Trigger snickered as he stowed a rag behind the counter, having just wiped the bar down in anticipation of his guests. The chatter of the place had grown fairly subdued, given the late hour, and only a couple dozen guards remained. Frankly, that was likely for the better.
“This,” Barrier’s voice rang out after the stallion pitched open the door, drawing the attention and salutes of several of the more knowledgeable off-duty patrons.
“Cut that shit out!” Barrier waved a hoof. “You know there’s no rank here. All of you, back to your drinks. Don’t creep the poor filly out before she even gets inside.”
With a few chuckles and laughs, the ponies obeyed.
“As I was saying”—Barrier opened the door a bit wider to allow his smaller companion through—“this is the Phoenix Fire. Guard, Army, Air, Intel, you name the branch, and there is probably an after-hour ambassador present.”
Tail shuffled in and glanced around the establishment. Things were kept simple. There were no fancy decorations or frilly things that she would have found in other Canterlot stops. It was all about the gloriously illuminated beverages and the ponies who drank them. Unfortunately, her observations were cut short as a few catcalling whistles initiated a rather aggressive flick of her namesake.
“Kids, pipe your shit,” Trigger bit, dragging Barrier’s gaze to him in the process.
“And that gruff-sounding bartender would be Trigger, the one who invited us in for these festivities. Let’s hope he had a damn good reason for doing so, and that it’s not just another case of some brass meddling with things that aren’t his to poke.”
Tail tilted her head to Barrier’s peculiar delivery. A subtle harshness laced his words; however, there was no offensive posturing to go along with the jab. In fact, the tone reminded her of how she spoke in her banter with Amora. “Do you two… go way back?” she asked quietly, immediately drawing a boisterous laugh from Trigger.
“Probably not to Barrier’s definition of way back, but yeah, we’ve seen our fair share of shit.” He paused to tip the brim of his Coltston. “You must be the filly we’ve heard oh so much about. I’m glad ya made it. I was worried Barry wouldn’t come through on the offer.”
“That’s what I get for falling asleep in my office,” Barrier mumbled before he trotted towards one of the stools. “Please don’t tell me that you called me in the middle of the night just so you could meet my cadet.”
Trigger set a pair of empty glasses on the countertop. “Mmm, it’s not every night I catch ya asleep outside that fortress of yours.” A grin stole the bartender’s countenance. “But ya got me. We’re all pretty curious about the mare that nopony knows about—and how exactly she made her way into the prestigious Captain Barrier’s camp.” He glanced towards the ceiling and rolled his lifted foreleg. “Of course, if I were in your place, I’d be less concerned with my bartender and more concerned with things on the home front.”
Barrier’s sights homed in on the stallion, particularly following that last point. Eventually, he sighed and slumped into his seat. “Trigger, I love you, but it’s been a long day, and I have to train the doctor over there some more in the morning. The fuck are we doing here?”
The black stallion chuckled and set his hat down before a horn decloaked and parted his silver mane. Amber sparks jumped along the appendage, and a squeal burst from Tail as she was levitated and placed upon the stool next to Barrier.
“Don’t,” the captain spat, “touch my rookie without her permission again.” The guttural growl with which the unicorn spoke made Tail snap her head. Her wings spread as the words flirted with her internal desire to analyze, but that chain was cut short by an intrusive cough from Trigger.
“Relax, Barrier. The filly was playin’ wallflower. Come on! She hasn’t even introduced herself yet. I was just gettin’ tired of it, especially when I can hear about the mystery from the source itself. Though, we have a bit of a conundrum, don’t we? There’s a newbie and her commanding officer in my establishment for the first time, and everyone here knows what that means.”
Barrier’s ears perked. He threw his leg out and pointed at Trigger with such a fanfare that it made Tail jump. “Tartarus no! You are not hazing her like that. I do not give a crap about your tradition. Do you have any idea how much time it’ll waste and the kind of report I’ll have to write for Luna!?”
The chorus of groans from the patrons riled Barrier further until grunts stirred in his snout. Meanwhile, the mare wiggled upon her stool, preparing herself before she set her forelegs upon the countertop and answered, “My name is Tail, Mr. Trigger. My apologies for the delay. This is all pretty new to me. So I would like you to tell me… What’s your tradition?”
Trigger snatched the opportunity to bypass Magic’s outburst. “The C.O. Special, Ms. Tail. A pair of shots shared between cadet and commander. Both are loaded with a delicious cocktail of sweet, sweet booze, but one glass will knock your ass out within one minute, guaranteed. It’s a trust thing.”
“Pour ‘em,” Tail blurted the second her brain registered the word trust.
Barrier pivoted his head and sent Tail a deadpanned expression marked with disbelief. The other ponies began to build up a racket in response to the pegasus accepting the challenge. “Cadet, you really don’t know—”
“Please, Captain, I went through college. I might not be a guard, but I certainly know what hazing is. I’ll drink this stupid shit, pass out for a while, and then I’ll wake up. Maybe I’ll have some marker in my coat, or maybe I’ll find that absolutely nothing happened to me, which would be the point of a trust exercise.” She gazed up at him with a stare that seemed to make him freeze. “I trust you, Barrier.”
He ignored the fact that Trigger had already poured the nightmarish beverages that appeared as innocent as a harmless strawberry smoothie. “Tail, I appreciate that you trust me, but you really—”
“Sweety,” she interrupted him again, “shut up and drink with me.” The sassy retort billowed the white noise into a raucous roar. Tail reached for her glass and threw the spicy brew down her throat without reservation.
Barrier blinked. “Don’t forget that I’m your superior officer.” The sentence slithered off his tongue while his magic began to tug the glass towards his lips.
“You said it yourself when we walked in, Captain. There is no rank here. I trust you, so just trust me.”
He didn’t turn away from the mare as an honest smile graced her muzzle. She had parried his efforts with irrefutable logic that pushed him right to the brink. Tradition was calling, and it didn’t even offer a proper challenge. “I trust you,” he responded, craning his neck to help gulp down the drink.
Tail’s breath rushed as the seconds ticked away. She wondered when the concoction was going to kick in, and she positioned her barrel such that when it did, she would at least slump onto the bar. Twenty seconds after Barrier took his drink, the effect hit hard, but it wasn’t she that hit the countertop.
“Trigger, you son of a bitch,” the captain groaned before his chin hit the wood. His eyelids closed to the boisterous wails that rebounded off the walls, and his tail went still in its waterfall cascade from the stool cushion.
The pegasus sprang from her seat and threw her forelegs around her unconscious captain. “Are you crazy?” she chirped at the bartender who merely shrugged and leaned back to admire his handiwork.
“Maybe we should get out the markers, eh Trigs?” an earth pony teased from his seat. The response stoked the troops once more and sent Tail’s wings into an instinctively protective spread.
“Don’t even think about touching him!” she yelled, pressing a surprising silence upon the room. “I—I don’t care if I don’t have the experience that you all do.” She glared at the smug Trigger and hurled dagger glances at every single pony in the place. “I need him to trust me. I want him to trust me! And nopony is going to ruin my chance to earn it.”
“Sounds like the cadet is itching for a fight,” another chimed, causing Tail to tighten her hold and scowl. “I think we should show her a good time.”
A unicorn rose, but the pegasus refused to yield. “I am not letting you touch my captain,” she snarled. Her pulse spiked, and adrenaline crushed the meager grasp the shot had on her senses. Tail had a test to pass, and the conviction that she had something to prove lit a blazing feeling that she would not abandon.
Trigger lifted his leg and waved off the band. “Lay off, boys. I’ve seen enough. No one’s touchin’ Barrier tonight. I’ve got this filly’s back. Next round’s on me.” He ambled closer to the C.O. pair as the cheers of the regulars rose to new heights. “Not bad for a mare with no guard history. You’ve definitely made my Top Five. Dedication was top-notch, though if I’m being buckin’ honest, the execution was cheesy as fuck.”
Tail wheezed while her body struggled to resynchronize with her mind. She seriously believed she was headed for a fight with a bunch of veterans—a fight she honestly had zero chance of winning. “What is wrong with you!?” the flustered pegasus peeped to Trigger’s completely casual attitude.
“Isn’t it obvious? I wanted to get to know ya. The stallion in that death-grip of yours has saved my ass more times than I can count, and I’ve done the same for him. He’s got a bad habit of wandering paths that lead to shit places, and considerin’ what I’ve heard from another pony, I had to make sure that ya weren’t a shit place. Not really the type to speak for everyone, but I think it’s safe to say that ya made the right impression.”
The mare’s mouth opened a few times in failed attempts to vocalize her understanding. Had this stallion seriously KO’d her commander simply to test her loyalties? Were these ponies really willing to take things to that extreme just to see who made it? “I—uhh—”
Another snort popped from Trigger’s muzzle. “I know it’s weird, Ms. Tail. That’s just how I run things ‘round here. Why don’t ya tell me something about yourself? What is it that ya do?”
Suspicion sat on Tail’s expression as she very slowly returned to her seat. One of her wings remained draped over Barrier the whole time, and the trills of unease spiced her eventual reply. “I’m a professor of physics at the University of Las Pegasus.”
“Hm?” Trigger’s brow lifted to that snippet of information. “Don’t worry about them,” he added after catching Tail’s cautious, wandering glances. “They won’t do anything to screw with your bond. Everypony in this room went through it at one point, but you’re definitely an oddity. What’s a pretty little prof doin’ under Barrier’s wing?”
Tail’s namesake thumped against the bar panelling. “That’s classified, and Sweety, he’s technically under mine.”
The bartender recoiled and sucked in some air through an exaggerated grimace. “Cute quip, but filly, never, ever tell someone on the inside that something is classified.” He paused for the confusion-laden ear flick she gave before fully exhaling his held breath. “It’s condescending to us. We all know there are things outside the pay grade. It’s especially irritating because that’s how we spin it to the public. Use that, and you’re essentially telling a guard she’s a fuckwit outsider. Better to drop something like D.P.O. instead.”
Shudders assaulted the mare once the revelation dawned on her. “Th-thank you,” she sighed, unable to shake away the heavy burden that began to carve a frown. “It seems that I have a lot more to learn than I thought, and I may have already—”
Trigger pressed his hoof to a muzzle for the second time that night. “At least this one squeaks,” he teased the pouting pegasus, shooting her a cocky grin. “No pony solves all problems right away, not even fancy physicists. Ya defended him, and that was your test tonight. I can assure ya that he’ll appreciate it when he wakes up. Might want to get him home though. It’s getting pretty late. One-four-one-three Treble Lane, have fun carrying him, Rookie.” He laughed when he heard another thump from her tail. “Actually, I think I’ll call ya Flicker. Ya sure snap it around a lot when faced with a challenge. I like it.”
Tail shifted uncomfortably beneath Barrier’s mass. Dragging the well-built stallion across Canterlot was not an easy feat, and the pegasus cringed at the premise of attempting it before the captain had put her through the first month of physical fitness. “I know what hazing is,” she chastised herself in a mocking tone. “And if you run my ass ragged in the morning…” A distraught sigh poured into the night air, and she fluffed her wings to give her passenger a gentle nudge. “You’re going to do that, aren’t you?”
Sweat dampened her coat as she turned the corner onto Treble Lane. “Over thirty minutes of napping for you and nothing but work for me.” Her namesake flicked when he just nickered softly in her ear and proceeded to snore. Tail rolled her eyes and huffed, trudging up the gentle slope of the road until she finally stood before Barrier’s building.
The ornate structure, marked with the traditional stars, crescents, and suns of Canterlot, blended well with the overall architectural theme of the city. What surprised Tail the most, however, was the home’s showing age. Most of the captain’s block had been renovated recently, and even in the moonlight, their white facades shared their glimmering retouches.
Cobblestone steps, traditional accents, and single-paned windows injected an outlier—a representative of centuries gone by that had experienced some times of darkness. Tail climbed towards the rich mahogany door and glanced upward. Her heart picked up its pace while the grey wall appeared to lean over her much smaller, and far less imposing figure.
Hesitating, the mare kept her hoof from the latch. “This has to violate some sort of code,” she muttered to herself and wondered if there was any hope of waking Barrier from his slumber. Thoughts of things unseen flooded her head. What if she saw something she wasn’t supposed to see? What if that broke his trust in her? “What if they take it away?”
Tail shook her head wildly and straightened her posture. The present wasn’t the time for waiting. Waiting was a word that had no place in her lab. If she were there now hoisting a problem of this magnitude, then she’d just experiment. It was time to apply the practice elsewhere. She had to get home, and the only way to do that was to put him to bed. Her hoof touched the latch.
“Shit!” Bolts of teal magic sprang from the metal hook. Pain stabbed at her leg, and her lavender coat showed signs of singeing. Tail recoiled and almost fell down the steps. Though thankfully, her wings caught onto the backpedal in time to guide the mare and her oblivious captain down to the street.
She planted her hind hooves into the ground and bucked upward enough to jostle the stallion—but not enough to knock him off her back. “Barrier, wake up!” There was no response, and there was certainly no hope of entering his abode with enchantments of that caliber in place. “I can’t take him back to the bar,” the physicist spoke, carefully considering her options. “Luna knows what they’ll do with him once Trigger locks up. Castle isn’t any better either. Buck, this has got to break all of the rules.”
Home was on the other side of Canterlot.