• 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 4 - Chessboard of Love

Tail’s sprawling mass, once again, stretched across the imaginary finish line on the track. She gasped as three ponies remained planted atop her back and actively ignored their various states of exhaustion—or amusement. At some point, Barrier had decided that running was not enough and that it was time for another round of the rediscovered sport of combative sprinting!

If the clutching legs around her barrel were any indication, Tail figured that Bonecrusher was immensely enjoying this new activity. In fact, the squashed pegasus convinced herself that it was the sound of giggles bubbling out of Crusher’s muzzle instead of the battle cries of pending doom. Though, the former option was preferable to pretty much anything that she had ever heard come out of the earth pony’s mouth.

“That hopefully knocked the crap out of all of you,” Barrier quipped from his post at the top of the pile. “Certainly gave that the best effort I’ve seen all day.”

A smile blossomed once Tail’s ears caught the words. They flicked to the contented tone that laced Barrier’s voice, and the timbre of that sound coaxed out a happy hum that evolved into a relieved sigh once she felt Barrier step off the stack.

The crunches from his hooves moving along the path briefly serenaded the mare before a squeak drowned out the percussive patter. Tail’s stare instantly wandered across the cheeky grin plastered onto Barrier’s face and drifted to the unicorn’s crisp blue eyes. They stood out against the swaths of red and orange that drenched Barrier’s midnight armor in the hues of the setting sun, and they sucked Tail’s awareness straight into their alluring depths.

Warmth erupted throughout her muzzle once the captain pitched his head downward. Tail’s heart thumped as the next few seconds stretched out into what felt like an eternity, and her feathers ruffled against Crusher’s grasp to the picture of Barrier holding his snout mere inches from her lips.

“Turnabout is fair play,” he spoke, repressing his volume before his attention snapped to Bonecrusher. “I think you can release her. The day is over, which means you’re just stealing my job now. And I’m not sure how much I like that.”

Tail chortled at how swiftly Bonecrusher had ejected herself from the pouncer position. After taking a moment to relish the exalted status of complete pony-pile freedom, the lavender pegasus rolled onto her side and glanced at the earth pony who had even managed to drag the dangling Indar along for the ride. “Three lengths in a flash and a corporal to boot! Not bad, Bonecrusher.”

The lime pony snorted in response and opened her mouth to reply just as Indar’s hoof tapped upon the top of her helmet.

“Let’s get going,” the perched unicorn suggested. “Trigger said tonight was a two-for-one special, and I know you’d much rather enjoy that than waste time when we’re off-the-clock.”

“Fantastic idea,” Crusher shouted enthusiastically. She spun around with a sharp kick of her leg and took a few steps before calling out to Barrier and Tail, “You two should join us if you decide not to be so damn sappy.”

Both officers remained silent as Indar and Bonecrusher made their nightly exits. Shock lingered in the gentle evening breeze, and Tail barely moved in the immediate aftermath. Her body seemed content to lay upon the gritty track, but her ears remained active—catching the soft brushings of mischievous steps.

Just before Barrier’s foreleg came down, Tail rolled away from his attempt at turnabout. She latched onto his outstretched extremity, popped up with a powerful sweep of her wings, and promptly pushed the stallion onto his back to complete her limb-locking pin. “Sweety, I hope you didn’t think I was going to go that easy on you after you telegraphed that. I can’t have you picking up an easy win.”

Barrier gawked at the pegasus. His jaw slacked, and the fur around his neck bristled from the fluid nature of Tail’s maneuver. “Sweet stars, the pony who taught you that must be proud.”

Tail gradually sculpted a half-lidded stare as she lowered her muzzle to the stallion’s nose. “Mm, playing dirty now, Barrier?” she cooed in a flirtatious voice. “It turns out that my teacher is particularly knowledgeable and quite the charmer. Two fantastic dates, and I’m pretty sure I’m about to ask him if he wants a third.”

The mare wiggled atop the stallion, gently grinding her armor against his kit the instant his subsequent smile was observed. She bit her lower lip in anticipation of his answer. Though, she had a strong suspicion that he would reply with an affirmative. What she did not expect was another source of commentary.

“My my, Auntie, you were right about them. I can feel their auras from here. Shining’s been holding things back from me. This is wonderful!”

Both Barrier and Tail slowly turned their heads to the source of the noise. Tail’s pupils dilated as she gazed upon a pink alicorn. She could feel Barrier tense beneath her straddling grip, and she stammered a response. “P-Princess Cadance!? W-What are you doing here?”

Gleeful titters burst from the princess’s muzzle. “You should see your faces! Eyes wide like Auntie Luna’s full moon.” She paused to nudge the older princess who stood at her side. “Why didn’t you bring me out here sooner? This is something that needs my immediate attention.”

Luna simply snickered. “I already told you that I needed a good reason, and now I have one. I’m afraid I’ll need you for this evening, Ms. Tail. Your new laboratory is ready, and I have to give you the tour and briefing. You can show Captain Barrier later. My niece has plans for him.”

Barrier questionably eyed Cadance while Luna left the field with Tail. His scrunched smirk battled the blatantly gleeful grin that was etched onto the alicorn’s face, and he opened his mouth to speak only after he was confident that the departing ponies were well out of earshot. “Whatever Shining told you, it is bullshit.”

The mare’s smile stretched, and her purple eyes sparkled. “Oh, Barrier, if what Shining said is bullshit, that only means he inherited the trait from your side of the family tree.” She flipped her violet, rose, and gold mane with a lackadaisical flick of her lifted forehoof and waited.

A grunt pushed its way through Barrier’s throat, and the stallion lifted his own leg to rub his forehead. “I wasn’t born yesterday, Cady. That look is more than enough to give it away. I’m not ready to have this conversation with you.”

Cadance held her silence. Her gaze narrowed, and after several shifts across his armored frame, the princess met his eyes with a far more relaxed and softened demeanor. The awkward pause lingered like the fading light of the departed sun, and Barrier’s expression contorted as his features sought refuge from the burden of the alicorn’s steadfast, regal stare.

“Faust dammit,” Barrier groaned, snapping his head to the side such that his sightline fell upon the brick archways that lined the field. “You’re turning into a brat just like your aunt. My love life isn’t royal business, so get the thought out of your head now.”

“But…” the mare interrupted with a playful note that pinged the upper edge of her registry. “As your relative, your happiness is my business. And since you just said love, I think I can stretch my case even further than you think.”

The sharp slap of Barrier’s hoof hitting his forehead briefly echoed throughout the yard. He grimaced before gradually turning his attention back to Cadance, who had started shamelessly giggling at the spectacle. “Not funny, Cady. It’s not funny at all.”

With a foallike fervor, Cadance shuffled across the grass towards the stallion. She bit her lower lip while the muscles in her cheeks fought to return the mare’s smile to its full splendor, but the princess overcame the tugs to retain her more reserved composure. “Barrier,” she answered in a motherly tone, “Shiny and I just want to make sure that you’re happy. I can already sense what you’re feeling. There’s no point in hiding it from me. I just want to help you be ready for a modern mare.”

Barrier straightened his posture as he slowly sucked in his next breath. The fur covering the back of his neck stood up, and his ears swiveled and perked. “It’s not the modern mare I’m worried about,” he grumbled. “Tail and I get along fine.”

“Then,” Cadance interrupted, swishing her tail to some imagined beat, “you shouldn’t have a problem accepting a double date invitation—say in a couple nights?”

Tail froze mid-step, drawing a sharp breath that carried with it the musty scent of the stone stairwell she had been descending with Princess Luna. They had swiftly departed the palace’s glamorous levels on an adventure to the lower, often-forgotten floors of the royal estate—where the facade was stripped down to mounted lanterns and the bare rock of ancient Canterlot.

The trek, however, had been derailed by a single statement from the Princess of the Night that left the poor lavender pegasus flustered. “Cadance wants to do what?” Tail asked in a high-pitched tone that might have been mistaken for the confused shriek of a filly had one been present.

A jovial laugh emerged from Luna’s opened muzzle. She planted her forehoof against the curving wall and braced herself as the melody stretched her smile and brought tears to the corners of her squinting eyes. “Oh, Tail! You cannot tell me that you did not see this coming! It should be no surprise at all that my niece has taken an interest in Barrier’s relationship. She is the Princess of Love, and I guess you two are sending out all the right signals.”

Redness crept over Tail’s cheeks as she gazed up at Luna in complete disbelief. “The Princess of Love… We’ve been on two dates! Two dates! How can the Prin—”

Luna’s cackling doubled in volume as she hunched over. She pushed herself from the wall and shushed the pegasus by finding the colonel’s muzzle with her flailing forehoof on the second attempt. “Amora is right! Sometimes you make it too easy! The answer, Ms. Tail, is that that is the very reason why she is going to ask Barrier for the two of you to join her and Shining Armor on a double date.”

The smaller mare sputtered in response, and her pupils swallowed her shrinking irides. In her mind, the images unloaded upon her imagination, dumping snippets of her wing-flared, flustered self, an awkward Barrier, and a pampered royal all over the place. Pitiful attempts to impress the Princess of Love with her displays of affection towards the captain tumbled about her consciousness with the grace of her first day of combat training. There was plenty of stumbling and a ton of exhaustion.

“Filly, I suggest breathing,” Luna’s voice cut through the scientist’s social simulations. The pegasus was practically hyperventilating when the comment slyly ensnared Tail’s focus, and she peered at Luna with blinking eyes before the diarch continued, “There she is! Now I can restate that there is nothing to panic about.

“Cady was the first to break through Barrier’s shell when he and I returned to Equestria. She is like a little sister to him, so I can offer my personal experience. We might be a little difficult at times, but we always mean well in the end.”

Exhaling, Tail slouched as she continued her descent towards the bottom of the curving stairwell. “Yeah, Princess, I have a younger brother, and the number of times I have cursed in your sister’s name at his antics would probably be frowned upon.”

Tail turned her head upward, gazing upon the alicorn with a keen eye before Luna’s bottom lip curled into her mouth. After a few more paces, a series of suppressed snorts slipped from the larger mare to Tail’s waiting ears. Unbridled laughter soon followed, swallowing the Princess of the Night in a chipper spirit that spurred the colonel’s feigned disdain.

“That just means he is doing his job!” Luna squealed in delight. “And don’t worry, I shan’t tell my sister about your transgressions upon her good name.”

Tail trotted off the last step just in time to deadpan at the diarch’s generous act of mercy. She rolled her eyes while her feathers and namesake flicked about, betraying her internal dismay. “Thank you for being so kind, Your Highness. Never has a princess done such a noble deed before you.”

When Luna didn’t respond immediately, the pegasus sucked on her cheek and pivoted to face the towering alicorn. The humor had been wiped from her visage, and those teal sights peered down the dimly lit hall that stretched before the pair with a knowing that Tail’s senses could not touch. “Drat,” the princess finally spoke up, “I was hoping he’d be here to meet you face-to-face this time around.”

Curiosity prodded the physicist. Her ear quivered as that desire to know perked her light frame. “Meet who?” she asked quietly, listening as her voice gained traction while it rumbled throughout the cavernous space.

Again, Luna delayed her answer. She resumed her walk down the candle-accented corridor until the smooth stone surface of the interior wall recessed. There, amidst the dampened confines of the castle’s most ancient domain, a foreboding pair of Prench-style doors stood. The modern, metal entryway smeared the light from the candles across its blue-tinted surface.

Tail had, for her part, kept pace at the alicorn’s side. She took her place in front of the mammoth structure, and her head gradually pitched her sightline towards the ceiling until the presence of a pinkish seal halted that climb. The picture of a spread phoenix stretched to fill the seal’s circumscribing circle, and Tail couldn’t resist reading the motto that wrapped around the picture’s edge. “E tenebris, invenītō fortitudinem — Out of the shadows, find resolve.”

“The creed of the Equestrian Intelligence Service,” Luna explained after tilting to face the young pegasus. “I was hoping Sir Wing would be here to greet us, but I guess he’s being a shy stallion again. Either way, it was his department that surrendered this space for you to use as your Canterlot laboratory. As they say, Ms. Tail, welcome home.”

Author's Note:

Happy Soon-To-Be New Year, everyone! I hope you're all hanging in there. Enjoy Chapter 4! There are only 43 chapters left to go. I'm fairly excited as I have a preliminary pass on the inevitable print run coming my way. Oh my, is it juicy. As far as Fate's fate in this one, there seem to be a lot of deaths. :P Anyhoo, thank you for your continued reading and support. See you all next week for Chapter 5 - A Catty Pegasus.

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