• Published 2nd Mar 2013
  • 7,495 Views, 645 Comments

A Long, Winding Road - GentlemanJ



The marshal's gone, cutting all ties and making clear his intent never to return. Why? What compels the grey eyed soldier to leave? To find the truth, Rarity and the girls start down a long, winding road that will hopefully bring him back. Hopef

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Chapter 13

Chapter 13

It's strange, isn't it?

Rarity had so many things she wanted to say. Ever since she’d left the general’s study, from the moment she’d boarded the airship heading towards the battlefront, her mind had been a churning maelstrom, full of questions for the raven-haired soldier, full of things she needed to hear and things she needed to say. But now that she was really here and he was once again before her, she found she couldn’t speak at all.

Had it only been two weeks since the Gala? It seemed like a lifetime ago, and Graves… he seemed so different. He was the same as he ever was, of course, but to the young lady, it seemed like she was seeing him for the very first time. In a way, in light of all she’d learned of him, maybe it was.

“What are you doing here?” Graves asked suddenly, his gravelly voice flat and dry like a windswept desert as he continued to sit and read his reports.

“Exactly what I said,” the pretty seamstress replied with a small smile. “I came to see you.”

“Civilians aren’t allowed here,” he replied coolly as he flipped to a new page. “How’d you get in?”

“Twilight Sparkle and I paid the good general a visit,” Rarity answered, taking a seat on the cot on one side of the tent. “When he learned of our concern, he made an exception and allowed us to come and pay you a visit.”

“Hmm. I see.”

Graves continued to review the documents. He never looked at Rarity. In fact, ever since she’d entered the tent, not once had he even laid eyes on the violet-haired beauty.

That had to mean something. But what exactly did it mean, and how could she use it? At this point, talking to the marshal was akin to walking a razor wire tightrope while blindfolded in a thunderstorm over a bottomless canyon. Push too little, and his stony, immutable nature would make sure that the conversation lead to absolutely nothing. Push too hard at the marshal and he was likely to clam up, locking away all chance at discourse with irreparable finality. She needed to push, yes, but just enough. Just enough.

“How are you doing?” she began broadly. Surely a general inquiry such as that would be a good place to start.

“Fine,” he replied, flipping to a new page. He said nothing else.

“Are you sure?” Rarity pressed on. “It’s barely been a week since you woke up, and you were out for a very long time. You’re not overworking yourself, are you?”

“Medical exams came back clean. I’m fit and ready for service.”

Nothing. No reactions.

“So, what does your service involve?” the young lady asked anew. Maybe engaging on work would be a good segue into more important matters. It was worth a shot at least.

“Sorry, that’s classified.”

“Ah, of course.” Though Rarity smiled on the outside, she inwardly kicked herself. Of course it’d be classified. Just about everything he did was classified. His entire life had been bloody well classified.

“In any event, I suppose you’ll be heading off for locales exotic once everything here is properly wrapped up?” she tried again. Don’t ask about details. Just… get him talking.

“Probably,” Graves grunted.

“I know it’s probably confidential as well, but I don’t suppose you could tell me what sorts of places you might visit? Just for curiosity sake?” Rarity asked with a hopeful smile.

Though the marshal didn’t see it, perhaps he heard something in the tone of her words because for the briefest of moments, he paused. His recovery to normal, unreadable indifference was so fast however, the pause would have been completely unnoticeable had Rarity not been specifically watching for it. It was certainly small, but it was still a reaction. It was something.

“Las Pegasus, maybe, “he replied. “Possibly the southern continent or the Griffon Imperium. Haven’t decided yet.”

“Goodness, those are rather far away,” Rarity intoned, glad to have some material to work with. “What would that be, two, maybe three days by airship?”

“Something like that.”

“Well, at least this is a rare opportunity,” the violet-haired beauty smiled, her mind working furiously at a tiny window of opportunity she’d spotted. “The Griffon Imperium is said to have metallurgy of a most curious nature, and Saddle Arabia’s silks are said to be on an entirely different level of quality. If you’d be so kind, would you mind picking me up some while you’re there?”

“I suppose I could mail you some,” he shrugged. “Just send me the money and I’ll take care of it.”

“Oh, that won’t be necessary,” Rarity laughed despite the fact her stomach was starting to tie itself into knots. Though an opportunity it might be, the risks were substantial to say the least. But nothing ventured, nothing gained… “After all,” she continued, “you can just drop them off when you come back to Ponyville.”

Another pause, one much longer and much more abrupt than before. Maybe too much so.

“… I told you I’m not going back to Ponyville,” Graves said, his voice perfectly composed, yet hard enough to make granite seem like butter.

Deep inside, the young lady sighed in relief. She’d been afraid that he’d shut down at any mention of Ponyville and that the conversation would simply end there and then. But not only had he responded, he’d reacted, letting her know that at least this was still a topic that inspired feelings. This, she could work with.

“Of course I know that,” the pretty dressmaker replied with a light-hearted wave. “Obviously, a man of your talents is needed elsewhere. But that doesn't mean you can’t at least visit, right?”

No response. There wasn’t even the rustling of pages as the marshal fell stone still.

“It will probably be a while before you’ll be able to return, considering how long you’ve been away from your work, but I guess that’s just a part of life, no?”

“I’m not going back to Ponyville,” Graves said once more, his tone now with a hardened edge like chipped flint.

“In that case, we’ll come visit you,” Rarity smiled as she feigned immunity to his words. Don’t engage. Redirect. Try to throw him off balance. “I suppose any trip out would be rather difficult, so we could always come out to see you when you return to Canterlot. I’m sure Sweetie Belle would love more opportunities to visit the capitol, and seeing you would only sweeten the deal, pardon the pun.”

“That won’t be necessary,” the marshal replied, flipping through the pages so quickly he couldn’t possibly be actually reading.

“Few things in life are,” the sapphired-eyed beauty answered smoothly. “But as I’ve always said, some things are just worth the effort.”

“And this is? Making trouble for everyone just to pay a visit?”

“I think you’re worth it,” she said softly. “I thought I made that perfectly clear after our dance.”

Silence.

“Adrenaline does funny things to person,” Graves said, his icy composure now returned. “Plays tricks with your mind.”

“Something, you’re intimately familiar with?” Rarity innocently asked.

“Guess so.”

“So what you’re saying is, you think my actions and sentiments then were simply due to the heat of the moment?”

“You wouldn’t be the first.”

“Perhaps not. But I’d think you give a little more credit to my discretion, considering it was my first kiss and all.”

Graves paused once more. At first glance, it seemed like his standard reaction from any other piece of unexpected news. But it wasn’t. This was not a simple cessation of movement, but a total, almost violent seizing as every fiber of his person activated in full, primal alert.

Slowly, with the calm and caution of a stalking panther, he turned around.

“That was… your first?” he asked, his tone level and controlled, but his steely eyes flashing with the energy of alarm.

She nodded.

“Not exactly the way I would have preferred to tell you,” she admitted with an embarrassed smiled. Embarrassed was good. Embarrassed would make the situation seem less threatening, a necessity considering his eyes looked like that of a caged predator. She needed to push, but carefully; things were becoming increasingly delicate.

“Why?”

“Because I fell in love with you, isn’t it obvious?” she answered, the embarrassed flush in her cheeks in no ways an act. “Honestly, you really can be so dense at times.”

“I’m sure you’ve... felt that way about others before,” the marshal replied, his words awkward and unsure. He was unstable. Good. Continue.

“Not like this,” Rarity countered, pushing her offensive. “Hence, the first time.”

“That night was different,” Graves pointed out. “Might have felt that way about anyone.”

“Do really think me so shallow as that?” the young lady sniffed, using her indignation as she would a rapier. “The night merely made an apparent choice even easier.”

“And what’s so apparent about it?” the raven-haired soldier reposted. “You barely know me.”

“Surely several months together and several rather… memorable experiences must count for something,” Rarity retorted, now drawing upon the past as new arms.

“Something, yes,” Graves conceded. “But not much.”

“And why is that?” she pressed, sensing a weak spot. “Why doesn't that time count for much? It’s not like you’re an old man with a lifetime of experience behind him.”

“You don’t have to be old to have a lifetime behind you,” the marshal deftly countered. “And mine’s not exactly one that’d support your choice. Not that you'd know of course.”

“Ah yes, the fact that you so rudely pointed out at our last encounter,” the violet-haired beauty said with a much too innocent smile.

“Just stating the facts,” Graves replied with complete blasé.

“And do you ever intend to share your past with me?”

“Why would I do that?”

“Obviously, so we can get closer as individuals. I’ve made it abundantly clear that I’m incredibly fond of you, and I feel I wouldn’t be mistaken in thinking you would like the same, am I?” Though the pretty dressmaker said all these things with a playful smile, even her practiced calm couldn’t keep the scarlet from her cheeks. Goodness, it was embarrassing, being so brazenly forward, like that. But desperate times require desperate measures.

The marshal, however, remained unfazed.

“… Miss Rarity,” he began, his voice cool to the point of being frosty. “I think there’s been some mistake. I appreciate your feelings, but I have no desire to get that much closer to anyone, even one such as you.”

That hurt. Those words stung like shards of ice driven in a blizzard, even more so because Rarity could hear the ring of truth in them. Perhaps not the whole, complete, unadulterated truth, but enough that Graves believed everything he said.

“I see,” she replied, fighting not to let the hurt show in her expression. She had to hold it together, to keep pressing forward. At least she now had an opening. “Why?”

“… I’m not sure what you mean,” he answered slowly, a wariness coming into his gunmetal greys at the unexpected direction of the question.

“I mean, why do you always intended to keep yourself so removed?” the young lady asked, working to keep some of the bitter sting out of her voice. “Do you find me repulsive?”

“Where did that come from?” Graves gaped, his façade cracking from such a surprisingly abrupt and vehement self-debasement.

“Logic, of course,” Rarity replied, now allowing some more of her genuine hurt to show. “Normally, people who have no desire to get close to someone is due to some failing on the latter’s part. It’s my looks, isn’t it? You think I’m tawdry, some… cheap glamour wannabe. You think I'm an eyesore, don’t you?”

“Of course not,” the marshal retorted, leaping to her defense without even realizing it. But the sapphire-eyed girl continued the attack.

“Then it’s the fashion, isn’t it?” she continued, channeling more of her innate frustration and ire into her words. “You must think that I’m a fool whose frittering away my life on frivolities. It’s natural, considering you’re risking your life for a noble cause while I spend all my time fretting about lace ribbons and pretty stones.”

“There’s nothing wrong with liking fashion. You of all people should know that," the marshal sighed in exasperation as he now began to show signs of irritation at the young lady’s irrationality. Sensing such cracking of the armor, Rarity attacked once more.

“Ah, in that case, it must be my personality,” she said with a sickly sweet smile, every bit of it dripping with caustic sarcasm. “Mother did warn me it would get me into trouble, what with my putting on airs, my vanity, and my incessant, unending whining. It’s no wonder you want to cut all ties with me. In fact, I’m starting to wonder why you even put up with me as long as you did.”

“Alright, now you’re just being stupid,” Graves snapped, his tensions finally coming to a boil. “We both know you’re none of those things, so quit with the fishing for compliments already.”

Rarity leveled her sapphire eyes at him. They still shined with some sparks of annoyance, but they were considerably cooler than they had been moments before.

“So, your lack of desire was not because of me,” she said, only the faintest trace of a question coming into her voice.

“No, it wasn’t,” he sighed, his brief burst of anger dying back into stony calm.

Rarity nodded. This vein was exhausted. Time to change tactics.

“In that case,” she murmured, as much thinking aloud as addressing the marshal, “If it’s not an issue with me, then it must be something on your end."

“I told you–”

“I consider myself a fair judge of character,” Rarity continued, calmly steamrolling the marshal’s comments as she proceeded with her musings, “so I doubt I missed any major sociopathic tendencies. No, it’s probably something much more subtle, something about you as a person.”

She narrowed her eyes to peer at him, looking like she sought to dissect him with a pair of sapphire scalpels. Of course, that was merely a ruse, as she already knew the theories she would pose. The true value would lie in the reactions.

“You’re a marshal, and by all accounts a fantastic one to say the least,” she stated, throwing a few looks to his hanging spell gun and long, brown coat. “Of course, renown doesn't mean quality of character, but tales do speak of your heroism as well.”

“Tall tales and exaggerations,” he snorted. Derision. Good. It was a response. She could continue.

“Even exaggerations contain a grain of truth,” she replied. “In that case, the fact that they speak of your heroism, of your self-sacrificing nature, must mean something.” She pressed a slender finger to her pursed lips. “Could it be… that you’re acting the hero still?”

“What, like some kind of martyr?” he scoffed.

“Why not? You know of the perils of your line of work and the effects it could have on friends and family. Is it so unreasonable to assume you’d sever ties early to avoid imparting greater pain later?”

“I think you’ve been reading too many novels,” he smirked, the expression positively dripping with contempt at the idea.

Rarity said nothing. The fact that he so smoothly transitioned into this state of derision indicated that the theory didn’t ring close to home. Plus, from what she knew of him, that condescension was probably at the idea that he would be so noble a character. Consistent and accurate. Good.

“Perhaps I have,” she airily agreed and dropped the topic. “Then perhaps I wasn’t as good a judge of character as I thought. Maybe you really are a sociopath, one who cares for no one and sees nothing of importance outside the scope of his rifle. Perhaps you're just an empty shell, a hollow corpse that still can somehow move."

“Maybe that’s it,” he shrugged, the smirk fading, but still enough of it's antipathy remaining to color his gesture. “Marshals don't think like normal folks, and snipers least of all. Maybe I really am just a dead man walking.”

“Perhaps,” Rarity nodded, “but that would make your corpse a truly spectacular actor.”

“... How so?” Graves asked, arching an eyebrow in curiosity.

“Your time in Ponyville. If you truly felt nothing, it’d certainly be no small feat to have made so many friends in so short a time.”

“Ponyville folks are… different,” the marshal replied hesitantly, showing some slight signs of discomfort on the topic. Like a shark smelling blood, Rarity dove forward.

“Now I think you’re the one fishing for compliments,” she smiled sweetly. “We in Ponyville may be better at making friends than most, but that also means we’re much better at understanding how others feel. To hide the fact that you felt absolutely nothing for us would take a truly remarkable level of duplicity, and one I highly doubt you possess.”

“Okay, so maybe my time in Ponyville was alright,” Graves admitted, albeit grudgingly as it seemed his straight forward nature compelled an answer he’d much rather not give. “That still doesn't mean I’m going to break my back making sure I can spend the rest of my life there.”

Over exaggerated statements? He was not a man prone to emotional outbursts. Perhaps...

“I think there’s more to it than that,” the young lady began, circling the topic like a jaguar would stalk its prey. “It’s one thing to move on when the time comes. It’s another thing to burn the bridges behind you without looking back.”

“What are you implying?” the marshal asked with narrowed eyes.

“You enjoyed yourself at least to some degree, and we enjoyed having you there,” she pressed on, sapphire eyes flashing as she closed in for the kill. “And unless I’m far off my mark, things only changed after your unfortunate accident that… night…”

Oh no.

Even as the words passed her lips, Rarity regretted the utterance because she knew, with cold, sinking certainty that this time she’d gone too far. Immediately, Graves’s demeanor completely changed. His face, which had contained at least some humanity in it, became an impassive mask of stone as his eyes grew harder and colder than the spell gun hanging at his side.

“Maybe it did,” he admitted, his voice a deadpan, baritone rumble that was about as human as a rough-hewn statue. “But I guess the whole almost dying kind of changes things doesn't it?”

No, no, no. This wasn’t how it was supposed to be at all. She was finally getting somewhere. He had started to open up!

“It should change things for the better,” Rarity said, swallowing apprehension and continuing her push, frantically thinking of a way to salvage the situation. “Typically, it makes people draw closer to the ones they care about, not farther away.”

“I’m not most people,” Graves replied. “I’m a marshal.”

“And that means you’re a superhuman?”

“It means I’ve got a job to do,” the marshal replied simply. Flatly. “That night was a wake-up call, let me know I’d gotten soft. If I wanted to continue, I’d have to get rid of the weaknesses holding me back.”

“Oh, so we’re just a hindrance now, is that it?” young lady shot right back, hoping to antagonize him, goad him into responding once more.

“It’s a tough job,” he shrugged.

“And just why do you have to do this job anyway?” she asked. Engage him on his level. Talk about work. That must mean something. “Why are you so obsessed with being a marshal anyway?”

He leveled his steely eyes at the young lady, who barely managed to suppress a shiver. There was no threat, no animosity, no… nothing.

“It’s just who I am.”

“… Is that you talking? Or is it your past?”

Graves paused, his steely grey eyes meeting her sapphire blues. There had been no real change in inflection, in tone, but something about those words jarred him.

“… You know something I don’t?” he asked slowly.

“You don’t want to talk about yourself, a fact you’ve made abundantly clear on more than one occasion,” Rarity primly sniffed. “Since you insist on pushing us all away and refuse to let us learn anything about you, we had to turn to other sources.

A spark lit up in the marshal's eyes as realization dawned.

“Ironside.”

Rarity nodded.

Graves let out a long, slow sigh.

“… What did he tell you?”

“He told us about how he found you,” she began softly, uncertainly. “How you pushed yourself out of a… a sense of guilt for surviving, to make your life some kind of atonement for being alive? That you can’t even allow yourself to be happy?”

“I see,” the marshal replied with a slight nod. “I suppose that would be a rational explanation. Once. Truth is, I don’t feel guilty anymore.”

Rarity blinked in surprise.

“You… don’t?”

“Why would I?” Graves asked with clear, hard eyes. “Sure, I did at one point, and for a good while too. But I got over it. After all, they were soldiers, just like me. We all knew the risks of the job, but we took it anyway.”

“But… what about your home? Your family?” Rarity asked, trying to elicit some sort of response.

“Got over that too," the young soldier shrugged. "Course it took a bit longer, but why should I let my life fall apart over something I couldn't control? I was just a kid.”

“I… guess that makes sense,” the young lady agreed, somewhat dumbfounded by the coherence of his statements. The marshal, however, moved on at his own implacable pace, as cool and relentless as a glacier.

“Guilt didn't dictate my actions that night,” Graves said as he went for his hat and jacket. “My duties did. Speaking of which, there’s still fighting going on, so if you're done giving me the third degree, I'd best be on my way.”

“Wait… that’s it?” she blinked. “You’re just leaving?”

“Why not?” he asked as he donned his garments. “Nothing left to say.”

“But that can’t be it. You can’t expect me to believe that you can talk about your family and teammates with all the emotion of ordering a sandwich.”

“They’re already gone,” he said simply. “That's never gonna change.”

Rarity had to think fast. If she let Graves out that tent exit, she doubted she’d ever seen him. But this calm rationality of his was so unexpected, she couldn’t think of anything to say.

No, wait. Not unexpected. Wrong. Graves wasn’t a man without emotions; she’d seen enough of him to know for a fact. Despite what others may say, she knew he was capable of deep, honest feelings. So why on this, on the topics that should have the most visceral reactions, did he show nothing at all? Sometimes, the lack of reaction could be signs of the greatest reaction of all. But then again, she could also be terribly wrong; maybe it wasn’t these events at all. His strange behavior had only started after she’d mentioned the Gala night so perhaps it was only thoughts of the night itself that prompted the icy pall. In that case–

The soft clink of the spell gun settling into place at the marshal's shoulder brought Rarity out from her internal considerations. There was no more time left. She had to do something, say something to keep him engaged and present. But what? She didn’t have any more information or any more clues. Yet as she watched him, time seeming to hitch as he made a step for the door, a crazy, completely irrational idea came into her head. It was horribly cruel and would probably blow up spectacularly in her face, but since she had nothing else to lose…

“Remarkable,” Rarity said in tones of wonder, almost as if she were talking to herself. “If a comrade of several years and next of kin can’t even bother to care for the fallen, I shudder to think what sort of bastards those people were.”

It was a goad, pure and simple. Insult the persons and sully their memories, do something to get a response, even if it’s purely anger. Certainly, it was crude, calloused, and completely obvious, but at this point it was all she had left.

And somehow, as a miracle upon miracles, it worked.

Pausing with his hand on the flap, Graves turned to fix her with his piercing grey eyes.

“What... did you just say?”

His voice was steady and quiet, but only in the same way a dragon is steady and quiet before incinerating its prey with searing flames. But the mere fact that he prepared to attack at all gave the young lady a small, glimmer of hope.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” the pretty dressmaker started, acting as if she hadn't completely intended for him to hear. “But I was just thinking if you, the person closest to these parties don’t even care about them, then they must have been truly horrible wretches indeed.”

“Now wait a minute,” Graves began as he turned around. “Who said I–”

“Though I shudder at the thought, I suppose it happens,” Rarity sighed. “Not all parents can be wonderful people; for all the fine mothers and fathers out there, some must be slovenly, negligent, and possibly even outright abusive.”

“What are you talking about? My parents never–”

“And to have a child growing up amongst a group of filthy, disgusting soldiers,” she shuddered, reacting the same way she would to the smell of an open cesspool. “It’s no wonder you were so poorly adjusted when we first met you.”

“… Let’s get something straight,” Graves said, his voice low and so thick with menace it was almost more growl than words. “I’ve been more than patient with all your poking and prodding, but nobody, and I mean nobody, says anything bad about them. Got it?”

Though she truly didn’t want to meet his gaze, the one that would make a ravenous mountain lion quake in stark, raving terror, the young lady did so with frightened, but firm blue eyes.

“And why not?” she challenged. “You’re supposed to be the person closest to them and you obviously don’t care much for them at all.”

“Who says I don’t care about them?”

“You do, obviously. You’ve spoken about them with as much interest as a litany of what you had for breakfast. Never have I seen anyone speak of the memory of loved ones with such callous disregard.”

“Look, just because I don’t break down every time I think about them doesn't mean I don’t care,” Graves challenged, his voice rising in both heat and volume.

“Of course not,” Rarity scoffed with clear, biting sarcasm. “You just go on your merry way, gallivanting across the globe and off to your next adventure without so much as even cracking a smile at the thought of them. Why, I’ll bet you were actually thrilled to be rid of them, weren't you?”

“What?” Graves cried. “How could you even–”

“Home too stifling for you, was it?” she sneered. “Small village in the north not good enough for you? Tired of always being under daddy’s thumb, always being nagged by mom, is that it?”

“Of course not!” the marshal snapped in outrage, “I never–“

“And your teammates,” Rarity pressed on, surging forward relentlessly in her verbal assault, “probably tired of them holding you back, weren't you? I’ll bet you thought of them as nothing but dead weight, always slowing you and dragging you down.”

“My teammates were the finest soldiers to ever serve the twin crowns,” Graves said, his voice audibly shaking from barely suppressed wrath. “How dare you insult them like that?”

“I’m the one who’s insulting them?” she snapped back, standing up and thrusting a finger right into his chest. “I’m just going by what you’ve told me.”

"Told you? Told you?” he gaped in disbelief. “When did I ever tell you that?”

“By your every word and action,” she replied with a disdainful sniff. “If they were such wonderful people, how could you forget about them so quickly?”

“I’ve never forgotten–”

“You obviously forgot about them to be able to speak like that,” Rarity laughed in harsh, cruel notes. “Just like you forgot about Ponyville. Just like you forgot about me.”

“That… That’s different,” Graves said, for the first time averting his eyes in discomfort.

“How? Because you care about me even less than them?”

“That’s not what I–”

“I matter so little, even though I laid my heart bare to you? Am I that insignificant?”

“I never meant that you were–”

“Was I simply a nuisance to you? A hindrance for you and your oh so noble quest?”

“That has nothing–”

“Why, I’ll bet that your injury was a relief since it gave you such a convenient excuse to leave me behind as well.”

“What? I–“

“Is that what your happy dreams were filled with? A life where you didn’t have to deal with me anymore, where you were free to go off on your own and–”

“GOD DAMMIT RARITY!” Graves roared, “MY DREAMS WERE ALL ABOUT YOU!”

**********