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
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.
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.