“Nnngh,” Tail wailed a cacophonous cry before climbing back onto her hooves. Streaks of dirt—markers of the times Barrier had grabbed her from her dash to throw her to the ground—covered her armor. She didn’t quite make it fully upright after this pass, for the weight of his hindquarters came crashing down upon her withers.
Her left foreleg was yanked towards her barrel as the unicorn corralled the limb and dragged her to the ground in what had to be some sort of submission maneuver. “You’re sluggish,” he remarked flatly. “I’ll have to up the ante. Every charge that fails, I will take you down. Each one of these holds could be the beginning of your demise. Sooner or later, your body will understand that, and when it does, your wings might start behaving.”
Tail tried to free herself from his grasp. The stallion held firm. She flexed her leg muscle and aimed to push out of the lock, but a crippling, eye-bulging pain ran up her leg as she tried to lift herself.
Barrier let go seconds after Tail began the quest to force her freedom, and a sigh laced with disappointment escaped his lungs as he stood upright.
As the weight departed, Tail gingerly rose to her hooves before starting the trudge to her starting position.
“Alright…” Hints of annoyance crept into Barrier’s intonation, and his eyebrow cut a flat line across his deadpanned face. “I think that's enough for tonight.”
Tail raised her hoof in protest. “I'm fine,” the pegasus muttered meekly. “I can still go.”
Barrier allowed his eyes to roam over Tail’s disheveled appearance, noting how sweat dripped down the tips of her mane. “No, you’re not.”
Tail’s jaw tensed slightly, but she didn't object. His words burrowed into her mind, and her limbs quivered from exhaustion.
“Your mind isn't in it tonight. Do you have any idea what would have happened if you had continued to try to force your way out of that? You would’ve destroyed your leg with a few torn tendons—risked a break or dislocation as well.” Barrier’s gaze hardened. “You wouldn’t have tried to force that if your head was in the game. You would have thought of something creative. Brute force against an opponent with guaranteed superior strength is a novice move.”
A brief silence reigned, and despite the still-present ache, Tail’s entire frame jerked in response. You’re just a damn civilian, she thought while her mind practically overrode Barrier’s voice with that of Bonecrusher’s. She drew in a chilling breath and looked to her captain with a pleading expression, hoping more than anything that he would say something to kill the doubt that was running rampant in her head.
“It’s not any of my business what’s on your mind, but go home for the night, Tail. We’re done here.”
Her head fell, and she stared blankly at the blades of grass. The sound of Barrier walking away—barking orders to Indar and Crusher—drifted through her drooped ears, but the pegasus heard none of it. It’s not his business. We’re done. The fragments of his message repeated in her brain, and the relentless cycle swept up the infringing sounds of Bonecrusher’s mocking laughter and the consequential groans from the stallions.
The fact that her armored hooves had found stone didn’t even drift into her awareness. She just wandered, ignoring the tears that swelled and dropped while the desire to run and just keep running bridged the gap between imagination and reality. “I’m never going to prove it…” It was just like Bonecrusher had said. “Nothing is ever going to change it.”
Bonecrusher chuckled giddily and bellied up to the bar at the Phoenix Fire. She threw her mane back and looked to the ceiling as the seeds of budding victory sprouted in her smile. “Best day of training I’ve had.”
Trigger placed a shot in front of the mare before leaning on the counter. “Finally work your shit out with the filly, huh?”
The earth pony snorted after her hoof found the edge of the glass. “Buck no. That piece of garbage can crawl back to wherever she came from. She could barely keep up with the captain today. He put her down so many times, I was certain she cried at one point. Finally, he put her in a real hold instead of babying the bitch. She couldn’t do anything. Barrier sent her ass off into the sunset. Hear that, boys? She’ll be gone soon enough, and then maybe a real guard can salvage our crippled little squad.”
Nopony responded to Crusher’s declaration. Instead, Trigger’s eyes wandered to capture the uncomfortable grimaces that had found homes on far more muzzles than just his own. “She already passed my test, Private. I’d rather not—”
“You based your judgment off one Luna-bucked night. I’ve seen her ethic every day. She pesters the captain like an adult toddler in a classroom. Ever since your little test, she’s plateaued. Actually, her talents have suddenly vanished. Amazing what happens when the teacher’s pet is suddenly at odds with the teacher. Guess the bucking wasn’t good enough.”
“That’s a shame,” said a burnt-orange pegasus seated at the opposite end of the bar. He ran a hoof through his brown wind-sculpted mane after his emerald eyes located Bonecrusher. “She had a conviction about her that was rather refreshing. Would have been an honor to wing a pony with that kind of passion.”
“Ha. Ha.” Bonecrusher groaned while snippets of sarcasm brewed in her tone. “I’m sure Little Miss Perfect completely changed your worldviews. I’m sure she just waltzed in here and stole your hearts while fucking up your own plans and ambitions. What the Tartarus happened to you guys? Did you forget our traditions just like that? She’s a motherfucking poser—”
Trigger sucked in a breath and primed a response when the door of his establishment was bucked off its hinges. The splintering bits of wood littered the floor, and the cluster of successive bangs ensnared the shocked sights of almost all those in attendance.
A cool night breeze rushed into the bar, preceding Amora’s dramatic entrance. Her blue eyes made a sweep of the place as she scoured the joint for her target of interest—and ignored the rustlings that her appearance had generated.
The barkeep glanced at the battered chunks that had made up his door. “Stitches, what the figurative fuck—”
“Can it, Trigs,” Amora snapped as she began a slow trot to check every table and stool. “I’ll fix it on the way out. Like I do with everything else around here.” She exhaled a long sigh before affixing her cobalt gaze upon Trigger’s frame. “I’m looking for a couple ponies. The physicist that was in here a few nights ago. If you see her, then I want to know about it. And if you see that fucking captain of hers, you tell him that I want to see his ass.”
“Putting the moves on me already, Major?” Barrier asked while stepping through the blown-open path.
Amora pivoted. A harshly crafted scowl hijacked her countenance, and she lowered the tip of her horn until the appendage pointed directly at the captain. “Where is Tail?”
“I have no idea where Tail is. I sent her home hours ago because her stuff was off.”
“Of course her stuff has been off! She’s been coming home later and later every night since your unexpected stay. The last few days, she has been utterly miserable. She doesn’t talk about stuff anymore. She doesn’t have her excitement. What happened after I left that morning, Captain? What did you do to my filly?”
For a split second, concern flashed upon Barrier’s face until it was promptly brushed aside for the cold, collected stare that remained. “I didn’t do anything to your filly. If she didn’t come home, it’s not my problem. My job is to train her. I’m not her foalsitter.”
“Bullshit!” the mare snarled as her forelegs slammed against the floor. “You are her C.O. You may not be a foalsitter, but you are definitely responsible for her well-being.”
“I already told you, Major. I sent her flank home. Tail’s a grown ass mare. She already knows how I do things. I’m not there to coddle her. If she doesn’t like it, then she can just walk away—”
“Buck off, you pancake-making piece of flaky fucking fluff. You don’t even know the reason why she’s there. You have no idea the weight that’s on her haunches and what it’ll mean for everypony in this damn place if she quits. Just walk away!? Don’t you care for her safety at all?” Her ears pinned back, and her hind legs quivered from the internally simmering levels of pissed.
“And if somepony had the guts to give me the reason,” Barrier countered, “then I still wouldn’t change my mind about my methods. You might be the most talented medic of this age, Major, but you have not seen anything remotely similar to what I have seen. Do you know what happens when commanders personally invest in their cadets? Do you know what happens when you start to give a shit, instead of just train?
“When they up and die on you, you carry the fucking weight of that failure. I don’t give a shit if I make her feel bad. I don’t give a shit if she has to scour all of Canterlot to find herself again after I tell her to go home. I don’t give a damn about what is going on up in her head because the only thing that matters to me is that my cadets leave knowing what it takes not to die. And after today’s performance, I’d say she’s not even close.”
Amora’s coat bristled while his words buried into her skull. Blue sparks popped along her horn before a ray of castfire sprang loose and careened into a hastily erected shield. “I’m starting to wonder how much we both misjudged you, Barrier. She put all of her faith in you, and you’re just going to shrug her off as some reject who isn’t even close? No wonder why she’s scrambling over herself trying to figure you out—to understand you. There’s no heart to read. It up and died ages ago.”
Barrier trembled from the rage that the scathing cut unearthed. His horn glowed behind a jagged aura of unbridled power, which pushed many of the Phoenix Fire patrons to quit gawking and duck beneath their tables. “You know nothing—”
The unicorn was cut off as a second bolt of energy loosed itself from Amora’s horn. With his mouth still hanging open from the unspoken words, Barrier winked a shield into existence to catch and redirect the bolt into the unfortunate wall nearby. While a twitch of pain lingered from the reverberating shell, a trio of small battering-ram barriers manifested and were sent rocketing towards Amora. The scintillating constructs grew dangerously close to the medic’s defenses, but their courses were drastically altered by the sudden presence of an amber glow. Spiraling trajectories carried the oblong-shaped projectiles over the bartop and behind Trigger, where they pulverized several of the beloved bottles on the owner’s prized shelf.
The bartender’s eyes twitched wildly as the liquors spilled to the ground. “Executor Barrier.” His voice, while not particularly loud, drew the attention of the combatants with its weight. Even those who had sought cover poked their heads out for the pause forged by Trigger’s words. “The fuck is wrong with you? What would Ember say if she saw ya wielding in such a heinous, unseemly manner before a fellow guard?” It was a question that he clearly didn’t expect answered. “And that?” He motioned to where Barrier’s ram-like shields were still embedded in the wall. “Are you out your mind? She’d be fuckin’ ashamed. She would beat the literal shit out of you.”
Barrier’s jaw tightened, partially at the mention of Ember and partially at the rank that hadn’t existed for hundreds of years. Trigger’s words hit home, and the glow of the captain’s magic gradually dissipated.
“And you!” Trigger’s gaze found its way to Amora. “Are ya Tail’s mother?” He waited several long seconds. “She’s not a kid, and you’re not her mom, so stop fuckin’ acting like it! She’s a grown mare, and it’s not your place to fix her problems for her.” Trigger exhaled in a deliberately slow manner before closing his eyes. “Both of ya are goin’ home.” Another slow breath. “And you’re both going to calm the fuck down. And tomorrow”—his eyes opened—“ya both are going to come back here and fuckin’ apologize to one another.” Trigger let another several seconds of silence pervade the room. “Got it?”
Begrudgingly, both ponies nodded, prompting Trigger to thrust his foreleg towards the destroyed exit. “Then get the fuck out of my bar!”
The tappings of the ponies exiting the Phoenix Fire was like a chorus sung solely for the enjoyment of Bonecrusher’s ears. Throughout the entire conflict, she had remained still atop her stool, and now, she basked in the afterglow of the fight. Her eyelids fell, and she lowered her muzzle as a small, yet thoroughly contented smile took shape. “Looks like I was right about her skills all along.”
Whatever anger had remained on Amora’s face after the long walk, it was washed away the instant she spotted Tail slumped on the steps of their home. Her pupils dilated, taking in every contour of the slouching filly, and the medic burst into a full-blown sprint. Notes of sobbing rammed her sense as she drew near, and as soon as the unicorn was close enough, she snatched up the armored pegasus.
“I’m sorry,” Tail blurted out as if her body had intended for more tears to fall. She was completely drained. “I worried you again.”
A pulse of magic zipped through the lavender mare, and Amora’s stare wavered to the data returned by the scan. “There will be time for that later, Hun. I haven’t seen you like this since the Coltifornia interview. C’mon, let’s get you inside.” She levitated the cadet. “I’ll get you in a nice bath and even read those stupid romance stories you like while you’re relaxing away.”
Tail groaned after a coaxed splurt of laughter broke through the somber melody. She relaxed in the unicorn’s hold and released a long, loud sigh. “You’re the best,” she said, clearing out a round of sniffles. “At least I know I’ll always have a friend in you.”