Barrier didn’t make eye contact with his cadets as they lined up on the grass. The weight of his brewing quiet and indifferent demeanor was palpable—as was the variance in the spectrum of reactions. Indar remained stoic as always. Bonecrusher peered into the side of the captain’s skull, practically daring him to make a sidelong glance, and Tail allowed herself a brief gander before she buried her gaze into the green blades.
“We’ll be doing something different today,” Barrier finally spoke with an even voice. “Normally, this would demand a trip, but given the accelerated nature of this course—and my unexpected day off yesterday—we’ll have to make do with something else.”
Tail winced when the silence resumed. Curiosity nibbled at her mind. Her ears trembled in need of something more, and her pulse pushed a little faster until she remembered that it was this curiosity that had made him push her away. She held her breath, shut her eyes, and tried to quell the habit.
But the earth pony to Tail’s right produced a percussive pop with her tongue that couldn’t be ignored. “Your day off was a waste of my—”
Bonecrusher’s growl was interrupted by a crack that sprang from Barrier’s position. Tail jerked in response, her head snapping over just in time to observe the blue glow that promptly engulfed the bulky mare at the behest of the captain’s magic. In a flash, Crusher simply vanished.
“The reasons for my absence are not up for discussion. I’ve fought too many battles to take shit from whiny, scowling rookies. Pass it along.” A second blue wave crashed upon Indar, sending the stallion on his own teleportation journey.
Sounds of the unicorn’s raspy sigh coaxed Tail’s ears to swivel. Another hard swallow dropped down her throat, and she anxiously sucked on one of her cheeks.
“No questions today?” the captain continued.
Tail’s ears pinned back to the staccato bite that sat etched into his tone. “N-No, sir,” she whimpered, her armored hoof pawing at the dirt. “I don’t—” Her mouth hung open as though she had intended for more words to come.
“Cadet, deep breath and hold it.” Barrier’s hint immediately preceded the prickling warmth that coursed through Tail’s coat.
She inhaled sharply and her wings spread to the static-like charge. The sudden sensation of rapid movement shortly followed, triggering a spasm that bulldozed her muscles. Her view of the training grounds evaporated, only to be replaced by what appeared to be blurry, ambient lights that shone from above.
“Mmf,” Tail grunted. The blanketing heat of Barrier’s magic had eroded, and a far colder substance—a liquid—now invaded her fur, mane, and namesake. She looked around rapidly, scrambling to make sense of where she was and what she was in. Bubbles bled from the tip of her snout when she exhaled, and she gawked at the wobbling pockets as they drifted away. Finally, it clicked. She thrust her hooves downward and propelled herself to the surface, where a waiting gasp of air filled her lungs.
“Aw, the gang’s all here. Laps, swim ‘em, now!” the captain railed his cadets and honed his ire. “That means you, Bonecrusher! Quick on the quips, but slow as shit once you get wet! What are any of you going to do if—Celestia forbid—you have to get in a damn creek?”
The pegasus was paddling on instinct when she took a peek at Bonecrusher. The earth pony was undoubtedly struggling to keep afloat, and the sight prodded Tail into a freestyle stroke. At least with this, the lesson was obvious. Water would always be in the cards, so getting used to carrying a kit in water was a completely necessary experience. Thankfully, I love to swim.
As Tail kicked and crawled, several details dribbled into her awareness. While the castle certainly had facilities, the walls of this pool room were finely gilded. There was also the fact that, even though the pool’s length was appropriate for laps, its construction was unusual. The edges looked remarkably like porcelain, and the water itself carried no scent of chlorine.
Tail neared the rim when something else caught her attention. And then there’s that ethereal mane in the corner, she thought mid-breath. Immediately, she broke her stride, threw her forelegs over the side of the pool, and pushed herself up. “What!?” She traced the flowing contours back to the regal crown perched upon Celestia’s head. The pegasus blinked, resetting her mental photograph. “Oh crap, she’s really there,” she squeaked, noticing the perplexing state of the princess’s half-smile.
“Get back to swimming!” Barrier shouted. “Move it! I wouldn’t want to be caught in Celestia’s private bathtub and then put on a terrible damn performance!”
The pegasus tilted her head, allowing her gaping stare to drift from the princess to the structure upon which she leaned. “Porcelain… Oh my gosh, it is a tub. Her tub!” Tail chirped again before diving back into the water to commence another lap—and escape.
From the marble deck, the captain set his sights upon each of his cadets and observed. A massive smirk split his muzzle, allowing an occasional chuckle to escape through his parted lips.
Gradually, Celestia made her way to Barrier’s side. “It’s good to see you in your element, but did you really have to usurp my bath for this?”
Though the princess’s speech carried the subtle hallmarks of bathtime disappointment, Barrier frantically waved a foreleg to hush her questioning. “Sea, land, air! You need to be ready for all of them, at any time!” The stallion smirked at the increased pace with which the three swam. Even Bonecrusher was finally managing to look like a filly that knew what a pool was.
“Barrier,” the princess practically cooed. “I asked you a question.”
“Your sister put me up to this,” he replied resolutely, “and I wouldn’t be surprised if you had a hoof in it too. I get to call the shots. No questions asked. The pools are probably packed at this hour, and with them in gear, that’d be a shit show. I’m not going to explain myself any further. If you want to quiz somepony, grab Tail. That’s her element. This is mine.” He took a step closer to the water and screamed, “Are you foals getting tired already? I’ve seen rubber ducks with more stamina!”
Celestia turned, shooting the captain a half-lidded glance and a mischievous grin. “Sea, land, and air, hmm? Maybe I will quiz somepony.” A pinkish light ensnared her horn, and a loud squeak echoed through the large bathroom after Tail consequently appeared before the diarch. “Tell me, Ms. Tail, what do you think of your captain’s unorthodox methods?”
The pegasus blinked and gave an exploratory tug upon the construct of her confinement. Unlike Barrier’s aura, Celestia’s unyielding grasp left a sensation that she was hovering near an overpowering industrial oven. The background noise of churning water soon dissolved, and Tail was left feeling the weight from all of the eyes in the room. Her own gaze darted about as though the answer had been something that could physically be found, and a sheepish smile parted her muzzle when the seconds ticked on without a response.
“Well, my little pony? I’d like to hear what lessons you could share with me. I’m sure you’ve learned a lot in the last few weeks.”
Tail’s heart cringed. If the princess had asked her the same question two days prior, the pegasus would have gushed every detail. She would have written a research paper or something—with margins filled to capacity with those little facets she had planned to ask about. Your questions pushed him away, she reassured herself before squarely looking at Celestia and putting on the best face she could muster. “I have no right to question Captain Barrier.”
“Oh? You would deny your princess for the sake of your captain?” Despite the challenge in her statement, Celestia kept a soft smile. “Please, be candid. No doubt he would like to hear your thoughts as well. Isn’t that right, Barrier?” The alicorn’s tone, laced with the subtle hints of a playful composition, shifted slightly when she addressed the stallion.
Barrier sighed, “Speak freely, Cadet. I know that mood well. If you don’t, Celestia will cause me problems for the rest of the week.”
“You didn't seem to mind me causing you”—Celestia stopped and adopted a more lascivious intonation—“problems when you first returned. I daresay you liked it.” The mare puckered her lips.
Barrier erupted into a full blush before coughing awkwardly, not noticing the shocked looks on his cadets’ faces. “With all due respect, Princess, that's not appropriate talk around the trainees.”
Celestia snickered in a very un-princess like manner before turning back to Tail. “So, my little physicist, are you going to tell me what you think?”
A frown fashioned the contours of her lips. Her eyes widened to previously unachieved levels, and her respiration rate soared. Even though she was caught in Celestia’s hold, the muscles along her limbs locked up with a clenching tightness that crept into her barrel. “You’re thinking too much,” she mumbled quietly a couple times.
“Would you look at that?” Bonecrusher said from her perch at one of the bath’s edges. “For once, the teacher’s pet doesn’t have all the answers.” She grunted when Indar nudged her flank, and scowls quickly usurped both their expressions.
The captain flashed Crusher a stern glare of his own before returning his attention to the quivering pegasus. The sight of her hovering there—in obvious discomfort—sent a flinch-worthy jolt along his spine. “That’s enough, Celestia. If she doesn’t feel comfortable answering, then it isn’t our business to pressure her—”
“If I’m not mistaken, it was your idea in the first place, Barrier.” An impish smirk appeared on the alicorn’s muzzle before a melodic giggle drew a snort from the captain. “Besides, as your princess, I have an interest in your well-being. Getting to poke fun at you along the way is just icing upon my delicious cake.”
“This isn’t a joke,” Tail replied in an atypically solemn voice. Her sights fell upon the marble flooring as the echoes of Celestia’s cordial tones provided the cadet with a snapshot of clarity. “It is definitely not a joke.” The passionate flickers that had once graced her irides were gone, leaving chocolate-brown gaps devoid of curiosity. Curiosity had brought her here. Curiosity had built a wedge and wasted— “Captain Barrier’s time is the most valuable resource I have. I believe I am more fit to perform my duty than I was when I began, and—” She drew a breath and looked to her instructor. “I would be remiss to question his methods… or anything that brought him to think the way he thinks.”
Barrier’s expression tightened slightly before he bunted Princess Celestia into the bathtub with a sudden shove of magic.
A surprised yelp rose from the solar diarch as she flailed en route to the surface. The shock of Barrier’s surprise attack jammed the flow of magic holding Tail, and the pegasus promptly found herself deposited back into the water as well.
“As fun as this question-and-answer session has been, my cadet still has twenty laps to swim.” Celestia shot Barrier an annoyed gaze, to which the unicorn simply smiled and utilized the hardest voice that he could. “And since you seem keen on interrupting their exercises, Princess, you can join them!”
Both Indar and Bonecrusher appeared awestruck when Barrier’s demand hit their ears, and Tail returned topside just in time to catch their slack-jawed demeanors.
“Cute, Barrier,” Her Highness responded as she rolled her eyes. “Need I remind you that I outrank you, Captain?”
The grin plastered to the unicorn’s face did not erode at all. “We’re going straight to rank already? The Celly I know would at least put up a fight.” His brow descended when Tail turned away to restart her laps. “Maybe you’re just afraid to get shown up by a bunch of trainees. Now, get moving or get the buck out of my pool!”
Tail, along with her fellow cadets, had been dismissed by Captain Barrier two hours prior, but the mare did not feel fit to leave. She had moved from Celestia’s tub to the familiar track, where her mind could get lost in a jog—where she didn’t have to sit still and confront her doubts. Any time she stopped, she felt cornered, either by her screw-up with the captain, her idiocy around Princess Celestia, or her loneliness in her endeavor. She could just keep running and wait for the collapse. Then, at least, she could crawl home and deal with an enemy that she knew perfectly—Amora’s wrath.
Her hooves pounded into the ground as she rounded the corner of her lane, but she quickly skittered to a stop when she saw Bonecrusher standing in her path. The bleeding memories of every nudge and bump she took at the hooves of Bonecrusher’s anger left her feeling even more winded than she was, and her muscles ached in response.
Cautiously, Tail approached the lime-colored pony, closing the small distance that had separated them. A smug look was perched along Crusher’s jawline, and Tail silently swore that she could feel every vital piece of her body hitch in anticipation of what was to come.
“So you think that you can make a good impression with my friends?” Bonecrusher cut off the pegasus the instant Tail had opened her mouth to speak. The tempo of the earth pony’s delivery quickened with every word until the underlying beat of aggression matched the haughtiness in her voice. “Word on the grapevine is that you met Colonel Trigger, and it sounds as though he had nice things to say about you only a few hours after he gave me some raw shit.”
Tail struggled to keep her shifting legs in place. The last thing she needed to add to her list of transgressions was an off-the-clock fight with Bonecrusher. She needed to diffuse this. She needed to get away from the anger. “He just gave the captain and me the C.O. Special, Bone—”
“Ma’am! You will address me as ma’am. I’m not going to slip into a first-name basis with some civvy pretender who thinks that she can take away my friends from me. There were so many others who deserved your spot, and you show your gratitude by kissing the captain’s ass every chance you get—like some flake. I have no idea what shit you pulled to gain Trigger’s favor.” The earth pony planted her forehoof against Tail’s breastplate and shoved the pegasus. “But regardless of what he says, you will never be one of us. And it doesn’t matter how many days off you and the captain take together.”
Bonecrusher feigned a dash towards Tail and snickered when the lavender mare jumped back into a defensive stance. “Nothing is ever going to change that,” Bonecrusher said as she began to exit the field. “Remember that the next time you’re trying to have a good night, civilian.”