Tail blinked. Then, she blinked again. At some point, she pressed her hoof to her muzzle to make sure that she wasn’t dreaming. That might have been five minutes ago. Though, she really couldn’t be sure of even that at this point. Exhaustion meandered in dull aches that pulsed through the flier’s body, but at least she had one of Luna’s plush couches to work its wonders on that front. In fact, most of the group bathed in the benefits of the alicorn’s spellwork, and it was through that gift that they remained gathered in the amazing setting of Princess Luna’s private study. Tail touched her muzzle again just to be sure. “Nope, not dreaming.”
Trigger adjusted the brim of his Coltston as he practically paced around the chamber’s crystalline coffee table with glee. “Ahh, I’m just never going to get over the look on Shining Armor’s face. Who would have guessed that the Captain of the Royal Guard could be such a chronic pouter? ‘But I didn’t get to do anything. There were just equinnequins,’ but my was it a brilliant play on Cantersville.”
“Shut up, Trigger,” Shining sighed at the stallion’s mocking tone from his seat upon the second couch’s violet cushions.
“I’m just givin’ ya shit, Armor. Besides, this one wasn’t about ya anyway. This one was all about the newest combat-certified officer.” A bottle of Sweet Apple Red appeared in a flash, and the nozzle of the levitated glass promptly found its way to Trigger’s lips.
“Apples,” Tail remarked lackadaisically before her entire body jerked to attention. She pointed at the bartender after her ears popped up. “Apples! You! You were the drunk colt, the little colt, and Captain Barrier! That’s why I kept smelling the bucking apples! It was right under my nose the whole damn time!”
Princess Luna winced at the string of shouts. She squinted and ruffled her feathers, shaking out the tension before repositioning her body upon a large, star-themed pillow bed. “Please, calm yourself, Ms. Tail. It was all, indeed, a ruse, though our attacks were most certainly not. I believe now is the time for resting and reflection.” She caught a glimpse of the real Magic Barrier, who was kindly tending to her bruised side. “And massages.”
“And drinks, Mes Étoiles,” Trigger added, delivering a soft smile to the alicorn’s muzzle. “Come to think of it, perhaps we should also offer some refreshments to the fillies and colts in the towers the three of you spontaneously relieved.”
“Verily so, Sir Trigger. Mayhaps a private venture to the Phoenix Fire will be in order—once Captain Spitfire is returned to us from the infirmary.” Luna’s sights turned to Tail, and that soft smile blossomed into a proud, beaming grin. “You learned from your captain very well. That hold, as the fillies today say, was sick.”
Bonecrusher snorted from her perch near Tail. “Nopony buckin’ says that, Princess.” The mare promptly received a scolding jab from Indar, who wielded his typical older-sibling shush stare to great effect.
“The party will have to be later tonight,” Barrier stated in a calm timbre that grabbed the attentions of those in attendance. “Most of us have been up since the previous morning. We’re long overdue for some rest. Though, there are a few things that need to be done first. Luna still needs to attend the dawn festivities, and I want to pin Tail immediately after their conclusion as both princesses should be free to attend. I believe I just need to sign some papers to make that happen, which only leaves the question of how fast our pegasus can get her dress uniform unanswered.”
Tail had envisioned that she would be bright-eyed and bushy-namesaked at her pinning ceremony. Instead, she desperately clung to whatever bits of alertness she had left, and she battled to maintain her attentive stance. From her spot atop the platform that had been erected for the Summer Sun Celebration, Tail cast her bleary sights upon the ponies in her midst. They had shown up either to support her—or because they were just too damn sleepdrunk to leave after Celestia had lifted her fiery space orb.
Off to Tail’s right, the two princesses proudly smiled at the spectacle, though by the lavender mare’s internal admission, Luna’s expression carried a bit more exhilaration. On the opposite side of the stage, Trigger stood beside Shining Armor and Spitfire. The bartender was the only one who appeared amused, and Tail could only guess that the two captains were still a bit miffed by her examination activities.
Tail scrunched her muzzle and released a short sigh. You did kind of choke her out, the physicist thought as her timid gaze settled upon Spits. She was met with a piercing burnt-orange stare and a sadistic grin that spoke volumes. Tail was definitely going to get it later.
Amora nudged the pegasus from her flanking post before a giggle seeped past her lips. “C’mon, little filly, you need to perk up and pay attention, or else that cute D.I. of yours is going to get all flustered when he arrives.”
The flier squeaked at the medic’s prodding, and she immediately realigned her posture. She stared forward and looked rather professional in her navy-colored dress coat, light-blue button-down shirt, and black tie.
“Presenting Captain Magic Barrier!” Luna shouted in her Royal Canterlot voice once the unicorn ascended the steps.
Tail’s muzzle flushed at the display. He was decked in a white coat with a bluish trim that complemented his dark fur quite well, and his mane and tail had been groomed to perfection—at least by stallion standards.
By comparison, the pegasus considered her mane to be a tumbling, cascading, gritty mess, but that really didn’t matter now. She had struggled and fought to get here, and there was no way that anything was going to damper the warming pride that burned in her heart when Barrier reached her position.
“I’ve never been one for speeches—at least, not ones off the field,” the captain began as he retrieved the colonel pins that Amora had given him weeks ago. He cleared his throat. “So I’ll get straight to the point. When you came to me a couple months ago, you knew jack shit. I hated the thought of training newbie ponies again just because Luna wanted a pet project—and because I couldn’t say no. Then, you told me you couldn’t quit.”
Tail tightened her muscles as Amora delivered another nudge to her flank—one that seemed far more embarrassing than the first, given her captain’s presence. She swallowed hard and forced her focus to remain on Barrier.
“I did my damndest to hide it then, but when you said that, I smiled. Every day, you became something better. You pushed for more and demanded more, and I’m glad my first impression was wrong. I was wrong. You belong here.” With care and precision, Barrier secured the pins to the collar of Tail’s uniform. “You’ve graduated my basic training, but don’t think it ends here, Colonel. I’ve still got a lot to teach you, believe-you-me, and I think there’s another set of pins for you to earn.”
The colonel watched as her captain stepped back and threw a sharp salute. The warmth in her chest burst into a heated inferno, and the buds of tears began to swell in the corners of her eyes. Now, finally, they were really her pins. She could wear them with dignity… because he did so much to get you here—far more than any pony could have possibly expected.
Tail made up her mind. She detoured from the salute, leaned forward, and tossed her fetlocks around Barrier’s neck to lock in a hug. “Thank you, Captain,” she whispered, “for everything. I will not let you down.”
Barrier recoiled the instant Tail snatched him in the hug, but after a moment, he settled into the embrace and gently draped his saluting leg over the mare’s back. “I know you won’t,” he whispered his reply as well. “I wouldn’t have trained you otherwise. Two weeks, and we start again, Colonel. Stay focused, and be ready.”
A giddy grin spread across Tail’s muzzle once she allowed the hug to come to a natural end. She pulled away from the stallion, acquiring just enough distance to reform her proper stance, and she promptly and emphatically tossed her right foreleg into a crisp salute—her first salute as a combat-cleared officer.
Tail sat on the sidelines of the training grounds that she had practically called home for the last two months. The morning light had yet to fully cast its glory upon the grass, for the predawn reds still lingered upon the eastern horizon.
She drew a breath, pulling in air that carried a vanilla scent—likely from the nearest bakery. It momentarily filled her, but the empty pitch quickly brought the pegasus back down to earth. A few days had passed since Barrier had given her those pins, and in that time, she missed her squadmates.
She missed Barrier nagging her, despite the fact that they were set to begin anew in a couple weeks. She missed Indar’s composure, and she even started to miss Bonecrusher’s unrelenting, antagonistic assault. “Okay, that one was bullshit,” she uttered quietly before she turned her head to glance over her worn armor, “but those…”
Her sights stretched just beyond the warped, battle-tested plates upon her frame to the ripped dress-coat collar that she now used as a ribbon for her tail. She hadn’t the heart to remove her pins from the place Barrier had put them, but now that she could do so without feeling the burden, the colonel planned to carry her emblems wherever she went.
From some place outside her sightline, the sounds of heavy, moving hooves ventured to perk her ears. Tail didn’t even have to turn to know to whom the hoofsteps belonged. There was only one stallion who would show up before the sunrise.
“Last time I checked, you graduated, Colonel Tail,” Barrier’s voice cut across the field.
Tail gracefully veered her body to face the captain, and a smile quickly usurped her countenance from the rather gloomy bournes of reflection. “Hello, Captain, I do believe I did.”
The stallion flicked his ear to the side as he trotted to the former cadet. Curiosity subtly curved the contours of his smirk, and with equal subtlety, he quietly examined Tail’s armor-wearing state.
From the gentle flicker in his stare, and through the way he instinctively played with his lower lip, the mare could tell that a question was bubbling up beneath the surface. “I missed it,” she answered in advance.
Barrier cleared his throat with a series of coughs, and one of his forehooves idly brushed his blue mane. “We’ll be continuing in just a few more weeks, Tail, after you return from settling your university’s bureaucratic bullshit.”
The mare groaned. “Ugh, don’t remind me.” She lifted the tip of her nose towards the sky and unloaded a rushed huff before her voice took on a soft, reminiscing tone. “And, it won’t quite be the same. This was all new to me, from the start to where we are now. A lot of ponies didn’t think I could do it, and for a while, I didn’t think I could either.”
“But—” Barrier paused when her chocolate-kissed eyes found his own indulging gaze. “But you did, and come to think of it, I believe that means I owe you an armor fitting.”
Tail’s feathers ruffled at the suggestion, and she rapidly moved her hoof to her breastplate. It was a defensive gesture, one that pushed a look of surprise to Barrier’s face. “I’m pretty attached to Sally now, actually. I’d—I’d rather keep her if that’s okay? Maybe her padding can be replaced instead?”
A snort burst from the unicorn, and his expression brightened to the hilarity. “Hmm, well, that was going to be my graduation gift to you. I guess I’m going to have to think up something else—”
“Dinner!” Tail interjected. Her wings shot out and her muzzle reddened. “I mean—I liked the party at the Phoenix Fire, but we didn’t get to talk much.” She scrunched her muzzle and averted her dilated stare from the stallion. “Most of it was spent dealing with Spits and her ridiculous nicknames.”
Barrier froze. He gawked at Tail and stood in a silent stupor—probably pondering a slew of things that the mare would likely never come to fully know. Eventually, he wet his lips and replied succinctly, “I’ll pick you up at seven.”
Tail’s mind, however, knew exactly what Tail’s mind was thinking. Oh my goodness, did you just ask him out on a date? Did he just agree to a date? Ams is going to kill you. No! Ams is going to want pancakes. Say something! Say anything. He’s just looking at you, and you’re being dopey! Go!
The lavender pegasus squeaked before an old saying of Princess Luna’s graced her memory. In that instant, Tail steeled her nerves. She tossed a sidelong glance to the unicorn as she slowly strode by his left side, and while she passed, Tail allowed her namesake to deposit a sultry brush along the length of his chin.
”I’ll be ready at 6:45, Captain.” Hopefully, I’ll get to meet Magic Barrier too…