“... Rarity?” Graves breathed, his voice a rasping, strangled whisper. “What are you doing here?”
“Why, I’m here to pick you up, of course,” she replied as if it were the most obvious question in the world. “It’s a good thing a couple of the guardsmen saw you earlier, otherwise I’d never have found you.”
The marshal tried to focus. He tried to think. But regardless of his efforts, his mind kept circling back to one consistent thought. Why was she here? Why was she here?
“Darling? Are you feeling alright?” she asked, a frown on her lips as concern spread over her fair face. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
Ghosts he’d seen before. This was far, far worse.
“I knew it,” she continued as concern disappeared in place of miffed consternation. “I told you to get some rest, but you just had to go running about and tiring yourself out even more, didn't you? Honestly, you can be so childish sometimes. Well, no matter,” she sighed. “We’ll just have to get you back home where I can make sure you get into bed and stay there until you’re feeling better.” Reaching out her slender arm, Rarity moved to take Graves by the hand-
-and he drew away.
For a moment, neither said anything. The young lady’s sapphire eyes stared at her husband in complete surprise, her hand frozen in mid air as if unsure of what to do with it. His eyes, however, were focused on that hand, glaring daggers at it as if it were a hissing viper.
“Graves?” she said softly with a gentle smile. “Darling, what’s wrong?”
He'd hurt her. He could see it in her expression, in that wounded, almost shocked flicker in her sapphire gaze. Of course, she tried to hide it, laying soothing tones and loving concern over the tremor in her voice till it was almost hidden, but he could tell. He’d hurt her, and the thought twisted in his heart like a cankerous worm.
But he could not relent.
“I’m not going back,” he replied, his voice harsh and grating as rusted metal on rough hewn granite. It was cruel, but it was the only way he could speak right now. “I’m going. Now. Today.”
“Today?” Rarity asked as she blinked in surprise. “But where to? And why?”
“Does it matter?” he snapped back. “I’m going and that’s all there is to it.”
The violet-haired beauty stared at him, stunned into silence by both his words and uncharacteristic cruelty. And then, in the most absurd of unpredictable twists the marshal could fathom, she laughed.
“Oh my word, Graves,” she grinned through her giggles. “For a second, you really had me worried there.”
Now it was his turn to gape.
“I should have seen this coming,” she sighed, an amused smile curling her lips as she approached. “You've been on the road for so long, you don’t really know how to settle down. Granted, Ponyville was good practice, but if there’s a man who doesn't panic at the prospect of being tied down to one place, I’ll eat that hat of yours.”
Gunmetal grey eyes the size of saucers, he stared at his wife in disbelief. She thought it was a joke? He tried to move away, but darting forward with surprising alacrity, she grabbed onto his hand. Her touch was gentle and soft, but they trapped him more firmly than any manacles of iron ever could.
“Well, I know how to fix that,” Rarity said with a very suggestive wink. “I think that before I put you down for rest, I’ll take some time to remind you of all the perks being at home with a loving wife will bring.”
He told himself this wasn't real. His mind repeated this over and over, as if it were a mantra that could ward off the fog of illusion. But no matter how hard he thought, he could still feel, feel his blood rising, his heart pounding faster and faster till it seemed his chest would explode. He could feel the desire, the longing. He knew it wasn't real, but it was so... so...
“No,” he said, his voice coming out as a desperate plea, a small pull at his arm the only feeble attempt at escape he could muster. “I can’t-”
“But of course you can,” she laughed again, the musical sound that usually brought a smile to his face now driving into his ears like shards of glass. “You certainly proved that admirably on our honeymoon, and I expect you to prove it again today.”
“Come now, darling, you’re not going to make me beg, are you?” she pouted, looking up at him with those big, shining eyes, delicately biting her lower lip in that adorable look he had never been able to refuse. “I know we’ve both been busy recently, but that’s all the more reason to enjoy it now. Celestia knows it’ll be hard when there are three of us around.”
“I told you, I’m not goin-”
No, it couldn't be. There was no way...
He must have misheard. It must be some kind of mistake. For the love of god, please let it have been a mistake.
“... Did you say,” he asked softly, almost unable to bring himself to speak the words, “the...three of us?”
“Oh!” Rarity gave a small start of surprise.
“I’m sorry Graves, this wasn’t exactly how I’d planned on telling you,” the young lady said with an apologetic smile, “but you know how I had a doctor’s appointment this morning? Well, they were doing a routine magical scan and that’s when they told me.”
His wife's warm, radiant smile was more beautiful than he could have ever imagined.
“I’m already three months along. We’re going to have a baby.”
It was a lie. It had to be.
He’d been ravaged by the claws of more wild beasts than he could count. He’d suffered burns from acidic venom strong enough to melt stone that dripped from the fangs of vile monsters. He’d suffered the necrotic touch of a lich, which corrupted and decayed all living things with a blighted curse. He'd been through terrible ordeals, had pain inflicted on his mind and body beyond what most men could even imagine.
But this? This was agony incarnate.
“We’re... having a baby?” he asked, the words coming out as hardly more than a breath.
“Uh huh,” Rarity beamed, that special, joyous glow shining brighter than ever. “It’s a little bit early on to be sure, but the doctor was fairly certain that it’s going to be a little girl. Now, I know it’s not fair, since I heard it first, but I couldn’t help myself and already started thinking of names just in case. Of course, I want you to like it too, but I really, really do like the name Melody. What do you think?”
“Melody.” He repeated it gently. It was a beautiful name. Of course it’d be. It’d be the name of their daughter after all. Their baby girl.
Graves didn’t even notice the tear rolling down the side of his face.
“Oh don’t you start, or else you’ll have me doing it,” his beloved wife laughed through misty, sapphire eyes. “After all, I doubt our daughter would like to learn that the first thing her daddy did on hearing about her was cry, would she? Now come on,” she continued, pulling out a silk handkerchief from her purse and raising it to his eyes, “let’s dry those eyes of-”
Graves caught Rarity’s wrist. It was a light touch, almost delicate, but the silk never reached his face.
“I’m sorry,” he said, his voice surprisingly calm, still as a frozen lake at sunrise. “I can't do this. Even if it isn’t real, it's just... it's too much.”
“... I beg your pardon?” his wife said, still smiling, but hesitant, as if unsure whether it was a joke and whether laughter was required. “What exactly do you mean?”
“I mean,” he continued, his eyes the soft grey of overcast clouds, “this city. This life. Our time together. You. None of it’s real.”
“Wha- Why of course it is!” she sputtered, a sheen of nervousness appearing at his unexpected and highly disturbing words. “What do mean, it’s not real? I’m standing right here in front of you! How can you say I’m not real?”
Graves had no idea what his expression looked like, but for Rarity to grow so pale, to visibly shiver as if being assailed by an icy wind, it must have been dreadful as he gently pulled away and turned his back on her. The doors were gone. How was he going to get out?
“Graves, this isn’t funny anymore,” his beloved wife called, the tremble audible in her voice. “Can you just talk to me? Please dear, just tell me what’s wrong.”
“I’m dreaming,” he said, his voice as still and tranquil as a winter eve. “I just have to wake up. But how? How do I wake up? How...?”
A surprisingly hard yank spun him around.
“Now you listen here,” Rarity demanded, eyes flashing dangerously as her hands shot up to hold his head still. “What part of me is a dream? What part of me isn’t real?” Her palms were soft and cool to the touch, but they held him firmly, forcing his gunmetal grey eyes to stare deeply into her sapphire blues. Even now, he marveled at those eyes, how they seemed like bottomless pools of water he could dive into forever.
“This is real,” she said, her voice growing hoarse with a multitude of raw emotions. “Our life is real. What we had, what we have, it’s all real.”
“Remember when we were first courting?” Rarity pressed on. “You got so flustered at dinner that you tried to order foi gras and ended up saying foul gas.” Her laughter was harsh, but real, and she continued with sincerity and truth ringing in every word. “How about when we came to watch Sweetie Belle’s first recital after she'd spent a whole summer training under the one and only Bel Canto? I was so proud of her, I broke out into tears and you had to walk me out of the hall. Or what about that night on the Serenity, when you proposed? You said that I was your sun, my smile your moon and my laughter your starry skies. Those were real. Don’t you remember?”
He did remember. Like a fog lifting, he could recall each and every one of those memories like it was yesterday: the nervousness of their first date, the crystal clear notes of his soon-to-be little sister’s singing, the surging adrenaline and unfathomable joy when he’d shown her the ring... he remembered it all. It was all so vivid, so lifelike.
And she, his beloved Rarity, was staring up at him, fighting back fear with sheer determination to not let him go, to fight off what she believed must be some kind of creeping madness. Those eyes of hers, filled with tears, yet shining so strongly with a pure and unbreakable love. How could it be a dream?
“... My team,” he said, the words coming as a surprise as they burst forth before thought. “Our last mission together. How did they die?”
“What?” Rarity blinked, her determination wavering in light of the unexpected question. “What do you mean?”
“How did my team die?” he repeated, his words as cold and unyielding as the barrel of a gun. “If I did love you, if I truly was willing to share my life with you, I would have told you. How did they die?”
This was it, his last card. His instinct told him the world was fake, but his senses said otherwise. He’d reached a point where he could no longer separate fact from fiction, no longer tell truth from lies. Or maybe he could. Maybe it was just he no longer wanted to.
However, there was one last memory, one final secret he had tucked in the recesses of his mind in a dark corner where even dreams couldn’t tread. If this were real, if they were truly sharing a life as it seemed, he would have told her. This was the one thing he truly knew.
“I... I... ” she gulped, trying to clear the lump in her throat, "... I don't know."
“... I see.”
He looked down to his hand where his fingers were wrapped around a heavy, iron dagger, marred and battered and stained with rust. D was right: it wouldn't be easy.
Looking up one last time, Graves met his wife’s pleading, fearful stare, and smiled.
“I loved you, Rarity,” he whispered. “I loved you. With all I my heart.”
Her screams were the last thing he heard as he plunged the dagger into his chest and sank into darkness.
“... Ma’am, if you’d take a look at these charts-”
“I told you to stop bothering me with those.”
He heard the words but knew not where they came from. Everything was black. Everything was dark.
“Nurse Hackit, please control yourself. The bolt he took was filled with enough Heart’s Desire extract to put Princess Celestia into a coma. The fact that he’s even alive is a miracle in itself. Anything beyond that would simply be a medical impossibility.”
He heard the words, but didn't understand. What was going on? Who were they talking about? Somehow, he could feel himself slowly rising, as if floating up from the abyssal depths of an ocean trench. He rose higher and higher, the darkness somehow seeming to grow thinner as he rose...
Graves slowly opened his eyes. He saw white.
The white coalesced into a series of tiles, slightly blurred by a field of translucent, magical energy before it. Turning his head was an ordeal in itself, but he managed to do so and caught sight of a vast array of machines and monitors, data gathering cords only part of the mix as a multitude of tubes pumped a veritable cocktail of fluids to the same location. Beyond that, a pair stood off to the side, a stern older lady with hair tied in a tight bun and a younger, mousy looking man with a clipboard. Both wore white coats.
“See, that’s just it,” the mousy man continued as he referenced a machine. “He’s supposed to be completely out, but his brain’s showing signs of activity. Unusually high... Huh. That’s odd.”
“What is it now?” the lady sighed.
“Well doctor, I’m not exactly sure, but according to this, his brain is activating at conscious levels. But like you said, it’s... impossible...”
Two pairs of eyes turned to look at him and met his tired and dazed, but very much awake, grey eyes. The clipboard fell to the floor.
“My... my goodness!” the doctor gasped, pressing a hand to her heart in shock. “You... you’re awake!”
“So it would seem,” he replied, his voice grating like a rusty, iron gate creaking over decrepit hinges. “Where am I?”
“You’re... in the medical wing at St. Stethoscope’s Hospital in Canterlot,” the doctor replied breathlessly. Graves blinked slowly. Ah. A hospital. That would explain things.
“How long was I out?” he rasped, eyeing the multitude of monitors and fluids that he now realized were hooked to him.
“Four days,” the doctor nodded. “We thought it must have been a lost cause, what with so much toxin in your blood and you so far gone that not even Princess Luna could reach you, but the General was insistent that we-” she gasped, hand springing to her mouth. “The general! He’ll want to know! Hackit!” she called to the mousy man as she dashed for the door. “I’m going to get General Ironside. Don’t touch anything!”
“Yes ma’am!” he squeaked just before she dashed through the door.
“... What was she talking about?” the marshal croaked out. “What did she mean toxins?”
“Oh, yes,” the nurse began with a nervous bob. “Well, you see, you were struck with a crossbow bolt that was loaded with - among other things but still predominantly - a concentrated extract of Heart’s Desire, a compound with psychotropic effects as well as magical properties. In small quantities, it can increase energy and motivation. In high doses however, it’s a highly dangerous poison that can put a person into an irreversible, dreamlike coma.”
“How much was in me then?” Graves asked, difficultly considering his tongue felt like swollen sandpaper.
“Well, frankly sir,” the nurse replied nervously, “The fact that you’re alive, much less conscious... it’s a complete and utter mystery.”
“... Huh. Well I'll be.”
For a moment, the soft beeping of the monitors was all that broke the silence.
“Um, sir?” the nurse began hesitantly, “I was wondering, if I may...”
“Well, it’s just that... Heart’s Desire has psychotropic effects, as I mentioned earlier, namely in that it stimulates the part of the brain responsible for positive emotions. Larger doses are more dangerous, but these effects are also amplified.”
“Well, sir,” Hackit continued. “You were in a coma, but the part of your brain responsible for dreaming was still active. With so much Heart’s Desire in your system, I was just curious... did you have some really nice dreams?”
Graves furrowed his brow as he thought. Dreams? Had he been dreaming? It was kind of hard to say; he was having a hard time remembering. He was fairly sure he’d dreaming about something, something important. What was it? What had he been dreaming about?
And then the memories came back, each and every detail from each and every moment.
He remembered Rarity.
He remembered Melody.
He remembered it all.
“... No,” Graves replied, his voice a hoarse whisper as he turned to hide his slowly dampening pillow. “No I didn't.”