• Published 10th Dec 2020
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No Longer Alone - NoLongerSober

Sass, science, and surviving shipping! Postage paid! The gruff captain put a certain pegasus professor to the test and learned that she just couldn’t quit. Now come the hard parts: an actual relationship and maybe a villain or two.

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Chapter 17 - All the Right Buttons

“Are you going to, uh, ask me to pry you free this time?” Amora’s smug smile sparkled in the radiant beams of sunlight that poured through the windowpanes of her abode. She twirled her forehoof in anticipation and kept her attention solely focused on the occupants of the living room couch.

“Nope, not a chance,” Barrier answered. The stallion was thoroughly wrapped up in Tail’s legs and wings, for at some point while sleeping off the previous night’s stupor, she had decided—perhaps dictated—that he would play the part of Little Spoon. “I’m pretty happy with where I am for once, and with how much she drank last night, she might be better off not waking up just yet.”

The unicorn mare shuddered, and the muscles around her right eye began to twitch. “You’ve got some stories to tell me then. Tail and alcohol do not mix well, so if she had more than a shot, I know all bets on sanity are off.”

“Does convincing Trigger to roll a piano out from the back so she could sing me a song count as a story?”

“Yes,” the doctor responded, ignoring the bristling wave that rode down Barrier’s body as she enthusiastically plopped upon the padded ottoman. “Tell me everything.”

Barrier sighed. It did not help his case that Tail had unconsciously responded to his shuddering by tightening her hold. Her hum nipped at his ear as her forelegs clasped around his chest. The whole sight was, of course, met by Amora’s silent, glimmering gloating. “Not like I have anything better to do, I guess,” the stallion proceeded. “Night started out like most officer candidate send-offs…

“Indar chose the first drink, and then we went down the row. Wasn’t much of a surprise that things went downhill from there. Bonecrusher picked something hard. Tail got tipsy and started going on about how Cadance challenged her to sing, but the performance wouldn’t be for the Princess of Love anyway. And”—he paused, momentarily projecting a monotonous expression—“Trigger is a fucking enabler.”

Absentmindedly tracing shapes into her beige carpet as she listened, Amora tittered at Barrier’s editorial. “Especially if he senses that the end result is what the target truly wants. I wonder which happened first. Did the tipsy pegasus toss the idea at the barkeep, or did Trigger force her to act?”

A rumbling groan rattled in the stallion’s throat. “Definitely got baited after mentioning Cady. Though, I’ll give her credit. Once she was hooked, she was all-in. I’d put a few bits on even Bonecrusher being amused by the whole thing.”

“I don’t think what anyone else thinks particularly matters,” Amora replied, thumping her tail against the furniture with a rising assertiveness that mimicked the bite in her tone, “especially when it’s opinions from random-ass colleagues. I want to know what it made you think.”

“Like the sirens would have a run for their money against a voice like that,” Barrier spoke without missing a beat.

The abrupt delivery prompted Amora to lift her chest from the comfortable support. She rolled her head, banishing the waves of her brown mane from her back, and simply stared at the stallion in quiet amazement.

“And again, for the first time in a long time, I’m pretty damn happy.”

The medic perked up even higher before making a whistling motion with her lips. “Wow, the stern captain makes a clear declaration of his feelings. You know what? I’m just going to leave you two to this cuddlefest. Let me know when you both decide to go steady, and in the meantime, I’ll be in my room running a few self-diagnostics to make sure that I didn’t actually go comatose.”

Barrier smirked at the unicorn mare until she disappeared down the hallway. His cocky smile softened, casting a more contemplative demeanor as his horn lit. He loosened Tail’s vice-like grip just enough to spin around in her embrace, and his muzzle found a comfortable perch in the crook of her neck. “Going steady, hm?” he softly muttered. “I might need to brush up with Cady about those rules of engagement.”

“I feel like today is the perfect example for highlighting the benefits of living with a doctor who also happens to be your lifelong best friend,” Tail remarked as she descended the castle stairwell towards her lab.

“I just can’t believe you don’t have a day-ending hangover,” Barrier chirped, keeping pace at her side. “I’ve seen green recruits get shitfaced for days after jumping into a party like that.”

Tail cocked a mischief-loaded sidelong glance and homed in on her stallion’s figure. “Well then, Sweety, it’s a good thing I’m not a green recruit, now isn’t it?” The mare’s namesake swished as her teasing timbre reverberated along the spiraling stone shaft. “But in all fairness, yes, it’s totally thanks to Amora. Years of being in college as a student, followed by years of being at universities in a professional capacity, have greatly removed any desire I have to drink like that on a regular basis. It was just…”

“You wanted to preserve the tradition for Indar,” Barrier calmly interjected, “and I’d expect nothing less from you. But Amora seemed quite excited by the notion of you getting hammered, and that makes me think there’s more history to Blanket than she lets on.”

Once the couple reached the final step, Tail retorted with a gentle nudge against Barrier’s flank. “I do stupid shit when I drink, which I think was made pretty obvious by the whole singing and flailing thing. I’m sure you remember better than I do because the moments that aren’t blurred in my memory involve you keeping me upright.”

“Heh,” the unicorn grunted. “If we weren’t at the Phoenix Fire, I’d say something about a C.O.’s responsibility, but since we were, I’ll use date duty as my excuse. Also, your voice is pretty damn good. I don’t think anypony in there thought your performance was stupid, and if they did, I can always hunt ‘em down and make ‘em run laps.”

Laughing, Tail unlocked the door to her personal cavern before her impish tone snatched Barrier’s attention. “Is that your idea of chivalry, Sir Barrier? One could postulate that keeping a mare from stumbling over herself was a mark of friendship, but for all I know, such a noble deed could be central to your rituals of courtship.”

Barrier snorted again, shaking his head as he followed Tail into the lab space. “The old ways of courting wouldn’t be welcomed in today’s times. Between tribal traditions and wars, ponies weren’t as willing to waste time with prolonged affairs.”

“Is that so?” Tail asked, bounding over to the crate Trigger had brought down. She snatched a crowbar from the nearest workbench and pried open the lightly colored wood with an emphatic, ripping slam. “Well, then how did it happen?”

Sidling up to the mare, Barrier eyed the opened package and softly groaned. “Relationships often grew on the lines. It wasn’t out of the ordinary for a pony to suddenly feel something had clicked with a comrade. So”—Barrier slowly drew a breath as a red hue began to spread across his muzzle—“the pursuer would challenge a prospective mate to a special duel, and if taken, the winner would, rather literally, claim the loser. I guess you could say it’s similar to the pegasus rite of under-the-wing…”

Tail’s sparkly scientific enthusiasm drained before she could even pull one of the captivating, meter-long augurite rods from its packed confines. Instead, her focus shunted directly to her captain’s tale, and following his words, she lingered in the burning heat that seemed to engulf her entire head. “When you say rather literally…”

“Lots of breeding. There were other things, but those preferences depended on the couple. Let’s just say that some ponies were very bold with their winnings. Claiming is definitely the proper term.”

The lavender pegasus stood silently. Her hoof hovered above the expensive pile of metal and crystal, but Tail was no longer in her lab. Her wings had exploded out of their stiffened shells, and she and Barrier were back on the field. Sweat poured from their coats as they tussled through grass and mud without a care for anything in the world beyond the test at hoof.

Caked to our fur as I push for the pin. Lightning flashed across the imagined landscape, and a heavy onslaught of rain bombarded their bodies as Tail straddled her splayed combatant. He was under her wing now, shielded from the torrent by the earned protection of her feathers. The grin of pride that split her muzzle was tamed only by the affection glimmering off his iris. She tugged a leash that popped into existence and watched as the thick blue collar around his neck lifted in kind. Mine…

Or not. The scenery had abruptly shifted before bright bands of moonlight swept over the pitch. Like a predator on a hunt, Barrier loomed above her prone figure and was silhouetted by Luna’s moon. His magical aura pierced the shadowy veil, and that familiar warmth coiled around Tail’s limbs. In the span of a blink, her forelegs were pulled behind her head, and her hind legs were pushed higher and higher until the stretched muscles could give no more.

Something soft was pushed into her opened mouth, but when she tried to ask him what he was up to, all that emerged was a timid Mmmf? The stallion approached at a painfully lackadaisical pace. Victory was etched into his confident smile as those lips came ever closer to her own. Her wings quivered uncontrollably in those infinitely dilated seconds, and she huffed—

“Tail.” Barrier gently tapped her forehead, shattering the delusions of fantasy and hurling her consciousness back into the present. “You okay?”

“Eeep!” Tail launched halfway to the ceiling with a single downflap of her wings. She gasped, squeezing her hind legs together while she glared at the perplexed stallion.

Barrier wore confusion on his countenance as he eyed the gliding pegasus. “I’ll take that as a no,” he answered, continuing to watch with a raised brow as Tail descended to the floor like a broad leaf milking its autumn fall. “Care to, uh, explain that one, Blanket, or should I take an educated guess?”

A sheepish splatter of chuckling accompanied Tail’s errant mane brushing. The pegasus wiggled her wings as she struggled to loosen the force that kept her hind legs locked together. “Mm, your educated guess would probably be correct. Something about that piece of historical information really pushed my buttons. Maybe it’s the competitive nature of pegasi at work, but I imagined all of it. Winning, losing, taking the challenge.”

“Ah, so I riled my little songbird.” Barrier let out a playful growl as he drew his muzzle towards one of Tail’s upright ears. “A part of me would love to challenge you right here and now. Then I could claim what’s mine.”

“Buck,” Tail whispered. Barrier’s sultry, husky, gritty whisper made the mare’s knees feel weak. She visibly shuddered from the notion, and the heated breath that emerged from her nostrils put the hairs on Barrier’s neck at attention.

“But I’m here to help you catch up on work today, Blanket, and after Amora brought up us going steady this morning, she might steal the win if we have such a battle now.”

Tail’s heart pounded. Her wings kept flicking about while each successive word broke her train of thought even more until the cognitive dam finally burst under the mounting pressure. “She did what!?” Those pesky wings snapped outward, providing a clear warning of the coming onslaught. “I can’t believe she would go there. Actually, no, she would go there after a few daaa— Wait! You want to go steady—”

“Spoilers, good doctor,” Barrier calmly spoke after he hushed the rambling pegasus with a simple boop to her snoot. “I have something in mind that I want to start putting together, so let me surprise you with this one. In the meantime, how about we get to work? Just tell me what you need me to do.”

Tail had carefully laid out a few rods of glistening augurite and a hoofful of thaumium crystals atop one of her workbenches. “The problem with augurite is that, since it easily conducts magical currents, it’s tough to actually manipulate with magic. I mean, one of the entrance examinations for Princess Celestia’s School of Gifted Unicorns includes a demonstration of augurite-related spells.”

The pegasus rummaged around under the tabletop and retrieved a hotplate. “Thankfully, it becomes more malleable under heat loads, so normally, I just expose the metal to a heat source and then shape it.” Tail ducked under the table surface and reappeared with protective mittens over her forehooves.

“These rods have the perfect diameter for making induction coils, so my first step is to make a bunch of different ones that we can test to measure the response. It’s probably all pretty dorky stuff to you, especially considering that you saw the end product. At this stage of the game, I have to worry about two responses: the resonance between the user and the ammo, and the natural resonance of the circuit. Only way to get the second one right is to brute-force the configuration map.”

“You don’t say?” Barrier replied as the whistle of his activated aura became audible. The blue arcs of his spell corralled one of the metal rods, and after a few seconds, the mage lifted the thin cylinder above the bench and began to warp the augurite into various spirals and wiggly shapes. “Looks like I’ve still got what it takes, so what kind of coils does my rambly little Blanket need?”

Tail gawked at the spectacle. Without saying a single word, she hurled the hotplate back into storage, internally praised the princesses because she hadn’t turned it on yet, and with equal flamboyance, atlatled her oven mitts across the room. “I don’t know how you’re so damn talented, but prepare your brain for dimensions, Magic Bear!”

The captain snickered as his lips drew a knowing smirk. “Well, I don’t know if I’m as talented as you think I am, but passing that test was what made Celestia put me on the executor track in the first place.”

Author's Note:

I came in to leave my typical AN, so I went, "Oh, what happens in this chapter."
That's when I realized this is the one where Barrier's Duel gets introduced.


Tail has many thoughts on this that I cannot share publicly without moving this from T to M. At least there is a reference to Carafluff's Under the Wing rite.

Anyhooo! Thank you for your continued readership, and see you all next week for Chapter 18 - Workbench 8.

Bonus: I introduce a character in Chapter 19 that brought me so much joy. I cannot wait for you all to meet him. :3c

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