousand questions had instantly popped up, with a thousand more clambering to be heard as well, but the first look at her face had driven all such thought away like dust in a gale. Of course they’d all seen the dressmaker upset before, what with her histrionics and theatrical exaggerations; it was part of her charm, part of what made Rarity, well... Rarity. But the look they’d seen then, that look of abject anguish flickering in sapphire eyes on the verge of shattering? That was something else entirely.

She hadn't broken. Not then, anyway. But once she’d gotten aboard the airship, the tenuous composure she’d clung to so hard as she walked through the camp finally snapped. Falling to her knees, the beautiful girl cried, bursting into tears as sobs wracked her body. Without concern that the crew could see her, without heed to the mess of her makeup, for once without a single care for appearance or decorum, the young lady wept, crying out in a way that only the truly broken hearted could.

At that point, others had snapped as well. Frustration from inaction boiling over like an unwatched kettle, Rainbow Dash had zipped through the airship, careening of bulkhead and bulwarks with reckless disregard for safety till she’d found the small cabin and forcibly evicted the astonished captain. Half helping, half carrying their distraught companion, the other girls followed after and brought Rarity over. A few quiet glances towards Twilight, and the girls ushered the pair of them into the room and shut the heavy, iron door before them.

Even between the best of friends, there are just some things you just don't want others to see.

*****

Rarity didn't know how long she'd cried for. All she knew was that she'd cried, long and hard as she'd somehow managed to choke out the story between heaving sobs, the words spilling forth in avalanchine fashion, unable to be stopped once the motion began as with each word, fresh tears welled forth. She told Twilight everything, how he'd been broken, how suffering and loss had become his reality, and how even then, he'd offered to stay if she would but ask him to. She told Twilight how that offer had forced her to make the most painful decision of her life. She didn't know how long she'd cried for but it had been long, long enough till she had no more tears to shed and the raging storm had finally died into quiet numbness.

Well, almost numbness. Some things just hurt too bad to fade so quickly.

“... You really are the Element of Generosity,” Twilight smiled sadly, never once having stopped the soothing stroke of her friend's hair. “You’re an absolutely amazing girl, you know that?”

“I really wish I were,” Rarity said, a tiny, weary smile coming to her lips. “If I were, then maybe doing it wouldn’t have felt so awful.”

“The fact that you could do it at all is amazing,” the sweater-vested scholar said in tones both gentle and firm. She wanted to be kind, but she wasn’t about to let the pretty dressmaker sell herself short. Not after what she’d been through. “The fact that it felt so awful just means you cared a lot, and it’s because you cared so much that makes it so amazing.”

“I suppose,” the dressmaker sniffed. “It’s still so ironic. I’ve never really understood how his mind worked till now. I mean, how does one simply give up on what he wants so he can do what’s right?” Despite the circumstance, a small smile crept to her pale rose lips. “He really was a remarkable man, wasn’t he?”

“Yeah. I guess he was.”

A soft knock came from the door and with a small squeak of hinges, Applejack poked her head in through the crack.

“Hey there,” she drawled softly. “Captain said we’re gonna be shippin’ off soon. Just wanted tah make sure you’re doin’ all right in here.”

“We’re fine, Applejack. Thanks.” Twilight smiled. With an encouraging grin to her prone friend, who managed to return the favor, the freckled farm girl ducked back out and quietly shut the door behind her.

“You know what you need?” Twilight said as the massive hextech engines slowly rumbled to life. “You need a vacation.”

“Vacation?” Rarity tutted. "I’ve been on vacation for weeks now. Heaven knows how many orders have stacked up while I’ve been gone.”

“Bah, the orders can wait,” Twilight snorted. “And besides, these last few weeks haven’t been anything even remotely close to a vacation. With the amount of stress you’ve been under, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a few gray hairs popping up. Or even worse… wrinkles.”

The amethyst-eyed mage had to stifle a giggle as she felt the girl tense up in her lap. That’s Rarity for you: even at times like this, there was still time to worry about your complexion.

“No, you need a real vacation,” Twilight continued, the rumblings of the airship growing louder as it gained speed down the runway. “I’m thinking a full day at the spa, maybe a couple of days down by the lake, and all topped off with a good old fashioned slumber party. What do you think?”

“A nice mud facial would be welcome,” Rarity sniffled in consideration. “Heavens knows I could use a seaweed wrap as well…”

“That’s the spirit,” Twilight beamed. “You just need a few days to set your head straight. Put all this stuff behind you.”

“Yes,” Rarity murmured. “Put it all–”

The two girls were nearly thrown from the cot as a thunderous explosion rocked the airship. Considering it was a Stallion class transport, with over a million cubic feet of storage space available in its vast berths, that was definitely saying something.

“What on earth was that?” Rarity gasped as she sat up, sapphire eyes wide in surprise. As if on cue, the door flew open and one of the airship’s crewmen staggered to the frame.

“Begging your pardons, ladies,” he said as the vibrations grow stronger, “but you might want to strap yourselves in. We’re making an emergency stop.”

“Emergency stop?” Twilight gaped. “Why on earth would we need to do that?”

“Engine’s blown. Need to make repairs”

“Now?” the purple-haired mage frowned. “Seriously?”

“Afraid so,” the crewman grimaced. “Strangest thing, too. Weather’s clear as a preacher man’s conscience, but it looks like the engine was struck by lightning. Literally right outta the blue.”

Both amethyst and sapphire eyes blinked, brains entering standby mode as they processed the latest information. Slowly, the stunned gazes met to exchange looks of complete and utter disbelief.

No way. It couldn’t be. Granted, there were probably few people with the capability to cripple such a large piece of magical machinery, and fewer still with the requisite motive to do so. But even so, there’s no way the subject in question would have the audacity and sheer stupidity to consider the nigh treasonous act of terrorism worth it.

... Would he?

*****

With the tiniest of squeaking protests, the hallway bulkhead creaked open and a pair of gunmetal grey eyes peered out of the gloom. Satisfied the pathway was clear, the marshal dropped from the overhead into a ready crouch, hardly a sound arising as his leather soles met metal grating. He peered around, ears strained for any signs of approach. Nothing. The hallway remained empty and so Graves, with the speed and silence of a stalking panther, raced forward towards the front of the ship.

This was stupid. So incredibly, bone-headedly, mind-numbingly stupid. He could have caught the next flight out. He could have gone to the dispatch center and requested the craft reroute to base. He could have done any number of smarter, more rational things. Instead, he’d decided to open fire on an active ERA vehicle. Forget the thousands of bits of damage the repairs would cost alone, the act itself was akin to declaring war on Equestria. At best, he would end up with a court marshaling for his actions. At worst…

“We’ll deal with that later,” Graves muttered, as he peered around a corner, ducking back as two crewman rushed down the path perpendicular. The last thing he needed was to get stopped and questioned by an overzealous mechanic. Not that he’d have problems dealing with the problem quietly and discretely, mind you. He just preferred to keep his criminal record to a possibly non-treasonous level.

Flitting from shadow to shadow, Graves made his wraith-like way though the vessel's interior. With what he knew of Equestrian airships and treatment of General Ironside’s guests, he could safely surmise his destination lay at the bow in the captain’s quarters. Creeping invisibly along, it wasn't long before the marshal poked his head around one final corner and spotted his destination. And, unfortunately, the foreboding barrier that lay between as well.

Pinkie Pie, Applejack, Rainbow Dash, and Fluttershy. Four girls, each more fearsome than any hound at the gates of hell, blocked his path. If there was one thing he could count on from these Ponyville girls, it would be loyalty to their friends, and that meant protecting them from harm. Right now, that definition of harm would certainly include him.

He’d hurt Rarity. He’d made her cry, a thought that twisted in his heart like a piece of rusty shrapnel. Even so, he needed to see her one last time. One more time, and then he would be able to settle this fiasco for good. To see her though, he'd have to get by her friends and the only way that was ever going to happen was if he could give them a really, really good reason to let him by.

Only… what would that be?

Even now, he wasn’t sure why he was here. Everything he’d said to Rarity, everything he’d heard echoed by D… all of it was still true. Every shred of reason and every bit of rational said, even screamed, for him to leave and be done with it. He’d ignored those protests on almost gut instinct alone and made his way here, but even now he couldn’t say why. And there lay the problem. If he didn't know the reason why he came here, then how could he possibly convey that reason to others?

Well, standing around wasn't going to help much, so he might as well make himself known. Stepping round the corner, a flash of motion and a split second instantly informed him of what was coming. The motion was wide, telegraphed like searchlights from a mountain top. He could have stepped out of the way. He could have, but he didn’t.

BAM!

The marshal winced as the fist caught him square across the jaw and rattled the insides of his head like a half-empty can of dried beans.

“You! You’ve got some nerve showing your face around here!” Rainbow Dash roared as she glared at the marshal like death on two wings. Her hands were still balled into fists, itching, just waiting for a reason to wail on him again. Maybe not even waiting for a reason. “What are you doing here anyway?”

“That’s some hello,” Graves replied as he worked to loosen up his aching jaw. For such a short girl, she really packed a punch.

“Yah should be grateful that’s all she did,” Applejack snorted from her position by the door, her usually warm demeanor now cold as a winter cellar. “After seein’ the state Rarity was in, we had some right interestin’ conversations on how we’d greet yah the next time we saw yah. Jess didn’t expect it tah be so soon.”

“Yeah, you jerk!” Pinkie Pie joined in, positively bristling like an alley cat. “You big jerky jerk jerktastically jerkfull… jerk!”

“So spit it out already,” Rainbow Dash snapped once more, jabbing a finger into the marshal’s chest. “We all know you’re the one who stopped the airship. Why? What’s your game?”

“I need to talk to Rarity.”

SLAP!

Graves wasn’t sure who was more surprised, him or the three other girls that gaped in amazement at Fluttershy and her glowing palm.

“How dare you,” she seethed. The young lady, usually so demure and shy, now glared at the raven-haired soldier with eyes that burned of aquamarine fire. “How dare you! Do you have any idea how much Rarity’s been through because of you? She was literally worried sick over you when you got hurt, and instead of being grateful, you left her behind and said you were never coming back! We were all hurt, every single one of us and Rarity most of all, but she didn’t give up on you! She got us back together just so we could bring you back, but you sent her away and you hurt her again! You have absolutely no right to see her, so why should we let you? What reason could you possible give after everything you’ve done to her?!”

At that moment, Graves gave the only answer he could think of.

“I… don’t know.”

The silence that echoed was deafening.

Throughout Fluttershy’s tirade, Graves had stood silent, saying nothing because it had become clear that there really was nothing to say. Every single, jagged, rending, word she’d said was absolutely and undeniably true.

“Yah don’t know,” Applejack breathed in disbelief. “Yah really have no answer for us?”

“No, I don’t,” Graves sighed, a heavy and hopeless sound.

“Then why should we let you see Rarity?” Pinkie Pie challenged with an oddly severe look. He'd never seen Pinkie Pie truly mad before. It was almost shameful that he'd be the reason for it now.

“I don’t know,” the marshal repeated once more. “You’re right on every word. I don’t deserve to see her. I could work my life to make it up and I'd probably die far short. But right or none, I... need to talk to her. I know you've got no reason to believe me or let me through even if you did, but even so…” He faltered. He still couldn’t find a reason, an explanation. But he knew it was there. He knew it was true. If only he could somehow let them feel it too.

“Please, just give me this chance,” he rasped, his voice hoarse like stone scraping on rough leather. “Please.”

...

Silence.

Four pairs of eyes looked at him, by no means friendly, but by no means as so hostile as before. The girls glanced at each other, volumes being exchanged in those minute looks as they seemed to telepathically deliberate their verdict. Or maybe there was no discussion. Maybe they were merely confirming what each one had decided by herself.

Whatever that decision was, three pairs of eyes converged on Applejack, who replied with a small nod. Opening the door at her side, the freckled farm girl poked her head in and murmured a few words. Twilight's head popped out, and for a brief spell, the two spoke. It was brief, probably only a few seconds in all, but for Graves? The wait of those few seconds could have filled a lifetime.

Finally, Applejack turned around and gave a nod.

“Alright then. Rarity’s waitin'.”

*****

A quick glance from a pair of amethyst eyes and the soft clanking of steel on steel signaled the iron door shutting behind the soldier. He found himself in a small room, roughly the same size as his tent had been. A small writing desk with a foldout chair was bolted to the side of the wall with a similarly situated filing cabinet and cupboards right by. The only remaining object was a simple, serviceable cot, and it was to this that the marshal’s eyes were drawn. Or rather, to the young lady that sat upon it.

“Well, this is rather… unexpected,” Rarity lightly remarked, her voice barely above a quiet flutter. “I didn’t expect to see you again quite so soon.”

For a brief spell, Graves wondered whether D had been playing him all along. The immaculately composed woman before him certainly didn’t look like one who’d been crying, not with her expertly quaffed tresses and impeccable dress. But a closer look did in fact reveal raw, red rims around her eyes, well-covered by shadow and mascara but impossible to wholly erase.

“So, is there something I can help you with?” she asked with hands neatly folded in her lap. Her tone wasn’t exactly cold, but it wasn’t warm by any stretch either. No, it was more or less reserved, the feel of a lynx that isn’t sure whether it wants to allow a stranger to approach its presence.

...

“Well?”

It wasn’t till she repeated her question that Graves realized he hadn’t said anything. In fact, it wasn't until he'd made it this far that he realized... he had no idea what he wanted to say.

“I… uh… wanted to talk…” he replied lamely, hoping the brief respite would help him collect his thoughts.

Nope. Nothing.

“Talk? I thought we’d talked about everything we needed to already,” she responded. It didn’t take a genius to figure out that there was a considerable amount of ire in those words.

“I thought so too,” he nodded. “But I did some thinking, and I realized there some stuff we haven’t covered yet.”

“Oh?” Rarity intoned, tone cooling as anger was replaced by some curiosity. “And what exactly did you come to realize?”

That was actually a good question. There was a lot of stuff he realized he wanted to say, but it was all an amorphous blob, like a mass of eels with each individual idea too slippery to pull out. He had things he needed to say, but he didn’t have any idea on where to begin or even where he wanted to go once he did.

In that case, he might as well go with the tried and true marshal’s method: shoot first, ask later. And so, with all the decorum of a rampaging bison, he said,

“You screwed up my life, you know that?"

From the look on Rarity's face, you’d have thought someone had just informed her overalls were next year’s hot ticket item.

“I... I beg your pardon?” she gaped, eyes growing dangerously large from… insult? Surprise? It was actually kind of hard to tell which.

“Yeah, you did,” Graves shot back, releasing the inhibitors on his brain and allowing its contents to slough forth in a torrid deluge of words. “Before I got caught up with you in Ponyville, my life was simple. I find bad guys, I shoot bad guys. Rinse and repeat. It worked fine and the world kept on turning. Then I come to Ponyville where I meet you, and of a sudden, I have to start worrying about how to act, how to speak, how to dress, and… I mean, I have three different colors in socks now. Why in the name of Luna's starry sky does a man even need to worry about the colors of his socks?”

“Well, excuse me for introducing you to the concept of a coordinated outfit,” Rarity retorted, now much more clearly in the outraged department. “But did you honestly cause all of this ruckus just to tell me off about your socks?”

“Of course not,” he snorted, pressing on full steam. “That’s just the beginning. As if worrying about all those little things isn’t enough, I’ve got to start worrying about you! I’ve never had to worry about anyone before. I used to worry about work. I used to worried about big issues and events, not people and... relationship... things. Hay, I didn't even worry about this with my old team. Sure we’d watch out for one another and we'd take care of our own, but in the end, we all knew we were there for the job and that’s what we worried about.”

“But you,” Graves continued, raising a pointed finger as his voice took on an almost accusatory flavor, “when I’m around you, I can’t not worry. Every minute around you is like walking a tightrope while juggling a fistful of razorblades. I have to worry about everything I say and do, wondering how I need to act so you won’t get upset, what’s the sort reply I can make to be witty without being crude, and dozen other things I can’t even think of. It’s insane, it’s exhausting, and it drives me crazy!”

“Is that why you came here?” Rarity snapped, her voice crackling with rage as her eyes flashed with blue fire. “You cause all this mess, all this commotion, just to come in here and tell me that? You came all the way out here just to tell you that I drive you crazy?”

“Oh, not even close,” the marshal replied with a harsh, barking laugh, “because you driving me crazy isn’t the worst part by half.”

“No?” Rarity sniffed with haughty disdain. “Then pray tell what is?”

“Worst part is that I don’t want it to stop!”

...

...

Had Graves announced he’d given up his duties to go join a convent, Rarity probably would have found it more credible than the words she’d actually heard.

“I… beg your pardon?” the violet-haired beauty remarked, baffled as she’d never been baffled before. “What on earth do you mean?”

“You drive me crazy,” Graves repeated, half dazed as if he’d been struck another blow to jaw by an overgrown tauren. “Life around you is like a tornado where I’m always getting tossed around. Half the time I don’t know which way is up or down and the other half, I think I know and end up flat out wrong. But despite all that and always feeling like a twice-baked idiot, I… I like it.”

“You do?” she blinked. “But… why?

“Because it’s you!” Graves cried out, frustration grating his voice till it rang of steel scraping leather. “Just being near you, being around you makes me feel… alive. When I go to sleep, I know there’s something worth waking up for. When I make a blasted fool of myself, I couldn't care less because I get to see you smiling. When I’m with you, I… I don’t even think about the past or worry about the future. I’m just right there in the present, glad to just be alive because it means I get to be there with you.”

Fair cheeks bloomed crimson as Rarity instantly flushed rose red in deliciously wonderful mortification. This was no award winning speech by any means. The words had no poetry, no dramatic prose or amazing similes, no likening her hair to the ocean’s waives or eyes to twinkling stars. But the sheer sincerity with which it was said, the honest look of self-conscious consternation on the young soldier’s face set against those piercing, earnest grey eyes… they weren’t the prettiest words, but they were by far the most beautiful she'd ever heard.

And the moment of euphoria came to a close as cold reason rushed back in. To hear Graves say such words sent the young lady into stratospheric happiness, but in the end, she’d already known they were true. The real problem wasn’t what he felt, but what he feared.

“I… appreciate the sentiment,” Rarity nodded, trying to maintain her composure despite the remaining crimson in her face. “I really do. But we both know now it will have to remain just that.”

“This is about what we talked about earlier, isn’t it?” the marshal asked, though really more statement than question. The young lady nodded with a sad smile.

“You know that I love you, Graves. More than words can say. But even if I can make you forget the past for a moment, it will always be there, and as long as it is, there’s simply no way I could ever ask you to stay.”

“I know you can’t,” the marshal nodded. “And that’s why I won't make you.”

For a moment, Rarity could only blink in abject perplexity. But slowly, fueled by hope she dared not feel yet could not contain, her eyes widened into perfect sapphire circles as the meaning of his words truly sank in.

“Graves, please don’t joke like that,” she said, the joy surging through her heart almost painful in its intensity, even worse considering the reality she had to face. “You can’t possibly expect to simply... switch off your fears, not when you’ve been living with it for so long.”

“You’re right, I can’t turn it off,” Graves admitted. “I can feel it, even now. Just standing next to you terrifies me. I can't help but worry and I can't help but wonder not if, but just... when you’ll be taken away from me." There was no passion in his voice, no exaggeration or inflation. Every word was merely fact, cold and ugly and unflinchingly true.

He was afraid. Even now, his entire body, the one that had stood against demons and devils without falter, shivered as if assailed by an icy wind. Like a parasitic worm embedded in the back of his mind, the voices of sense and reason gnawed at his resolve, telling him to stop and turn back. Like a cankerous growth, he could feel pure, frozen dread threatening to strangle his mind. That all too familiar road to torment loomed large in his sight, but it wasn't yet too late to turn back. He could still save himself.

With sudden, explosive violence, Graves clenched his fists, squeezing them till he could have turned coal into diamonds, squeezing them till his trembling ceased.

"I'm afraid," he admitted, his words bitter with defeat, yet heated with tones far greater and warmer and stronger. "I'm afraid and maybe I always will be. But even if it follows me till my dying day, I'll... I'll fight it. I'll do whatever it takes, fight whatever it takes till bones are dust and blood runs dry. So don't ask me to stay because I can. Let me stay because even though it hurts and even though I'm afraid, I'll fight it till my last breath because you're worth it all and so much more. I want to fight for you."

Rarity looked up, sapphire blue meeting gunmetal grey. She could see the truth in those eyes, the trembling terror and wavering uncertainty even as he spoke. But beyond that, lying like a great stone at the bottom of a foggy sea, she could see resolve. She could see the unbreakable will which had once thrust him into greatness now made adamantine by a passion fit to set her heart aflutter and her blood afire. At that moment, she wanted nothing more than to leap up and embrace him, to hold him fast and never let him go.

But she couldn’t do that. Not just yet.

“Graves,” she said softly, standing and taking a tentative step - just one step - towards the raven-haired soldier. “It’s not too late to turn back.”

“Rarity, I–”

“Let me finish,” she continued, eyes harder than gemstones yet more tender than a summer breeze. “I'm not strong like you. I'm not as selfless or heroic or noble as you are; I'm just a girl who fell head over heels in love with a very hard man to love. I want you to be happy, Graves, I really do, but I... I just don't think I could ever let you go again. So leave if you want to. I won't fight you. I won't stop you."

She paused, biting her lower lip in pensive hesitation.

"But if you want to stay... here... with me, then... then show me, Graves. Show me just what is it that you really, truly desire.”

Graves stood there for a moment, a statue with pensive eyes, frozen by uncertainty. In that moment, Rarity’s breath caught in her throat. Was this it? Could it be that in the end, even his resolve was simply not enough?

“... Actions speak louder than words…” he murmured.

"I’m... sorry, what did you–”

The rest of the question was cut off as Graves swept Rarity into arms stronger than steel yet softer than velvet and pressed his lips against hers, conveying feelings and resolve in ways indescribable in words. The young beauty froze, unable to react or respond as both body and went numb for a moment in stunning shock.

But it was only for a moment.

Heat thawing through like sun through snow, Rarity melted into Graves, wrapping her arms around and pulling him in to return the kiss with equal fervor. And so they stood, locked in an embrace that created a universe of two for a timeless moment. In that second, a heart long scarred and battered and broken finally began to beat once more. In that breath, a heart that had given up what it yearned for most found it again, purer, sweeter, and truer than ever before.

In that instant, that single, eternal, and beautiful instant, those two hearts held so long apart finally met and melted into one.

**********

When the soldier and the beauty finally parted, flushed and breathless and happier than should ever be possible, it was only then that they noticed the shower of thunderous applause. Turning around in bewilderment, for the first time, Graves and Rarity realized that the cabin door had swung wide open to reveal not only the other Ponyville girls, but what appeared to be the ship’s entire crew turned up to celebrate the joyous moment.

“… Well, this is awkward,” Graves mumbled as he released one arm to pull his hat down over his eyes.

“A bit,” Rarity giggle, unable to keep the broad, ear to ear grin hidden a moment longer. “But well worth it, wouldn’t you agree?”

“No doubt about that,” Graves smiled back as his usually stony face now suffused with the warmth of a glowing flame. “And as much as I’d love to stay like this, I think we’ve got some work to do.”

“Really?” Rarity intoned. “And what work is that?”

“First, we gotta get those girls settled down,” the marshal remarked, pointing to the five teary-eyed girls sobbing at the forefront of the crowd. “Then, I gotta check out of camp and head back to Canterlot to see if old man Ironside will let me hang around Ponyville a bit longer.”

“Oh, I don’t think we’ll have any trouble convincing him,” the young lady replied with a knowing smile.

“You know something I don’t?” Graves remarked. All he got was another coy smile in reply.

Sighing in mock resignation, the raven-haired soldier released his lovely Rarity so they could head over to the now sobbing crowd awaiting them. He was momentarily halted, however, by the sensation of cool, slender fingers slipping in between his own.

“Not so fast, Mister Marshal,” Rarity said with a saucy little smile. “After that little display, don’t think I’ll let you get away so easily. From this day forth, you sir, are mine. Are we clear?”

Graves simply grinned, a cocky, lopsided, and very satisfied sort of grin.

“I'm yours, eh? I think I can live with that.”

**********

End of Season 2

The Journey of Graves will continue in the tenth story: There's a Reason They Call it a Crush

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