• 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 2

Chapter 2

Twilight almost fell over the back of her seat as the door to her room burst open, heralding the inward march of a very stern-looking older woman. With a granite grey bun and a wardrobe that seemed like it hadn't been updated in decades, her age was obvious but in no ways diminished the briskness of her pace or the severity of her steps.

“Hmph, I should have known,” she sniffed in tones used to scold unruly children. “This early in the morning and just look at you, already disheveled enough to shame a ragamuffin.”

“Dusty!” the young mage cried in flushed embarrassment. “You’re supposed to knock before you come in, you know!”

“I did,” Feather Duster, head maid of the castle, one time nanny to the young prodigy, and constant disciplinarian in balance to the fun of babysitter Cadance, replied with a dry smile. “You just didn't hear me.”

A quick snap of her fingers, and another maid entered the room with a serving cart and exited just as quickly, a hasty curtsy accelerating her departure from under the eyes of the stern domestic. Twilight could understand the sentiment as she found herself unconsciously straightened her hair and sweater vest in a valiant attempt to reduce the ragamuffin factor of her appearance. Feather Duster just had that effect on people.

“Honestly, Miss Sparkle,” the maid tutted as she strapped on an apron. “You've been a young lady for quite some time now. It’s high time you started paying attention to details and taking better care of your appearance.”

“Maybe I would've if you hadn't surprised me like that,” Twilight mumbled.

“What was that?”

“Nothing!” Twilight squeaked as the maid fixed her with a piercing stare. It was amazing. Even after all these years, one look still had the magical prodigy feeling like a kid caught with her hands in the cookie jar. Fortunately, Feather Duster seemed satisfied with the response and turned away, allowing Twilight to heave a sigh of relief.

“I suppose I should give you some credit,” the elderly woman answered with a tiny, but approving nod. “I’d half expected you to be lazing away at this hour, but it seems you've already been up and about for quite some time now. I daresay at least some of my lectures on diligence have started to pay off.”

“Yeah, I've been… busy,” Twilight sighed once more, the very thought of the marshal bringing weariness rushing back like the tide. Feather Duster arched a curious eyebrow.

“Oh? How so?”

Twilight hesitated for a moment. Should she bring another person into this? It was sort of a private issue, and it’s not like her former nanny would know much about the marshal anyway. Then again, she’d certainly have a lot of life experience that could prove useful, and a outsider's opinion could do wonders to shed light on a situation.

“So I've got this… friend,” Twilight began. “I mean, my friends and I do. He’s been in Ponyville for a while now and we've gotten to know him pretty well, Rarity especially. She's one of the friends I was talking about. Only just a few days ago, he leaves without saying a word and tells us he’s not ever coming back.”

“And you’re up working because…”

“Because I can’t understand why he’d do it!” Twilight cried out in explosive frustration. “I mean, sure, he’s not the easiest guy to understand, on account that his default expressions shows about as much emotion as a tree stump, but he seemed like a really straightforward guy. He also seemed to be enjoying his time in Ponyville, and he definitely seemed to be enjoying his time around Rarity, but then he just… leaves. Okay sure, he’s had a pretty rough last couple of weeks, but it’s almost like he’s a completely different person now. It just doesn't make sense.”

“… Well, it certainly seems like you've thought this through,” Feather Duster blinked in mild surprise.

“Not that it’s done much good,” Twilight muttered with a sigh of resignation. “I've been looking at it from every angle and still, nothing’s coming up as a logical explanation.” The stern-faced caretaker nodded in understanding.

“Perhaps what you need is a fresh perspective. I'll have you know that Princess Celestia sent me up because you haven’t been showing up to meals regularly. While I prepare some breakfast, you take the time to tell me everything you know and we’ll see if I can’t offer a new outlook on your conundrum.” And with a practiced flick of the wrist, the masterful maid snapped off the cover of the serving cart to reveal a fully stocked breakfast buffet, complete with fresh-baked honey rolls, fruits, yogurt, cereals, and even a portable stove for eggs made to order.

“You don’t have to go through all the trouble, Dusty,” Twilight said while a faint flush of embarrassment coloring her cheeks. “I’ll just have an apple or something, and I’ll be-”

“Oh no you don’t, young lady,” Feather Duster interjected, her words cutting in with the finality of a judge's sentence. “I know you too well, and the minute I turn my back, you’ll forget all about eating and bury yourself back in your studies. No Miss Sparkle, you’re going to sit right there and have yourself a decent breakfast, even if I have to spoon feed it to you myself. Is that understood?”

“Yes ma’am,” Twilight squeaked, instinctively straightening up like she was six years old again. The young scholar may have been good at lecturing, but even the best quail in comparison to their masters.

“Good,” the grey-haired maid smiled as she returned to her usual stern serenity. “Now, how would you like your eggs?”

*****

By the time breakfast was over, Twilight had demolished two omelets, a handful of sweet rolls, several servings of berry-laden granola, and washed it all down with an almost never-endingly full glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice. The sweater-vested girl hadn't realized how hungry she’d really been, but once she’d taken the first bite of Feather Duster’s excellent cooking, the void created in her stomach from several neglected meals came to life and clamored like a wild beast till it was finally satisfied. How she’d managed to tell the spectacled maid about Graves and the events leading up to the present between bites was, to put it succinctly, quite the little miracle indeed.

“There, now isn't that better?” the former nanny said in a satisfied huff as she cleared away the last of the plates. Twilight let out a small burp before returning a sheepish grin in reply.

“Yes Dusty, that was really nice. Thank you.”

Feather Duster said nothing, but the tiny wrinkle of her upper lip plus the lack of chiding at the somewhat uncouth post-repast etiquette were clear enough indication of her internal satisfaction.

“Now, about this friend of yours, this…”

“Graves.”

“Right, Graves. From what you've told me, he’s a young man who’s spent a good amount of time in the marshals. Am I correct in assuming he’s a career soldier then?”

“I think so,” Twilight nodded. “I’m not really sure how long he’s been doing it, but I get the feeling he’s got a lot of experience. So… yeah, I guess that’s true.”

“Hmm, I see.” Though there was no outward change in her impeccable posture, something about the aged caretaker seemed to darken at the words.

“… Is something wrong?”

“In a matter of speaking, yes,” Feather Duster sighed. “I’m sorry to say this, Miss Sparkle, but I really don’t think there’s anything wrong with him. In fact, I think he’s behaved the exact way you should have expected him to.”

“What?” Twilight gaped. “But… why? He’s wasn’t like that at all in Ponyville. Why would he suddenly change?” A small trace of discomfort appeared on the Feather Duster's face, which in turn prompted a strong foreboding in the young mage’s mind. The last time Twilight had seen seen an expression like that was just minutes before her nanny had told her that Shining Armor couldn’t make it to her twelfth birthday party.

“I don’t think it’s an issue of whether he’s changed,” Feather Duster began, speaking briskly as if speeding through the words could make them more palatable. “I think that’s simply how he’s always been.” Twilight gaped in disbelief.

"What on earth would make you say that? You don’t know Graves. You don’t know what kind of guy he was. Is.”

“You’re right, I don’t know him,” the elderly lady agreed with complete acquiescence. “But he’s a soldier, and if there’s one kind of man a maid knows, it’s a soldier.”

“What exactly do you mean?” the young scholar ask, eyes narrowed in the utmost of suspicion. “Why would you know about soldiers?”

“Here around the palace,” Feather Duster began, wearily as she took a seat at the foot of Twilight’s bed, “there's never a shortage of the military sort lollygagging around, and the only thing a maid likes more than idle gossip is a man in uniform. Most of the time, it never goes beyond a little light hearted banter or possible a little – ahem – canoodling out in the gardens, but there were certainly occasions where it went a good bit farther.”

“A good bit farther, as in…” Twilight prompted.

“Relationships of a more… adult persuasion,” Feather Duster coughed, the faintest shades of color coming into her angular cheeks. “Most girls get silly romantic notions into the head, imagining a fairy tale of their very own. The young hero comes back on shore leave, meets a nice girl, they fall in love, and it’s happily ever for the two of them. The sad fact is, however, that it never works out quite as nicely as that.”

“Why not?”

“By and large, if a man’s in the Equestrian Royal Army, he’s there because he feels it’s his duty to be there. Some men think that their lives don't mean much unless its spent serving and protecting, and those types invariably find their way into the armed forces. Now, there were some who willingly gave up that service for a special someone to be sure, but the more common story by far is that when it’s time to go back to the field, they still go back.”

“Which leads to a lot of broken hearts, I’m guessing,” Twilight finished with a grimace. The head maid nodded ruefully.

“I've seen more than one girl weeping her eyes out after her sweetheart left. Celestia knows, it happened to me back in the day as well.”

“Wait, what?!” Twilight gaped in wide-eyed astonishment. Feather Duster, the maid extraordinaire, always so straight-laced with her polished glasses, tight, grey bun, and more propriety than a roomful of monks, actually got into those kinds of shenanigan? It was difficult, if not outright impossible to imagine, as Twilight half expected that her nanny had been born old and simply grew more grey and strict with the passage of time. Logically fallible, of course, but still…

“It was a long time ago,” Feather Duster sniffed, her usual decorum unable to prevent her cheeks from pinking even further with embarrassment. “Even I was young and foolish once, silly enough to fall head over heels for a pair of sparkling green eyes and an easy smile.”

“What happened?” her one time ward asked with wide-eyed interest.

“Haven’t you been paying attention?” the elderly maid frowned with more than usual orneriness. “One day, he was called back to the field. I went to see him off at his barracks, but… he wasn’t there. Just a note, saying he was going and he wasn’t coming back. Thanked me for the memories and said he’d never see me again.”

“But… why would he do that?” Twilight asked, her brow furrowed in confusion. “If you two liked each other, then why’d he just leave you behind?”

“Back then, I truly had no idea,” Feather Duster replied. “Oh, there were rumors about the lad, ranging from how he’d been called away on a top secret mission to notions that he was off to visit the other sweethearts he’d met in towns all across Equestria and beyond.”

“Well that couldn’t have been too pleasant,” Twilight scowled.

“Like I said, they were just rumors,” the grey-haired lady serenely stated. “I didn't put much stock in them. No, I knew he was a good man and that he’d never do something like that. Looking back on it now, I believe that in the end, he left in the manner he did because as a good man, he wanted to protect me.”

“Wait, seriously?” Twilight repeated quizzically. “How does that make any sort of sense?”

“It doesn’t, and if it’s one thing you need to understand about soldiers, it’s that they rarely do,” her nanny nodded, a slight smile finally breaking out on her aged face. “Men like them typically do more thinking with their chest hairs than their heads. Why, I'd bet barley corns to bits that each and every one of them shares the same silly notion that just because there’s a good chance they’ll never come back, it’s best to cut ties cleanly and save the heartache later.”

“You're right, I don’t get that,” Twilight frowned in confusion. As smart as she was, despite all the reading she’d done and the learning she’d acquired, there were some things that were beyond rational comprehension.

“A sign of a good head on your shoulders,” Feather Duster nodded primly. “It’s a foolish notion, isn't it? You hurt the people who care about you to save them from hurting later. Never made sense to me, but then again, it’s just the kind of thing men stupidly, selflessly noble enough to risk their own lives for a good cause would do.”

“So, do you really think that’s why Graves left?” Twilight asked tentatively, not so much that she was unsure of her question, but more that she was afraid she already knew.

“I honestly don’t know this Graves, so I can’t really say,” Feather Duster shrugged. “But from what you tell me, he’s as much a hero as they come, and it’s a fine, fine line that separates a hero from simply being a colossal fool. If you consider the close call like he had, I honestly wouldn't be surprised if this is exactly what he did.”

The young librarian’s brow furrowed in intense thought. Was it really that simple? Graves was as selfless as they came, maybe even to a fault. Always thoughtful and kind under his rough exterior, he certainly fit the bill of someone as “stupidly, selflessly noble enough” to follow exactly this kind of mad rationale. Had that brush with death awakened him to his own mortality and caused him to draw away out of concern? Was he really doing it just to protect them in case one day he didn't make it?

“I can see you have a lot to think about,” the elderly maid commented as she regarded her one time ward’s thoughtful visage. “But don’t let it take up all your attention; you have other things to worry about too.”

“I do?” Twilight blinked in surprise. “What do you mean?”

“I mean,” Feather Duster continued as she stood up and gathered the remnants of breakfast onto her cart, “that regardless of how heroic the thought or noble the deed, cutting ties will always hurt people, some more than others. Who do you think is hurting the most right now?”

The image of a violet-haired girl, sitting pale and frozen in the room where she’d been all but abandoned, crashed its way into Twilight’s mind with the force of a blacksmith's hammer strike. Feather Duster simply placed a hand on her shoulder and nodded.

“At times like these, she’ll need a friend to lean on, a friend to help her forget him and move on with her life.”

“Forget? Just like that?” Twilight gaped. “But… but isn’t there something we could do? Can't we try to bring him back?”

For once, the serenity of decorum cracked and a genuine, pained expression appeared on the aged caretaker's face.

“There’s…. always hope,” she acquiesced slowly, “but not much. And sometimes… sometimes hoping for something you’ll never have just makes a bitter reality that much worse.”

Twilight said nothing, and with a final, gentle pat on the cheek, Feather Duster gathered up the cart and softly wheeled it out of the room.

Alone with her thoughts, the amethyst-eyed scholar slumped back into her seat. She wanted to believe that there was a chance of fixing things and setting everything right. But if Graves had already been prepared enough to leave, resolved enough to sever all ties with the cold precision of a surgeon, then what were the actual chances of a happy resolution?

And it was one thing to chart her own course of action, but what about Rarity? Obviously, the pretty dressmaker had far more at stake in this whole messy ordeal than any of the others. In light of this, what should Twilight, as Rarity’s friend, even say? Should she try and convince Rarity that it was all over, that what Graves had done was for the best and to just move on with her life? To forget him? Or should she encourage that small spark of hope that said maybe, just maybe, he’d one day return and they could be reunited? Should she encourage that even if it was far more likely to just make everything that much worse?

Twilight wished she had a text to read or some reference to consult for guidance. Deep down, however, she had a feeling that no book in the world could make this choice anything less than hopelessly impossible.

**********