• 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 36 - Convictions

It took three weeks for Tail and Barrier to traverse the on-hoof route from Canterlot to Trottingham. Having used their rations and foraged along the trail, both ponies made full use of the luxuries afforded to them in the two days it took to travel by train from the coastal town through Manehattan and onto Canterlot.

Barrier spent long portions of the ride dozing comfortably against Tail’s fluffy, feathery coat, while the pegasus caffeinated to her heart’s content. No longer restricted by the amount she could carry, the perky physicist remembered what it was like to fuel her addiction for some of the non-alcoholic bubbly.

When the pair had first arrived at the train platform in Trottingham, they discovered that the princesses had apparently predicted the need for some additional amenities and dispatched one of their royal railway cars to serve as a private sleeper. Spending a few months in Canterlot certainly made Tail more familiar with opulent environments, but the brilliantly white carriage still provided the most absurd travel arrangement she had ever had.

Purple drapes, with lacy golden trims, hung in each one of the windows, and a full-sized bed occupied the rear of the car. Near the front, two rows of padded seats faced one another, presumably so the heads of state could speak to other dignitaries, or one another, should they need to do so. A station was also placed adjacent to the gangway door for attendants to use in their service to The Crowns.

Giggling from her perch on the seat cushion, Tail glanced down to see if she had stirred Barrier out of his latest nap. The reactions of the company stewards would definitely have to go into a journal entry. One stallion had scrunched his muzzle in utter disbelief when she requested a glass of WNS and a sandwich as her first meal. They were clearly more comfortable catering to a more expensive palate. Then again, after spending twenty days munching on E. purslane and quackgrass, practically anything would pass as fine dining.

Tail played with Barrier’s mane once her laughter subsided and a gentle smile remained. She lightly nudged the mage as her muzzle drifted towards his ear, and a calm, melodic greeting slipped through her lips as she spoke. “We’re almost to Canterlot, Barrier. It’s probably time to wake up.”

Barrier blinked several times before he lifted himself off Tail’s claimed thigh. “Morning, Blanket,” he mumbled, casting his gaze out the window to immediately observe that the sun was already meandering through the western sky.

“Something like that,” Tail teased. She nosed his cheek while her namesake lazily swished off the edge of the sofa. “I’m not complaining. I don’t mind looking after a dozy stallion if he sleeps well, and my intuition tells me that you did just that.”

Barrier briefly stretched his neck before he plopped into a seated position next to Tail. The unicorn gave a slight nod after his shifty sights aimlessly drifted around the cabin, and he subsequently answered in a much livelier tone, “Surprisingly, I did. Really feared I’d have unpleasant dreams, but knowing lifted a big weight off my mind, I guess. She lived on. She and Radiant looked after one another.”

Pausing, he looked through the glass windows of the platform doors as Canterlot buildings began to zip by the moving train. “It’s—hard to put into words. Before I met you, I just thought my place was back then. I was stuck. No way to get home. Left with a constant burden in my mind that I was needed by her, my squad, and my family. They all fought through, though. Maybe I should have given them more credit, and yeah, I do still feel some pain if I phrase it in terms of ‘they didn’t need me after all.’ But they cared enough to leave me a gift that survived a thousand years, and you made it easier to be at peace with that gift. Heh, your poem was pretty sweet as well.”

Tail gently leaned against his unarmored frame and hummed. “I’m glad that you asked me to come with you. She’s a beautiful mare, and I can tell that she cared a lot about you if she went to those lengths. I have a strong suspicion that Amora would also want to make her an additional roommate if such an alternate universe became reality.”

Barrier snorted, repositioning his body on the seat to better support Tail’s mass. “I’m not sure whether I should be terrified by that idea or just accept that you’d make an adorable lot. Amora would pester me incessantly for pancakes, and Ember would learn that I have drastically improved my cooking skills in this era.”

When the train began to decelerate, the scientist also turned her attention to the blurs of the capital that whipped by the windows. “Semi-related, since we’re getting pretty close to the station, what did you want to do for our return-home foodening, or are you more inclined to pay a visit to Cadance and Shining Armor?”

Resting his head on the couch’s crest rail, the unicorn spent the duration of an exhaled breath staring at the ornate geometric patterns carved into the ceiling of the train car. “Shining might be on duty still, considering the time of day. He’s definitely high on my list of ponies to see, but dropping in on him when it’s a personal matter isn’t something I want to do. A visit to Pop’s Place, on-the-other-hoof, seems like a solid decision without collateral risk.”

“You had me at Pop,” Tail purred. She tenderly kissed Barrier’s exposed neck before sliding from the sofa and setting a course towards the bed. The train was in the midst of its final approach into the station, and the pegasus wanted to make sure that all of her luggage was in order before the rush, or more specifically, the inevitable rush of aides striving to help the regal clientele. “No way you’re keeping me away from that cooking. Besides, we told him three weeks, and Trot seems like the kind of stallion that actually worries about his regulars.”

“You think so?” Barrier asked, moving onto his hooves so he could sort his belongings as well. “I guess I can see it.”

Tail glanced towards the approaching Barrier while she tossed her wrinkled sleeping bag on top of the sisters’ pristine comforter. “Nostalgic type with a displayed love for storytelling, and he was down for closing the entire diner just for you to surprise me. To be honest, I should probably take Sincy to meet him at some point. I have a feeling those two would get along swimmingly.” Beaming at the social calculation, Tail started rolling her bag into a tight coil.

The stallion snickered as he sidled up to Tail before fussing with his own sleeping bag. “Leave it to the physicist to do some extra computation.”

Another shift in the train’s acceleration rocked the two ponies before a green-eyed, burnt-orange pegasus scampered into the car through the gangway door. He wore a black vest over a white shirt, and a little bowtie appeared snuggly secured around his neck. His wings fluttered as he planted his legs against the floor, and a wide, shocked stare peered through the locks of a more brownish-orange mane.

“Oh, um, sorry! I should have gotten here sooner. Colonel Tail, Captain Barrier, please allow me to get your things in order. The company would never forgive my blemish if I did not make your arrival the smoothest experience possible!”

Turning her attention to the newcomer, Tail tittered. A mischievous smirk swept over her expression, and she very deliberately reached for her saddlepack and set it on the bed so she could stow the sleep sack. Upon observing the stallion’s maintained dismay, the physicist delivered her teasing reply, “Sweety, we don’t need you to do anything. We’re both entirely capable of packing our own luggage and safely exiting.”

When the orange colt looked as though he were about to offer a rebuttal, Tail waved a foreleg and nipped the counter-notion in the bud. “We’re fine. I promise, and none of your higher-ups are going to hear any complaints out of us. I mean, you brought me caffeine after all, but it’s time to get real. Do you really think Barrier is going to let you touch his armor kit?”

Barrier immediately shook his head, and the attendant followed suit soon after. As this apparent understanding formed, a high-pitched squeal reverberated along the length of the train once its brakes engaged, and the railcar slowed to a stop in front of one of Canterlot Station’s glass-enclosed platforms.

“She knows me well,” Barrier added, lighting his horn. The pieces of his armor quivered to the magical prodding, and they rapidly popped onto his body through a series of clapping beats.

Accompanied by a steamy hiss, the windowed doors that faced the brick walkway slid open, and the drone of the bustling city immediately swept into the royals’ carriage. The sensation of fresh air hit Tail’s nose and drew out a yearning sigh. The pegasus hurled her saddlepack over her withers, did a quick double-check in search of any stray items, and felt the lure of the inviting rays of the afternoon sun.

“Please share my thanks with the rest of the staff, Dawn,” Tail addressed the orange flier before she started marching towards the exit. After a few steps, she giddily pranced around in a circle and practically leapt from the railcar. “To Pop’s Place!”

Behind her, Barrier tossed a carefree glance at the perplexed attendant. “Faust, she’s adorable when she gets excited, and those sounded like orders to me. Please give my thanks to the rest of the staff as well. I know more than most that it’s not easy being put on the spot by Celly and Luna like that.” The unicorn slung his saddlepack into its proper position before he trotted after his marefriend. He didn’t see the astounded appearance of Dawn’s face, which latched onto Barrier’s implied rapport with the alicorns, but once he passed through the opened gate and veered leftward, Barrier’s senses quickly homed in on a sheepish Tail, a giddy Princess of Love, and a snickering Captain of the Royal Guard.

Cady raved to Tail about how fantastic she looked after enduring three weeks of battling the elements, and the scientist could not resist abandoning her bashful demeanor after an additional quip emerged from the pink alicorn. “Shiny had better not try to teleport behind you again now. Might require more than the concussion protocol.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Shining grumbled, throwing his gaze to the crisscrossing white wood that supported the terminal’s glass. ”You don’t have to remind me every day that I should avoid the pranks—”

Barrier closed the distance between himself and Shining faster than even Tail had expected. He threw one of his armored forelegs around the unicorn’s neck and pressed against the younger’s alabaster muzzle with the side of his own.

“Shit, what did you do to him, Tail?” Shining squeaked once his brain caught up to his body’s recognition of the sudden embrace. “Or did Celestia put some hallucinogenic cake on the train car again?”

The charcoal-coated mage squeezed his uniformed counterpart, and a sigh broke from his lungs that sounded as though Barrier had been holding his breath from the moment he departed the train up until that very second. With the pressure released, Barrier spilled the truth, “Just let me have this one, Shining. It’s the first time I get to do this knowing that you’re hers.”

Shining’s ear flicked against the cutout in his golden helm. “Hers?” he asked, shifting his muzzle while Barrier maintained his grip.

“We already know that Radiant Spell is the father of Ardent Sparkle, but I don’t remember seeing anything in the family tree books that revealed who gave birth to the colt.” Barrier paused, and Shining’s head jerked as though a cog in his brain had suddenly lurched. “Ardent’s mother is Ember. They raised an entire family on the promise that somepony would be here for me down the line.”

“Heh,” Shining chuckled before sneaking his left foreleg between Barrier’s pack and the back of his neck. “Twily had a hunch, but neither of us felt all that comfortable bringing up a theory like that with you. Probably the only time in my life I’ve ever seen Twily ignore a potential research project, but given your successful trek”—Shining leaned to catch a glimpse of Tail—“I’m guessing that decision ended up being for the best.

“Either way, the other conniving mare in our little family thought it would also be a good idea to intercept you two at the station. I have a pair of scrolls from the Joint Chiefs to deliver, and a catch-up dinner with the recipients feels wise with wisdom.”

Tail trudged up the stairs of her apartment after a long evening with Barrier, Princess Cadance, and Shining Armor. The familiar scents of the home she shared filled her nostrils as she inhaled, and the flier couldn’t ignore an unusual sensation that crept around her body. Tail likened the fleeting experience to stepping out of her own existence.

Having spent three weeks in the wilderness journeying with Barrier, the physicist felt as though she had just walked into a foreign space. “Ams, you home?” she called, completing the climb from the landing to the living room.

“Mmhmm!” the medic answered, poking out from behind the wall that separated the kitchen from the seating area. The handle of a metal spoon dangled out of her muzzle, and a bowl of cherry vanilla ice cream floated in a sphere of her cobalt aura. Amora removed the utensil and prepared the next scoop while her sights drifted over Tail’s physique. “How’re you feeling after spending all that time with your Magic Bear?”

“Of course you’d put it that way.” Tail met the teasing tone with a flat stare and a huff. “But yes, I had a fantastic adventure with Barrier. He tested me right at the get-go, and I learned a lot thanks to that, particularly about my own limits in the field. One day, I’ll have to show you how many current rings I can sustain now. I might even catch Trigger by surprise if we have a session again.”

Finishing the trot into the living room, Amora chomped down on another creamy spoonful, twirled a forehoof, and eyed the smile that blossomed to Tail’s boast. “Mm, I have my doubts, but I’d pay money to see that. And you could at least humor me after leaving me alone to my own devices for three weeks. I forgot how boring it was before you came out here. What the heck am I going to do once you go back to Las Pegasus? So boring!”

Tail dumped her bag by the ottoman and arched her spine before she responded. “What is there to humor you with? We sparred, survived the outdoors, and shared some things about our pasts. Quit baiting. I know you’re just prodding for info on a possible Gala repeat, but this trip was about a different kind of growth—and some much-needed closure. I’m”—she stalled while her wings shakingly fluttered—“happy I could be there for him. We visited a cemetery in Trottingham, and what happened there is something I don’t think I’ll ever forget. I think I owe it to them not to.”

“Fine, fine, I see,” Amora dejectedly sighed. She plopped down on the couch cushion closest to the kitchen and wiggled her rump atop the faux-leather. Corralling another spoonful of the light-pink dessert, the medic shoveled the tasty bite into her waiting mouth before she pursued the latest thread that her roommate had left dangling. “A cemetery visit doesn’t exactly warrant my usual drive to incessantly fluster my best friend. So what was there that made it such an unforgettable experience?”

Tail scampered around the other side of the ottoman before she claimed the seat next to Amora. “It’s a little hard to explain since there are key details that really aren’t mine to divulge, but the gist of it is that Barrier’s ex and brother are buried in that cemetery. It was his first time going to the graves, and they left something there for him…”

Amora slowly turned her head to face Tail as she downed yet another spoonful. Concern toyed with the features of the medic’s cheeks while she listened to the pegasus gradually drift into silence. “Brother and ex? That sounds pretty heavy.”

Having sunk into the comfy cushions, Tail succumbed to the tingling sensations that cascaded along her limbs. Exhaustion set in as she slouched, and her eyes began to water while her memories wandered to the scene of Ember’s mausoleum.

The unicorn pressed her hoof against Tail’s shoulder and started massaging the mare. “Oh, Hunny, it didn’t make things awkward between the two of you, did it?”

Again, feathers fluttered. Tail winced, and she drew her fetlock across her closed eyes to wipe away the developing tears. “No, no, it’s not that. I’m just feeling tired now that I’m home, and there was a lot of weight Barrier had to bear during that visit. I’m happy, more than anything else, that he was able to trust me to carry some of that weight.”

Tilting her head, the physicist thoroughly observed the wrinkled lines of worry that marked Amora’s countenance. That tension remained even after Tail dopily chuckled and fashioned a lopsided smile. “Honestly, I think we only strengthened our relationship as we took on that trail. We had to tackle a lot of hard work, but we also had time to grow even more comfortable with the other’s company—least that’s my take. I’ve just kind of entered my unwind mode, and I still have a scroll from Shining to read. He made it sound like it’s a real doozy.”

Amora pressed her lips together, and she fashioned a grimace while her cobalt stare stayed affixed on Tail. “You should probably get some rest first. You’re looking pretty tired to me, and we both know what happens when a tired sciencepon starts reading something new. If it came from Shining, then yes, it is a doozy.”

“Oh?” Tail’s ears stood upright. “Did you get one too? I haven’t looked at mine yet. Shining said it was from the Joint Chiefs, so I’m guessing—”

“The Crystal Empire will return, and with it, so will Sombra. They’re going to send you to the front line with Barrier, and they want me in reserve to provide support.” Amora methodically inhaled before she continued. “I knew you were getting into deep shit with your research, but this is really deep shit, Tail. Now, I’ve watched you improve, but I’m going to be straight with you. I’m not thrilled at the thought of my best friend getting sent into what could very well become a warzone. You’re a scientist, not a soldier. Are you sure—”

“I knew,” Tail interrupted in a more resonant, solemn voice. “Before we left for Trottingham, Barrier and I both knew what was going on. Princess Celestia confirmed it. She also made it clear that my research would likely play a key role in Sombra’s defeat. I understand why you feel that way. I’ll probably be scared out of my mind when the day comes, but I’m not going to let Barrier take that on alone. I’m not going to let you take it on without me, either.”

Author's Note:

Ohhh yeah, Chapter 36! Happy Tuesday everyone! Thank you, once again, for taking some time out of your day to read and hang out in the NLA corner of the interwebs. It is appreciated.

More of a chill chapter this week in the wake of that rather heavy segment that is Chapter 35. The pieces are certainly falling into place for the future. We're 2.5 months out from the last posting... Hard to believe, but I am certainly excited. See you next Tuesday for Chapter 37 - Lossy Lines.

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