Just as Twilight began to wonder where they’d gone, she spotted Rarity and Graves hurrying after them across the castle lawn. The young scholar then rubbed her eyes and looked again; everything seemed normal now, but for a moment, the two seemed to have been walking awfully close together. Awfully close.
“Hmm,” she murmured in thought.
“Gee, Twiley,” Shining Armor grimaced as he rubbed his sides. “Are you still mad that I didn’t tell Graves about you? I told you I was sorry.”
“No, I’m not upset anymore,” his little sister sighed, filing away the bit on Rarity and Graves for analysis at another time. “Despite your tendency to be horribly inconsiderate at times,” she continued dryly before her voice softened, “I know you’re a good brother and that you really do care. If you didn’t mention me, there must have been a good reason not to.”
The guard captain’s usually jovial expression faded, the bright emotions now dampened by a slight sheen of strain, as if his internal conflicts rendered him unsure of how to respond.
“Twiley, listen,” he began, his voice dropping low to keep from being overheard. “Graves, he’s got some... weird circumstances around him. I really couldn’t ever tell him about you because–”
Trumpets blasted as the little Ponyville party walked through the massive doors and into the palace entryway. Usually, visitors would have taken in the sights all around them, what with the beautiful stained glass windows, ornate tapestries, and fantastic murals painted across the ceiling. But tonight was special because waiting at the top of the grand staircase lined with an honor guard of armored soldiers, was a sight that far outshone anything else.
In a simple gown of purest white with a corded, golden belt around her waist, Princess Celestia stood ready to greet her guests. Indeed, she needed no fancy dresses or gaudy jewelry as her ephemeral hair, shining like the aurora with the colors of a hundred rainbows, was more magnificent than the creation of any seamstress. With grace and majesty radiating from her royal person, all other sights paled like flickering candles in comparison to the brilliance of the noonday sun. This was Princess Celestia, the Sun Keeper, Dawn Herald, Queen of the Day, and ruler of all Equestria.
“Twilight!” she cried, smiling brightly as she eagerly waved to them from the staircase. “I’m so glad you could make it!”
“Princess Celestia!” Twilight squealed as she bounded up to embrace her mentor and best friend. “Oh, it’s so good to see you again!”
“You too, my faithful student,” she beamed, returning the hug with equal if not greater fervor. “Sunflash,” she hurriedly called out to one of the nearby guards, “do you think you could get us a few minutes? I’d like some time to catch up with my best pupil and her friends.”
With a sly grin, the soldier in question raised three fingers and waved. The other guards streamed down the stairs and fanned out, forming a barrier that gently, but firmly, warded back the gala attendees lined up to greet Celestia. Though a few of the more pompous nobles exchanged looks of consternation, most of the guests just sighed and smiled. Princesses would do as princesses would do, after all.
“I’m so glad that you could make it tonight, Twilight Sparkle,” the lively monarch said, finally releasing the girl and giving her an affectionately warm smile. “And of course,” she continued, turning to the rest of the party who’d finally caught up, “I’m thrilled to be able to see you all as well.”
The others, not quite as familiar with the most powerful woman in the country, were a little more formal and instead resorted to curtsies and bows: even Rainbow Dash did her best, despite her unfamiliarity with long dresses, or dresses of any kind for that matter.
Princess Celestia would have none of that.
“Girls, please,” she laughed with an airy wave of the hand. “After all we've been through, I thought we’d be passed the stuffiness by now. Especially you, Shining Armor. Just how long have you been my captain for?”
“Almost three years now,” he grinned sheepishly. “Guess old habits are hard to break.”
“So it would seem,” the princess chuckled before turning to the marshal. “And how about you, Graves? Surely, you’re not one for formalities.”
“Not if I can help it,” he replied with a wry grin that had Celestia laughing aloud, a sonorous sound that seemed equal parts music and radiant sunshine.
“I suppose I have to you girls to thank for his remarkable transformation,” she smiled at the Ponyville troupe. “For a while, General Ironside and I had a bet on which would happen first, Graves smiling or Luna finally meeting her sweetheart. It would seem I lost that one.”
“Sister!” a voice called out. “You promised not to tell!”
Descending from further up the stairs came Princess Luna, as simply attired in a dusky, blue gown with a silver chain belt and every bit as regal. Or, she would have been had her cheeks not been flushed in embarrassment. Even Celestia’s younger sister, the Lady of the Night with her shimmering tresses that twinkled like a starry sky, could not look serene with so much red in her cheeks.
“I promised not to tell who it was,” the elder monarch replied with a mischievous grin. “I never said I’d keep his existence a secret.”
“Oh my gosh, you have a special someone?” Pinkie Pie squealed and decorum be hanged. “Who is it? Is he cute? Is he here? Is it someone we know?”
“It’s just a pen pal,” Luna murmured, her face turning bright scarlet despite the somewhat pleased smile she wore. “We send each other letters now and again. Nothing more.”
“By now and then, don’t you mean every other night?” Celestia replied with an all too innocent expression. Luna looked absolutely mortified.
“Tia!” she gasped. “You… you…”
“Aw, don’t worry, little Luna,” Celestia laughed as she pulled her into a hug. “I’m just teasing you because I’m happy for you.”
“Well, you could be a bit more discreet,” the smaller princess replied with a rather amusing mix of regal stiffness and sulky sullenness. “It’s not like the whole world needs to know.” Her sister just laughed some more.
“Alright, alright,” the solar sovereign smiled. “Everyone, I trust you can keep my sister’s secret?”
“Our lips are sealed,” Applejack grinned, and everyone nodded in agreement. After all, it’d be decidedly unwise to do otherwise. Offend either sister, and you were likely to end up banished to the moon. Or worse, the sun.
“So, what are your plans for the evening, girls?” Celestia smiled. “The Gala’s just seemed even more dull ever since your last visit.”
“Oh not much, yer highness,” Applejack said with a broad grin. “We’ll probably run around and do our own thing fer a spell afore we meet up and really get the party started. Fluttershy here wants tah try gettin’ along with them little critters out in the garden again. I’ll jess be taggin’ along tah make sure she don’t go overboard.”
“Well, just don’t be too responsible,” the princess winked. “We could do with a little more liveliness around here.”
“Er, sure thing, princess,” Applejack answered, her grin growing a tad hesitant. It was still kind of hard separating Princess Celestia’s royal image from the comedian she actually was.
It was at this time that Luna, who’d been listening with a great deal of interest, stepped forward and spoke up.
“Pray tell me,” she began, her speech reverting to the formal language she favored when she was nervous. “These animals… you are on good terms with them, yes?”
“Well, not exactly,” Fluttershy blushed beneath the flowers woven into her cherry-blossom hair. “I mean, I’d really like to be, but our last visit didn’t exactly go according to plan.” She turned an even brighter shade of pink at the memory, and Luna merely nodded.
“We understand your dilemma,” she replied morosely. “We, too, have attempted to befriend woodland creatures both great and small. They…” she blushed as well as she dropped back into normal tones,” weren’t exactly big fans of the Royal Canterlot voice. I haven’t been able to get near them since.”
“Do you like animals, Princess Luna?” Fluttershy asked, sounding slightly surprised. She too, was having difficulties with preconceptions, like those that had formed during the princess’s stint as Nightmare Moon in their unfortunate first encounter.
“Oh yes, very much,” the night ruler beamed. “I used to have a bunch of pets before my… leave of absence." A flush of shame stained her cheeks at the recollection of her darker days. “I guess I’m just a little out of touch since I’ve been away for so long.”
“Well, in that case,” the kind young lady said with a shy smile, “would you like to - that is, if you’re not busy - come with us? Maybe?”
Luna was decidedly taken aback, but not unpleasantly so by any means.
“You would have me along?” she hesitantly asked.
“I think that’s a great idea!” Applejack hooted as she almost knocked her demure friend over with a hearty slap to the back. “Why, between the three of us, I’m sure we’ll figure out a way to corral them critters up nice an’ friendly like!”
“That would be wonderful!” Luna cried in surprise and delight, but paused. “That is, I mean…” Here, she turned to her older sister and looked up at her with big, hopeful pony eyes.
“Tia?” she began, pensively biting her lower lip as she used her cutest little sister voice. “I know I was supposed to switch with you and greet the guests, but…”
Celestia gave her sister a mocked glare before simply sighing with an indulgent smile.
“I’ll handle things here,” she said warmly. “You go and have fun.”
“Oh, thank you, sister, thank you!” Luna squealed in pure delight. “Come on, Fluttershy, I know just the place to start: it’s a little hollow where all the cutest, baby bunnies like the gather. You’ll love it!”
“Baby bunnies?” the pink-haired girl gasped. “What are we waiting for? Let’s go!”
It wasn’t clear who was dragging who as the pair of excited young ladies ran off, but it was definitely clear how a certain level-headed cowgirl was taking the whole affair.
“Land sakes,” she whistled. “If y’all’ll excuse me, I better get after ‘em afore they bring the place down around our ears. Hoowhee.” And with that, Applejack pressed her embroidered hat firmly down and took off after them, knee-high boots clacking against the marble all the while.
“I swear, she hasn’t grown up a bit,” Celestia chuckled fondly as she watched her little sister run off. “But enough of that. I’m sure you’re all just dying to get to the party, so I’ll let you be on your way.”
“Will you have time to talk later, Princess?” Twilight asked eagerly.
“If not tonight, then tomorrow for certain,” her mentor smiled. “I’ve already set aside some rooms for you all to stay overnight should you wish. Would that be alright?”
“That’d be wonderful! Thank you!” her protégé beamed as she took up her teacher in another hug. “I can’t wait: there’s just so much I want to talk to you about!”
“All in due time, Twilight,” Celestia laughed. “But right now, there’s a party waiting for you. So go on, now: have fun!”
With a last squeeze from her student and various waves and grins from the rest of the party, the Ponyville group bade the Princess their farewells and ascended the stairs. Or, most of them anyway.
“All right,” Shining Armor called out, “this is where I say my goodbyes.”
“Wait, what?” Graves asked with a good deal of surprise. “You’re just leaving?”
“Duty calls,” he laughed. “I was actually supposed to be back on security detail after matching you to the girls. I’m already late as it is.”
“Really?” the marshal asked with eyes narrowed suspiciously. “So your fast exit has nothing to do with your abhorrence of formal gatherings?”
“What, me skipping out on a stuffy ball?” the guard captain said in wide-eyed innocence. “I’m shocked you’d even suggest that!” Graves gave him a long, hard look before finally sighing in defeat.
“Don’t suppose I could trade jobs with you?” the marshal asked wearily. Shining Armor just gave him a sympathetic smile.
“Not for a dragon’s entire hoard.”
As the guard captain bade farewell to the rest of the party and headed on his way, he was caught at the base of the stairs by a hand on his arm; it was his little sister, the burning light of curiosity once again lit in her eyes.
“Shine,” she whispered surreptitiously, casting a quick glance to make sure the others had in fact continued out of earshot. She needn't have worried; the allure of the ballroom and oncoming festivities had already drawn them along them like bees to honey, “You never did finish what were you going to tell me about Graves earlier.”
“Oh, right,” he nodded. “Well, the thing is…” he paused, taking a quick look back, before lowering his voice further. “Can’t really say now. Can you sneak off in a bit?”
“Sure,” she giggled. “Where we meeting?”
“How about the library?” Shining Armor grinned. “I might be late, so it’s the best place for you to wait, huh?”
“You take such good care of me,” she chuckled, giving him a warm hug as well. “Alright then, I’ll see you later.”
“Later, little sis,” the captain of the guard beamed, taking just enough time to return the hug before returning to his duties.
The delicate strains of the orchestra greeted them like a gentle breeze. The grand hall was just as they remembered it: glittering chandeliers of the finest crystal, magnificent statues and ice sculptures dispersed through the chamber, and of course, people. Everywhere they looked, finely dressed lords and ladies, dukes and duchesses, counts and countesses, and so many more made their way across the floor in the intricate dance of the social forms.
“Man, how lucky can you get?” Graves muttered low under his breath, the fact that his guardsman friend had bailed out so easily rankling him to no end. Apparently, he wasn’t speaking as quietly as he thought, because Rarity turned to him and smiled.
“Come now, is spending an evening like this so tedious?”
“Of the many things on my to-do list,” the marshal replied dryly, “going wyvern hunting in my skivvies still ranks higher.” The young beauty at his side just laughed.
“That would certainly be an interesting sight,” she giggled. “Perhaps we should do that instead?”
“Get me out of here, and it’s a deal,” Graves answered with a wry grin. From the grim set of his eyes, though, he probably would have taken the trade and actually considered it a bargain.
“So, what do we do now?” Rainbow Dash blurted, now beginning to fidget in the confines of her dress. “I mean, we’re here and all, what are we supposed to do?”
“I don’t know,” Twilight answered truthfully before turning to Rarity. “What exactly do we do at these kinds of events?”
“Why, we mingle of course!” the violet-haired girl answered with a good touch of surprise. “We make our way around the room, engage in polite conversation, and pass a wonderful time in a nice, civilized manner.”
“Okay, I’m liking it so far,” Pinkie Pie nodded. “What else?”
“Er, what do you mean what else?” Rarity repeated, not quite understanding the question.
“So I know these people aren’t exactly the ‘party’ type,” the bubbly baker said with some conspicuous air quotes, “but there’s gotta be more than just talking. I mean, come on, that’d just be boring!”
“Well, you could take a few turns on the dance floor,” the fashionista offered, but Pinkie Pie just shook her head.
“Tried that already,” she grimaced, recalling her last gala. “Didn't go over so well.”
“I think Rarity was talking about ballroom dancing,” Twilight added, working to smooth the disconnect between two very different points of view. “You know, something like a waltz, or maybe a foxtrot, possibly even salsa?”
“Exactly,” her fashionable friend beamed. “There’s certainly no shortage of activities at a ball. It’s just a little… different, that’s all.”
“Yeah, you mean boring,” Rainbow Dash interjected with the loudest, wettest raspberry yet. “Seriously, these old, snooty people wouldn’t know a good time if it bit them on the butt.”
“Sad as it is to say,” an unexpected voice called out, “she’s probably right.”
As one, the group turned to see who had spoken. A pair of athletic looking individuals, a man almost as tall as Graves with a head of long blue quills and a short woman with a shock of vibrant orange hair smiled and approached. Even had they not been wearing their distinctive azure jumpsuits emblazoned with jagged lightning, it wouldn’t have been hard to guess who they were.
“Ohmygoshohmygoshohmygosh!” Rainbow Dash began babbling in uncontrollable glee, “It’s Spitfire and Soarin! Of the Wonderbolts! Eeee!”
“That’d be us,” Spitfire said with the trademark grin that graced so many posters across Equestria. “Nice to see you again, Rainbow Dash. Didn’t expect to see you here tonight.”
“You remember my name?!” the colorful flyer gasped in disbelief.
“You are kind of famous,” the aerial ace smirked. “Young Flyer Competition winner who saved us with the Sonic Rainboom and helped destroyed an entire wing of the royal palace? Kind of leads to a reputation, you know.”
“Oh yeah,” Rainbow Dash mumbled, her face glowing a hot pink. “Sorry about that.”
“Are you kidding?” Soarin laughed. “That was awesome! Haven’t been to a fancy party that fun in… well, ever! We should totally hang out!”
“You...” the cyan-clad girl squeaked in wide-eyed astonishment, “... you want to hang out... with me?!”
“Well, duh!” Spitfire laughed. “I know this isn’t your kind of party, so when we heard you were coming, we stuck around to invite you to ours.”
Had Rainbow Dash died right there at that moment, she probably wouldn’t have minded, for her life was officially complete.
“You guys are welcome to join us,” the Wonderbolts captain grinned as she turned to the others. “We only had to make an appearance tonight, so we’re gonna head down to the barracks where everything’s more low key, if you catch my drift.”
“I didn’t know you hung out with the royal guard,” Rainbow Dash asked, ever curious to learn more about her idols.
“The Wonderbolts are a special branch of the ERA,” Graves explained, volunteering the information both to illuminate and to settle his slowly increasing nerves. “They focus on performance, but help out with some of our more advanced flight training.”
As he spoke, Spitfire did a double take, her eyes widening in surprise as she took a second look at the marshal.
“Well, what do you know,” she breathed in pleasant surprise. “It’s Gunmetal Graves! Never thought I’d catch you at one of these parties.”
“On duty,” he shrugged. “Military rep for the night.”
“Oh, so that’s why you’ve cleaned up so nicely,” the Wonderbolts captain laughed, giving him both an appraising look over and a very friendly smile. “Gotta say, like what you’ve done with the hair. Very nice." Whether it was chance or a deliberate action, Spitfire just 'happened' to miss the very pointed look Rarity sent her way.
“Gunmetal Graves?” Rainbow dash repeated. “Where’d you get such a cool nickname?”
“ 'Cause of his eyes,” Soarin laughed, doing his best to mimic the marshal’s unwavering gaze and failing miserably. “Ever since anyone's known him, he's always had this stare, like looking down the barrel of a rifle. People started calling him that afterwards, and the name sort of stuck, among others.”
“So, you two know each other?” Twilight asked in surprise. She never would have guessed that the marshal would be so well known.
“Only in passing,” he said shrugged. “I’m not a flyer, so I never really trained with them.”
“He was always too busy running off and saving the world,” Spitfire smiled, her words half a joke and half... not? “But I’m sure he’d rather I didn’t embarrass him with more of that, so I’m gonna head out. You all in?”
“I’m game!” Rainbow Dash eagerly called.
“Me too!” Pinkie Pie beamed. “This sounds like my kind of party!”
“Thank you for the offer,” Rarity replied graciously, “but I’ll be staying here for the evening.”
“On the clock,” Graves shrugged. “Thanks though.”
“How about you, Twilight?” the colorful flyer asked. “You coming?”
“Oh, I don’t think…” But suddenly, the young librarian froze as a sudden, incredibly devious plot appeared in her head.
Twilight took a quick look around. As she thought, their party had dwindled considerably. Spike had something about planning an after party before taking the carriage to be parked, Applejack and Fluttershy were off in the garden, and Shining Armor was back on duty. That mean that if she left with Pinkie Pie and Rainbow Dash for the Wonderbolts party, that would leave Rarity and Graves here. Together. By themselves. Together.
“You know what?” she smiled “I’m not much for fancy parties like this anyway. Let’s go.”
“Aw, now I kinda feel bad about leaving Graves and Rarity by themselves,” Pinkie Pie said sadly. “Maybe I should–”
“No!” Twilight cut in abruptly before hastily bringing back a smile. “I mean, I’m sure they’ll be fine on their own. It’s not like Graves is a little kid in a sailor suit anymore, now is he?”
“Definitely not,” Graves muttered, clearly catching the veiled reference to their botched time spell fiasco.
“So, we’ll just be on our way then,” the young scholar smiled as she gathered her friends and herded them towards the door. “Don’t want to be late for the party, now do we?”
“Golly, Twilight, I never knew you’d get so excited for a party like this,” Pinkie Pie cheered. “This is going to be so much fun!”
“Oh yeah,” the indigo-clad girl chuckled as she took one last look back at the pair they’d left alone. Together. This evening was going to be very, very fun indeed.