Turning over in a moment of half slumber, Princess Cadance opened one heavy eye when her arm fell upon open bed. Her husband should have been there with her, but cool covers and an undented pillow showed that it’d been quite some time since he’d laid down, if he even had at all.
Pushing herself from the bed, Cadance rubbed the sleep from her eyes as she turned towards the voice she knew so well. The window was open, allowing in a refreshing evening breeze as pale moonlight filled the room. There, arm resting against an upraised knee as he lounged on the open sill, sat her beloved Shining Armor.
For a little while, the princess just sat there, a faint smile crossing her lips as she simply enjoyed the sight of her husband. Though she rarely voiced the thought, Cadance believed that Shining Armor was a truly beautiful man, from the tops of those shimmering waves of azure hair to the soles of his perfectly sculpted form. Yes, he was absolutely gorgeous, and the fact that she was married to him just made that thought all the sweeter.
The thought ended, though the smile still lingered as Cadance rose from the bed and walked over to join her husband. Slipping her fingers between his, the crystal princess leaned against him, savoring the warmth of his touch.
“Having trouble sleeping?” she murmured.
“Battle starts soon,” Shining Armor nodded, his ocean blue eyes staring out towards the north. “When it does, people are gonna die, Cadance. Hundreds, maybe even thousands are going to die, and I’m gonna be the one to do it.”
Cadance couldn’t help but wince when she’d heard those words.
Shining Armor was a kind man, one who cared deeply for those around him, including the soldiers under his command. This made him a fantastic officer as his unwavering dedication to his troops was answered with unwavering loyalty. This also made his burden impossibly heavy as he was forced to order those he considered friends to shed their blood in battle. Yes, they’d been given leave to rest in Canterlot before the solstice arrived, but no number of miles could distance the battlefield from the young captain’s mind. For him, that battlefield meant men would die and do so on his orders. For the captain, the act was tantamount to if he’d slit their throats himself.
“Now you know that’s not true,” Cadance softly protested, the quiet of her voice in no ways reflecting the crystal firmness of her conviction. “What you’re going to do is save as many of them as you can. Nul’s attempting to wipe us all out, but you’re not going to let him. For every person he tries to wipe out, you, Shining Armor, are going to save a hundred more, and those hundreds are going to save the thousands back home. You’re going to protect them. As many as you can.”
“Is that enough?” Shining Armor asked as he turned his heavy gaze towards his wife. “Do those I save outweigh the ones I don’t?”
“They do,” she nodded as her hand squeezed a little tighter. “They absolutely do.”
Shining Armor didn’t wholly believe those words, but he took comfort in them nonetheless. Even when you don’t believe in yourself, having someone believe in you can be a powerful source of strength. That’s why the young captain could smile that gorgeous smile that had stolen her breath so many times as he leaned in to kiss his beloved bride.
“How’d I end up with such a wonderful woman?” he asked as those mirthful tones, as much a sign of him as the burnished shield emblazoned on his back, quickly returned to his voice.
“That’d be Twilight,” Cadance giggled, glad that the moonlight would help mask the flush in her cheeks. Honestly, still blushing like a school girl at her first dance. “She told me everything I needed to know to get your attention while you were at Academy.”
“Really?” Shining Armor blinked. “ I thought it was because she told me all your likes and stuff every time I went back to visit.”
For a moment, the couple gaped in astonishment as they realized that the luck and fate in their meeting might just have had the appearance of a little bookworm clutching a stuffed, rag-doll pony.
“… Clever girl,” Shining Armor nodded with no small amount of approval.
“She really is,” Cadance laughed. The sound, however, was short lived as a worried frown no came to her face instead. “Do you think she’s still okay?”
“Of course,” Shining Armor grinned. “Anything tries to hurt her, and she’d probably lecture them on bad manner beforehand, and that’s only after they get through old Demon Eyes Graves, to boot.”
“That’s a new one,” the princess giggled. “Did you come up with it yourself?”
“I sure did,” the guard captain proudly beamed. “In fact, I even came up with the glare you’re supposed to do every time you say it. It goes a little something like, this…”
The room rang with musical laughter as Cadance caught sight of her husband’s face. The sight of the marshal’s stony stare so perfectly mirrored on his happy-go-lucky visage was just too much for any appreciative audience to handle quietly.
“That… that looks exactly like him,” she gasped between teary giggles, much to the young captain’s delight.
“Well, I’d hope so,” he sniffed, doing a remarkable impression of a Prince Blueblood as well. “I think I’ve spent enough time around the bugger to pick up a few of his bad habits.”
“That, I still don’t understand,” Cadance grinned as she finally got her breath back under control. “I mean, you two are about as different as night and day. I still don’t get how two polar opposites became such good friends.”
Shining Armor still smiled, but something in it changed. Instead of open mirth as was so often the case, the expression grew somehow softer, even sadder as well.
“You know, lot of people think that, myself included,” Shining Armor murmured as his mind slowly wandered through the night sky. “But then again… maybe we’re really not all that different.”
“Who knows,” the guard captain shrugged. “We’re both soldiers, we both fight for the ones we care about, and we’d both rather attend a Garden Society brunch than see that evil imposed on anyone else.”
“Oh stop it,” Cadance laughed as she swatted her husband’s shoulder. “You know that they’re nowhere near that bad.”
“You’re right, they’re worse,” Shining Armor rejoined, which got him another little pop for his troubles before laughter faded into quiet once more.
“But in the end, the only real difference is who we had,” he continued in quiet thought. “I got to keep my loved ones while Graves had his ripped away when he probably needed them most. If not for that, how different would we really be?”
Cadance didn’t know how to answer. Honestly, she didn’t know the marshal near as well as her husband, but she could see the truth in what he said. Graves was stern and brooding, but the depth of his commitment to his duties was one she’d only seen in one other man before. Perhaps their personalities were different, but their values, those core aspects that made them who they really were, seemed to be merely two sides of the same coin. Cut down evil for those you love. Fend off danger for those you love. Shield and sword, offense and defense, both parts of the task of protecting those they could.
Of course, neither would ever admit it as both would simply chalk it up to being the least anyone could expect of a good soldier. The fact that one hid behind jokes while the other used brooding silence just served to emphasize the similarities.
“You know, you may have a point,” Cadance remarked as the pieces came together. “Imagine that, Shining Armor isn’t just a pretty face after all.”
“Yeah, I was ejumacated but good,” the man laughed as pressed an affectionate kiss to his wife’s cheeks. “But we should probably get to sleep. Got to keep this face pretty, don’t you know.”
“Of course,” Cadance smiled as pulled him over to the bed. “Come along, pretty boy. Your beauty rest awaits."
As she led her husband back to bed, however, her steps were halted as she felt his hand slip from hers, only to come around as he held her close in a warm embrace from behind.
“Oh, and Cadance?” Shining Armor began, his voice unusually soft and timid. “I, uh… I just wanted to say… thanks, for… you know… being so wonderful.”
The princess didn’t need any light or even any sight to know that his cheeks were a brighter crimson than his officer’s coat. As a bright thrill of delight rushed through her heart, Cadance turned to show her husband how much. However, it seemed that he had different ideas because as soon as she moved, his embraced tightened to keep her from turning around.
“There’s also one more thing,” he added, his words now hasty as he rushed to finish before nerves failed him. “I, ah, just want you to know that… I love you. I love you so much.”
Honestly, could the man be any more adorable?
Out under the starry sky, the man stood in silence, glass in hand as his ice-blue eyes gazed out towards unseen lands to the north. When he heard the hum of spell wings and saw the faint golden glow they cast, he didn’t turn. But he did raise his glass in greeting.
“Evening, princess. Join me for a drink?”
“I suppose I could,” Celestia smiled as she joined Ironside up on the top of the tower. Reaching towards the tray, the Equestrian general raised the hammered silver pitcher and poured its rich, ruby liquid into a second glass. This, Celestia took with a grateful nod as she brought the cup to her lips.
“… Juice?” she blinked in surprise upon tasting nothing more than a fresh berry medley. “I always thought you preferred the stronger stuff.”
“Oh, I do, I do,” Ironside chuckled, the booming sound like artillery on a distant field. “But I never drink in the days leading up to battle. Got to keep my wits, don’t you know.”
“As the first day I picked up a spear,” he grimaced, draining the contents in one gulp as he helped himself to a refill. “Everyone always told me it’d be easier as time went on. Bunch of bloody liars, the lot of them.”
Celestia couldn’t help but laugh. Bluntly honest, crude of tongue, and rougher than sand paper strapped to a porcupine, he was definitely the same old Ironside. No amount of extra drills or kitchen duty had managed to file down his rough edges as a cadet, and it seemed that near forty years of service hadn’t done the job any better. In a way, it was a comfort. Regardless of how times changed, some things would still stay the same.
“You’ll be fine,” the princess smiled as she took another sip. “You haven’t let me down yet, have you?”
“There’s a first time for everything,” Ironside replied with a wry smile. “And let’s be honest, if there was ever a time for someone to screw the pooch, it’d be at a grand old moment like this one.”
“Mm, I doubt it,” Celestia shrugged. “You obviously care too much to… screw the pooch, was it?”
“Damn straight I care,” the general laughed upon hearing his decidedly uncouth words echoed by the princess. “It’s my neck on the chopping block, after all. There’s no way I wouldn’t be worried about keeping my hide intact.”
“Oh, psh,” Celestia snorted with a loudly blown raspberry for good measure. “We both know that you’re far more worried about your soldiers than yourself.”
“Can you blame me?” Ironside grunted. “Bunch of wet behind the ear scrubs like them don’t have the first clue of what they’re walking into, I can hardly trust them to stick the enemy with the pointy ends of their spears. 'Course I’m worried.”
More like worried for them, Celestia thought with smile. She’d love to point out how his words sounded much more in line with a concerned father than a general, but he probably wouldn’t appreciate that too much. Then again, she didn’t have to let him off the hook completely, did she?
“Well, there’s got be at least some people you can trust to do the job right, aren’t there?” the princess innocently asked as she swirled the contents of her glass. “What about the marshal? Gunmetal Graves?”
“Are you kidding?” Ironside scoffed. “That one causes me more worry than the rest. Don’t get me wrong, boy’s got a decent enough head on his shoulders, but he prefers using it to bust through brick walls over any kind of thinking. Fool’s liable to get himself killed.”
“Fortunately, Twilight’s got sense enough for the both of them,” Celestia laughed. “You’ll just have to trust my student to take care of your little boy till he comes marching home.”
Ironside coughed as his drink decided to take a slight detour.
“Has the stress gotten to you?” he asked with ice-blue eyes narrowed in suspicion. “You make me sound like a blasted parental waiting for his brat to come back from summer camp.”
“You mean we’re not?" the princess blinked with affected surprise. “I was sure that you were as much a father figure to Graves as he was a son to you.”
“Hardly,” Ironside snorted. “The fact that I made sure a young soldier was taken care of hardly makes us a family. It was my job.”
“I see,” Celestia nodded. “So… leaving anonymous presents on birthdays and Hearth’s Warming Day were part of the job as well”
Ironside openly hacked as his drink screwed all sense of propriety and flew down his windpipe.
“How… how do you know that?” Ironside gaped.
“It’s amazing how many people fail to notice the maids and servants in this place,” Celestia smiled serenely, “or how conspicuous a man of your size and stature trying to sneak around with box-shaped bundles can be.”
The look of dumbfounded surprise on Ironside’s face was far sweeter than the juice she slowly sipped.
“Yes, well, uh… no crime in being nice, is there?” the general gruffly said as he irritably scratched his beard. “Just because a boy don’t have family don’t mean he should be treated as such, you know?”
“The only criminal element is you hiding it like it’s something to be ashamed of,” Celestia sighed. “Honestly, why didn’t you just tell him?”
“What, so we can get all sentimental, what with the hugging and crying nonsense?” Ironside grunted. “There’s no need for that. I was just watching out for him till he could find a place of his own. Nothing more.”
“That’s what we call being a parent,” the princess smiled. “We raise them up and send them out when they’re good and ready.”
“Well what if they’re not?” Ironside sighed. “What if you didn’t train ‘em up enough and you actually sent them to an early grave?”
“If we didn’t, then we just have to believe they’ll be able to take care of things themselves,” Celestia smiled. “You did a wonderful job caring for Graves. Trust now that he’ll be ready to take care of himself.”
“… You know, you say some pretty good stuff every now and then,” Ironside chuckled as he drained his glass for the final time. “Almost like you’ve done this stuff before.”
“Oh, I’ve been around the block a few times,” the princess laugh. “But if you tell anyone I admitted that, I’ll be sure Graves knows where his first pair of combat boots came from.”
“… My lips are sealed.”