Amora crept out of the apartment in the early hours and locked the door behind her. “Sleep well, Hun,” she whispered to the knob, having placed Tail in the protective comforts of one of her spells. The alabaster unicorn turned and descended the steps. Her brown mane bobbed over the saddlebag strap that spanned her withers and she sighed to the still street before uttering her checklist aloud. “Journal, Artillery Punch, Pancakes…”
As she trotted towards the Phoenix Fire, the medic took in the sights and smells of the city as it slept. Work as a guard doctor often drew her out at odd hours, but there was something rather special about that grey area where the possibility of running into another pony was actually non-zero.
Her coat clung to her body, and small puffs of vapor became visible with each breath, for the chill of Luna’s night still lingered. Colors that normally popped embraced the grayscale beneath the majesty of the gradually brightening star-filled sky, and Amora’s attention drifted to the celestial expanse where rich hues hovered in wait. “Mm, Tail would have enjoyed that particular purple a great deal.”
For the most part, Amora’s nerves had remained in check during the course of her journey. It was only as she approached the amazingly repaired entryway to the bar that her breath hitched. She allowed her hoof to rest upon the latch but hesitated. Her expression remained flat as the deafening silence announced its presence—a fermata that suspended the mare in her moment. Eventually, her eyes narrowed, and she let her declaration fly. “Do it for Tail.”
Barrier glanced over his shoulder when a click drew his focus to the doorway. As soon as Amora stepped within his sights, she froze. Her pupils seemed to shrink, and her muzzle scrunched. She very clearly hadn’t expected him to beat her there.
“Trigger said he’d be back later. Stool’s open,” he added, patting the one next to him. “I brought some of Luna’s Private Apple Reserve.” Barrier wasted no time in pouring and shotgunning a glass—before immediately prepping a second round.
Nodding, the white unicorn trotted to the stool and transferred her offerings from her saddlebag to the countertop. “We have a lot to talk about, Captain,” she answered while climbing onto the seat. “But first, I have to apologize for my behavior last night. It wasn’t right to come after you like that. I was worried about Tail, and I took her struggles out on you.”
The stallion exhaled as he looked over Amora’s contributions to their morning rendezvous. “It wasn’t exactly my finest moment, either.” Barrier slid his second shot of whiskey towards Amora and simply fetched another for himself. After corralling the drink, he tipped the rim of his glass in the mare’s general direction and called for the truce. “Fresh start?”
The glasses clinked quietly before the two threw back the finely aged drink. Barrier savored the burn, his eyes closing momentarily as a satisfied hum dripped into existence. Ams, on-the-other-hoof, planted a leg on the counter and winced.
“So, how is Tail?” Barrier offered, squashing the uncomfortable silence that threatened to settle over the pair.
Ams grimaced slightly but took the proverbial olive branch. “I’m worried. I haven’t seen her like this in a really long time. When I got back to our place last night, she was on the steps—just broken. During our shit show, you told me she was dismissed early, right? I scanned her. One of her legs was showing signs of strain, and all of her muscle groups were showing significant wear. If you’re not aware of it, then I think she’s been running herself into the ground off-hours. But, I guess the mystery still starts with the big question. What happened after I went to work, Captain?”
Barrier hesitated as concern briefly lingered about his eyes and muzzle. Slowly, he placed the shot glass down and smacked his lips. “I—I just don’t like giving out my life story, Major. She had some questions for me that dug up some things I’d rather not talk about. I don’t need or want pity from other ponies. I told her never to ask me about it again.”
Amora squinted and tossed her head back. Her foreleg swiftly moved from its perch to settle upon her maneline. “You two are hopeless,” she mumbled before taking a deep breath and continuing with reformed articulation. “So, let me get this straight. You told an academic—one who came home excited to tell me that she had learned things—not to ask you questions?”
“About that specific thing. I didn’t tell her to shy away from them completely. I told her that for her sake…” Barrier’s mouth hung open. His eyes shifted rapidly as though he had been reading the words that had followed right off a page.
The mare peered at the charcoal-colored unicorn and smirked. “Thought so.”
“It’s not as simple as that,” the stallion retorted while shifting to pour another shot. “I see things in her that I've seen. I see things in her that I don’t want to relive, and I can’t get attached. Not again.”
“Then who else is she going to go to, Barrier? Luna fucked up with her squad choices. That Indar guy is too much of a stoic-veteran type to be Tail-approachable. And Bonecrusher? Well, if I ever have the pleasure of meeting her muzzle-to-muzzle, I hope to the princesses that you have a damn good medic lined up. You’re the only one she can go to, and if she’s afraid to do it, then you’ve pretty much destined her to fail.” She tapped the Barrier-themed notebook a few times, pressed down, and slid the pages to the stallion. “Don’t believe me? Just read it.”
Almost reluctantly, Barrier slid the pages back. “If it’s all the same, I’ll take your word for it. Not a fan of invading my pony’s privacy.” The unicorn inspected his shot glass before he pitched it into the sink behind the counter. A notably larger one took its place, which Barrier filled to the halfway mark. “As for Luna, I think she knew exactly what she was doing. I don’t know what game she’s playing yet, but Tail and I are just pawns in it. Tail’s demeanor? The two of us driven out into the night? Luna’s up to something, but it is what it is.” He sipped his drink. “What exactly is it that you want me to do, Ams?”
“I want you to both stop running away and look around. You won’t read her own words after wanting to know her story, so you know what? I’m going to tell you some things that I can without blowing her D.P.O. First, Luna didn’t choose you for this job. You can think that one all you want, but the decision of who to pick rested squarely with Tail. Now, her reasoning is her own damn business, but the obvious thing to me is that she wouldn’t be this torn up about upsetting you if she didn’t respect you.”
Barrier actually snorted when the word respect left Amora’s muzzle. “Respect,” he said it as if he’d chewed it up and spat it out. “If there’s anypony in the guard who doesn’t deserve respect, it’s me.” The statement was more mumbled to himself than to Ams. “Luna may as well have chosen me. She gave Tail the files to choose from, after all. And here’s a fun bit of trivia. Until recently, I didn’t have a file. Pretty convenient, isn’t it? Tail might have chosen me, but I’d bet all my bits that Luna seeded it to get the outcome she wanted.”
He stopped to take another drink, tilting his head skyward as he swallowed. “Know the funny thing about the respect angle though? I respect the Tartarus out of her. She came in against a stacked deck and kept going regardless of what I threw at her. She kept up with ponies that do that for a living, and she exceeded them in some regards.” The unicorn found himself staring into the reflection of his own eyes. “I admire her, if I’m being honest. That drive to learn, to become more than she is, is endearing. And she can never know that I feel that way. I’m her drill instructor first and foremost. I don’t know how things were with your drill instructor, but in my time, when one slacked or grew attached, ponies died. And I don’t want Tail to die, even if I have to hurt her feelings to make it happen.”
“In your time?” Amora aimed her gaze towards the stallion and sighed. “Whatever, that’s not really my business either. If you want to be cryptic about training her the right way, that’s on you. I can only tell you what I see, and that is a hurting filly. Since you won’t tell her, then you’re going to have to make me a deal, Captain. I shouldn’t have to do your job for you, but I’m probably the best candidate to preserve your weird displacement. My conditions are pretty simple. I sedated the Tartarus out of her last night. She needs a day of actual resting. I expect you to approve it. And—” The unicorn searched her saddlebag until the crinkly sounds of plastic wrap pricked her ears. She retrieved the small baggy and set it down, revealing to the captain a pair of golden pins. “She refuses to wear them until she earns them. Yes, they are hers. Make sure you’re the one who puts them in their proper place, Barrier.”
“Make you a deal? Do my job for me? Major, with all due respect, my job doesn’t involve making a pony feel good about herself. I don’t generally deal in emotions.” Barrier cocked an eyebrow, downed the last bit of booze in his glass, and frowned when the buzz never finished setting in. “Besides that, you don’t have any leverage to press me into a deal. Given her apparent state of mind, Tail would likely never believe half of what I said.” The empty glass found its way to the sink alongside its smaller counterpart. “But—” He raised a hoof before she could make a rebuttal. “In the interest of peace, and given the fact that I honestly do like both you and Tail, I’ll see that she has the day off.” Barrier picked up the pins and briefly examined them. “And I give you my word that should she pass my course, I will personally pin these on her dress jacket.”
Amora half-smiled and rolled her eyes. “Close enough, you stubborn unicorn. I’ll hold you to both of those. And one more thing.”
Barrier’s gaze narrowed just slightly but he didn’t stop her from speaking.
“The day after you pin her, you’re cooking us breakfast again.” A triumphant grin broke on Am’s muzzle. She gestured to the stack of pancakes already put out on the countertop. “I brought these for us to share, but frankly, I just don’t think they live up to your magic. And it honestly pisses me off.”
Barrier snorted and shook his head in amusement as the previous tension vanished entirely. Lifting himself from the stool and turning towards the door to hide his smile, he called out, “Have a good morning, Major. I’ll take a pass on the pancakes for now. Might as well save it for when you get on this stubborn unicorn’s level.”
Amora watched the stallion leave before she shifted her attention to her pre-made breakfast. She tore off a piece of a pancake with her magic and popped the fluffy food into her muzzle. “Dammit, just nowhere near as good,” she groaned, sighing as the sounds of heavy hooves dragging over the floorboards tugged at her ears. She turned mid-bite to see Trigger standing at the start of the hallway that led to his storeroom. “Bit for your thoughts, Cowcolt?”
Trigger’s amber irides flickered in the ambient light as a mischievous grin blossomed. “I think you’re putting the moves on him way too soon, and ya should consider swallowing first.” He chuckled when the major puffed out her cheeks in response, though his smirk gradually decayed into a less energetic, more contemplative expression. “For buck’s sakes, relax. I’m makin’ a joke, not stirrin’ up drama. Those pancakes aside though, I think it’s good that you got Flicker a day of rest.”
The mare briefly furrowed her brow at the nickname before she nodded and leaned towards Tail’s journal. “I have to be very careful with what I tell her, Colonel. I don’t think anypony would expect it given that she comes from academia, but the fact of the matter is, she’s put a lot of emotional weight into this. She’s put a lot of stock in Barrier, and I think she believes that she can’t succeed unless she claims every bit of respect there is to claim.”
“There’s nothing wrong with that ambition,” the stallion responded after he grabbed a seat next to Amora. “She’s going to have to fight for every bit if she is going to prove to herself that she belongs on the path she chose.”
“It is a problem if she’s recklessly training herself into the ground. The wear on her doesn’t match the hours, and she’s been coming home way later than usual the last few nights. Trust me, I know this is important to her, but garnering a sense of belonging is pretty much worthless if you turn yourself into—and start perceiving yourself as garbage to do it.”
“So what are you going to tell her?” Trigger asked, watching the mare lift a forehoof to rub the side of her head.
“I don’t know yet.” A sigh diffused through Amora’s lips. “I have an idea, though. It’s just a matter of getting a sufficient lecture put together before she wakes up. Damn scientists, right?”
Trigger snorted, plucked a glass from underneath the counter, and poured a shot from the bottle left by Barrier. “Ain’t that the buckin’ truth, Major. Ain’t that the buckin’ truth.”