A Long, Winding Road

by GentlemanJ


Chapter 3

Chapter 3

It was with no small amount of trepidation that Twilight Sparkle climbed the steps leading up to the glittering palace tower. It was a climb she knew she needed to make and one that she probably should have made earlier. Still, the knowledge of its necessity didn't assuage the anxiety gnawing at her heart or ease the tension that wound her stomach tighter than a clockwork spring. Necessity never equated with ease.

Somehow, she had to convince Rarity to give up on Graves.

Logically, it was the only sensible conclusion. The marshal was a consummate soldier and as such, was almost assuredly driven by the calling cards of duty and service. The only reason he’d gone to Ponyville in the first place was because he’d been assigned, and even if he’d made friends there and found a place where he belonged, the evidence clearly indicated he’d give it up at the drop of a hat should necessity dictate.

At that point, the only thing left to do would be to say goodbyes, or in his case, say nothing at all. It hurt, but in some perverse way, it also made sense. After all, clean wounds do heal the quickest. Even if it left a bad taste in everyone’s mouths, even if Rarity hated him for it, it would probably be worth it because in the end, everyone could accept he was gone and move on with their lives.

It all made a sort of sad, unforgiving sense. But as the sweater-vested librarian approached the polished wooden doors, she paused as her trepidation grew to nearly full blown pre-exam level anxiety. How exactly was she supposed to approach Rarity on the topic? “Hey, I know you just got dumped, but that’s okay, he did it because it's all for the best?” Twilight knew her friend could be… emotional, to say the least, and if the histrionic fashionista could wail up a storm over missing cutlery, how would she react to such a decidedly painful truth?

Well, it wasn’t like standing around worrying would make things better. So with one last, bracing breath, Twilight raised her hand to the gilded door and with only the slightest of pauses left, gave it a few, tentative knocks.

No response.

Trying again, Twilight knocked just a bit harder, leaning in close to the entryway and listening for sound. Still nothing.

Alarm bells started going off like the signal for class to start. It had been three days since anyone had seen Rarity leave her room. She’d certainly been upset when she’d gone in, but three days was enough time to come to your senses, right? Surely, she wouldn't have gone and done anything desperate. Would she?

“Rarity? Are you in there?” Twilight called out as she tested the polished brass doorknob and – surprisingly – found it unlocked. Pushing the door open, the amethyst-eyed scholar poked her head in, scanning around for her friend as she took a step forward. She probably would have been better served watching her step because with a yelping cry of alarm, Twilight tripped and fell with a marvelous crash to the floor.

Shaking the stars from her vision, Twilight glanced back to see what offending object had impeded her entrance.

“… Books?” she blinked, somewhat puzzled by the sight. Indeed, her foot had caught itself against a stack of large, leather bound texts that screamed of operating manuals. Why on earth would have Rarity such a large pile of boring and almost assuredly useless books, and so close to the door?

Turning back around, that question was promptly answered as Twilight looked up and found the room in a chaotic state of disarray, just as she’d expected of her despondent friend’s woeful mood. Only, the mess was of a nature that the young scholar never would have in a thousand years predicted.

It was a veritable mess of books. Big and small, old and mint-conditioned, tomes and texts of every kind were stacked in haphazard piles wherever there was space to squeeze in a volume. Further in between those stacks, bundles of papers, binders, folders of documents, and sheaves of parchment were stuffed tightly enough to shame even the most zealous of pack rats. Every single spare bit of space was occupied by writing in some form or another, all save for one small island of open area at the room’s very center. There, sitting at a small desk with spectacles perched on her dainty nose, sat a very cool, very calm, and very un-hysterical young lady.

“Rarity?” Twilight repeated in disbelief. The scholar had expected her friend to be frantically sobbing in her favorite pink bathrobe, hair in disarray and eyes red-rimmed from crying. Tissues at least. But no, the pretty seamstress was fully attired in her usual white blouse and pencil skirt, violet tresses done up in their usual immaculate curls, and her signature perfectly applied make-up invisibly accentuating her natural good looks. So all in all, Rarity actually looked quite… normal.

“Oh, hello Twilight,” Rarity smiled, sparing only a moment to look up and confirm her friend’s identity before returning to the text before her. “How are you today?”

“Uh, fine, Rarity,” the puzzled purple poindexter pensively pronounced. “How are you?”

“Quite well, in fact,” the young beauty rejoined as she scribbled a few notes down in her elegant script, ever careful to keep the ink from staining her sleeves. “Is there something I can help you with?”

“Not really, no,” Twilight replied, now thoroughly confused and not a little worried to boot. Had her friend snapped? With experience in her own psychotic episodes, not to mention the mental breakdowns of all her friends over the past few years, it wasn’t a far cry to suspect that Rarity, too, had decided to take a vacation from reality.

If she had gone off the deep end, Rarity hid it quite well. Nothing broke the silence save the scratching of the quill and the rustling of paper.

“So… you’re doing well?” Twilight prodded again. “Anything you want to talk about?”

“Not really, no,” Rarity said, albeit rather distractedly as she dissected a particularly dense section of prose. “Why, is something bothering you?”

“Me?” the young scholar repeated in disbelief. “Why would anything be bothering me? I was going to ask if there was anything bothering you.” The dressmaker paused for a moment, nibbling on the end of her quill as she thought.

“Can’t say there is,” she shrugged before returning to work. “Oh, and would you be a dear and hand me that reference guide next to you? That would be ever so helpful.”

Normally, Twilight loved assisting others in academic-related endeavors such as this. Normally, however, she wasn’t plagued by a curiosity that burned like the core of a molten star. So instead of obliging the request, the purple-haired girl responded with a most elegantly worded reply.

“Okay, what the hay is going on?!”

Rarity blinked.

“So it looks like you’re doing well, and I’m really glad for that, but seriously, what gives?” Twilight blurted, her words tripping over each other in their haste to get out. “A couple of days ago, you were acting like the world had just ended, and here you are, writing a report like it’s midterms or something. I mean, it’s not like I want you to be upset or anything, but logically you’re supposed to be and the fact that you’re not is just… just plain weird!”

The dressmaker stared at Twilight who took a deep breath and straightened her hair as a few stray strands had popped up with the force of her tirade. Slowly, Rarity sighed and set down her quill.

“I suppose you’re here regarding Graves, are you not?”

“It’s about him, yes, but it’s because I’m worried about you,” the young scholar replied, her tone a shade softer than before. “The way he left was shocking for all of us, but... I mean, you two had something special, didn’t you?”

“I suppose we did,” Rarity replied with a sad smile. “It was all rather unsettling. One moment you think you’re the sort of couple the poets will write of in song and story. Only, it doesn't quite work out that way, on account of the fact he dropped you like last season’s fashion.”

“Oh Rarity, I’m so sorry,” Twilight said, sincerity ringing true in every word. “It must have been a horrible experience.”

“Yes, yes it was,” the violet-haired girl nodded primly. “Which is why the next time I see him, I’m going to make him account for each and every word he said. Right after I give him a good, sound thrashing.” With that, Rarity plucked up her quill and dove right back into her books, a new fire alight in her sapphire blue eyes as they danced across the pages with the speed of darting sparrows.

Her friend, however, was decidedly less enthused and rather more confused.

“Wait, what?” the young scholar asked, even more puzzled than before. “But... Graves left on a new assignment.”

“That he did,” Rarity nodded.

“And you told us that he told you that he wasn’t coming back,” Twilight continued.

“Uh huh.”

“So… how exactly do you plan on making him, uh… account for what he said?”

“Quite simple, really,” Rarity smiled as she closed one book and opened up another. “I’ll just have to go after him.”

Gears ground to a halt as the words entering Twilight’s ears jammed the inner working of her logic-calibrated mind.

“But… why?”

Looking up at her friend, the dressmaker saw that Twilight had a most peculiar expression on her face. It looked almost like she’d eaten a sour plum and remained unsure whether to go ahead and swallow the offending tartness or spit it back out.

“I’m not quite sure what you mean,” Rarity hesitantly prompted in hopes to elicit a clarifying response. “What exactly do you mean by ‘why?'” The nudged helped as Twilight, however reluctantly, continued her discourse.

“So, I’ve been thinking a lot about this,” she began, carefully choosing each word to be as delicate as possible, “and I think that, well… maybe Graves doesn't want to be followed. I mean, it’s not just the note, or even the way he left, it’s… just who he is, you know?”

“I’m not sure I comprehend,” the fashionista frowned in puzzlement.

“Graves is a soldier, right? He knows that he’s got a dangerous job, and he might not make it back. If he’s thinking that, then maybe, just maybe, he left the way he did to keep us from waiting and hoping when something bad might happen. After what happened that night, it seems like a logical thing to do. Do you see what I’m saying?”

The violet-haired beauty gave her friend an inscrutable look, pursing her lips as she folded hands and rested them beneath her chin.

“So what you’re saying is,” Rarity began, “is that Graves intentionally made a harsh exit from our lives so that we’d willingly forget him to spare us the hardship of when he inevitably doesn't return from the battlefield. Was that it?”

“Um… yeah,” Twilight nodded, quite surprised at the clarity of her friend’s statement.

“That would make a good deal of sense,” Rarity murmured as her brow furrowed in contemplation. “Celestia knows he’s wool-headed enough to think that we’d be better off if he left us before something happened. But…” The young lady paused and her visage clouded with uncertainty. “I don’t think that’s the reason.”

“Hold on a second,” Twilight began, slowly so she could order the jumbled thoughts in her head. “You’re saying you can see the reason he’d leave, you can see that he’s the kind of guy who’d do it, and despite that, you don’t think that’s why he did it?”

“Well it certainly sounds sillier if you say it like that,” Rarity grinned in flushed embarrassment, “but yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying.”

“Then you’ve got to have a reason for thinking that way,” the sweater-vested scholar pressed on, her intellectual side rising at the prospect of new knowledge to be gained. “Do you have any facts or information that would back up your position?”

“Not facts, no,” Rarity grudgingly admitted. “It’s more like, oh how do you say it… a feeling I have. That’s all.”

“Feeling?” Twilight repeated. “What do you mean?”

“So, we can both agree that Graves is quite the honest and, how shall we say it, painfully straightforward man, is he not? Granted, sometimes it’s hard to tell whether he’s giving you his default glower or a happy one, but it’s not like he’s particularly adept at hiding his emotions, correct?”

“Yeah, I guess so,” the Ponyville librarian nodded. She’d never really noticed it before, but it actually made a strange sort of sense. True, to most people it would seem like Graves was perpetually suffering from a sore tooth. But after getting to know him, it had gotten much easier to tell what he was thinking behind that stony stare of his. She’d never have thought it, but in that sense, he was actually pretty expressive, albeit in degrees so small an ant would have a hard time distinguishing.

Huh. Who’d have thought?

“The marshal might not be given to extreme displays,” Rarity continued, “but it’s not too difficult to figure out what he’s thinking. That’s why when I approached him about joining me at the Gala back at Ponyville, I could tell he was genuinely remorseful about not being available to attend. Even more than that, he clearly told me that he had every intention of returning back to us when his work was finished.”

“But maybe that’s changed,” Twilight rebutted, squashing down the optimism she wanted to embrace in favor of playing the devil’s advocate. “Maybe that was before he had his whole near-death experience. You have to admit, it’s kind of a thing that leaves an impression on you.”

"An impression, certainly," Rarity acquiesced, “but it still doesn't explain how he became such a good actor in so short a time.”

The lady scholar blinked.

“An actor.”

“Yes,” her friend nodded, “a performer. One who says what is not genuine in a convincing manner. You see, when I first saw Graves after the awards ceremony, he…” she stopped to take a quick, shuddering breath to steady the tremble in her voice, “he was by far the coldest he’d ever been since I met him.” Seeing her friend's tremble, Twilight reached to take the dressmaker's hand in a firm, but gentle squeeze.

“Rarity, you don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to.”

“No, it’s alright,” Rarity replied, returning the squeeze along with a grateful smile. “It was painful, I’ll readily admit, because it was so thoroughly convincing. There was no warmth in his words and no remorse in his actions. He expressed about as much regret as Rainbow Dash would in forgoing a chance to wear frills.”

“It was his job, wasn’t it?” the scholarly girl countered, albeit very, very reluctantly since it prolonged her friend’s painful recollection. But if she didn't, then the act of reliving that last encounter would have been wasted, so on she pressed. “He’s always given it his all when it came to his job, so maybe he’s just pushing himself to be as convincing as possible.”

“And that’s just it!” Rarity breathed out with surprising vehemence. “Even if an honest person like Graves pushed himself, putting on that kind of performance should be plainly out of his reach. I mean, even when Applejack truly wants to, she can’t tell a fib to save her life. So how is it that Graves, a man just as bad – if not worse – than Applejack at hiding his feelings, could make even me tell think he was telling the truth? I mean, I’m a socialite, for Luna’s sake; I eat subtleties for breakfast!”

Twilight blinked in surprise, a bit at being blown back by the force of Rarity’s frustration, but even more at the sense in her argument. Applejack was a terrible liar, and even being corrupted by Discord hadn't improved that one whit. Graves was terrible at hiding his minute emotions, whether it was happiness, irritation, or in most cases, flat-out embarrassment. How had he managed to fool Rarity who in all respects should have been able to read him like an open book?

“I see I’ve made my point,” Rarity nodded, taking a moment to steady herself before resuming her discourse. “The point is, if Graves were trying to convince me he didn't care about us anymore solely because of his own efforts, I should have been able to tell. That’s why I’ll bet there’s something else, something more which makes him believe it’s the truth. The only way he’d convince me he felt that way was if he’d somehow managed to convince himself.”

“What is it then? What made him change?” Twilight pressed on, her curiosity now fully sparked by her friend’s bold new hypothesis. However, she was startled to find that instead of pressing on with more wonderful insights, Rarity seemed to visibly wilt and fade.

“I… I don’t know,” the violet-haired beauty sighed as she slumped in her seat. “I wish I did, but I honestly don’t know enough about Graves to guess why.”

“You? Don’t know enough about Graves?” Twilight scoffed in disbelief. “Rarity, you've told me more about Graves in the past five minutes than I could figure out in the last three days of analysis. You know him better than anyone else, so how could you of all people not know enough?”

“Because he never tells me anything!” Rarity wailed as she made a beautiful transition from the dumps of depression into woeful tantrums. “Even during all the time we spent together, he never really told me anything about himself. Sure, we would talk about topics of mutual interest, likes and dislikes, ideas and philosophies, but… never the facts and information to speak of. To this day, I still don’t know where he was born, what his family is like or... or anything!”

“But how could you go this long without finding out?” Twilight gaped in amazement. “Weren’t you ever curious? Didn’t you ever ask?”

“Of course I did,” Rarity sniffled. “And I got the same answer as you probably did. ‘Oh, I wouldn’t want to bore you with stuff like that.’” Her impression of the marshal, while not quite as deep and gravelly, was so spot on that Twilight couldn’t help but giggle.

All laughter ceased, however, as Twilight realized that in the several months that Graves had been in Ponyville, he’d never actually told her anything about himself either. Ever. Granted, he’d tossed out anecdotes of past excursions and what not from time to time, but never the basic background that almost always got mentioned in the first few days of meeting a new friend. How had that even happened?

“You see what I mean?” Rarity pouted as she read the realization on Twilight’s face. “After some time, I realized that Graves was actually quite deft at avoiding the topic. He’d always throw you just enough to satisfy you, but never really answer the question. So one day, I decided to directly ask him to tell me about his life before the marshals. It was probably one of the bigger faux pas I’ve made with him to date.”

“Really? Why’s that?”

“Because he gave me the most peculiar look. He was still pleasant and polite as ever, but his eyes went all foggy and hollow, like there was nothing behind them. I don’t know if you remember, but it was very much like the way he came to town. Seeing it come back so suddenly gave me such a fright, I dropped the subject and never went back.”

“Wow. I didn’t know it was that bad," Twilight breathed. To this, Rarity merely heaved a heavy sigh as she folded her arms across the table and plunked her head right on top.

“Maybe I should have pressed the issue,” she mumbled, her words muffled by the wooden desk she spoke into. “If I had, then maybe he would have opened up to me and we could have avoided this entire mess. But I didn’t, and now I’m stuck wading through dry, dusty texts for answers instead.”

“Yeah, I’ve been meaning to ask about that,” Twilight said as she turned to scan the book-filled room. “What exactly is all this anyway?”

“My only lead,” Rarity groaned as she straightened up and massaged her temples. “I’ve been requesting every reference and every record that might relate to him, trying to see what I can find about that man’s past on account of I know next to nothing about him.”

As hot, frustrated tears began to brim in the dressmaker’s eyes, which she brushed away furiously with her sleeve, Twilight mentally kicked herself for being so thick-headed. Though Rarity might whine and complain a great deal about the little things, she could put up a surprisingly brave face when push came to shove. She was so good, in fact, that it was often all too easy to forget that underneath her composed exterior, the hurt still remained.

“Anywho, what’s done is done,” Rarity continued, taking a shaky breath to steady herself and returning the composed smile to her face. “I can’t change that our last meeting went less than desirably, so I’ll just have to make sure the next one goes more smoothly.”

“So you went and got… books?” Twilight asked, not quite following the logic.

“Military books,” Rarity clarified, “and records. Since he’s a marshal, I figured some of his personal information must have made its way into writing. If I can find anything, whether it be something on his parents, possible siblings, friends, or even the name of his hometown, I feel like I’ll be one step closer to seeing what makes him tick.”

“Wow, I’m really impressed, Rarity!” Twilight applauded with genuine respect. “I didn’t think you’d be willing to go this far to learn about Graves.”

“Yes, well, good men like him are hard to find,” the sapphire-eyed beauty replied with a flushed smile. “And besides, it’s as much for his sake as mine: you know he’d be hopelessly lost without someone to look after him.”

“Guess so,” Twilight giggled. “So, what have you found out so far?”

Rarity paused. Once again, the words that should have encouraged her friend only served to wipe the smile from her pretty face.

"They've been about half as forthcoming as the dear marshal ever was,” the young beauty muttered through gritted teeth.

“And you’ve been going at this for how long?” the surprised scholar asked.

“Two days,” Rarity moaned. “I was too despondent the day that he left, but after some time to clear my head, I realized I could either sit around crying and do nothing, or I could take some initiative and do something about it.”

“So, you’re dead set on trying to get Graves to come back?” Twilight asked, if only to confirm what she already knew. From the crystal clear firmness in her friend’s deep blue eyes, the answer came back like bold-faced print.

“Oh, I’ll make sure he comes back,” Rarity declared with intense severity. “And when I do, I’m going to make him work long and hard to make up for all the aggravation his silly notions have caused. Of that, you can be sure.”

Twilight, for one, was genuinely impressed. Maybe it was the marshal’s gung-ho attitude rubbing off on the dressmaker, or maybe it was some inner strength she’d always had, but this was the kind of attitude that just might make miracles happen. With a little help of course.

“In that case,” the sweater-vested bookworm beamed, “you can count on me to help!”

“Really?” Rarity gasped in delight. “Oh, thank you so much! I’ve been having a simply frightful time getting anything of use out of these books, but two heads will certainly be better than one.”

“That is true,” Twilight nodded, “but if that’s the case, then six heads will definitely be better than two.”

“Six?” the pretty dressmaker repeated in puzzlement. “But the others have already gone back to Ponyville, and considering the way Graves bade them farewell, I can’t really expect them to come back. To be perfectly frank, I’m rather surprised you’re so eager to assist to begin with.”

“I will admit, I was a bit skeptical,” the librarian agreed. “The theory I decided on certainly seemed to make a lot more sense, and it’s not like you have much to back your ideas off of.”

“Then why did you agree?” Rarity asked. “Why help me if all I’m heading out on is a wild goose chase?”

“Because you convinced me,” Twilight giggled. “It may not be the most scientific reasoning, but you’ve certainly got more than geese leading you on this chase. You obviously have reason to believe there’s something about Graves that needs understanding, and that’s good enough for me.”

The puzzlement in Rarity’s eyes gave way to misty gratitude as she bounded up and squeezed Twilight in the biggest hug she could muster.

“Thank you,” she squeaked out as her voice cracked from an abundance of raw feelings. “I was afraid this was all going to be too much for me to handle. Having you here really means the world to me.”

“Hey,” Twilight coughed as she felt her ribs creaking inside, “what are friends for?”

After one last internal organ rearranging squeeze, Rarity finally let go, and – after a quick glance in her pocket mirror to make sure her mascara hadn’t run – got right back down to business.

“So, about the others,” she began, her previous resolution coming right back, “how are we to get them to come back to Canterlot?”

“I figure we pay them a visit back in Ponyville and you could just convince them like you convinced me.”

“I’d really rather not have to spend so much time travelling around,” the pretty dressmaker pouted, "but I suppose that is the only way.”

"Not exactly,” Twilight grinned a special grin that usually signaled the formulations of ideas one novel short of a full series. "What if I told you there was a way we wouldn't have to?

“I beg your pardon?”

“Meet me back at my room in about ten minutes,” the young scholar called out as she dashed out of the room. “I think I have a way to get us there in the blink of an eye!”

As the door slammed shut behind her, Rarity stood still, jaw slightly agape at her friend’s sudden departure. She couldn’t say why, but something about the gleam in the lady mage’s eye had sent a distinct chill down her own spine. Whatever it was that Twilight was up to, it would undoubtedly be something complicated and, quite possibly, dangerously so. But if it meant expediting the search for the grey-eyed marshal…

Rarity wearily sighed one last time and went to gather her things. Honestly, the things she'd do for that man…

**********