Barrier emerged from Tail and Amora’s bathroom with a content grin on his face. The previous twenty-four hours had left him visibly spent, and the prospect of him leaving his cadet’s home looking like a ragged wreck did not leave an appealing taste on the mind’s palate. “At least I’m clean,” he remarked. “I doubt that’ll save me from Luna’s smug rambling though. And the rumors… Shiny is going to have a field day with this.”
His sights snared the light pouring through the crack of an opened door, and the cropped image of scattered papers drew the captain into the chamber—where sheet upon sheet littered by equations, integrals, and raw hell bore into his sockets. “Faust above,” he gasped from the mental onslaught, “it’s like Twilight’s room after a forty-eight-hour study session. How can anypony live like this?”
It was then that Barrier’s hastily diverted attention found a far more familiar friend. Tail’s armor rested in shimmering, pristine condition, and the spectacle drew a broad smile across Barrier’s countenance.
“You’ve certainly kept immaculate care of your loan,” he commented before his focus drifted towards a book that had been placed beside the helm. The unicorn plucked the text from the floor and hummed. “Mm, and what do we have here? Discourse of War by Gracious Waters. Our little physicist has been doing some light reading.”
“Oh come on, Caddy!” Tail shouted, prompting Barrier’s gaze to narrow as he dashed out of the room with the book still in his magical hold. “Always the friggin' minus sign! It’s like the bane of our existences, you poor foal.”
“What’s wrong?” the captain called cautiously as he slid back into the living room. He froze when Tail glanced up at him. Thin, partial-rimmed glasses sat atop her muzzle and a quill hung from her mouth. Her foreleg was still raised with a grasped parchment awkwardly hovering above the couch-reclined mare. A liberty blue necktie cascaded like a river over a white shirt that snugly fit her barrel, and her lab coat had, at some juncture, found itself serving as her legwarmer and de facto blanket.
“Student bucked up a minus sign on his written qualifier. He’s a good kid, so it’s a bummer that I’m going to have to knock off some points for the mistake.” She moved the quill to her free foreleg and pursed her lips in response to his quizzical expression. “I have a stack of papers to grade, and you gave me the day off. I’m using it to get the faculty board off my case.”
Barrier’s slight smirk at the sight of her wardrobe made the mare groan. “Look, it helps get me in the mood for science, alright?” Her eyebrow descended when she spotted the book Barrier was still levitating, and her defensive tone immediately shifted to that of a more assertive timbre. “And is that my Discourse book? Really, Captain? Snooping around your cadet’s room already?”
The stallion jerked his head towards the text and his ear twitched. “Erm, your clutter made me curious? Then I shed a little captain’s pride at the condition of your armor.” The uncertainty in his voice dwindled with each word until his more familiar, commanding tenor remained. “Consider yourself commended for your treatment of your kit, Cadet. Though, I really don’t get what is going on with your current uniform choice.”
Tail’s wings ruffled and she tapped her quill against her side. “I told you. It’s for science! I’m grading physics exams. Science! Science attire. Research shows that wearing proper uniforms boosts efficiency by five percent!”
Laughter rumbled through Barrier’s frame and filled the living room. “Scientifically speaking, you’re full of shit, Rookie. Though, nice try.” A sly smirk accompanied the devilish twinkle that appeared on his face. “You could have just said you had a roleplay fetish. I’ve seen far stranger things in my time. It’s not the worst thing you could have held against you. Compared to some of the stuff Princess Luna is into, this is tame.”
“I’m getting in the mood!” She jolted at the recognition of her own words. “To grade exams! Exams. At least I’m not the one dodging the issue of sneaking into a lady’s room.”
“Lady?” Barrier snorted, “I don’t see a lady here. I see a smartass cadet trying to pass off some made up statistic to her commanding officer.”
The pegasus reached out, grabbed a stack of exams, and hurled them at Barrier. “Sweety, I’m the commanding officer in this house. I can make up statistics as I see fit, but that’s not really all that important. Right now, there’s a smug captain trying to hide his clear infatuation for lab coats with quips about ranks and roleplay. Maybe I’ll just have to bust your ass back to cadet and we can go retake the C.O. Special. I’m sure you’d love carrying me around. How’s that for a scenario?”
He easily caught the bombardment of parchments with a spell before setting the papers aside. “Not nearly as amusing as the one where I incinerate those exams and observe the fallout from a safe place.”
Tail recoiled from that particular tactic, and one of her trademark eeps rapidly came forth. Barrier brushed his mane, sighed, and released the captured ammunition from his cast. “Now that I have a moment of quiet, I’m sorry about the room.”
Tail’s muscles immediately reaped the benefits of released tension. She sat up and scooted to one side of the couch. “I guess that got a bit out-of-hoof,” she answered sheepishly before patting the vacated cushion for him to sit. “I shouldn’t really make such a big deal out of it. I did kind of bring you here, after all.” The pegasus grabbed the next ungraded problem from the pile. “You can borrow that book if you want. It can be the sign of our Great Sofa Truce. Princess Luna gave it to me a short time after we started. It’s all about how the guard has been influenced by Equestrian culture throughout history.” Her muzzle scrunched at what she was grading, and a large inked x was practically stabbed into the page.
“I appreciate the offer, but I’ll pass. If I’m being honest, I couldn’t care less. I’m not really a guard anymore—at least not a full-time one—and I’m far too old to consider signing back up. What Luna suckered me into is a contract job anyway, so I’d rather not get into it. Besides, I already know how culture affected the guard. It’s bucking pathetic.” Barrier shook his head in mild irritation. “I can name maybe three or four ponies that would’ve cut it back in my day and one of them is still in training.” With a strange, burdened weight in his eyes, Barrier let out a tired sigh, drawing Tail’s surprise as the unicorn suddenly seemed far older than he typically did. “Anyways, I should get going. There will already be enough rumors as is, and I’ve no doubt Luna will want to talk to me. After that, I have to go stab Trigger.”
The pegasus tracked Barrier’s stride as he made his way to the staircase to leave. Her ears splayed from the shootdown of the literature. Somewhere in the back of her mind, she hoped that the underlying meaning would shine through. Luna had clearly suggested the book to help her get a better understanding of what it meant to be a guard, and this was her opportunity.
Tail’s mind wandered to the previous night, when she was trapped in his grip and subjected to the ramblings of his subconscious thoughts. There had to be something there, right? There had to be some ground for further discussion—some way to keep learning. “Captain?”
Barrier craned his neck to face the pegasus but kept his foreleg primed for the first step.
“I was wondering who Ember is. You mentioned the name last night while you were”—Tail hesitated momentarily—“uh, hugging me. Each time, you sounded—”
“Ember…” Where Barrier’s tone had been light-hearted, it now emerged hard and pained—with no levity to be found.
The single word swept the shade of pink from Tail’s cheeks, and nothing more had to be spoken for Tail to know that she had screwed up.
The captain swallowed and blinked several times in rapid succession before an anguished grimace stole his composure. “She was someone important to me a very long time ago.” Barrier turned and took that heart-tugging step. “Cadet, for your sake, never ask me about Ember again, and I mean never ask.”
The mare leaned forward as her awareness captured the start of his solemn descent. She began to lift herself from her seat and blurted out his name, hoping that she could quickly patch whatever mental floodgate she had opened. The only response she received was that of the door clicking shut.
Tail slumped down onto the couch as the ringing silence grasped her senses. Emptiness filled her chest as the timbre of his vague threat and the memory of his projected sorrow lingered in her head. The words themselves faded, leaving behind a toxic character that devoured her spirits. “Way to go,” she mumbled, glancing at the ungraded papers with complete disinterest. “All you had to do was let him leave. He said he trusted you.”
She winced through the self-beratement. His frown and restrained anger reverberated in her thoughts. She had only gotten this far through the help of others. When things were in her own hooves, she crashed and hit the ground over and over again. Why would he trust or help a pony who just did that to him? The doubt crept into play, dredging up a piece of that nightmare that she immediately wanted to remain forgotten.
Tail stared down at the cracks in the Canterlot sidewalks as she trudged through the streets. Golden plates of armor weighed her down; however, her lowered muzzle, drooped ears, and limp namesake carried a far greater burden. Through block after block, her sights never left the ground. Other ponies were forced to sidestep her stubbornly set trajectory, and the mare just couldn’t be bothered with anything else until she planted her helmet into a steady, yet fluffy momentum sink.
“What’s going on, Flicker?” Trigger asked upon halting Tail’s advance. “Ya seem worn down. Did Barrier give ya a run for your bits last night?”
Tail winced at the pause in her aimless wandering. She gulped, not knowing what to say or if she even should. A sniffle joined her next breath, and she shrunk down when it inevitably drew Trigger’s hoof to her back.
“What happened, Ms. Tail?” he asked, tilting his head as he waited for the pegasus to respond.
She kept her head pressed against Trigger’s midnight coat. “I fucked up.” Tears swelled in her unseen eyes. Though, as the drops broke free and fell, the wavering in the mare’s voice betrayed her sorrow. “I did take care of him, and he even said that he trusted me. We had a nice breakfast with my roommate. Then I asked him about some things, and he went cold. It was like the first day all over again. A warning that actually had weight… I can’t start over. I need him to still trust me.”
The physicist watched the bartender’s hooves drift a step away. Gradually, she lifted her dampened muzzle to look upon the stallion’s expression. The ridge above his right eye, driven by confusion, arced downward, and his lips were firmly pressed together. Tail choked down a sob, feeling almost engulfed by his amber gaze.
Finally, his lips parted. “What did ya ask him?”
“Who Ember is. I asked him who Ember is.” The speed of her reply increased rapidly. “He kept saying her name and—”
Trigger’s hoof found the tip of her snout. “Say no more. It’s not really my place to give ya any of the details, and I don’t plan to.” He turned around and motioned for her to trot alongside him, only continuing once she complied. “Just keep working hard. He’ll come around. In all my years running that stupid special, I’ve never seen a rookie with your level of inexperience step up and put on a show like that. Regs wouldn’t stop talkin’ about it until closing time.”
He took away a little of the sting, but Tail could still feel the unease that yanked at her heartstrings. “But I hurt him,” she exhaled in time with a fresh, radiating ache that gripped her barrel and splayed her ears.
“And he’ll live,” the stallion retorted with a lighthearted grunt. “He’s been through more fights than even a seasoned vet could fathom. Curiosity from one of his cadets isn’t going to kill him.”
“That doesn’t make it right.” Tail’s feathers quivered as the tears began to well up once more. “I put a burden on him, and he shut me out because of my screw-up. What if I ask him something else that makes things worse? If it weren’t for his patience, then I wouldn’t have grown at all. And now, it feels like I changed him—like I’m walking alone. I don’t know what to do, Trigger. I’d rather not see that look again, and I’m afraid that I’ll make the same mistake with every question. Maybe the army brass was right. Maybe I don’t have what it takes to prove them wrong. How can I when the stuff I am clearly isn’t cut from the right stuff?”
A twitch snagged Trigger’s cheek and almost stopped him mid-stride. “Ms. Tail, let me give ya a good piece of advice. Never try to prove an asshat wrong. If ya piss time away doin’ that, then it just means that a part of ya believes the bullshit they’re spewin’. Just prove to yourself that you’re right. Dig your hooves in, and do whatever it takes. Find the pony that knows she belongs, and when ya do, I guarantee that you’ll wake up from whatever this shit is and Barry will be there.”