Had Graves suddenly sprouted a pair of antlers and claimed to be a reindeer, Rarity still couldn’t have been any more baffled than she already was.
“You… apologize to me?” she repeated, staring at the marshal as if unable to comprehend the words. “But why on earth would you need to do that?”
Graves returned the look in kind, seemingly just as – if not more – confused than the young lady he addressed.
“If you do something wrong, you apologize, right?” he stated quizzically. “I mean, Ponyville’s odd, but it can’t be that odd.”
“That’s very true,” Rarity replied, finally managing to regain her composure. “Not the odd part, mind you, but the rest certainly. What I can’t understand though, is what exactly did you do that required apologizing in the first place?”
Here, Graves just gave her a flat look of incredulity, as if he couldn’t believe he needed to explain something so simple. “Ponyville folk really are crazy,” he mumbled under his breath.
“What was that?” the young lady asked, eyebrow raised questioningly.
“Nothing,” he hastily replied before continuing. “It’s just that where I come from, a man who frightens a lady always says sorry for it.”
“Frighten me?” Rarity repeated. “If you thought that I was frightened, then why did you…”
At that moment, everything clicked.
“Graves,” Rarity slowly began, “is that why you’ve been avoiding me all week?”
“I haven’t avoided you exactly,” he answered evasively, “I just figured I’d try not to bother you.”
“And that’s why every time I did see you, you never spoke more than two words to me?”
“Thought you were forcing yourself to talk to me; figured if I ended it quickly, it wouldn’t make you uncomfortable.”
“Well you most certainly did!” Rarity cried in exasperation. “Every time you looked at me, you glared at me as if I’d kicked your dog, or something!”
“What?” Graves sputtered in disbelief. “I did not glare at you.”
“No?” she challenged? “Then what do you call this?” And with that, the violet-haired girl did quite the fair impression of the marshal scowling, complete with hard-set jaw and furrowed brow. “Every time you looked me, you’d do it exactly like that, and if that’s not a glare, I don’t know what is.”
“… I was doing that?” Graves asked, a bit of hesitation in his question. When Rarity firmly nodded, he gave a long, exhausted sigh.
“Care to explain, marshal?” Rarity pressed, arms crossed firmly beneath her breasts.
“I wasn’t glaring at you,” Graves began, and when the young lady’s eyes flashed dangerously, he hastily continued. “I know it looked like that, but it wasn’t at you.”
“Then who was it for?” she prodded on. The raven-haired soldier averted his eyes: he really didn’t want to keep talking about this, but she clearly wasn’t going to let up.
“… myself,” he mumbled.
“Yourself,” Rarity repeated, clearly unconvinced. “Why would you be glaring at yourself?”
“Don’t you get it?” he shot back, frustration now creeping into his voice. “It’s my job to protect people, not send them into screaming fits. I got careless, and someone got hurt, which made me feel really… guilty, because it was my fault.”
“Your fault?” the seamstress demanded, sapphire eyes flashing dangerously. “How is it your fault? I was the one who stumbled onto you changing. If anything, it was my fault.”
“But I shouldn’t have been changing there in the first place,” Graves countered.
“You were soaked to the skin and I invited you into a clothing store to get fixed up. How on earth would it make sense not to get changed?”
“When you look like I do, you need to be careful,” Graves insisted.
“And what’s so special about the way you look?” Rarity pressed. Graves actually scoffed.
“Other than the fact I look like a walking nightmare? Not much.”
Rarity said nothing. She couldn't, because at that precise moment, she had been struck utterly speechless. Rarity didn’t know what had shocked her more, the way Graves had so insultingly referred to himself, or the fact he’d done so with about as much reaction as calling the sky blue or water wet. It was as if the statement was such obvious truth, there wasn't even a need to bring emotion in at all.
“… Why would you say that?” she asked softly, all heat gone from her voice. “Surely, you didn’t just decide that yourself, did you?”
“I pick it up on things," he shrugged. "That’s all,”
“Pick up? Do you mean…?”
Rarity looked at the marshal, her face a carefully composed mask that betrayed no emotion. Graves looked back at the young lady, his face expressionless as if there was no emotion to show.
“Tell me about them. Your experiences, I mean,” she finally said, her voice surprisingly calm and steady.
“Doubt it's anything you'd want to hear,” the marshal replied, turning away to look at the fire."
“No, tell me,” Rarity repeated once more. “Please.”
Reluctantly, Graves turned back to face the young lady sitting before him, the one watching him with her deep, blue eyes, and frowned. He really didn’t like talking about himself, especially his past. In fact, he downright hated it: any time he did, the raven-haired soldier always thought it sounded like a bunch of useless whining and pointless complaining.
Graves hated sounding like that.
But as Rarity continued watching him, her eyes like twin pools of fathomlessly deep water, he hesitated. He still didn’t get what she meant with her bit about equality, but she’d been very open about herself when sharing on her cutie mark. Openness should be returned in kind…
With a tired sigh, Graves gave in.
“In this line of work,” he began, leaning back to rest his head against the cave wall, “getting hurt happens. Magic healing isn’t always there, so you pick up some… reminders as you go.” He paused and glanced back at Rarity. She continued watching, so he continued speaking.
“You can heal scars. It takes lots of time and effort though, so usually we just do the face so we can blend in and hide the rest. Works fine most of the time, but every so often, things happen. When they do, you can pretty much guess how people are going to react.”
“Your firsthand experience?” Rarity asked, though more statement than question. He nodded.
“First time happened in Manehattan, just after I started traveling on my own. People were disappearing and local law enforcement couldn’t figure out why. That's when I was called in. Turns out, a whole tribe of ghouls had taken residence in the sewers. Managed to clear them out, but I wasn’t exactly ‘presentable’ when I resurfaced, if you catch my drift. So they ship me to a local hospital. Get me all cleaned up: even fix it so I don’t have a new scratch on me. Everything seems fine.
"Then that night, when lights are out, I hear the nurses making rounds. Couldn’t sleep, but pretended I was, and one comes into my room. She takes a couple steps in, waits a bit, and runs out. Really, just flat out runs. 'Course, I’m a little confused, until I hear what’s happening in the hallway.
"The nurse was crying. And not just a little; downright sobbing like a mother at soldier's funeral. Can’t make it all out, but the gist is she just didn’t want to treat me.”
“But why not?” Rarity demanded, a potent mix of shock and outrage playing across her face. “You just saved their lives: how could she act like that?”
“She didn’t know who I was,” Graves stated plainly. “To her, I was some stranger with a body torn up eight ways till Sunday, and that just scared her. Said something like, ‘it just isn’t natural, him looking like that. No decent man would ever look so… so horrible.’”
Graves chuckled, a deep rumbling baritone, and Rarity almost recoiled in fright. Maybe he was just acting tough, but she could have sworn he sounded amused. Not sarcastic, not wry, not dry, but genuinely, honestly amused.
“That was the first,” the marshal continued. “This village out in the savannahs thought I’d cut myself in deals with a demon: drove me out with spears and arrows. One town locked the doors every time I went on patrol: I think they were more scared of me than the goblins I was hunting. The list goes on, but it’s all the same. People see me for the terrifying freak that I am. That’s it.”
Breathing out a long sigh of relief, Graves cracked his neck and settled back against the cave wall. He wasn’t used to talking so much (and still quite surprised he’d done so), which adding to the day’s activities, left him worn and drained.
Rarity lowered her eyes, her pretty face a smooth, impassive mask. She’d clearly heard the marshal, but what she thought about his words remained a mystery as her expression betrayed nothing of her mind’s internal workings.
Finally, she looked up, her sapphire eyes firm and clear like their namesake gems as she met the marshal’s steely gaze.
“Graves, I’m about to do two things, so I hope you’ll bear with me and let me finish. Can you do that?”
Graves eyed her askance. It was certainly an odd request. Why would she even need to ask?
"Um… sure?” he replied hesitantly, to which Rarity responded with a satisfied smile.
Graves staggered where he sat, head swimming and eyes filled with exploding spots of color: without any sign and without any warning, Rarity had just slapped him clear across the face.
Gingerly, the marshal touched the side of his face where a bright red hand print was already forming. Given how tender the skin felt, she hadn’t held back anything when she’d hit him, and it had really, really hurt.
“What was that for?” he asked, not sure whether he was more angry, surprised, or confused at the moment. All things considered, anger was starting to make a pretty good showing.
“That,” Rarity sniffed primly despite massaging her hand vigorously, “was for being such a fool.”
“A fool,” she repeated, clearly enunciating the word. “A stone-blind, mule-headed, incorrigibly thick, fool.”
“Now wait just a–”
“No, you wait,” she interrupted, “and you listen up. The only reason I didn’t clout you when you called yourself a nightmare earlier was because I didn’t know why you did. Now I’ve heard your reasons, and I’m convinced that you must be as thick as a dragon’s hide and probably only half as intelligent for ever saying that.”
Graves could only stare in dumbfounded amazement.
“Did you hear a word–”
“Oh, I heard every word, marshal,” she cut in again, her tirade gaining force and momentum as she continued. “And what I heard was you basing your image, maybe even your entire identity on what other people said about you. I don’t care if you were born with two heads and each was uglier than the backside of a toad, you should never, ever let others dictate how you see yourself.”
“But?” Rarity repeated, her eyes glinting dangerously at his protests.
“But aren’t they right?” Graves asked. “I mean, you’ve seen me: don’t they have a right to be scared of that?”
“Of course not!” Rarity screeched, indignation practically burning around her in a righteous halo. “Those… those buffoons treat you like that only because they’re shallower than a puddle in the desert. Your scars, every single one I’d wager, were gotten directly in service as a marshal, in protecting them from harm. The fact that they can’t see anything about your real worth and judge you by the scrapes and scratches on your skin is the… the worst possible thing that they could do! Ever!”
Panting with effort, it took a quite some time for Rarity to calm down and regain her composure, and even then, her eyes flashed like cobalt fire as a clear indication of vehemence being narrowly reigned back.
Not that it was a problem: Graves was just staring anyway, quite figuratively blown away.
“So… are you mad at me, or them?” he finally asked once he was sure it was safe to speak.
“Of course I’m still mad at you,” the semi-furious fashionista replied. “But that doesn’t mean I can’t be mad at them as well. And that, good marshal,” she said, taking a deep breath to further calm herself, “leads me to the second thing I need to do.”
Graves wasn’t sure he wanted to find out: if the first thing she’d done had nearly taken his head off, what was number two going to be like?
The marshal soon found out, however, that the only thing the two events had in common was both caught him completely by surprise. He didn’t even know how it happened. Rarity was just sitting there, looking very much like a cat with a bristling tail after giving him the tongue-lashing of a lifetime, and in the next moment, she was… hugging him.
Rarity simply held him, her slender arms encircling his chest, gently mindful of his injured side, but with an almost vice-like tenacity, as if daring him to pull away. For several heart beats, Graves just sat there, utterly and perfectly confused as her soft warmth slowly seeped into his tired body.
“I don’t get it,” the marshal mumbled. “First you hit me, and now... this? Why?”
“Because you're a fool,” she whispered from where her head rested on his shoulder, her usually melodious voice now grown hoarse and rough. “A stone-blind, mule-headed, incorrigibly thick, giant fool.
"You throw yourself out there every day, facing dangers few men could even dream of only to come back a battered and beaten mess. The people who should be thanking you shun you, even revile you because of the scars you got protecting them. And what do you do? You forgive them. You don’t even hold a grudge, though Celestia knows you should, and you move on. You just… take up your gun and go out to do it all over again. If that doesn’t make you a fool, I don’t know what does.”
Though he couldn’t see her, the faint trembling of her slender frame and the hot spots of dampness on his shoulder told Graves exactly what was going on. Hesitantly, he raised an arm and placed it to her head, gently stroking her silken hair as best he could with his hard, calloused hands.
He’d never really cried for himself. The scars, the pain, the fearful looks, they were all things he’d long since grown used to, prices he’d accepted as part of the work he did. To shed tears over what had to be was something he just couldn’t understand.
But the way she clung to him, the way she silently sobbed as if shedding a tear for all those he never had…
Even he could appreciate that.