The sound of knocking brought Graves out of his thoughts.
Grunting out the last count, Graves slowly dropped to his feet and stood up, panting from exertion. Rolling his neck and shoulders before giving himself a quick wipe down, the young soldier tossed on a light blue linen shirt and headed down the stairs to open the door, squinting as the setting sun silhouetted his visitor.
“Hey, Graves, how’s it hanging?” a brown-haired fellow in a tan jacket cheerfully called.
The marshal blinked in surprise. Of all the people he’d expected to be at the door, Caramel wasn’t one of them. Sure, Graves had run into him a few times at the convenience store where the fellow worked and passed some idle chit-chat, but that was about it. So it was with a good deal of curiosity that Graves stood there and greeted him.
“Evening, Caramel,” Graves drawled in his typically low, gravelly voice. “What brings you here at this time of day?” The young man at the door opened his mouth to speak but paused, his open mouth doing a fair impression of a flytrap.
“Well, I was wondering if, um… hmm. Wow,” he finished with an embarrassed grin, “I totally forgot what I was going to say. Sorry, I’m always doing that. Forgetting, that is.”
“No worries, take your time,” the marshal said, giving him an encouraging nod.
“Okay then, let’s see,” Caramel began, putting a hand to his chin in thought. “I know it was something I had to tell you, – obviously, because why else would I be here? – something that Big Mac reminded me of this morning… Oh, I got it!” he exclaimed. “Are you busy right now?”
“Uh, no? ” Graves answered uncertainly. "Why?"
“Because there’s this thing I need to show you. Trust me, it’ll be really neat!”
The young soldier looked at his visitor for a moment, considering the offer.
“Sure, he finally shrugged. “Why not?”
Not like he had anything else to do.
“So, where exactly are you taking me?” Graves asked.
“Don’t worry,” Caramel grinned. “You’ll find out soon enough.
The evening was pleasantly cool after the day’s brilliant heat, and Rarity’s newest creation was a wonderful summery replacement to his usual long leather coat. In its place, he donned a wine-colored waistcoat over dark slacks and his aforementioned light blue shirt. As always, his broad-brimmed hat was faithfully perched in place, the chameleon spell matching its usual brown tones to the ensemble: a very handy spell it was, and one he’d have to properly thank the pretty seamstress for...
Anyways, back to the present. Caramel led Graves through the town, snaking between houses and down alleyways shadowed by the dusk of the setting sun. After rounding probably the seventh turn down yet another narrow street, they finally arrived at their destination.
“Here we are,” he grinned, heaving open a cellar door to reveal a set of stairs. “After you.”
Giving both entryway and doorman a curious look, the marshal descended the stairs and entered a dimly lit passageway. A few small lanterns dotted a short corridor that ended with solid wooden door.
“What is this?” Graves asked, eyeing the door as Caramel came in and closed the cellar shutters behind him. His guide just grinned as he ushered the marshal forward and firmly seized the large iron ring on the oaken barrier.
“It’s got a lot of names,” Caramel grinned, relishing the moment before the big unveiling. “Some call it a home away from home. Others call it a safe harbor. Still more call it an oasis. Me? I just call it… The Club.”
Caramel pulled opened the door and revealed that beyond it lay… a pretty normal room, actually. A well-stocked bar occupied one corner of the room, a pool table took up another, and a small assortment of tables filled in the rest of space. All in all, it looked very much like any other medium-sized bar, except for one particular difference.
“… Why’s it all guys?” Graves asked as he scanned the room. He saw Mr. Cake and Big Mac shooting a friendly game of billiards, Filthy Rich talking with what appeared to be business associates at a side table, Thunderlane enjoying a round of brews with his friends, and many more of Ponyville's distinguished roster in attendance. But as he had noticed, they were all guys, with not a single girl, woman, lady, damsel, female, or any other such variant of the fairer persuasion anywhere in sight. Caramel just grinned.
“That’s the point,” he smiled as he led them over to a couple of stools at the counter. “The beauty of The Club is that’s it’s just us guys. No girls allowed.”
Before Graves had a chance to question that rather odd statement – and indeed one he hadn’t heard spoken by anyone above the age of seven – a very large and very round man standing behind the bar turned to face them.
“Well, well,” the big – correction, enormous – man boomed, a broad smile splitting his face behind a fiery red beard, “if it isn’t ol’ Caramel come to pay a visit!”
“Hey there, Red!” the young man grinned back. “Thought I’d drop in and introduce Graves to The Club.”
“Ah, the marshal!” the aptly named Red chuckled, sounding an awfully lot like a mountainside avalanche. “It's mighty nice of you to drop in. How’s about a nice cold one to wet your whistle there, eh?” Before Graves had a chance to answer, Red topped off two, hearty tankards of ale and slammed them down before the seated pair, shaking the entire counter as he did.
“Thanks, Red!” Caramel laughed as he picked up his cup and took a big gulp. Following his guide’s lead, Graves did as well and took a large swallow of the crisp, refreshing brew.
“Ah, nothing like having a good drink with the boys to unwind, eh Graves?” Caramel sighed contentedly as he set the half-empty cup back down. “No girls to worry about, just us guys.”
“Yeah, about that,” the marshal said, setting down his tankard as well. “You said earlier that was the point of… The Club. What did you mean by that?”
“You see, Graves,” the sandy-haired fellow said, swiveling his stool to face his compatriot, “Ponyville’s great and all, and don’t get me wrong, and I love everyone here. But sometimes it just gets a bit… overwhelming. You follow?”
“Not exactly,” Graves replied slowly.
“I’m talking about the girls,” Caramel continued, brow furrowed as he tried to explain himself. “Like I said, they’re nice and everything, but they’re all so... dominant, you know? It’s like they’re all, oh how do I describe it… it's like they’re all main characters and we’re just scenery, or something.”
The marshal blinked.
“Yeah!” Caramel nodded fervently as he took another big gulp. “Haven’t you ever got the feeling that the girls around here are always the center of attention? And they’re so many of them, it’s enough to make us guys feel like side characters making up the background. You know the feeling, right?”
“Honestly, no,” Graves smiled wryly. Truth be told, he’d really never felt like that. Couldn’t imagine why.
“Just give it time,” the brown-haired bloke nodded knowingly, his face growing solemn as he stared into his cup. “Maybe it’s cause you’re new, but stick around in Ponyville long enough, and you’ll see what I mean. After a while, you start to blend into the landscape. What you do becomes less important, and pretty soon, you’re just a pair of eyes watching as the world goes by.”
For a moment, Graves just stared at him in silent amazement.
“… Did you just break up with your girlfriend or something?”
Caramel looked up from his drink and the marshal was shocked to see the lad’s eyes filled to the brim with tears.
“No,” he sniffed, visibly fighting to keep himself together. “Because that’d mean I actually had one in the first place. But she… she… SHE WOULDN’T EVEN GIVE ME THE TIME OF DAY!” And with that, Caramel began bawling his eyes out and ran out the door.
Graves stared, completely dumbstruck as Red doubled over in loud, hooting laughter behind the counter.
“Hoo, boy,” the big man wheezed as he clutched his expansive belly with one hand and braced himself on the table with the other. “You… you really do have a way with words, don’t you marshal?”
“Is he alright?” Graves asked, a touch disconcerted by the whole situation. Red just gave it a dismissive wave as he struggled to stand upright.
“Ah, don’t worry about him,” he continued whilst flicking a tear from his eye. “He just got turned down when he asked out Twilight Sparkle. Again.” The young man sputtered into his drink.
“Oh yeah,” Red chuckled as he stroked his beard. “I believe that makes it, what, six times now? You’d think he’d get the picture by now, but he’s completely smitten. 'Course, that little lady’s got nothing but books on the brain, so it’d probably never work with them anyways.”
“Wow,” Graves murmured as he took a long drink. “Twilight Sparkle. Never would have thought.”
“Quite the popular little lady, that Twilight,” Red nodded as he stroked his beard. "And all her friends as well. Applejack’s got that homey quality a lot of guys like, Pinkie Pie’s always a hoot and real popular with the younger lads, and of course, we always got a bunch thinking he’ll be the one who finally wrangles in Rainbow Dash, if you catch my drift.”
“How do you know all this?” the marshal asked a touch incredulously. Friendly as he was, Red didn’t seem exactly like a social butterfly and privy to the latest town gossip, especially not gossip of the more romantic persuasion. The big barkeep seemed to sense the young man’s skepticism and broadly smiled.
“We've got no shortage of young bucks ready to share sob stories as they drown their latest sorrows,” he said, giving the wooden counter a fond pat. “Didn’t have no shortage of teary tales when Fluttershy and Big Macintosh went steady, let me tell you that.”
“They’re a couple?” Graves asked in amazement. He’d been to Sweet Apple Acres quite often and worked with the taciturn farmer more than once, but he’d never mentioned it. Then again, Big Mac never mentioned much, so it actually sort of made sense he hadn’t heard. But still...
“Been so for maybe a month now, and I say good for them,” Red beamed. “Broke a lot of hearts she did, but she’s such a sweet girl, most fellows just wished her the best and moved on.” Suddenly, something occurred to the big bartender and he broke out into fresh peals of laughter once more. “'Course, wish I could say the same for Rarity.”
Graves choked on his drink once more.
“Come again?” he coughed, pounding his chest as he eyed the red-bearded man with gunmetal grey eyes unusually sharp and focused.
“Why, didn’t you know?” Red asked in genuine surprised. “She’s probably the most popular of the lot. Regular little heart breaker, indeed she is. Why, it seems like every week, we got someone walking in after being rejected by her. 'Course it ain’t no fault of her own, don’t get me wrong. It’s just when you're prettier than a summer sunset, you’ll have a line of men at your door a mile long regardless of what you do.”
“I… see,” Graves nodded weakly.
The marshal had been fine through most of Red’s monologues, but the news about Rarity had come as quite a shock. In hindsight, it was obvious – after all, a girl like Rarity would certainly have no shortage of gentlemen callers – but hearing it so explicitly stated left the young man feeling unexpectedly disturbed.
“So how about you?” Red inquired, leaning in and appraising the marshal with an unexpectedly shrewd eye. “Got a special lady in your life, marshal?”
“Me?” Graves said as he drained his glass in a rather vain attempt to steady himself. " 'Course not.”
“ 'Course not?” the big man bellowed with laughter as he refilled the glass. “I'd have thought the girls would be all over you, what with you being one of those strong, silent types, and a hero to boot. Surely, you must’ve caught the eye of a lady or two?”
“Can’t say I have,” Graves smiled wryly. “They just don’t see me that way.”
Contrary to what Red might think, he wasn’t exactly popular that way with girls. Sure, he’d get along fine with them, and one or two had even tried to thank him for his marshal services by inviting him out to dinner. He’d declined of course – it’d be unbecoming to accept gifts for his duties – which oddly enough, led to considerably cooler conversations afterwards. In any case, the title of lady's man fit Graves about as well as size three heels.
“Is that right, now?” Red asked with a devilish glint in his eye. “So there’s nothing going on between you and say… a certain fashionable, young seamstress?"
For the third time, Graves began hacking like a cat with a hairball and seriously began considering if it might just be better to stop drinking altogether. But that could wait.
“What...” he managed to choke out as he stared at Red in wide-eyed disbelief, "are you talking about?”
“Aw come on, don't act all surprised,” Red answered with a sly wink. “Lot of folks have been commenting on how you two spend a lot of time together. An awful lot.”
Well of course they did. After all, she had asked him to help model her new men’s garments, so he had to be around the shop, didn’t he? And sure, they met up not uncommonly over lunch, but that was just because they both enjoyed talking about the same things. A lot of things to be sure, but that was just what people with common interests did, right? And so what if is increasingly frequent bouts of watching over Sweetie Bell ended with all three of them having tea, or even dinner? That's just how Ponyville folk said thanks, right?
“I guess," the marshal wheezed, "we’re just good friends.”
“Just friends, eh?” Red intoned with obvious skepticism. “Huh. Never thought a young man like yourself could spend so much time with a pretty girl and be happy with just being friends. You sure there's nothing special going on? Nothing that's for just the two of you?"
Graves stared into his mug. Something special, just between the two of them, huh?
It didn't take much effort for his mind to wander back to the cave, the day when they'd been trapped together behind a mountain of rubble, just the two of them. Looking back, he still couldn't quite believe that he'd actually talked to her. Not just talking like people did all the time, but really... well, he didn't know how to describe it except that he'd told her things he'd never have believed would come out of his mouth. Stuff he hadn't talked about with anyone. Ever.
"Ah," the bartender intoned with a knowing smile. "I see you've thought of something."
"Maybe," Graves nodded absentmindedly as he swirled the contents of his cup, his mind still preoccupied with the oddities he'd never realized till now.
Why had he done that? Even now, he wasn't exactly sure; one minute he was fighting a twenty foot monstrosity for survival, and the next he was giving his sad backstory like a dime novel character. That always seemed to be the case with Rarity. When he was around her, he found himself doing things he'd never have dreamed of. Discussing romance novels? Male modeling? Babysitting? All things that had he been asked a year ago, would have been reciprocated with only the oddest of odd looks. Life around the violet-haired beauty was completely unpredictable and in many ways, she resembled a hurricane; the lady always managed to find some new and unexpected way to confound him.
And it made him happy. Except, that wasn't the right word. All his new Ponyville friends put a smile on his face, evident from how frequently he laughed now when compared to just a few months ago. No, with Rarity, she didn't just make him feel happy, she made him feel more... more alive. With her, everything seemed so much more vivid and real, like walking into the bright sunshine after being in a smoky, windowless room. Just being near her, hearing her laugh, seeing her smile, even watching those big sapphire eyes flash as she fretted about some detail or another just made life... better.
“In any case, I guess that means she’s still single,” Red idly commented as he returned to polishing glasses. “At least until some fellow comes along and sweeps her off her feet. I tell you, when that happens, I’ll probably be here all night, what with the number of broken hearts there’ll be. Luna have mercy, that’ll be the day.”
“Yeah," Graves agreed, a frown coming to his face.
Some day, a man would come along. Knowing Rarity, it’d probably be some fashionable noble, a prince or something at least. He’d be handsome, sophisticated and charming – quite unlike himself – and a member of the highest social circles with the utmost in grace and culture. He’d whisk her off to Canterlot where they’d wine and dine with Equestria’s elite in an elegant lifestyle befitting a graceful girl such as herself. Knowing her, it was probably what she'd always dreamed of. Her perfect story.
That still didn’t mean he had to like it.
“Gah, confound it all!” Graves cried out as he drained his glass to clear his head. “Life was trouble enough before women came and made it worse.”
“YEEEAAAHHH!” A large, muscled man with a blonde crew cut abruptly called from a side table in fervent agreement just as Red doubled over with bellowing laughter.
“Hoo boy, you can say that again,” he hooted. “You can say that again."