No Longer Displaced

by NoLongerSober

First published

Sass, science, and surviving basic! That seems like the perfect formula for a pegasus professor out of her element, a gruff captain 1,000 years from home, and a clever princess who has probably read too many romance novels. There are pancakes, too!

Captain Magic Barrier is far from home. Almost everything he once held dear is gone—except for a pair of alicorns, the country for which he fought, and his skills as a competent military officer. And it’s all thanks to a certain legend regarding the longest day on the thousandth year.

Professor Tail has got something to prove. A sharp mind and a quick wit in the world of academia, this pegasus is harboring a state secret that could change Equestria’s defenses forever. She just needs to survive basic training first.

Now, a common ally has played her royal hoof to bring these two together. Perhaps she knows that once training is all said and done, the physicist caught in the unfamiliar world of guard service and the captain dragged through the ages will find themselves a bit less displaced.

So, this was a super fun one to write. Well, sorta-write. In truth, I wrote very little. This story is a collaborative effort between myself and this sexy topless Wingly fellow here, and it is based quite heavily off of our characters and their intertwined stories. The amount of work he put into this is staggering, and words can not express how bloody impressive it is/was. I mean, I was there supervising, but he bloody brought it.

Cover art by the amazing dream--chan!
We have a bunch of folks who helped Wing edit that deserve thanks. These are our editors, proofreaders, and coffee slaves!
Editing Slave Word Worthy, Coffee Slave Iryerris, rebellious slave that has to be beaten into submission regularly Doccular, to Shady's Slave Floofy, because typos can suck a knob, and to the Overcute Pet, Sixkiller5, because print runs need typo slaying.

Special thanks to Discount Slave Alticron, for letting us use a certain earth pony we want to crucify.

Wing's magical comments about various story timelines can be found here, but the gist is that NLD and its coming sequels exist in a separate continuity from APD.

Lastly, if you find any typos, please PM them to Wing You should also totally follow him too.

Chapter 1 - I Can't Quit, Captain!

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Tail’s ears rested firmly against her skull as two giants squared off and stared each other down. Giant was not an exaggerative term. The Princess of the Night loosely fit the definition by size comparison, and most definitely did in terms of her stature, while the other pony carried a wholly unique history to his name—in addition to being noticeably larger than the average stallion.

“She’s a doctor.” The stallion peered flatly at his adversary. “You’re out of your damned mind, Luna.”

The princess’s eye twitched slightly, but she did not reply.

“What were you thinking, calling me all the way to the castle for this?” He thrust out a charcoal-furred leg and motioned vaguely in the direction of the jittery pegasus, whose nervous frown went unobserved by the magic wielders. “She doesn’t look like she’s trained a day in her life and you want me to take her on as a cadet?”

“Not in the most conventional sense, but yes.” Luna’s tone remained level, her teal eyes never breaking from the icy blues of the unicorn. “Besides, it’s not like you had anything better to do.”

“No,” Barrier stated simply and turned towards the door to leave. “I’m not training any more ponies. Not after last time.”

“Asking you was a formality, Captain.” Luna lifted her formerly level voice by several decibels and gave it a hard edge; it was a side of her very few ponies saw in the modern age.

“Excuse me?” Barrier turned to face her once again, his two-tone blue mane cutting through the air as he did so. “I don’t take orders from you, Luna.” Like the princess, his tone took on an equally hard edge, almost seeming to dare her to continue the argument.

Princess Luna!” The larger mare closed the gap as a dangerous glint formed in her eyes. “You will show me the respect due to my station, Captain. You owe me that much.”

“I don’t owe you a damned thing!” The unicorn’s volume spiked, alerting the guards standing outside of the room as he too stalked forward. “I paid my debt to both you and your sister! Faust-damn it, I gave everything for both of you, and you would demand more!?”

Tail found herself backpedaling, her chocolate-brown eyes shifting nervously as she watched the two juggernauts come nearly muzzle-to-muzzle. Even from across the room, she could feel the raw magic that steadily began to form around the pair as both of them seemed to prepare for the worst. This was not what she had wanted at all.

“Try it,” the lunar diarch threatened.

Barrier’s muzzle drew back into a snarl, and his charcoal-grey coat seemed to stand on end—likely charged with magic. “Don’t tempt me. You know damned well who taught me and what I can do when pushed.”

“Aye, We are aware. We are also aware you spent the first ten months of your return studying how to fell an alicorn, much in the same manner as your mentor.” Instead of fashioning a similar expression, Luna allowed a smug smile to settle upon her face.

“Aye, and as it turns out, there are several methods to do so.” Barrier’s snarl slowly faded to a grimace. “Why would you ask me to train this pony, Luna? What could possibly necessitate the need for this mare to gain my expertise? She’s not a soldier. She’s not even a guard!”

“There will be a time and a place for that, Barrier, but it is neither now nor here. I have my reasons. There is a use for the doctor, but that is not really what is important when it comes to you. You and I both know you won’t say no to me. We both know you can’t say no to me. You wouldn’t have come otherwise.” Luna’s tone was almost singsong.

Barrier groaned and fell back onto his haunches, his forehooves finding their way to his temples. “By Zacherle, you are absolutely insufferable.”

Tail’s eyes narrowed in confusion at the sudden and unnatural shift in tone between the two, but she maintained her silence, as Luna had instructed her to do.

“So then, you’ll do it?” The princess couldn’t grin any wider when Barrier’s eyes shifted and settled distastefully on the third wheel of the situation.

“What’s your name, pegasus?” the unicorn asked harshly.

Out of all of the possible first impressions that she had gone over in her head, that entire engagement had made even her worst-case scenario appear harmonious. She should have never agreed to Princess Luna arranging anything. It would have been better if she had just said it herself. “Tail, Captain. My name is Tail.”

Barrier snorted and threw his gaze back to the princess. “A few things before I agree to anything. Firstly, if she dies because of my course, I take no responsibility for it.”

Tail’s eyes widened considerably, though no other pony had noticed the developed look of disbelief.

“Secondly, I’m charging you and your sister out the flank if I’m going to be training again. I haven’t been in the Equestrian military since shortly after my return, so this is an external job that demands the pay. Also, I will go at my own pace and set my own schedules, as well as those of my cadet.” The stallion waited for a nod before continuing, “And finally, I reserve the right to send this filly packing if I don’t think she’ll measure up.”

“We can agree to all of those stipulations, if you’ll allow us one of our own. We want you to take two other ponies, in addition to her.”

The unicorn’s eyes narrowed and his grimace returned. “You know how I feel about training cadets, Luna.”

“I’m aware, but since you’re already here, we might as well make the most of you.” Luna waited for a response; when she received none, she nodded once more. “Welcome back, Captain. Your ponies will be waiting on the field within the hour.”

“So, uh…” Tail glanced meekly at the two of them, and she almost squeaked when both of their gazes rapidly snapped to her; perhaps most frightening of all was the ominous half-grin that now sat on the captain’s muzzle.

Only the sounds of steady hooves accompanied the two ponies as they trotted from Luna’s chamber. Tail swallowed hard, the unrelenting quiet nagging her to the core. She yearned to communicate—to establish some rapport—but the rules of academia did not hold weight here. These ponies survived on an entirely different code, and at times, survival appeared to be the heaviest burden of all.

Barrier’s file had been marred by tragedy, and Tail had clung to every single word from those archives. Her review had started nearly three weeks ago, and while the process took time to complete, she knew immediately that she needed him. She also realized that this step would be difficult. There were facets and variables in those pages that she had no chance of constraining, for they seemed surreal.

On top of that, tradition lingered with its prowling form. Tail expected the rough stuff and bitter treatment, yet there were proper times and places for everything. She had approached this engagement with nothing but respect for his guard pride and experience, and she implicitly understood that she had done nothing to earn his respect.

However, she had done nothing to earn his disrespect either. She had done nothing to earn the cold shoulder. “I’m sorry things got off on the wrong hoof, Captain Barrier,” she finally spoke up. “I appreciate you taking the time to do this. I know it’s unusual.”

The unicorn turned and gave the mare an unwavering stare along with a moment of silence before he opened his mouth to reply, “Don’t apologize. Not your fault Luna’s being an insufferable brat. Always with the vague agendas—” The stallion scoffed and began to walk down the hall once more, speaking as he went. “And I don’t think you’ll appreciate me for long. I’m going to ride you, and whomever the hell else Luna sends to me, absolutely ragged. It’s gonna be my job to make you want to quit.”

The stallion stopped again, turning and locking eyes with the smaller mare. “Tomorrow when we’re on the field, you’re not a mare. You’re not a doctor. You’re not a civilian. You’re my cadet, and I plan on breaking you.” His voice was hard and a cocky grin had settled upon his face. “Ready yourself, Tail. For the next few months, life as you know it is over.”

Her wings shifted to his words as each one was absorbed and processed. Towering before her thoughts was that wall of tradition. He had just blatantly promised to terminate her existence as she knew it. Yet even stacked against the unicorn’s edgy facade, a spark of dedication remained. This was her punishment for tinkering with things best left untouched. She had to make sure. “I can’t quit, Captain.”

Barrier’s expression did not shift as he spun his flank to the mare and resumed his trot. With each step, her simple statement gradually stretched his presented smirk into a genuine smile, one that he would not dare let her see.

“These are the ponies I’m supposed to train?” Barrier spoke to himself more than to the others, making no effort to hide the disappointment in his voice. “Zacherle above, Luna has a sense of humor.”

Wisely, none of the ponies spoke up.

“Get in line with the others, filly.” Barrier cracked his neck as Tail moved to follow the order, her eyes briefly scanning her squadmates en route. “I assume you all know why you’re here?”

He was answered with three simultaneous nods.


Barrier carefully circled the three, sizing them up and committing their appearances to memory.

First up was the reason he was in this mess: Tail. The pegasus mare came up to just beneath his chin and was covered in a smooth, well-groomed lavender coat. Her long black mane and namesake draped over her figure, though it was the heart-shaped atom on either side of her flank that Barrier made sure to remember.

Directly to Tail’s right was the earth pony of the group, a towering lime-green mare with a slightly lighter lime-yellow mane. She was nearly as tall as he was. Rather than staring at him, she seemed to be looking at Tail with a general distaste; Barrier paid it no mind—for the time being.

On the far end was the last of his new trainees, a fairly regular-sized unicorn with a coat the color of sun-baked ground, and a harsh, sunny mane. Perhaps the most normal of the three, he was standing at attention and had his umber gaze fixated firmly on his new C.O. Barrier waged that he had been in the guard the longest.

“If you want to back out of my training, this is your only opportunity. Once this starts, you either succeed, or you get crushed. Ponies die when the unfit break in the middle of a battle. There’s no backing out then, not without consequence.”

Barrier gave the group twenty seconds to allow the words to sink in. When none of them protested, he clicked his tongue. “Alright then. Take today and tomorrow off to get your affairs in order. From zero-five-thirty to nineteen-hundred, for the next couple months, your flanks belong to me. Eat a good breakfast because in two days you’ll all report here in full armor.” At the silent acceptance of the ponies, Barrier dropped his hoof loudly to the ground. “Dismissed!”

Rather quickly, two of the cadets left, disappearing into the bowels of the castle.

“You’re still here,” Barrier addressed Tail flatly.

Tail’s chin drooped and her neck tightened. She swallowed hard, as if she were clearing a lump in her throat, before a quiet cough quickly followed. “Yes, sir.”


Tail shrunk back slightly and dug her hooves into the turf. “I don’t have armor, sir.”

Barrier closed his eyes and took a deep breath before slowly exhaling it. “Captain Armor should be in his office at this time. Tell him that I sent you and that you need to find a suit that’ll fit. If you make it through to the end, we can see about getting something custom-fit.” When the mare responded with only a timid bob of the head, Barrier reiterated himself. “Dismissed.”

Tail retreated into the walls of the palace proper. The civilian in her craved something more than the curt orders and apathetic tones. She had already made it clear that she could not quit. It was not a lie. Yes, she was out of her element, but he did not have to make it a matter of if. She would not let them take it from her.

Her tail aggressively cut through the air as she allowed the notion to stab at her mind. “I’m not a bucking quitter,” she whispered with a harsh grit to the empty hallway. She clenched her jaw and huffed as her heart pushed a burning pulse. “I’m going to hold him to that fitting.”

The pegasus promptly ground her march to a halt. Her wings snapped open once she realized that her muffled tirade had terminated right in front of Captain Armor’s office. Her feathers ruffled while she raised her hoof to knock. “I really hope he didn’t hear that…”

“Enter,” a dull voice commanded while Tail’s hoof was still mid-stride. A blue shimmer of magic cradled the entire door, and moments later, the wooden planks swung to the side.

“Uh,” Tail began awkwardly at first before Shining Armor raised a hoof, silencing her.

“One moment,” the snow-colored unicorn stated as he finished scrawling and stamping things at the bottom of a piece of parchment. When he glanced up, he gave Tail a smile. “Right, how can I help you, Miss…?”

“Ah, Tail,” she introduced herself and returned his smile with one of her own. Already, the stallion seemed infinitely more approachable than his fellow captain.

Shining Armor folded his hooves on his desk. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Miss Tail. Now, how can I—” The guard stopped. His pupils dilated slightly as he sharply sucked in some air. The pause held, and he gave the seemingly soft mare in front of him what appeared to be a once-over.

“So, you’re the one Captain Barrier is training? The one with the program?”

Tail nodded. “He—um—he told me to talk to you about getting a suit of armor.”

“Sorry to hear that. That course is gonna be rough,” Shining said in a genuinely apologetic tone before tugging a drawer open and withdrawing a piece of paper from within. With well-practiced movements, he quickly filled in the form before passing the requisition order to Tail. “Take this to the Quartermaster and he’ll see that you’re outfitted as best as you can be.”

Tail donned an apprehensive smile before she tucked the form under a wing. “Thank you, sir.”

“And uh…” Shining Armor’s voice stopped Tail as she made to leave. “Good luck. With my grandfather, that is. You’re gonna need it.”

Tail flicked an ear downward in the wake of the ominous warning, and the fur at the back of her neck stood upright. “I’ll be sure to remember that, Captain.” Her voice trailed off before a sudden squeak sent her feathers sprawling. “He’s your grandfather!? How the heck does that work? He doesn’t look that much older than you.”

Shining could not contain his boisterous laughter. “Not quite, but that’s a long story for a different time, Miss Tail.”

Chapter 2 - Colliding Fronts

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Mornings were never friendly to Tail. The night had always been her kindred spirit—fueling those hours when she could drift into the lab and remain undisturbed. With numerous early morning activities on the horizon, he would hold those precious seconds hostage for her immediate future, and she simply groaned at the impending prospect of that adjustment.

Thankfully, Barrier had given the group a couple days to get their affairs in order, and Tail had most certainly done just that. The pegasus could honestly not remember the last time she had been up at this hour, but she praised the two nights that were allotted to shift her sleep schedule. It had been an operation of critical necessity. Luna’s advice on the matter had been crystal clear. “Fifteen minutes early is on time. On time is late in Barrier’s world.”

Tail’s head snapped about at the realization that she had once again mumbled things aloud in the castle halls. She heaved a sigh, concluding that all of the present guards either just did not care or were too busy wondering just what in Tartarus she was doing in armor.

Her muzzle scrunched while she took a few more steps. Despite having a day to acquaint herself with her newest friend, she did not feel quite at home beneath the gleaming plates. Her appreciation for the pegasus ponies in service swelled with each stride. Getting used to the added weight was rapidly moving up the mare’s mental checklist.

She halted abruptly before reaching the training grounds, her pupils dilating to the thumping pulse that pounded behind her golden breastplate. “I’ll need it,” she whispered in recollection of Shining’s warning, “because it’s my responsibility.”

Her breathing steadied, her posture straightened, and her brow descended as Tail steeled herself. She stepped forward, passing beneath the stone archways and onto the field. If trotting into that world was the only way, then it was the only way.

Off in the distance, Magic Barrier made his turn into the straightaway portion of the track that circumscribed the yard. He bolted towards the staring mare with a surprisingly quick dash and slid to a halt a short distance from her position. “You’re early,” he stated flatly, though his tone did not come across nearly as disapproving as it had the other day.

Tail nodded, noting how he briefly examined every bit of her equipment, and she instinctively returned the favor throughout the short reprieve. The stallion paced his breaths, and his mane, through the courtesy of his sweat, clung weakly to the gunmetal plates that covered his withers. The spiked armor made it look as though Barrier had stepped right out of a bygone and vastly more intimidating era. A towering stallion in a ghastly shell, he cast a presence that suddenly made Luna’s suggestion make a lot more sense.

“Laps.” Barrier shattered the silence. “As hard as you can until the others get here.”

Barrier took off down the track as soon as his lips had closed. His commanding tone brokered no opportunity for a retort—not that Tail would have offered any. Without complaint, she had moved to follow, though the first stretch was anything but pretty.

The percussive pops of clashing metal sheets echoed off the walls while Tail clumsily sought a rhythm that actually allowed her to function. Her muzzle reddened through the next few lengths, driven by the grating bangs that accompanied her lumbering steps. The strap placement was clearly not ideal for any sort of exercise. “Why didn’t anypony warn me about that?” she huffed quietly after stopping to make reasonable adjustments to the gauntlets.

Once again, Barrier slid to a halt before he pivoted to watch the mare fiddle with the straps. “Because you’re not here to be coddled.”

Tail rose upon resecuring her kit, and with a high-step trot, she found that her changes had effectively silenced the obnoxious noise. “You’re right, Captain,” she answered as she approached him, still figuratively wiping the red off her muzzle. “I’m here to learn. Sorry for stopping. I should have run with it yesterday.”

“You’ll get there.” Barrier rolled his shoulders, drawing several sharp cracks. “Come on. If you’re here, you’re working.” Barrier began his jog once again, glancing behind him briefly to ensure that Tail was following.

The mare couldn’t help but smile at his words. It was, by far, the most encouraging thing she had heard him say to her. The instant he glanced back, however, she tried to wash the expression from her muzzle. It was neither the time nor place to get lost in some momentary giddiness. She was clearly lagging behind and had to exert more effort just to regain the pace.

Bonecrusher grumbled as she and Indar neared the training grounds. “I’m tellin’ you, Indar, she hasn’t seen a day of guard work in her entire life. I don’t know how she got accepted into this program, but it’s a slap in the face to ponies like you. It’s a slap in the fucking face to ponies like me.”

The sandy-colored unicorn regarded the lime mare with a degree of apathy. “If I’m being honest, Bonecrusher, I don’t care,” Indar stated in a gravelly voice. “This class was put together by Princess Luna, and if she didn’t have a reason for the other mare’s presence, then our squadmate wouldn’t be here. That’s the same for the both of us.”

The earth pony growled as one of her massive hooves stomped into the dirt. “That rookie trash is no squadmate of mine. Don’t ever put her in the same league as me.”

Indar grunted and rolled his eyes. “I can do that if you do me the favor of shutting up about this subject. Your opinions are not of my concern.”

“Let’s go, you two!” Barrier called out, his harsh voice reaching the new arrivals with surprising clarity, given that he and Tail were on the other side of the track. “Sixty laps, full-speed! And you could learn some things from the mare that was on time.”

Indar winced at the order, but the unicorn promptly moved into his running stride. Behind him, he could hear the seething grumbles of Bonecrusher and the muttered, “Kiss ass,” that followed.

“Catch up, you two!” Barrier’s voice rang out again, effectively muffling Bonecrusher’s angry rambling as it pushed the ponies to pick up their paces.

Tail paid little attention to the developments down the track. Strained breaths sloshed in and out of her muzzle, and she quietly counted her steps. Her heart thumped, producing a throbbing sensation in her head, and the ache of acid-drenched muscle radiated throughout her limbs.

Barrier didn’t even shift his gaze as Bonecrusher sped past the pair, though his ears did drift to the deafening stride. He let out a displeased sigh as a knowing look shaped his countenance, and with that, he turned his attention to the pegasus instead. “Tail, run a cool-down lap and take a two-minute break. After that, you can meet me by the stands. I still have to put you through some evaluations and see where you stand versus the standard guard. Indar, Bonecrusher, you’ve got thirty more laps before I even consider letting you have a break. Count them out loud.”

“Yes, sir,” the smaller mare breathed out with a considerable degree of effort.

Tail immediately slowed, and an uncontainable groan seeped from her muzzle once her pacing had been thoroughly, albeit purposefully derailed. She moved to the outside lane, giving her fellow trainees the benefit of the inside track, before she settled herself back into a trotting rhythm.

The lavender mare had made it about halfway through her cool-down lap before the thunderous gallop of Bonecrusher perked her ears. Pops pierced the air with each of the earth pony’s steps, and Tail could only imagine the speed until she turned around to actually observe it.

Bonecrusher was already a few lengths behind and rapidly closing. The impressive ease with which she carried her golden armor left Tail a bit awestruck. Those thoughts would have to wait.

“Out of my way!” Bonecrusher wailed, drifting into Tail’s lane before bulldozing the pegasus with a shoulder tackle. “Hmmf!”

Tail tumbled to the ground and rolled onto her side. Her mouth hung open while her widened eyes tracked Bonecrusher’s movements. Her wings twitched, particularly the one that had been pinched by the blow, and an instinctive stretch quickly tested the appendage. She wheezed and pushed herself back onto her hooves before a scowl, clawing away shock’s remnants, scraped its way onto her face.

“Just get to Captain Barrier,” Indar spoke calmly as he passed by.

His words jolted Tail to cap her mounting anger and resume her jog. As much as her heart burned to call out Bonecrusher for the juvenile antics, the stallion’s suggestion was wise. It’s not my place to discipline Barrier’s students.

Barrier clutched a quill and a stack of parchment with his magic, and a grimace spread across his muzzle as he glared at the first blank page. The clamor of colliding armor drew his attention just in time to see Bonecrusher bowl through the smaller pegasus. Barrier’s expression narrowed. He sighed and stepped towards the track, but when Tail picked herself up and continued with her run, the captain shook his head and returned to his papers with the slightest hint of a smile on his face.

“Light frame, hopefully nimble. Won’t want anything too extended. Quick takedowns…” Barrier scribbled down the points he spoke aloud, not bothering to stop as his eyes flicked up to watch Tail approach. He forced the ghosts of that smile from the corners of his lips and continued. “No prior experience on file. We’ll start from the ground up then. Form and launch…” The quill and parchments floating in his magic both vanished with a pop.

Tail’s breaths had steadied considerably by the time she reached the stands. Fatigue, however, still clung to her coat in the form of earned sweat that made her shift her armor in search of some relief. After a few attempts, she huffed through her scrunched muzzle, firmly planted a hoof into the grass, and affixed her gaze upon her captain.

Trotting to the tired mare, Barrier gave a reminiscent snort at the sight. “Think about how much it sucks later. Your file is empty, and there are things I need to know. Ever had any combat training of any kind? Martial arts, self-study, schoolyard scuffle, sibling brawl?”

“No, sir,” Tail answered dutifully.

“Alright, stand at attention, wings out.” Barrier motioned vaguely with his right foreleg before he stepped closer to the mare.

Immediately, Tail flared her wings to their full length. She stood up a bit straighter, straining against the oppressive armor that, at this stage in the game, only sought to weigh her down.

Without ceremony, Barrier pressed a hoof into the crook of the mare’s left foreleg, bending it inward and causing her to pitch forward slightly at the shift in balance. A squeak bubbled from Tail’s lungs, and almost on reflex, Barrier pressed a hoof to her chest to steady her.

Her gaze snapped to his, and the pair stood in silence for several seemingly endless seconds before Barrier broke away. He cleared his throat. “You’re small and light, so you want any fight you’re in to end quickly.” Barrier moved to her other foreleg to repeat the same action, after which he stepped back to glance at the results. “Anything prolonged will put you at a disadvantage.”

Tail’s front half had been considerably lowered by the shift in foreleg position. Her hind legs remained in their straight, standing configuration, which left her flank awkwardly raised. Barrier mumbled something inaudible to himself and moved closer to make some much-needed adjustments to the mare’s limbs.

“Sorry,” he stated abruptly once his little maneuver had managed to draw out another squeak. “Been a long time since I last did this with a pegasus. Someone else usually handled this part back in my day.” He stepped back to observe the form once again. “The point’s the same though. I want you to propel yourself at me at full speed.”

Barrier then walked away, putting distance between the mare and himself. “Don’t hold back. I’ll stop you when you cross the distance.” Barrier braced himself, readying his hind legs and tilting his forelegs in a manner similar to Tail’s.

Tail inhaled sharply and tentatively explored her posture by rolling her weight back and forth. “Oh…” She swished her namesake and rocked once more. “This position is way more efficient!” A smirk actually made its way onto her muzzle as Tail crouched. She leapt forward, her wings snapping after the jump-start her legs provided, and bolted directly into Barrier.

Barrier’s nostrils flared slightly in surprise at the speed Tail had achieved in her armor. With a sharp intake of breath, he waited until she was nearly on top of him to raise his forelegs and grasp the mare. He clenched his jaw as his hind hooves dug into the ground, and a gritty exhale shot between his teeth. With a heave and a pivot, he reared up with the smaller pegasus in tow and spun several circles until her speed had bled off and he could carefully set her down.

The mare gazed up at her superior with a wide-eyed expression. She panted heavily, though her paced demeanor drowned any sign of exhaustion and instead carried the hints of exhilaration. From the moment she had made contact with the stallion, everything had been a blur. The grapple, the way he moved her body, and the fact that she felt no pain from the impact were all new and shocking experiences.

“Not bad, but could’ve been better. For this strike, you want to keep your sights on the legs. Non-pegasi will have problems with less than three hooves on the ground, and you have the opportunity to take out two of them right from the get-go, so mind the trajectory to keep that option.” Barrier’s critique emerged in a wholly emotionless tone that was meant as much for himself as it was for Tail. “You’re gonna wanna work on synchronizing your wings and hind legs better as well. You want the kickoff to add to your downstroke as if it’s all one motion. There’ll be a couple more things to work on later, but for now, take five and then start a set of fifty wing-ups. The other two should be done by the time you are.”

Turning his back to the mare, Barrier started towards the track. He tugged a silver flask from…somewhere as he did so and upended it into his muzzle. His head shook, following a slight shudder that raked his neck, and he promptly sealed the flask before falling in line with Bonecrusher and Indar.

Tail surveyed Barrier as the officer strode away. She raised her foreleg and opened her mouth, but for a moment, the air refused to move at her behest. So many questions lingered at the tip of her tongue, and so many thoughts tried to make sense of the blur. However, it was the thought of those metallic contours that sat upon the forefront of her mind until a wince managed to force out a whisper. “It’s not your place, Tail.”

She dropped to the ground and started her wing-ups. There was much to do and much to learn. She could have her five minutes some other time. “But if I work hard enough, one day it will be.”

Chapter 3 - Mid-week Montage!

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Sheets rustled in the predawn hours before Tail rolled from her bed. She had struggled with the early rise at first, but as the days turned into weeks, her body became more accustomed to the ritual that insane ponies called morning. A smile spread on her muzzle and her wings perked after a simple stretch.

“Today’s finally the day,” she whispered, briefly rummaging around her cluttered space to find the light as well as one of her notebooks. She floated to her desk and stared at the charcoal-covered tome while a wandering hoof ventured forth to turn to the first page. Though her hoofwriting was a scribbling mess, Tail clung to the sentiment that dripped from her words while strolling through the recollections.

Day 3 — Hi, future me! Remember when you decided to buy this thing to use as a journal for your training journey? I do! Because it just happened. :P In case you forgot, we picked this one out because it looked eerily similar to Captain Barrier’s coat.

Speaking of Captain Barrier — his armor is pretty terrifying, and I kind of want to ask Princess Luna about it because the look is just fascinating.

On the class front, I’m honestly trying not to get too down on myself. My squadmates are just in completely different leagues. Indar seems like a nice guy, but he might as well be a statue. He just has that demeanor about him that makes an approach attempt awkward. Super composed all the time.

Bonecrusher, on-the-other-hoof, is just impossible! IMPOSSIBLE! Look at that, I wrote in all caps so you know I’m super serious about it. If it were my classroom, I would have punted her straight to the dean on Day 1. I figured a few guards would be aggressive when it came to my participation, but she takes it to the extreme and nothing gets done about it. She just always seems to be there to remind me.

“You’re too damn slow!” the earth pony roared as she charged by Tail. She went out of her way to deliver a hip check to the armored pegasus.

At least Tail was ready this time. She planted her outside foreleg, flapped her wings, and stumbled back into her stride without toppling to the ground. Pressing pants clung to whatever air nature would lend, and the mare fought for every step. “Ninety-seven, ninety-eight, ninety-nine, four thousand!” Tail resumed her count cadence as she came out of the curve and entered the straightaway.

“You’re stealing the air from the rest of us, Ms. Tail! I want to see you gallop, not hear your math.” Barrier snapped his head to Bonecrusher. “Pacing is important, Private! Flash is even more useless on the field than it was in that Girls movie! If you go down with a cramp, I’ll ride your flank all the way back to the lockers—”

Tail giggled at the quote as her hoof delicately brushed the ink-filled parchment. There was something unusual about her captain that she just couldn’t pin down. Or rather, there was something unusual with how she felt about his methods.

Day 9 — Captain drilled us into the ground today. If I ever have to move again, it’ll be far too soon. Shut up, future me. I realize I’m still writing. I know you thought it!

I’m still getting used to Sally. That’s the name of my armor, by the way. She needed something cute, and the irony just kind of stuck out. Sally sallied forth.

Things got pretty intense in the afternoon. Wing-ups, push-ups, crunches, sprints, squats. A week ago, I probably wouldn’t have made it through the day. The workouts are definitely paying off, and I’m starting to get a little more confident when it comes to my fitness. It’s weird. Whenever I tried to exercise before, I couldn’t get this far. Maybe it’s because I have something to fight for? Though, it may have a lot more to do with the way Captain Barrier…

“Finally, I see some real fucking wing-ups out of you, Cadet! I was starting to think that all that physics knowledge neglected to cover proper form. Are you enjoying this yet?” He peered down at the pegasus and watched as she gritted her teeth and carried about her business. “I asked you a question, Rookie, and I want an answer.”

Tail huffed as she completed her set of one hundred. Her wings were twitching uncontrollably as the dull ache oozed into her withers. “No offense, Captain, but it really sucks.” She rocked back onto her haunches and gazed up at the mischievous smirk that was waiting to greet her.

“Did you hear that? Ms. Tail thinks this round really sucks. Well, thank you, Professor, for thinking about my feelings. Why don’t we do this one again so each of you can gain an appreciation for the time I put into crafting this lesson—”

Tail’s ears fell when the groans of Indar and Bonecrusher reached her position. She quickly realized that Barrier hadn’t really ended his shouting with any intonation that resembled a question. She inhaled sharply and briefly prepared. The others were noticeably—and rightfully—frustrated by the latest order, but there was something about that stupid smirk—or the metre of his delivery—that snatched her respect.

“Yes, sir,” the pegasus answered while dropping back to the dirt. She felt the burning rush that ensnared her frame and the sparks of inspiration that flickered about her countenance.

Day 16 — Indar and Bonecrusher started poking around about my purpose for being there. I feel guilty for not being able to tell them. Well, guilty for not telling Barrier and Indar anyway. Captain probably deserves to know. He’s such a hardass, but it feels really genuine to me — way more endearing than those windbags I normally get to deal with. I think Indar at least tries to look out for me too, but Bonecrusher? She can just go stand right by my particle beam dump…

The colors of sunset painted the skies above the training grounds. The captain had already dismissed his trio of cadets for the night and left them to do whatever it was that fillies and colts did these days.

“Why are you still here?” Crusher berated the pegasus as soon as Barrier was out of earshot. “Don’t start thinking that you’re one of us just because you can run and flap your wings like a physically capable pony.”

Indar planted a hoof against his own muzzle and muffled the escaping sigh. “Ugh, I think what Bonecrusher is trying to say, Ms. Tail, is that we’re curious as to why a physicist would put herself through this type of training.”

Tail flinched as Bonecrusher let out a cry that—as far as the pegasus could guess—was probably the closest thing to embarrassed that the earth pony could muster. Her wings reflexively fanned, and the left side of her lip tucked upward as uncertainty settled upon her voice. “I… I’m sorry, Indar, but I’m not in a position where I can tell you that.”

Lime-colored hooves slammed into the grass, Bonecrusher’s brow severely furrowed, and her amethyst glare threw daggers into Tail. “Why the fuck not? He’s a veteran! I’ve done my fair share of time too. Why the fuck are you so damned important?”

The lavender mare took a few seconds to absorb the scorn that had been hurled in her face. Picking a fight with the anger-prone Crusher was a terrible idea, and while she believed she could get help if it came to that, the fact that Indar was curious put her in a tight spot. “I’m sorry,” she answered, putting the calmest mask upon her mien that she could shape. “It’s classified.” Official.

“The buck did you say to me—” Bonecrusher shuddered and took a step towards Tail. She was only stopped by the intrusive reach of Indar, who cut the earth pony off well in advance.

“Sorry to trouble you,” he spoke, albeit with an unusual touch of sorrow in his tone. “Come on, Private. We shouldn’t keep Ms. Tail. We have guard duties that need our attention.”

Day 24 — I did it! I did it! Celestial crap! I finally did it!!! After three weeks of working on it, the power and rhythm are aligned. I hit Captain Barrier with his patented Barrier Pegasus Dash — No, it isn’t the real name! I’m being dramatic! Hush your future face. — Okay, so… the rush of hitting the right sequence of dash-downstroke-cycle after going through all that training is something that is really hard to describe. Remember that first time Dad took us up into the clouds and pushed us off?

The wind took our mane, and our tail was flapping around in the breeze. After falling a bit, we finally let our wings spread and the lift held us there until Dad swept down and scooped us into a hug. He had that proud grin on his face as though we had made his dreams come true. That’s how I felt today, and, well, I’m not really sure, but I think Barrier gave me that smile too.

The pegasus set her gaze upon those words for quite a while before finally venturing into the shower. The water drenched her mane, and the pitter-patters accompanied a quiet tune that eventually grew into a louder roar. “Alright, Captain,” she spoke to the echoey walls, “I am ready to learn how to combat.”

Chapter 4 - Kindling

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Tail readied herself and hunched into her sprint position. It was the only warning Barrier had before the mare launched forward at a blinding pace. A little over a month had passed since her first day, and she had rigorously worked to synchronize the movement of her wings and hind legs. It was not the only impressive transformation. The physical training traded body fat for toned muscle, and as a result, Tail’s overall power had climbed to a new plateau.

The charge, however, was a last-ditch effort from a sore and tired pony, and unfortunately, Barrier had been the one to teach her the maneuver in the first place. Falling to the left, he threw his right foreleg hard into the mare’s shoulder. Her wings locked at the sudden shift, and her balance crumbled as she toppled to the ground in a battered and winded state.

“An admirable effort,” Barrier replied past his own hurried breaths as the mare picked herself up with a groan. “You’ve come a long way since Luna dragged your flank in.” Another day of unloading combat experience and tactical knowledge was coming to an end, and at this point, it was all they really needed, knowing how and what to do when and why.

Tail flexed the wing she had landed on and gave another groan in response to the praise.

“Damned teacher’s pet.” From her spot on the sidelines, Bonecrusher angrily muttered under her breath. Her response drew a glance and a nudge from an annoyed Indar.

“Something you want to say, Bonecrusher?” Barrier eyed the pair after their peanut gallery display yanked his attention.

“No, sir,” the mare replied through clenched teeth and an equally biting glare.

Tail shook off the ache in her wing joint and stretched the feathery appendage. For a brief moment, she rolled her eyes at what had to have been another Bonecrusher outburst. It’s not my class, she reiterated to herself, but after weeks of enduring underhooved quip after quip, buck did she wish that it was. The pegasus rolled her forelegs, collected her wits, and sighed. “Captain Barrier?”

The captain held his firm stare upon Bonecrusher’s seething gaze before he turned his focus back to the lavender pony. “What is it?”

“How do I counter it?” Tail’s namesake swished. Her wings fluttered with anticipation, and a hint of amber kissed her iris while that desire to learn practically dripped from her armored frame. “My momentum, that is. You easily disrupt it, and I’m not high enough off the ground to recover from it in time.”

Keeping a neutral expression, Barrier replied quickly, “You use your wings. Your body’s first instinct is to lock them up. It’s a natural pegasus response, and at higher altitudes, it would actually be useful. If you were up in the air, you’d drop into a freefall, gain speed, and pop into a glide. You have to make yourself aware of this reaction and get past it. When your momentum goes off-kilter, tuck a wing and go into an aileron roll as fast as you can. Preferably the inside one.”

“An aileron roll just barely off the ground?” Tail winced at the thought of failing such a maneuver. Her wing was still complaining from her earlier fall. Her head lifted towards the sky while she pondered it more, and eventually, her philosophical tones seeped from her lips. “Is that even possible?”

“Very much so,” Barrier stated matter-of-factly. “A friend of mine from years ago was able to pull it off fast enough to club me on the back with the carpal joint of her wing. Armored, of course.”

Tail tilted her head, drifting back into her attempts to visualize such a feat.

Meanwhile, Barrier merely shrugged and watched the setting sun as it began its descent below the horizon. While his cadets absolutely hated the pounding they took during their sparring sessions, the results spoke for themselves. They were taking less of a beating each time, and if he wanted to experience the continued enjoyment that came with owning the Tartarus out of his rookies, he’d have to change his style soon. “Good work today, all of you,” he commented, waving a hoof. “You’re all dismissed. Go do whatever it is you kids do these days.”

Indar nodded while Bonecrusher only huffed. The two trotted from the field, leaving the stoic Barrier and the contemplative Tail lingering in their wake. The pegasus waited until the others had disappeared into the castle before she cleared her throat. “Sir?”

Barrier’s right eye twitched just slightly. “What is it, Tail?”

She batted the ground with her hoof, fending off the noticeable irritation that laced Barrier’s expression and tone. Her sights refound the stallion through the backdrop of the twilight sky, and her eyes grasped the blaze that steeled her resolve. “Can we go through the last bit of that spar some more? I want to try the aileron roll…”

An anguished cry burst from Tail after Barrier threw her to the ground again. “Get up. Do it again,” the stallion grunted, watching as the mare rolled over and got back on her hooves. “I told you I’m not letting you out of here until you get something right. Gonna charge Luna out the ass even more for this overtime.”

Tail staggered back to her starting position and shook out the dizziness that clung to her mind. The best she had been able to do was ruffle her feathers when he struck. She just kept locking up each time, and the grassy scuffs marring her armor documented the dozens of times Barrier had put her down.

The mare sprang forward, and her sights gripped the stallion’s form as his hind legs shifted and braced for impact. “Just roll,” she whispered over and over at a quickened pace as she approached her captain.

Right when she aimed to strike, he reared and slugged her shoulder plate. Tail’s breath hitched. Her wing fluttered, but once again, it fell far short of doing anything useful.

Barrier drove her into the dirt with his follow-through, carrying enough force to draw a scream and keep her sprawled out on the impacted ground. Gasps poured from her heaving lungs, and her eyes scanned the stars, gradually sweeping over every angle that did not include his figure.

“Why can’t I do it?” she murmured quietly, barely moving while the replenished aches meandered about her muscles.

“You told me that you couldn’t quit.” Barrier’s words tugged at Tail’s ears, and his head slid into her view. He sounded atypically—and surprisingly—peaceful for a pony that was spending his spare time working, and the softened features of his expression halted the cadet’s feeble attempt at avoidance. “But you need to know when to retreat.

“There’s no way you’re going to override instincts in the span of a few hours. Though, your body is starting to get that you’re still in danger. The movement in your wing is a good sign. What’s not a good sign…” His horn jolted to life and magically pulled Tail upright. “You’ve lost the fire in your eyes, and it’s honestly pissing me off.

“It’s been the one constant thing you’ve had going. Now get the hell down the field, get it back, and charge me again. We’ll keep working on the reflex response later. By now, you should be able to anticipate when I move to strike. Execute the roll before my hoof takes the ability away, and we’ll call it a night.”

Tail warmed as the statements sunk in. I have a fire in my eyes? She wiggled in her armor and gently moved the metal plates while the embarrassed—perhaps shocked—heat continued to build. She stood there, thinking for several seconds before Barrier’s consequent shout made her twitch. “Eye fire! Yes, Captain!”

She practically scrambled across the pitch before pivoting and hopping right into her dash. Again, Barrier planted his hind legs and bucked up to catch Tail with a cross. I know the timing. I know the timing! Just roll! Her inside wing shot downward, pushing the pegasus away from the captain’s jab.

Tail brushed her other wing against Barrier’s hindquarters, which pulled an audible snicker from the unicorn. She touched down after spinning through her aileron roll, and she promptly glanced back over her armored barrel to meet the smirk plastered upon her commander’s face.

Intently, he observed and examined her excited form before his sights found their locks. Something between raw giddiness and pride had been etched upon her muzzle, but most striking of all was the absolutely piercing stare.

“An inferno,” he muttered as he reluctantly tore his gaze away, “just like hers.”

Tail groaned as she stumbled into her shared apartment. With sluggish movements, she trudged her way to the couch and eyed the cushions with some insatiable need. She no longer had the strength to even fold her wings. Rather, they just hung limply by her sides—her barely moving sides. She faceplanted upon the furniture the instant she got close enough, and a soft whimper crept from her muzzle once her armor-clad body settled into the fluffy supports.

“No armor on the sofa,” Amora’s voice filled the room before a brown-maned, blue-eyed unicorn roommate poked her head in from the kitchen. She gasped once Tail barely managed to shape her feathers into some obscene gesture but immediately shrugged it off. “You can’t keep doing this to yourself.”

The pegasus moaned into the cushion, mumbling something that her alabaster companion miraculously made out.

“I know it matters to you,” Amora replied after drawing a heavy breath, “but you’re not allowing enough time to recover. How many of these second sessions have you done?”

Tail rolled her head and puffed her cheek in protest. “I’ll have you know, Dr. Amora, that this was the first time I spent additional hours with my drill instructor.”

“Wait,” the unicorn blurted and fully stepped into the room, “what did you do that made him keep you after hours? I’ve heard some pretty interesting rumors around the medical ward about that stallion. I swear to Celestia if he ran you ragged I will start throwing charts in his face!”

A giggle bubbled from Tail’s throat. She shifted, sprawling out a little more while she stared at her friend. “It was nothing like that at all. I asked him how to counter a maneuver, and he worked me to the bone until I got something right.” A momentary silence overtook the mare, and her eyes swirled around as she ruminated. “I kind of like it, actually. I mean… I taste the dirt a lot, but I don’t know. Beneath all that hardass, I can tell he wants to make me better.”

Tendrils of magic wrapped around the pegasus while a blue glow settled upon Amora’s horn. “Well then, if you’re not dying,” she huffed and rolled her roommate off the couch, “then you should be a good little soldier and clean your armor before I tattle on you.”

“You wouldn’t!” Tail squeaked after another displeasured murmur burst from her splayed body.

“I would, could, and will if you don’t take better care of yourself. It’s a standard military rule, Hun. You do not buck with the medic.”

Bonecrusher pounded another shot from her barstool at the Phoenix Fire. She glared at Indar as he sat next to her and sipped his reprehensible glass of water. “She’s a bitch!” the mare slurred. “Always kissing his ass! Always making us look like garbage!”

“Did you even listen to what Captain Barrier said when he dismissed us?” Indar replied through a rushed sigh. “I told you that I wasn’t interested in your petty, one-sided squabble. Tail has done nothing to impede our growth, and she hasn’t responded to your continued attempts to rile her up.”

The mare slammed her empty glass down on the countertop and snapped her head towards the veteran. “Are you seriously taking the side of that wussy shit!? She didn’t do anything? Look around. We’re surrounded by fellow guards. She’s never even set a hoof in here. Nopony knows her. We busted our asses to get in, and she just shows up! It ain’t right. We look after our own, and she isn’t one of us.”

The unicorn grumbled as the bartender propped himself up before the pair. “Crusher,” the black stallion began with a gritty tenor as his hoof adjusted the Coltston hat sitting atop his head. His silvery mane peaked out from beneath the brim as a fiery scowl bore into the mare. “I’m cuttin’ ya off because you’re already acting like a dipshit. Now pipe down before I decide to remind ya dumb kids why the actives started comin’ here in the first place.”

Bonecrusher’s coat stood on end. Bristling waves cascaded along her spine, and she, once again, smashed her limbs against the finished wood. Others turned their heads at the jarring noise. Slants of varying perplexities shaped their lips, and the harmony of a few leaning groans curiously pressed the barkeep for an answer.

The midnight stallion pitched his attention to Indar. “You are going to explain to me very quickly why our little guard here is in such a hissy.” He snapped his hoof towards Crusher’s muzzle the instant she made a motion to complain.

Indar’s expression remained as stone-faced as could be while he looked into the tender’s piercing eyes. “There’s a cadet in our group, and it doesn’t seem that she’s cut from a guard’s cloth. It’s been irking Bone since the first day, but that’s not an excuse to make a scene in your establishment, Trigger. We apologize.”

“Like hell we d—” Bonecrusher was silenced by the sudden presence of Trigger’s intrusively shoved hoof upon her muzzle.

“Barrier’s training the three of you, right?” Trigger didn’t wait for a response. “If she made it to the second day, then her cloth is good enough. Don’t waste your D.I.’s time, and don’t waste your own.”

Lime-colored forelegs slid to the edge of the counter, and a scowl sliced into Bonecrusher’s visage when she pushed away from the stallion’s hoof. “Let me ask you something, Trigger. If some punkass outsider showed up in your time, if that pony took a spot from some others you found far more deserving, would you just let it slide?

“If that pony had zero combat experience and no physical training, and then spun you some ridiculous story about her purpose being a classified matter, would you buy into that trash?” She pivoted swiftly and grunted before continuing, “Maybe you’ve grown softer thanks to this gig, but I’m going to expose that bitch for the liar she is. Captain Barrier’s shat enough of his time away babysitting her through filly questions.”

Every patron watched the earth pony trot out from their usual spot. With an uneasy silence hanging over his bar, Trigger reached for a bottle of Sweet Apple Red and poured a shot that he methodically placed in front of Indar. “That’s your payment, Corporal, for delivering the message to Captain Barrier that I wish to see him.”

Indar shuddered at the reserved timbre with which the stallion spoke. “I’ll be sure to pass your message, Colonel.”

Chapter 5 - Perchance to Dream

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“It’s open,” Barrier called out after a knock poured through the door to his workspace. The captain neatly folded his hooves atop his paper-ridden desk and peered across the bland, undecorated expanse—save for the purple candle to his right.

The latch consequently clicked and the entry opened, injecting a swath of sandy tones and lamp-lit shades. “Captain Barrier.” Indar saluted briefly, having learned weeks ago that Barrier cared very little for such ceremony. “Colonel Trigger has requested that you pay him a visit at the Phoenix Fire.”

Barrier hummed, detangled his limbs, and went back to his daunting pile of paperwork. “Next time you see him, tell him I’ll drop in when I can. Not much time for social drinking at the moment.”

That much was true. While Luna was paying him handsomely, she demanded extensive information on her investments. Per her orders, Barrier had documented almost every detail of his outfit, from how many laps the cadets ran to how much break time they took. The specifics of their sparring matches were included in the reports as well. Likely, the princess wanted access to his training methods for reference, so she wouldn’t have to fund him out the flank for any future services.

“Sir.” Indar saluted again.

Barrier waved a hoof, gaze staying on his desk. “Dismissed.”

Indar’s foreleg quivered for a moment. Though, he quickly steadied it and firmly stood with his salute.

“You’re still here,” Barrier commented, continuing to put the day’s events to paper. “You have something to say?”

Indar hesitated, but with a swallow, he nodded. “With all due respect, why? Why do you let Bonecrusher get away with everything she does? I know you’ve noticed. Any other instructor would’ve had her skinned and hung, and you’re harder than any of them—by pretty much every count.”

Barrier’s attention was pulled from the paper and fell onto his fellow unicorn. The captain’s eyes narrowed darkly as he leaned over his desk. “Are you questioning my teaching methods, Corporal?”

“No, sir!” Indar responded immediately, taking a step backwards at the apparent hostility held within his captain’s stare. “I… was just curious, sir.”

Barrier looked back to his parchment as if nothing had happened at all, and his horn glowed before a quill and stamp appeared hovering by his head. “What hurts you today makes you stronger tomorrow,” Barrier answered matter-of-factly. “Tail comes from a world unlike ours. She doesn’t really know what guards are like, what our tempers are like, or what kinds of attitudes and traits we share. She came in with few-to-zero relevant experiences. If she’s going to be a part of our culture, then it’s something she needs to learn.”

The captain signed the bottom of his latest report with a flourish before stamping it with an ornate crest in the shape of an arcane star. “She’ll get the physical training and knowledge from my course, but she’s missing out on the social knowledge one learns from going through B.C.T. with forty other ponies.” The scroll was rolled and tied off with a silver ribbon. “Princess Luna doesn’t do things at random. She made sure that Tail had the best opportunity she could. She has the absolute worst of the guard mentality in Bonecrusher…”

Barrier lit the candle on the corner of his desk and held the scroll above the flame. The paper was quickly reduced to an argent ash that swiftly departed the room. “And she has the absolute best in you.” The unicorn slid the chair backwards and stood up before stepping towards the corporal. “The workday is over, Indar.” Barrier tapped the smaller stallion on the shoulder in a surprisingly friendly fashion. "Go home and get some sleep. Tomorrow, I start your shield training, and it won’t be that defensive crap my grandson teaches you guys.”

The unicorn waited until Indar had left to retreat to his seat, and he gently coaxed open one of the desk drawers. Inside, a pair of glasses and a clear, bulky jug—one filled to the cork with an amber liquid—taunted the captain. Foregoing the glasses entirely, Barrier retrieved the bottle, popped it open, and brought it to his lips. Several large swallows scorched his throat before he set the container down and sealed it. “Just like her…”

Tilting back tiredly in his chair, Barrier stared blankly at the ceiling, his mind drifting to years long past. For nearly thirty minutes, he simply sat there, until his eyes slowly drifted shut and a soft snore escaped his muzzle.

The familiarity of Barrier’s own time stretched into his awareness. The modern landscape of Canterlot had been overridden with the towering spires of the Castle of the Two Sisters. The grounds were abloom with silvery flowers, and the yard—his yard—was teeming with life.

“Captain Barrier!” The mare’s voice sparked a tension in his chest. Her accent, spiced by her Gallopfreyan roots, made his ears perk. “Fifty wing-ups done, sir.”

He turned to face the yellowish cream pegasus that stood in front of him. Her burnt orange mane caught a gust of wind as it blew past, and her amber eyes remained in a crisp stare that had to be real. “Ember,” he exhaled her name. The pain in his chest spiked again, sending a jarring tremble down his forelegs.

Barrier dove onto the pegasus. His forelegs snatched her barrel, and he planted his muzzle against her neck in a desperate search for warmth, softness, love. “By Bonnie, Barrier!” she squeaked out from her extremely disadvantageous position. “We’re right in the middle of the field.”

“Field.” The single word crept through the stallion’s subconscious. Around him, the castle crumbled. The vibrant flowers around them shriveled and died, and the green pitch upon which he rested morphed into a brownish muck that dragged both himself and Ember down.

“We’re right in the middle of the field!” she screamed over the zip of an arrow. He squeezed her closer while his hind legs scrambled about the mud for any sort of solid footing, but the crawling filth continued to swallow them up. Screams filled the air, forming a dreadful cacophony that accompanied the stench of blood. They would never find home again. They would die in this wretched place. Battle would take away everything he ever loved, and nothing he did would change that.

“I’ll cover you, Captain!” Another cry yanked his attention skyward as a lavender blur bolted overhead. Tail swung around and landed directly behind his position. Somehow, she managed to steady herself in the treacherous soil and hoisted a large wooden shield above them just in time to counter a barrage of descending arrows.

Barrier threw his head downward, but what he sought to find was no longer there. Ember had disappeared from his grasp. Her heat was gone, taken away from him again, and all that remained was one of her feathers.

“Magic Barrier! Go!” Tail shrieked at the captain. The ground beneath his hooves solidified when the commanding character of her speech pounded his senses. Clutching the feather in his aura, he climbed out of what was certainly meant to be his grave and turned to face his cadet.

His jaw fell and his pupils shrunk, trying to force out the picture his mind projected. Blood coated her body. It dripped from every crack in her armor. She was gasping for breath and struggling—struggling to hold that damn shield above her head with the added weight of uncountable bolts. She was taking his place in the ground. She was claiming his curse, and yet, she still had that hauntingly memorable fire in her eyes.

The unicorn sprinted when she began to collapse. The world around them seemed to evaporate as he reached out for the mare, and he soon found himself grasping Tail as if his future depended on it. “Not again,” he mumbled repeatedly until tears began to fall.

The clanking of glasses rang like bells while Barrier sobbed. Amber waves of a faintly recognizable magic washed over the pair as they drifted through the white expanse of emptiness. “You’re not the only one having a nightmare tonight, Barry.” The bar of the Phoenix Fire erupted into existence, and a smug Trigger stood ready behind the counter. “Be sure to bring the filly, and don’t keep me waiting.”

Somewhere high above her, an invisible tribunal converged to decide her fate. In the reddish spotlight, Tail felt small. Her feathers ruffled as the shadow of a giant gavel briefly held the pegasus in darkness, and the next witness was summoned.

Iron slammed against the stone floor with every hoofstep Magic Barrier took. The fully armored unicorn slowly progressed to her side, and a dreadful glow radiated from the eye slits in his helm as the voices above seemingly directed the affair.

“She is completely unfit!” Barrier chided. “Your faith has been wasted! Your bits have been spent for nothing. Never before have I seen such a worthless scrub be sent to me as a cadet. She’s not one of us, and she never will be.”

Tail jerked to the searing pain that ripped into her heart. Her limbs burned to the spreading ache, and she could not hold back the sniffle that caused all of the eyes in the room to assault her with their glares. “How could you say that, Captain?” she wailed, taking a few steps back from his figure.

“You don’t have a fire in you,” the stallion retorted. “You can’t even execute the simplest of moves. You need me to hold your hoof every step of the way!”

“I needed your help!” she screamed as her legs gave out, sending her tumbling into a floor that warped and shattered beneath her flailing mass. “They’re going to take it from me now! They’re going to taint it! Ponies will die, Barrier! You can’t mean that! You can’t mean that after how much I’ve tried! I’m not a quitter!”

“But you are a failure.”

“Enough!” A blinding arc of teal magic slashed through Barrier’s armor. The fragments burst away, revealing to a gawking Tail that nothing more than a shadow had lurked within the plates. Luna’s figure gradually took shape beside the pegasus, and the alicorn carefully pulled her subject into a soothing embrace. “Is that what you believe he thinks of you?”

Tail clung to Luna’s sides and nestled her head into the elder mare’s coat. She wept uncontrollably for what felt to her like an eternity. Her wings limply fell from her sides, and her ears had sunk as low as they could go. Whimpers, prodded by gentle hoof strokes, bubbled to the surface. Each tender petting calmed the cadet a little more until she finally managed to say, “N-no.”

“His reports are honest. You have a lot of work to do, my little pony. You are indeed not a soldier, and turning you into a proper defender will take time. I can say, however, without any doubts, that you are decidedly not a failure in his eyes.”

The pegasus pushed away from the princess just enough to properly see her face. Tear stains still dotted Tail’s muzzle; though, a relatively suspicious smirk had meandered into place at the behest of roving thoughts. “Why are you wasting your time on me, Princess? Aren’t there any fillies or colts who need the looking-after a lot more than I do?”

Luna simply beamed at the question. “Indeed, you’re not the only one who’s had a nightmare tonight, Ms. Tail, but I’m not wasting my time. I’m very vigorously protecting my investment. You needed to be reminded that you have a fire in your eyes.” She paused for a second to move closer to Tail’s waiting ear. “Now, do me a favor, filly,” she whispered. “Remember he trusts you, and wake up.”

“Inside wing down!” Tail wailed, rolling out of the bed and onto the floor. Her coat was drenched in a cold sweat that forced the pegasus to cringe, and her head snapped about to take in the familiar contours of her darkened room. “Fire! Luna!” She scrambled forward, and fumbling forehooves finally found the correct side of the door to escape the bedroom.

Amora stood a few meters away in a state of groggy disbelief. “Hun, what’s wrong?” she uttered through a yawn while the light of her magic kept the hallway aglow.

“Dream, vibe, gotta go! Luna!” The mad scramble evolved into a dash that propelled the mare onto the streets of Canterlot. “Fire! Eyes! Barrier,” she gasped as she galloped. The details of the dream that had stirred Tail from her slumber eroded amidst an ever-thickening fog, yet one critical piece of information remained cemented in mental clarity. She had been asked to wake up, and whatever circumstances surrounded it, it most definitely involved her captain.

Bolstered by the notion, she picked up her pace, clearing block after block faster than she ever had in the past. At least, that was the case right up until the instant a blue aura halted her stride in its corralling bubble.

“Cadet.” Barrier’s magic drew a squeak from the pegasus as much as his voice had. “Just what are you doing running around the city at this time of night?”

Tail fidgeted from her perch within the stronghold. “I had a dream, sir,” she answered with a hint of reluctance, “and—” She stopped, spotting the slant to his brow and the gape on his muzzle.

“I had one—” he began before momentarily biting his lower lip. A restart was in order. “I had been on my way to get you, actually. I was informed that we need to make a social field trip to one of the local establishments. It’s one of the most well-known guard hangouts. Seems I have to take care of some business, but for you, this assignment is probably hazing.”

Chapter 6 - Trigger's Special

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Trigger snickered as he stowed a rag behind the counter, having just wiped the bar down in anticipation of his guests. The chatter of the place had grown fairly subdued, given the late hour, and only a couple dozen guards remained. Frankly, that was likely for the better.

“This,” Barrier’s voice rang out after the stallion pitched open the door, drawing the attention and salutes of several of the more knowledgeable off-duty patrons.

“Cut that shit out!” Barrier waved a hoof. “You know there’s no rank here. All of you, back to your drinks. Don’t creep the poor filly out before she even gets inside.”

With a few chuckles and laughs, the ponies obeyed.

“As I was saying”—Barrier opened the door a bit wider to allow his smaller companion through—“this is the Phoenix Fire. Guard, Army, Air, Intel, you name the branch, and there is probably an after-hour ambassador present.”

Tail shuffled in and glanced around the establishment. Things were kept simple. There were no fancy decorations or frilly things that she would have found in other Canterlot stops. It was all about the gloriously illuminated beverages and the ponies who drank them. Unfortunately, her observations were cut short as a few catcalling whistles initiated a rather aggressive flick of her namesake.

“Kids, pipe your shit,” Trigger bit, dragging Barrier’s gaze to him in the process.

“And that gruff-sounding bartender would be Trigger, the one who invited us in for these festivities. Let’s hope he had a damn good reason for doing so, and that it’s not just another case of some brass meddling with things that aren’t his to poke.”

Tail tilted her head to Barrier’s peculiar delivery. A subtle harshness laced his words; however, there was no offensive posturing to go along with the jab. In fact, the tone reminded her of how she spoke in her banter with Amora. “Do you two… go way back?” she asked quietly, immediately drawing a boisterous laugh from Trigger.

“Probably not to Barrier’s definition of way back, but yeah, we’ve seen our fair share of shit.” He paused to tip the brim of his Coltston. “You must be the filly we’ve heard oh so much about. I’m glad ya made it. I was worried Barry wouldn’t come through on the offer.”

“That’s what I get for falling asleep in my office,” Barrier mumbled before he trotted towards one of the stools. “Please don’t tell me that you called me in the middle of the night just so you could meet my cadet.”

Trigger set a pair of empty glasses on the countertop. “Mmm, it’s not every night I catch ya asleep outside that fortress of yours.” A grin stole the bartender’s countenance. “But ya got me. We’re all pretty curious about the mare that nopony knows about—and how exactly she made her way into the prestigious Captain Barrier’s camp.” He glanced towards the ceiling and rolled his lifted foreleg. “Of course, if I were in your place, I’d be less concerned with my bartender and more concerned with things on the home front.”

Barrier’s sights homed in on the stallion, particularly following that last point. Eventually, he sighed and slumped into his seat. “Trigger, I love you, but it’s been a long day, and I have to train the doctor over there some more in the morning. The fuck are we doing here?”

The black stallion chuckled and set his hat down before a horn decloaked and parted his silver mane. Amber sparks jumped along the appendage, and a squeal burst from Tail as she was levitated and placed upon the stool next to Barrier.

“Don’t,” the captain spat, “touch my rookie without her permission again.” The guttural growl with which the unicorn spoke made Tail snap her head. Her wings spread as the words flirted with her internal desire to analyze, but that chain was cut short by an intrusive cough from Trigger.

“Relax, Barrier. The filly was playin’ wallflower. Come on! She hasn’t even introduced herself yet. I was just gettin’ tired of it, especially when I can hear about the mystery from the source itself. Though, we have a bit of a conundrum, don’t we? There’s a newbie and her commanding officer in my establishment for the first time, and everyone here knows what that means.”

Barrier’s ears perked. He threw his leg out and pointed at Trigger with such a fanfare that it made Tail jump. “Tartarus no! You are not hazing her like that. I do not give a crap about your tradition. Do you have any idea how much time it’ll waste and the kind of report I’ll have to write for Luna!?”

The chorus of groans from the patrons riled Barrier further until grunts stirred in his snout. Meanwhile, the mare wiggled upon her stool, preparing herself before she set her forelegs upon the countertop and answered, “My name is Tail, Mr. Trigger. My apologies for the delay. This is all pretty new to me. So I would like you to tell me… What’s your tradition?”

Trigger snatched the opportunity to bypass Magic’s outburst. “The C.O. Special, Ms. Tail. A pair of shots shared between cadet and commander. Both are loaded with a delicious cocktail of sweet, sweet booze, but one glass will knock your ass out within one minute, guaranteed. It’s a trust thing.”

“Pour ‘em,” Tail blurted the second her brain registered the word trust.

Barrier pivoted his head and sent Tail a deadpanned expression marked with disbelief. The other ponies began to build up a racket in response to the pegasus accepting the challenge. “Cadet, you really don’t know—”

“Please, Captain, I went through college. I might not be a guard, but I certainly know what hazing is. I’ll drink this stupid shit, pass out for a while, and then I’ll wake up. Maybe I’ll have some marker in my coat, or maybe I’ll find that absolutely nothing happened to me, which would be the point of a trust exercise.” She gazed up at him with a stare that seemed to make him freeze. “I trust you, Barrier.”

He ignored the fact that Trigger had already poured the nightmarish beverages that appeared as innocent as a harmless strawberry smoothie. “Tail, I appreciate that you trust me, but you really—”

“Sweety,” she interrupted him again, “shut up and drink with me.” The sassy retort billowed the white noise into a raucous roar. Tail reached for her glass and threw the spicy brew down her throat without reservation.

Barrier blinked. “Don’t forget that I’m your superior officer.” The sentence slithered off his tongue while his magic began to tug the glass towards his lips.

“You said it yourself when we walked in, Captain. There is no rank here. I trust you, so just trust me.”

He didn’t turn away from the mare as an honest smile graced her muzzle. She had parried his efforts with irrefutable logic that pushed him right to the brink. Tradition was calling, and it didn’t even offer a proper challenge. “I trust you,” he responded, craning his neck to help gulp down the drink.

Tail’s breath rushed as the seconds ticked away. She wondered when the concoction was going to kick in, and she positioned her barrel such that when it did, she would at least slump onto the bar. Twenty seconds after Barrier took his drink, the effect hit hard, but it wasn’t she that hit the countertop.

“Trigger, you son of a bitch,” the captain groaned before his chin hit the wood. His eyelids closed to the boisterous wails that rebounded off the walls, and his tail went still in its waterfall cascade from the stool cushion.

The pegasus sprang from her seat and threw her forelegs around her unconscious captain. “Are you crazy?” she chirped at the bartender who merely shrugged and leaned back to admire his handiwork.

“Maybe we should get out the markers, eh Trigs?” an earth pony teased from his seat. The response stoked the troops once more and sent Tail’s wings into an instinctively protective spread.

“Don’t even think about touching him!” she yelled, pressing a surprising silence upon the room. “I—I don’t care if I don’t have the experience that you all do.” She glared at the smug Trigger and hurled dagger glances at every single pony in the place. “I need him to trust me. I want him to trust me! And nopony is going to ruin my chance to earn it.”

“Sounds like the cadet is itching for a fight,” another chimed, causing Tail to tighten her hold and scowl. “I think we should show her a good time.”

A unicorn rose, but the pegasus refused to yield. “I am not letting you touch my captain,” she snarled. Her pulse spiked, and adrenaline crushed the meager grasp the shot had on her senses. Tail had a test to pass, and the conviction that she had something to prove lit a blazing feeling that she would not abandon.

Trigger lifted his leg and waved off the band. “Lay off, boys. I’ve seen enough. No one’s touchin’ Barrier tonight. I’ve got this filly’s back. Next round’s on me.” He ambled closer to the C.O. pair as the cheers of the regulars rose to new heights. “Not bad for a mare with no guard history. You’ve definitely made my Top Five. Dedication was top-notch, though if I’m being buckin’ honest, the execution was cheesy as fuck.”

Tail wheezed while her body struggled to resynchronize with her mind. She seriously believed she was headed for a fight with a bunch of veterans—a fight she honestly had zero chance of winning. “What is wrong with you!?” the flustered pegasus peeped to Trigger’s completely casual attitude.

“Isn’t it obvious? I wanted to get to know ya. The stallion in that death-grip of yours has saved my ass more times than I can count, and I’ve done the same for him. He’s got a bad habit of wandering paths that lead to shit places, and considerin’ what I’ve heard from another pony, I had to make sure that ya weren’t a shit place. Not really the type to speak for everyone, but I think it’s safe to say that ya made the right impression.”

The mare’s mouth opened a few times in failed attempts to vocalize her understanding. Had this stallion seriously KO’d her commander simply to test her loyalties? Were these ponies really willing to take things to that extreme just to see who made it? “I—uhh—”

Another snort popped from Trigger’s muzzle. “I know it’s weird, Ms. Tail. That’s just how I run things ‘round here. Why don’t ya tell me something about yourself? What is it that ya do?”

Suspicion sat on Tail’s expression as she very slowly returned to her seat. One of her wings remained draped over Barrier the whole time, and the trills of unease spiced her eventual reply. “I’m a professor of physics at the University of Las Pegasus.”

“Hm?” Trigger’s brow lifted to that snippet of information. “Don’t worry about them,” he added after catching Tail’s cautious, wandering glances. “They won’t do anything to screw with your bond. Everypony in this room went through it at one point, but you’re definitely an oddity. What’s a pretty little prof doin’ under Barrier’s wing?”

Tail’s namesake thumped against the bar panelling. “That’s classified, and Sweety, he’s technically under mine.”

The bartender recoiled and sucked in some air through an exaggerated grimace. “Cute quip, but filly, never, ever tell someone on the inside that something is classified.” He paused for the confusion-laden ear flick she gave before fully exhaling his held breath. “It’s condescending to us. We all know there are things outside the pay grade. It’s especially irritating because that’s how we spin it to the public. Use that, and you’re essentially telling a guard she’s a fuckwit outsider. Better to drop something like D.P.O. instead.”

Shudders assaulted the mare once the revelation dawned on her. “Th-thank you,” she sighed, unable to shake away the heavy burden that began to carve a frown. “It seems that I have a lot more to learn than I thought, and I may have already—”

Trigger pressed his hoof to a muzzle for the second time that night. “At least this one squeaks,” he teased the pouting pegasus, shooting her a cocky grin. “No pony solves all problems right away, not even fancy physicists. Ya defended him, and that was your test tonight. I can assure ya that he’ll appreciate it when he wakes up. Might want to get him home though. It’s getting pretty late. One-four-one-three Treble Lane, have fun carrying him, Rookie.” He laughed when he heard another thump from her tail. “Actually, I think I’ll call ya Flicker. Ya sure snap it around a lot when faced with a challenge. I like it.”

Tail shifted uncomfortably beneath Barrier’s mass. Dragging the well-built stallion across Canterlot was not an easy feat, and the pegasus cringed at the premise of attempting it before the captain had put her through the first month of physical fitness. “I know what hazing is,” she chastised herself in a mocking tone. “And if you run my ass ragged in the morning…” A distraught sigh poured into the night air, and she fluffed her wings to give her passenger a gentle nudge. “You’re going to do that, aren’t you?”

Sweat dampened her coat as she turned the corner onto Treble Lane. “Over thirty minutes of napping for you and nothing but work for me.” Her namesake flicked when he just nickered softly in her ear and proceeded to snore. Tail rolled her eyes and huffed, trudging up the gentle slope of the road until she finally stood before Barrier’s building.

The ornate structure, marked with the traditional stars, crescents, and suns of Canterlot, blended well with the overall architectural theme of the city. What surprised Tail the most, however, was the home’s showing age. Most of the captain’s block had been renovated recently, and even in the moonlight, their white facades shared their glimmering retouches.

Cobblestone steps, traditional accents, and single-paned windows injected an outlier—a representative of centuries gone by that had experienced some times of darkness. Tail climbed towards the rich mahogany door and glanced upward. Her heart picked up its pace while the grey wall appeared to lean over her much smaller, and far less imposing figure.

Hesitating, the mare kept her hoof from the latch. “This has to violate some sort of code,” she muttered to herself and wondered if there was any hope of waking Barrier from his slumber. Thoughts of things unseen flooded her head. What if she saw something she wasn’t supposed to see? What if that broke his trust in her? “What if they take it away?”

Tail shook her head wildly and straightened her posture. The present wasn’t the time for waiting. Waiting was a word that had no place in her lab. If she were there now hoisting a problem of this magnitude, then she’d just experiment. It was time to apply the practice elsewhere. She had to get home, and the only way to do that was to put him to bed. Her hoof touched the latch.

“Shit!” Bolts of teal magic sprang from the metal hook. Pain stabbed at her leg, and her lavender coat showed signs of singeing. Tail recoiled and almost fell down the steps. Though thankfully, her wings caught onto the backpedal in time to guide the mare and her oblivious captain down to the street.

She planted her hind hooves into the ground and bucked upward enough to jostle the stallion—but not enough to knock him off her back. “Barrier, wake up!” There was no response, and there was certainly no hope of entering his abode with enchantments of that caliber in place. “I can’t take him back to the bar,” the physicist spoke, carefully considering her options. “Luna knows what they’ll do with him once Trigger locks up. Castle isn’t any better either. Buck, this has got to break all of the rules.”

Home was on the other side of Canterlot.

Chapter 7 - Shared Trust

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Maybe Barrier and I will both be up and gone before Ams gets up? Tail was attempting to distract herself from the burning muscles in her legs and back with various thoughts, to little avail. Every chain led to the inevitable teasing from her roommate and the potentially massive fallout from sharing a roof with her commanding officer.

Bucking Trigger. Tail swallowed the knot forming in her throat as she reached for the latch of her far-more-familiar, and less shocking home. This whole situation is totally bucked… Tail eased the door open as quietly as she could, not eager at the prospect of waking her roommate for the second time that night—or was it morning now?

“I’ll kill you,” Barrier mumbled weakly from the mare’s back, drawing her wide-eyed, undirected gaze. “Griffin piece of shit… Killed ‘em… Revenge…” Barrier relapsed into his silent slumber after his hooves slightly flexed.

A sigh of two reliefs dribbled from Tail after she climbed the steps from the tile landing. “At least you weren’t talking about me, and thank Luna she’s asleep.” The pegasus praised the powers that delivered her an empty living room. She crept towards the couch and was more than ready to deposit the lump of a stallion presently using her for a bed.

“Asleep, huh?” a voice quipped from the entrance to the hallway.

Tail’s head jerked to the side, and her expression immediately fell.

“You wanted me to miss out on this, Hun? I’m hurt. I wouldn’t want to miss this one for the world.” A grin began to work its way onto her muzzle. “Honestly, I can’t turn my back on you for two seconds, can I? I do, and you end up with your commanding officer riding yours all the way home.”

“It wasn’t my fault!” Tail quickly argued. “He’s got magical enchantments all over his house! I couldn’t take him to the castle. Buck knows how that would have gone down.”

Amora just chuckled. “I always knew you were into unicorns, but dragging in a passed out, drunk C.O.? You are a bold little filly, aren’t you?”

“Sh-shut up!” Tail could feel the heat rushing to her face as she continued to try and justify herself. “Trigger made us do the C.O. Special thing, and he passed out.”

Amora’s grin faded somewhat. “You met Trigger? As in Colonel Trigger—the Colonel Trigger?”

“Wait... He’s a colonel?” Tail briefly pondered the point and carefully rolled the stallion onto the couch. “I guess that makes sense, and yes, I did. Barrier introduced me, so I guess that means some good things do come from bolting out of the apartment after having weird dreams.”

“So…” Amora’s smirk returned in full force. “You had weird dreams—dreams that clearly involved your captain—then left in the middle of the night to meet up with said commanding officer? And then, after deciding to go to Trigger’s bar with him, you thought it was a good idea to bring him home despite his intoxicated state?”

Tail’s ears flattened to the back of her skull. “Well, when you say it like that.”

“Oh, the nurses are gonna love this!”

The pegasus squeaked and threw her foreleg in Amora’s direction. “No! No! You can’t. Seriously, threatening me with tattling twice in a night? That’s not creative at all. C’mon Ams, we have standards—”

Tail squeaked again as Barrier’s forelegs wrapped around her barrel. He lifted her with ease and yanked the mare onto the couch with a bearhug that nearly drove the wind from her lungs. “Less noise, quiet pillows,” the captain grumbled before nestling into Tail’s mane.

“Help me,” Tail blurted while Amora’s laughter filled the room.

“I stand corrected. The nurses are going to love this, and there is no way I’m helping you out of it. It’s beyond priceless. Just think of the stories you can tell your future foals.”

“Amora!” the mare pleaded after Barrier’s teeth grazed her ear and drove a fresh heat to her muzzle. “He’s nibbling me.”

“I can see that, and I’m eating up every second of it. Get it? Eating—because he’s nibbling you.” Amora giggled and gave a goodnight wave to her squirming roommate. “Sleep well, you two. Don’t forget to use protection.”

Tail shivered at the thought and twitched when Barrier lightly tugged on her ear once more.

“Mmmf,” he groaned. “Hush, Ember, safe now.”

Barrier’s eyes fluttered open for a moment. He gave up. It was far too early, he felt like crap, and the pillow he was snuggling was absurdly comfortable. “Pillow’s warm,” he hummed softly to himself, until it dawned on him that he didn’t sleep with a pillow and hadn’t done so for nearly ten years. Pillows also didn’t make it a habit to hug back or nuzzle into his neck.

The stallion summoned every ounce of willpower to shove all of the brewing panic and desire to shout into a single, deep breath. The unicorn dimly lit the tip of his horn, squinted at the sleeping Tail, and whispered harshly, “Trigger, you son of a Faust-accursed bitch.” He tried to pull away but found the back of the couch to be as much of a foe as Tail’s grip. “I’m going to break one of his beloved bottles and stab him to death.”

He winced as Tail stirred, and after a moment, he made another attempt to pull away. Tail tracked his movements and continued to hold him close as if he were some kind of giant grey teddy bear. “Least your strength imp—” His breath hitched, and his eyes finally battled the early morning by spreading wide. It wasn’t that it hurt, at least not physically, but the realization that this was the first embrace he had shared with anypony since his banishment struck hard.

“Ember,” he exhaled, still gazing upon Tail’s figure. “She’s not—” With a burst of magic, Barrier vanished in a silent pop and reappeared on all fours at the foot of the couch. He glanced at the sleeping pegasus as she blindly fumbled about for her missing stuffed pony—a.k.a. him. Eventually, her futile groping came to an end and she fell still once more.

Barrier stepped away from the pegasus and took in his surroundings. The faint blue glow of his horn swept the room, and as he absorbed the portraits of other ponies and the titles of scattered books, he quietly attempted to retrace the most likely events of the night he could never remember.

“Trigger gave me the special. Not how it’s supposed to go. So what did you do?” Suddenly, he swung around and carefully examined Tail’s forelegs. Black streaks marred her fur, prompting a grumble from the captain. “You carried me home. Zacherle, that must have sucked.”

He popped his neck before shooting the sleeping mare a sheepish smile. “Just what were you thinking?”

A slurp from the next room made Barrier stiff. His coat stood on end as the presence of another prodded his intuition. “She thought the castle was a bad idea and decided that bringing you home was the best option,” Amora chimed from the kitchen before the sound of another sip trickled into the living room.

The stallion gulped and made his way towards his other host. Amora sat at a small table that had been tucked away in an alcove, and the grin that sat upon her muzzle radiated a mischievous danger similar to that of the princesses themselves. “Hello…”

“Hello, Captain Barrier,” the mare replied, saluting her guest while her blue eyes crafted a crisp stare. “Amora, Major, Medical.” The brief statement scrambled the officer into a salute of his own, and it was only after she received it that Amora lowered her leg. “Good boy. Now tell me, what are your intentions with my favorite patient, Captain?” She snickered and gradually leaned over the table while the unicorn batted the floor in thought. “I mean… I have to ask with the way you pulled her onto our couch and nibbled her ear last night.”

Barrier groaned as Amora’s addition threw any witty retort he had out the window. “Please tell me I didn’t,” he grunted, deadpanning when the medic shook her head.

“She even pleaded for me to help her, but honestly, I figured you’d like a begging mare in your hooves.” Amora giggled quietly at the sudden vulnerabilities that appeared upon the stallion. His hindquarters sank to the floor, and Amora embraced the scenery until her laughter naturally faded. Stillness filled the yielded space, and the mischievous luminance in her eyes dissipated. “I know you don’t have to be told that rumors spread, Captain. That filly has placed a lot of stock in you. While I doubt anything Trigger has a hoof in will lead to trouble, I want to make it clear that Tail has given you her trust and respect.”

“And that is apparent,” Barrier answered flatly. He pushed his plot off the floor and took a step towards the major. “She puts a lot of faith in me, but I don’t know why. I doubt she would have carried me here if she had known everything about my past. That said, I’m grateful to see that my trust in her wasn’t misplaced.”

The alabaster unicorn snorted and looked towards the ceiling. “Geeze, you are such a naïve stallion, but those are what-ifs that aren’t mine to answer. I just want to see my best friend succeed. You can take the rest of it up with her when she wakes up.”

Barrier gazed around the kitchen once Amora’s voice trailed off. “I appreciate your candor, Major. Though, I believe I will need some more time before I tackle those questions. For now—” A faint smile managed to settle on his muzzle when he spotted a skillet by the oven. Bags of flour, baking soda, salt, and sugar lined the backstop, and the compiling list of ingredients made the stallion chuckle. “It’s been a while since I’ve cooked, but if you have some milk, eggs, and butter, I wouldn’t mind making some pancakes for breakfast. It’s the least I can do to thank you for the night—and to thank her.”

The first part of Tail to wake up was her nose. Prodded by the scent of caramelized apples and cinnamon wafting in from the kitchen, it twitched in disbelief and spurred a muzzle to open. “Nngh,” she moaned, wincing from the light of the rising sun that filtered through the living room windows. “What… bright? Oh shit.”

Tail hissed and bolted upright at the prospect of having overslept. “I’m going to be late! Captain is going to kill me!” She spilled from the couch and hit the floor before her brain finally registered her location. “M’on the floor,” she mumbled from her prone position. The events of the night came rushing back to her, accompanied by an intense blush. Had everything been a dream? Did she just crash out when she got home? Her armor was off though, but perhaps Amora had helped remove it. Amora! That had to explain the completely unfamiliar breakfast scent coming from the kitchen, right?

“No. Bullshit! I’ve had apples and I’ve had pancakes and they’ve never tasted like that, even together.”

Am’s voice tugged at Tail’s ears, but who was she talking to? The mare’s face flushed fully as the tingle of a sore ear crept into her awareness. “Oh, Celestia, that wasn’t a dream.”

“Trade secret.” While the intonation was appreciably softer than Tail was accustomed to hearing, the voice definitely belonged to Magic Barrier. The pegasus swallowed nervously and rose. Maybe she could just grab her armor and sneak off to the training yard. She didn’t want to have to explain it, not first thing in the morning, and certainly not with both of them in the kitchen together.

“Tail!” Amora called teasingly. “Come in here, Hun. Your captain made us breakfast and it is mindbuckingly amazing. He’s a keeper!” A squeak popped from Tail’s muzzle, drawing a giggle from Amora and a snort from Barrier. “Told you she was up,” Amora continued through an errant wave of a fork before she set back to destroying her plate of immaculate fluffy goodness.

The lavender pegasus shuffled her way into the kitchen. A shy smile played with her countenance, and a foreleg wandered to corral her unruly bedmane. “Good morning Amora, Captain.”

“Mfffnnn Ail,” Amora replied before swallowing her latest bite. “So glad to see you’re up. Barrier was remembering how sassy you were with him at the bar last night, and hearing about that without being able to absorb all that you’re doing with this—” She outlined her view of Tail with her fork. “Mm. Yeah, it just wouldn’t be the same.”

“As I was saying,” the stallion promptly jumped into the game, “I tried to warn her about Trigger’s dumbassery. She wouldn’t have anything of it. In front of the entire bar, she blurts that my rank doesn’t matter and downs the shot.”

Tail squirmed when Amora gasped, pressed a piece of pancake into her muzzle, and held her hoof there. “Mmm, so good. But my goodness! I thought I raised my little pegasus to be a better cadet than that. That sounds like a few hundred laps to me.”

Barrier drifted towards the range and plopped a fresh stack onto a plate. “A few hundred? Your D.I. must have been a pushover. I think a thousand fits the bill for a smartass mare that told her commander to shut up and drink with her. Something was slipped in my glass, and the other guards won’t let me live it down for years to come. I need to escape my fate somehow. Making an example sounds like the best possible option.”

The squirms became shudders that drove wings to splay. “You’ve got to be bucking kidding me,” Tail sighed. She ignored the second gasp from Amora and stared directly at Barrier instead. “I carted you all over Canterlot, got shocked by your stupid house, and ended up bearhugged on the damn sofa!”

Barrier snapped to the rowdy pegasus. His swift movement and scowl silenced the flustered Tail, who peered into his scornful demeanor with trembling chocolate-colored eyes. The second the mare began to quiver, Barrier smiled and retreated. “You have no laps to run today. As much as I want to bash Trigger’s muzzle in for making me the target of the C.O. Special, his idiocy highlighted the tremendous efforts you went through to keep me safe.

“You also stayed late to work on your aileron roll, so as far as I’m concerned, you clocked in the hours. I put an exemption into Princess Luna’s office. The day is yours to spend. I expect you bright and early tomorrow with that sass long gone.” He grinned and floated the plate of pancakes towards Tail. “But this is the thanks for sharing it—and your trust—last night.”

She shook out her wings and attempted to brush the red from her muzzle. The attempt was absolutely for naught. Torrents of possible answers swirled about in her mind for a few seconds, but nothing stood out as the obvious thing to say. “Dear Luna, what do I tell him?” she blurted aloud, jerking the instant she realized she said what she had meant to think.

The stallion grunted, smirked, and magicked a forkful of pancake into the mare’s mouth. “ ‘You’re welcome’ works, Cadet.”

From the table, Amora watched the scene play out while she started sipping yet another cup of tea. Her muscles crafted quite the beaming smile to the sight of her utterly confused roommate. “Mmm,” she purred sweetly, “I ship it.”

Chapter 8 - Burned

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Barrier emerged from Tail and Amora’s bathroom with a content grin on his face. The previous twenty-four hours had left him visibly spent, and the prospect of him leaving his cadet’s home looking like a ragged wreck did not leave an appealing taste on the mind’s palate. “At least I’m clean,” he remarked. “I doubt that’ll save me from Luna’s smug rambling though. And the rumors… Shiny is going to have a field day with this.”

His sights snared the light pouring through the crack of an opened door, and the cropped image of scattered papers drew the captain into the chamber—where sheet upon sheet littered by equations, integrals, and raw hell bore into his sockets. “Faust above,” he gasped from the mental onslaught, “it’s like Twilight’s room after a forty-eight-hour study session. How can anypony live like this?”

It was then that Barrier’s hastily diverted attention found a far more familiar friend. Tail’s armor rested in shimmering, pristine condition, and the spectacle drew a broad smile across Barrier’s countenance.

“You’ve certainly kept immaculate care of your loan,” he commented before his focus drifted towards a book that had been placed beside the helm. The unicorn plucked the text from the floor and hummed. “Mm, and what do we have here? Discourse of War by Gracious Waters. Our little physicist has been doing some light reading.”

“Oh come on, Caddy!” Tail shouted, prompting Barrier’s gaze to narrow as he dashed out of the room with the book still in his magical hold. “Always the friggin' minus sign! It’s like the bane of our existences, you poor foal.”

“What’s wrong?” the captain called cautiously as he slid back into the living room. He froze when Tail glanced up at him. Thin, partial-rimmed glasses sat atop her muzzle and a quill hung from her mouth. Her foreleg was still raised with a grasped parchment awkwardly hovering above the couch-reclined mare. A liberty blue necktie cascaded like a river over a white shirt that snugly fit her barrel, and her lab coat had, at some juncture, found itself serving as her legwarmer and de facto blanket.

“Student bucked up a minus sign on his written qualifier. He’s a good kid, so it’s a bummer that I’m going to have to knock off some points for the mistake.” She moved the quill to her free foreleg and pursed her lips in response to his quizzical expression. “I have a stack of papers to grade, and you gave me the day off. I’m using it to get the faculty board off my case.”

Barrier’s slight smirk at the sight of her wardrobe made the mare groan. “Look, it helps get me in the mood for science, alright?” Her eyebrow descended when she spotted the book Barrier was still levitating, and her defensive tone immediately shifted to that of a more assertive timbre. “And is that my Discourse book? Really, Captain? Snooping around your cadet’s room already?”

The stallion jerked his head towards the text and his ear twitched. “Erm, your clutter made me curious? Then I shed a little captain’s pride at the condition of your armor.” The uncertainty in his voice dwindled with each word until his more familiar, commanding tenor remained. “Consider yourself commended for your treatment of your kit, Cadet. Though, I really don’t get what is going on with your current uniform choice.”

Tail’s wings ruffled and she tapped her quill against her side. “I told you. It’s for science! I’m grading physics exams. Science! Science attire. Research shows that wearing proper uniforms boosts efficiency by five percent!”

Laughter rumbled through Barrier’s frame and filled the living room. “Scientifically speaking, you’re full of shit, Rookie. Though, nice try.” A sly smirk accompanied the devilish twinkle that appeared on his face. “You could have just said you had a roleplay fetish. I’ve seen far stranger things in my time. It’s not the worst thing you could have held against you. Compared to some of the stuff Princess Luna is into, this is tame.”

“I’m getting in the mood!” She jolted at the recognition of her own words. “To grade exams! Exams. At least I’m not the one dodging the issue of sneaking into a lady’s room.”

“Lady?” Barrier snorted, “I don’t see a lady here. I see a smartass cadet trying to pass off some made up statistic to her commanding officer.”

The pegasus reached out, grabbed a stack of exams, and hurled them at Barrier. “Sweety, I’m the commanding officer in this house. I can make up statistics as I see fit, but that’s not really all that important. Right now, there’s a smug captain trying to hide his clear infatuation for lab coats with quips about ranks and roleplay. Maybe I’ll just have to bust your ass back to cadet and we can go retake the C.O. Special. I’m sure you’d love carrying me around. How’s that for a scenario?”

He easily caught the bombardment of parchments with a spell before setting the papers aside. “Not nearly as amusing as the one where I incinerate those exams and observe the fallout from a safe place.”

Tail recoiled from that particular tactic, and one of her trademark eeps rapidly came forth. Barrier brushed his mane, sighed, and released the captured ammunition from his cast. “Now that I have a moment of quiet, I’m sorry about the room.”

Tail’s muscles immediately reaped the benefits of released tension. She sat up and scooted to one side of the couch. “I guess that got a bit out-of-hoof,” she answered sheepishly before patting the vacated cushion for him to sit. “I shouldn’t really make such a big deal out of it. I did kind of bring you here, after all.” The pegasus grabbed the next ungraded problem from the pile. “You can borrow that book if you want. It can be the sign of our Great Sofa Truce. Princess Luna gave it to me a short time after we started. It’s all about how the guard has been influenced by Equestrian culture throughout history.” Her muzzle scrunched at what she was grading, and a large inked x was practically stabbed into the page.

“I appreciate the offer, but I’ll pass. If I’m being honest, I couldn’t care less. I’m not really a guard anymore—at least not a full-time one—and I’m far too old to consider signing back up. What Luna suckered me into is a contract job anyway, so I’d rather not get into it. Besides, I already know how culture affected the guard. It’s bucking pathetic.” Barrier shook his head in mild irritation. “I can name maybe three or four ponies that would’ve cut it back in my day and one of them is still in training.” With a strange, burdened weight in his eyes, Barrier let out a tired sigh, drawing Tail’s surprise as the unicorn suddenly seemed far older than he typically did. “Anyways, I should get going. There will already be enough rumors as is, and I’ve no doubt Luna will want to talk to me. After that, I have to go stab Trigger.”

The pegasus tracked Barrier’s stride as he made his way to the staircase to leave. Her ears splayed from the shootdown of the literature. Somewhere in the back of her mind, she hoped that the underlying meaning would shine through. Luna had clearly suggested the book to help her get a better understanding of what it meant to be a guard, and this was her opportunity.

Tail’s mind wandered to the previous night, when she was trapped in his grip and subjected to the ramblings of his subconscious thoughts. There had to be something there, right? There had to be some ground for further discussion—some way to keep learning. “Captain?”

Barrier craned his neck to face the pegasus but kept his foreleg primed for the first step.

“I was wondering who Ember is. You mentioned the name last night while you were”—Tail hesitated momentarily—“uh, hugging me. Each time, you sounded—”

“Ember…” Where Barrier’s tone had been light-hearted, it now emerged hard and pained—with no levity to be found.

The single word swept the shade of pink from Tail’s cheeks, and nothing more had to be spoken for Tail to know that she had screwed up.

The captain swallowed and blinked several times in rapid succession before an anguished grimace stole his composure. “She was someone important to me a very long time ago.” Barrier turned and took that heart-tugging step. “Cadet, for your sake, never ask me about Ember again, and I mean never ask.”

The mare leaned forward as her awareness captured the start of his solemn descent. She began to lift herself from her seat and blurted out his name, hoping that she could quickly patch whatever mental floodgate she had opened. The only response she received was that of the door clicking shut.

Tail slumped down onto the couch as the ringing silence grasped her senses. Emptiness filled her chest as the timbre of his vague threat and the memory of his projected sorrow lingered in her head. The words themselves faded, leaving behind a toxic character that devoured her spirits. “Way to go,” she mumbled, glancing at the ungraded papers with complete disinterest. “All you had to do was let him leave. He said he trusted you.”

She winced through the self-beratement. His frown and restrained anger reverberated in her thoughts. She had only gotten this far through the help of others. When things were in her own hooves, she crashed and hit the ground over and over again. Why would he trust or help a pony who just did that to him? The doubt crept into play, dredging up a piece of that nightmare that she immediately wanted to remain forgotten.

Tail stared down at the cracks in the Canterlot sidewalks as she trudged through the streets. Golden plates of armor weighed her down; however, her lowered muzzle, drooped ears, and limp namesake carried a far greater burden. Through block after block, her sights never left the ground. Other ponies were forced to sidestep her stubbornly set trajectory, and the mare just couldn’t be bothered with anything else until she planted her helmet into a steady, yet fluffy momentum sink.

“What’s going on, Flicker?” Trigger asked upon halting Tail’s advance. “Ya seem worn down. Did Barrier give ya a run for your bits last night?”

Tail winced at the pause in her aimless wandering. She gulped, not knowing what to say or if she even should. A sniffle joined her next breath, and she shrunk down when it inevitably drew Trigger’s hoof to her back.

“What happened, Ms. Tail?” he asked, tilting his head as he waited for the pegasus to respond.

She kept her head pressed against Trigger’s midnight coat. “I fucked up.” Tears swelled in her unseen eyes. Though, as the drops broke free and fell, the wavering in the mare’s voice betrayed her sorrow. “I did take care of him, and he even said that he trusted me. We had a nice breakfast with my roommate. Then I asked him about some things, and he went cold. It was like the first day all over again. A warning that actually had weight… I can’t start over. I need him to still trust me.”

The physicist watched the bartender’s hooves drift a step away. Gradually, she lifted her dampened muzzle to look upon the stallion’s expression. The ridge above his right eye, driven by confusion, arced downward, and his lips were firmly pressed together. Tail choked down a sob, feeling almost engulfed by his amber gaze.

Finally, his lips parted. “What did ya ask him?”

“Who Ember is. I asked him who Ember is.” The speed of her reply increased rapidly. “He kept saying her name and—”

Trigger’s hoof found the tip of her snout. “Say no more. It’s not really my place to give ya any of the details, and I don’t plan to.” He turned around and motioned for her to trot alongside him, only continuing once she complied. “Just keep working hard. He’ll come around. In all my years running that stupid special, I’ve never seen a rookie with your level of inexperience step up and put on a show like that. Regs wouldn’t stop talkin’ about it until closing time.”

He took away a little of the sting, but Tail could still feel the unease that yanked at her heartstrings. “But I hurt him,” she exhaled in time with a fresh, radiating ache that gripped her barrel and splayed her ears.

“And he’ll live,” the stallion retorted with a lighthearted grunt. “He’s been through more fights than even a seasoned vet could fathom. Curiosity from one of his cadets isn’t going to kill him.”

“That doesn’t make it right.” Tail’s feathers quivered as the tears began to well up once more. “I put a burden on him, and he shut me out because of my screw-up. What if I ask him something else that makes things worse? If it weren’t for his patience, then I wouldn’t have grown at all. And now, it feels like I changed him—like I’m walking alone. I don’t know what to do, Trigger. I’d rather not see that look again, and I’m afraid that I’ll make the same mistake with every question. Maybe the army brass was right. Maybe I don’t have what it takes to prove them wrong. How can I when the stuff I am clearly isn’t cut from the right stuff?”

A twitch snagged Trigger’s cheek and almost stopped him mid-stride. “Ms. Tail, let me give ya a good piece of advice. Never try to prove an asshat wrong. If ya piss time away doin’ that, then it just means that a part of ya believes the bullshit they’re spewin’. Just prove to yourself that you’re right. Dig your hooves in, and do whatever it takes. Find the pony that knows she belongs, and when ya do, I guarantee that you’ll wake up from whatever this shit is and Barry will be there.”

Chapter 9 - Bridges to History

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Standing on the sidelines of the field, Bonecrusher snorted. She idly gawked at Indar as he worked on his shield shapes with Princess Luna. “At least Captain Barrier would have me doing something to actually occupy my time,” she huffed and dug one of her lime forelegs into the dirt.

“Do you have something to add, Cadet?” the alicorn snapped. A magnificent silvery armor kit covered the diarch’s figure, and cobalt-hued swirls etched decorations upon the metal that resembled a post-impressionistic sky. Her horn illuminated, springing into existence a barrier with a profoundly sharp teal edge. “Understanding these forms will help you survive them later.”

More grumbles brewed in the earth pony’s throat. “Watching and doing are very different things, Your Highness.” The bitter words fell upon disengaged ears. Luna’s eyes had ventured to gaze beyond Crusher’s position, and the royal’s body leaned sideways to obtain a superior vantage point.

“Ms. Tail,” the princess chirped with surprise upon recognizing the newcomer, “I believe Captain Barrier put in for your leave of absence. Given your extended training session yesterday, and your encounter with Sir Trigger last night, you should be recovering.”

The mere mention of Trigger’s name pitched Bonecrusher’s coat upright. She tightened her jaw and puffed her cheeks after Tail fell in line at her side.

The pegasus peered at Luna with an atypically flat expression, completely disregarding the displayed annoyance Bonecrusher shared with the class. “My evening was enlightening, Princess.” Tail tightened her grasp on her posture, standing firmly at attention. “I appreciate the captain’s sentiment, but since I’m here, I’m working.”

“And Barrier?” Luna asked in an elevated pitch that betrayed her expectations for the captain.

The pegasus tensed and her wings firmly pinched against her sides. Her sights drifted towards Luna’s hooves, and after a moment of hesitation, Tail sighed. “That… I don’t think that’s really a conversation for the training field, Princess.”

Bonecrusher fired off another snort. “Of course it isn’t,” she said with a nasty, hushed bite. “I bet the two of you had a great time last night.”

Tail shuddered and flicked an ear to the grating whisper. She shut her eyes and took a deep breath while Luna observed. “Bonecrusher.” The alicorn’s tone made Tail flinch. “Make like the professor and learn proper classroom demeanor. Ms. Tail, we’ll speak privately once I finish up here. Why don’t you work on getting more flight time?”

“Yes ma’am, Princess.”

Luna stared intently, watching her little physicist unfurl her wings and take off. “What’s going through that head of yours, and why isn’t he here if you are?”

“Very good work on your polygons, Indar. I know holding edges is quite the challenge, but it makes for better control when deflecting inbound castfire.” Princess Luna glanced at Bonecrusher. “If you ever see this type of shield, you want to throw your strength at one of the ridgelines. Weaker unicorns will have problems keeping the form. This is why most raise barriers of the spherical variety.“

Crusher rolled her eyes and took a step towards Indar. “May I buck it now, Your Highness? I’ve been waiting to get my hooves into something ever since Teacher’s Pet showed up.”

Luna’s gaze briefly wandered to the pegasus who still flew laps overhead. “That’s no way to address your squadmate.” The earth pony cringed in disgust but held her tongue. “You have been patient enough, however, so yes, you may.”

Within a couple seconds, Bonecrusher cleared the multiple lengths between herself and Indar. She threw her forehoof against one of the edges of his shield, and a snarling growl shot from her muzzle as both her hoof and the magical construct violently reverberated from the blow. “Shit, bucking thing held.”

The unicorn quivered from behind his protective bubble. His horn glowed, and his body tensed while forced magical sparks accompanied a pained, lingering grimace. “No, Bonecrusher, that was a good strike. The strain is tangible. I’m at my limit already.”

Luna raised her hoof. “Then you’re both dismissed. Enjoy the rest of your evening. I have a pegasus to address.” She waited for the exhausted Indar and riled Bonecrusher to leave before calling Tail down with a wave and a shout.

Remaining silent, the smaller mare took her place before the regal alicorn. Her eyes watered as the numerous possibilities of what she could say to the princess piled upon her mind, yet nothing felt quite right. How could she possibly justify wounding her captain to the very one who had recommended him in the first place?

“Before you begin, Ms. Tail,” Luna quietly prodded, “are the training grounds appropriate now that the others are gone, or do we need to find a different location?”

For almost a minute, the mare’s thoughts continued to fester behind an apprehensive facade. Tail’s limbs trembled, and her lowered sights evasively darted over blades of grass until the lavender pegasus drew a sharp breath, lifted her head, and confessed. “I just don’t know what to do! We bonded last night. I had a moment where I was finally one of them. I carried his flank home because we had nowhere else to go. I took care of my captain. I earned some respect, but then, I hurt him. I brought up the discourse of war and asked him about Ember, Your Highness. I asked him, and it was like I lost all of our gained comradery.”

Luna pulled her head back such that her chin pressed against her breastplate. “You mentioned Ember? I could see your curiosity leading to a discussion regarding Magic’s misgivings towards Equestrian society, but getting to Ember? Your concern makes a lot more sense now. I’m surprised he even brought her up in the first place.”

“Well, he didn’t exactly bring it up in conversation,” Tail admitted. “He said her name a few times while he was passed out from Trigger’s drink, and I was surprised at how different he sounded when he said it. He always feels critical and professional, but in those seconds, he didn’t seem like Captain Barrier. He was just Magic Barrier. In the morning, he was—” The mare shuffled around. “He was a bright presence, Luna. I felt different seeing that side of him. It was like I had proved myself. My captain was more than a captain. He was my friend. He opened up and trusted me, but now…”

The princess raised her leg and slowly drew a circle as a sign for Tail to stay quiet. “I wouldn’t have expected him to be forthcoming on these subjects. You read his file. You know he’s experienced combat. There are burdens he carries that have long since hindered the Magic Barrier whose shadow you happened to glimpse.”

Through the developing pause, the pegasus found the nerve to speak again. “I think I’ve lost something important, Princess. The only thing I can do is learn more. I tried asking Trigger, but he wouldn’t tell me. He said that it wasn’t his business to say, but I don’t even know if I still have Barrier’s trust. Do I need to regain it? And how can I regain it without knowing more? When he walked out, he was cold and distant again. I need help to get beyond that.”

Buffeted breaths dribbled from Luna’s muzzle, and the solemn curves that sculpted her eyelids overwhelmed Tail with their projected sorrow. “I’m afraid I cannot help much here either. Many of the answers you seek are not mine to give, and even if they were, I would not. That path is yours to trot, and loathe as I am to admit it, telling you about Ember would put me on Barrier’s bad side. I cannot afford this, and neither can you, given your circumstances.

“It’s similar to your own secret and the reason why I did not divulge the details of your presence to Barrier or the members of your squad. Your story is yours to share with those you hold dear. However, I will say this. Ember was very important to him, and it is because of me that they will always be apart.”


Luna stepped away from the mare as a reserved expression graced her royal countenance. “I believe it is time for me to take my leave. These thoughts of old do not do well for me either, and I would rather not dwell on them for long. Just focus on your training for now. That is your mission to complete. I will talk with Barrier to ensure that he is fit to continue.”

Tail’s body drooped as the princess vanished into the palace. If anypony could have given her answers, it was Luna. Now she was truly alone. All she had managed to do was drag others down. She had stabbed Barrier with her stupid questions, and she had pushed Luna right into the clutches of sadness.

Prove to yourself that you’re right. Trigger’s words echoed in her mind.

She gulped and started running. She started running, and she refused to stop.

“You’ve been drinking.” Luna didn’t bother posing it as a question as she landed next to the brewery-scented unicorn. She had spotted him staring up at the night sky from a perch on the edge of a waterfall located just outside of Canterlot.

“No shit,” Barrier scoffed as he took another swallow from the clear bottle. “Get your sister and Twilight to figure that out for you?” He started to take another swig, only for the glass to be tugged away in a grasp of blue glowing magic.

“Yeuugh!” Luna actually recoiled as she sniffed the bottle. “What is this drink?” She hesitantly sipped it and immediately winced. “Vile, Barrier! This harsh brew pushes the limits of even my tolerance. A rare and terrible feat indeed.”

“Specialty my friend Punch makes.” Barrier’s magic retrieved the bottle and corked it. “Think she said something about cleaners and paint thinner.”

Luna retched upon receiving the additional information, yet she provided no further comment. Instead, she quietly sat next to the water’s edge and listened.

“I sometimes think about jumping, you know?” Barrier glanced at the glass as if he were considering another drink, but with a sigh, he chucked the poison to the pond waiting far below. “Even ran the numbers and clocked it. It’s a sixteen-second drop down, just long enough to reach terminal velocity.”

Luna held her silence.

“But we both know I can’t do that, don’t we? Celestia would never forgive me. I’d never forgive me. You… You probably wouldn’t even be upset with me.”

“I would not,” Luna admitted with a nod. “I do not have that right.”

“So—” Barrier fell onto his back. “I take it you’re here because of what transpired between Tail and me?”

Luna nodded once more.

“She’s… She’s so much like her.” His normal flask was freed through Barrier’s less-than-subtle magical persuasion, and the stallion quickly regretted tossing Punch’s drink. “She has that same attitude. That same—” Barrier stopped for a moment to gulp down the contents from the battered metal container. “That same fire in her eyes. Every time I see her running, I see Ember. Every time I hear her asking questions, the whisper of Ember’s voice is there.

“Why’d you ask me to train her, Luna?” The unicorn shifted from his sitting position to tiredly lay upon his side. “You had to know this would happen. You had to know that this is the way I’d feel. Why does Tail need it? Why are you putting her on the same path when you know that it’ll just end up the same way it does every time—with somepony dead? What are you hiding from me?”

“Mmm, she asked me for similar clarifications about you, and you will receive the same answer. Ms. Tail is responsible for her own path. She is the one responsible for sharing her own story, not me. One thing is clear, though. Tail is not Ember.”

“Nopony ever will be.” Barrier sadly tapped his horn. “Nobody will ever replace any of them.”

“Indeed, they were truly one of a kind, and you didn’t deserve to be pulled away from them so soon. There will never be enough apologies I can make to bring you comfort. I do not have the right to do that either.”

The captain yawned and weakly murmured as he put his container away. “Sorrow never suited you well. We both know what we carry. It’s probably for the best that my morning with Tail ended the way it did. I shouldn’t get close to my cadets, or I won’t be able to deal with it when I’m done with them, regardless of what their stories might be.”

The princess tilted her head and tipped one of her ear tips towards the unicorn. “I see. Does that mean that you’ll be back to business tomorrow? Entertaining as it is seeing them, I don’t think they view me in quite the same light as you.”

“Yeah, don’t worry. Today was a special circumstance. It’s a one-time thing. Well, until the anniversary anyways.” Barrier’s voice dropped several levels.

“Very well. I look forward to the results of your—” Luna was interrupted by a soft snore as Barrier drifted off to sleep. “Honestly,” she half-pouted as her horn came to life to lift the stallion. “Only you, Barrier. Only you.” Luna set off into Canterlot as the unicorn floated loosely in her magic.

Chapter 10 - Taking the Plunge

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Barrier didn’t make eye contact with his cadets as they lined up on the grass. The weight of his brewing quiet and indifferent demeanor was palpable—as was the variance in the spectrum of reactions. Indar remained stoic as always. Bonecrusher peered into the side of the captain’s skull, practically daring him to make a sidelong glance, and Tail allowed herself a brief gander before she buried her gaze into the green blades.

“We’ll be doing something different today,” Barrier finally spoke with an even voice. “Normally, this would demand a trip, but given the accelerated nature of this course—and my unexpected day off yesterday—we’ll have to make do with something else.”

Tail winced when the silence resumed. Curiosity nibbled at her mind. Her ears trembled in need of something more, and her pulse pushed a little faster until she remembered that it was this curiosity that had made him push her away. She held her breath, shut her eyes, and tried to quell the habit.

But the earth pony to Tail’s right produced a percussive pop with her tongue that couldn’t be ignored. “Your day off was a waste of my—”

Bonecrusher’s growl was interrupted by a crack that sprang from Barrier’s position. Tail jerked in response, her head snapping over just in time to observe the blue glow that promptly engulfed the bulky mare at the behest of the captain’s magic. In a flash, Crusher simply vanished.

“The reasons for my absence are not up for discussion. I’ve fought too many battles to take shit from whiny, scowling rookies. Pass it along.” A second blue wave crashed upon Indar, sending the stallion on his own teleportation journey.

Sounds of the unicorn’s raspy sigh coaxed Tail’s ears to swivel. Another hard swallow dropped down her throat, and she anxiously sucked on one of her cheeks.

“No questions today?” the captain continued.

Tail’s ears pinned back to the staccato bite that sat etched into his tone. “N-No, sir,” she whimpered, her armored hoof pawing at the dirt. “I don’t—” Her mouth hung open as though she had intended for more words to come.

“Cadet, deep breath and hold it.” Barrier’s hint immediately preceded the prickling warmth that coursed through Tail’s coat.

She inhaled sharply and her wings spread to the static-like charge. The sudden sensation of rapid movement shortly followed, triggering a spasm that bulldozed her muscles. Her view of the training grounds evaporated, only to be replaced by what appeared to be blurry, ambient lights that shone from above.

“Mmf,” Tail grunted. The blanketing heat of Barrier’s magic had eroded, and a far colder substance—a liquid—now invaded her fur, mane, and namesake. She looked around rapidly, scrambling to make sense of where she was and what she was in. Bubbles bled from the tip of her snout when she exhaled, and she gawked at the wobbling pockets as they drifted away. Finally, it clicked. She thrust her hooves downward and propelled herself to the surface, where a waiting gasp of air filled her lungs.

“Aw, the gang’s all here. Laps, swim ‘em, now!” the captain railed his cadets and honed his ire. “That means you, Bonecrusher! Quick on the quips, but slow as shit once you get wet! What are any of you going to do if—Celestia forbid—you have to get in a damn creek?”

The pegasus was paddling on instinct when she took a peek at Bonecrusher. The earth pony was undoubtedly struggling to keep afloat, and the sight prodded Tail into a freestyle stroke. At least with this, the lesson was obvious. Water would always be in the cards, so getting used to carrying a kit in water was a completely necessary experience. Thankfully, I love to swim.

As Tail kicked and crawled, several details dribbled into her awareness. While the castle certainly had facilities, the walls of this pool room were finely gilded. There was also the fact that, even though the pool’s length was appropriate for laps, its construction was unusual. The edges looked remarkably like porcelain, and the water itself carried no scent of chlorine.

Tail neared the rim when something else caught her attention. And then there’s that ethereal mane in the corner, she thought mid-breath. Immediately, she broke her stride, threw her forelegs over the side of the pool, and pushed herself up. “What!?” She traced the flowing contours back to the regal crown perched upon Celestia’s head. The pegasus blinked, resetting her mental photograph. “Oh crap, she’s really there,” she squeaked, noticing the perplexing state of the princess’s half-smile.

“Get back to swimming!” Barrier shouted. “Move it! I wouldn’t want to be caught in Celestia’s private bathtub and then put on a terrible damn performance!”

The pegasus tilted her head, allowing her gaping stare to drift from the princess to the structure upon which she leaned. “Porcelain… Oh my gosh, it is a tub. Her tub!” Tail chirped again before diving back into the water to commence another lap—and escape.

From the marble deck, the captain set his sights upon each of his cadets and observed. A massive smirk split his muzzle, allowing an occasional chuckle to escape through his parted lips.

Gradually, Celestia made her way to Barrier’s side. “It’s good to see you in your element, but did you really have to usurp my bath for this?”

Though the princess’s speech carried the subtle hallmarks of bathtime disappointment, Barrier frantically waved a foreleg to hush her questioning. “Sea, land, air! You need to be ready for all of them, at any time!” The stallion smirked at the increased pace with which the three swam. Even Bonecrusher was finally managing to look like a filly that knew what a pool was.

“Barrier,” the princess practically cooed. “I asked you a question.”

“Your sister put me up to this,” he replied resolutely, “and I wouldn’t be surprised if you had a hoof in it too. I get to call the shots. No questions asked. The pools are probably packed at this hour, and with them in gear, that’d be a shit show. I’m not going to explain myself any further. If you want to quiz somepony, grab Tail. That’s her element. This is mine.” He took a step closer to the water and screamed, “Are you foals getting tired already? I’ve seen rubber ducks with more stamina!”

Celestia turned, shooting the captain a half-lidded glance and a mischievous grin. “Sea, land, and air, hmm? Maybe I will quiz somepony.” A pinkish light ensnared her horn, and a loud squeak echoed through the large bathroom after Tail consequently appeared before the diarch. “Tell me, Ms. Tail, what do you think of your captain’s unorthodox methods?”

The pegasus blinked and gave an exploratory tug upon the construct of her confinement. Unlike Barrier’s aura, Celestia’s unyielding grasp left a sensation that she was hovering near an overpowering industrial oven. The background noise of churning water soon dissolved, and Tail was left feeling the weight from all of the eyes in the room. Her own gaze darted about as though the answer had been something that could physically be found, and a sheepish smile parted her muzzle when the seconds ticked on without a response.

“Well, my little pony? I’d like to hear what lessons you could share with me. I’m sure you’ve learned a lot in the last few weeks.”

Tail’s heart cringed. If the princess had asked her the same question two days prior, the pegasus would have gushed every detail. She would have written a research paper or something—with margins filled to capacity with those little facets she had planned to ask about. Your questions pushed him away, she reassured herself before squarely looking at Celestia and putting on the best face she could muster. “I have no right to question Captain Barrier.”

“Oh? You would deny your princess for the sake of your captain?” Despite the challenge in her statement, Celestia kept a soft smile. “Please, be candid. No doubt he would like to hear your thoughts as well. Isn’t that right, Barrier?” The alicorn’s tone, laced with the subtle hints of a playful composition, shifted slightly when she addressed the stallion.

Barrier sighed, “Speak freely, Cadet. I know that mood well. If you don’t, Celestia will cause me problems for the rest of the week.”

“You didn't seem to mind me causing you”—Celestia stopped and adopted a more lascivious intonation—“problems when you first returned. I daresay you liked it.” The mare puckered her lips.

Barrier erupted into a full blush before coughing awkwardly, not noticing the shocked looks on his cadets’ faces. “With all due respect, Princess, that's not appropriate talk around the trainees.”

Celestia snickered in a very un-princess like manner before turning back to Tail. “So, my little physicist, are you going to tell me what you think?”

A frown fashioned the contours of her lips. Her eyes widened to previously unachieved levels, and her respiration rate soared. Even though she was caught in Celestia’s hold, the muscles along her limbs locked up with a clenching tightness that crept into her barrel. “You’re thinking too much,” she mumbled quietly a couple times.

“Would you look at that?” Bonecrusher said from her perch at one of the bath’s edges. “For once, the teacher’s pet doesn’t have all the answers.” She grunted when Indar nudged her flank, and scowls quickly usurped both their expressions.

The captain flashed Crusher a stern glare of his own before returning his attention to the quivering pegasus. The sight of her hovering there—in obvious discomfort—sent a flinch-worthy jolt along his spine. “That’s enough, Celestia. If she doesn’t feel comfortable answering, then it isn’t our business to pressure her—”

“If I’m not mistaken, it was your idea in the first place, Barrier.” An impish smirk appeared on the alicorn’s muzzle before a melodic giggle drew a snort from the captain. “Besides, as your princess, I have an interest in your well-being. Getting to poke fun at you along the way is just icing upon my delicious cake.”

“This isn’t a joke,” Tail replied in an atypically solemn voice. Her sights fell upon the marble flooring as the echoes of Celestia’s cordial tones provided the cadet with a snapshot of clarity. “It is definitely not a joke.” The passionate flickers that had once graced her irides were gone, leaving chocolate-brown gaps devoid of curiosity. Curiosity had brought her here. Curiosity had built a wedge and wasted— “Captain Barrier’s time is the most valuable resource I have. I believe I am more fit to perform my duty than I was when I began, and—” She drew a breath and looked to her instructor. “I would be remiss to question his methods… or anything that brought him to think the way he thinks.”

Barrier’s expression tightened slightly before he bunted Princess Celestia into the bathtub with a sudden shove of magic.

A surprised yelp rose from the solar diarch as she flailed en route to the surface. The shock of Barrier’s surprise attack jammed the flow of magic holding Tail, and the pegasus promptly found herself deposited back into the water as well.

“As fun as this question-and-answer session has been, my cadet still has twenty laps to swim.” Celestia shot Barrier an annoyed gaze, to which the unicorn simply smiled and utilized the hardest voice that he could. “And since you seem keen on interrupting their exercises, Princess, you can join them!”

Both Indar and Bonecrusher appeared awestruck when Barrier’s demand hit their ears, and Tail returned topside just in time to catch their slack-jawed demeanors.

“Cute, Barrier,” Her Highness responded as she rolled her eyes. “Need I remind you that I outrank you, Captain?”

The grin plastered to the unicorn’s face did not erode at all. “We’re going straight to rank already? The Celly I know would at least put up a fight.” His brow descended when Tail turned away to restart her laps. “Maybe you’re just afraid to get shown up by a bunch of trainees. Now, get moving or get the buck out of my pool!”

Tail, along with her fellow cadets, had been dismissed by Captain Barrier two hours prior, but the mare did not feel fit to leave. She had moved from Celestia’s tub to the familiar track, where her mind could get lost in a jog—where she didn’t have to sit still and confront her doubts. Any time she stopped, she felt cornered, either by her screw-up with the captain, her idiocy around Princess Celestia, or her loneliness in her endeavor. She could just keep running and wait for the collapse. Then, at least, she could crawl home and deal with an enemy that she knew perfectly—Amora’s wrath.

Her hooves pounded into the ground as she rounded the corner of her lane, but she quickly skittered to a stop when she saw Bonecrusher standing in her path. The bleeding memories of every nudge and bump she took at the hooves of Bonecrusher’s anger left her feeling even more winded than she was, and her muscles ached in response.

Cautiously, Tail approached the lime-colored pony, closing the small distance that had separated them. A smug look was perched along Crusher’s jawline, and Tail silently swore that she could feel every vital piece of her body hitch in anticipation of what was to come.

“So you think that you can make a good impression with my friends?” Bonecrusher cut off the pegasus the instant Tail had opened her mouth to speak. The tempo of the earth pony’s delivery quickened with every word until the underlying beat of aggression matched the haughtiness in her voice. “Word on the grapevine is that you met Colonel Trigger, and it sounds as though he had nice things to say about you only a few hours after he gave me some raw shit.”

Tail struggled to keep her shifting legs in place. The last thing she needed to add to her list of transgressions was an off-the-clock fight with Bonecrusher. She needed to diffuse this. She needed to get away from the anger. “He just gave the captain and me the C.O. Special, Bone—”

“Ma’am! You will address me as ma’am. I’m not going to slip into a first-name basis with some civvy pretender who thinks that she can take away my friends from me. There were so many others who deserved your spot, and you show your gratitude by kissing the captain’s ass every chance you get—like some flake. I have no idea what shit you pulled to gain Trigger’s favor.” The earth pony planted her forehoof against Tail’s breastplate and shoved the pegasus. “But regardless of what he says, you will never be one of us. And it doesn’t matter how many days off you and the captain take together.”

Bonecrusher feigned a dash towards Tail and snickered when the lavender mare jumped back into a defensive stance. “Nothing is ever going to change that,” Bonecrusher said as she began to exit the field. “Remember that the next time you’re trying to have a good night, civilian.

Chapter 11 - Breaking Point

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“Nnngh,” Tail wailed a cacophonous cry before climbing back onto her hooves. Streaks of dirt—markers of the times Barrier had grabbed her from her dash to throw her to the ground—covered her armor. She didn’t quite make it fully upright after this pass, for the weight of his hindquarters came crashing down upon her withers.

Her left foreleg was yanked towards her barrel as the unicorn corralled the limb and dragged her to the ground in what had to be some sort of submission maneuver. “You’re sluggish,” he remarked flatly. “I’ll have to up the ante. Every charge that fails, I will take you down. Each one of these holds could be the beginning of your demise. Sooner or later, your body will understand that, and when it does, your wings might start behaving.”

Tail tried to free herself from his grasp. The stallion held firm. She flexed her leg muscle and aimed to push out of the lock, but a crippling, eye-bulging pain ran up her leg as she tried to lift herself.

Barrier let go seconds after Tail began the quest to force her freedom, and a sigh laced with disappointment escaped his lungs as he stood upright.

As the weight departed, Tail gingerly rose to her hooves before starting the trudge to her starting position.

“Alright…” Hints of annoyance crept into Barrier’s intonation, and his eyebrow cut a flat line across his deadpanned face. “I think that's enough for tonight.”

Tail raised her hoof in protest. “I'm fine,” the pegasus muttered meekly. “I can still go.”

Barrier allowed his eyes to roam over Tail’s disheveled appearance, noting how sweat dripped down the tips of her mane. “No, you’re not.”

Tail’s jaw tensed slightly, but she didn't object. His words burrowed into her mind, and her limbs quivered from exhaustion.

“Your mind isn't in it tonight. Do you have any idea what would have happened if you had continued to try to force your way out of that? You would’ve destroyed your leg with a few torn tendons—risked a break or dislocation as well.” Barrier’s gaze hardened. “You wouldn’t have tried to force that if your head was in the game. You would have thought of something creative. Brute force against an opponent with guaranteed superior strength is a novice move.”

A brief silence reigned, and despite the still-present ache, Tail’s entire frame jerked in response. You’re just a damn civilian, she thought while her mind practically overrode Barrier’s voice with that of Bonecrusher’s. She drew in a chilling breath and looked to her captain with a pleading expression, hoping more than anything that he would say something to kill the doubt that was running rampant in her head.

“It’s not any of my business what’s on your mind, but go home for the night, Tail. We’re done here.”

Her head fell, and she stared blankly at the blades of grass. The sound of Barrier walking away—barking orders to Indar and Crusher—drifted through her drooped ears, but the pegasus heard none of it. It’s not his business. We’re done. The fragments of his message repeated in her brain, and the relentless cycle swept up the infringing sounds of Bonecrusher’s mocking laughter and the consequential groans from the stallions.

The fact that her armored hooves had found stone didn’t even drift into her awareness. She just wandered, ignoring the tears that swelled and dropped while the desire to run and just keep running bridged the gap between imagination and reality. “I’m never going to prove it…” It was just like Bonecrusher had said. “Nothing is ever going to change it.”

Bonecrusher chuckled giddily and bellied up to the bar at the Phoenix Fire. She threw her mane back and looked to the ceiling as the seeds of budding victory sprouted in her smile. “Best day of training I’ve had.”

Trigger placed a shot in front of the mare before leaning on the counter. “Finally work your shit out with the filly, huh?”

The earth pony snorted after her hoof found the edge of the glass. “Buck no. That piece of garbage can crawl back to wherever she came from. She could barely keep up with the captain today. He put her down so many times, I was certain she cried at one point. Finally, he put her in a real hold instead of babying the bitch. She couldn’t do anything. Barrier sent her ass off into the sunset. Hear that, boys? She’ll be gone soon enough, and then maybe a real guard can salvage our crippled little squad.”

Nopony responded to Crusher’s declaration. Instead, Trigger’s eyes wandered to capture the uncomfortable grimaces that had found homes on far more muzzles than just his own. “She already passed my test, Private. I’d rather not—”

“You based your judgment off one Luna-bucked night. I’ve seen her ethic every day. She pesters the captain like an adult toddler in a classroom. Ever since your little test, she’s plateaued. Actually, her talents have suddenly vanished. Amazing what happens when the teacher’s pet is suddenly at odds with the teacher. Guess the bucking wasn’t good enough.”

“That’s a shame,” said a burnt-orange pegasus seated at the opposite end of the bar. He ran a hoof through his brown wind-sculpted mane after his emerald eyes located Bonecrusher. “She had a conviction about her that was rather refreshing. Would have been an honor to wing a pony with that kind of passion.”

“Ha. Ha.” Bonecrusher groaned while snippets of sarcasm brewed in her tone. “I’m sure Little Miss Perfect completely changed your worldviews. I’m sure she just waltzed in here and stole your hearts while fucking up your own plans and ambitions. What the Tartarus happened to you guys? Did you forget our traditions just like that? She’s a motherfucking poser—”

Trigger sucked in a breath and primed a response when the door of his establishment was bucked off its hinges. The splintering bits of wood littered the floor, and the cluster of successive bangs ensnared the shocked sights of almost all those in attendance.

A cool night breeze rushed into the bar, preceding Amora’s dramatic entrance. Her blue eyes made a sweep of the place as she scoured the joint for her target of interest—and ignored the rustlings that her appearance had generated.

The barkeep glanced at the battered chunks that had made up his door. “Stitches, what the figurative fuck—”

“Can it, Trigs,” Amora snapped as she began a slow trot to check every table and stool. “I’ll fix it on the way out. Like I do with everything else around here.” She exhaled a long sigh before affixing her cobalt gaze upon Trigger’s frame. “I’m looking for a couple ponies. The physicist that was in here a few nights ago. If you see her, then I want to know about it. And if you see that fucking captain of hers, you tell him that I want to see his ass.”

“Putting the moves on me already, Major?” Barrier asked while stepping through the blown-open path.

Amora pivoted. A harshly crafted scowl hijacked her countenance, and she lowered the tip of her horn until the appendage pointed directly at the captain. “Where is Tail?”

“I have no idea where Tail is. I sent her home hours ago because her stuff was off.”

“Of course her stuff has been off! She’s been coming home later and later every night since your unexpected stay. The last few days, she has been utterly miserable. She doesn’t talk about stuff anymore. She doesn’t have her excitement. What happened after I left that morning, Captain? What did you do to my filly?”

For a split second, concern flashed upon Barrier’s face until it was promptly brushed aside for the cold, collected stare that remained. “I didn’t do anything to your filly. If she didn’t come home, it’s not my problem. My job is to train her. I’m not her foalsitter.”

“Bullshit!” the mare snarled as her forelegs slammed against the floor. “You are her C.O. You may not be a foalsitter, but you are definitely responsible for her well-being.”

“I already told you, Major. I sent her flank home. Tail’s a grown ass mare. She already knows how I do things. I’m not there to coddle her. If she doesn’t like it, then she can just walk away—”

“Buck off, you pancake-making piece of flaky fucking fluff. You don’t even know the reason why she’s there. You have no idea the weight that’s on her haunches and what it’ll mean for everypony in this damn place if she quits. Just walk away!? Don’t you care for her safety at all?” Her ears pinned back, and her hind legs quivered from the internally simmering levels of pissed.

“And if somepony had the guts to give me the reason,” Barrier countered, “then I still wouldn’t change my mind about my methods. You might be the most talented medic of this age, Major, but you have not seen anything remotely similar to what I have seen. Do you know what happens when commanders personally invest in their cadets? Do you know what happens when you start to give a shit, instead of just train?

“When they up and die on you, you carry the fucking weight of that failure. I don’t give a shit if I make her feel bad. I don’t give a shit if she has to scour all of Canterlot to find herself again after I tell her to go home. I don’t give a damn about what is going on up in her head because the only thing that matters to me is that my cadets leave knowing what it takes not to die. And after today’s performance, I’d say she’s not even close.”

Amora’s coat bristled while his words buried into her skull. Blue sparks popped along her horn before a ray of castfire sprang loose and careened into a hastily erected shield. “I’m starting to wonder how much we both misjudged you, Barrier. She put all of her faith in you, and you’re just going to shrug her off as some reject who isn’t even close? No wonder why she’s scrambling over herself trying to figure you out—to understand you. There’s no heart to read. It up and died ages ago.”

Barrier trembled from the rage that the scathing cut unearthed. His horn glowed behind a jagged aura of unbridled power, which pushed many of the Phoenix Fire patrons to quit gawking and duck beneath their tables. “You know nothing—”

The unicorn was cut off as a second bolt of energy loosed itself from Amora’s horn. With his mouth still hanging open from the unspoken words, Barrier winked a shield into existence to catch and redirect the bolt into the unfortunate wall nearby. While a twitch of pain lingered from the reverberating shell, a trio of small battering-ram barriers manifested and were sent rocketing towards Amora. The scintillating constructs grew dangerously close to the medic’s defenses, but their courses were drastically altered by the sudden presence of an amber glow. Spiraling trajectories carried the oblong-shaped projectiles over the bartop and behind Trigger, where they pulverized several of the beloved bottles on the owner’s prized shelf.

The bartender’s eyes twitched wildly as the liquors spilled to the ground. “Executor Barrier.” His voice, while not particularly loud, drew the attention of the combatants with its weight. Even those who had sought cover poked their heads out for the pause forged by Trigger’s words. “The fuck is wrong with you? What would Ember say if she saw ya wielding in such a heinous, unseemly manner before a fellow guard?” It was a question that he clearly didn’t expect answered. “And that?” He motioned to where Barrier’s ram-like shields were still embedded in the wall. “Are you out your mind? She’d be fuckin’ ashamed. She would beat the literal shit out of you.”

Barrier’s jaw tightened, partially at the mention of Ember and partially at the rank that hadn’t existed for hundreds of years. Trigger’s words hit home, and the glow of the captain’s magic gradually dissipated.

“And you!” Trigger’s gaze found its way to Amora. “Are ya Tail’s mother?” He waited several long seconds. “She’s not a kid, and you’re not her mom, so stop fuckin’ acting like it! She’s a grown mare, and it’s not your place to fix her problems for her.” Trigger exhaled in a deliberately slow manner before closing his eyes. “Both of ya are goin’ home.” Another slow breath. “And you’re both going to calm the fuck down. And tomorrow”—his eyes opened—“ya both are going to come back here and fuckin’ apologize to one another.” Trigger let another several seconds of silence pervade the room. “Got it?”

Begrudgingly, both ponies nodded, prompting Trigger to thrust his foreleg towards the destroyed exit. “Then get the fuck out of my bar!”

The tappings of the ponies exiting the Phoenix Fire was like a chorus sung solely for the enjoyment of Bonecrusher’s ears. Throughout the entire conflict, she had remained still atop her stool, and now, she basked in the afterglow of the fight. Her eyelids fell, and she lowered her muzzle as a small, yet thoroughly contented smile took shape. “Looks like I was right about her skills all along.”

Whatever anger had remained on Amora’s face after the long walk, it was washed away the instant she spotted Tail slumped on the steps of their home. Her pupils dilated, taking in every contour of the slouching filly, and the medic burst into a full-blown sprint. Notes of sobbing rammed her sense as she drew near, and as soon as the unicorn was close enough, she snatched up the armored pegasus.

“I’m sorry,” Tail blurted out as if her body had intended for more tears to fall. She was completely drained. “I worried you again.”

A pulse of magic zipped through the lavender mare, and Amora’s stare wavered to the data returned by the scan. “There will be time for that later, Hun. I haven’t seen you like this since the Coltifornia interview. C’mon, let’s get you inside.” She levitated the cadet. “I’ll get you in a nice bath and even read those stupid romance stories you like while you’re relaxing away.”

Tail groaned after a coaxed splurt of laughter broke through the somber melody. She relaxed in the unicorn’s hold and released a long, loud sigh. “You’re the best,” she said, clearing out a round of sniffles. “At least I know I’ll always have a friend in you.”

Chapter 12 - A Bar Breakfast Club

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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?”

“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.”

Chapter 13 - Heart-to-Hearts

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“Good morning, my little ponies!” A sadistically chipper purr came from Barrier’s mouth, and both Indar and Bonecrusher retreated nervously in response. The captain never spoke in such a tone, and he certainly never smiled—at least not like that, and definitely not that openly. “As you may have noticed, our pegasus isn’t with us today.”

The words made Bonecrusher grin, and her eyes appeared to peer out into an infinite expanse. A quick nudge of Indar’s hoof against her armor restored her focus, and the mare found herself peering directly into Barrier’s drill instructor gaze.

“Does that excite you, Cadet? I’m sure it does. I expect Ms. Tail to be back with us tomorrow. She’s been excused for the day for reasons that you don’t need to know.” He grunted after wiping the giddiness right off Bonecrusher’s face, and he ignored the agitated pout that had replaced her smile. “Now that we’ve got that out of the way, we’re going to take advantage of that absence by covering a leg of training that pegasi have no use for. You two are going to experience something—truly—special.”

Barrier paused as a large chariot landed in the field. Two armored pegasi pulled the behemoth, and the sight of the vehicle drew a contented sigh from the captain. “I remember this one like it was yesterday. Should have seen the number of earth ponies that turned breakfast into rain.” He snickered. “And this morning, you’re going to parachute out of it.”

After a short trot, the unicorn hopped onto the carriage and hefted three barrel-sized packs into view with his magic. “Get strapped in, you two. I can’t wait to see you learn how to fly.” The grin on his muzzle spread even wider as he absorbed their mouth-hanging, terrified, you-can’t-be-serious appearances. “Indar, are you actually shaking in your shoes? Mm, I remember when my instructor pushed me out of the chariot. I’ve been waiting a long time to return the favor. I do love such entertaining days. Now, move it!”

His shout drove the two cadets to jolt and scramble onto the craft. Both ponies grabbed their chutes and strapped them to their bodies with methodical care. Barrier released a cadence of light chuckles as he watched the show. “Don’t forget to tighten every strap,” he added. “As much as I love to torture cadets with tales of me whipping their asses, I really don’t want to have to write home to mom about why her beloved foal got turned into really interesting artwork after hitting the ground at high speed.”

Crusher grumbled as the charioteers commenced their takeoff sequence, and her forelegs clung tightly to the carrier as it climbed. “This is bullshit,” she puffed, her widened eyes taking in the green clearings on the outskirts of the capital city. Those very clearings ominously lurked below—far below—upon her familiar, beautiful ground.

Magic enveloped the straps holding the parachute to Bonecrusher’s barrel. “Something you’d like to add, Cadet?” He tugged on the belts to make sure they were actually secured properly.

“Just thinking it would be nice if a certain mare would actually show, sir.” Her earthy tail swished aggressively. “It would be such a shame if she continued to fall behind after her abysmal performance yesterday. She just didn’t bring her stuff. Isn’t that what you said, Captain?”

Barrier briefly turned his attention to the recoiling Indar. The captain breathed an exasperated sigh. He raised a hoof to his forehead, rubbing gently at the base of his horn while allowing himself to drift through memories. “Tail’s training is my business—and my business alone—Rookie.” A smirk devoured the frustration on his countenance and sent the cadet reeling. “Though, I find it interesting that you should mention a fall. Count to ten, then pull, and be sure to bend your legs when you land.”

“Wait, Cap—” Bonecrusher wailed. The tingle of magic snatching her up sent wavy ripples through the pony’s coat. A second later, she had been tossed over the edge of the chariot and deposited into freefall.

“Mm,” Barrier hummed while he observed, his horn still glimmering, “let’s see if she’s going to give me more work to do, or if Screaming Banshee will manage to deploy her shit.” The stallion couldn’t help but audibly snicker. Indar, meanwhile, was still quaking in his boots.

The sounds of a yawn filled the bedroom just prior to Tail becoming fully aware of her awakened state. She ran her limbs over the silky sheets and purred. For the first time in what felt like ages, a contented, albeit groggy smile blossomed upon her sleepy face. “Hello pillow.” Her forelegs squeezed the soft, feathery cushion. “Mmm, are you going to be my knight in shining armor?” Keeping her eyes shut, she rolled onto her side and nuzzled the headrest.

“Nah,” Amora’s voice crashed upon Tail’s lazing, “I don’t think Shining Armor is your type of captain. He was in your candidate pool, after all.” She idly swiveled atop Tail’s desk chair and kept a keen watch on the physicist.

Tail sat up in a whirl, her bedraggled mane falling over her face as her lids snapped open to observe the sunlight pouring around her almond-colored drapes. “I am so dead.” The grin had been yanked straight from her muzzle.

“There she is!” Amora garnered Tail’s attention with a wave of her hoof. “You should also know that, with me around, your chances of dying in your own home are pretty low.” The unicorn snickered and lit her magic to recline the pegasus. “You have a medical day, and I may or may not have sedated you to ensure that you got a good rest. I may or may not sedate you again, depending on how well you listen to your favorite roommate.”

The physicist cringed in response. “What did you do, Ams?” she asked, apprehension hanging on her words. Please, sweet Celestia, do not tell me you did something stupid.

“I ran into Barrier before I found you last night.” The medic tapped her muzzle through what Tail assumed was an active phrasing search, and the flier subsequently chewed on her cheek as the tension brewed. “I—uh—confronted him about your whereabouts and had it out with him when he didn’t know or care where you were.”

“You did what?” Tail squealed and immediately struggled against Amora’s magical grasp. “It wasn’t his fault! I needed to clear my head after—”

“Hun, relax,” the unicorn continued after shushing her companion with another gesture of her foreleg. “We had it out last night. We spoke this morning to set things straight, and things were set straight.” She stood up and trotted over to the bed before gently placing her hoof on Tail’s barrel fluff. “You should have told me what was bothering you. I could have ended this nonsense a couple days ago.”

Tail’s embrace became reacquainted with her pillow. “I can’t rely on you—or Luna—to fix every guard problem I encounter. I tell my students all the time to seek the answers for themselves. What kind of teacher would I be if I started using shortcuts when lives get put on the line?”

Amora sculpted a pouting expression. “I’m not trying to mother you. I’m trying to help you understand that you turned nothing into a really reckless something.” She pushed down a bit harder on the mare. “I know you’ve been training off the clock. You’re going to stop, and I mean now.”

The pegasus glanced away from her friend. She chomped down on her lower lip, knowing that it was pointless to argue with Amora when it came to health and medicine.

“If your body doesn’t have the nutrients to support that level of activity, what do you think it’s going to do? If your mind is exhausted from coping until you collapse, how do you think it’s going to function? You worked yourself into a corner. It’s just like that time when we were young fillies, and you thought you lost the locket I lent you for our first school dance.”

Tail’s muzzle reddened considerably as the event played in her mind. She heard the sounds of a heartbroken pony, and her chest ached from the remembered weight of disappointment. “Instead of asking you about it—”

“You picked up a job at the local flower shop, raised a bunch of bits, and replaced the locket that I had already gotten back from your mom. You hid your pain from everyone, and you did it for no reason. You’re doing it again. You asked him a question that made him upset, so what?”

The scientist snapped her chocolate-colored sights onto the unicorn. “What kind of friend wouldn’t be upset at that?” She inhaled sharply and her feathers ruffled defensively. “We bonded the morning he was here. I gained his trust, and then I blew it! Now, I’m just afraid to ask anything. What if it pushes him away to the point that he just pushes me out?”

“Tail,” Amora spoke in a relaxed tone. She delicately brushed the mare’s wings until they were neatly tucked. “You have to keep asking questions. It’s what you do, and it’s how you learn. You’ve come such a long way. You’ve jumped into a world that you only knew through stories, mostly mine, and I’d bet you’ve already gotten further than any of the bigwigs gave you credit for.

“But, you need to understand something. Right now, Barrier isn’t your friend. You’re searching for a relationship like the ones you have between you and your postdocs—maybe even with one of your grad students. Hun, Barrier is a professor, and you’re like the ambitious high school student that skipped a few grades. On a professional level, he can’t look at your bond as friendship—at least not yet, anyway. You’re just not to that point. I get that it’s stressful. Your success here isn’t a sure thing. There are definitely a lot of things that fall on you, but you can’t let that pressure get to the point where you fuss around with social issues and debate what makes you who you are. It is literally tearing you apart from the inside.”

Amora giggled when she caught her favorite patient’s vivid stare. “And let’s be honest,” the unicorn carried on. “If he did push you out for asking questions, then I would kick his ass across Canterlot.”

A smile sprang to life across Tail’s muzzle before a returning giggle filled the room. “Thanks, Ams. You really do know how to lift my spirits. Though, I doubt you could take Captain Barrier. From what I’ve seen, he’s got the answer to just about anything a pony could throw at him.”

The unicorn dramatically flipped her brunette mane. “It’s almost like I’ve been your best friend for most of your life,” she answered in a playful voice before abruptly shifting to a serious timbre. “Oh no, Sweety. After last night, I know I can take Captain Barrier.”

Tail quirked her brow and flicked an ear. “Wait, what?”

Amora planted her hooves and rapidly pushed away from the bed. Once again, the pressure of her magical aura washed over Tail in an instant. “Oh, look at the time. Sedate spell!”

Barrier leaned on a balcony railing while he allowed his gaze to drift over the palace gardens. The contents of his flask were almost depleted, and he pondered in silence until a familiar call nipped at his ears.

“Long day?” Shining stepped beside him, promptly taking up a similar perching position next to his distant relative.

“Eh, you could say that. I gave a pair of cadets the chariot jump today. Nothing quite like watching them scream like babies.” Barrier sighed and fell silent as the last swig of nectar made its burning way down his throat.

“But?” Shining Armor verbally prodded. When a response did not come, the white unicorn jabbed Barrier’s side. “Come on, what’s bothering you?”

“Bonecrusher doesn’t give a damn about her own improvement.” The older stallion practically grunted his assessment after a few seconds of reluctance. “All she does is whine about Tail. She might have brought the stuff as a guard, but this training is exposing a rather grating truth.” He stowed his emptied flask and took a deep breath. “Then there’s Tail…”

Shining cast a sidelong glance at his fellow captain. “Mm? What about her? I’ve heard some rumblings through the grapevine that you sent her home yesterday. Is she falling short?”

“She was off… for a reason that was my fault.” He instinctively yanked at his flask and groaned when he remembered that it was already empty. “She reminds me of Ember—every time she asks a question or shows that drive. Then I pushed back, and it fucked her spirit. In all honesty, she probably needed that day to recover.” He grimaced. “If she returns with it, I have no doubt I’ll be fastening colonel pins to her jacket.”

Chapter 14 - Seeking the Spark

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“Calm yourself, Barrier,” Luna counseled quietly. “Our magic is a far different creature than your own. You should know by now that you cannot force the moon to do your bidding. You must coax it.”

Barrier clenched his eyes shut even tighter, and his grunts drowned out the softly delivered advice of the princess.

“Barrier!” Luna stated more firmly on her second attempt. “Breathe! This is not something you can brute force.”

“Easy for you to say,” Barrier managed to spit out. “Your magic shits my best day in bleed-off every morning.” Barrier fell silent once more as the moon seemed to move a thin crescent’s width. The sound of a snap rang out across the field and Barrier fell back onto his flank after the spellcast ruptured. “Sweet Faust above!” Barrier hissed and moved to touch his horn, wincing when he felt the heat radiating off the temporarily fire-white spear of bone.

Luna pursed her lips before settling upon a sympathetic smile. The arches of her face crafted a gaze drenched in concern, and her cascading mane appeared to dim its twinkles out of respect for Barrier’s strife.

“I don’t know, Luna. I don’t think our magics are going to be compatible.” Barrier pressed a hoof to his temple in an attempt to calm a pounding headache that had set in.

“Patience, Barrier. This is only the second lesson. Foals do not learn to gallop in a day.”

“I’m not a foal, and this is hardly learning to gallop. I’m trying to manipulate magic that isn’t my own.”

“Semantics.” Luna’s own horn lit up and with a simple flourish of her head, the moon began its slow descent. “I have to ask, however.” Luna offered a hoof to the unicorn, which he gratefully took as he hefted himself upright. “Why now? You were quite adamant when we first returned to Equestria that training under me was unnecessary.”

“A recent event has made me worry about my reflexes,” Barrier answered flatly. “Under different circumstances, I would be inclined to not care. I can control my magic, and the output is still effective, but…”

“But you feel as though my magic is creeping across the residual bond?” Luna interrupted the encroaching quiet.

“Yeah. And that makes any reflex action dangerous. Nothing happened this time around, but there are too many what-ifs. A spike in my adrenaline could create something disastrous. Your magic could be tapped at any time, and that result…” Barrier rubbed his stiff neck.

Luna shuddered at the notion. “I understand. I’m glad you decided to take me up on the lessons. And worry not about your perceived failure this morning. We have plenty of time for you to learn.”

“It’s hard not to worry. Your unbridled power still keeps me up at night.”

The princess recoiled again when the last three words drilled into her ears. “Barrier, I should have done more. I—”

“You don’t have to keep apologizing, Lulu. It’s not a good use of time, not anymore. In any case, you should get out of here. My cadets are due any moment, and this isn’t something that should be seen.”

Luna’s composure rapidly changed. The sorrow that had gripped her countenance washed away as her sightline drifted from Barrier. “It may be a bit late for that,” she commented. A sheepish smirk parted her muzzle as she motioned to the pegasus watching them from a distance.

“Faust above, just what I needed.” The captain’s plot hit the grass. He grunted, squinted, and clutched his head again as the burning glow of his horn began to pulse.

Tail sprang forward the instant she observed the spectacle. Her training—and the day of rest—had undoubtedly benefited the mare in the speed category. She rapidly drew close to Barrier until her nose hovered mere inches from the tip of his magical appendage.

The stallion opened an eye and glared at the body of the pegasus, for her subsequent tapping upon the crunching grass not only made his coat bristle with agitation but matched the rate of his throbbing headache as well.

“You’re doing it wrong,” she whispered, her head turning briefly towards Luna.

“What was that, Cadet?” Barrier spat. He lurched and wheezed amidst the painful, defensive tempest—a fuming maneuver that prompted Tail to take a step back.

She began lightly pawing the ground in response to his snarling retort. “I’m sorry, sir,” she squeaked out in a diffident tone. “It’s just that I…” The pegasus bit down on her cheek and allowed her gaze to wander over the field.

“Go on, Ms. Tail. He’ll regain his wits soon enough, and I am interested to hear what you have to say on this subject,” the princess chimed in—elegantly pacifying Barrier’s simmering displeasure while returning Tail to a more confident path.

He can’t be your friend yet, Tail reassured herself with Amora’s logic, but I have to be me. She swallowed, set her sights on the captain, and continued, “I’m sorry for being out of line, but this is a subject that I do know. You are doing it wrong, sir.”

The words had dripped from her muzzle in a tone that was unusually gentle for a cadet bold enough to call out her commanding officer. She gradually pulled Barrier’s armored foreleg from his head and brought her plated hoof to rest against the metal surface.

“You’re trying to force yourself to reach a level you can’t hit. Princess Luna’s magic has a naturally higher energy, and you can’t match the associated pulse—as evidenced by the glow on your horn. Trying to match it”—she hesitated as her mind scrambled to find the perfect analogy—“is like a stupid filly trying to force her way out of a hold when she could have just asked the expert how to do so.

“I think you should try this instead.” Tail began tapping the estimated frequency of Luna’s magic. “This is hers.” She then slowed down the rate. “And this is yours. Instead of trying to brute force your way to the princess’s level, you should make use of harmonics.”

The mare flicked her namesake when Barrier returned her statement with an utterly bewildered expression. “Right, sorry, nerd stuff. Umm, think of it like pushing a foal on a swing. Instead of pushing the kid each time the swing comes back, you push every other. Even though it’s less energetic overall, it’ll keep the process going. You’ll be able to get used to things without hurting yourself.”

The unicorn retracted his leg and spun away from the smaller mare. “I don’t recall giving you permission to speak, Cadet. And I certainly don’t recall giving you clearance to grant my trainees any privileges, Princess. Tail! Twenty-eight laps for butting into business that isn’t yours. Consider yourself lucky. I’m giving you a two-lap credit… for interesting advice and reminding me that I need to own your flank with submissions again.”

Barrier threw a sidelong glance at Tail. Her feathers ruffled when she found him peering into her eyes, and a slight redness developed on her muzzle. What are you searching for? she pondered as his pupils shifted to the telltale beat of analysis. Seconds ticked by while she lost herself in that intense stare. It was only a gentle cough from the nightly alicorn that prodded the pegasus to snap a salute and get running.

Luna stepped towards the captain and set her hoof between his withers. “You should listen to her, Barrier. This is one of her specialties, after all.”

“I know,” he replied in an apologetic voice, “and I know that this training is something that I need to move forward. We will continue our sessions later, but, right now, her teaching merits aren’t my top concern. Her spark hasn’t fully returned yet, and I need to do something about that—no matter how much it pains me.”

“So,” Bonecrusher grunted as she flanked Tail and matched the mare’s stride, “back from your special mission already?”

Tail glanced at the earth pony as the corner of her lips shaped a halfhearted smirk. “Special mission? I had a day of medical leave.”

“Guess that’s a step up from classified,” Bonecrusher scoffed, thrashing her tail aggressively as she galloped.

The pegasus flinched as a barb of regret snared her chest. “Look, Bonecrusher, I’m sorry about saying it like that. I didn’t know—”

“Ma’am, it’s ma’am, and I don’t care what you know or don’t know.” Rushed, harsh breaths carried the words to Tail’s ears as they rounded the corner of the track. “You still don’t belong here. The captain keeps saying it’s not his job to coddle us, but he’s been babying you since the first day.” A sadistic grin formed behind the rising wall of Bonecrusher’s anger. “Maybe one of these sessions, he’ll stop hiding the facts about your shit skills, and I’ll get to pummel you into the dirt.”

Whatever sigh Tail had attempted to force out, it was swamped by the heavy breathing her running had spurred. “What is your problem? He’s not babying me. He’s helping me learn—” The pegasus jumped to the side when she sensed Bonecrusher’s typical shoulder tackling move. She slid to a stop and watched as the lime-colored mare slammed her hooves into the track to do the same.

“My problem is that you’re a kiss-ass. The fact that I have to come in here every day and watch an officer with a distinguished reputation waste his time with a little bird—one who crumples after a bit of contact—disgusts me. I keep getting told to leave it be, or that there’s some legit reason for you being here. All I see is a shell who gets a couple days off after experiencing a little taste of what it’s actually like.”

“Bonecrusher! Indar! Pair off!” Barrier’s order pierced the escalating tension like a heated dagger through ice. “Tail! Get your flank over here! The two of us have a date, and I’m in the mood to make you submit.”

Tail squeaked and swung towards the captain’s location. Her wings spread slightly as disbelief listed her head to the left. Silence gripped her for but a moment, the ramifications of his word choice driving her heart to beat just a bit faster. “Sweety, that was the worst phrasing I have ever heard,” she mumbled quietly before trotting as commanded.

The earth pony snorted as Tail walked away. “Don’t think I’m done with you.” Her snarling tones drove the physicist to defensively flick her namesake, but the pegasus refused to look back.

Instead, she gazed ahead to her waiting trainer. “Captain, that wasn’t a very appropriate way to ask me out,” she said once she felt he was in earshot for her normal speaking volume. She stopped when she saw his scrunched muzzle and actually giggled when he sputtered something about Zacherle in response.

His hoof pressed against his forehead as a long exhale crept into existence and promptly faded. “We’re just going to pretend that didn’t happen, Cadet. You have way more important things to worry about anyway. You gave me all that time to watch your punishment run, and now my horn is feeling much better.” Barrier snickered and vanished from sight through a swirl of spellcast.

The mare yelped as the unicorn’s weight suddenly crashed upon her back. He snatched her foreleg quickly and jammed it to her barrel in a similar manner as he had done a few days prior. Tail’s frame buckled, though she managed to remain upright.

“What do you think you should do?” Barrier drilled her on the spot. “Ten seconds, or I’ll bring you to the ground and make your life a lot worse.”

Tail’s breathing hitched, but her mind dashed. Brute force wasn’t the answer for this one, so what was? Her hind leg shifted, trying to find additional support. How much time have I blown? The instant her hoof came into contact with Barrier’s, her eyes went wide. She bucked his hind leg on the same side of the hold and rolled her barrel as hard as she could.

As the clanging of their armors still lingered upon the wind, the pair tumbled to the grass, where Tail discovered that the pressure upon her foreleg had been released. Her pulse raced to an anxious tempo while she debated whether or not she had reached the correct decision, and she gulped when her captain asked, “Why’d you choose that?”

“I—um—well, forcing it was the wrong answer, and that hold puts a lot of strain on the leg. I needed to do something that wouldn’t apply a force in that plane, so I chose to roll. I needed to kick the hind leg because your base strength is higher.”

Tail stared at Barrier from her prone position as he rose to his hooves. He was peering right at her, gazing with an intensity that made Tail question just what he was up to. He’s doing it again: looking at you as though there’s something more to find.

“Starting position. We’re running the aileron roll again.” He left it at that, but the grimace etched upon his countenance—and the concern laced into his brow—spoke volumes.

Chapter 15 - The Bolt Within

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Princess Luna sat upon a throne during the waning minutes of her night court. It would not be long before she and Celestia would partake in their sisterly ritual—and probably some cake snacks as well. However, one obstacle remained between the diarch and sweet freedom, and that obstacle was Bonecrusher.

The lime-colored earth pony bowed before the princess, demonstrating an unusual level of decorum that made even Luna’s brow furrow. “Good morning, Your Highness. I know it’s almost time for your shift change, but there is something important that I’d like to bring to your attention.”

“And what would that be, Private Bonecrusher?” The princess leaned forward as though she were preparing to stand.

The responding mare lifted her head from the depths of her bow. Muscles tightened along her legs, producing bulging contours that outlined Crusher’s steeling nerves. “I believe that Ms. Tail has received unfair treatment during the course of our training. Captain Barrier is pampering her. She’s been given two days of leave and was sent home early during this week alone. She’s not a guard, Princess.”

Luna’s foreleg flinched. “Indeed, Ms. Tail is not a guard,” the alicorn answered. “That is why the best of the best was called in for her training. That is why she needs the focused instruction—to get her to where we need her to be. There is obviously a purpose for her involvement. Do you not think she is putting in the necessary effort?”

Bonecrusher snapped to attention. While her lips drew a deadpanned expression, her sockets contorted to sculpt a resolute scowl. “She does not understand our culture, Your Highness. Does an enemy of the state grant days off to underperforming guards? Of course not. She’s been pampered like a foal, and foals don’t belong in service.”

At that, the princess stood and stretched her foreleg to silence the mare. “Captain Barrier’s reports have been read. This week saw its share of problems. Your complaint on that front is recognized. However, Ms. Tail has shown nothing but progress.”

Crusher’s coat bristled. She cringed and sneered in a collectively unified motion before she shouted, “If Captain Barrier calls that progress, then he’s as much a part of the problem as she is!”

Arcs of unbridled magic spiraled along Luna’s horn, and Bonecrusher backpedaled from the jarring cracks of flaring light. The retreating pony made it a few steps until the weight of the alicorn’s power buckled the smaller mare straight into the bowing position. “That will be enough, Private. Captain Barrier’s word on his course is absolute. He has served in capacities the likes of which you could barely fathom. You have no right to question his methods.”

“But I do have a right to question it when his coddling is depriving others from something—”

“We said enough!” Luna’s voice shifted into the Traditional Canterlot mode. “The training was created for Ms. Tail, Private Bonecrusher. It wasn’t created for anypony else. The fact that you were put in the program was by the grace of your merits. The same as it was for Indar. Tail did not deprive others of the position. No pony did, but if you’d rather see it as such, then you took the position from your friends—no one else.”

The noise of the door swinging open had been concealed by Luna’s tempest, but when the scorching scolding ceased, the audible pops of moving, armored hooves snatched the room’s attention. “Get out now,” Barrier demanded, severing each word in the sentence with a bite that could tear Bonecrusher’s jugular. “Field. Laps. Many of them. Unless you faint or die, you keep running until I personally tell you to stop.”

Dread stretched a feigned smile on Bonecrusher’s muzzle in the seconds prior to her swift exit, and Barrier made sure to keep his stern gaze affixed on her form until she disappeared into the hall. Concern greeted the stallion after he turned around.

Luna stood stoically—as she often did when it came to his matters—and waited.

“I’m tired of her attitude.” The anger finally emerged from his muzzle. “Every damn day, it is the same thing. She’s concerned more with Tail than her own improvement, and it is pathetic. Bonecrusher might inject the asshole experience for Tail, but if she isn’t getting anything out of it except misplaced rage, then what is the fucking point?”

The distinct sense that she should have already been bathed in twilight dawn sat upon Tail’s mind. “Maybe Amora screwed with my clock again,” she commented idly as she moved through the castle corridors. Hope showed in her stride, driving her to get to the pitch fifteen minutes early, as usual. “Mm, she wouldn’t do that now, though. Perhaps Princess Luna got hung up in a boring court again, or perhaps, Captain Barrier is trying once more.”

At that declaration, Tail took a detour. It couldn’t hurt to check in on her advocate, after all. It certainly couldn’t hurt to catch another glimpse of her captain attempting what most ponies would deem impossible either. She headed towards the courtroom first, and a swish accented each step until what sounded like Luna’s voice crept through the hall.

“You’ve made your case, Captain, and I agree with your assessment,” the lunar diarch spoke with a tone that froze Tail midstep. “‘Tis a shame things ended this way. I believed that the arrangement would have perhaps facilitated you two getting closer.”

Barrier responded with a groan. “Conniving, as always, but this was just a distraction. I can’t have her in my course, not anymore.”

The pegasus stood there with her ears splayed for a few seconds. Her feathers ruffled as the sounds of their hoofsteps grew louder and more defined. Move! Tail thrust her wings downward, leapt into an adjacent alcove, and practically clung to the wall to hide. This conversation is not meant for you!

Silence reigned very briefly before the princess continued. “Do you want to break the news to her, or shall I?”

Tail’s heart sank as they passed. Her mind reran the words through her brain over and over, verifying through the resulting pause that she had actually heard what she thought she had heard.

“I’ll tell her today at the end of training and see to it that she finds her way out without issue. I think she will make it one day. She’s just not ready, not yet. I owe her that much—to tell her directly.”

“I know that tone.” Luna’s voice became harder to discern the farther and farther the pair got from the strained pegasus. “Her shortcomings are not your fault. You did the best…”

Deep breaths filled Tail’s lungs as she held her position. It wasn’t until she was sure that Barrier and the princess were long gone that she dared to pry herself from the wall. Her head lowered and her barrel slumped below her shoulders as she began the crawl to the field.

Maybe I gave the wrong answers yesterday, she pondered. I’ll have to talk with the princess about what will happen with EqNA. Maybe I can still have a say.

She sighed, struggling to hold back the waterworks that yearned to break free. “No, don’t start that. You heard him. One day, just not today.”

Tail trudged onto the field. Her sights meandered over the blades of grass as her thoughts desperately clung to the most positive part of Captain Barrier’s assessment. “How am I going to get through the day?” she whispered. “I can’t let him know that I know.”

She perked to the thunderous cadence of Bonecrusher’s gallop. The mare was running at what the pegasus considered a ferocious pace, and the grimace that gripped the earth pony’s countenance projected whatever fire was burning within.

After a few minutes of following Crusher with her sights, Tail gradually gravitated towards the track. On several occasions, the lavender mare lifted a hoof as if she had planned to burst into a sprint; however, she just could not find the spark. While you’re here, you’re working, didn’t seem to mean much when today would be the last day of work.

All Tail could manage to do was set an impassive mask as her expression and pray that nothing would prod the lurking sorrow. On cue, Bonecrusher made another pass. A snarl split the earth pony’s muzzle while her pupils traced Tail’s indifferent countenance. “What’s wrong?” the private taunted. “Afraid to get on the track with me?”

“No,” Tail replied with a murmur, “I’m just not in the mood to deal with your antics today.”

Bonecrusher’s ears quivered to the noise. The sidelong glance she tossed over her shoulder made it clear to the pegasus that something had been heard. However, the slight tilt of the earth pony’s head and the lift of her brow indicated that the meaning had been lost. Crusher came to a quick, skidding halt before she spun around to face the smaller spectator. “Did you say something to me, Civvy?”

Tail took a deep breath and sighed. Of course, Bonecrusher had to be acidic. Of course, she had to complicate things on a day that would be inevitably chalked down as one to forget. “If you want to run, then run,” the physicist replied with a bit more volume. “I’m not going to get in your way.”

“Throwing sarcastic crap at your superior?” Bonecrusher spat. Her glare threw daggers at Tail as the lumbering earth pony continued to close the distance between the pair.

“I really don’t need this, Bonecrusher—”

“Ma’am!” she roared, sending Tail into a meaningless two-step retreat. The aggressive charger rushed forward, devouring the separation to press her muzzle against the snout of the pegasus. “You are nothing!”

A grunt splurted out of Tail’s muzzle once the lime-colored mare drove her armored forehooves into Tail’s breastplate. The image of a satisfied smirk was corralled by dilated pupils while the academic pony regained her balance. “I’m not in the mood for drama today! Just run and leave me alone!”

“Leave you alone?” Maniacal laughter erupted as Bonecrusher rammed one of her forehooves into Tail’s armor. The pegasus stumbled, catching herself with her wings right as the earth pony drilled her muzzle with a right cross. “Are you going to ask a foe to please leave you alone when shit gets hard?”

Knocked over, Tail groaned from her suddenly prone position. Blood trickled from her nose, and a throbbing ache radiated from the impact point through the rest of her head. Indar wasn’t around to step in this time. Barrier was probably still with Luna. There was no one else there to help quell the hatred. She was alone with her own devices—alone with reasoning. “Bonecrusher, we’re on the same side—”

Amethyst irides pierced Tail with relentless rage. Before the pegasus could react to her backfired peace attempt, Bonecrusher reared up and delivered a scream-inducing stomp to a spread wing. “We are not on the same side! You’re a manipulative little hussy who gets hoofheld every day. Look at what happens when you get an opponent who won’t walk you through every move. Your ass is in the dirt! There’s blood on your face. And there’s no damn room in the guard for a cripple with a busted ass wing!”

Broken! Broken! Broken! The cadet’s mind clawed for answers. Tail’s head looked around, hoping to spot anypony who could help her—anypony that might hear the horrid wails that were fleeing her little lungs. The splitting crunch that had jabbed her ear still lingered in her thoughts and spurred jarring swirls of mental fog.

“We look out for our own!” Bonecrusher railed. “But you! You! You made it so nopony looked out for me! They let a sideshow diversion push my warnings to the wayside! After watching so many others lower themselves for you, I don’t give a shit if I get kicked out to ensure that you go nowhere! It’s a miracle that you even made it this far because only an emotionally damaged stallion would ever let somepony like you be his fucktoy. And that is the only way—”

Emotionally damaged… The pegasus rolled, planted her hooves into the grass, and yanked her wing free with a thrust that brutally pulled feathers from the broken appendage.

Emotionally damaged. The inferno cut through the haze, and an ardent amber glow reappeared where it had been lost. Adrenaline-jacked hyperfocus forced Tail’s pain from her awareness, and her limbs responded by immediately throwing her body towards Bonecrusher.

“Don’t you ever say that about Captain Barrier again!” Tail cried as one of her gauntlets collided with the earth pony’s face. The lime-colored mare, tilting to the left, staggered from the blow, and the pegasus did not let the opportunity pass. She slugged Bonecrusher in the muzzle again, bloodying up the greenish fur as the bulkier cadet listed. Emotionally damaged! He’s not— Two legs are up. Tail leapt onto the mare’s back, and a lavender foreleg moved in the moments after to wrench Bonecrusher’s dangling limb to her barrel.

The sudden application of a top-heavy weight heaved Crusher’s center of mass beyond the coverage of her planted hooves. She wailed upon trying to throw her snared appendage, for her muscles and tendons were strained by Tail’s use of Barrier’s lock.

Tail pushed off Bonecrusher when the behemoth began to tumble. The jump sent the earth pony careening into the ground with more energy, and it gave the pegasus a snapshot of reprieve to cock her foreleg once more. Her eyes beamed with a fiery fury that met the sprawled student’s shellshocked stare.

As Tail descended, swirls of vapor formed around her hoof and compacted into a tiny black tuft. “At least he gave me a fucking chance!” The pegasus crashed upon Crusher before the primed limb hashtag-wrecked the underside of the gaping green jaw. Cracks, echoing through the training grounds, pierced the air as bolts of lightning burst from the compressed cloud to pitch the earth pony straight into the depths of unconsciousness. “At least he let me try…”

Pants preceded the agonized cry that popped from behind adrenaline’s veil. Stabbing pain assaulted Tail’s chest from the realm of her shattered wing, and the pegasus could no longer remain upright. Her breathing hitched as a fresh dagger cut into her nerves, and she crumpled—into the warming tingle of his magic.

Chapter 16 - The Best in You

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Once again, the armor-clad Tail scanned the heights in search of those about to cast down judgment upon her. The tribunal, from its lofty perch in the darkness, was absolutely indiscernible from the void. However, the terrifying cacophony of its voices was far from muddled. “Colonel Tail, you have flagrantly attacked another pony. You used lethal force! For all you know, you killed her! You’re a monster at worst—and a traitor at best!”

The pegasus winced. She yearned to fly away, but for some reason, one of her wings would not respond. Instead, it oozed a dull ache that slowly pulsed through the eternity of seconds that seemed to follow.

Broken— She slumped at the thought of what she had become and lowered her head. There was no escape, and there was simply nothing she could say in response. Maybe there had been another way. Maybe fighting back wasn’t the right answer, and even if it had been, she had hit Bonecrusher with a technique that wasn’t meant—

A suddenly audible sequence of metallic pops set the fur along Tail’s spine upright. She tightly shut her eyes, not wanting to see what she knew had to be coming. Captain Barrier would appear. He would gaze upon her with those hellish, reddened things. He would stare up at her arbiters and tell them that she wasn’t equipped to do anything. He’d tell them that she was a failure.

Quiet reigned. No words came from those above, and no words came from what Tail assumed was Barrier’s concealed muzzle. She flinched at the softest touch against her wing—the one that ached—and the tranquility transferred through the tender brushing drove the pegasus to once again open her eyes.

“You’re neither of those things,” Barrier spoke when she peered upon his figure. The gunmetal grey helmet was nowhere to be found. Instead, Tail freely observed the compassion on his countenance and the almost sluggish calm that kept his muscles relaxed. “You have never been either of those things.”

Warmth swelled behind her breastplate. Her heart fluttered to his words, and she sharply drew a breath. Did he really just say that? Tail’s sights rapidly scoured his form while her mind scrambled for clues that could confirm what she had heard. She clung to the wind in her lungs as though it were her last gasp—as though a reply was fighting against the physicist’s unresolved disbelief.

“No, what you are… is loyal.” The pegasus scrunched her muzzle as Barrier continued his speech without much concern for her internal processing. “You spent all this time trying your hardest not to let anypony down while keeping what makes you who you are. You haven’t failed in that regard. Faltered, maybe, but never failed.”

Barrier paused, affixing his attention to those that sat far beyond Tail’s scope of vision. “You have no right to cast judgment on my cadet. That is my right, and my right alone, so allow me to spell it out for you.

“Everypony falters, especially those in our line of work. What sets us apart is what we do afterwards. Do we curl up? Give up? Or do we tighten our jaw and put ourselves back on our hooves?” Barrier threw his foreleg in Tail’s direction, causing the mare’s feathers to ruffle. “This one picked herself up every bucking time, even when I stood aside. She got back up over and over and over, and you dare call her a monster?”

Tail’s muzzle flushed as she eyed the bristled bits of charcoal fur that jutted out along Barrier’s neck.

“I know monsters better than anypony alive. Don’t you dare say that about Tail again!” His blue eyes flashed with a fire of their own, and his words rumbled throughout the chamber. The judicial tower cracked and dissolved. The darkened room evaporated, yielding the landscape to a surreal expanse of endless white. In fact, nothing remained at all, except for a lavender pegasus and her irate, surprisingly protective captain.

He’s staring at you. Her thoughts seemed to audibly drift throughout the space. Why is he staring at you like that? And where is everything? What, why? Her forehoof timidly pawed at the luminescent floor, and Tail bit her lower lip while searching for anything she could say to the stallion.

“You picked yourself up, Tail. You make me proud to be your captain, and the fact that you’d defend my name after all the… not-so-good things that have happened…” She inhaled slowly as he set his hoof back upon that pesky, agitated wing. “You’re the best cadet I’ve ever had, and I hope that you can forgive me.” He swallowed hard. “We have a lot to talk about, so hold me to task when you wake up.”

Barrier shuddered as the blur of a dimly lit hospital room came back into focus. He lifted his chin from the soft, bedridden, and bandaged pegasus, and he exhaled as a lagging magical spark laced the spiral of his horn. Methodically, the captain turned to his right and dragged himself over the tile floor. His attention wandered from the curled locks of Tail’s mane to the nightstand with its flowered vase. It dribbled down one of the wooden legs, jumped over a small section of the adjacent azure wall, and followed the network of squares beneath his hooves. In fact, Barrier did everything to avoid the pointed gaze of the third pony present. Even after he made it back to his seat—even after he settled his flank into the lilac-tinted cushion, the unicorn remained silent and averted his head from the familiar medic.

Amora didn’t buy it. “What was that?” she asked with a curious tone that left one of her eyebrows lifted. Briefly waiting for the stallion to answer, Amora propped herself up on the foot of Tail’s bed before adding, “That sort of magic was nothing like the type you used in the bar the other night.”

A second shudder rolled along the stallion’s spine, and a sigh spilled from his muzzle. “It’s not the most pleasant of magical experiences—” He paused, tilted his head, and stared at Tail’s bandaged wing. “But it helped me send a long-overdue message.”

The brunette swished her tail as one of her ears swung in time with a thinking tic. “You can communicate with her while she sleeps? How is that even possible? Isn’t that one of Princess Luna’s abilities?”

“As much as I’d love to go into the details of that, Amora, it’s not the right time. If I’m being honest, it’s not something I’m comfortable speaking about, and even in the event of me feeling pressed, it’s a subject that my cadets deserve to hear first.” A sharp grunt burrowed into the captain’s explanation. “If it weren’t for what happened today, then you wouldn’t have even seen that magic at all. We should keep it at that for now and just proceed with an understanding that those circumstances necessitated that I take some action.”

“Yeah, I’d say so,” the major replied. She huffed and briefly bit her cheek. “While I’d love to rejoice at my first face-to-face encounter with Pri-vate Bitchy One—and let me be clear that Tail oh-so-greatly exceeded my imagination—I know command won’t let this stuff fly. You’re not going to be able to sit back on this issue any longer, Barrier, and we both know it. The bitchy one broke Tail’s wing, and the damage done to bitchy one’s muzzle is pretty staggering.” Amora gulped as she gently brushed the floor with her forehoof. “Others might view this event as a vulnerability. It could put her at risk. It could cost her everything.”

“The only pony who has to worry about that risk is me. I’m the only one who has a say in Tail’s apparent vulnerabilities. That is a contractual fact, and I only see a mare that has improved. She worked her tail off—” Slapping his forehead, Barrier could not hold in the grunt that sprang from his body like an overexcited colt. “Faust above.”

The definitive statement, with its resolute accent, yanked at Amora’s ears and quickly threw a smile smack-dab onto the medic’s countenance. “She really has, hasn’t she? A few months ago and I would have said bullshit at the thought of her giving it to a guard pony like that. I still can’t believe our little pegasus was capable of executing one of her thesis techniques either, but buck Celestia, she did—”

Barrier squinted in response to the terminology, and his voice eventually emerged with a curiosity-carrying timbre. “Thesis techniques?”

Amora groaned and pushed one of her forehooves to rest just below the base of her horn. “Part of her research. That application of weather magic was something she came up with during her A-FAM schooling.” Barrier’s confusion spread into a sheepish grin that made the medic sigh once more. “Did you grow up without meeting a single pegasus? A-FAM stands for Advanced Flight and Mechanics. It’s the stuff that put her on Spitfire’s radar, though Tail was never able to perform that particular move herself. Bitchy must have really pissed her off to get a hoofful of bolt right to the face. Given what Tail has told me, it was probably deserved.”

“It was definitely deserved,” the captain answered with a far chillier demeanor. “Still, I need to know Bonecrusher’s status. They were both my responsibility at the time—”

The snowy mare lifted her foreleg and donned a deadpanned expression. “Impact blows got the standard treatment. The electrical burns on the underside of her muzzle required some special care, and the jaw itself was fairly trashed as well. Tail shattered it. It’s been set and wired. Bonecrusher will not be talking for a while. Sometimes my fucking oath sucks. If it weren’t for that, I’d have let the bitch cope with the pain and the mess. You can thank me with a damn pancake for her full recovery.”

“It would be, unfortunately, rather unprofessional for me to laugh at that, Major. As grating as Bonecrusher has been, I should have set her behavior straight ages ago. Tail never complained. She just kept getting back up, so I viewed it as her taking things in stride. I only approached Luna once it became clear that all of Bonecrusher’s focus was centered on something other than her own growth.”

Barrier’s gaze drifted over to the sleeping pegasus. “I’m a terrible instructor,” he said flatly. “I could have prevented all of this. Bonecrusher’s got a bucked jaw, and Tail’s wing is broken. Doesn’t say much for my training abilities. It’s like watching history repeating all over again, and if I’m being frank, I’m failing just like I failed all my other cadets.”

A playful hum emerged from Amora’s throat as she leaned upon her perch. She idly stared down at the sheet and grinned at the flicking of a certain namesake that toyed with the shadows of the bedspread.

“That is the biggest load of bullshit that I have ever heard,” Tail groggily croaked out, not even bothering to move anything else but her mouth. “Ams, did he seriously just say that he’s failing?”

The medic nodded, despite the fact that Tail had not yet lifted her lids. “Yeah, that’s pretty much exactly what he said, Hun.”

Another breath birthed another groan. Finally, Tail gingerly lifted a foreleg and rubbed the sand from her eyes. “Thank you, for making sure I didn’t wake up feeling like complete and total shit.” She hesitated for a few seconds. Barrier’s words meandered through her thoughts, and the collapse of her dream sat fresh upon Tail’s memory. “I think Captain Barrier and I have a few things to discuss in private—if you don’t mind. Something about me holding him to it.”

Amora had cleared out following the apprehensive glance from the unicorn stallion. A halfhearted smile rested upon his muzzle, and his forelimbs stretched out to the point that, from Tail’s perspective, the captain appeared as tense as he could be. “I’m not sure if I should be proud or worried that you remembered.”

“It was you then,” Tail remarked as a gentle smile pulled back the corner of her lips. “Explains why you were still present after the dreamscape broke.” Her irides glimmered to her brewing intellectual desire. Probably has to deal with that connection to Luna. Makes a lot of sense. It’d be nice to know what that is about. Maybe that’s what he wanted to tell me. Especially after I saw the two of them that morning… I never thought I’d meet a pony with that kind of ability. “He’s really incredible.”

Tail squeaked—and immediately groaned when her wings shifted. Heat flooded her muzzle, indicating the presence of her blushing state. Thankfully, probably through the grace of both princesses, Amora was gone and Barrier’s muzzle was also showing a bit of red.

“Relax,” he answered, wiping the flush from his face before a tentative, single-note chuckle hit the air. “We don’t need you damaging your wing any more than it already is.”

The pegasus watched her captain shake the strain from his limbs. While he had managed to calm his adorably cute and atypical blush, she was having a far less easy time of it. Where had this captain been the last few days? Where had the stallion gone—the one who opened up to her, downed crazy shots with her, the one who… would break into your nightmare to tell you… “I’m the best cadet you’ve ever had?”

Barrier simply nodded and fidgeted in his chair. He was erecting another wall right then and there, and the thought of another messy iteration drove the mare crazy. She tried to sit up, but her muscles would not obey. Pain seeped through the shield of Amora’s miraculous work, and Tail collapsed back on the mattress almost immediately thereafter.

“I told you to relax,” he spoke, spellbinding the cadet’s attention. This time, Tail did as she was told. She took him in, observing all of the little shuffles he made and the ways he would occasionally break eye contact. “This isn’t easy for me. Ponies that get close to me—” Barrier clenched his jaw and wheezed. “Ponies that get close to me usually die, Tail. I fail them. Over and over, I fail them. You let me get close, so I had to be distant. It’s the only way I know how to deal with me.

“But I ended up failing you anyway. I removed myself from your problems. I treated them like they could not matter to me, and it killed you. It took away the thing that makes you special, and yes, the spark that makes you the best. No matter what comes about from this crap now, I owe it to you to see you to the end. We’ll get to that soon enough, but there’s something else we need to discuss first.”

Tail didn’t make a single sound. She couldn’t even hear the noise of her own breathing—or feel the beat of her own heart. Even her thoughts, and that wild imagination, resigned themselves to silence in the wake of Barrier’s declaration.

“Earlier, you asked me—” He exhaled rapidly and looked away from the mare. “That morning—” A pained grimace distorted the interior contours of his muzzle, and his barrel visibly recoiled from whatever internal calamity the captain was trying to guide to the surface. “Tail,” he finally sighed after giving himself a few additional seconds to steady his nerves, “let me tell you about Ember.”

Chapter 17 - Lowered Guards

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He wasn’t ready for this conversation. That was all Tail could think when the sentence hit her ears. It yanked her heartstrings, pulling hard on the juxtaposition between her curiosity for his history and her empathy for his well-being. “You don’t have to—”

Barrier shook his head. “Don’t talk me out of it,” he interrupted. “I don’t need an excuse not to do this. Though, I do appreciate the gesture.” The unicorn gave his cadet a sheepish half-smile. “Ember is—was—the most important pony in my life. She was more than just one of my cadets. She was an inspiration, a mate, and the one I counted on more than any other.”

The mare’s breath hitched, and her wide-eyed gaze refused to so much as flicker from his frame. She yearned to lift her head from that pillow and crawl from the bed if she had to. Those few phrases alone ate at her like nothing she had heard in recent memory. Him telling her to shove it that morning meant nothing in the aftermath of receiving this new knowledge.

“She was passionate about everything she did. If she didn’t know how to do it, you could bet on anything that she would work to figure it out. She became one of the few that I could trust with a life. I watched her go from having zero combat experience to being one of the most proficient warriors in generations. There was honestly no partner I would have rather had on the battlefield.”

He paused for a moment and found that his sights had settled upon the hospital floor. His tone grew heavy with sorrow and regret, and it drowned the aura of the room in a sober shade. “Ember was a remarkable pegasus, and I don’t think I’ll ever forgive myself for not being there for her.”

Tail huffed, fighting to roll onto her side as the gravity of every word bore down on her soul. She repressed the whimper that bubbled over her tongue, and she battled to overcome the ache that bit her senses. He’s so close, but he had never seemed that untouchable. The mare wanted to reach him, throw her hooves around his barrel, and drag him into a hug. Her breaths grew more frequent, and that restless, flickering fire ensnared her chocolatey stare.

“I let her down more than any other pony. She gave me love, even in the worst of spots, and I wasn’t there to return it for all of her days.”

The lavender physicist pitched her hind leg off the edge of the bed. It fell faster than she anticipated, indicating a complete lack of fine motor control that plucked a squeak from her exhausted body. She bit her lower lip upon catching Barrier’s reaffixed glare, and the feathers of her good wing ruffled when he rose from his seat and approached.

“Faust above, I always get the ones that don’t listen.” He wrapped his foreleg around her thigh and gently repositioned the pegasus upon the mattress. “When did relax become try to get—”

A contented sigh dispersed from Tail’s muzzle when her right foreleg obeyed. She looped it around Barrier’s neck with all the strength she had left and pulled his head right into the fluff of her barrel. “Gotcha,” she chirped, yanking a snort from the probably shocked stallion. The bed-planted cadet didn’t really have it in her to lift her head to look. Though, it didn’t really matter. If she was truly the best cadet he had ever had, then she’d play the card to drop a hug when necessary.

“You are going to run so many laps for this,” Barrier said with a tone that carried zero hints of aggression or agitation. Tail did not waver, and the captain did not move to break away. Their separate scores aligned in those measures, creating a silent harmony that held onto the fermata that was the mare’s awkward embrace. “You know,” he spoke up. “When you do shit like this, Tail, it really does remind me of her.”

Whatever Tail had meant to say, it was erased by a set of intrusive giggles that invaded from the wide-open entryway. A mischievous, shit-eating grin sat upon Luna’s muzzle as her sights fell squarely upon Barrier and Tail. “My my, Professor, I knew you were a quick study, but I didn’t think you’d be this quick.”

Barrier slid out from under the limb and snapped his snout in the alicorn’s direction. The muscle beneath his eye socket twitched as he spotted an equally conniving grin plastered upon Amora’s countenance. “She hugged me,” he explained, separating every word to the point that they may as well have been in their own universes.

“Didn’t look like you were complaining,” Amora retorted, the smirk showing no signs of decay.

“Verily so, Major. Dare I say he was enjoying it. Did you hear that halfhearted threat of running laps? What was it that you said? Ms. Tail enjoyed hugging him like he was a teddy bear. Looks like the truth to me. Mayhaps I should commission a special Nightmare Night costume just for our favorite captain.”

Tail squeaked loudly. “Ams! I told you we had things to discuss in private. That just happened like a few minutes ago! Bringing Princess Luna to the room is not private! In fact, it’s far from it. Would you two please not make him mad?” She paused, and her voice re-emerged at a just audible volume. “We pretty much had an important moment going here. I think.”

Amora held out her foreleg and huffed. “Hun, have you ever attempted to keep Princess Luna from anything? Good buckin’ luck with that. Second, hugging isn’t discussing, so I think we’re good here. Isn’t that right, Your Highness?”

Luna took the cue and feigned an exasperated groan. “No! Woe is me! I have been an unseemly princess who must repent for my intrusion! Fine, I shall do as my sister sometimes says and behave.” The playful expression finally evaporated before a more serious glance targeted Barrier. “Despite our jovial intrusion, we did come here on official business. Fights between fellow service members are hard to hide. News spreads quickly, and this is no exception. A pony has made a move, Barrier, and it definitely impacts the plan.”

Tail’s ears dropped. The plan. The statement jogged her memory. The conversation she had overheard between Princess Luna and Barrier forced a fearful frown to the surface. Before the fight, she had been on the chopping block. But that conclusion makes no sense now. He said he’d see you through to the end, and Luna certainly wasn’t present for that part.

“I received two letters from Captain Proud Valiance of the 49th Research Battalion.” Tail’s coat bridled at the name, and she shaped a scowl in the midst of Luna’s explanation. “One called for Bonecrusher to be transferred to his unit, and the other called for Tail to be dishonorably discharged immediately.”

The unicorn’s gaze narrowed upon a pair of envelopes that hovered at the behest of the alicorn’s magic, and Barrier’s body stiffened. From her spot on the bed, Tail could tell that the move had pushed her captain’s buttons in all the wrong ways. “Did you tell Proud to sit on my horn and spin? If not, I’ll be sure to tell him when I leave tonight. Is one of my old pikes still around? I’d love to ram one up his disrespectful ass while I’m at it.”

“Peace, Barrier. Proud has been a vocal opponent of Ms. Tail’s presence since the beginning. This is nothing more than a power play, likely one stemming from the incident between your cadets. This morning, you insisted Bonecrusher be removed from your program. I’m bringing these matters to your attention because I believe they alter your intentions. In addition, Proud is the Army’s representative on the Joint Chiefs of Staff. All requests of this nature must be answered, despite how they appear.”

A thump pounded in Tail’s chest. The realization dawned on her like the first bolts of a summer storm. He never wanted you out, she informed herself, sliding a piece of the puzzle into place that finally made the picture clear. You really did gain his respect. Your efforts weren’t misplaced. Her jaw dropped, and tears welled up in the corners of her eyes.

“Yeah, and honestly, I still want her out of my program, but I wasn’t born yesterday.” He turned his head towards Tail, whose gaping mouth and teary demeanor made Barrier snatch his breath. “Do… Do you think you can put up with her for a while longer? I know she’s a mouthful—”

“I wired her jaw shut, Hun!” Amora shouted over Luna’s frame.

Barrier fired off a hushing glance at the medic before returning his attention to Tail. “I don’t like others scheming around me, and I despise those who scheme around my ponies. There’s no way he wants Crusher for her charming personality, and the fact that he wants you discharged—” The captain’s tone grew grittier by the word, and by the end of his last sentence, he had plucked the envelopes from Luna’s magic through the application of his own. “What do you think?”

“I—” The pegasus drew a few steadying gulps of air. A spontaneous giggle suddenly burst from her muzzle as the echoes of Amora’s exclamation lingered in her mind, and Tail blinked away her budding tears. “Well, if her mouth is closed”—she briefly hummed in thought—“and if you could maybe speak with her… I don’t want to go through this again, but I also hate schemers. If it puts you at ease, Captain, then yes, I’ll accept the risks. Compared to the benefits of learning from you and having your support, the downsides are far outweighed.”

An arc of magical essence ascended Barrier’s horn the instant he registered Tail’s response. Flames devoured the envelopes and dropped bits of ash upon the floor. “Consider that my official position on the matter, Luna.”

“Buck, I ship it so hard,” Amora whispered in a voice heard only by Luna—and by readers like you.

The incendiary gesture left a blush firmly entrenched on Tail’s muzzle. There was something about the dramatic demonstration, along with the reveal of Ember's tale, that touched her in a way that few things could. Deeds, not words. It had been her family’s motto for generations, and in that moment, Barrier became the living embodiment of that creed. It was a gesture that she had to return.

“Princess?” Tail began after forcing her focus upon the alicorn. “You said that all requests of certain, Joint nature had to be answered, correct?”

Luna’s mischievous smile reappeared. “Verily so,” she replied with a nod and a swish of her tail. “Do you happen to have a special request that needs consideration?”

The pegasus bit her lower lip once the princess’s almost all-knowing timbre tugged upon her ears. “I do, Your Highness. I would like to acquire a peculiar security clearance. Barrier has done a lot for me. He brought me here. He sought me out when I was having a nightmare, and he shared a bit of his past. I can’t rightfully keep him in the dark any longer. I would like to show him my lab. Actually, I believe I need to do so as soon as possible.”

Chapter 18 - Course Correction

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“As soon as possible does not equal now,” Amora grumbled as she held her defiant patient to the mattress. “You got into a fight, got knocked unconscious, and your wing is broken. I cannot just let you leave the hospital mere minutes after you wake up. Stack that onto your piss poor sleeping habits this week, and that sounds like a recipe for disaster.”

“He gave me his trust again!” Tail shot back before a wincing motion jerked her frame. “I can’t just ignore that. He deserves to know, and Luna said it was okay!”

“Luna said it was okay for him to have clearance, not that it was okay for you to recklessly trot about after sustaining injuries.”

Tail rolled her head towards Luna and cast a hopeful pout in the alicorn’s direction. “C’mon Princess, tell her it’s okay.” The extent of the pout only grew when the pegasus was waved off by the royal hoof. “Don’t tell me that the Princess of the Night is afraid of a cute little unicorn.”

“Dear Tail,” Luna replied, leaning up against the closed door, “one simply learns with time not to challenge the word of a stubborn medic. Didn’t Barrier cover this during training? Regardless, there are laws for things such as this. My place is not between the wills of the doctor and patient.”

The pegasus scrunched her muzzle and grumbled. “I thought you were on my side here. You both know that I can’t sit still when there’s something of this magnitude on my mind. That is criminally torturous!”

“How about I take her?” From his slouched position upon the lilac chair, Barrier interjected himself into the conversation—a surprising move that left Tail blinking in shock.

She gaped when Amora snapped to face her captain, and she followed the doctor’s narrowing gaze to the stallion’s snout. Oh Stars, what is she going to say? The nervous thought ran roughshod over her mind.

“Hear me out.” Barrier raised his foreleg and cut off a potential retort. “If we make her stay here until she’s fully healed, she’ll go stir crazy. She already tried to do something stupid, so odds are she’ll just get up and make an attempt when nopony else is looking. That’d be bad, correct? Then wouldn’t it be in our interest to let her get this out of her system?”

Amora opened her mouth to respond, but she clamped it shut as the words sunk in. Her lips thinned as they were stretched along her muzzle, and the medic maintained the sullen portrait for several seconds.

Tail knew the look well. Amora was displeased, but Barrier had hit her with brute-force logic that couldn’t be ignored. “Hey!” she suddenly squeaked. “I didn’t do something stupid!”

“Shush,” Amora spoke, breaking her silence. The unicorn kept her sights homed in on Barrier—in spite of the protest from Tail and the amused snicker from Princess Luna. “I’m holding you personally responsible, Captain. If anything happens to her, I’m taking it out on your flank.”

“Could at least buy me dinner first,” Barrier quipped reflexively, only to groan and facehoof when he realized what he’d said.

The reversal of fortune prompted a sinister grin to blossom upon Amora’s countenance. “Dinner, you say? I think I’d rather stick with the pancakes. I can’t pass up the opportunity to get another meal out of you. One morning, I get ‘em all-you-can-eat. You go until I say stop. It’ll probably be the morning after Tail’s release from my professional care. Got to celebrate her homecoming somehow. Might as well be with the stallion she pulls into her adorable barrel floof.”

Barrier snorted and tried to repress the mounting redness. “Very well,” he coughed. “I’ll make you pancakes, again.” The unicorn turned to the lunar diarch after not daring to measure Tail’s flushed state.

“Pancakes?” Luna’s eyebrow raised just slightly. “I wasn’t aware you could cook, Barrier. Well, beyond the obvious small game.” The princess seemed to unconsciously lick her lips.

“Dunno about the rabbits, but his pancakes…” Amora also licked her lips.

“Um.” All eyes turned to Tail with a stunning speed that drew a murmur from the surprised pegasus.

“Right, business,” Barrier was quick to state. “How long will all this take, Tail? Just so we have a time frame to give the good doctor.” The idiom prodded a playful snicker from the doctor in question.

“Well—” Tail hesitated while attempting to shift atop her bed into a more suitable calculating position. “We’d have to go to Las Pegasus. If we had one of the chariot crews fly us there and back, the trip would probably be five to six hours.”

“I’ll have her back in eight hours or less,” Barrier stated flatly to Amora. His tail swished after he threw a sidelong glimpse at his cadet and caught her in the midst of a brief snout scrunch. “The contingency time could be needed, and yes, I take full responsibility for Tail’s well-being.”

Unwavering, Amora stared at Barrier for several seconds before the mare finally nodded. “Fine, but no longer, and I get to renew the spells I’ve put on her injuries first. And, don’t you dare forget pancakes.”

Barrier snorted again. “Yes yes, I’ll feed your addiction, and your add-on gives me the time I need to finish up some lingering business.” A sneer sprang into existence as the seeds of anticipation were sown. “I need to go visit Bonecrusher. That pony is getting a stern, long overdue talking-at, doubly so considering the letter from Proud.”

“Damn, I’m going to have to miss that for the sake of my favorite patient? And you look so gloomy about it! I can already imagine the angry look on her angry face. Oh well, I’ll just get my revenge by making quips about you, Tail, and your pending Pegasus Strip marriage.”

Barrier groaned in relief as he tugged his flask from his muzzle. He swallowed that sweet amber elixir and flashed a contented grin as the alcohol did wonders for his battle strategy. “Just get it over with,” Barrier coached himself as he glanced at the door to Bonecrusher’s room. Finally throwing his inhibitions to the wind, Barrier nosed the door open and drew the attention of the chamber’s inhabitants.

“Captain Barrier!” Indar saluted sharply with a crisp motion that perfectly fit his professional posture and poise.

“At ease, Corporal Indar.” Barrier acknowledged the gesture with a simple wave before he shot a brief glance to the blanket-covered mare on the bed.

Following the contours of Crusher’s muzzle, white bandages streaked atop her lime coat. While the dressings concealed the severity of her injury, the intense scowl that cut across the equine’s amethyst eyes effectively conveyed her simmering, silenced anger.

“Would you mind giving us the room, please? I believe Bonecrusher and I are long overdue for a talk.”

“Yessir, it’s no problem at all.” The stallion nodded to the earth pony before making a swift departure.

As soon as Barrier heard the door close, he approached the bedside and gave the glaring mare a stern expression. “You can give me that look all you want, but it won’t stop this talk from happening. Do you know who Proud Valiance is?” He didn’t wait for a shift in her response. “He’s a staff bureaucrat—some high-up in the Army’s Research and Development branch. Now, as soon as word of your little spat with Tail made the rounds, he was calling your name. I don’t think you’re the type of mare for a cushy tech post, so I am going to give you one, exactly one fucking chance.

“I was ready to boot your ass out of my program. Luna had the paperwork signed. We were going to have quite a different kind of chat at the end of the day, but then you and Tail decided to beat the shit out of each other.” Barrier paused to observe the dangerous twitch in Bonecrusher’s eye. “Can it! I’ve been watching this crap ever since the first day. I’ve watched as you’ve shown her the absolute worst in guard mentality. I didn’t give a shit because she kept ignoring it and pressing on, but now, you’ve both forced my hoof. I don’t know what happened in your life to make you develop such a grating mentality, but the garbage ends now. Whatever shit you have with Tail, stow it and move the hell on.”

He turned away from the reclined pony and grimaced. “That’s the only way you finish your training with me. Am I clear? If you can’t get your shit under control, if you keep putting yourself and my other cadets in danger for no bucking reason, then I will personally drag your ass to Proud’s office and condemn your career to deskwarrior status. Or worse, I’ll send you straight to Shining.”

Barrier stood still for nearly half a minute, allowing his words to sink in before he looked back at Bonecrusher. The mare wore a defeated gaze, and the muscles of her face had fallen. It was all the captain needed to see.

“Then I’ll see you on the field after your recovery, Private.” He waited, taking another short break to tend to his flask. “And Bonecrusher, if you manage to focus on you—and start demonstrating the better parts of what it means to be a guard—then I’ll see you at the end too.”

Tail scrunched her muzzle as Amora wheeled her down the hallway in a chair. “I am not going to be pushed around in a wheelchair all day. I have a broken wing. I’m not incapable of walking.”

“You strained yourself. Your foreleg took some damage too. It’s best to remain off it, though my magic will help suppress the pain should a situation arise. In the meantime, you can thank me for giving your future husband the opportunity to cart you around Las Pegasus.”

The pegasus swung her head and gawked at Amora with a wide-eyed stare. “He is not my future husband!” she squeaked out as that damned redness managed to creep back onto her visage.

“Hun, you can keep telling yourself that all you want, but I knew the instant I saw your reaction to that first bite of pancake that this stallion has your namesake wrapped around his hoof.”

“Eh-hem,” Barrier cleared his throat, prompting Amora to stand up a little straighter—and driving Tail to curl up in her seat from the crippling wave of embarrassment that darted through her chest. “I don’t think it’s good medical practice to torture a cadet, Major.”

“And I don’t think it’s a very good idea to drag a cadet with a freshly broken wing on a trip to Las Pegasus, Captain, but I didn’t argue with your underhoofed negotiation tactics.” She paused when Barrier’s lips quivered. “Don’t even think about unleashing that stupid grin. It’s not my fault you actually know how to make breakfast. Look, I’m putting some big-time trust in you here. Don’t buck it up.”

Tail achieved the closest thing to a fetal position a wheelchair-bound pony could muster. “Please save me,” she whimpered, keeping her head buried in the cradling darkness of her forelegs. The snicker that emerged from Amora’s throat immediately alerted the pegasus to her mistake.

“That’s right, Barry,” the medic retorted in a taunting tone. “Go on! Save your precious pony from the painful coils of Amora’s clutch. It’s one step closer to chiming bells and stories about knights in shining armor.”

Barrier stared at the snow-colored unicorn with a stoic demeanor. “Whatever you’re drinking, would you add some to my flask?”

Amora’s ear flicked to the question, and Tail lifted her head to meet what she interpreted as a concerned glance. The two mares gazed at each other in silence for a few seconds before the doctor sculpted an inquisitive scowl, which was soon after hurled at Barrier. “Captain, are you telling me that you’re drinking on the job?”

The stallion jerked to the question. Everything about Amora’s demeanor screamed trouble, but the almost playful timbre of her voice threw Barrier off-guard. He took a deep breath as his sights scrambled around in search of the way out. “Blame Bonecrusher!” he grunted, dashing into position behind Tail’s chair. “Eight hours is the deal! We had better get moving!”

Tail flinched and gripped the leg rests once Barrier tossed his weight into a quick trot. The beat of her heart raced as they passed door after door at an ever-quickening pace. He’s really doing this. I’m really doing this. I’m going to show him… everything. Feeling the pull of her anxious nerves, the pegasus shut her eyes and bit her lower lip. “I owe you,” she whispered, only to be distracted by Amora’s farewell call.

“Have fun lovebirds! And remember! It’s like they always say… What happens in Las Pegasus stays in Las Pegasus.”

Chapter 19 - Tail's Secret, Part I

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Though she had tried not to do so, Tail fell asleep not too long after the chariot was airborne. This time around, thankfully, her rest was calm and devoid of the rampant nightmare that had necessitated Barrier’s intrusion. Unfortunately, however, she awoke to find that she had slipped in her wheelchair and slumped directly onto the overwhelmingly teddy-bearesque, soft charcoal-colored coat of her captain. Upon gaining some respectable level of awareness, the pegasus quickly realized what had transpired, and her muscles reflexively stiffened.

“You know that Amora would have a field day with this if she were here, right?” Barrier asked in a steady and relaxed tone. “Keep that up, and I might just start thinking that we are going to get wrangled into a Las Pegasus wedding.”

Tail wheezed, her muscles stiffening even more until the dull ache of her wing began to noticeably agitate her nerves. Oh Luna, how long have I been out? How long have I been like this? What do I say? What do I say? Her mind froze when the gentle pressure of the unicorn’s hoof found her bandaged wing.

“Don’t worry about it,” the stallion addressed her silence. “I don’t mind. We’re almost there, and the extra sleep will only do you good. I’ve seen what happens when you don’t.” He chuckled. “It’s not pretty.”

His coat was a ridiculously warm buffer from the wind that swept over the celestial-themed chariot, and despite Tail’s lingering reservations, the invitation to remain pressed against Barrier’s pillowy goodness was too good to pass up. “Mm,” she hummed quietly, “I’m going to end up as addicted as Amora.”

“Don’t tell me the pancakes have gotten to you too,” the captain replied after briefly fidgeting. He met Tail’s upward gaze with a playfully concerned stare.

“No,” Tail whispered, though she quickly went silent. I’m addicted to your— “Yup! Definitely the pancakes. Just like Amora! Definitely—”

The stallion flicked his ear downward and grunted. “You are the worst liar I have ever met. Even Bonecrusher does a better job at disguising things than that. Spill it. What’s on your mind?”

Tail vivaciously swished her namesake. “First, Sweety, just no. Second, I’m the one who’s supposed to ask questions. That’s my thing, and I won’t tolerate gimmick infringement.”

“Sassy already, hmm? Since I can’t make you run laps in your condition—yet—I’ll have to resort to your more academic methods. If you’re supposed to be the one asking questions, Ms. Tail, then you can simply answer my question with a question of your own.”

Slowly, Tail rose from the comforts of Barrier’s coat and settled into her wheelchair. The breeze immediately gripped her mane and brushed it back, revealing a brown iris that outlined her affixed sight. “I—um—” Dammit, he is getting clever. She hesitated, pulling together a suitable response through the torrent of rambunctious fragments. “I have a lot of questions—if I’m being honest. I just don’t think now is the right time for me to ask them.”

Barrier squinted for a few seconds, and Tail could practically see his mind churn. It made sense that he would have his own set of doubts and concerns. She had a plethora of them, and an ocean of potential choices sat before her imagination.

“It isn’t fair for me to ask more of you when you told me the things you did,” she continued. “You—you called me your best, and I haven’t even had the courtesy to tell you why I need you. It doesn’t feel right to…”

Her words dwindled, retreating across the bournes of silence when the rising tide of the stallion’s laughter poured into her ears. “You need me, huh?” He snorted. “Maybe we should get married, after all.”

An abrupt pout ensnared her expression, though it failed to have any noticeable effect on Barrier. “I didn’t mean it like that,” she struggled to reply with any appreciable volume. “Honestly, I get it enough from Amora as it is. I’m trying to be serious here. You afforded me a tremendous level of trust. How can I possibly feel like I’ve earned it if I haven’t done the same?”

“Because if you hadn’t earned it, then I wouldn’t have said anything.” Barrier’s flat delivery sliced into Tail’s growing rebuttal. “I heard what you shouted before you knocked the piss out of Crusher. You defended me, and you did so after I had done nothing to defend you. You put in effort every day, even when I was being an asshole. Hell, I had hints at the start when you told me that you couldn’t quit. Stop asking yourself if you’re good enough. We’re on this chariot for a reason.”

The frown evaporated. With every sentence, he lifted her esteem to new heights and pushed a deeper shade of red to her cheeks and ear tips. Tail drew deep breaths, fighting to slow the hastened beat that thumped within her barrel. Eventually, the butterflies subsided, and a giggle bubbled up through the yielded emotional ground. “I had no idea that reason was a wedding, Captain.”

He snickered and waved a hoof. “It’s not, but I definitely would love to see Amora’s reaction if we returned to Canterlot and faked it. Pretend to make use of one of those trot-thru marriage places. Definitely some payback for leveraging those pancakes out of me.”

“Not a bad idea,” the pegasus answered matter-of-factly, “but I’m afraid Amora would see right through that sort of thing. The two of us grew up together. She knows me like the fluff on her foreleg. I just don’t see her ever really buying it.”

“Damn,” Barrier grumbled and crossed his legs. “No way we can make it work, hmm?”

The mare giggled once more. She would never speak it aloud, but the manner in which he pouted was the definition of adorable. Somehow, it wiped the veteran demeanor from his countenance and restored a coltish charm that was impossible not to find cute. “Amora can read my romantic tendencies like a book, and she’s aware of my love for writing. The absence of personalized vows would tip her off. The lack of friends and family being invited would send signals of their own. In the end, she’d probably try to spin the whole thing into a nefarious plot for her own benefit. Though, you are my type, so I guess maybe—”

Tail bit her lower lip as her flushed features received a reinvigorating dosage of fresh embarrassment. She stared at Barrier, who—in his own surprised state—sat quietly until both ponies were saved by the conveniently timed descent towards the University of Las Pegasus Mall.

Tail remained quiet as a mouse as Barrier pushed her across the mall towards the physics lab. The air was decidedly drier than it was in Canterlot, and the shift in flora to small shrubs and palm trees made for another marketed change. I can’t believe I said that, the pegasus pondered, losing her concentration in the patterns of the brick sidewalk.

“Professor Tail!” A snobbish voice drilled into the mare’s aural canals and yanked her attention to an elder grayscale stallion.

Don’t stop, you dolt! Tail screamed internally the nanosecond Barrier halted his march. She shifted backwards in her seat and hurled an incredulous stare upon the new arrival. It could have been anypony else—anypony but the most decrepit, fillyizing fuck she had ever met in a professional setting.

“What’s happened to you, my dear? Where have you been all this time? We’ve missed you considerably. And now, you return in bandages, and with this… gentlepony? Why is he escorting the university’s prettiest of fillies? That should be left to our campus security, or perhaps a reputable colleague you trust.”

“Hello, Professor Occult,” Tail responded, unable to disguise the disdain for the unicorn standing in her path. “I’ve been making use of my sabbatical. Princess Luna has been kind enough to assist me with some research—”

“Dear! Your wing is broken! What could you have possibly been doing? Is this stallion part of it? Is he part of your research?” The professor brushed a snowy lock out of the way of one of his vermillion irides and examined Barrier closely. “Or is he, perhaps, somepony special we should know?”

Tail cringed at the implications and let out a deep sigh. “Grey,” she began in a repressively restrained tone, “this is Captain Magic Barrier. He is—”

“She’s my responsibility,” the stallion-in-question interrupted. “We have shit to do and a tight timetable, so if you don’t mind, I’d like to get moving.”

“Mr. Magic,” Grey Occult retorted, “Professor Tail is one of my institution’s most cherished fillies. I will simply not allow a profane ruffian such as yourself to push her around this campus without proper information.”

Both Barrier and Tail simultaneously twitched. “Captain,” the stallion corrected, “and you have no say in the matter. This mission is approved by Princess Luna. Take your Gallopfreyan accent, stuff it, then turn around and scram. If I hear from my cadet that some old ass codger has been pestering her again, I’ll ask Luna to personally evaluate your credentials.”

Tail hadn’t the time to question Barrier’s peculiar name-drop. She was far too amused by the quickness with which Grey Occult fled the pair. A soft giggle dripped past her lifted forehoof after she caught sight of the old professor nearly stumbling over himself while on his way to the archaeology building.

“My hero,” she purred.

With a directing gesture from the pegasus, the grumbling Barrier resumed his trot. “That guy is a fucking asshat. Please tell me you don’t have to deal with that all the time. It’s a miracle somepony hasn’t put a hoof into his skull.”

“Could always hook him up with Bonecrusher,” Tail snorted, drawing a surprised gasp from Barrier’s muzzle.

“I take it there’s a lot of history there.” The stallion fell silent, taking a few moments to look over Tail’s place of work. The outside of the lab was decidedly modern, and its facade was marked by long windows that flowed to what Barrier identified as an atrium space.

Tail lifted her head to see her acquisitioned chauffeur. “The science fields, for whatever reason, are one of the few areas where there is an overabundance of stallions. Colleagues around my age are more cognizant of things, but the ancient ones are horrendous and think the campus is a locker room. First day I showed up, one of the geezers in my department would not leave me alone. Said he wished I would wear a braided manestyle.”

The captain groaned as he pushed the pegasus up the entrance ramp and inside. “Well, by the time I’m finished with you, you’ll be able to put him in his place right quick.”

“Oh no, Sweety,” she cooed in response, “I already put him in his place. Told him that I didn’t waste ammo—and that there was absolutely zero chance of him tapping this if he couldn’t even say my name properly. Apparently, I have tails.” She rolled her eyes and pointed towards a hallway that branched off from the atrium. “That way, Captain. We’re going to take the elevator to the sub-basement.”

Giggles sputtered from Tail as the elevator’s black doors on the sub-basement level slid open. “That’s because we had to build another floor below the basement to house my lab. Originally, I wanted to put it beneath the school’s arena, but the Directorate would have none of that.” She scrunched her snout and furrowed her brow. “Bunch of quill quippers.”

Barrier exhaled gradually. “But you convinced them to construct an entire floor, and one with secured access at that rate, just for you?”

The pegasus shook her head rapidly while her foreleg pointed to a golden entryway that looked akin to a bank’s vault. “No. Luna sent Captain Spitfire to yell at them. Then after she yelled at them, she tossed a bunch of bits on the table and trotted out.”

Tail hushed once Barrier pushed her to the locked gate. A deep breath filled her lungs. There’s no turning back now, she thought to herself while working through the various locks. Soon after, a loud, metallic pop echoed throughout the corridor, and the disk-shaped door rolled out of the way.

The droning hum of magically powered lighting hit their ears, cueing Barrier’s first significant exposure to her scientific world. “Whoa,” he whispered before guiding his cadet across the threshold.

The physicist glanced over her shoulder once she sensed that Barrier had released his grasp upon the wheelchair. He trotted to her side as a wide-eyed stare tried to grasp every inch of the cavernous space. A dozen workbenches were topped with silvery waveguides and copper RF-cavities—opulent metal structures that boxed the path of the captain’s meandering sights.

However, the thing that drew his attention the most was the fifty meter stretch of devoid space. “It almost looks like a range.”

“If you wouldn’t mind closing the door, Captain, I’d appreciate it.” Tail’s interruption drew the stallion away from his gawking long enough for him to slide the gate back into its closed and, more importantly, locked position. “And it doesn’t almost look like a range. It is a range.” She gradually set her forehooves on the wheels and attempted to roll herself to one of the tables. Instead of establishing any forward motion, a squeaky grunt echoed through the chamber, and a frustrated pout rapidly formed.

Barrier swiftly retook his spot behind the chair. “There is no way I am getting on Amora’s bad side with this. Pushing you around isn’t a problem. Now, where are we going?”

“Crate by the fourth station,” she replied, the tones of lingering angst still present in her melody until she continued. “And—um—sorry if I’m being irritating. I don’t like being in a state where I can’t even do things on my own. I’m fairly certain you understand.”

The stallion pushed Tail forward, and the mare swore she could hear the gnashing of his teeth before his admission emerged. “I hate that. Always did. And I felt it more than I should have. Take it from somepony with experience; you’re not weak—not for this.”

A lump found itself driven down the throat of the pegasus as the pair reached the crate. The black-painted surfaces flaunted their matte finishes, taunting Tail to place her hoof on the plastic-like top.

“Once I graduated A-FAM,” she began after remaining quiet through several breaths, “the Wonderbolts pegged me for a research-and-development spot after considering the implications of my thesis.” Her voice faltered as a pang of worry stabbed at her chest. “But I couldn’t rest on those exploits forever. I needed to do something bigger, so I attacked one of the fundamental what-ifs.”

She lifted the lid. At the creation of a perceptible crack, Barrier flinched. His rapid, concerned, confused, driven gasps tugged at Tail’s ears, but the mare pushed forward. She reached down to pluck a single 20 mm round from the container before swinging her head to find her captain’s slack-jawed state. He shuddered, and the aura of his ascending hold cradled the ammunition. “How?” he exhaled, never removing his stare from the dreadfully perplexing sight of the shell. “What is this? And how do you have Luna’s magic?”

Chapter 20 - Tail's Secret, Part II

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Tail peered nervously into the tense gaze of her captain. He had settled into a seated position in front of her wheelchair, and the fierce demeanor that sat upon his silence-backed scowl was not doing wonders for the mare’s esteem. “What if all ponies had access to high-level magic?” he reiterated her question and continued. “Do you have any idea how dangerous this is, Tail?” He shook the 20 mm shell for emphasis. “Unicorns with far more experience have fallen to reckless ambition, and it corrupted entire empires.”

“And I know why.” The anxiety in her expression faded. Confidence, cultivated by the months of her research, blossomed in a contented smile. “They didn’t get resonance. It’s the same reason why attempting to use Luna’s magic was causing you harm. If you’re not in sync, then you have no chance. Ponies die, lose their powers, and lose their minds. Sombra was the worst case I found in the records, but that’s what happens when you try to use an ancient relic of love to subjugate.”

“Sombra.” The name rolled off the unicorn’s tongue as a strange mixture of motions drew Tail’s attention. The captain recoiled at first, and an aura of disgust stabbed the air through his tone. However, as that final vowel held onto the stallion’s dwindling breath, Barrier’s posture relaxed, and the ghost-notes of lost reverence marked the score.

Tail’s eyes twinkled as she fought the instinct to ask a question, but her efforts were in vain. She met her captain’s refocused stare with a caught-red-hoofed squeak. Barrier sighed. “I know that look,” he confirmed her suspicions. “I’ll explain after we’re done here. Just keep going.”

“Right,” she spoke, shifting her position such that she sat taller. “When I started, I was just as misguided as the ponies that tried before. I wanted something big—something that would look good in a tenure review—something that would wow those creeps up above. I went straight to Princess Luna. I told her we could give the guard branches a new arsenal—and that they could trot around with the most powerful magic in Equestria—if I were successful.

“Without going into specifics, the results of that test are why Amora became my medic.” Both ponies winced at the thought, which drew a quiet giggle from Tail. “But it made me look into history—at unicorns who tried to take down the alicorns or usurp the special magic of others. Starswirl, himself, was researching a natural flow of magic at the time of his death, but he was looking at something universal. It’s not universal at all! It’s inherent to each user because every pony has a latent scalar-field magic unique to their race. All one has to do is synchronize the natural pulse with the input sample, adjust for impedance or overall level discrepancies—”

She stopped when another sigh drained from Barrier’s muzzle. Not only had Tail’s rate of delivery dramatically increased, but the fiery pegasus had descended into the scientific babbling that left the captain completely in the dust. “Mind putting that in a way that I might understand, Cadet?”

Tail raised her hoof in protest, and a rebuttal quickly formed on the tip of her tongue. However, it was one that she would not deliver. He’s not a physicist, Sweety, she reminded herself before her scrunched snout loosened, giving way to a relaxed smirk. “I bet you’re the type that benefits more from a hooves-on lesson.” She paused to sculpt a half-lidded front. “Want to be my guinea pig?”

Barrier’s ear twitched as he took in Tail’s playful, sultry demeanor. “No,” he answered quickly and flatly—maintaining his stern stance through the scientist’s theatrical production.

The pegasus held her sights, not daring to move them from his frame. She’d get what she wanted this time. After all, this was her lab, not his training ground. “Captain,” Tail began with a timbre that matched her sinister pout, “this is my opportunity to put all of my trust in you. There are no secrets after this, not from me. I can actually show you in a way that you will most certainly get.”

Barrier held his silence for several seconds before speaking. “Pouts don’t work on me, but for the sake of time, fine. What do you need me to do?”

As soon as that sweet syllable hit her ears, Tail sprang into action. Well, she sprang as far as falling into his grasp after her route out of and away from the wheelchair was immediately blocked. She huffed when Barrier guided her back into her seat and grumbled. “Right, we can’t incur the wrath of Amora anymore.”

A snort emerged from the stallion. “I’ve seen her when she’s mad. It does not bring out the best in me.” His gaze drifted away from the mare in the wake of that admission. “Anyway, just point me in the direction we need to go. Best hurry up and do that guinea pig thing before I change my mind—or up the number of laps I’m going to make you run.”

“Workbench all the way at the end of the line. I’m going to make two rounds with your magic. Think about the amount of energy you’d need to use to put a dent in a block of iron at a distance of fifty meters.”

Tail struggled to repress the giggle that yearned to erupt as she took in Barrier’s shellshocked expression. His mouth hung open while he stared at the A0, her 2.03-meter-long, 20 mm rifle—the very one she had designed to study the applications and dangers of magical munitions. “You okay there, Sweety?” she eventually chirped, quickly earning a stern-faced scowl from her captain.

Barrier’s lips quivered, and the harsh front he had placed upon his countenance slowly eroded to the glances that pulled his attention back to the A0. The rifle’s flaring barrel and massive bolt proved to be the better draw. “I have never seen any weapon like this,” he mumbled. “Probably too big for standard field use, to be honest. Fixed mount, maybe, given the setup you’ve got here. It’s definitely way more impressive looking than what we’ve done with crossbows, excluding the garish orange mat. We certainly never put those behind our placements.”

“It’s comfy,” Tail quickly countered, “and I wasn’t really thinking of field use with this one. It was more—I wanted something that would be hard to smuggle out of here if the security locks were somehow breached. Just look at that thing! It’s massive—not to mention magically guarded against concealment spells thanks to Princess Luna.

“Anyway, um, we’ve reached a step that requires forethought to avoid pissing off Amora. This chair isn’t exactly the optimal place for shooting. That garish mat behind the butt of the stock, as you so eloquently put it, is where I really need to be. The A0 has a recoil suppression system built in, and the mount has some additional protections. I don’t have to concern myself with that, but I do need to make sure I’m fully connected to the weapon’s resonance induction circuit. So”—she paused as a rush of heat shot to her muzzle—“um, if you could use your magic to help get me into and out of the prone position, I’d appreciate it.”

Tail firmly gripped the pair of rounds they had made at her workbench and promptly closed her eyes. She did not expect Barrier to say no to her now, and she needed to focus on the warm tingle of his aura that her senses anticipated. A few long, rolling breaths kept her centered until she was prodded to sharply inhale.

Her feathers ruffled. She settled into the sensation that held her against gravity, and swaths of her fur rose to the charge that pulsed over her frame. Tail flicked her uninjured wing and produced a tiny electrical spark that meandered about the ripples generated by the unicorn’s cast. Whispered numbers graced the air while the mare felt Barrier gently position her limbs in a configuration better suited for her destination.

“You have the perfect magic for this, Captain. Your frequency matches well to my bolts.” A smile stretched the corners of her lips once she came to rest upon her perch. “I hope you find it informative.”

“This trip has already been so,” he replied upon retracting his hold on Tail. “I knew that Luna had her reasons for calling me to train you, but I never would have guessed.”

“It’s why I can’t quit,” Tail responded as she retrieved two sets of goggles from a compartment tucked into the base of the mount. She passed one set to Barrier and slid the other over her eyes. “Safety first, right?”

Barrier snorted as he levitated the goggles towards his head. “There’s something about a bandaged cadet saying that—that makes it feel like a load of shit, but yes, safety first.”

“It’s an OSHA thing, Captain, and it certainly beats being a third party to, ‘If she dies, it’s not my problem.’”

The stallion flinched in spite of the cheeky grin that ensnared the sassy pegasus. “I am never going to live that down, am I?” He sighed. “I do believe I told you immediately afterwards that it had nothing to do with you. I dealt with vaguery during my service. I didn’t need to deal with it from Luna, especially given the circumstances.”

“And now, I am ending the vaguery.” Tail’s tone remained as warm as the feel Barrier’s aura had left upon her coat. “Just put on your goggles and stand behind me.” She opened the A0’s chamber and pushed the first round into place.

Tail could feel the tangible weight of her captain’s gaze as she proceeded. It’s just like every other time, she reassured herself while muscle memory guided her hooves through the motions. A series of light, clangy pops perked her ears when she finished priming the shot, and her sights quickly found the iron block set at the other end of her private range.

“For the first one, I’m going shoot with the bare minimum resonance required for safe operation.” She glanced back over her shoulder to make sure that he had put on the protective gear.

“Fair enough,” he answered, shifting his attention away from Tail’s check to the block destined to be dented.

The mare swung her head towards the A0, and after a short pause, she moved her forehoof inside the trigger guard. A click could be heard once Tail applied a little pressure to the underside of the receiver. “That lets me know the resonance circuit is connected,” she explained before unceremoniously pulling the trigger.

Behind her position, Barrier jolted backwards to the hissing plume of bluish light that taunted from the barrel’s end. “Faust above, give me a warning next time!” He glared as Tail’s chest bobbed to the beat of a silent chuckle. “And that was all bark and no bite.”

“That was the point.” Tail tossed the spent shell to the side and promptly loaded the second round. “I made little effort to connect with your magic. I just pulled the trigger, and essentially nothing happened except the wasteful venting of your given energy.” She motioned her head towards the iron target. “An untrained scrub couldn’t harness your power even if she wanted to, but—”

The same click echoed through the lab once Tail slipped her hoof inside the guard again. Her mind wandered through the plethora of experiences he had added to her otherwise academic life, and a new spark of electricity threaded its way about her foreleg. Her chest lifted to the memory of their time at the Phoenix Fire, how Trigger had put her on the spot, and how her captain shared his trust.

I am so much stronger. Those aching days of P.T. that had left her tired and drained flooded her recollections. She overcame it because he gave her the inspiration. I am not going to fail. Her muscles burned as the trails of the temporary falling-out resurfaced. Those don’t matter now.

She was on the field, throwing her bloodied mass into Bonecrusher, defending his name, shielding him for a change. They weren’t even done with her training, and yet, Tail found herself in a completely different place. He had driven her to simply be better. He was there for her when she woke up, and she could hear the words in her mind as though they had come straight out of his muzzle. You’re the best cadet I have ever had…

Tail’s inferno roared. She slammed her foreleg into the trigger and unleashed a monstrous arc of energy. Snarls of lavender light circled the cerulean beam that left no trace of the iron target behind. The pegasus rose under her own power while she gawked at the demonstration, and her ears snapped to the crackles of the hellish lightning strike that reverberated through the building.

“That’s—that’s impossible,” she murmured as the speechless Barrier stepped forward to support his cadet. For nearly half a minute, Tail did not acknowledge her captain’s presence despite the fact that her body was leaning against his to remain upright. She couldn’t take her eyes off the cracks that had developed in the enchanted wall that was her backstop. They sprawled out like a spider’s web, and they beckoned the physicist like a sea of sirens.

The sound of a hitched gulp restored the mare’s awareness, spurring Tail to look at the unicorn. The shifting pupil she could see appeared remarkably dilated, and once again, she caught him with his jaw dropped.

“I—but—it—it was supposed to put a dent,” he stammered. “How?”

Tail swallowed hard as she scanned every facet of his expression. Confusion mushed his furrowed brow, and concern sculpted the depth in his oceanic stare. “I—I think we achieved nearly flawless resonance,” she answered softly. “It’s just shocking. I’ve never had a boost like that in any of my tests.” She stopped, pivoting her focus back to the cracks. “I’m definitely going to have to investigate this. The walls down here were fortified by Luna…”

“I see,” Barrier spoke in a raspy tenor that still projected the state of his bewilderment. “I think we should get back to Canterlot. You’ve got a date with a bed, and we’ve both got a lot to think about. I don’t think the scope of your current training regimen is enough, not for this. Leave it to you to push me to come up with something entirely new, but I am not going to leave my best cadet under-prepared.”

Tail puffed her chest. She could feel her lips involuntarily draw the cute little smirk she gave whenever somepony she respected injected her with a smidge of pride. “Such a flatterer,” she cooed as though she had the vapors, pulling a terse laugh from her guest.

“Don’t tell Amora—or anypony else for that matter,” he replied as Tail caught a glimpse of his own smug grin. “A certain pegasus might have grown on me, which really means that I guess I’m getting soft. Still, thank you—for showing me this.” The mare squeaked and blushed once Barrier snatched her up with his levitation spell. “You’re definitely not allowed to quit, Ms. Tail. That’s an order.”

Chapter 21 - The Executor's Will

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Barrier had carefully balanced himself on Tail’s chair before he wheeled her out of the chariot and onto the smooth stone that composed the Canterlot runway.

The pegasus had passed out within minutes of their departure, and she had barely stirred on the return flight. In fact, she remained thoroughly ensnared by the bournes of sleep even while the stallion pushed her across the castle grounds towards the infirmary.

“You probably needed it,” Barrier commented idly as he turned to glance upon one of the castle’s spires. The gleam of Celestia’s mark still reflected off the golden structure, adding to the ambiance that the late afternoon sun cast upon the walkway. “But that trip was definitely worth the energy and time…”

“You’re late,” Amora pointed out the instant Barrier carted Tail across the threshold of her final destination. The snow-colored unicorn flashed the stallion a stern scowl before she stepped up to the sleeping mare. “How long has she been out?”

“Whole way back,” Barrier answered while keeping a lock-tight grasp on the handlebars. “She slept the whole way there too.”

“I see…” The rising inflection of Amora’s voice abruptly brought a surprising degree of warmth to her tone. It drove Barrier to tilt his head in confusion. What was likely to be a confrontation suddenly appeared to be nothing like the anticipated battlefield. “Some grip you’ve got there,” the mare snickered, setting the stallion on the path to examine his own hoof placement.

Giggles emerged in reaction to Barrier’s hasty retreat. With widened eyes, he jerked away from the chair in a dramatic flailing motion that not only woke Tail from her slumber, but brought a grin to the medic’s muzzle as well. “Real slick there, Captain,” Amora commented flatly before returning her attention to her roommate. “Hey there, sleepy head. You were three minutes late getting back to me.”

The tired pegasus groaned and blinked a few times, fighting to shrug off the grogginess that seemed to linger whenever she unexpectedly dozed off. It took about twenty seconds of staring into Amora’s cobalt-rimmed pupils for Tail’s brain to finally click on. You were three minutes late. “We were three minutes late!” she squeaked, jolting upright before her head swung around to locate Barrier. “Ams, it is—”

Catching her roommate’s muzzle with a well-placed hoof, Amora bequeathed Tail the cheekiest of smiles. “I’ll have no protests from you, Cadet.” The unicorn mare shifted her position and started a careful and thorough check of Tail’s wings. “Hmm, very interesting. Care to explain to me why you were late, Captain? I don’t see any rings to match your passion for holding onto her wheelchair.”

Strangely, Barrier’s demeanor relaxed in response to Amora’s latest challenge. He stood taller, and a smug curl replaced the grimace that had accompanied his awkward retreat. “I tried to elope with her, but she’d have none of it without her best friend at her side.”

Amora’s gaze narrowed upon Tail’s still-held snout after a squeak rumbled against her hoof. She restrained her breath for several seconds as the subsequent silence left plenty of time for redness to rise all the way up to the tips of the cadet’s ears. Eventually, the laughter came, spilling from Amora in spurts and snorts that did very little to quell the heat plastered upon Tail’s face. “That is so like her,” Ams squealed out in delight. “Oh, Hun, gosh I love you. Don’t scare this one off. He’s a gem.”

Tail scrunched up. Her lips puckered, and she fashioned a flustered pout that only fueled Amora’s rising laughter. “I can’t believe you,” she whispered harshly, all the while failing to shake the flush from her head.

“As much as this gem would like to stick around and chat,” Barrier began with a playful tenor, “I really need to go speak with Princess Luna. She and I need to have a very important discussion. Take care of my pegasus, Major. She’s accumulated a lot of laps, and it would be a shame to keep her from them for longer than what’s necessary.”

Tail twisted around as the sounds of his pivoting body tugged at her ears. “Captain, I still wanted to talk to you about—”

Barrier briefly turned to peer upon Tail with a warmth that left the pegasus as quiet as a mouse. “I know I owe you a story, and you’ll get it. The stuff with you is much higher priority than that. You’re way more important.”

The lavender mare merely watched her captain depart. She sank back down into the confines of her chair and only then noticed that her foreleg had, at some point, lifted—probably for a farewell wave. She bit her lower lip as the image of his kind smile sat etched in the recesses of her mind. He defended you, she pondered in a calm, contented internal voice. He believes in you. She gradually exhaled while her bitten smile spread. “I chose the right captain. I really like him.”

Tail’s enchanted state shut down as the cadence of Amora’s giggles brought the pegasus straight to the present. “I knew that one already, Hun. His magical aura is all over you. Are you going to clue me in on that, or am I just going to have to extract it out of you later?”

“He—he just used levitation to make things easier for me!” the pegasus stammered, earning a completely justified half-scowl from the unicorn.

“Mmhmm, I’m sure,” Amora countered, an eye roll joining her sarcasm-drenched melody. “Why would he have to levitate you anyway, my little filly? And even if he needed to, the strength is enough for me to catch it without an active scan—same with the scent of that electrical spark of yours.” She smirked, watching Tail practically squirm in her seat. “That’s what I thought. You can thank Captain Barrier for taking good care of you. That’s the only reason why you’re getting out of a lecture, this time.”

Remnants of Luna’s tired yawn still drifted throughout her office before she realized Barrier had let himself into the quiet sanctuary. The princess’s wings ruffled slightly as she took in the captain’s deadpanned expression. “Given that look, I’d say she showed you—”

Barrier rapidly lifted his forehoof to silence the alicorn. “You should have told me immediately, Luna. She needs way more than just basic training.” The princess grimaced upon settling into her chair. Though, she did not interrupt. “It’s no wonder bastards like Proud are lurking about given what I saw.”

“Colonel Tail is probing the fundamentals of magic, and she is exceptionally good at it. It is as I said to you before. Her story is hers to tell. That was part of our compromise. The decision of trust rested with her, and she gave it to you.”

“She is dealing with the same crap as Sombra, Luna! What if something goes wrong? What if somepony goes after her? Those aren’t burdens that a couple months of B.C.T. are going to cover.” He planted his hooves onto the rich brown timber of her desk and reared up. “She cracked your wall with a single shot.”

Luna’s ears swiveled and splayed. “She cracked my wall?” The question gradually seeped past the mare’s lips.

“Yeah, something about science that went way over my head. I’m not going to bullshit and pretend I get it all, but the demonstration was more than enough. What kind of barrier did you put on her lab?” The stallion held his gaze upon Luna’s shrinking pupils and tightened muzzle. The building anxiety set his own tail flicking to the beat of some hidden song, and after a while, the delay spurred him forward. “Luna?”

One of her silver hoof-guards tapped the floor with an aggressive cadence that did little to assuage the captain’s concern. “Alicorn-grade, Magic. It would take the power of either my sister or myself to crack those defenses.” Her teal eyes lifted in time to track the signs of Barrier’s subsequent gulp. “If it’s true, then she’s already surpassed Sombra on the research front. What are your recommendations?”

The unicorn huffed. “I want to up the ante. Me putting the pins on her uniform isn’t going to mean much if I don’t prepare her for bearing it all. She needs to be taught how to be a military officer too. Tail will pass my course on time, but I want to introduce new material, command material, and I want her around after that for one-on-one stuff.”

Barrier’s brow descended at the short-lived smirk that he believed had flashed upon Luna’s countenance. “Are you saying that you wish to train Ms. Tail beyond the duration of your contract, Captain Barrier?”

“You asked for my recommendation. That is my recommendation. How else do you expect her to fend off not only the likes of Proud, but actual enemies of the state?”

Projecting her royal responsibility, the alicorn held an even tone and maintained a neutral expression. “I’ll have to speak with my sister about the allocation of funding for expanding the program. As you stated weeks ago, you are charging us—”

He lifted his hoof from the desk and promptly drove it back into contact with the hardwood, producing a thunderous rumble that muted the princess. “It’s not about the damned bits! It’s about doing what’s right. It’s about not letting history repeat itself.”

Luna crossed her forehooves while her teal sights never wavered from the stallion’s frame. “I’m listening.”

“She needs to know the truth.” Barrier’s flask-retrieving horn momentarily lit before he thought the better of it and took a deep breath instead. “I’ve had some time to think about it. What Sombra did, and who he was. She needs to hear, and she also needs to hear what happened to me. I’m not going to sit idly and watch it all happen again. I’m not going to lose my best cadet the way I lost my mentor, and I’m Faust-not going to lose her like I lost Ember.

“Her broken wing will keep her out of physical stuff until that pancake witch medic of hers works her magic. I plan to hit her officer skills hard during the recovery. Shining’s presence would probably be good for help navigating the brass. I can cover tactics, and Trigger would probably help as well. Once she’s healed up, combat training resumes. Maybe team affairs and lopsided engagements come into play as well. I do think she should get some guard command duty in while we’re at it. Managing a squad during the Summer Sun thing would be a good benchmark before I issue her final B.C.T. report.”

A furrowed brow crept upon Luna’s expression as she observed Captain Barrier’s mannerisms. Winces had worked through his limbs at the mentions of Sombra, Ember, and the Summer Sun Celebration. Guilt drove a quivering sigh through her opened muzzle, and Luna instinctively gulped amidst her showing anxiety.

“After she graduates,” he continued, “I plan on giving her the Executor Trials.” It was here that the stallion chose to wait for Luna. Her fidgeting was making him tense, and he was already having enough trouble keeping his nerves in line.

“If you are certain that is the path you wish to take…” The alicorn’s appearance softened, though her sullen stare betrayed the sadness that lingered within the history of their nightmare. “You have my full support, of course. I just… Barrier, are you sure? I know that you have a very personal attachment to that title. It’s drenched in the very blasphemy we seek to avert. Is this a piece of yourself that you’re ready to share with Tail?”

A subtle spark appeared in the captain’s icy iris. He stepped down from his perch upon the desk’s edge and flattened out any telling quirk that might have dared to settle upon his muzzle. “I’m positive. I was positive about my best cadet a thousand years ago, and I’m positive about my best cadet now. The only thing I’m not sure about is how I’m going to wipe the damn smirk off your face when you let it loose.

“I know when you’re bullshitting me, Luna. I didn’t spend a millennium with you and not learn a thing about you. You’ve been grooming her to deal with things that few can deal with, haven’t you? Well, no one wants to deal with those things, and playing tactical games to get ponies there is exactly what led to all the others. I’m done with games. Not with me, and Tartarus not with her. You should have just let me know from the start, and we could have avoided a mess of foalish shit. So yes, I am positive. Tail will get her support on my terms.”

Princess Luna stretched her forelegs over the desktop, and for what felt like a minute, she did not respond. Instead, she peered into Barrier’s eyes to observe that glow. The predicted smirk sprouted eventually, and it buried the sorrow that had accompanied her loaded set of questions. “If I had done that, you wouldn’t have defended her as much as you are now. You may have spent a lot of time with me, but I’m still lifetimes older.

“A flower doesn’t begin with its blossom, Captain. You love a flower more when you plant the seed yourself and watch it grow. While—yes, you are correct—Tail’s knowledge can greatly help Equestria, it’s about more than just the flower this time around. A certain gardener had also lost his fire, but if you’re willing to go this far for our little lavender physicist, then I might just start thinking that you’ve got it back. I might also start believing that a certain captain has come to really like our future colonel.”

“Faust above, you are an insufferable brat.” A correct, insufferable brat.

Chapter 22 - Barrier's Monster

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Barrier disregarded the looks he drew from maids and guards alike as he stalked through the castle halls with a literal stack of books floating at his side. His destination was set, and he cared little for interruptions at this particular moment. He was having a hard enough time steeling himself for what would come before she inevitably dove into the literature. He owed her a story, and he was a stallion of his word.

“Where do I even begin?” the unicorn muttered as he marched. His cool eyes glazed over, and his body seemed to carry itself of its own volition while his mind meandered. He bit his lower lip at the thoughts and furrowed his brow. Concern wrapped its clutches about his features, and it wasn’t until a familiar voice dragged him from the trance that he realized he was already standing in front of the entrance to Tail’s room.

“Bringing her reading material already, Captain?” Amora’s teasing ambush figuratively flicked Barrier’s ear and drew his attention rearward. “Aren’t you turning into the sweetest thing? Though the pacing is a little weird.” She gestured in his direction with her foreleg after a devilish smirk unfurled across her countenance. “She’s not going to bite you if you go in, Hun. Last I checked, she was getting some grading work done.” Her pitch took a decidedly chipper swing. “She’s been a good little filly today, so I allowed it.”

Barrier flinched and quickly collected the rogue, orbiting books to reform a neatly arranged tower. “She’s up then?” Barrier’s tone was far more officious than it usually was. “Major, when do you think she’ll be able to safely move around?”

“Mmm, she’s responding well to my magic. Normally, we’d keep her in for five days, followed by a grace period of one or two weeks. Her body held up through the Las Pegasus trip though, and since we’re roommates, it’s easy for me to keep tabs on her. If she continues to show the same progress, I’d be comfortable releasing her sooner.”

“And what about full-contact activities?” he asked almost sheepishly, earning a temporary glare from the alabaster unicorn.

“Full two weeks after discharge. No compromises there, or I will bust your flank all the way to Celestia’s office.”

A frantic hoof wave from Barrier swiftly followed. “I wouldn’t think of challenging that, Amora. Unlike a rebellious filly we both know, I don’t condone kicking all the rules to the curb.”

“Mhm,” she hummed disbelievingly—in the spirit of her mischievous demeanor. “Says the colt who whisked her away to elope.

The stallion snorted and reached for the door. “Goodbye, Major. If you’d please make sure nopony comes in unless there’s an emergency, I’d appreciate it. I have things to discuss with Tail that are for her ears only.”

“Wait!” Amora shuffled forward, her brunette waves swaying to the steps, and she took a breath. “Thank you—for having her back. She seems more like herself again.”

“Eh, we’ll see about that,” Barrier replied once he rested his hoof upon the latch. “I have one more secret to share. I’ll accept your thanks if she still looks at me, or her training, the same way.” He turned his attention towards the edge of the door, popped the handle, and nosed his way into the room before the medic could get in another word.

Tail bit down on her quill when the sound of the opening door dragged her from the grading of exams. At some point, she had convinced Amora to go fetch her ceremonial lab coat and glasses—both of which had been donned to, as a pony should expect, set the right mood. “Hey, Cap’n,” she mumbled through her already engaged, quill-chomping muzzle. Her focus drifted to the levitating pile of books and her eyes sparkled.

Barrier pressed his lips into a thin line and trapped the breath that was likely meant to be one of his patented sighs. Without saying a word, he set the books down and passed along a single manila folder that he had tucked within one of the hardcovers.

Tail’s enthusiasm settled as she took hold of the documents. She opened the folder and briefly scanned, her sights rediscovering words she had seen months ago. “This is your service record.”

The damned wind escaped once Barrier finally readied himself to speak. His pause caused Tail to sit up a bit taller atop her bed, and she gaped at him with a studious poise. “No, Tail, it isn’t.” The stallion hesitated as a contorted expression squished the features of the mare’s snout. “It’s a half-truth put together by Luna to fit something that would make sense to you—that would make me the most appealing choice or something. With Luna, things are always vague, but I don’t have to be.”

Barrier stared at the mare with a cold, hard gaze that pulled her curiosity closer and closer to uncomfortable levels. She began to fidget atop the sheets, spurred in particular by the momentary injection of silence, and she puckered her lips as her brain sought to push those building questions to her tongue.

“There are some things I’m going to tell you, and you need to listen carefully, Tail. When I’m done, you won’t have to hold back, but until then, try not to interrupt me.” His magic retrieved his familiar time-worn flask, and he took a swig of the held alcoholic brew. “After this, there will be no more secrets between us, and”—he inhaled slowly—“if you look at me differently afterwards, then I’ll see to it that you have another way to move forward.”

Tail remained quiet as requested, though the way she threw an ear to the side, chewed on the inside of her cheek, and flicked her namesake all betrayed her desire to be loud. After everything she had shown him, how could he even hint at her backing away now?

“I did the things in there, but Luna left out the details. We did things—I did things that ponies today will never understand. If the princesses gave me an order, I would do it without question. If they told me to off some diplomat, officer, baker, whatever—I would do it for the good of Equestria. I killed a lot of griffons from the shadows and more than a few ponies.”

The muscles in his forelegs visibly tensed, and Tail began to shift her body towards the edge of the bed. She could hear the sorrow that drowned his speech, and she bit her lower lip as the unfolding scene made her heart push a painful, burning pulse through her arteries.

“I had to kill kids on the line who could barely curl their claws, and back then, I hated even them. They were dangers declared by the princesses, and so I defended Equestria at the cost of my own shit. I’m a monster, Tail—a murderer who did whatever it took because that is what my station demanded. An executor protected the land from those shadows so the masses would never even see them. That’s how it worked—before I was sealed with Princess Luna over a thousand years ago.”

Anger settled upon Tail’s mien as Barrier’s words became her thoughts. A thousand years ago? She internally fumed. A fearsome scowl cut the shape of her brow, and the incredulous statement drove several short huffs from her muzzle. The next sentence was on the tip of her tongue. Do you think I’m a buckin’ idiot? It was there, ready to spill from her muzzle and stab his blatant lies with the same rage she had pounded into Bonecrusher’s stupid face.

He couldn’t even look at her as he spoke. He was avoiding her scrutiny, avoiding her analysis, and boy, did she analyze. She peered incessantly upon his face, the way his features sagged, and the manner in which his standing frame buckled to each sentence. How can you possibly spin something like that to me now? How could you—

The pegasus froze after her maddened expression evaporated. Instead, she stared at him in complete shock. Somewhere amidst the pile of puzzle pieces in her brain, something suddenly clicked. Something made all the little jigs fall into place, and she realized, He isn’t lying. His combat experience not lining up with the relevant history? Mhm. His ability to tap Princess Luna’s magic? Yep. Why his fighting style was different from what even guards expected. Why Luna had given her that one damned book, and why he had lost absolutely everything…

“Sombra was the Captain of the Executors before me.” Barrier popped his flask again and took an even larger drink. “He was my teacher, my superior officer, my predecessor, and more of a father figure than even my own damn father. He was my friend. He fought those accursed griffons longer than most, and all he could think about was ending our war.

“I was just a grunt. I showed up on the front lines and scraped my way through battle after battle. I guess after a while, he just saw that I was good at killing things. He took me under his wing, and he began raising me to be an executor like himself. He taught me for ten years, molded me into what I became—what I am—a pony capable of terrible things.

“I saw what that did to him, though. I saw how that obsession guided his mind. One day, he told me he was going to the Crystal Empire. He told me he had found the way to end it all, but something was wrong. Executors were already a clandestine order, yet he told me he had to forego his rank—that it came with this job. His final request was for me to just call him by his name. No rank, no title. No order.”

Barrier grunted as tears swelled in his eyes. They quickly streamed down his muzzle, and the stallion moved with equal swiftness to rub the wet streaks from his coat. “I could have stopped him then, but I didn’t. I could have said something, but I was already every bit the monster he had become. It keeps me awake at night, you know? Maybe if I had tried something or asked more questions, then maybe I could have prevented the whole thing.”

Barrier’s voice cracked, and he tightly shut his eyes. “We had an absolute bond of trust, and I let him down. I let them all down, and in the end, I paid the price for it. I’m the last of my kind, but I can still do my part to make sure history does not repeat. What you’re doing”—the captain fell on his haunches, seemingly losing the willpower to stand—“it reminds me of him, and I can’t watch the same shit happen twice.

“I need to train you, not just this basic crap. You’re playing with shadows, but shadows don’t play!” Despite clenching his eyelids, tears continued to slip through half-choked sobs. The powerful cadence forced Tail from the bed, and she dragged her frame over the floor with short, shy steps, the patterings of which could barely be heard over Barrier’s unnerving cries. “They’ll suck you in, Tail! They’ll suck you in and one day you’ll wake up alone and dead just like—”

She could feel the heavy gulp that dropped down his throat. Her forelegs meandered around his neck, and her tired breaths held his address to the mercy of the stillness. The mare tightened her grasp and blinked a few times, freeing tears of her own that yearned to be free. “I won’t ever think you’re a monster, Captain. Monsters lose sight of love, and that’s one thing that you haven’t lost. If you think I need something, if you want to help me, then I’m not going to turn you away. I still stand by my choice. Just—um—just take it from the best cadet you’ve ever had?”

Barrier snorted through his noticeably congested snout. He didn’t move away from Tail’s soft, warm embrace. “Then, we keep going with no more secrets?” His question was met with a curt nod from the pegasus. It surprisingly drew a chuckle from the depths of his lungs, a chuckle which carried a sense of much-needed relief to the surface. “That little stunt makes you my sweetest cadet too, Rookie.” A long pause followed. “Faust knows how many laps that one will bring.”

Chapter 23 - Game-changer

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Luna lightly swatted Amora’s flank, causing the mare to jump back from the crack in Tail’s ajar door. The doctor quietly swore through her clenched muzzle, and she jerked her head around to find the Princess of the Night staring down at her with a jovial expression that might as well have bled amusement.

“Peeping, Major?” Luna’s teasing voice kissed Amora’s ears as the alicorn moved to peek through the crack as well. “I knew Captain Barrier was eye candy, but I never thought he would be your type—”

“Oh, not like that!” Amora hissed, brushing the diarch with a dismissive wave. “I got curious. Barrier was all weird and junk when he returned, mumbling some shit about things not being the same. They’ve just been talking about tactics though, and occasionally, they flip through that book you gave her. Some of the stuff they’re talking about is marginally unsettling. Starting to make me wonder where you dug this guy up, Princess.”

When Luna didn’t respond right away, Amora leaned until she caught sight of the barest hints of a smile. The unicorn was met by an ensnaring teal iris that sparkled with mischief. “Tail’s real training begins today, and it appears that she accepted her captain’s proposal.” Luna pivoted away from the door frame and let out a giddy giggle.

Amora pursed her lips to the melody, and confusion crafted a firm grip upon her features. “Care to explain that one, Princess? Am I going to need to pick out a dress? I mean—they didn’t elope in Las Pegasus, but—”

Luna’s giggle fanned into a round of boisterous laughter that sent a ripple of dread through Amora’s coat. She scrunched up, much in the manner a cat would if utterly terrified. There is no way they hadn’t been heard—

“Would you two shut the Tartarus up out there?” Barrier’s shout poured through the doorway. “We’re trying to study in here! Go find some other patients to spy on. I got this one back into bed all by myself. She’s in good hooves, and she’s busy.”

“Ams!” Tail’s bubbly cheer followed suit. “I’m learning things—in bed! Don’t worry about me. I’m sure Captain Barrier will come get you if I need anything.” She slammed her forehoof against a page in one of the books. “And doesn’t this principle only work on a macro scale? If Cantersville had been a single front assault, couldn’t the flanking forces just have coordinated some kind of pinching maneuver?”

“Mhm, things worked at Cantersville because the lines of communication between the flanking forces ran slower than the centrally located ones. Here, the flanks didn’t really know they were flanks, and they absolutely have to be in the know for a pinch to be effective. Even on a smaller scale, that’s hard shit to do. Take the pincer movement. It’s not just about the edges. You have to have the numbers to risk baiting with a weak center, and the timing has to be just right. The battlefield is a dynamic place. There are always multiple answers in play. Runners and scouts are key for obtaining information and coordinating an appropriate response. It’s one of the many reasons why lieutenants are told not to fuck over their sergeants, ever.”

Tail’s uninjured wing fluttered as he spoke. There was something about his cadence, in this setting, that was remarkably different and yet strikingly familiar. He was responding to her questions, and he grew his enthusiasm to emphasize those extra little tidbits of knowledge. He was teaching her—and not in the we’re-on-the-field way. He was teaching her in a way that honestly made her feel at home, and as her sights wandered over his charcoal-colored contours, she couldn’t help but think, It’s actually pretty cute.

“Awareness is pretty much what it boils down to. If you’re blind, then you’re going to get yourself killed. If you’re blind and in charge, you’re going to get everypony else killed along with you. The Battle of Greifen is a damn good example of the intelligence extremes. One side thought its forces were too great in number and that its flanks were covered, and the other had complete command of the terrain. The numbers got bucked, hard.”

The pegasus maintained her silence, listening as she fell into a patent-pending, academic stare. It was impossible for her to turn away from him. It was impossible for her not to get lost in the lecture—until she realized that he had stopped talking and was flashing her a cocky grin that screamed, ‘Caught red-hoofed!’

“Something on your mind there, Cadet?” Barrier said with a gritty tenor that made the mare stutter.

“N-no—Well, yes actually. I mean—mm—how do I say this? I think…” Tail’s voice drifted away as her cognitions took a brief, tangential stroll. “I think I’ve been carrying the same type of prejudice that others have carried for me, and I think I owe you an apology, Captain.”

Barrier’s head listed, and he inhaled sharply as though he had intended to deliver some sort of rebuttal. Tail beat him to the punch.

“What I mean to say is that I don’t think anyone in the guard expected much from me. What could a physicist possibly do, right? Now, you’re going over all of this historical material with me, and I would never have expected it from you.” She scooted towards the edge of the mattress, plucked her glasses from her muzzle, and set them directly in front of Barrier’s icy eyes. “You’re pretty brilliant, Barrier.”

The unicorn caught his breath. “Well,” he began while one of his forehooves ventured to play with the spectacles, “protecting others takes more than a sound body. It requires a sound mind.” He carefully removed the glasses and placed them back atop Tail’s muzzle. “Though, your compliment is appreciated.”

A budding smile fought against some resistance as it gradually spread across Barrier’s countenance. Its appearance made the mare’s heart beat just a little bit harder, and her own giddy smile abruptly formed.

“Do I need to be concerned?” Barrier spotted the exuberant expression. “Take me to dinner first—once you become a colonel—Cadet. Regulations prohibit such a joyous exchange between a D.I. and his trainee.” He tapped one of the books. “Any other questions you’d like to get out of your system before we move on to my part of the plan?”

Tail laughed, and a portion of her mind pondered the potential reaction if Amora had still been shamelessly stalking. “Maybe I’ll hold you to that, Sweety,” she chirped before reaching to grab her book on the discourse of war. “But for now, I actually do have another question. The Tartarus was up with the Battle of Agincolt?”

Barrier’s coat bristled at the name and his ears shot upright. “Ah, Faust! Agincolt! What a buckin’ disgrace that was. That, my cadet, is what happens when you let pompous, useless nobles dictate what war with griffons should be about. Knights fight knights! For honor and dignity!” He scowled and threw a leg into the air. “Griffons don’t know anything about honor or dignity! Well—they didn’t then. Archers raked the flanks. Agincolt was a massacre. It was after that that the executors took a more active role in managing things, so I guess it led to some progress. Just a damn shame it cost so many lives.”

The pegasus gave a curt nod. “Loss of life, especially when it’s pointless, is something that is really difficult for me to grasp.” She lifted her head as one of her cognitive gears lurched forward. “Given that you’re from that time, you experienced it, right? Death—” Tail shuddered before she took a deep, stilling breath. “It’s something that no training can prepare for, isn’t it?”

“It’s…” Barrier chewed on it for a few seconds. He looked away from his cadet, though his thoughts could not keep his body from instinctively shifting closer to his underling. “No, it’s not, but I’ll do my best to give you all the training I can. It will never prepare you for the first time, or whenever you face it after that. History doesn’t often give second chances, Tail. It normally just repeats the same garbage over and over. With you, I feel like I have a chance to make sure the shadows stay away.”

“I’ll do my best, sir. I had no intention of turning back when we started. I have no intention of turning back now that you’ve offered more help.”

Barrier scratched along his jawline and snorted. “Well, that’s good because I have plans for you.” He plucked three smaller books from the pile and magically pressed the literature into Tail’s fluff. “Read these and memorize everything in them. Summer Sun is in under one month, and I plan to use it as an opportunity to insert a major evaluation into your record. Those materials cover urban guard details, command structure, and procedures. You’ll be taking control of the squad for the day, which means you’ll be giving the orders to Indar and Bonecrusher while the three of you serve protection duties.”

Tail’s pupils dilated, her ears splayed, and her mouth hung open in disbelief. “You’re putting me in charge of the squad for the Summer Sun Celebration?”

“Yup.” Barrier flicked his blue tail in time with the single-word delivery. He smirked and shot a sidelong glance at the shocked pegasus.

“You do realize that Bonecrusher is going to eat me alive, right?” A wave of shivers rolled beneath Tail’s lavender fur, and her forelegs flinched at the thought.

The captain chuckled. “I don’t think she’ll be eating you alive after you bucked her jaw. Besides, I had my words with Crusher. She won’t be a problem. You just need to focus on getting better and making the most of your time. According to that pancake-thieving doctor of yours, you won’t be cleared for combat for two weeks. That’s not really a problem so long as we can get you exercising again sooner. No hesitation on those manuals. Jump in and go to town. If you have any questions, ask me.

“I’m not going to put it any simpler. Show that you can responsibly and effectively command a small unit, and those accomplishments will become the keystone of my final B.C.T. report. You’ve told me before you couldn’t quit. Let’s see if you can sprint towards the finish line.”

Candlelight danced over the glossy surfaces of smoothed stone. Archways, long forgotten by the outside world, circumscribed a room just big enough to fit a round table for seven. Like the space in which it sat, the wooden planks seemed worn with age, but the carvings of equine heroes that adorned its edges and legs commanded respect.

“Proud,” Shining Armor sighed as he sat upon one of the similarly themed chairs, “shouldn’t one of the princesses be here for this impromptu meeting?”

A purple unicorn scoffed in retort as a hoof sculpted his jet black mane. In a gaudy tone that trumpeted from the stallion’s lungs, he spoke, “No, we have to consider that the princesses have been compromised in their decision making through some sort of manipulated allegiance. My requests for a discharge of Ms. Tail and a reassignment of her injured squadmate were hastily denied by a captain whose contrived file reads like a foals’ tale. Magic Barrier is a fraud—”

“Enough, Proud,” Shining snapped. He glared through the pony’s sandy gold irides, and his teeth ground the bits of devoured anger. “Magic Barrier’s credentials are solid. Stop wasting this council’s time with your game of tangentials. What is it that you want?”

“Special treatment, unorthodox training, assaulted an actual soldier, incapacitated through her own act of violence… Tail is simply unfit to have her commission combat certified. I want the current training invalidated. I want her discharged. I—”

“You want her program,” the raspy voice of Spitfire ascended to grasp the reins of the conversation. “I don’t know much about Captain Barrier, but if Shining, Celestia, and Luna say he’s qualified to do the job, then I’m not going to question that job. I think the Equestrian Army is getting antsy. Luna’s going to throw a fit in your face when she hears about this. You know that, right?”

“I’m merely performing my duty within the confines of the law, Captain Spitfire. Princess Luna can say whatever she pleases, but that mare is the perfect example of what happens when our creeds are tossed aside.” Seriousness wiped the subtle curvatures from Proud’s lips, and his gilded gaze held firm against the suddenly risen frame of Captain Armor. “I want a vote, here and now, as to whether Ms. Tail should be stripped of her assignment and discharged.”

“I support her,” Shining angrily sneered. The royal guard replanted his armored forehooves atop the table. “Now speak your votes!”

“The Air Force stands with Shining,” Spitfire chimed immediately. “Colonel Tail has been a valuable asset to our group. Half the damn guard has been in a scuffle. I’m not going to turn her away for showing some spine, and I’m certainly not going to support this ridiculous attempt at a power grab.”

“There is no power grab here, Spitfire. I just strongly believe Ms. Tail does not belong amongst our family,” Proud answered rather calmly before he glanced to his left. “What is the position of the Equestrian Navy, Aph?”

A pink earth pony mare leaned over the table. She sighed, brought her muzzle to rest atop the wood, and scanned the group with green sights that navigated interfering bangs of the deepest blue. “We don’t condone acts of aggression against our own.”

Proud’s golden eyes snatched the light of the flickering flames and shared the stallion’s budding excitement.

“Personally,” Aph continued, “I think both aggressors should be discharged, but that’s not up for vote right now. Perhaps we can get to the other one next.”

Shining let out a disgruntled breath. “Looks like it falls on you to put an end to this travesty, Colonel.” The eyes of the room followed the stallion’s voice to a chair seemingly shrouded in darkness.

“Indeed,” Proud interjected, “let Equestrian Intelligence put an end to this charade with knowledge and fact.”

“Hmm,” a stallion hummed from the shadows before the light from the candles reflected off his opened, amber-kissed eyes. “Captain Armor, you have the most direct line of contact with Ms. Tail out of everypony here. Please wish her the best of luck in her future endeavors.” The officer paused when Proud Valiance gleefully clapped his forehooves together, a glee which terminated the instant a lavender foreleg tossed a manila folder in Shining’s direction. “Right, because we’ll be approaching her once she finishes her training with Captain Barrier. I think she might be the perfect candidate to head the creation of our new division.”

Spitfire’s snickering at Proud’s abrupt defeat barely made it to Shining’s senses while the Captain of the Royal Guard curiously stared at the folded cardstock. All that was written upon it were the words Mavericks’ Wild. For several seconds, Armor stood in silence, his head occasionally flicking to some internal beat of cognition. His breath hitched when he remembered exactly which colt he was dealing with, and he dropped down into his seat before a hearty laugh echoed through the chamber. “Thank you, Colonel Wing. I’ll be sure to pass on your terribly vague, yet unvague message.”

Chapter 24 - The Pride of Knights

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Luna yawned. She had survived another night of duty. Though, in retrospect, there wasn’t much for the princess to survive. Her beautiful portraits had worked their wonders when it came to putting the little ponies to sleep, and the alicorn remained energetic through the owl hours, knowing that she had rendered a gorgeous night. It was the clamor of the castle during the transition, in fact, that drove Luna to the brink of slumber. Bags formed beneath her teal eyes as the clanging of swiftly moving armor poked her ears. They were already coming. “For my sister, I presume,” she commented idly, only to be met by the emerging heads of Spitfire and Shining Armor.

“Your Highness,” he blurted, anger still drowning his timbre. “Your assumption proved correct. Proud called for the emergency session to force the invalidation of Tail’s training. Her discharge appears to be high on the priority list of our army.”

“Strike two!” Luna exclaimed in a surprisingly chipper voice as she gestured for the two captains to follow her to her office. Her sagging features tightened as a smile stretched across her muzzle, and she tossed a sidelong glance to the Captain of the Royal Guard. “Given that Captain Spitfire is not nearly as flustered, am I to assume that his attempt failed?”

“Damn right, it failed,” Spitfire quipped after her tail cracked in the sassiest of snaps. “His options are exhausted now, Princess.”

“Inside,” the diarch responded in a far more subdued nature. She opened the door to her chamber, ushered the others across the threshold, and promptly secured their privacy. “Intelligence will be keeping their eyes on his actions for some time. There are some inconsistencies in his reports regarding the activities of the 49th.”

The yellow pegasus stepped forward and affixed a stern, focused glare to the royal sister. “Any Air Force support you need is, of course, at your disposal.”

Another yawn emerged from the alicorn when she batted her foreleg in Spitfire’s direction. A sleepy smirk graced Luna as she settled into her chair. “Perhaps in the future, Spits,” she said as though she were reciting a lullaby, “but I have another assignment for you and Captain Armor.” She hesitated, giving her officers just enough time to straighten their stances. “We have a council of our own to form.

“I will confer with Barrier shortly to confirm. However, I’m certain he will agree with my suggestion. He already had plans to use the Summer Sun Celebration as a test for Ms. Tail, but I grow tired of the lingering, lurking problems. I propose that we use it to make sure that our cute cadet has a B.C.T. final exam that no pony will dare doubt.”

“I see, Princess,” Shining answered with the swift determination that had practically made him the rulers’ right-hoofed colt. “What do you need us to do?” As soon as the vivacious threads of mischief injected a bit of liveliness into Luna’s previously drained expression, he gulped.

“The five of us will be having a meeting at the start of my next shift, Captain Armor. You and Captain Spitfire are to retrieve our fifth.” She bit her lower lip at the anticipatory wince that rattled Shining’s foreleg, and she gradually leaned her barrel over her desk. “I have to correspond with Barrier before I sleep, so you’ll have to go get Trigger.”

Spitfire chuckled and threw her hoof to her snout as Shining slumped. “T—Trigger!” She snorted. “Oh, Princess, that is priceless. Thank you. I’m finally going to get to see a pair of legendary looks.”

Shining sighed while the mares giggled. “Shit.”

Tail hugged her pillow as she slept. The three books that Barrier had asked her to read during the previous day were scattered atop her blanket. Notes, marking the bournes of her progress, were scribbled upon the margins. “Captain Barr…” she whimpered in time with a click that burst from her door’s latch. Her brow furrowed and she nestled deeper into the comforts of the pillow. “Layered defenses…”

The mare’s namesake flicked to the beat of approaching hoofsteps, and after several instinct-driven swishes, Tail groaned to the rapid bombardment of consciousness. “Ams, sun’s not even up yet. Go ‘way. I’m fine.” She whined in protest once the weight of the books vanished from her quilt-pulled senses. The sound of fluttering pages dragged a grunt from the groggy pegasus. “And those books are important, so don’t wander off with them.”

“Wouldn’t dream of it,” Barrier answered before a chuckle poured through his snout. Tail scrambled upright in time to see her captain dump his saddlebag onto the floor, and her bedraggled mane flopped over her shoulders like a waterfall that had learned how to cascade for the very first time. “Someone’s been a busy pony.”

Tail puffed her cheeks. “Yes, of course I’ve been busy. You gave me an assignment, Captain, and told me not to waste time. As you can see, I already have a ton of questions.” She yawned abruptly and used her fetlock to wipe the residual sleep from her eyes. “Mm, but I think I’ll start with the basics. What is my actual assignment? If I’m in command of the squad, and we’re providing defensive support, what is the protocol if we encounter an enemy?”

“Rules of engagement, huh?” For once, Barrier openly displayed his smile. He lifted his foreleg and began tapping the underside of his chin. “I’ll be meeting with Luna to go over some finer details. Given your inexperience, the wisest thing to do would be to pin you to a single spot, but that makes for a lame evaluation. My plan is to observe your actions from afar. You should take that into account as you form your thoughts. Ideally, I’ll find a veteran officer I trust to accompany you on a patrol. That would give you some freedom to make decisions.

“That being said, unless something looks like a dire threat to equine life, report any suspicious activity to another squad. If someone needs to be protected, then you buckin’ do it.” The unicorn stepped towards the bed and plopped his plot upon the mattress. “I’ll be sure to give a more thorough briefing once I have everything sorted. Right now, I want you to tell me what you’ve learned.”

Tail snorted before she allowed her body to flop upon the bed. “The majority of the procedures are…” She sighed loudly, debating exactly how to put it without running the risk of offending her captain.

“They’re boring, modernized fanfares that would likely get a pony from my time killed in the blink of an eye,” Barrier cut in after he pitched his head towards the ceiling. Tail waited, anticipating some additional material as she watched a reminiscing glow settle over the stallion’s demeanor. “Yeah, sometimes guard work is about being visible and having a presence to make a statement, especially when it comes to calming the masses.

“Combat is about making a statement without being visible—at least that’s how it is to me—so what would you do if Canterlot got attacked and you became the highest ranking officer on the field?”

The feathers of Tail’s fully functional wing spread out. She narrowed her gaze upon her instructor. If it had been the first day, she would have been flustered by the immediate pop quiz. Thankfully, she had come to appreciate a few of Barrier’s quirks. He expected the best, so this was also expected. “Establishing my presence as commander is the highest priority. Cutting off the head is the quickest way to kill a snake.”

An affirming grunt emerged from the unicorn’s throat, and he gave a nod that prompted Tail to continue her story.

“Terrain awareness is essential. The narrow streets of the urban environment make roads ideal ambush locations. It’s better to make progress through buildings, or if pegasus units are present, try to aim for air superiority to outmaneuver said ambush. Squad composition is pretty critical to the operation as well. Pegasi have a preference for top-down offensives; earth ponies tend to prefer ground-up moves. Both have strengths, and a balanced team could probably play them off in interesting ways that I don’t really know yet.”

“Good answer,” Barrier praised his cadet while the corners of his lips fashioned a faint smile. Swirls of blue light cradled one of the books before the captain lightly deposited it against Tail’s barrel floof. “Chapters Seven through Ten cover each of the tribe strengths, weaknesses, and interplays. Focus your efforts on the squad you know, and prepare for the fourth member to be a wildcard.” The slight grin on his muzzle spread into an indisputable curve. “Now, do you have any questions that don’t pertain to your upcoming assignment?”

Both ponies flinched when the door to the room was suddenly hurled open. “Yeah, I got one—two, actually. Why in Tartarus are you sneaking into my patient’s bed outside of visiting hours? And if you were going to pull that shit, why would you not think to bribe me with pancakes?”

Tail released her frantically gulped breath with a sigh and glared at Amora. “Ams! He’s fine. A commanding officer should check on subordinates in the event of injury when able. It’s in my homework, so it must be true.” She swished her namesake a few times for the snowy mare. “And seriously, what is with you and the pancakes?”

Once his sights locked onto the major, the captain exhaled as well. After a few seconds of relative tranquility, Barrier slid off the bed and made a move for his equipment bag. “I figured you’d be one to interrupt my lessons, Doctor, so I brought enough to share with the class.” He opened the sack and retrieved a protected platter of the fabled breakfast.

Amora’s mouth watered the instant her brain recognized what had transpired, and her cobalt eyes sparkled. “Scratch what I said, you big, beautiful charcoal angel!”

Tail lifted her hoof. We need to really get her some help for her addiction, the pegasus thought as a stern scolding sat on the tip of her tongue. Then, her stomach rumbled, drawing the attention of both unicorns. “Don’t judge me. They’re really good pancakes.”

Amused, the captain quietly chuckled. His horn glowed, and he began to levitate the tray towards Tail. “I also brought this because there’s one thing that I haven’t mentioned yet, and it might warrant a hearty breakfast. There has been a minor change to the plan.” Barrier paused and peered into Tail’s attentive eyes. “I’m happy to see that you’ve been studying hard because I’ve reached the decision that, should you show exemplary leadership during your mission, I will immediately sign off on your B.C.T. It is, for all intents and purposes, your final exam.”

“So, what crawled up you and died?” Spitfire nudged Shining Armor in the side as they made their way down the streets of Canterlot. “When I heard the whispers, I thought it was a humorous situation at most. Honestly, I figured it was some weird inside joke. I never dreamed it’d be a serious issue that would put a scowl on your face the instant Princess Luna mentioned his name.”

“Nothing crawled up me. I am fine, and it isn’t serious,” Shining stated with a huff, failing to convince Spitfire.

“Mhm! Yup, you’re fine alright. If that’s what gets you to sleep at night, Captain, then to each their own.” She flapped her yellow wings and hovered in front of Armor as they took a left onto the cobblestone lane that matched their destination’s address. “But, it seems to me like you just don’t like him.”

Shining’s cheek twitched slightly, and his sights scanned the skepticism that shaped Spitfire’s cheeky smirk. “I don’t have a problem with Trigger, Spits.”

Spitfire rolled her eyes as she flicked her tail. “Right, which is exactly why the entire side of your face just convulsed before you said that.”

“I don’t have a problem with Trigger,” Shining stated again with a sigh of resignation. “I have a problem with his attitude towards me. Ever since I made Captain of the Royal Guard, he’s ridden my ass about how I got promoted. He railed on about some stuff involving my grandfather, saying that he was the reason I got my job. I don’t know if Trigger really believes it, or if he’s just pissed that he didn’t get the post himself.”

“Well, did you?” Spitfire asked, stabbing tact and subtlety to death like it was a career choice.

“No!” Shining hissed with an intensity that pushed Spitfire into a two-step retreat—one which brought her alongside the Phoenix Fire’s walls. “I worked my flank off. I was up for the promotion before my grandfather even came back, and I had to work twice as hard as anypony else because of my sister’s post.”

Spitfire steadied her trot and peered upon Shining with a gaze that bled confidence. She nodded as if she understood. “Politics can be a bitch,” she muttered. “Don’t know your specifics, but your grandpa must have been a pretty important colt if he stirred up some current-generation political drama. What’s his name?”

“His quote-unquote grandpa is Magic Barrier,” a new, gruffer voice chimed in from the threshold of Trigger’s bar. The wanted stallion himself snickered as he leaned against the doorframe. Spitfire’s jaw had dropped, and her pupils dilated as temporal reason and logic reloaded the shock. “Yes, that Magic Barrier.”

Shining stepped forward while Spitfire pushed her jaw up with a hoof and collected her wits. “Trigger,” the unicorn stated flatly—a cold stare forming to match his projected displeasure.

“Good to see ya too, Asshat,” Trigger retorted with an icy bite. His amber irides shimmered as he pushed off his perch and took a step onto the street. “And ya brought Captain Spitfire with ya! I can only imagine what sort of bullshit I need to bail Equestria out of this time if Luna sent ya to fetch me. Least she had the courtesy to give me a warning.”

“You don’t have to bail us out of anything,” Shining roared back. He inched closer to Trigger as a chilling glare etched its frost upon the captain’s iris. “Typical renegade attitude. Equestria’s operations don’t revolve around you, or maybe you’re still just bitter that you didn’t get my job.”

The midnight charger snorted. “Do ya think I wanted your buckin’ job? It’s a paper-pushing shit show.” Trigger focused on Shining’s still twitching cheek. “What? Do ya want me to spell it out for ya? You were gifted your post. Celestia served it up on a silver platter because ya got a third of Barrier’s cutie mark on your ass.

“The youngest Luna-fucked C.R.G. in written history! And ya still trot around without a care for others who did far more. Celly gave a job that demands an understanding of what it means to sacrifice to a colt who wouldn’t know what that meant if the word magically manifested and bit him in the balls.

“My stupid, fucking bar has served veterans more than your naïve, carefree shit. Ya think my attitude’s renegade and abrasive? I stared the shadows in the face and won. You’ve just played the role of mentor without ever walking the walk.”

Shining Armor slammed his forehoof against the street stone. “I can’t change that! I can’t be held to a standard the times don’t allow! Just because you, and others, wandered off into the fringes doesn’t make you greater. I worked hard. I’ve stuck by my oath, and I’ve been there for others when they needed me. Last time I checked, I was still on the line doing that job, and you”—he gestured to the bar—“were off doing this. You can call me naïve and carefree all you want, but at least I’m not a part-timer. Now are you going to answer the summons or not?”

Trigger turned around and started trotting back towards the entryway. “I don’t give a shit about Luna’s summons. Sending you was a terrible idea. I’d rather not deal with the red tape that’d come with kicking your ass.”

Throughout all of this, Spitfire’s wings nervously shook. She had never watched Shining succumb to such ferocity, and she had never experienced Trigger’s ire firsthoof. Her head rapidly swerved as Captain Armor drew another breath, and she darted forward before the colt could dare exacerbate the situation with another reply. “Hush!” she wailed, jamming her hoof into Shining’s muzzle. “And you, wait! Please…”

Trigger halted his stride at Spitfire’s behest. He didn’t turn around in that stretched second of silence, though a hoof ventured to adjust the brim of his trademarked Coltston hat. “I’m listenin’.”

“You know Ms. Tail, right? Princess Luna wants to push up the end of her B.C.T. to the Summer Sun Celebration. She and Barrier are concocting some sort of final exam, and she believes that you are essential for making that test as irrefutable as possible.”

Trigger’s silver tail lightly brushed the ground. “Why push her through a couple weeks early? What difference will fourteen days make?”

“Barrier thinks she needs more,” Shining said after he bypassed Spitfire’s hoof with a fetlock pick and a sidestep. “And given Tail’s work, Princess Luna believes her commission needs to be quickly combat certified. Their opinions are not without merit, either. We had to vote down a discharge petition brought forth by Captain Valiance earlier today. We don’t want any more delays, and Barrier knows that Tail is up to the task.”

A sidelong stare harnessed Shining’s image after Trigger snapped his head to the left. “Ya shot down Proud for Flicker, huh?” He briefly waited for the captains’ affirmative nods. “Don’t think for one second that your candy ass is in the clear just yet, but there might be hope for ya after all, Armor. I need to grab a few things. Fireball for Spits, as usual. Tell me, stallion, what’s your favorite drink?”

Chapter 25 - Then Along Came Tail

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Barrier blinked after he strode into Luna’s private conference chamber. The scenery was certainly reasonable, considering the stature of the princess. A hefty white oak table sat in the room’s center, and the furniture, amidst the darker stone background, stood out like a full moon. It fit Luna to a T. What smashed the T to pieces, however, was the sight of Shining Armor and Trigger sitting side by side with grins plastered upon both their muzzles.

“My session with Indar was rough,” Barrier blurted, taking another step forward, “but he certainly didn’t land a hit that would make me hallucinate.” He took a sniff and caught the unmistakable scent of alcohol. “Have you two been drinking? Did someone go throw a bone at Cerberus again?”

Shining nodded before a sheepish smile crawled across his countenance, and the unicorn gradually held up a bottle of Sweet Apple Red. “Trigger brought the A.J.D., some Fireball for Spits, and some revolting shit for you and Lulu.”

The charcoal-coated captain quirked his brow, though the subsequent chuckle that dripped through Trigger’s parted lips was utterly unsurprising. “You are absolutely terrible, Trigs.”

“Aw, c’mon Barry!” the stallion protested with a shout and a dismissive wave. “Ya get a few shots down his throat and he actually isn’t that bad to be around. We have to do something while waiting for Mes Étoiles to wake up. Might as well be loose for whatever crazy scheme you two are trying to concoct for Flicker.”

“She’s ready to move forward—”

The scampering of hooves in the hall hushed Barrier’s explanation. The taps grew louder until the crescendo climaxed with Spitfire and Princess Luna lunging through the opened doorway. “Verily!” Luna gleefully shouted when her teal gaze found the outline of Trigger’s frame. “He came indeed, and Shining is in one piece.”

“That’s what I told you,” the fiery pegasus remarked before she plopped down in the other chair next to Shining Armor.

“Though, you left out the part where he brought alcohol to this meeting.” Luna’s tone momentarily held a serious edge. “Try not to get my Captain of the Royal Guard hammered, Sir Trigger, or Mes Étoiles might just have to impose a liquor tax on those bits.”

A gritty gasp broke from Trigger’s mouth as he leaned back in the chair and drove a forehoof into his chest. “What a low blow, Your Highness.” A sarcastic tenor flirted with the royal title, and Trigger’s other foreleg ventured beneath the tabletop to retrieve an opaque glass bottle. “Threatening me with taxes after I brought ya a little Moonlight Spirytus.”

Moving towards the source of the group’s escalating inebriation, Barrier grunted. He lightly swatted the brim of Trigger’s hat while on the way to one of the vacant seats. “Getting a princess trashed isn’t any better. Trust me. I have more experience in that department than even you.”

“Indeed,” Luna countered once her sly smile blossomed. The princess claimed her chair and pounded the table as though she were using a gavel. “We shall drink later, my bartending creature of reverie. For now though, I believe we should focus on what Captain Barrier needs us to do.”

The slightly spirited Shining chuckled upon nudging Trigger’s side. “You’re in so much trouble,” he whispered, making no effort to actually lower the volume of his statement.

Barrier squinted, catching the playful, borderline sultry visage that swept itself upon Trigger’s appearance in a quick flurry. “Anyway,” he began, shunting that potential line to the wayside. “Ms. Tail’s skills have improved. Frankly, they’ve improved at a rate that is greater than what I expected at the start, but B.C.T. is not going to be enough for her.

“You’re all on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, with the exception of Trigs. I don’t think anypony here has a problem sharing this information. Tail and Bonecrusher beat the shit out of each other, and Proud made an immediate move for Tail’s discharge. It was unsettling then, and it became even more so after I saw Tail’s lab.”

“Pfft,” Shining interrupted. “That pushy bastard has wanted his hooves on Tail’s research since she received her grant.” Shining’s airy tone drew another snort from Trigger, which in turn drew a shushing stare from Luna.

“Which is why,” the princess said, reining in the conversation, “we need to have Tail’s B.C.T. final examination be as convincing as possible. Her combat certification will silence the army’s concerns. We need to test her abilities in a way that, should she succeed, dramatically showcases the combat and decision-making talents she gained under Barrier’s tutelage.”

Spitfire straightened her seated posture while her burnt orange eyes methodically focused upon each pony in attendance. Eventually settling on Magic Barrier, she crossed her forelegs and leaned forward. “She’s your rookie, so what’s the plan, Boss?”

A playful grin met Spitfire’s inquisitive stare. “Ms. Tail will be leading the squad during the Summer Sun festivities. What kind of officers would we be if we didn’t make her first patrol one she’ll never forget?”

With her eyes closed, Amora calmly wrapped Tail’s broken wing in her magical aura. She hummed an improvised melody through the examination, and as she went, a smile continued to flourish. “You can come home with me once I get off shift. You’re still taking my spell extremely well, so there’s no problem on that front.”

Tail turned the page of her reading assignment and hummed along with Amora. The unicorn was kind enough to levitate the book through the scan, which allowed the patient to continue studying despite the intrusion. “I miss my bed already—and my pillows. No offense, Ams, but the pillows here are just not the same.”

The medic grinned and took a playful swat at Tail’s flank. “Oh, is that why you’re spending so much time planted into your drill instructor’s coat? The nurses are starting to wonder if you two eloped, after all.”

Red invaded the tips of Tail’s ears, and her coat stood up while that primary defensive wave made its way through her system. She shushed her roommate. “Would you just stop?”

“This is Luna-sanctioned behavior,” Amora happily quipped before she lowered her head to give the pegasus a reassuring nuzzle. “Don’t worry your cute feathers off. There aren’t really any rumors. Still though, he’s pretty cute, so after B.C.T.…”

The Rouge March annexed the pegasus’s cheeks. “And how much is that from genuine thought versus your addiction for his pancakes?” she blurted in a higher-pitched voice after recovering from her latest squeak.

A snort erupted from Amora’s muzzle. “As much as I’d love to say that his breakfast drives all of my Magic Barrier opinions, they don’t. When your shit’s on point with him, you shine brighter. Don’t think I haven’t noticed, Ms. We-Have-to-Go-to-My-Lab-Right-Now.”

Plucking her book from Amora’s hold, Tail glared at the snowy unicorn. “Somepony is late for her rounds,” she said before averting her gaze from the rising doctor. “And that was one of the best decisions I ever made.”

Amora turned away from the mare and trotted towards the door. With a cheeky grin, she tossed her head to the side, throwing a sidelong glance at her roommate. “See you tonight, Hun. And, just so we’re clear, I didn’t really hear a no.”

Barrier and Luna made their way from the conference room after the meeting had concluded—and after it had become clear that Trigger was going to get Shining Armor absolutely shit-faced drunk. The privacy of her bedroom seemed far more fitting to Princess Luna, and Barrier had a date with his home.

“It’s been a long time since I’ve seen you like this,” Luna speculated aloud as she and Barrier made their way through the castle. When the stallion didn’t reply, Luna continued without hesitation. “Not since before my fall. Back then, you always had this energy about you. No matter the horrible thing that needed to be done—no matter how horrible your deeds had to be—you never let it show, and you never let it get the better of you. But upon our return to this world—”

The unicorn’s lips strained, and his brow quivered. He huffed, releasing his jaw from the building tension, and finally replied, “I no longer had the strength to keep my own demons at bay. What I’ve done—and what I do—has always weighed heavily on me, but I’ve always had friends and companions to see me through. Without them, why bother?”

Luna maintained her stride, though the features of her countenance began to droop beneath the weight of her mounting worry. “I know—I know that you did not want to speak with me, but you could have always spoken to my sister.”

“No,” he replied flatly. “No, I couldn’t. I was angry with both of you. You became an insufferable brat whose imprisonment took away everyone I ever knew, and your sister knew exactly what the banishment would bring. I never signed up to be cast a thousand years into the future. I never took an oath to that. I took an oath to lay down my life if need be, not to live through my death.”

The princess winced. She came to a halt and instinctively moved to offer yet another apology, but Barrier had already raised his foreleg to cut her off.

“Things change,” he spoke in a softer, smoother tone. “The hatred wasn’t worth it, and it certainly isn’t what they would have wanted from me. I resigned myself to my fate because it was what it was.”

“But this is far from a quiet fate, Barrier,” Luna calmly added, in spite of the emotions that the timid tapping of her hoof and the solemn stare upon her face betrayed. “You’re fighting again, and for the first time in ages, you are alive once more. I wish to know if this shift has something to do with your introduction to our little physicist.”

Barrier’s ear flicked once Luna’s less-than-subtle reconnaissance dropped a bit for his thoughts. “You’re just as terrible as Trigs,” he answered after a mischievous grin split his muzzle, “but I don’t think you can take full credit for this one, Lulu. She… surprised me. She’s the first one in a long time who didn’t shy away when I told her everything.

“The things we did back then, the things I did, they still haunt me. I can’t speak about them openly because nobody born in this era would understand. Until recently, I was beyond convinced that everyone would recoil in disgust or call on the guard to have me arrested. Ponies here are so passive. Even the aggressive ones are tame by our standards, so how could they possibly understand? How could they look at me, hear my words, and not see a monster?”

“You don’t think much of ponies in this age, do you, Barrier?” Luna ventured in an off-the-hoof, quiet tone.

“They’re soft. They don’t comprehend the sacrifices that were made to build this nation, barring the few notable exceptions of Trigger, Shining, and that awkward pegasus in the intelligence department. Maybe Spits, but she’s got that showpony in her. The point still stands. Harmony isn’t free, but most ponies think it is. Those are the fronts that make me feel like the demons from fairy tales of old, and those are the types of fronts today’s ponies carry. I just figured they’d all look upon me with fear or disgust, and then…”

Luna captured the ground yielded by Barrier’s fading voice. She leaned forward as a smile conquered the anxiety that had previously gripped her aura. “And then… along came Tail?” she offered in a gentle tone.

Barrier pivoted until his back faced the alicorn. He tilted his head towards the ceiling, and his muscles momentarily relaxed. He wouldn’t dare let Luna see the warm smirk that brightened his expression. It was a victory that he couldn’t give to her, not just yet. He couldn’t let that threat degrade his instructor edge, but at the same time, there was absolutely no way for him to conceal the gratitude that sat etched within his tone as he walked away. “And then along came Tail.”

Chapter 26 - Mid-week Montage II!

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Nighttime had settled upon the City of Canterlot just after Tail woke from her slumber. She stood proudly and stretched out her legs and wings. Nearly a week of reconditioning with Captain Barrier had done her wonders. She released a happy, humming sigh to the privacy of her bedroom while her chocolate-colored sights wandered to her journal.

She had a little time. Sally could wait just a while longer. There was nothing wrong with a little bit of reflection. After all, so much had been settled in the weeks since Amora had allowed her to come home. Beginning to flip through the pages, the pegasus giggled at the thought. “Well, perhaps not settled, but certainly improved.”

Day 42 — Two days since we’ve been home. Totally right about the pillows, by the way. The hospital’s pillows are atrocious. Ams, if you ever read this, shame on you for snooping! You’re the best though, but you’re totally snooping.

Anyway, today was the first day you spoke to Indar and Bonecrusher after the whole fight thing. Tail frowned as her eyes ran over that specific sentence. It wasn’t her finest moment, and— Stop making that frumpy face, future me! You knew it’d have to be done the moment Captain Barrier mentioned commanding the squad.

Gingerly, Tail made her trek down the hospital corridor towards Bonecrusher’s room. Her pacing remained steady, though the wide-eyed, gaping expression plastered upon her head did little to hide the anxiety that was teeming in her mind.

A second later, a fiery scowl replaced the lifted curves of worry. “She insinuated some pretty nasty things,” the mare muttered as her heart started thumping to the corresponding spike in adrenaline.

Whoever thought up the concept of fight-or-flight was clearly not a pegasus. Tail rode the wave, quickened her stride, and barreled into the earth pony’s room with the kind of zest that yanked the attentions of those present. If it weren’t for the bandaged wing, she would have quite literally flew-and-fought. Upon entering, however, Tail froze midstep at the behest of Captain Barrier’s gaze.

Briefly gesturing towards Bonecrusher and Indar, he spoke without missing a beat, “Perfect timing, Cadet. I was just talking about you with your fellow squadmates. As I was saying, Tail will be taking command during the Summer Sun Celebration, and a special guest will be taking my place as your fourth.”

Ever the professional, Indar simply bequeathed his officer a curt nod and remained silent. The mares, on-the-other-hoof, displayed that they had other things on their minds. Bonecrusher’s nostrils flared at the mention of command, and her eyes had not moved from Tail’s equally unwavering stare.

“This will serve as Tail’s final B.C.T. examination. It’s a few weeks early, but I want to move her onto other things as quickly as possible. For the two of you”—once again, he pointed towards Indar and Crusher—“the celebration sortie will serve as a different kind of evaluation. I still have two weeks to fit in some one-of-a-kind stuff for each of you, and I expect it to be earned.” Barrier paused for a moment to clear his throat. “Since the two mares in the room decided to beat the shit out of one another, there is definitely more than enough to prove.”

The pegasus spread her wings and kept her focus centered upon Bonecrusher’s jaw. Scar lines showed through the short lime fur—jagged lines that Tail had placed there herself with the bolt strike. The physicist within attempted to push regret to the surface, but the cadet’s stern poise tightly clenched a phantom ache that lingered in her healing wing. She lifted her muzzle as that Hurricane pride within her swelled. That regret would always be there, yet at the same time, her actions had placed her on top. She could go hoof-to-hoof, and Crusher was proof of that.

“I need to talk to my private,” Tail uttered flatly, “and I need to talk to her alone.” She waited until the gears clicked in Barrier’s and Indar’s heads, and she blatantly ignored the scowl that came to cut a swath through Bonecrusher’s countenance.

“Alright then,” Barrier added upon turning towards the exit. “We’ll have more briefings later, though I wanted to remind you that this is an overnight event. I believe I left that out.”

“Thank you, Captain. We’ll all speak later. I still have questions for you, and I want everypony on the same page. First, however, I have some business to wrap up that I’ve let go on for far too long.” She fell silent, only waiting for the boys to vacate the room before continuing to speak with her cool, commander timbre. “I’m not sorry for kicking your ass. You deserved it after what you put me through. You were the one who attacked me. You were the one who put me in here, and you were the one who said shit about Captain Barrier. The only one you have to blame for that is yourself.”

Bonecrusher snorted while her tail aggressively darted about. She huffed through her wired muzzle and began to roll towards the edge of the bed until Tail’s loudening voice outflanked the budding maneuver.

“Don’t even think about setting weight on that leg! Honestly, you are easily the most stubborn mare I have ever met. For the first time in your life, just rest there and listen to me. I’m not sorry for kicking your ass, but I am sorry that things started the way they did. I should have studied up on proper respects, and then, maybe none of this would have went down the way it did. However, both you and Indar could have done more to help me understand what I fucked up. There was plenty of time for a meaningful correction. I was an outsider. How could I have possibly known all the ins and outs? Instead of bringing me into the fold, you chose to make me a target.”

She threw one of her lavender forelegs out to the side. “I don’t really give a damn about that now, though. I’m not going to make excuses for it. Our careers both survived what others have not, so I’m not going to beat around the bush anymore. You need a good showing to get to the end of Barrier’s course, and I need you to be my actual squadmate for this exam. If we can, I’d like to move on from this, Bonecrusher. I can put it behind me if you can.

“You might be a bitch, but you’re my bitch—” Tail squeaked, and her feathers ruffled the instant she had said it. The crisp guard tone fled her words, leaving behind that sheepish physicist. “Shit, that came out completely wrong.”

Bonecrusher gawked at the pegasus. Her coat stood on end for a couple seconds as her mind digested Tail’s statements. Suddenly, the anger vanished from her face. The earth pony’s tail flopped along the side of the bed, and she chuckled. She actually chuckled.

Day 48 — Still not cleared for combat activities, though Amora has approved light exercises to help keep my fitness up. She’s a bit obsessed with the possibility that I could overexert my wing. It feels fantastic. Her magic really works wonders, and I’m grateful to have her as my roommate even if she can be a total mom at times.

I went to the field today, and I am really glad that I did! Barrier and I had a conversation about nighttime operations. No, silly Future Tail, that was not the exciting part. Princess Luna and Captain Barrier sparred, and it was one of the most amazing things that I have ever seen. The way they moved and how they executed their strikes! It was all in a league of its own!

“Down to business, Cadets!” Barrier shouted after firmly thrusting his forehoof upon the grass. “We’ve had our fair share of distractions, and that has cut into our sparring time as of late. We have a little under two weeks until the longest day, so until then, we’re limiting our raw sparring time to focus on group cohesion and movement—and I do not mean that standard rank-and-file guard program.”

Indar raised a hoof, an act which prompted Barrier to pivot his introduction. “Yes, Indar?”

The corporal dropped his leg until it pointed to the left of the captain’s position. “With all due respect, sir, why is Princess Luna here for you to tell us this?”

Barrier grinned widely after the question perked his ears. He drew a breath before responding with a tone drenched in silky satisfaction. “I’m so glad you asked. She’s here to help demonstrate the heights you should all aim to achieve—and so that we can help knock off some of our rust. Sparring with trainees is one thing; sparring with an alicorn is another. Figured you all might enjoy watching. Honestly, the only show that has a chance of topping this is if Colonel Trigger and I went at it, but that bout would likely cause a lot of collateral damage. We get very caught up in the moment, more oft than not.”

The three cadets gawked with widened eyes and dilated pupils as the concept sunk in. Tail fidgeted with excitement, though she couldn’t help but ponder if Barrier was out of his mind. Her thoughts flashed back to her backstop breaking shot, and she winced at the power even this friendly contest could bring. Taking on an alicorn—

“Keep your focus. We’re going to go all—” The unicorn was cut off as a beam of midnight blue tore through the morning air. At the last millisecond, a hexagonal shield winked into existence and redirected the thaumic burst towards the heavens.

“An opponent will not wait for you to finish your monologue!” Luna gleefully squealed, basking in the joy Barrier’s gritty composure brought to bear. The royal sister had taken the opportunity to create significant separation between herself and the unicorn, a move which Tail internally noted likely played to the diarch’s strengths.

The captain didn’t give the alicorn the satisfaction of a reply. He hurled his own castfire—a painfully bright light that leapt from his horn. Intent on closing in, Barrier took off at a gallop the instant the shot was airborne.

With an almost lazy flick of her horn, Luna wiped the beam from existence—only to find Barrier crouching down directly in front of her position. He quickly bent one of her forehooves in the wake of a quick jab before a hind leg swept to the other. He smirked as the princess lost her balance and pitched forward, and he thrust his head upward to deliver a vicious headbutt with the top of his skull.

Luna had other plans. Her wings unfurled before Barrier could land his third strike. The purplish cascade of feathers dropped to the ground and produced a rush of wind that brought the Princess of the Night to stand upon her hind legs. Just as the cadets committed that awesome image to memory, Luna shifted to stomp her charcoal pony challenger.

Barrier’s horn glowed in response. He vanished just before Luna’s hooves dug into the soil, and with a degree of frustration plastered upon the angles of her brow and lips, the princess followed suit with her teleportation spell.

The pair reappeared a short distance away from where they had been. Luna chained her sudden transposition to a hard kick, only to groan as Barrier vanished into another flash. The alicorn was seemingly unable to feel out the magical trail left by the unicorn, and she whipped her head around in surprise once his weight slammed upon her withers.

Tail gazed at the spectacle with a degree of familiarity. Barrier quickly slid over Luna’s barrel, pinning her wing and throwing her center of mass enough to send the princess toppling to the side. With practiced movements, the captain maneuvered his hind legs around the alicorn’s body and straightened his frame. His forelegs snaked around her throat and horn, effectively locking the diarch in place.

Her legs scrabbled uselessly at the ground, but there was little she could do to gain any traction. Frustration sprouted in her grimace as a grunt emerged from her lungs, and the cadets each looked upon the sight with varying degrees of inquisitivity. After several seconds of being subjected to the chokehold, the Princess of the Night teleported out of it.

“Barrier didn’t follow that one either,” Tail whispered quietly after taking note of the momentary confusion that affixed itself to Barrier’s wandering glances. Her window of observation did not last for long—as Barrier quickly popped himself onto his hooves—but Tail had correctly picked up that Luna had flawlessly duplicated her captain’s spell. “Her ability to use magic effectively wasn’t impeded either.”

Both Barrier and Luna broadly grinned as their manes clung to their necks with the glowing sheen of mutually earned sweat. The pair began to slowly circle one another, and the distance between them gradually evaporated as each pony geared up for Round Two. “I do believe I forgot how fun this was, Captain.”

Day 59 — Tail peered upon the otherwise blank page. In the ten days since she watched Captain Barrier’s incredible match with Princess Luna, she had recovered a significant portion of her strength and stamina. The squad had practiced maneuvers, and they had sparred in the night and through the early morning hours to prepare.

A smile spread across Tail’s muzzle while she began to strap various armor plates to her body. She didn’t need any more reflections for today. She had her squad; she had her mind, and Barrier had trained her well. Warmth blossomed in her chest as something Trigger had said cast an echo from her memories. “This is where I belong,” she whispered to Sally. “Let’s go take our final exam.”

Chapter 27 - The Blaze Within

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Princess Luna stood tall beneath the arbory arch that led to the gardens. Before her, Tail, Bonecrusher, Indar, and a new unicorn stallion remained at attention. “Ms. Tail,” the diarch shouted with authority. “The squad is now under your command. Your orders are to patrol until the conclusion of the Summer Sun Celebration, or until Captain Barrier or I relieve you of your duty. Is that clear?”

Tail sharply saluted with a crispness in her step that she had not quite shown before. Indar, Bonecrusher, and the newcomer followed suit, and Luna responded by smiling at the squadmates.

“Take some time to brief your new recruit,” the alicorn added, “and good luck.”

Tail watched as Luna vanished into a bright, brief pop of magic. After a moment, she lowered her hoof and turned to the fourth member of her unit. “I don’t believe we’ve met. This is Indar and Bonecrusher. My name is Tail. It seems we have a moment, so I’d like to thank you in advance for joining us on this patrol. I know it’s a little unorthodox.”

The bone-white unicorn nodded after his icy blue eyes drifted over each of the other pony’s forms. “Lieutenant River Styx, ma’am,” he replied in an Appleloosan accent that made Tail’s ears twitch to the country timbre.

The lavender pegasus quickly scanned Styx’s frame. Not as tall or bulky as Captain Barrier, she thought. Perhaps his specialties are more speed based. Would make sense given— Her ponderings derailed and her feathers ruffled when she noticed that he was saluting her. She quickly returned the gesture.

“There’s no need for that, Lieutenant. You’re the veteran here from what Captain Barrier told me. Though, if you wouldn’t mind, could you please tell me what your specialties are? That would help me set our patterns.”

River Styx dragged the saluting hoof over his gunmetal mane. “Yes, ma’am. Air and wind manipulation, silent teleportation, and levitation are my primary magical points of interest—in addition to basic castfire, of course. I’m a bit more nimble than most of my peers, so I aim to do things with quickness and precision.”

“Air and wind?” Tail tapped the bottom of her muzzle with a gauntlet-covered hoof before her chocolate eyes glimmered with excitement. “You’ll be my wingmate then, and we’ll break in twos. I’ll take point. Styx at my flank. Indar, point of the second group. Should be a good spot to maximize the coverage of your shields.” She paused to stare at Bonecrusher. “And I’m trusting you with our backs, Private.”

A smirk split Bonecrusher’s muzzle, and she gave her jaw one of her freshly patented stretches. “You do save the best for last, Civvy. I’ll give you that.”

Tail snickered, watching as the earth pony fell into place a step to the right and back from Indar. She pivoted around and waited for River Styx to slide into his respective position close to her side. “It’s time,” she whispered, taking a single step before a raucous roar burst into existence. “Move out!”

Crowds sloshed about the streets. Admittedly, that was unsurprising considering the holiday was one dedicated to staying up through the night for the sunrise. Most ponies appeared content to give the squad jovial waves as the guards weaved their staggered column through the masses. Unfortunately, most was not all.

“Watch it, pal!” Crusher bit when a drunken reveller crashed onto her armored torso. The lime mare promptly pitched the tan assailant from her withers and spun to snatch his scruff with her forehoof.

In a heartbeat, Tail turned and stepped to the pair. Fear-filled aquamarine eyes peered up at the pegasus as heavy breaths puffed from the unicorn’s open mouth. The stench of booze hit Tail’s nostrils—apple and cinnamon to be exact—and she responded by lightly patting Crusher’s shoulder.

“He’s just a bit tipsy, Bonecrusher. No point in fussing over it. Just let him up, and I’m sure he’ll be on his way.” Tail’s calm tone drew a frustrated snort from the mare’s compatriot. It was not a behavior she intended to let fester for long. “However, Mr. Stallion, let me be clear. If my patrol catches wind that a partier is getting out-of-hoof, and that pony happens to be you”—Tail patted Bonecrusher’s shoulder again—“I won’t be stopping her from owning your flank.”

With her impressive strength, Bonecrusher hefted the stallion onto his hooves. She snickered as the wobbly and warned colt rather timidly stumbled back into the crowd. “Is it wrong that I hope we have to come back?”

Tail flicked her namesake and proceeded to her point position. “Yes,” she answered succinctly. “Yes, it is.”

She was met by the thoughtful-appearing gaze of River Styx, whose lips seemed to fluctuate between a grin and a grimace. Tail tilted her head at the spectacle, her confusion and concern driving the unicorn to actually ask the question that had obviously been sitting on the tip of his tongue. “Do you think that was too much? The statement to the civilian, I mean.”

The pegasus felt her heart thump heavily behind her breastplate. Of course, he would be testing her. He was one of Barrier’s trusted officer friends. Did I step over the line? I threatened a civilian. Oh my goodness, I did. She felt her feathers press against her sides as the trickle of Bonecrusher’s chuckles dripped into her ears.

“No, sir,” Tail stated with a tranquility that masked the turmoil that had brewed within her thoughts. Crusher’s cadence had set her straight. “He was sent on his way without further incident”—she leaned close to River Styx to whisper—“and it’s put a certain mare in a good mood.”

Tail firmly held her mouth shut in a desperate attempt to stifle a rather threatening yawn. The hours of venturing through the city had largely been uneventful. A few more over-exuberant revellers had crossed paths with the squad several times during the night, but nothing major had transpired.

In fact, much to Tail’s delight, things were going smoothly. Indar seemed—well, Indar was as calm as ever. Bonecrusher actually had what appeared to be a contented smile plastered to her muzzle, and Lieutenant River Styx had done little beyond prod the pegasus with a few questions whenever she made a judgement call.

“Amazing how boisterous it is out here by the wall,” Indar broke his stoic silence.

His comment prompted Tail’s gaze to wander to the stone defenses and intermittent towers that otherwise dwarfed the residential neighborhood. “Happy ponies will celebrate,” she answered over the drone of cheers. A smile graced her muzzle as a few partiers danced in the streets. The night would soon come to an end, and she hoped that the dawn would bring a new chapter in her budding career.

A few more blocks drifted past the staggered column. The harmony of citizens continued to stroke their aural senses—until the raspy squeal of a foal popped from an adjacent alleyway. Tail’s head snapped, sending her stare down the darkened backroad after her forehoof shot out horizontally to signal company halt.

“Help!” The coltish sound pulled the pegasus closer to the penumbra, and the tappings of scrambling hooves yanked her attention. A teary, red-eyed flier emerged from the shadows before he burrowed his grey coat against Tail’s armor. “Please help me!” the jet-maned youngster squealed. “Ponies are chasing me!”

Styx flinched at the spectacle, and his brow descended as he watched his C.O. wrap one of her forelegs around the colt. He mumbled something under his breath but hushed himself when Indar and Bonecrusher stepped forward to Tail.

“Sweety, you’re safe now. Nopony is going to be after you anymore,” the mare spoke in a motherly tone as she gently brushed his back. She turned her head to give a curt nod to Indar, a sign for the shieldmaster to be on alert, before re-affixing her focus upon the fluffball that clung to her kit. “What’s your name, little one?”

The colt relaxed his grip, took a step away from the relatively towering mare, and drew his fetlock to wipe his dampened cheeks. His barrel still heaved heavy breaths from his tiny frame, and Tail fought to bury the rising anger that swelled within her towards any pony that would bring this kind of harm to a child. “I’m—um—I’m…”

The kid’s fading voice drew a grunt from Bonecrusher, and it prompted a soft groan to slip from Styx’s barely open muzzle.

“My name is A.K. Yearling,” he answered sheepishly—an answer which drew wide-eyed gapes from both Tail and River Styx. Blinks soon after followed from the two guard ponies, and the colt blinked a few times as well. He tilted his head towards River Styx, and his raspy, pouty voice re-emerged. “Why does no one ever believe me?”

“Because you’re obviously pretending to use the name of a famous author as your own,” Styx challenged through his Appleloosan drawl.

The rebuttal earned a stomp from the offended colt, and his feathers ruffled to a childish fluster that reminded Tail of herself in her youth. “Nuh-uh! Aunt Daring uses my name as hers! I’m not the pretender!”

Tail crouched in front of the colt and peered into his eyes. She spoke with emphasis, hoping to cut out any further arguments with a child stemming from her lieutenant, “Well, Mr. Yearling, do you mind telling me where you’re staying? It’d be my unit’s pleasure to escort such a renowned author home—”

“Explorer!” he corrected. “I’m staying with my aunt for the holiday, but we got separated.”

There is no way this colt can be telling the truth, but he seems so convincing when he speaks. The pegasus scrunched her snout and let out a soft sigh. A tender, age-appropriate coaxing was on the tip of her tongue. Somewhere, she imagined, Captain Barrier was checking in on this scene with a smug grin on his face. Then again, a guard’s duty was to her ponies.

“Where is my damn amulet, you impudent brat?” a booming voice ensnared the guards’ attentions and dragged them into the darkened depths of the alley.

Fire sparked across Tail’s chocolate irides as they reflected the orange blaze of an incoming spell. Her breath hitched, and she snatched the colt with her forehooves before tumbling away from the approaching bolt. “Indar! Hex, shot high!”

A lattice of hexagonal shield planes burst into existence at the behest of Indar’s glowing horn. The barrier protected Tail and A.K. from the assault, and it deflected the jarring, hellfire beam into the sky to produce a rather dramatic explosion. “Not good,” the stallion huffed just loud enough for Tail to hear after the shattered panes dissolved into the night.

Two storeys up, two-tenths of an A.E.U. The uncovered parts of Tail’s coat stood on end. She tightened her grip on the colt while snapping her sights to each one of her ponies. Debating the kid’s identity had to wait for later. The alley—the street—they were both dangers. That shot came from a rooftop, which meant that they had to get off the grid unless they wanted to become the victims of an ambush.

“Above!” Bonecrusher’s roar redirected Tail’s focus to a maroon pegasus whose dropping trajectory was on a collision course for Styx’s neck.

“Off the road!” Tail spat. “House right!” She lunged through the opened window of the nearest home and came crashing into a thankfully empty living room. Her squadmates flashed into position at her sides—with River having teleported himself, and with Indar having taken care of the additional burden known as Bonecrusher.

The pegasus flipped the sobbing colt onto her saddle-spot and rose to her hooves. There was no time to linger. She had to get the little one to a safe place. They needed to get some separation. Then she could think. You can think on the run! “Indar! Styx! We’re jumping house-to-house! Short-range ports!”

Tail started sprinting towards the opposite wall, pulling the stares of her compatriots just long enough for their brains to switch gears. She felt River’s magic engulf her in an oddly familiar warmth, and the earthly tones of the dwelling quickly stretched beyond the limits of her senses.

Three of them popped into a crowded kitchen filled with a family of startled ponies whose shocked, frozen poses and expressions drew an apologetic squeak from the marginally queasy lavender pegasus. “Sorry! Just passing through!” She twisted, regaining her balance atop the homeowners’ wooden island, and scrambled in the direction of the nearest friendly establishment her mind could register.

Shouts from those inside joined a cacophony from the ponies in the streets—those whose nights had been perturbed by the chaos her unit was undoubtedly tugging along. “Buck, I think we’re being tagged! Lieutenant, what’s your silent teleportation range?”

“Five blocks, ma’am,” Styx answered as he ran behind a cluster of equines who had been baking.

More screams came from the next room—certainly due to the intrusion of Bonecrusher and Indar. “Keep the pattern! We need to head two blocks towards Central, and then we’ll double-back to the wall!”

Bonecrusher’s agonized groan filled the house. “Why are we running, dammit? I fuckin’ hate teleportation!”

“Because,” the pegasus replied as Styx and Indar warped the quintet into the darkened bedroom of yet another abode. The soft landings upon an elegant violet silk bed were each met with brief, yet relieved grunts from the guards. “I want to get this colt to the Phoenix Fire.”

“You want to drop off a foal you just met at one of the busiest bars on the morning of the Summer Sun Celebration?” Styx once again prodded.

“Yes!” This time, Tail shouted her succinct answer. “We need to get the kid out of danger, and a bar full of the toughest guards in Equestria is just the place. Plus”—she glared at the lieutenant with that passionate inferno Bonecrusher, Indar, and Captain Barrier had come to know very well—“I can’t fight all-out with him on my back.”

Chapter 28 - The Brilliant Inferno

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“How much farther?” Crusher grumbled as the latest pair of teleportation spells took the squadmates from the row of residential houses and plopped them into a Canterlot jewelry store.

Alarms rang out, and Styx rapidly warped them from the business before any sort of countermeasures could be deployed. It seemed that his maneuver had placed the unit in the attic of a dance studio—a rather dusty one at that—if the moonlit equinnequins and shelved trophies were any indication.

“I’m in range,” River Styx spoke around deep gasps. Needing to recover from the rapid succession of short-range skips, he and Indar both dropped on their haunches. “I need half a minute. Then, I can send the colt off.” He received a nod from Tail, who moved to gently set A.K. down on the uneven, wood-plank floor.

She stared into the boy’s wide eyes, and she gave him a soft, yet concerned smile. “Lieutenant Styx is going to send you to a place called the Phoenix Fire. There will be a lot of guards there—good ponies who can help you. The owner is a black stallion named Trigger, and I have a lot of faith in him. Find him. Then tell him Tail sent you and that you need help, okay? You’re a big, brave explorer, A.K.”

The colt bobbed his head a few times, and he took a few gulps of air to muster the courage. Finally, he answered, “I’m ready.”

Tail brushed A.K.’s jet-black mane and knelt to bring her head level with that of the youngster. She maintained her kind warmth and drew a breath that plucked the faint, curious scent of apples from the air. “Mm, one more thing before you go. Can you tell me how many were after you?”

“Two unicorns and a pegasus. One of the unicorns is a butt!” A.K. shouted his response before the frosty aura of River Styx’s magic began to envelop his tiny frame.

“Thanks, Kiddo.” She flicked her hoof towards the lieutenant, and before she could blink, the colt was gone. Silence reigned through the wake, giving Tail more than enough time to collect her wits and take check of her squadmates.

Bonecrusher seemed raring to go, despite showing clear distaste for the mode of transport. Her legs appeared twitchy, and that, for once, was a good thing for the rookie commander’s well-being.

Indar had spent the duration of the brief reprieve in a meditative state. His eyes remained closed until Tail set her gaze upon him for several seconds. It was only then that the muscles of his face trembled, and he surrendered the view of those umber hues. “I am better now, Tail, ma’am.”

Her other unicorn stallion was upright also, though his features sagged with the wear of overexertion. He squinted and hung his head low as a ripple of discomfort meandered across his lips.

Tail frowned. “I’m sorry, Lieutenant. That was a lot to ask of you in such a short span—”

“No apologies,” he replied quickly, shushing Tail for a moment. “It was the right call to get us off the roads. They had the high terrain. Staying in the open would have been bad news, and the extra time bought us information from the colt. We have their numbers now.”

“Something else is bugging me,” Tail spoke candidly, ending her pause. “I’m not hearing the same commotion from outside. The panic from the alley isn’t trailing us. I just hear partiers now. Did we shake the chasers? And”—she scrunched her muzzle at her latest thought—“where do you think Captain Barrier is? If this is truly unrelated to my exam, then I would expect him to be here. I would appreciate your input, Lieutenant.”

River flinched before he slowly shuffled towards the octagonal window at the end of the attic. He pitched his snout as a sheepish-sounding chuckle slipped out, and he peeked upon the street and its surroundings. “There’s a unit at that store we tripped the alarm in. I’d put money on that keeping our foes at bay. That, or perhaps Captain Barrier intervened on our behalf already. Either way, I doubt we shook ‘em. I only silenced the spell that sent the colt to the bar. Our general whereabouts are definitely traceable.”

“We need to double-back immediately,” Tail barked as her swishing namesake betrayed her rising distaste at a brewing notion. “There is no way we’re going to risk Captain Barrier getting stranded in a fight. I might be calling this sortie, but he’s still our—”

Tail dropped down as a sudden weight plummeted upon her spine through a metallic clamor. She rolled in response and dragged an armor-wearing Barrier to the floor. The flier popped up as quickly as she could, instinct driving her to land a strike with her gauntlet.

The charcoal-coated unicorn parried the blow, despite having been flopped upon his back. “At ease, Commander!”

The pegasus halted her follow-up jab while thick puffs popped from her lungs. She stared down at the stallion, whose mane was utterly drenched in sweat, and after a second or two of cognition, she snatched the captain into a hug. Her face scrunched. She caught the scent of apples again, flicked her ear, and muttered quietly, “What is up with that?”

“It’s good to see my cadets love me so much,” Barrier quipped, not doing anything to break the hug whatsoever.

River Styx twitched from his flanking position and cleared his throat after his sights drifted over the other unicorn’s armor. “You look a bit scuffed up, sir. Were you engaging the enemy?”

At that, the stallion pushed out of Tail’s loose hold and rose to his hooves. “Yeah, I stepped in during your urban escape, but dealing with two unicorns and a pegasus isn’t easy alone when you’re already in the open. Thankfully, the noise drew other guard units to the area and they split, but not before doing a good bit of damage.”

“We’re not letting them get away,” Tail declared after her captain had finished. “They’re after a colt, and we can’t let that go unchecked. We shouldn’t give them the chance to retake the initiative either.”

Both Barrier and Styx beamed smiles while a frustrated Bonecrusher paced in the background. After a few loops, the lime mare slammed her hoof down and scowled at Tail. “Well! What are we going to do?”

The physicist brushed the anger aside and promptly spoke up. “Save it for the baddies, Crusher. First, I need to know if our stallions can get us to the wall or not. You all look exhausted as it is, but I’d like to take this fight away from as much of the population as possible.”

Indar’s posture straightened. “I was stationed at Tower Forty-One. I’m very familiar with its location and layout. It’s not quite where we were before, but if you aim to double-back, then I can get us all there, even from here.” The sand-colored unicorn hesitated as his umber glance graced River Styx and Magic Barrier. “The one who fired from the alley has an exceptional power, and I do not have the raw strength to counter it. Our officers will likely be needed in the endgame, which is why I believe I should handle the teleportation load from here on out.”

“We’ll lose the stealth option if you carry that load, Corporal,” the alabaster unicorn remarked. “Is that something we really want to give up at this juncture?”

A subsequent nod came from the pegasus, and her stoked glare swung towards the waiting fortifications. “They want the colt, and we’re the ones who know where he is. Time to flip the script and make them need to catch us. They’ll come, and when they do, we’ll show them what happens to fuckers who chase foals. Let me tell you what I’m thinking. We’re going to need a few of those equinnequins.”

Tail frowned as she ventured from the protective brick shell of Tower Forty-One. The memory of the automated alert board she had seen inside upon the squad’s arrival sent a chill along her spine, and the fur around her neck consequently bristled. There were warnings posted all the way down to Thirty-Eight, and the assigned guard group at her position was nowhere to be found.

I hope this pays off, she pondered as she walked the wall towards Tower Forty. Her wings fluttered uncomfortably, seemingly more so with every step. The muscles in her legs twitched in anticipation. A feathered pony running a bottom-up mission was the mark of incompetence, but that was the point.

“Found you!” a feminine voice bellowed from the top of the tower, prodding the pegasus to pivot on her hind leg. “One chance! Where is my colt?”

The acting commander lifted her head to gaze upon the unicorn. Even from that altitude, the crisp orange of her eyes carried an intensity that pierced the smaller equine. A cerulean mane spilled over her pinkish coat, and her horn was primed to unload castfire.

To the unicorn’s right, the maroon pegasus hovered. Her navy mane was combed back, though renegade tufts defied repeated constraining attempts. She spat a wad on the top of the tower and snickered audibly before affixing her emerald sights on Tail. “Want me to take her down, Boss?” the mare quipped in a bratty tone. “Bet I can take her out in ten seconds flat.”

“Not yet, Blaze. I’d like to give her a chance to give me the information peacefully. She’s all by herself, after all.” The unicorn tilted her head towards the heavens to cast an arrogant glance upon Tail. “Splitting up to find us was stupid. I could feel those teleport spells from across the city. Your attempt has failed. My stallion will pick your other flank off, and one at a time, we’ll annihilate your mates until one of them tells us where that runt is hiding! Or maybe I’ll just find him inside—”

Tail grimaced, and her brow gradually cut a scowl across her countenance. She pulled her foreleg to her side and clenched her jaw as water vapor swirled towards her hoof. “Like fuck I’d help a bitch hunt down a foal!” With that, she lunged upward and threw her limb at the pony pair. An arc of lightning leapt from the compressed cloud fragment, and the sniper shot barely missed the red-hued braggart.

“Dumbass!” Blaze retorted, quickly darting into a nosedive. “Now I’m going to beat it out of you!”

Behind the descending pony, the unicorn assailant grumbled. Not only had her associate jumped the gun without an order, but each time she shifted her position to try to unleash a spell, Tail hopped along the wall to keep Blaze in the sightline.

Tail’s lip quivered, and her darting movements increased in speed. She had to pull the trigger, but there was no way to know if the others were in position. Trust them! An image of Barrier flashed in her mind. Of course she trusted him. She trusted all of them, and they trusted her. There wasn’t any time left for doubt, and there frankly was no need for doubt here. They had to succeed!

The flier’s wings descended, and she sped towards her attacker as fast as she could. It was showtime.

Inside the lookout, Barrier, Styx, Indar, and Bonecrusher crept to the top of the tower and waited for the moment to strike. The proud declarations of the enemy mage seeped through the stone, and the sizzle of Tail’s signaling shot could be heard during its thundering climb to the sky.

Following the observation, Barrier held up his leg and stared intently at the others. The unicorns charged their horns, and soon after the captain was fairly sure that at least one of the offenders had engaged Tail, he gave the order.

Two beams burst from the spires of the captain and the lieutenant in a demolition display that rivaled the theatrics of the Grand Galloping Gala. Indar’s shields concurrently flashed into existence, pushing the shards of rock and splinters of wood away from his companions, and Bonecrusher vanished in a silent transposition that placed her above the unicorn ringleader.

A shriek arose from the pink mare as she staggered and fell through the obliterated floor. Her head swung wildly while she attempted to collect her still-shifting bearings. However, her focus was thoroughly grabbed by the bulky earth pony that was barrelling towards her face.

“I hate heights! I hate heights! I hate heights you bucking shit!” Crusher slammed both her fetlocks against the unicorn’s head, sending the villain tumbling into the littered floor with a powerful swing that capped the unexpected top-down barrage.

Indar formed another shield plane and rammed the spellcaster’s side with his augury. He drove her opposite flank against the tower’s wall, and his ears twitched to the menacing groan that fled her lungs as a result.

Outside, Tail capitalized on the noisy display and drilled her gauntlet into the ribs of the distracted maroon pegasus. She threw another jab, this time catching Blaze’s wing when the mare regained her senses with enough time to dodge the full brunt of the strike. In the wake of the blow, Barrier’s instruction scrambled to the forefront of Tail’s mind, pushing the lavender flier to press the attack the instant her green-eyed combatant floated away in retreat.

A defensive punch met Tail’s charge, but it was easily blocked. The cadet pulled a move out of her captain’s playbook. She trapped the flung foreleg in the bend of her own and slid one of her hind legs against that of the reeling pegasus right as it touched down upon the wall. Tail kicked it out and built upon her maneuver by swiftly tackling the unbalanced Blaze onto the battlement.

The commanding cadet rolled onto her back, yanked the downed pony onto her barrel, and cinched in a rear naked choke. Flailing forelegs jabbed her sides, but Tail firmly held the submission until the frantic impacts upon Sally’s plates came to a stop. Blaze went limp, and it was only after Tail was sure of her success that she tossed the unconscious deadweight to the side. “Ten seconds flat, my ass.”

On cue, Captain Barrier slammed the magic-bound unicorn onto the stone mere paces from Tail’s current position. A combination of Indar’s shields, the captain’s buffers, and a castform the cadet hadn’t seen before held the cerulean-maned commander in place.

Cut the head off the snake, Tail thought as she clutched Blaze’s mane and began to drag the knocked-out pegasus closer to the mastermind of the whole affair. “I have a real fucking problem with ponies who’d hurt kids. You’re going to signal the third to stand down, or by the time he’s done owning a flank of teleported equinnequins, I’m going to deposit all of my adrenaline into his face.”

The icy tone with which Tail spoke made the captive’s pupils dilate. The orange rings of her irides almost disappeared as she scanned Blaze’s state and looked around as if she were evaluating her own.

It was then that River Styx winked into form in front of Tail. His gaze peered into Tail’s determined fire, and he lightly placed his hoof upon her armored withers. “I think it’s safe to say that you thoroughly exceeded our expectations. Kill the spell, Trigs. Spitfire’s going to need some attention after getting her ass”—he leaned to the side to get a good look at the still-unconscious Blaze before a grin split his muzzle—“thoroughly handed. You really are the best cadet I’ve ever had, so stand down, Colonel.”

Chapter 29 - Colonel

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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…

Chapter 30 - No Longer Displaced

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“You take your eyes off her for a few days, and she goes and asks him out on a date!” Amora shouted from her perch on the apartment couch before a sly grin split her muzzle. She turned to face the visiting Princess of the Night, who met Amora’s expression with an equally mischievous demeanor. “Did you know that it all started right here?”

Princess Luna held up a small beanie plushie with a color composition that was oddly reminiscent of the captain. “I did not! No wonder why Barrier was always pestering me about regulations. Starting things on interior furnishings is definitely not in the Royal Guard Manual.” The alicorn tilted her head until her sly smile faced the flustered Tail.

With a liberty blue dress cascading from her frame, the pegasus stared at the mares with a riled gaze. “The two of you are absolutely ridiculous. I expected this much from her”—she threw her foreleg in Amora’s direction—“but from one of the rulers of our nation? No, just no.”

The medic simply held up her Tail-esque plushie counterpart and giggled. “Hun, sometimes you just make it way too easy.”

Luna wiggled in her seat with a gleeful frequency that drew the attentions of both officers. “Such a shame,” she purred in a sultry tone that could best be visualized by the image of a pouncing cat. “Whether Captain or Magic, Barrier really likes a challenge.”

Tail sharply drew a breath and puffed her cheeks while the redness quickly spread to the tips of her ears. She could practically feel the next round of laughter brewing in their clutching barrels, and their stretched smiles betrayed their desires to prod her again should she stumble. She harrumphed, turned her snout away from the girls, and cocked a grin.

“Well, this easy mare was the best cadet he ever had.” The pegasus aggressively swooshed her namesake. “Challenge set and matched. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to wait on the steps to avoid—all this.”

The alicorn donned an air of mock offense and hid a gasp behind her lifted hoof. “You would deny your princess the opportunity to see this most cherished dream become reality?”

“Yes,” Tail answered flatly. She drew a horizontal line in the air with a brief motion, surprisingly hushing the two magic wielders who each appeared ready to leap out of their seats. For a few seconds, the pegasus peered at them with a tight-lipped expression that eventually softened into a gentle smile. “I appreciate the enthusiasm, ladies. I really do, but this is the first time we’ve been out together outside of things related—and remotely related—to training. Why don’t you save all that energy until after I get home? It’ll make it far more likely that I’ll gush about it.”

Amora snickered after an actual gasp fled Luna’s lungs. “Did you just try to play the Princess of the Night? My my, that training really has done something.”

It was Tail’s turn to flash a wild grin as she pivoted towards the staircase. “It’s not my fault she fantasized about Barrier rubbing off on me. Just icing on the cake that it worked.” The pegasus began her descent towards the door, and upon getting halfway down, she hollered an addendum. “And it’s not playing. It’s negotiation.”

With a few more steps, the pegasus reached the tile landing. A victorious hum emerged from her throat once Tail’s awareness settled upon the peanut gallery’s sudden silence. I’m going to wait outside anyway, she pondered, reaching for the latch. Her hoof rested atop the curving metal surface, and after a deep, calming breath, she flicked it downward.

It was 6:45.

“Oh,” Barrier grunted from the other side of the entryway once Tail tossed the door open. His foreleg was lifted, presumably in mid-knock, and his confusion-laden stare fell upon the dressed-up pegasus. “Oh wow.”

Tail’s wings spread. Her wide-eyed gaze darted about the captain’s frame as she took in the various facets of his wardrobe. A white button-down shirt sat beneath a grey sport jacket—one that was a shade lighter than his coat. Royal guard pins adorned his collar, and—and a reddish tint showed on his muzzle.

“Oh wow, indeed,” Tail mumbled at the display while her face flushed in response. Her feathers quivered in the wake of her observations, and she bit her lower lip once her thoughts prodded the mare to slide her sights just a little higher. He really went out of his element for this.

“Hello, Ms. Tail,” the stallion answered sheepishly before a trickle of giggles dragged his attention away from the mare in front of him. A deadpanned expression rapidly gripped his demeanor, and Barrier rolled his frosty eyes. “Both of them?” he asked flatly.

Pursing her lips, Tail glanced up the staircase to briefly grasp the bright, looming smiles of the spying, creeping Amora and Princess Luna. The pegasus nodded to Barrier’s question and released a scornful sigh. Words brewed on the tip of her tongue, but a further explanation was apparently unnecessary. His foreleg was suddenly wrapped around her own, drawing a squeak from her lungs—and drawing her out onto the streets of Canterlot.

The surge sent her limbs flailing, but Tail quickly settled her hooves upon the cobblestone after the captain completed his extraction maneuver. Her mind wandered back to the first time he had been that forthright with her positioning, and the corners of her lips began to curl amidst the fond memory. It was during my first eval…

Suddenly, her ears popped and perked. The present, effortlessly pushing away her recollections in its rush, flooded her awareness with its sights, sounds, and textures. She and Barrier had barely taken a few steps from the threshold of her home, and the weight of his foreleg had somehow come to settle upon her withers.

“Are you alright?” he asked with a concerned tone that matched the state of his furrowed brow. “I hope they weren’t too bad. Though, given what I know about insufferable brats, I wouldn’t put bits on it.”

“They have plushies of us, Captain. Little, beany things they use to express their”—she paused to release an anguished breath—“desires for our evening together.”

“Faust above,” Barrier exhaustedly groaned before starting his trot down the street. “Best not give them the satisfaction of lingering around then, and Ms. Tail, no ranks are necessary tonight. Formalities just get in the way of celebration, and I think you deserve to celebrate—wherever you wish to go.”

Tail smiled the instant the unicorn peeked over his shoulder. Assuming that the gesture was to make sure she was following, she hopped into a steady trot and kept pace at his side. “Wherever I want to go, hm? It sounds like my date for the evening hasn’t done his homework.”

Her teasing timbre sent a frazzling wave from the base of Barrier’s neck all the way to the very tip of his tail. “Well,” he grunted, shifting uncomfortably in his collar, “the dinner idea was kind of sudden. Making reservations in Canterlot on such short notice is impossible, and I didn’t want to give the princesses any sort of leverage by asking—”

A melodic splurt of giggles silenced the stallion, and Tail promptly broke her stride to bat her hoof at the notion. “I—I can’t imagine which one would be worse. Oh gosh, they’d be on your case for weeks.”

Barrier rolled his eyes as a second wave of squeak-filled chortles burst from the mare’s snout. “Which is exactly why I didn’t.”

After a few seconds, Tail capped off her pursuit of composure with a happy hum. She couldn’t help but beam at Barrier as her thoughts spiraled around a hypothetical scenario in which he approached Celestia for access to some luxurious restaurant. “I’m not a big fan of ritzy places anyway—at least not the ones around here. They’re all very… uptight.”

Barrier flashed a smile of his own. Relief washed the strain from his countenance and left a rather perky visage behind for Tail to enjoy. “Then, how about we just walk around until we find a spot that works?”

Tail and Barrier practically drooled upon crossing the threshold into an eatery of immaculate splendor. The sleigh bell strap that hung from the forest-green door was still ringing from the duo’s entrance by the time their shared surprise carved hopeful expressions upon their faces.

Pop’s Place, as the restaurant was called, could not be more perfect. A hole-in-the-wall diner, decked from floor to ceiling in decades-old memorabilia, it called to them with its rustic charm and snazzy neon glow. Now, they were inside, caught by the sights, smells, and sizzles that would make sure that they put their pony plots in a booth.

A plump dusty-cream earth pony stood behind the counter and cheerfully waved once he recognized that new customers had arrived. “Welcome to Pop’s! Name’s Trot Bell, and well, I’m Pop. It’s been a while since I’ve seen such fancy-dressed ponies in this neck of the woods, but any seat that’s open is yours.” He let out a hearty chuckle while his hoof wandered to scratch at a scraggly brown beard.

“Thank you,” Tail answered in a soft voice before her head swiveled about in search of a spot that felt right. Her gaze bounced from patron to patron until it briefly settled upon a saying painted onto the wall. Too much of a good thing is wonderful! The words dripped into her mind, pulled the corners of her lips into a gentle smile, and prodded her heart with a boost of energy. She swung around again and felt a pull at her mare’s intuition. “Second booth on the left.”

Barrier snickered at the spectacle and gave a carefree shake of his head. “I wonder what sort of scientific method you employed to choose our seats, Professor.”

Swishing her namesake to the teasing tone that graced her ears, Tail shuffled onto one of the wooden seats. “There’s more to life than the scientific method, Barrier,” she retorted, drawing an exaggerated gasp from her captain.

“Who are you, and what have you done with my Tail?” His stare narrowed, his jaw sat firmly, and his lips thinned into an utterly flatlined visage that left the pegasus giggling.

“Choices, choices,” she spoke through her laughter before a bitten lower lip fashioned the basis of Tail’s sportive appearance. Her hoof rolled about as she leaned onto the tabletop, and her chocolate irides sparkled with that familiar, fervent amber glow. “Sweety, I haven’t done anything with your tail yet, and if you were talking about me, then you’ve got to pay for dinner first before dropping the possessive.”

Barrier straightened his posture and gulped. Redness seeped through his charcoal coat, and his dilated pupils swallowed Tail’s reflection. “Um—I was planning to,” he replied quietly. Once again, he fiddled with the collar of his shirt. “Pay, that is. This is my treat.”

The mare reached for one of the menus propped up by the windowsill, but her attention did not drift from the unicorn’s charmingly suppressed adorableness. For once, it seemed as though she had him on the flustered side—one never seen when he was acting in his guard capacity—and Tail couldn’t help but smirk at the mix of coltish shyness that swirled about his raised brow and scrunched snout. “And I really appreciate it, Barrier.”

A dinner-plate stare evolved after Tail flipped open the menu. Behind the rather plain white cover, a colorful sprawl of enticing dishes yanked at her mind—and stomach. “Oh my gosh!” she shouted, pulling the attentions of every patron too. “A Fillydelphia haysteak omelette sandwich? What is this sorcery?”

Trot Bell unleashed a soulful laugh as his foreleg repeatedly thumped against the countertop. “I can already tell tonight’s going to be good. And might I suggest the Godfather hayburger for your coltfriend?”

“And then, he went and got a beaker stuck in his drain! I had to get a torch and heat the rim to get the damn thing out, but Wick was such a sweety making those Pinkiepuff Massacre desserts for me. I couldn’t leave him hanging.”

Barrier planted his forehead upon his hoof and started laughing. “How does one of the nation’s top fliers manage to get a beaker stuck in his drain? And why did you even bring a beaker to his apartment?”

Tail folded her leg and pointed the tip of her hoof in his direction. “Oh no,” she chirped, holding the defensive posture, “you are not putting this on me. Amora tried the same thing, and both of you should know better. I come prepared.”

“Of course you do.” Barrier lifted his head, revealing a broad, relaxed smile to the pegasus. “Every story manages to surprise me, Tail, especially this one.”

The pegasus flicked her feathers and leaned back in the seat. “And why is that?” she asked with a timbre that skirted the line between curious and cautious. “It was just a beaker, after all.”

The stallion closed his eyes and brushed his two-toned mane. A single-note chortle escaped his muzzle, prepping the short silence that followed when Barrier reset his gaze upon Tail. “I meant our story, Tail.”

The mare squeaked, feeling the burning rush that assailed her cheeks, and her wings spread once the statement etched itself upon her memory. In fact, the entire night had become one that she intended to cherish forever. They had spent the dinner sharing tale after tale—humorous bits of youthful adventure that had fueled their collective cheer.

“It has been quite a while since I’ve been out with a mare, you know? Didn’t really know what to expect.”

From his perch, Trot observed the pair while a jovial hum swirled in his throat. “Looks pretty perfect to me,” he commented idly, snapping Barrier and Tail from their conversational trance.

At some point, the place had emptied out, leaving only the trio of ponies on the premises. Tail reached across the table and nudged Barrier after her stare drifted to the wall clock mounted above the register. “It’s eleven,” she blurted, constructing an apologetic grimace for Mr. Bell. “We’ve kept you after—”

Trot waved her off and deliberately held his emerald sights on each of his guests for a few seconds. “I know a good story when I see it. Just be sure to keep me posted.”

The quiet streets of Canterlot guided Tail and Barrier back towards the mare’s apartment. Stillness surrounded the light tapping of their hoofsteps upon the cobblestone, and barely a peep was shared while wandering glances occasionally caught the vibrant starlights that glimmered in the other’s eyes.

You’re being too quiet, Tail pondered as she once again slid her attention to the stallion keeping pace at her side. Her fur fluffed when she noticed that his gaze was already affixed to her frame. Say something, pegasus. Just say something.

“I hope you don’t get interrogated too much.” Barrier beat her to the punch, and Tail furrowed her brow in response. She spotted the subtle grin that flirted with his countenance. It was cocky, knowing, and—in all honesty—prophetic. The captain gradually waxed his voice back into action and continued, “But we know we’re both doomed.”

Tail tittered, popping ahead of Barrier just to gain a free step to poke his shoulder with her hoof. “Real funny,” she answered as they finally arrived at the steps of her home. “I’m not looking forward to it.”

For the first time that night, a wave of disappointment crashed upon Tail’s spirits. She set her hoof upon the cement slab and froze. The door seemed to loom in front of her, and it had nothing to do with the ribbing that awaited her inside. She retreated and pivoted to face Barrier, who instantly jerked at her sudden shift in position.

Her muzzle quivered while she thought about what she should say. Tail fell into his icy stare, for though it was cool in color, at that moment, it filled her with nothing but warmth. “Tonight… Tonight was wonderful, Captain.”

She paused to huff at her own use of his rank, which simply drew a teasing snort from Barrier. “Breaking the rules again, Ms. Tail? I think I can still find ways for you to run laps.” He held a sinister, smug expression just long enough to send the pegasus into another giggle fit.

“How about I just spare you the ordeal of having to experience”—she gestured towards her home—“whatever it is they have waiting for us? Besides, taking you upstairs after our first non-hazing night out? That’s more of a third date activity.”

The mare continued her jovial melody, but the playfulness that had dotted the unicorn’s expression gradually yielded ground to a look that held a far more serious composure. “I’d like that,” he replied, once again utilizing an atypically diminished volume.

The words hushed the blushing Tail, whose silent seconds were spent ruminating on the simple phrase. Shock had momentarily clutched her demeanor, producing an expression that masked her internal emotions with a wall of neutrality. Her heart pumped, driving a tempo in her head—beating that wall into dust until she brightly beamed beneath a sky Princess Luna had painted just for them.

“I guess that means we need to have a second date first,” Tail carried on as the weight of the moment sank in. Flashes of the evening danced within her thoughts, and each picture joined the choreography of memories that pushed their outing to a pedestal all its own. Spurred on, she gradually pitched forward—searching for too much of a good thing…—leaning towards his muzzle as she whispered, “I’d love to.”

Barrier swallowed but held his ground when the lavender pegasus approached. His breaths quickened in the ever-stretching seconds, and his tongue failed to fashion a single statement for his physicist. In all honesty, there was nothing he needed to say. Instead, he clung to what filled his ears in that instant when their lips hovered barely an inch apart.

”Thank you, Magic, for everything…”

To Be Continued — No Longer Alone