“Graves?!” Twilight gaped. “Is that you?!”
The indigo-clad girl’s shocked incredulity was indeed well-warranted, as the man standing before them looked absolutely nothing like weather-worn marshal she’d come to know.
Instead of his usual drab, leather gear, the taciturn soldier now wore a stylish long coat of midnight blue, cut like a double-breasted military jacket with ornate silver buttons and matching scrollwork running down the sleeves. His favorite hat had been removed to reveal a head of glossy, raven-black hair neatly combed and smoothed back to give Twilight what may have been her first-ever uninhibited look at his face. She couldn’t decide which was more surprising, how sharply and brightly his silvery-grey eyes shined now unimpeded by his hanging bangs, or the fact that his face, while still as stoic as a rock farmer’s crop, was much younger and daresay more pleasant to look at than she would have ever guessed.
All this to say, in a rather verbose manner, was that Graves had cleaned up rather nicely. So nicely in fact, that it’d taken a while for the young lady to recognize him.
“What are you doing here?” Twilight continued, still not quite believing the elegant young man before her could really be her taciturn friend.
“I’m on duty,” he answered, sounding quite dazed and bewildered himself. “What are you doing in Canterlot?”
“Wait,” Shining Armor interjected, now mirroring his little sister’s confusion. “Twiley, you know Graves?”
“Yeah!” she replied, the distinctively low, gravelly rumble finally removing all doubt as to the young man’s identity. “He’s been in Ponyville the past few months. The Princess sent him to protect us from all the creatures coming out of the Everfree Forest.”
“Really? Ponyville?” the guard captain repeated before turning back to the marshal. “Shoot, you should have told me you were so close by; I would have come to visit you!”
“Why do you think I didn’t?” Graves replied in a tone as dry and dead as the desert.
“Hold on,” Twilight called out as she held a hand for pause. “What do you mean visit? Shining Armor, are you saying you two know each other?”
“Yeah,” he grinned. “We went to the Academy together. I’m his best friend.”
“So he keeps saying,” the young soldier intoned with a roll of the eyes. And then he paused, a perplexed look coming over his face. “Wait. Did he call you... Twiley? Don’t tell me you two know each other too?”
“Well I should hope so,” Twilight answered, sounding slightly off put. “I mean, I am his little sister.”
Twilight would forever remember this night as the one where she learned to always carry around a camera, because the look of complete, utter surprise on the marshal’s face was a priceless moment that would forever remain undocumented.
“Wait a second,” Graves sputtered as he pointed to Twilight and then to Shining Armor. “You… are his… little sister?!”
“Yeah!” she beamed, skipping over to give the blue-haired man a quick, but loving squeeze. “He’s my Big Brother Best Friend Forever!”
For a few moments, the marshal strongly resembled a fish as his mouth opened and closed noiselessly, completely flabbergasted. Eyes flitting between the pair of faces, – which he only now realized bore distinct similarities – words finally found him as he settled on the smiling guardsman.
“Since when did you have a little sister?”
The silence that followed Twilight's perplexed utterance seemed to crackle, like thin ice slowly spiderwebbing with fissures in the promise of quick and painful catastrophe. The young lady looked to Graves, who in confusion, looked to Shining Armor who, perhaps the first to sense impending doom, looked down at his little sister with a very poor attempt at a casual smile. Slowly, the purple-haired girl's smiled shifted, the pleasure of the unexpected reunions and introductions quickly fading as she finally caught the full implication of the silver-eyed soldier’s statement.
“Shining Armor?" Twilight began, fixing her brother with a very level gaze akin to what a mountain lion might give a bunny rabbit just before lunch. "I thought you just told me that Graves is your best friend.”
“Well, actually, I said I’m his best friend,” her older brother grinned, a bead of sweat that had nothing to do with the temperature trickling down his forehead. "Details, you know?"
“So how is it,” she pressed on, her voice growing like an avalanche in its implaccable fury, “that in the more than ten years since you first joined the academy, you’ve somehow failed to mention that I even exist?”
“It… must have slipped my mind?” he smiled weakly, hoping it would help assuage his sister’s oncoming wrath.
“Grrr… SHINING ARMOR!!!”
It’s a good thing that the blue-haired brother was a trained military man, or else he would never have dodged Twilight Sparkle’s lunging spear tackle. But training or no, there was no way that the guard captain could avoid his irate little sister forever. Pursuing him with the full fury that only angry siblings can feel, she finally caught him and began pounding away with great gusto, oblivious to his cries for mercy or the increasing dishevelment of her otherwise fine attire.
Graves watched all this in a state of abject bewilderment, rather understandable considering he’d just found out that his world was a whole lot smaller than he’d thought. Seriously, Shining Armor had a little sister? And it was Twilight?! He’d seen some rather odd things in his time, but this… this was just downright weird.
Fortunately for Shining Armor, Twilight’s tantrums were as short-lived as they were fierce, and after a few more choice punches to the ribs, she finally settled down.
“So anyways,” she huffed, doing her best to straighten out her dress and tiara, “I take it that you’re the dignitary that we’re supposed to be meeting?”
“Dignitary?” the marshal repeated, turning to the now rather battered captain.
“That’s what they called you,” he winced, rubbing one of the the fist-sized bruise beginning to form on his side. “You’d think they’d have just told me you were the army rep to begin with. Guess the general still has his sense of humor.”
“Army rep?” Twilight asked, now sounding more curious than incensed. “What’s that?”
“Every Gala,” her brother began, “the army sends a representative to hang out with the nobility. You know, a sort of meet and greet for public relations and what not. Except,” he continued, turning back to Graves, “I was under the impression that it was supposed to be Aerial Ace tonight.”
“Apparently, he got called away last minute,” the marshal shrugged apathetically. “ ‘Very important business’, or so I’m told.”
“So how’d you end up taking his place?” Shining Armor asked with a dubious look. “No way you volunteered for this.”
“As if,” Graves replied, actually snorting in disdain at the very thought. “The general told me he had a ‘very important assignment’ that needed immediate attention. It wasn’t till after I’d accepted that dear, old Ironside informed me about tonight’s wonderful activities.” The caustic sarcasm in his voice could have vaporized stone.
“Wow, this is great!” Twilight smiled excitedly as she completely missed the irritated bile dripping in the marshal’s tone. “So you’re going to be representing the entire royal guard of Equestria? I knew you were a great soldier, but getting personally recruited by the General to represent the army? I never would have guessed you were so important!”
“Important?” Shining Armor grinned mischievously, “Twiley, Graves here’s the–”
“–Butt end of the general’s stupid joke, nothing more,” the marshal interrupted, his words delivered simultaneously with a sharp elbow to the guard captain’s ribs.
“Uh, yeah. What he said,” Shining Armor smiled, catching his ‘friend’s’ severe look as well as the painful jab.
“This is just perfect!” Twilight giggled as she clapped her satin-gloved hands in delight. “I was a little worried that tonight wouldn’t work out for – oops, I guess I shouldn’t be talking to you about that, huh? – but it doesn’t matter, because having you here makes everything better! Everyone’s going to be so happy to see you!”
“Everyone?” Graves repeated with eyebrow arched. “You mean you’re all here?”
“Yeah!” the young lady beamed. Come on, they’re all waiting!”
Reaching out and grabbing his hand with the speed she typically reserved for snatching up new, unread books, Twilight squeed as she bodily dragged the marshal straight out the door. Zipping down the hall, the young lady quickly and forcibly lead the young man back to the waiting room, which she eagerly threw open and loudly announced:
“Hey girls! I’d like you all to meet the guy we’re taking to the party!”
Five sets of eyes turned to look at her and the man she had brought. A second ticked by. Then another. Finally, five eyes grew very large indeed as recognition dawned.
“Holey moley guacamole!” Pinkie Pie squealed with a good degree more than even her usually considerable excitement. “I can’t believe it; it’s Big G!”
“Well, if that don’t jess beat all,” Applejack breathed in a mix of wonder and pleasure. “Jess’ look at you, all dressed up and fancy like. Why, I’d betcher fit ‘n ready for Sunday brunch at the preacher’s!”
“Yeah, totally!” Rainbow Dash laughed. “Shoot, I didn’t even know you could pull off fancy duds likes that.”
“You do look very nice, Mister Graves,” Fluttershy smiled, a happy little flush appearing in her cheeks. “Oh, and it’s very nice to see you.”
“Yeah,” Graves said absentmindedly, almost inaudibly. “You all look really… nice… too…”
It’s important to note that Graves wasn’t absentminded because he was trying to be cool and aloof or inconsiderate. On the contrary, he would look back and affirm that he was in fact quite happy to see them all here. At the moment, however, he was a good bit distracted because when he’d stepped into the room, the first thing he’d seen...
“Well,” Rarity leisurely drawled, a secretive smile dancing across her lips, “this certainly is an interesting turn of events.”
She looked amazing.
Except, that wasn’t the right word. Elegantly dressed in a wondrously simple gown of shimmering, scarlet silk, Rarity looked a rose in full bloom, if such meager words could do her justice. An embroidered, violet belt encircling her lithe waist was matched by a pair of long gloves that climbed up her pale, slender arms. Both were the same shade as her hair, which had been braided like an elegant crown to grace her head. And lastly, but certainly not least, the young beauty wore but a single piece of jewelry, a heart-shaped ruby hanging from her neck by a fine, golden chain that seemed all the more magnificent as it glittered against her fair skin.
No, amazing definitely wasn’t the right word; after all, she always looked amazing. Tonight, she was perfect.
“Heellllloooooooo? Earth to Big G! You in there?”
Pinkie Pie’s unceremonious calls brought Graves out of his revelry, fortunately soon enough that it hadn’t been obvious what he had been staring at. Hopefully.
“Er, sorry about that,” he said with his most casual grin. “Guess I’m a bit nervous: not really used to fancy parties like this.”
“I hear yah,” Applejack nodded empathetically. “Why, these Canterlot fancy types don’t even know how to throw a decent shindig. Honestly, a garden party without gardenin’. Can you imagine?”
“Bah, he won’t have to worry about that,” Rainbow Dash said as she blew yet another loud raspberry. “He’s gonna be too busy hanging out with us to bother about stuff like that. Isn’t that right?”
“Of course,” he winced, as the words had been accompanied by an unexpectedly hard slap on the back for one so finely attired. But he’d put up with a lot more tonight if it meant not having to face a crowd of nobles and nouveau riche alone. Just the thought was enough to make him appreciate the girls around him a little more.
“So alright then,” Twilight smiled, glad to see everything was getting along. “Now that we’re all together, how about we head over to the Gala and get this party started?”
The proposal was met by a round of affirmation and the occupants of the room began making their way out the door and into the cool evening air. Graves moved to join them, but just as he was about to take his first step, he felt the gentle pressure of a small hand on his arm.
Rarity’s musical voice called to him.
“A moment of your time, marshal?”
At least when Graves turned to face her this time, he knew what to expect and thus maintained a semblance of normalcy in his actions. Still, he couldn’t help it when his breath caught in his throat; a girl who looked like Rarity did tend to have that effect, regardless of how prepared you were.
“Something on your mind?” he asked, doing his best to appear outwardly unruffled despite the gale force turbulence roiling in his stomach.
“Yes, there is,” she replied, pursing her lips and crossing her arms beneath her breasts. Graves coughed and made sure to focus on her eyes. It wasn’t that her dress was indecent by any means, but various aspects of her figure were certainly... accentuated in a very noticeable way.
“I thought you said you were going to be busy with your training and evaluations,” she said through a slight pout. “And here you are, gallivanting about like you’re the czar of Stalliongrad.”
“Wasn’t intentional, believe me,” the marshal answered while being very careful to keep his gaze focused on hers. “The general said he had a mission and I accepted. Turns out, the mission was this.”
“So, you didn’t reject my invitation just to come here and have fun by yourself?” she asked, her voice light and conversational, but still with just a touch of sullen in the tone.
“Rarity, when I say this is the last place on earth I’d want to be, I mean it,” he muttered. Well, that wasn’t exactly true. Right now, he could have been on his way to anywhere from the Crystal Mountains to the southern continent, with very little chance to see Ponyville or Rarity – ahem – all his friends ever again.That would certainly have been worse.
Huh. That was odd. Since when had he started disliking reassignments?
“Right,” the young lady intoned with a dubious eye, her skepticism quickly reeling his attention back into the present conversation.
“It’s true,“ Graves insisted. “Fancy stuff like this gives me the willies.”
“Really? In that case, why did you look so happy when you came in earlier?”
“Did I?” he asked uncertainly. He hadn’t looked happy, had he?
“You certainly did,” the violet-haired beauty coolly affirmed. “Care to explain why if this was the ‘last place on earth you’d rather be’, as you so put it?”
“Well...” The marshal paused for a moment and awkwardly scratched his nose. He didn’t really want to say, but considering the mood she was in... “It’s just... if I had to be here, at a fancy party I mean, then... well... having you here makes it more... bearable. Sort of.”
Rarity stood there a moment, considering him with those bright, blue eyes that seemed to dissect and weigh him like a pair of sapphire scales. Apparently, the judgment was favorable, because she simply sighed before giving him a forgiving smile.
“Very well, I suppose I can overlook it just this once,” she replied, approaching and now more cheerful than before. A good deal more. “And I must say,” the scarlet-clad beauty continued as she reached out to straighten his coat, “it was certainly a stroke of brilliance making you bring this along; the midnight blue really does suit you, and the silver does wonders to bring out your eyes. Just think, where would you be if I hadn’t?”
“Underdressed and a lot more self-conscious?” Graves answered with a wry grin. Rarity just laughed, the musical sound of crystal chimes ringing like sweet music to the marshal’s ears.
“Indeed,” she smiled, “though I’m sure you would have found some way around that. You can be quite resourceful when you put your mind to it.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment,” he dryly stated. Rarity just laughed again.
“Now, I do believe the others have moved on ahead; shall we join them?”
“After you, milady,” Graves replied with an overly flourished bow, a good deal more fluidly than before and a good deal less formal as well. With a mischievous grin, Rarity swept by him with a cool serenity that only cracked as she slowed to slip one slender arm around the marshal’s. The stoic soldier went wide-eyed in surprise at the sudden move. Surprise, but the rather pleased smile that curled the corners of his mouth indicated that there was bit more in that smile as well.
Maybe tonight wasn’t going to be so bad after all. Sure, he’d have to hobnob with Equestria’s rich and snooty, but at least he wasn’t alone now. He had his friends from Ponyville, his obnoxious but loyal friend from Canterlot, and of course, he had Rarity. Yup, definitely not as bad as he’d thought.
However, one thing about his current situation still niggled at the back of his mind.
Was this okay? Was it fine for him to be this content? This... happy? He’d been lucky that this mission had been one of Ironside’s pranks to get him riled up over nothing. Deep down, though, he knew that it wouldn’t last. One day, he’d be given his orders to move out, and it wouldn’t be a joke that he’d have to leave. If he’d been this excited to see those girls again, this almost giddily thrilled to be with Rarity once more, what would he do when it really was time to say goodbye?
A week ago, his general had asked what he wanted and his reply had been to do his job. It had always been what he wanted and in many ways, all he’d ever really needed. But now? Now he wasn't so sure.
For the briefest of instants, a brooding thundercloud passed over the young man’s face... and then it was gone. The farewell would happen eventually whether he worried about it or not, so he might as well enjoy their time together while he could before he moved on. One thing he’d managed to pick up in Ponyville – from Pinkie Pie especially – was that sometimes, you just had to live in the present.
Besides, it's not like he had any long term commitments to worry about, right?