Of course, even the happiest of reunions can only last so long, and of course, it was sensible Twilight Sparkle who broke up the hug fest first.
“Alright girls,” she called out, clapping her hands just like a schoolteacher would for wayward children, “I know we’re all excited to see them back safe and sound, but I’m sure Rarity and Graves would appreciate a chance to rest, don’t you think?”
“Oh my goodness, you’re right!” Fluttershy gasped. “I’m so sorry you two. I got so caught up in the moment, that I didn’t even think abo–”
“It’s quite alright darling,” Rarity laughed as she wiped a final tear from her eye. “Though I do agree that it’s best we see to Graves post haste.”
“Why, something happen?” Applejack asked.
Before the marshal could get a third word in edgewise, a delicate cough from the pretty seamstress brought a halt to his reply. At first, he thought it might have just been a parched throat from all the excitement, but the very pointed look she sent afterwards assured him it was not. Now the question just became why. For a moment, Graves was having a decidedly difficult time imagining what could be on Rarity’s mind until he finally summoned up the modicum of sense he was born with and put it to good use.
Completely by instinct, Graves had reverted back to his old habits of operating on a need to know basis where nothing need ever be known. In fact, he’d gone so far as to surreptitiously rebutton up his coat – quite unconsciously, honestly – in order to put a deeper freeze on the dissemination of any wayward facts, which in this case, meant the sorry state of his own person.
No, they’d just talked about this, and there was no time like the present to put some of Rarity’s uncommonly good sense to work.
“Ah, actually…” Graves coughed, much like Rarity had except that where hers had been modest and tasteful, his erupted in an awkward and painful hack stemming from both internal injury and internal turmoil as he went full bore against his very nature. “Actually,” he began once more, “I’m not, er… feeling… that good.”
“… Ah, beg yer pardon, marshal,” Applejack apologetically smiled, “but could yah run that by me again?”
Graves repeated himself.
“… Yah, still not getting it,” Rainbow Dash frowned in confusion. “What are you trying to say?”
Graves repeated himself once more.
“I… think I’m hearing it right,” Twilight murmured, “but… no, it couldn’t be. Graves, you didn’t say what I think you did, did you?”
Good gods, if the girls were going to make it this hard to share so simple a statement, then the marshal was more than half inclined to wash his hands of the whole affair. But a firm glance from a pair of stern sapphire eyes showed how displeased a certain lady would be should he chart that course of action. So, taking a deep, steadying breath, the marshal repeated himself for a third time.
At this point, even Pinkie Pie was ready to cry foul on shenanigans, and she regularly breached inter-dimensional boundaries just for the sake of a joke. Graves never felt not good. Or, he was always not not good. Or… whatever, you get the idea. The point was, nothing got to Graves. Ever. He just plugged on ahead, headbutting whatever brick wall lay before him till it eventually succumbed to the indomitable force of his harder-than-just-about-anything skull with nary a scratch and no more inconvenience than the time it took to brush the dust from his coat. To hear him say that he was… not feeling that good, was it?... was like, well…
Honestly, they had no idea what it was like. How do you even use something from reality to analogize an absolute impossibility?
“Graves? Dear?” Rarity interjected upon seeing the abject confusion painted on the faces of her friends. “Mayhaps they’d understand if you added more… tangibility to your statement.”
“Open your coat?”
Though the brief exchange sparked more than its fair share of questions, nobody, not even Pinkie Pie, actually gave them voice. Perhaps it was because of the look that crossed the marshal’s face, because it was something like a cross between being shoved out a fifth story window with a child taking its medicine: shocked, scandalized, disbelieving, and none too happy to say the least. Whatever was going on between Rarity and Graves, it was something important enough that the Ponyville girls felt it best to leave it be and grow as it pleased.
Had Graves known this, he would have been very grateful indeed, because right then, he was facing the suggestion with as much cheer as the impending visit of a reaver tribe that one time he’d broken both legs. Words were one thing, but visuals had a tendency to send civvies into a bit of a fit. And by a fit, Graves meant that he’d seen them freak out, wig out, bug out, and pass out at half the things he had hiding under his coat at the moment.
Gunmetal grey eyes looked up at Rarity, and though they were still as unrelenting as ever, they held a softer sheen as well. With that look, her slender hand came to gently rest on his shoulder.
“They can handle, it Graves,” she smiled. “We’re tougher than you think.”
A moment longer as the marshal frowned, then very slowly, and very, very reluctantly, Graves pulled open his coat.
“Oh my goodness!”
“Celestia on high!”
“Sweet land o’ Goshen!”
“Look, it’s not that–
“Fluttershy, do we have any more bandages left?”
“Not on us, but there should still be some left back at camp.”
“I might have something! Jellybeans? Nope. Old sasparilla cap? Nope. Gummy’s toothbrush? No– wait, why do I even have that?”
“Great. Take Rainbow Dash and head down there. Boil as much water as you can and fish out every last bit of medicine we have, on the double!”
“You got it, boss!” And with a crisp salute and not a single backwards glance, the two rune flyers – yes, that included the perpetually terrified Fluttershy – leaped off the cliff side ledge and took off at breakneck speed.
“Applejack, how are we on supplies?”
“Got heaps o’ hearty vittles, but we’re lackin’ on the lighter side. Pretty sure I saw some good pickin's over on the valley’s other side.”
“Pinkie, can you help Applejack rustle some up?”
“Can I?! You bet your sweet tootie patootie I can!”
“Excellent. Grab some of the griffons help you out, but leave two of them for us?”
“Just two? But–”
“Trust me. I got this covered.”
“Okie dokie lokie!” And with that, those two vaulted atop the backs of two more griffons and made with the yippie kay yays as they took off for the skies.
That just left Twilight to briskly turn back to Rarity and a very stunned Graves.
“How is he?” the young mage asked as she knelt down beside the seated pair.
“Held together by the threads of his clothes,” Rarity replied with a wry grin.
“Can we move him?”
“I believe so. Are you fine with that, sweetie?”
Graves was confused. Where were the screams? The panic? Sure, they’d bounced around like popcorn in a hot skillet at first, but within moments, Twilight had rounded them up and sent them on their ways like a well-ordered militia. They weren’t behaving like normal civvies at all. They were actually operating like... well... a team.
With his slightly bemused confirmation being all that she needed, Twilight instantly stood back up and returned to the remaining two griffons. After some quick but calm explanations, the two winged beasts eyed each other curiously, but simply nodded their plumed heads as Twilight pulled out her wand and began her spell.
Bands of amethyst light flowed out and coalesced into forms around the griffons. Like clay being shaped before their very eyes, harnesses and snaps appeared before extending out to materialize into an elegant chariot, one big enough to comfortably seat three as it stood ready to be pulled by two leonine steeds.
Graves stared, eyes the size of silver dollars as Rarity and Twilight helped him into the vehicle. Only when foot made contact with light as solid as stone to create soft, shimmering ripples, did he finally manage to gather his wits and speak.
“You can… make stuff?” he gaped. “Since when?”
“Since… always?” Twilight smiled with an embarrassed flush. “I only really put it to practice after our, um… canyon incident, what with having to make so many shields and what not, but basically, all I had to do was create those same shielding spells in different configurations and leave out the anchoring point. Simple stuff, really.”
Simple stuff? This wasn’t just simple stuff. This was game changing. Why, with this sort of infinitely variable ability, traversing difficult terrain could become exponentially easier. They might have saved hours, if not days off of backtracking through the miasma-strewn mountains. They could have bypassed gullies and ravines with ease. They could have-
They could have, Graves realized with a sudden, sinking certainty, avoided falling altogether. He could have avoided putting Rarity and the rest in danger not once, but countless other times had he only thought to put that sort of magic into practice.
No, that wasn’t right either. He was creative in the field, yes, but this sort of magic theory was well beyond him. There was no way he’d have ever been able to come up with that sort of idea on his own. He couldn’t have, but Twilight could. She could have kept them all safe if only he’d thought to ask for her help.
As the griffons took off and soared beneath the darkened sky with Twilight at the helm to keep the construct stable, Graves slumped against the chariot’s side. Rarity, ever beside the marshal, noticed the sudden sag of his broad shoulders and turned to him in worry.
“Graves, are you alright?”
“No I’m not,” he freely muttered. “I’m the biggest fool this side of the– no, I’m just the biggest fool, period.”
“Graves, you are not a fool,” Rarity insisted. “Occasionally silly and often mulishly stubborn, but not a fool.”
“What’s this about fools?” Twilight asked.
“I nearly got us all killed,” Graves answered with unabashed bitterness. “If I’d just asked for help earlier instead of trying to be a goddamn hero like some greener than green raw recruit, we would never have gotten into that mess in the first place. Marshal. Psh. More like a court marshal, if you ask me.”
Turning with eye wide in alarm, Twilight looked Rarity, then to Graves as his face darkened into a brooding thundercloud. Between the two of them, they knew that if there was one thing the marshal hated more than seeing people he liked in danger, it was screwing up his job, and it seemed like in this case, he felt that he'd gotten a liberal helping of both.
“Graves, it’s not your fault, really,” the young mage insisted. “You couldn’t possibly have known that sort of magic was an option. Hay, I didn’t even realize it was until just recently too, remember?”
“But if I’d just asked–”
“For what, an answer to a question that you didn’t even know existed?” Twilight interrupted. “Graves, I’m as good as it gets at taking tests, but even I’m not that good.”
Thought he marshal let loose a small chuckle, the sound quickly gave way to resignation once more.
“I should’ve left it to you. I should’ve gotten your input – hell, everyone’s – before we’d even touched down. Could’ve saved us from nearly falling to our deaths.”
“Maybe,” Twilight nodded. “And maybe you should’ve grown a pair of wings and just flown us here yourselves, hm?”
“Oh, I’m sorry, I thought we were wishing for things from the realm of absolute improbability,” Twilight replied all too sweetly.
“It wasn't improssi– improbable. I-”
“Am absolutely terrible about asking for help," she interjected firmly once more, “just like how Applejack’s bad at math, Rainbow’s bad at studying, and yours truly is bad about keeping an even temper.”
“You? Really? No,” Rarity will all earnest sincerity.
“The point being, marshal,” Twilight continued with a good-humored roll of the eyes, “is that you’re nowhere near perfect, but nobody expects you to be. You did everything you could to protect us using what you had available, and it’s only through hind sight and learning that you found ways to do it better. How could we possibly resent you for that?”
“I could’ve learned it a lot sooner,” Graves muttered as a dim memory of a duel with Shining Armor drifted forth. "Hay, I've been on a team before, haven't I? I should've known better."
“People forget," Twilight answered as she knelt to lay a reassuring hand on his shoulder. "When that happens, sometimes, the only choice we have is to learn it again, if you can at all. I mean, hay, with everything you’ve been through, learning to rely on others is probably the toughest thing for you to get of all.
"Which,” she continued as her assuring smile melted into a concerned frown, “is probably why I, on behalf of all of us, should really be apologizing to you.”
“Well, if anyone here had lessons that should have been learned sooner, it’d be us,” Twilight explained, her usually cool lecture tones marred by a touch of breathless rushing. “I mean, we all know that you’ve lost a lot of important things in your life, and we should have given that the weight it deserved when we considered our interactions with you. We didn’t, probably because even though we thought we knew what it meant, none of us really knew. You know?”
At the marshal’s surprised look, which clearly indicated that no, he did in fact not know, Twilight replied with a small, wry smile.
“You see, not many of us have... gone through what you did, Graves. We can imagine it's pretty bad, but not that's like saying you know how to operate a Celestron C9 telescope just by reading the manual. None of us actually had practical experience, so to speak."
"I... see...?" Graves slowly nodded.
"But when you and Rarity fell, having to watch you two disappear, not knowing whether you were alive or dead, and feeling so completely powerless to do anything? That was pretty much the worst feeling any of us ever went through, and let me tell you, it was bad, like... like looking in Sombra's cursed mirror, only worse. And we didn’t even have to put up with it for that long. We managed to track your badge, you see, so we knew you were alive at least, and if you were still kicking, then there’s no way that Rarity wouldn’t have been fine, which was really nice to know because–”
Upon realizing that she’d begun babbling and resorting to the use of double negatives, Twilight took a deep breath to steady herself and resumed once more.
“My point is, Graves, is that we knew you’d gone through that before. You’ve lost more than your fair share of friends, and you were fighting tooth and nail this entire time to make sure that didn’t happen again because you knew just how terrible it really was. But when you got tired and hurt, we didn’t support you. We just gave you a hard time for being so–
“Jack-assed?” Graves offered.
“Intent,” Twilight firmly corrected, “about doing what you were brought here to do. You needed your friends to be there for you and we weren’t. So we talked about it, and we all agreed that i- when we found you two again, we should let you know that we’re all really, really, really sorry.”
Graves just looked over at Twilight for a spell, gunmetal greys scrutinizing her amethyst eyes a bit.
His job was to keep them safe. To do that, he should have shared the intel that would have allowed them to cooperate and keep things running smooth. Instead, he’d treated them like children, withheld valuable information, royally mucked up the esprit de corp he knew was crucial to mission success with a terribly pissy mood, and generally put their lives in jeopardy because he didn’t trust in his team. And Twilight felt the need to apologize to him?
He kept waiting for her to break out into laughter, but she didn’t. Nothing remained in those eyes, so bright now despite being clouded by self-doubt and insecurity just a single day ago, except earnest sincerity and just a bit of pensive worry.
“I think by his somewhat perplexed stare,” Rarity began with a smile, “that our dear marshal really doesn’t see the need for you to apologize. In fact, I’ll bet he’s thinking this is still all his fault and would insist that the blame rests squarely on his shoulders, am I right?”
“Aye,” Graves firmly nodded.
“Ah, I see,” Twilight giggled as her tension visibly drained from her now much happier face. “Then how about this? I accept your apology, and you accept mine. We both shoulder part of the blame because that’s what friends do, right? Share the load. And then, we can both promise to do better in the future because the best part of all is that friends stick together till the very end. Deal?”
And despite the wear and tear of combat, when Graves saw Twilight smile bright and extend out a hand, he couldn’t help but grin a small, slightly goofy, and very lopsided grin as he reached out and took it in his own.