“I still can’t believe it!” Rarity laughed in delight as she walked arm in arm with Graves through the cool evening air. “To think, being able to visit Ponyville whenever we want! Twilight’s really outdone herself this time.”
“And that’s still not the reason we’re out tonight,” the silver-eyed soldier replied with a knowing smirk.
“Alright now, out with it,” the young lady giggled as she gave her husband a playful shove. “It’s high time you came out and told me: what’s this big secret you’ve been hinting at?”
He didn’t respond just yet. Instead, he simply held the door open for her as they walked into The Watering Hole, a little bar and bistro combo they’d discovered early in their courtship. With a cozy atmosphere, good food, and superb drink selection, it had quickly become favorite of theirs, and they’d been coming regularly ever since. Today, the soft strains of a young man crooning Coltrein floated over the dimly lit room as the couple made their way between tables, each illuminated by its own little pool of lamplight.
It was a familiar sight, one he’d seen many times over the years. But today, it felt like he was walking in for the first time...
“I met the Princesses today,” he replied, giving his head a little shake as if to clear cobwebs from his mind. “I got a new assignment.”
The young lady paused midstep, a fog of quiet sadness coming over her entire being.
“You’re being sent off again, aren’t you?” she sighed, the words coming out heavy with melancholy disappointment. “I know, I know, we’ve been over this before: you’re a marshal, and it’s your duty to keep Equestria safe. It’s very noble work and you know I couldn't be more proud of you for doing it, but honestly; the thought of you being stuck in some backwater town where the only company you’ll have is violent criminals and vicious-”
“Whoa there, whoa there,” Graves interrupted, his tone soothing and calm as he gently gave her hand a reassuring squeeze. “When did I say anything about me leaving?”
“Wait, you’re not?” Rarity repeated quizzically. “If that’s the case, then what could you possibly be...”
Unable to contain it any longer, Graves broke out into a broad grin, a lopsided, goofy look like a kid on the first day of summer holidays as he pulled out the roll of parchment sealed with a spot of gold - no wait, crimson. Crimson wax. Military documents were always sealed in red, not gold.
“You’re now looking at the newest full-time instructor at Equestria’s Royal Military Academy. Lieutenant Marshal Graves, at your service.”
In took less than half of an instant for his wife’s sapphire eyes to flip from dull sadness to sparkling joy.
“My stars, darling! That’s wonderful!” she gasped as she took the sheaf of parchment and looked it over in wide-eyed wonder. “Does this mean what I think it means?”
“I’ll be staying in Canterlot,” he said as he pulled her close. “Right here. With you.”
Graves grunted slightly as Rarity returned the the embrace with rib creaking enthusiasm. To his momentary disappointment, she quickly pulled away, but that was only so she could look up at him, her sapphire eyes sparkling with delight and shining with love. Taking his head in hand, she pulled him down and brought their lips together for a moment of pure ecstasy. Once upon a time, the soldier would have balked at such an egregious public display of affection: it was incredibly embarrassing after all. But now? All other thoughts faded into oblivion as the sweet smell of lavender filled his nose and the intoxicating softness of her touch dominated his mind.
After a few heart-stopping moments, Rarity finally pulled away, smiling serenely despite the flush in her fair cheeks and the heaving in her breathless chest.
“Well, that was certainly something,” she grinned. “How is that even now, you can make me go weak in the knees like a girl on her first date?” Graves just laugh in his typically warm, baritone rumble.
“Guess I still got it,” he quipped. “But I’d hate for you to go weak in the knees just yet.”
“Oh?” Rarity intone, eyebrow arched. “And why, pray tell, is that?”
“With news this good, we’ve got to celebrate, right?” the marshal grinned. “So I was thinking that after we have a few drinks and a nice dinner, I take you over to The Corral and we can go dancing.”
“You? Volunteering to go dancing?” she gasped in a profound mixture of happy surprise and genuine shock. “You can’t be serious.”
“What can I say? I’m in a good mood,” Graves replied with a casual shrug. “But hey, if you don’t want to...”
“Of course I do, you darling man!” Rarity laughed in delight as she reached out to squeeze his hand, her golden wedding ring glowing in the soft light. “Just don’t expect to get home early tonight.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it,” he smirked with a roll of his eyes. His hand, however, returned the affectionate touch.
After leaving Rarity with the menus and explicit instructions to order whatever she wanted, Graves made his way to the restaurant’s bar to order their drinks. Before he’d gotten within five paces, he was hailed by a cheery voice and an enthusiastic wave.
“Hey there, Graves!” the blonde bartender called out as she caught sight of one of her favorite regulars approaching. “You look like you’re in the mood for something festive!”
“You could say that, Lemon Drop,” he chuckled as he approached to lean on the counter. “Times are good, and we’re for do something a bit special tonight. Anything you can recommend?”
“As it so happens, I do,” she grinned with a secretive wink. “We just got in a couple of bottles of champagne straight from the Roan-Alpes of Prance. Really good stuff.”
“I’ll take your word for it,” Graves laughed. “Think you can bring out a bottle?”
“Sure thing! Just let me grab it from the back.”
Lemon Drop disappeared through the swinging doors and Graves took a seat at the bar. As the soothing music floated through the room, he could feel a broad smile curling up the corners of his mouth. If Shining Armor had been there, his friend would probably have made some quip that he looked happier than Twilight writing a research thesis. The marshal might actually not have minded.
It had been a wonderful day. His duties had gone well, he’d been a help to his wonderful wife, he’d been promoted and stationed close to home, and soon, he’d be able to see his best friends regularly, just like the good, old days. At this point, the only thing he had to worry about was what he wanted to eat and how to get through a ballroom marathon Rarity was surely to put him through. All in all, a fine set of problems to have.
“Really? Cause it looks to me like you got a whole lot more to worry about than that.”
It took a moment for Graves to realize the comment had been directed at him. Turning in his seat, he saw that the speaker was... well... Graves actually didn't know quite how to describe him.
At first, the speaker seemed to merely be a distinguished elderly man having a drink, with striking wings of white at the temples of his otherwise jet-black hair with a similar stripe in his oiled and pointed beard. That impression didn’t quite mesh with his attire, however as the suit he wore - which was of obviously fine cut - was patterned in garishly large black and red checkered squares. Come to think of it his face didn’t quite look aged either. I mean it did, but... it didn’t as well; it was difficult to put an age to it if it were even possible at all.
“Er... can I help you?” the marshal asked, not without some trepidation. He couldn’t say why - perhaps because the man’s comment had seemed oddly specific to his thoughts - but something about this individual made Graves decidedly wary.
The stranger just laughed, a sound as rich as warm honey and as smooth as aged wine.
“Now isn’t that a peculiar question,” the elderly youngster chuckled as he sipped from a glass of something ruby red. “Yes, perhaps you could help me, but only in the sense that you’d be letting me help you.” He turned and gave the marshal a toothy smile.
A slight tightening of the mouth was the only outward sign Graves gave off as every fiber of his being flashed to battle-ready alert. The stranger hadn’t done anything but look at the grey-eyed soldier, yet that had been enough since it was the first time Graves had gotten a clear look at the stranger’s eyes. His bright, piercing, topaz eyes.
“I doubt there’s anything you could help me with,” Graves said cautiously, if not outright coldly. Rarity would have been horrified at his tone, but the marshal couldn’t help it. The way this man’s eyes burned, the way they seemed to roil like cauldrons of molten gold and burned with the unbridled, feverish heat of deep pools of magma, was disconcerting on a primal level the marshal had never felt before.
Once again, the stranger just laughed.
“Are you really so sure about that?” Though the chortle sounded as sonorous as ever, it now came with a wicked keen of amusement as well. “But of course you are. The mighty Graves with those gunmetal greys must see everything. What could I possibly show him that his piercing peepers haven’t already spotted?”
Graves moved to retort, the mocking sarcasm in the odd man’s tone rousing the ire in his own blood, but he stopped. Though there was no special emphasis, certain words seemed to ring louder than others, resonating in his head.
See everything. Already spotted. Why those words?
“Then again,” the glittering-eyed stranger mused as he stroked his beard, “perhaps it’s not a matter of the eyes, but the head. Guess that would make this one a head case, now wouldn’t it?” he chuckled as he took another sip of amber liquor. “But that’s not possible either, is it? After all, you’d never have gotten where you are by being oh, what’s the word... Forgetful? Complacent? Letting thoughts simply drift away and never bothering to think about the hows or whys?”
The steely-eyed marshal turned away from the stranger as the words buzzed in his skull with frightful energy. Complacent? He hadn’t been complacent, had he? Of course not; there was no way. He was always thorough, always thought things through. This was complete and utter nonsense. Why was he even thinking about it? he should just stop thinking about it and forget it; after all, it’d be so much easier to go ahead and-
It’d be easier? Where under the seven stars had that thought come from?
“Ah, it seems I’m struck a nerve.” the rich voice cackled with a haughty hint of triumph. “Then perhaps this sleeping wolf isn’t content to just let the devil lie where he may.” Graves spun to face the stranger, his eyes flashing like silver spear tips-
The man was gone.
“If you wish to know more,” his voice called out, seeming a whisper in his ear that came from a mile away, “just head back to where it all began.” And with a last, almost maniacal giggle, the voice too, disappeared.
“Yo Graves, I found it!” Lemon Drop called out as she re-emerged with a foil covered bottle. “Sorry it took so long, but I had to dig it out from under a pile of... Hey Graves,” she frowned. “You okay?”
“... Of course,” the marshal replied, turning to face the blond bartender as composedly as he could. “Why wouldn’t I be?”
“Uh, I don’t know. Maybe cause you look like something not even the cat would drag in?”
Following the direction of her pointing finger, Graves caught sight of his reflection in one of the bar’s mirrored panels. Wow. He did look like crap. Pale, drawn, and dull, his current pallor resembled that of a frozen corpse three days dead. Maybe five.
“You weren’t up to any funny business while I was out, were you?” Lemon Drop asked with a suspicious eye. “I mean, I know you’re on the up and up, but I still gotta check you know, make sure nobody’s riding the white pony while I’m on shift and stuff.”
“No, definitely nothing like that,” Graves replied as he rubbed his temples. “I just... have a headache. That’s all.”
“Really?” she said dubiously.
That part was true at least. Right now, his head throbbed with a painful intensity, almost as if his brain were wringing itself out like a sponge in order to expunge memories from his head. It had been mere moments ago, but even now, the marshal could feel the recollection of the conversation fading. An unnatural sense of ease told him to forget, to simply let those thoughts fade into the misty Lethe.
Like hell he would.
“Graves? Are you all right?”
Turning around, the young man caught sight of Rarity walking towards him, a concerned frown on her face as she approached her husband.
“Say’s he’s got a headache,” Lemon Drop dutifully reported. “He’s been working himself too hard again, hasn’t he?”
“Knowing him, he probably has,” the violet-haired seamstress replied with an exasperated sigh. “Honestly, and you intended to go galavanting around all night long. Well, not anymore,” she continued, her no-nonsense tone crisp and to the point. “We’re going right back home and you’re going to get some rest.”
“You sure?” he said, mimicking his typical protests with no actual intent; his head felt like it was about to split in two and then some. “We’re supposed to be having a night out. I’m sure it’ll pass.”
“Yes, it will,” Rarity nodded, her expression softening with a warm smile. “And it will pass even quicker after we get you home and put you to bed.” Graves simply nodded, the simple motion an ordeal that felt like headbutting a wood axe.
“Alright then. Back home it is.”
“Sorry about the bother, Lemon Drop,” the sapphire-eyed beauty said as she linked her arm with the marshal’s. “Do you mind saving that for when we come back later?”
“Hey, no problem,” she grinned. “Next time you drop by, we’ll bust this out and really get the party started.
“Yeah,” Graves smiled, a motion of the lips that didn’t reach his now stormy, grey eyes. “Count on it.”