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Where Everypony Knows Your Name

Chapter One

The streetlights outside of the Watering Hole Tavern shined through the large glass window at the front, illuminating the bar inside. The laughs and cheers from the ponies seated at the counter echoed through the room, creating a warm and inviting atmosphere throughout. Behind the counter, the two ponies working the bar chatted with their customers while they fixed their drinks. One of them, an earth pony with an emerald coat and a beer mug cutie mark, wiped the counter down after two of the ponies had left. His ears perked up when he heard the jingle of bells which signaled that a new customer had arrived.

A familiar blue unicorn with a light-blue mane slowly walked inside and made her way towards the bar. The bartender, recognizing her, let the washcloth fall from his mouth as he grinned.

“Well if it isn’t tha Great and Powerful Trixie!” he exclaimed. His booming voice and curious accent drew all attention towards the bar. “I haven’t seen ye in a long time, lass. Where have ya be-” he stopped himself when he saw that Trixie’s eyes were full of tears. She sat down on a stool facing the bartender, but kept her head lowered.

“What’s tha matter girl?” the emerald colt asked worriedly. Trixie remained silent and the bartender knelt down to try to look at her face, only to have her turn away. “You know, I can’t help ye if ya don’t say anything,” he sighed.

“Just get me a drink, Barley,” she said softly. He shrugged, and then headed over to the drink counter. The other bartender, an orange unicorn-mare with a long red mane, walked up beside him.

“What’s her deal?” she asked, gesturing towards the forlorn filly at the counter. Trixie’s head was now buried in her hooves. Barley just shook his head as he finished pouring her drink, almost spilling its contents over the counter.

“I dunno, Spritzer,” he said. He placed the now ready Shirley Temple on the serving tray. “I’ve nevah seen ‘er this down before. I’ll tell ye what though,” he said as he turned to his fellow bartender, “I’ll have ‘er smiling like ‘er old self in no time.”

The unicorn smiled, “You never have cared to see somepony frown, have you?”

Barley placed a straw into Trixie’s drink and turned to Spritzer, smiling, “I never was able to stand it.” He grabbed the tray and walked over to where Trixie was sitting. Barley placed the tray on the counter and nudged Trixie’s arm with his nose, “Ya never told me what ya wanted, so I just picked yer usual.” Trixie slowly raised her head and looked at the crimson beverage that lay before her. Using her horn, she lifted the glass to her lips and downed the entire drink in a few quick gulps, causing Barley to whistle softly. “I guess ye really were thirsty,” he said. Trixie set the glass down and sat up slightly, her eyes still a bit red. Her tears, however, had dried up.

“Thank you, Barley,” she said softly. He picked up her now empty glass and brought it back to the wet bar, then began to pour her another Shirley Temple. He kept sneaking glances towards Trixie as he did so, smiling to himself as he saw her expression change. An almost imperceptible change, but a change nonetheless. When he brought her the drink, she took a few sips before setting the glass back down on the counter. She sighed, looked at Barley, and crossed her hooves on the counter. “I guess you’ll want me to talk about it now, right?” Barley grabbed a stool of his own and dragged it over with his teeth, positioning it right in front of Trixie.

“Only if yer willin’ to,” he said happily. He remembered something that his uncle, a bar pony way before his time, had told him:

There isn’t a problem in all of Equestria that a good drink an’ friendly company can’t fix.

Trixie took a deep breath. “I’m ruined!” she cried exasperatedly. The sad memories that were brought to the front of her mind again caused her eyes to dampen. Using her magic, she picked up a napkin from one of the dispensers and blew her nose.

“Whatever do ya mean lass?” Barley asked. Knowing Trixie for as long as he did, he knew that she had a talent for exaggerating; however, she seemed really broken up over whatever had happened to her this time.

Trixie calmed back down and took a few more sips of her drink. After composing herself, she continued with her story, “I made a stop in some backwater town called Ponyville where I proceeded to amaze and astound the simpletons.” Trixie sat up in her seat as she told her story, clearly impassioned by the memories of her showboating. “Some of the bumpkins even tried to upstage me, The Great and Powerful Trixie, but inevitably failed.” Barley grinned but stayed silent, letting Trixie indulge herself. If there was one thing she loved to talk about, it was herself. “Everything else played out perfectly. Until night fell...” she said, quickly becoming sullen again. “Two incredibly dense colts went and brought an Ursa Major into the town.”

“Sweet merciful Celestia!” Barley exclaimed. His sudden outburst caused Spritzer to turn towards the pair. He smiled sheepishly and turned her away with a wave of his hoof. “Why would they go an’ do that?” he asked, his voice softer now. Trixie shifted nervously in her seat.

“They may have decided to go find one after I announced to the whole town that I saved a village from an Ursa Major attack during my show” she said, embarrassed. Barley stared at her, slack jawed. He eventually snapped out of his daze and chuckled softly.

“Ya sure have come a long way since ye were performing card tricks here, eh lass?” She smiled sheepishly and nodded. “So how long has that been goin’ on for? Last I heard ye had a wee little fireworks display in yer show.”

“Only just now,” Trixie replied. “I heard about Ursa Majors when I performed in Canterlot. Mostly urban legends and old mare’s tales, so I decided to fabricate a tale of my amazing victory over one at the next town I appeared in.” She sighed. “Lucky for me, I chose the one town that happened to have a forest where the creature actually lived.” Out of the corner of his eye, Barley noticed two young mares approach the bar on the other side.

“Hold that thought,” he told Trixie, “I’ll be right back.”

“Don’t worry,” she said glumly, “I’m not going anywhere.”

Barley walked over to his new customers, took their orders, and then headed over to the wet bar. Spritzer was there waiting for him, using her magic to clean the empty glasses that had been left behind.

“So, what’s the matter?” she asked. With a glow of her horn, a rag lifted off of the counter and began to scrub the inside of a glass while she talked to Barley.

“Not much, she just had an encounter with an Ursa Major durin’ her stay in a town she was performin’ in,” he said nonchalantly. Spritzer’s eyes widened. “She’s fine though. The only thing that seems to be hurt is ‘er pride.” They both looked over to where Trixie sat; she had her head propped up by her hooves and was using her magic to spin the straw around her half-empty glass. “She’s lucky to be alive, really” Barley said seriously. “Ursa Major’s have been known ta wreck up whole cities before they can be calmed down.”

“You’ve had some kind of experience with them, I gather,” Spritzer said, raising an eyebrow. She looked over and made her horn glow again, and the rag and glass set themselves down on the counter. Barley shrugged, then regained his sunny disposition.

“I might ‘ave seen a few during my time in tha military back home,” he said, grinning, “but now I’m curious to hear how the rest of the story plays out.” He headed back towards Trixie’s seat. “By tha way,” he began, “the two ponies over there want a Bloody Marey and a Hayride.” Spritzer nodded and began working on the drinks as Barley sat back down in front of Trixie. “Now,” he said smiling, “where were we?”

Trixie looked up from her glass and her horn stopped glowing, causing the straw to stop spinning slowly before eventually coming to rest. “Giant star-covered bear loose in a small town?” she said sarcastically.

“Ah yes, I almost forgot what we were talkin’ about,” Barley joked, returning the sarcasm. He was relieved to see that their little banter had improved Trixie’s mood. “So what happened next? It’s not like an Ursa Major is just gonna go back to its cave and sleep after bein’ woken up.” Trixie shifted uncomfortably in her seat.

“Actually, it kind of did,” she said softly, her small smile disappearing almost immediately. Barley raised an eyebrow but kept silent. “There was this unicorn, Twilight Sprinkles, or something. She lifted the entire Ursa Major into the air and bottle fed it like it was just a

“Baby?” Barley finished. Trixie nodded. “Lass, ya don’t know how lucky ya were that night,” he said, letting out a small chuckle. “That wasn’t an Ursa Major, it was an Ursa Minor. Those are just the wee cubs.”

“That’s what that purple unicorn said!” Trixie exclaimed. “How is it that you two know so much about those things?” she huffed.

“Well, I know from me own experiences,” he replied. “That purple unicorn however is Twilight Sparkle, Princess Celestia’s personal student. She probably heard about ‘em from Celestia herself or read about them somewhere.” Trixie sat there, awestruck.

“Celestia’s…personal student?” she repeated, incredulous. Barley nodded. Trixie regained her composure, and then sat up straighter in her seat. “Well then,” she began, “if there was anypony who could even hope to overshadow me and end my career; it is only fitting that it would be a student of Celestia herself.” She punctuated her statement with a long slurp of her Shirley Temple, draining the glass.

“So that’s it?” Barley asked, unconvinced. “Yer just gonna call it quits just because ya had one bad night? Granted, it had a giant bear involved, but that’s not tha Trixie I know.”

“What do you expect me to do!?” she exclaimed, her voice growing louder. “Everypony in that town already hates me because of that stupid bear, and they are sure to spread the news of my failure to the four corners of the globe. I’m ruined!” she cried out. She put her head into her hooves and started to cry heavily. Barley sat quietly for a few seconds before lowering his head next to hers.

“Hey, remember when ya first walked into my tavern all those years ago? Ye were just a little filly then, dead set on runnin’ away from home and joinin’ the circus.” Trixie continued to cry as she slowly nodded her head. “Turned out, runnin’ away was harder than ya thought. Soon enough ye found yerself walkin’ in here, lost and tired,” Barley smiled to himself. “I can still remember yer turquoise little saddlebag with that little stuffed duck stickin’ out of the top. What was his name again?” he asked, listening as Trixie tried to talk between sobs.

“D-Ducky Quackerfield,” she stammered. Barley smiled softly.

“Aye, and what a jolly little duck he was. Ye came to me asking how to get to the Buckem and Balely circus so Ducky and ye could join. I at least managed ta talk ya down to gettin’ some rest and a drink first. Then ya decided to show me one of yer card tricks. Remember that?,” he looked at her hopefully.

Trixie managed to stop crying and looked up at Barley. His smiling face seemed to wash away her sorrows, even if just for a little while. “I remember. It was the trick where I tried to guess the card you picked out of the deck.”

Barley nodded. “Poor thing. Ya tried almost every card in the deck before ye found mine. But the moment you found it, I swear, I’ve never seen a filly smile so wide.” Trixie sniffled. She levitated another napkin to her nose and blew, then sat back up in her seat. “After that, I asked what ye wanted yer stage name to be. Celestia bless ya, ye didn’t even pause to think.” He smiled, then in a high pitched voice said: “Tha Gweat and Powerfwul Twixie!” Trixie giggled, then hiccuped.

“I surely don’t remember sounding that silly,” she said, wiping a lone tear from her eye. Barley laughed as well.

“Alright, alright. So maybe ya sounded a wee bit different. And after all that, I even asked for yer autograph, remember that as well?” Trixie let out a slight gasp.

“Don’t tell me you kept it!?” she asked happily. Barley stood up and stepped to the side. Hanging from the top of the wet bar, among several other portraits, lay a framed napkin with Trixie’s crudely signed name upon it. She blushed slightly.

“I sure did,” Barley said, sitting back down in front of her. “Every week after that night ye would come back here to show off a new trick. How ya managed to keep sneakin’ away from yer parents was probably a trick in itself,” Barley smiled. “Then came the night of yer first show. I swear, you were so nervous, but ye still stuck with it and saw it through to the end. Even if ye did turn that one pony’s watch into a bar of soap…”

Trixie laughed softly, “Yes, he was a bit cross after that. Although he did seem to cheer up after you gave him free drinks for the rest of the week.” Barley nodded, then stood up from his seat.

“Tha point I’m tryin’ to get to with all this reminiscin’ is that ya worked so hard to get as far as ya did, and I’d hate ta see ya throw it all away without a fight.” Barley placed a hoof on Trixie’s shoulder, “Even if life knocks ya on yer flank a hundred times, all ya need ta do is get back up a hundred and one times.” Trixie looked up at him and sighed but then, she smiled.

“You read that off of your Quote a Day calendar didn’t you?” she asked coyly. Barley took his hoof off her shoulder and shrugged, suppressing a grin. “You are right though,” she continued, “I really have come too far to stop now. I just need to try harder.” Barley nodded in agreement and then noticed her empty glass.

“Ya ready for another drink?” he asked, gesturing towards the wet bar.

“Oh I couldn’t,” Trixie replied, shaking her head. “I left all that I own in Ponyville when I ran off. I wouldn’t want to be a freeloader on top of everything else.”

Barley picked up her glass and placed it on the serving tray, “No worries then, ‘cos this one’s on the house.” Trixie raised her hoof to protest, but Barley dismissed it with a wave. “This is a special occasion. We’re celebratin’ the rebirth of yer career.” He placed the tray on the wet bar and turned back towards Trixie, “So what’s yer poison, lass?”

Her eyes scanned the menu, violet orbs bouncing from name to name without ever resting on any one for more than an instant. Just as she opened her mouth to speak, a beige colt approached the counter and interrupted her.

“Hey barkeep,” said the thin earth pony, “we need a couple of Irish Cart Bombs over here.” He nodded towards a group of colts sitting at the bar, looking bored.

“I believe I’ll have the same,” Trixie piped up. Barley let out a low whistle.

“I dunno Trixie,” he scratched the back of his head, “that might be a bit too much for ye.”

Trixie scoffed, “As if a simple drink could best The Great and Powerful Trixie. You asked for what I wanted, and I told you. Now please, could I have my drink?”

Barley sighed, but nodded and headed over to fix their drinks. Spritzer walked over to where he stood, carrying a tray of her own customers’ empty glasses.

“Looks like you finally got her back to normal,” she said, motioning towards the smiling Trixie at the counter. She set her tray down and used her magic to begin washing the dishes. “And look at that, you’re actually doing your job. You know how much the manager hates slackers, right?” she smirked as he grabbed an empty glass.

“I’m sure he won’t mind,” Barley replied, “If it’s fer a good cause, I’m sure he’ll let it slide.” He continued to pour the drink, leaving Spritzer to shake her head and walk away. When he was finished, he placed Trixie’s drink in front of her and then, in a cautioned tone, added, “Pace yerself lass. These things have a habit of sneakin’ up on ye.”

“You worry too much Barley,” she said reassuringly, “I’ll be fine, thanks to you.” She took her eyes off the concerned bartender and looked at the glass of amber liquid, confused. “Why is there another glass inside of this one?” she asked, looking up at Barley expectantly.

“That’s just the way tha drink is,” he replied, “Ya need to drink it quickly too, wait too long and it curdles.” Trixie looked at the glass with wonder, then picked it up with her magic and drained nearly a quarter of the glass in one gulp. Suddenly, she coughed and sputtered, sending spittle and drink flying across the counter. Barley chuckled a bit, then went to get his rag. As he wiped the bar down, Trixie lifted a napkin from the bar and wiped her mouth.

“I troughed ta terr roo–,” he tried to say through the cloth. Seeing the futility of this action, he slung the rag over his back and started to walk over, “Ahem, what I meant ta say was ‘I tried ta tell you’ lass.” Trixie remained focused on her drink. “If ya want me to, I can get ye another–”

“That won’t be necessary,” she interrupted. Trixie picked up the glass again and looked at Barley. “I ordered this drink and by Celestia, I’m going to finish it,” she said stubbornly. She tipped the glass towards her mouth once again, managing to take a sip with only a slight grimace. Barley didn’t say a word, he simply walked back over to the wet bar and started fixing the drinks for the group of colts. As he passed by Spritzer, he noticed that she seemed to be staring intently at one of the colts sitting next to Trixie. She seemed lost in thought, so he let her be while he worked on their orders.

A few hours and several empty glasses later, Trixie was completely plastered. Barley watched as Trixie became friendlier with her new colt friends with every drink. She tried to tell them, without much success and slurring her words, her Ursa Major story, a speech frequently interrupted by fits of giggling and hiccups. It seemed that the boys didn’t mind though, and they joined in her laughter, drawing several annoyed stares from the other patrons seated near the bar. Barley left her to her own devices, only interrupting the group to ask if they wanted some more drinks.

Maybe this was all she needed, he thought, She only needed ta cut loose with some ponies ‘er own age. As he took a tray of empty glasses to be cleaned, Spritzer stopped him. The look of concern on her face contrasted with the cheery atmosphere that filled the rest of the bar.

“We have a serious problem, Mops” she whispered. Now Barley’s attention was focused on Spritzer. She never called him by his last name unless something big was about to hit the fan. “You recognize your magician friend’s new buddies?” she asked, motioning towards the group of colts hanging around the teal unicorn. Barley looked at each of their faces closely, but he didn’t seem to recognize any of them. He noticed their roughly cut manes and jewelry. The unicorn seated on Trixie’s left, a rust colored pony with a bass speaker cutie mark, even had several earrings.

“Nothin’ comes ta mind,” he replied, “Why, are they some kind of band ya listen to?” Spritzer shook her head. She motioned for Barley to come further from the bar, and then spoke in a hushed tone.

“I’m afraid not. It’s something much worse.” She looked back over her shoulder to make sure nopony was listening in, “They’re a group of ponies that get young fillies drunk, then...”, she looked at the floor uncomfortably, “...take advantage of them,” she finished with a low whisper. Spritzer’s head rose slowly until she was eye to eye with Barley. “When I was living in Manehattan, these kind of guys took three of my friends out one night. Every day after that, they weren’t the same ponies anymore.” Tears began to form in the corners of her eyes. “Please Barley,” she pleaded, “you can’t let that happen to her.”

“Hey,” Barley said softly, he walked to her side and nuzzled her neck, “It’s gonna be alright lass. I’m not gonna let ‘em take her away, I promise ye.” Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed the group of colts get up from their seats and walk towards the exit. A stumbling Trixie walked in the middle of the group, a pair of unicorns steered her towards the door. Barley quickly jumped over the bar and intercepted the group. “Oi, you lot,” he called out. The beige earth pony turned around, clearly annoyed. He motioned the group to stop, and then walked up to Barley.

“What can I help you with?” he asked, a strained smile spread across his face. “My friends and I aren’t causing any problems here, so why don’t you just let us go?” Trixie’s head peeked over the side of the unicorn on her right, clearly confused regarding the group’s sudden stop. Barley nodded towards her sternly.

“And just what do ya plan on doin’ with the young filly there?” A malicious glint appeared in the young colt’s eyes, but it disappeared just as quickly as it came.

“We’re just gonna take her home. It’s not safe for a pony in her condition to be alone this late at night, you know?” The group of colts snickered when they heard this.

“Good one, Mug Shot!” the amber pegasus behind Trixie laughed. Mug Shot gave him a withering look, and the winged pony shut up.


Mug Shot looked back at Barley, the fake smile on his face replaced with a sneer, “No what?”

Barley took a step forward and pressed his head against Mug Shot’s. The anger in the stallion’s eyes caught the younger pony by surprise. He unwillingly took a step backwards. “No, yer not takin’ her. She’s gonna stay right here with us.” Mug Shot stepped further back and Barley walked over to Trixie. The yellow unicorn standing to the right of her tried to stand in his way, but another glare from Barley sent him shuffling away. An intoxicated Trixie seemed to recognize Barley coming towards her, but her words told a different story.

“Dad?” she slurred. Barley was caught by surprise.

“Yeah lass, it’s me. C’mon, we gotta get you to bed,” he said softly. Trixie shook her head furiously.

“I don’t wanna go to bed daddy,” she whined. She staggered towards Barley and looked him in the eyes, her face flushed. “I still wanth to stay up and practish my magics.” He placed a hoof on her shoulder and smiled sadly.

“I’m sorry girl. Growin’ fillies need their sleep.” Barley nodded towards Spritzer, who lifted Trixie up with her magic and placed her on his back. Trixie didn’t resist as Barley carried her on his back to where Spritzer waited for him.

“You never let me do anything dad,” Trixie muttered. She bounced lightly with every step Barley took. “One day I’m gonna run away and join the circusss...” she trailed off before finally falling asleep. Eventually, Barley reached Spritzer and slowly let Trixie fall to the floor. He stood back up and turned to Spritzer, slightly out of breath.

“I need ya ta take her up to the nearest available room we got,” he told her. She nodded and used her magic to lift Trixie slightly above the ground and proceeded to take her upstairs. Barley watched her climb the stairs briefly before turning back towards the colts, “Sorry ta break up tha party lads. No hard feelin’s, righ–”

He ducked quickly as a hoof nearly hit him square in the jaw. Mug Shot turned back around and reared up on his hind legs. As he brought his hooves down, Barley lunged forward and smashed his head into Mug Shot’s chest. The young pony fell to his side, and then quickly got back on his feet.

“Whaddaya waiting for, an invitation?! Get him!” he yelled to the other colts. The pegasus, a stocky pony with a brown mane, took to the air and darted towards Barley. Just before he hit him, Barley side-stepped and kicked the pegasus in the side as he flew by. Moving too fast to turn around, and caught off balance from the kick, the pegasus slammed headfirst into the counter. Barley stood over the injured pony and opened his mouth to speak, but suddenly a bar stool flew from across the room and slammed into his flank, causing him to skid a few feet across the floor.

“Haha, gotcha now!” the rust colored unicorn jeered. Barley recognized this pony as the one with the speaker cutie mark. He gritted his teeth and galloped towards the younger pony in an attempt to tackle him. Just as he was about to jump, another bar stool flew towards him and crashed into his abdomen. He grimaced in pain as he fell to the floor, a large bruise forming over the area where the stool had hit. The unicorn smiled wickedly as he lifted a large table over Barley’s head with his magic, but his smile turned to a look of confusion as the table moved over his own head. The young pony cried out, and the table thrust towards his head, hitting him square in the face. The impact from the blow knocked the colt out cold. Barley looked behind him and saw Spritzer standing at the foot of the stairs, the glow of her horn fading away.

“Thank ya lass!” he said happily. “Looks like ya got ‘ere just in time.” Spritzer smiled and nodded towards the two ponies still standing near the exit.

“What are we going to do with them?” she asked. The yellow unicorn’s eyes widened. He smiled sheepishly and backed away slowly, before running at a full gallop out the door. Mug Shot was now the only pony standing, rage and fear shining in his eyes.

“You’re gonna regret this!” he cried. He shook a hoof at the two bar ponies, “You have no idea who you’re dealing with!” Barley stepped towards him, his ever-present smile replaced with a mask of subdued anger.

“No lad, it is ye that doesn’t know who’s he dealin’ with,” he said sternly. Barley stood tall and proud, “I have served in Her Majesty’s Royal Army longer than ya’ve been alive. I was assigned to her top secret Gray of Macha Division, where we’ve done things ye’ve never heard of that would give ya nightmares for tha rest of yer life. In fact,” He reached down to pick up a glass that had fallen on the floor in the fight and set it on the bar counter, “I know ninety-seven different ways to take ye down with just this glass.” Mug Shot’s eyes widened in fear.

“Y-y-you wouldn’t!” he stammered. The other ponies from his group began to stir, the pegasus being the first to awaken. He caught sight of Barley and quickly limped to Mug Shot’s side.

“I would,” Barley growled. He picked the glass back up from the table, and Mug Shot yelped.

“You!” he yelled at the amber pegasus, “Go get Decibel and let’s get out of here!” The flying pony zoomed over to the now staggering unicorn and began pushing him towards the exit. “This isn’t the end!” Mug Shot roared, shaking his hoof. “You’re gonna regret this night!” He turned and galloped out the doorway. As soon as they had left, Barley let out a big sigh.

Suddenly, the bar erupted into cheers and applause. Barley spun around and saw the customers stomping their hooves in approval. The cheers and whistles continued for a few seconds until Barley raised a hoof to quiet everypony down.

“Thank ye. All of ye.” He looked over at Spritzer, who was rearranging the stools and tables with her magic. He smiled, “I must warn ye though, it looks like we’re gonna have another scuffle on our hooves soon. If any of ye want ta leave, I don’t blame ye.”

Nopony got out of their seats. A unicorn in the back levitated a piece of chalk and began taking bets on the dart board , while others moved up to some tables closer to the bar. Barley just shook his head and chuckled.

“You lot are incorrigible, ya know that?” he laughed. A few more ponies cheered. “When this is all over,” Barley announced, “a round drinks for ev’rypony!” Again, the tavern was filled with cheers. He headed back to the counter, where Spritzer pulled him aside.

“What the hay was that all about?!” she hissed, “Gray of Macha Division? You told me were the cook for your platoon. And that you were discharged after three years in the army. Just what are you getting at?” Barley hushed her.

“Hey, it bought us time, didn’t it?” he said quietly. Then he looked up the stairs. “How’s Trixie?” he asked, nodding towards the rooms.

“She’s fine,” Spritzer answered, sighing, “She was out cold before I put her on the bed.” She smiled a little, “Can’t say I envy her though, she’s gonna have one doozy of a headache whenever she wakes up.” Barley let out a short laugh, then winced in pain. “How are you holding up?” Spritzer asked, eyeing the fresh bruise on his side.

“I’ll be fine lass, don’t worry about me,” he told her dismissively, “I went through worse in the service.” He picked up a pencil and a piece of paper from underneath the counter and began to write a message. Spritzer stretched her neck over his shoulder as he wrote.

“What’s that for?” she asked. Barley kept quiet, focusing solely on writing. She tried to read the note as he wrote it and just when she was able to see the note clearly, he dropped the pencil and ran to a gray pegasus mare that was sitting at one of the tables. Spritzer watched as he quickly spoke to her, making frantic motions as he talked. When he was finished, she picked the letter up in her mouth and flew out the door. Barley walked back over to Spritzer, slightly relieved. “You gonna tell me what that was all about?” she asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Just a little insurance. I sent a letter to tha EPD just in case things get out of hand.” Barley looked around the bar, seemingly looking for somepony, “Tell me, is Ziggy still here?”

Spritzer shook her head, “You sent him home early because it was a slow day, remember?” Barley facehoofed. Spritzer looked at him worriedly, “Do you think it’s going to get that bad? We can’t really afford another incident like last week.”

Barley nodded, “That bloody griffin nearly cost us a fortune in repairs…” He sighed a little, and then continued, “Unfortunately, I really do think they’re comin’ back. Groups like that always have somepony that leads ‘em. And I bet ye that Mug Shot character isn’t tha one.” He shook his head and put his trademark smile back on. “Don’t ye worry now Spritzer,” he said cheerily. He placed a reassuring hoof on her shoulder, “Everythin’s gonna be fine, or my name isn’t–”

“Barley Mops the Third, I know,” she finished and smiled softly, “Just make sure we still have a place to work at when this is all done.” She then walked behind the counter and started picking up glasses that had fallen earlier.

“Aw, ya really do care,” Barley joked. He walked behind the bar as well and started cleaning off the counter with his rag.

An hour passed without incident. Some of the ponies that had been eager for more action eventually grew bored and left. The ponies that had placed bets remained seated at the corner of the tavern, passing the time by playing darts and ordering more drinks.

Barley finished serving drinks to a wizened old earth pony and took a peek at the clock hanging on the wall, “Well what do ye know? Only half an hour ‘till closin’ time, and not so much as another peep from those heathens.” He took the rag off his back and began wiping down the counter. It’s a good thing, too, he thought, If Spritzer hadn’t shown up when she did, I would’ve been in a heap of trouble.

Suddenly, the bell above the entrance chimed and Barley’s eyes shot towards the door to find the largest unicorn he had ever seen standing in the doorway. He was at least two heads taller than Barley, with a dark-brown coat. The unicorn’s cutie mark was a lit bundle of dynamite and, when he turned towards Barley, Barley noticed that a long scar ran down his snout. The other ponies in the bar soon noticed the visitor and leaned forward in anticipation. The bell rang again and Mug Shot walked to the giant unicorn’s side.

“That’s the guy, Boss Keg!” he shouted, pointing towards Barley. The unicorn locked eyes with him, sending a chill down Barley’s spine.

“Are you sure?” The stallion’s voice was smooth, but full of power.

Mug Shot nodded quickly, “Definitely, Mr. Powder! I wouldn’t forget that punk’s face.”

Powder Keg grunted in approval. Barley watched as the large stallion walked over to the bar and sat down in front of him. Barley threw his dish rag over his back and put on his friendliest smile.

“Well ‘ello there! It’s always good ta see new faces around these parts. Can I get ye anything?” Powder Keg stared at him blankly. “I guess that’s a no, then?”

“Cut the manure funny guy,” he said harshly, “My boy here tells me that you gave him and his friends a hard time earlier.” He nodded back towards Mug Shot, who remained at the entrance, “They feel like they didn’t deserve to be treated like that by you.” Powder Keg narrowed his gaze, “I expect an apology. Immediately.”

“Now see, I’m afraid I can’t do that,” Barley crossed his hooves over the bar, “Yer boys here brought it on ‘emselves. They started tha fight, I finished it, and for that I won’t apologize.”

Powder Keg narrowed his eyes even more, until they were only slits, “I see talking with you is getting me nowhere.” Barley nodded happily. “Get me your manager.” Barley’s smile immediately vanished, and he became nervous. “H-hey now, there’s no need for ya ta go and do that now,” Barley pleaded. He shifted uneasily on his hooves as Powder Keg stared him down, “Trust me, ya really don’t want ta drag ‘im into this.”

“Bring him here. Now,” Powder Keg demanded. Barley began to protest, but Powder Keg slammed a hoof down on the counter. “No more excuses!” he roared. The entire bar went silent. All eyes were now on the bar. Spritzer watched them nervously, unaware that she was rewashing the same glass for the third time. Barley let out a deep sigh, and then nodded.

“Alright then lad,” he said softly, “Don’t say I didn’t warn ye.” He quickly ducked behind the counter, leaving Powder Keg standing there confused. Barley popped back up shortly, now sporting a clip-on bow-tie and glasses. “Now then,” he began, “I’ve heard ya wanted ta see me?” Powder Keg stared at him incredulously. Then his confusion quickly turned into rage.

“You think you’re pretty clever, don’t you?!” Powder Keg jumped out of his seat and leaned over the bar, pressing his forehead against Barley’s.

Barley looked him right in the eye and laughed, “Now yer startin’ ta sound like me ex-girlfriend.” His face became serious, “Trust me lad, I am not a clever pony.” Powder Keg pulled his head back and motioned towards the exit.

“I think it’s about time we take this outside, don’t you?” He took one last look at Barley and walked out the door. As soon as he had left, Spritzer galloped to Barley’s side. An extremely clean glass floated lazily behind her.

“What happened? What’s going on?” she asked worriedly.

“Nothin’ ta worry about lass.” He placed a reassuring hoof on her shoulder, “We’re just gonna go outside and discuss this like gentlecolts. What’s the worst that could happ–”

Barley was suddenly lifted into the air and thrown out the swinging bar doors. He flew for several feet before landing in a heap by Powder Keg’s hooves. He coughed and looked up at his attacker’s sneering face.

“You were taking too long,” he snarled. He started walking in circles around Barley, never taking his eyes off him. “I tried to do this politely, I really did.” Barley shakily got to his hooves and faced Powder Keg. “But you just wouldn’t cooperate. You just had to be STUBBORN!” Powder Keg threw Barley several feet backwards into a lamppost.

“Oof!” Barley cried as he hit the ground. The rough landing cut a gash above his right eye, which began bleeding, and he blinked desperately to clear his vision. He struggled to his hooves and smiled weakly, “Yer really startin’ to sound like me ex. Ya *cough* sure the two of ye have never met?” Powder Keg walked up to Barley, chuckling darkly.

“You just don’t know when to stop talking, do you?” He raised a hoof and brought it down on Barley’s right eye. He cried out, but pushed through the pain to headbutt Powder Keg in the chest. His head bounced harmlessly off of Powder Keg, and he fell backwards. Powder Keg laughed cruelly and stepped towards Barley, but stopped when an unfamiliar voice got his attention.

“Ah reckon ya should step away now, big guy.” Through his half-swollen eye, Barley could barely make out a red earth pony walking towards Powder Keg. The mysterious colt was nearly the same size as Powder Keg, only shorter by about an inch. “Ah don’t wanna hurt anypony if I don’t have to.”

“Just who do you think you are?” Powder Keg asked angrily. He stepped towards the mysterious colt, his horn glowing, “I think you better get back inside before I mess you up as we–”

The red colt quickly turned and bucked Powder Keg right between the eyes. Powder Keg staggered backwards and his horn shot out a beam of ruby light that missed Barley by just a few feet. It travelled a short distance, hit the ground, and exploded, sending bright red sparks into the night sky. A few ponies from the bar ran outside to see what all the commotion was, only to be greeted by the red colt bringing his front hooves down onto Powder Keg’s head, driving him into the ground.

“Do ya want to give up yet?” the colt asked. Powder Keg spat blood on the ground. He stood shakily to his hooves and focused his horn on his opponent and glared.

“I’ll give you a reason to give up, you hick,” Powder Keg snarled. He took a step forward as his horn began to glow brighter and brighter with his face contorted in anger. Just as he was about to attack, a loud voice surprised him from above.

“Halt, this is the Equestrian Police Department! Release your spell and lay flat on the ground!” Powder Keg looked up and saw a bright-blue pegasus hovering above him, with several other pegasi carrying a prison cart behind them. Powder Keg swore under his breath and stepped down. The light from his horn faded away as the police ponies began to read him his rights. Barley watched the scene unfold in front of him, and then hobbled over to the red earth pony that had saved his life.

“I can’t thank ye enough, mister…” Barley began, holding out a hoof.

“Macintosh,” the colt replied, taking Barley’s hoof and shaking it, “Big Macintosh.” The two of them watched as Powder Keg was put into the police cart. “I saw when he threw ya out the door and figured that just wasn’t fair, so ah came out here to even things up.”

One of the police ponies, a green unicorn colt, walked towards Barley with a notepad hovering near him. “Mr. Mops?” he asked, looking at the two earth ponies.

“That’d be me,” Barley answered as he limped over to the unicorn and shook his hoof, “I take it Captain Gumhoof got me letter?” The police pony nodded.

“She was just leaving the station to go home. Looks like that delivery pony got there just in time.” Barley chuckled.

“She’s good at what she does, that’s fer sure,” Barley said, smiling. The police pony took a statement from Barley and Macintosh and then climbed into the police cart. As it flew away, Spritzer ran out the door and to Barley’s side.

“You big lug!” she cried, looking over his many injuries. “You know you’re supposed to hit the other pony back, right?” Her horn glowed and a first-aid kit floated out of the bar and rested beside her. Barley chuckled weakly as she began to dress the cut over his eye.

“Yeah, I’ve been in a few fights of me own, won most of them to–OW!” he winced as she placed a bandage on the cut. “Oi! You mind bein’ careful with that!?”

Spritzer smirked, “Oh be quiet, you big baby.” She finished patching Barley up and sent the first-aid kit back into the tavern. “What am I gonna do with you?” she sighed, smiling softly.

“I hope ye’ll keep workin’ for me,” Barley laughed. He turned back towards Big Macintosh, “Big Macintosh, Spritzer. Spritzer, meet tha pony that saved me life.” The two ponies shook hooves.

“Thanks for saving my boss,” Spritzer said. She nudged Barley’s side jokingly, “You saved me a lot of job searching.”

Macintosh chuckled, “Glad ah could help ya.” The three ponies walked back into the tavern and, as soon as they walked through the door, they were greeted with cheers and applause. Ponies at the back of the bar laughed as they collected their winnings from their bets, while the ponies that lost waved halfheartedly at the group. A small gray mare ran up to Macintosh’s side, relieved.

“Is everything okay, Mac?” she asked, glancing at Barley and back to Macintosh.

“Everythin’s fine, Inky. Just had to help Mr. Mops here with a little discussion.” Barley chuckled.

“He’s one tough negotiator, that’s fer sure,” Barley said, smiling, “And please, call me Barley.” He placed a hoof on Macintosh’s back, “Seein’ as how I owe ye one, from now on all yer drinks are on tha house.” Macintosh raised a hoof to protest but Barley interrupted him, “I don’t want to hear it. It’s tha least I can do for ye.” He patted Macintosh on the back once more, and then headed towards the bar with Spritzer.

When the two ponies reached the counter, they turned towards the patrons of the bar and addressed them. “Now then, who’s ready for those free drinks?” Barley asked loudly. The tavern erupted into cheers again and the night went on without another hitch.

The following morning...

Trixie walked slowly down the tavern stairs, her head throbbing slightly in pain. The once crowded bar was now deserted, the chairs turned upside down over the tables. The cheers and ruckus of last night were now replaced with the slight chirping of birds coming from an opened window. Trixie sat down on the only remaining bar stool and was greeted by a slightly tired Barley grinning at her.

“Ugh, how long did I sleep last night?” she asked groggily. As she became more aware of her surroundings, she noticed Barley’s black eye and bandage, “And what happened to you?”

“Oh this?” Barley pointed towards his right eye nonchalantly, “I just fell down tha stairs last night. Nothin’ ta worry about.” Trixie eyed him suspiciously, but ultimately said nothing.

“What went on last night? All I remember is drinking that cart bomb thing, laughing a lot and then being carried somewhere.” She looked over at Barley, “Was that you?”

“Kinda. I carried ye to tha foot of tha stairs, and Spritzer helped ya up tha rest of tha way.” Barley got out a glass and poured Trixie some orange juice. She lifted the glass with her magic and drank from it as Barley continued to talk, “Ye were pretty drunk last night, so we just put ya in one of our rooms. Free of charge of course.” Trixie finished her drink and nodded appreciatively.

“Thank you very much.” She looked at the empty tavern floor, her mind deep in thought, “What about those colts I was drinking with? I seem to remember something about them.”

“They left,” Barley said quickly, “They finished their drinks and headed on home.” Trixie looked at him suspiciously. “Anywho,” Barley began, changing the subject, “what’s yer plans for today?”

Trixie sighed, “I don’t exactly know yet. Everything that I own is back in Ponyville, but I don’t believe that I can show my face there again…” She cast her eyes downward.

“Nonsense!” Barley’s sudden outburst made Trixie grab her head in pain. “Oh, sorry ‘bout that,” he said sheepishly, “What I’m tryin’ ta say is that the folk in Ponyville are a lot more forgivin’ than ya think. If ye just go back and apologize to ‘em, I’m sure they’ll forgive ye easily enough.” Barley smiled softly at her, “Besides, it’s not like ye were tha one that brought tha Ursa Minor inta town anyway.” Trixie looked up from the bar.

“Is it really that easy?” she asked. Barley nodded.

“Sure it is, ya just need ta be a wee bit more humble, and ye’ll find they’re a great group of ponies.” Trixie looked uneasy. “Just give it a try lass, it can only do ya good.” She stared at the bar counter uncertainly for a moment, then nodded and got up from her seat.

“Alright then.” She trotted over to the exit, and then glanced back over at Barley, “And thank you for listening to me. I haven’t had anypony to talk to for a while.”

“It’s what I do lass,” he said, smiling, “It’s what I do.” Trixie smiled back, then opened the door and walked out into the bright morning sun.

“AAAAAGGGHH!” Trixie screamed, “MY EYES!” Barley laughed.

“Ye’ll get used ta that too!” he yelled out the door. He shook his head, chuckling softly to himself. He left the bar and began setting the chairs down from the tables one at a time. When he got to the jukebox, he plugged the power cord into the outlet and a cheerful piano tune emanated from the speakers.

Making your way in the world today takes everything you’ve got

Taking a break from all your worries, sure would help a lot

Wouldn’t you like to get away?

Sometimes you want to go

“Where everypony knows yer name,” Barley sang along, “And yer always glad ye came.” He walked away, chuckling as the song continued to play in the background.

You wanna be where you can see, our troubles are all the same

You wanna be where everypony knows your name.

Chapter Two

        The warm morning sun illuminated the inside of the Watering Hole as Barley finished cleaning the last table in preparation of opening up for another day of business. As he wiped down the surface of the table with his rag, he noticed a slight dent in the center of the table and smiled to himself.

        Must be tha one Spritzer clobbered that unicorn with last night, he thought, chuckling to himself. Good thing too; I wasn’t really lookin’ forward ta spending tha night in a hospital. He finished cleaning off the table just as the back door to the tavern opened and a teal, spectacled Pegasus flew in.

        “Hey boss, you in here?” he asked, closing the door behind him. Barley threw his rag over his back, walked over the counter, and stuck his head through the small kitchen window.

        “Oi, Bar Fly! Over here” Barley called. The young Pegasus grinned as soon as he saw his boss and flew through the kitchen and out onto the main floor of the tavern. “Gotta say lad, yer here pretty early; wasn’t expecting ye for another twenty minutes or so” Barley said, pulling his head out of the kitchen and turning around to face Bar Fly. The Pegasus’ hay-yellow mane was as messy as always, and his bright blue eyes seemed to be full of laughter as he talked to Barley.

“Oh c’mon boss, this is the thanks I get for tryin’ to show some initiative?” Bar Fly huffed. Barley chuckled.

“It’s not that lad; ye just surprised me is all. Glad ta see yer trying to…” Barley trailed off as he noticed Bar Fly tilting his head as he talked, as if he was trying to get a better look at something on Barley’s face. “Lookin’ for somethin’ lad?” Barley asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Oh nothing, nothing boss. Just keep on heaping your praise on me” Bar Fly said offhandedly as he continued to look over Barley’s face. Barley sighed and smiled softly.

“All right, who told ye?” he asked. Bar Fly continued to look innocent as his eyes roamed Barley’s face.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about, boss.”

“Who told ye about tha fight last night? That’s tha reason ya came ta work early, wasn’t it? Wanted ta check out tha ol’ boss’ battle scars, eh?” Bar Fly shrugged, but kept on smiling.

“Looks like ya caught me again, boss. What gave me away this time?” Barley raised a hoof and lightly tapped Bar Fly’s glasses, causing him to flinch a little bit.

“I keep tellin’ ye ta get yer eyes checked lad, all that squintin’ and such kind of gives ye away.” Then Barley leaned his right eye closer to Bar Fly’s face, and he whistled.

“Hahaha, wow! Nice shiner you have there, boss. Anypony ever tell you you’re supposed to hit the other pony back in a fight?” Bar Fly adjusted his glasses as he spoke, grinning wide as he looked at Barley’s bruise. “Anyway, my eyesight’s fine. It’s just the lighting in here; the whole place is pretty dark, boss.” Barley looked around the sunny interior of the tavern and shook his head.

“Sure it is lad. Anyway, now that yer here, I need ye ta watch over tha shop fer a bit while I take care a’ some paperwork.” Bar Fly nodded quickly.

“You got it boss. I’ll make sure to keep a keen eye on the place.” He hovered over to the front window, lightly bumping against a table and a few chairs as he did, and turned the “CLOSED” sign over to say “OPEN”. Barley shook his head and smiled as he walked past the bar to the end of the hall until he reached a door with a brass plaque on it that simply read “MOPS” and opened it. As he stepped into his office and shut the door, silence filled the room. Barley had long since soundproofed the room to create his own private sanctuary from the otherwise loud and crazy atmosphere of the tavern. Barley breathed a sigh of relief and sat down at his desk. Once he got comfortable, he laid his head down and shut his eyes.

Just a wee nap, he thought. Only a few minutes a’ shut eye. Celestia knows I couldn’t get much sleep after tha ruckus last night. As he slowly started to drift to sleep, and loud *THUMP* came from the wall causing Barley to open one of his eyes and look in the direction of the sound. “Ah, looks like tha mail’s here” he said groggily. He lifted his head off his desk and walked over to the small window on the wall opposite of his desk. He grasped the handle in his teeth and pulled it up to reveal the hovering form of a grinning, but slightly dizzy Ditzy Doo: Ponyville’s Pegasus Postmare. “Mornin’ Ditzy, ya always knew how ta make an entrance.” Ditzy smiled, slightly embarrassed.

“I’m just glad you finally put those cushions above your window. There were days when I’d hit your wall and wouldn’t be able to see straight for a few hours!” she giggled. Barley chuckled, and then raised an eyebrow as he looked at her.

“Looks like yer still havin’ problems with that, lass.” Ditzy would have looked at him quizzically, if she wasn’t staring at the lamp off to Barley’s right.

“What do you mean Barley?”

“It’s yer eyes. They’re kinda… derped” Ditzy grinned at the lamp, her golden irises each facing a different direction.

“Uh oh, looks like it happened again” she laughed. She shook her head a few times and then looked back up at Barley. Her pupils spun around comically until finally settling down in the correct placement. “How’s that, better?” she asked, finally face to face with Barley. Before he had a chance to respond though, she noticed his black eye. “Ouch! That looks like it hurt. You know you’re supposed to hit the other pony back during a fight, right?” Barley laughed dryly.

“That’s what ev’rypony’s been tellin’ me” he said, crossing his front hooves on the window sill. “Oh, and thanks for runnin’ that message for me last night. Tha boys in blue came right in tha nick-a-time.”

“Don’t mention it.” Ditzy stopped hovering and dropped slowly to the ground.  “Gumhoof was kind of annoyed when I caught her just as she was leaving the station, but when she read your note she moved pretty fast.” Ditzy smiled slyly. “So what was in the note? I bet you had some super secret, uh, secrets about her, didn’t you?” She leaned forward expectantly, but Barley just waved her off.

“Sorry lass, but a gentlecolt never betrays tha trust of a lady. Besides, how would ye like it if I went and told all of yer embarrassin’ secrets to tha world?”

“Well… I guess you have a point” Ditzy shrugged. “Oh! That reminds me. She wanted me to give you a message.” She stuck her head inside her mail pouch and started searching around. “Let’s see here… breakfast muffin! *MUNCH* No…”

“Brunch muffin! No… “

“Eviction notice! No… “

“After-brunch muffin! No…”

“Jury duty! Hah, no…”

“You may have already won one million bits! No…”

“Lunch muffin! N-AHA!” Ditzy pulled her head out of her mail bag clutching a small folded piece of paper that was lightly dusted with muffin crumbs. “Here you go.” She placed the letter at Barley’s right hoof, and then licked the remaining crumbs off her face. “You have some other mail too, so let me get that for you” she said, diving back into her mail bag as Barley opened up the note.

It wasn’t a particularly lengthy letter, only a single sentence reading: “We’re even now, Mops.” Barley stared at the note for a few seconds before folding it back and placing it in a small bin on the dresser next to him.

“Heh, I guess we are lass. I guess we are.” Ditzy took her head back out of her mail bag again, this time with three letters.

“Dis is it” she said with a mouthful of letters as she handed them to Barley.

“Thank ye, Ditzy.” He glanced over the letters as she put them down. A letter from home, a bill for the tavern, and some strange envelope that was the bluest blue he had ever seen. But the strangest part about it was-

“Now that’s a weird one” Ditzy said, pointing at the blue envelope with her hoof. “It just appeared at the post office one day; nopony even remembers sorting it. Doesn’t even have a return address or anything, only your address and ‘For The Doctor and Friends’ on it’.”

“But what Doctor?” Barley asked. He stared at the envelope for a few more seconds before shrugging and putting it in the bin with the other letters. “Anyhow, thanks fer tha letters Ditzy.” She smiled and stretched her wings.

“Just doing my job, Mr. Mops.” She adjusted her mail bag and gave her wings a few flaps before she turned to leave.

“And you’re doin’ a fine job of it” Barley said as he waved her goodbye. “‘Ave a good day lass, and tell Dinky ‘Uncle Mops’ said hello.” Ditzy giggled as she started to fly off.

“I sure will. See you later Barley!” With one final flap of her wings, she zoomed off into the horizon. Barley saw her stop in mid-air for a second, take a look at her surroundings, then turn around and fly in the opposite reaction. He chuckled softly and closed the window, grabbing the letters as he returned to his desk. He took another look at the mysterious blue envelope as he sat down, placing the other letters to the side for the moment.

“’Tha Doctor an’ Friends’, eh?” He wondered, scratching his chin. “Maybe it’s for- nah, probably not.” He shrugged. “Oh well, no harm in askin’ ‘im whenever he decides ta shows up. Maybe he’ll know somethin’ more about it.” Barley pushed the envelope aside and reached for the letter his family sent him. As he opened the envelope a small picture fell out and slid across the surface of the desk, but Barley quickly stopped it before it fell off the edge. He picked it up carefully in his mouth as he unfolded the letter, setting the picture on top of the envelope as he read.

Dear Barley,

We were thrilled when we got your last letter. But a word of advice next time, don’t wait four months between letters. Little Shamrock loves hearing from her big brother and as your mother I like to hear how things are going with you. Your dad likes to pretend he doesn’t miss you all that much, but you should see him whenever the mail comes. He practically bowled over the mail pony when he told us there was a letter from you. It especially made him happy this time; the potato harvest wasn’t quite as good this year. Nothing you need to worry about though, we’ve been through tougher. Shamrock even tried to help out in the field near the end, but she gave up when it was clear that potato farming wasn’t something she’d get her cutie mark in. In fact, the only thing she seemed to get out of it was a slight fever. She started school last week as well, so I enclosed a picture of her at the school gates for you. You’d be proud of me son, I managed not to cry until she went inside the schoolhouse this time. I just can’t believe that my little filly’s growing up. It only seems like yesterday that you had your first day at school. Anyway, we all look forward to hearing from you again.

                                                                Best wishes, Mum

        Barley smiled as he finished reading the letter. Ever since he had left home and moved all the way to Ponyville, he made sure to send letters to his family to keep in touch. He put the letter away and took a look at the picture that his mother had sent. Standing in front of a small brick school building was his younger sister, Shamrock. She was an Earth Pony like her brother and father, with a bright green coat and red, curly mane. He grabbed a pencil out of a mug on his desk and turned the picture over, writing Shamrock’s first day of school on the back before setting the picture aside and laying his head down on his desk.

        Finally, some rest he thought. He yawned deeply and closed his eyes. Only fer a few minutes…

        This time, Barley got his wish. He woke up several hours later to muffled, frantic knocking at his office door. “Whoizzit?” he yawned as he raised his head from his desk and wiped off a small drop of droll that hung from his lip. He slowly walked over to his office door and opened it, the clinking of glasses and chatter of patrons filling the silence of his room. Bar Fly had his head turned back towards the bar but kept knocking, unaware that he was now knocking on his boss’s forehead. “Bar Fly…” Barley said, trying to get the young pegasus’ attention.

        “Boss? Hey boss, are you in there?” Bar Fly asked as he continued to knock on Barley’s head while looking over at the bar. “I need to ask you something.”

        “Bar Fly...”

        “C’mon boss, this is kind of important!”

        “Bar Fly” Barley responded, slightly louder this time.

        “Paperwork can’t possibly be that engrossing boss; I need you to answer the door!” Bar Fly’s knocking sped up, and one of his hits knocked off Barley’s cap.

        “OI! Lad, I’m right ‘ere!” Barley shouted. His sudden outburst caused Bar Fly to jump back and look over at Barley, whose forehead now had a small semicircle of matted down fur.

        “Heh, sorry boss. Guess I didn’t notice you there” Bar Fly said, smiling apologetically. Barley sighed and went to pick up his hat off the floor. He held it gingerly in his teeth, and then threw it in the air so that it landed squarely on his head.

        “It’s fine lad, just try ta pay more attention to yer surroudin’s, all right?” Bar Fly nodded rapidly in agreement. “Now what is it that’s got ye in such a tizzy all of a sudden?” He eyed the tavern behind Bar Fly’s back. “Are we having a problem?”

        “Nah, nothing like that, boss. It’s just that I need to take my lunch break, and Sugarcube Corner’s Free Cake Hour ends in about 10 minutes and I really want to try the Carrot Cake before they run out.” Bar Fly put on his most sincere smile when he finished, and Barley just shook his head.

        “Yeah, go ahead lad. I finished all me paperwork anyway” he said, stifling a yawn. “But I want to see ye back here front an’ center within the hour, understand?” Bar Fly gave Barley a salute and started flying towards the employee exit.

        “Yessir, boss sir!” He shouted as he rocketed out the door. Barley watched as Bar Fly took to the sky and chuckled.

        “No matter how old that lad gets, he’ll never grow up.” He walked over to the bar, and picked up a new wash rag off the rack near the kitchen door as he passed it. A few of the ponies in the tavern waved at him when they noticed him, and he returned the welcome as he started serving drinks to the few ponies that were sitting at the bar. He chatted and joked with the patrons for a while before the sound of the bell above the door signaled another customer. Barley looked over to the entrance and saw the familiar well-dressed form of a brown colt make his way over to the bar. “Afternoon Doc, glad ye could take time out of yer busy schedule ta visit me humble tavern.”

        “Now now, Barley; there’s no need for sarcasm. It isn’t becoming of you.” The colt hung up his coat and took a seat in front of Barley. “It’s as Flank Moore Coltby once said: ‘By rights, satire is a lonely and introspective occupation, for nobody can describe a fool to the life without much patient self-inspection’.” Barley smiled wide at the unicorn.

        “Ya know I’m just kiddin’, Grazier. It’s always great ta have ye here.” Barley threw his rag over his shoulder and shook Grazier’s hoof. “How was tha show today? Ya manage to soothe tha mental anguish of Ponyville with that smooth voice a’ yers?”

        “If you would actually listen to my show, you could hear for yourself” Grazier said, smiling wryly. Barley let out a laugh.

        “I can’t have me employees fallin’ asleep on tha job, Doc!”

        “Ah yes. That joke of yours just keeps getting better with every retelling” Grazier responded, rolling his eyes. Barley snickered.

        “I know; that’s why I keep tellin’ it!” Barley continued to chuckle while Grazier looked on at him. “Oh c’mon Doc, try ta ‘ave a little fun ev’ry once in a while.”

        “I assure you that I do find time for amusement; however, I usually avoid the kind that is at my own expense.” Grazier sighed, but then smiled and looked up at Barley. “I have to admit though; I have missed your particular brand of humor.”

        “Then ye shouldn’t wait for a couple months ta go by between yer visits. They can’t be keepin’ ye that busy over at K-COLT.”

        “Believe me Barley, I would love to visit more often, but I’ve been quite busy lately. Why just the other day, my brother Niles and I went to a wonderful art exhibit showcasing-“

        “Now Grazier, ya know I don’t care much for all that fancy pants art nonsense” Barley interrupted. Grazier looked at him and raised an eyebrow.

        “Ah yes, how silly of me to forget. You’re the type of pony that enjoys having a brawl as a nightcap, correct?” Barley laughed.

        “Wow, tha word really must have gotten around about our little problem last night. How did ye hear about it Doc? Ye weren’t one of tha ones bettin’ against me, were ye?” Grazier shook his head.

        “Nothing that barbaric; it’s just that my father is good friends with Chief Gumhoof and he had mentioned to me that there had been an altercation here last night. It seems that Powder Keg fellow was a big player in the criminal underground; the EPD had been trying to get him behind bars for quite some time now.” He looked at Barley sternly. “You may have just made quite the enemy, Barley. What started this whole thing anyway?”

        “His boys were tryin’ ta take advantage of a young lass who had a wee bit too much ta drink, so I showed ‘em tha error of their ways.” He pointed to his black eye. “Then their boss came in and had a tussle with me as well. And before ye make a smart remark; Yes, I know I’m supposed ta hit tha other pony back in a fight.” Grazier smiled.

        “Ever the gentlecolt, aren’t you? And I suppose you gave your wonderful life advice to this young mare like you do all the other distraught citizens that end up at your tavern?”

        “Now listen here Grazier, just because tha only paper I have hangin’ up on me wall is me discharge papers doesn’t make me less qualified ta try an’ help anypony that needs it.” Grazier raised his hooves in apology.

        “I didn’t mean anything by it, Barley. I only meant that you could have referred her to a professional instead of taking matters into your own hooves. I meant no disrespect to your… insightful advice.”

        “None taken Doc, but she didn’t have tha time to make an appointment. She was in quite a mess when she came inta tha tavern last night. She needed ta talk ta someone who knew ‘er, not somepony she barely knew sittin’ ‘er on a couch and makin’ her pay a hundred bits an’ hour just ta listen to ‘er. No offense Grazier.”

        “None taken”

        “Besides, I’ve known tha lass since she was a filly. If anypony would be there ta listen to ‘er, it would be me.” Barley sighed. “Anyway, I have tha feelin’ ya didn’t come down ‘ere just berate me. Can I get ye somethin’ ta drink? Perhaps a Sherry or somethin’?”

        “It’s much too early for that, Barley. I believe I’ll settle for a cappuccino; light on the foam, please. Barley smiled.

        “Comin’ right up, Doc.” Barley turned around and started to prepare Grazier’s drink, while a blue Pegasus mare approached Grazier.

        “Um, excuse me,” she said timidly. “Are you the Doctor Grazier Mane? The one from the radio?” Grazier smiled brightly as he turned to face the young pony.

        “Why yes, my dear. And might I say, it is refreshing to see a young pony such as yourself who listens to my show. How may I help you?”

        “I was, uh… I was wondering if I could maybe have an autograph.” Grazier’s smile widened.

        “Absolutely dear! I’m always glad to help out a fan.” He shot Barley a quick triumphant look and used his magic to levitate a pen and small pad of paper out of his coat pocket. Barley remained silent as he pulled a lever on the cappuccino machine. “Now who should I make this out, young lady?” She shuffled around nervously.

        “Actually, it’s not your autograph I want… You work at the same station as Vinyl Scratch and Octavia, right?” Grazier’s smile immediately faded from his face and Barley nearly dropped the coffee cup from stifling his laughter.

        “Ah,” Grazier said. The glow from his horn faded and he set the pen and paper down on the counter. “It seems I was mistaken.” Grazier sighed. “Very well; I shall get you your autograph, miss…”

        “Jet Stream.” Grazier picked up his pen and paper with his magic and lazily wrote her name on the pad while Barley laid Grazier’s coffee on the counter, barely containing his smile.

        “I shall try my best to get it for you, Miss Jet Stream. If it is fine with you, I’ll have it mailed here so that you can pick it up later. That is, if Mr. Mops here is fine with it?”

        “Oh, absolutely! I don’t mind at all, lass” Barley said, trying to keep a straight face. Jet Stream nodded happily and flew back to her table while Grazier glared at Barley.

        “Not a word” he hissed. Barley simply nodded and turned his back to Grazier, allowing himself a chuckle before facing him again with a straight face.

        “Do you want a lid for that coffee, boyo?” Grazier huffed and sent his pen and paper back into his coat, and then sat up from the bar.

        “I believe that’s for the best. I better leave here before my ego is savagely beaten again.” Grazier put on his coat as Barley brought him a lid for his coffee.

        “Oh wait, I just remembered somethin’. Hold still for just a minute, Doc.” Barley quickly walked back to his office and brought back the blue envelope he received earlier that day. He laid it down at the counter and pushed it towards Grazier with his hoof. “I think this came in the mail for ye.” Grazier took a look at the envelope and raised an eyebrow.

        “You think? How can you not be sure?” Barley shrugged.

        “It says to ‘Tha Doctor an’ Friends’, and yer tha only doctor I know.” Grazier picked up the envelope with his magic and inspected it. He turned each side over for a few seconds, and then frowned as he put it back on the counter.

        “I don’t believe this was meant for me at all. I don’t recognize the writing, and if they really wanted to send me a letter they most likely would have sent it to the station or my own home. It’s as you said yourself, I don’t visit here often at all.” Barley shrugged and picked the letter back up and put it under the bar. “Now then, if there isn’t anything else…?” Grazier asked as he put his pen and paper back into his coat pocket and lifted up his coffee.

        “Nah Doc, go on ahead. Just make sure ta visit a bit more often, all right?” Grazier smiled slightly as he turned towards the door.

        “Absolutely, as soon as you begin listening to my show.” Grazier and Barley both chuckled.

        “Ye drive a hard bargain Grazier, but ya got yerself a deal.” Barley waved goodbye as Grazier walked out of the tavern, and then began serving drinks to the several ponies that approached the bar. As he worked, Barley’s thought’s found their way back to the mysterious letter that lay underneath the bar. It’s pretty odd, he thought. It’s like Grazier didn’t even care if tha letter was for ‘im or not. He sure brushed it aside pretty quick. Barley shrugged and put it out of his mind as he talked with his customers; telling and listening to stories to pass the time as they continued to drink. As Barley worked on an order for two Earth Ponies, he noticed another customer had walked up to the bar and sat down. “I’ll be right with ye in a moment,” he said over his shoulder. “Just need ta finish this last drink up.”

        “Oh c’mon Mopsy, are you sure you can’t make some time for me?” The sultry, feminine voice nearly made Barley drop the glass he was holding.

        “You?!” Barely asked incredulously. He spun back around and found himself face to face with the last pony he ever thought he’d see again.

        Of all tha taverns, in all tha towns, in all tha world, she walks inta mine

Chapter Three

Twelve years ago…

        Barley Mops stood at attention in the middle of the military court room outfitted in his full dress uniform. The room was completely empty except for him; the only sound in the room came from the ticking of the clock that hung on the wall to his right. For nearly half an hour he had stood there; his eyes stared straight ahead, never breaking his military bearing.

        “You do know that you can be at ease until the judge comes back in, right Mops?”

        Barley’s ears turned towards the voice behind him, but he continued to stare straight ahead. “If it’s all tha same to ye Lieutenant, I’m fine tha way I am.” The voice sighed, and then Barley heard hoofsteps walk around him until his superior officer appeared in his field of vision. The older unicorn, also dressed in his dress uniform, smiled sadly at Barley.

        “Always the model soldier, eh?”

        “Just doin’ what ye taught me, sir” Barley responded, still looking ahead. The older stallion chuckled.

        “Oh please Barley, at this point I think we can go ahead and dismiss with the formalities.” The unicorn walked in front of Barley and looked him in the eyes. “We both know there’s no way that we’re getting out of here smelling like roses.”

        “Either way, sir, I’m goin’ ta face it as a soldier. No matter what tha charges against me say.” The Lieutenant frowned and began to speak, but then door at the front of the room swung open and the judge walked into the room.

        “Officer on deck!” Barley cried. He stood even up even straighter at attention, while the Lieutenant snapped to attention beside him. The judge walked across the room and sat down in front of both of them, and then picked up the gavel in his teeth and struck the podium.

        “At ease.” Both Barley and the Lieutenant relaxed slightly. The judge shuffled some papers on his desk, and then cleared his throat as he looked towards Barley. “Staff Sergeant Barley Mops, step forward.” Barley marched forward until he was inches away from the judge’s podium, and then stood back at attention. The unicorn judge looked down at him, and then began to read a slip of paper that he had floating in front of him. “On the charges of desertion of your post, failure to comply with orders, absence without leave and cowardice, this court finds you guilty of all charges. Do you have anything to say?”

        “No sir!” Barley answered.  The judge looked him over, and then nodded.

        “Very well. As of this day, your rank and rate are now stripped from you, and you are to be dishonorably discharged immediately.” As he talked, the judge’s horn shone a dull orange and Barley’s insignia was removed from his collar. He flinched slightly as his rank was removed, but immediately recovered his military bearing. “You are to immediately report to your barracks and collect your possessions, and then promptly leave this base.” The judge picked up the gavel and banged it against the desk once more. “You are hereby dismissed.” Barley saluted the judge, and then turned around and marched towards the exit. As he passed by the Lieutenant, he heard him whisper:

        “Don’t forget to check your pockets, Mops.” Barley only nodded slightly and continued to walk forward.

        “Lieutenant Borealis, step forward” the judge ordered. Barley walked through the doors and shut them behind him, leaving the Lieutenant to his own trial. For a moment, he stood outside the doors; his mind raced as he absorbed everything that had happened to him over the past few days. Barley leaned against a wall and sighed deeply, finally allowing himself to relax.

“Well,” he said aloud, “this sure is a fine kettle a’ fish I found meself in.” He raised a hoof to his collar and touched where his rank used to be. “It’s really over…” He shook his head and lifted himself of the wall. He started to walk down the hall to the exit when he remembered what Borealis told him before he left the courtroom.

        Don’t forget to check your pockets…

        Barley dug into his uniform’s pockets until he pulled out a small folded piece of paper with his name written on the top. He recognized Borealis’ hoofwriting as his eyes scanned the note:

        Meet me at the Prancing Pony tonight at 2000 hours, there’s some ponies I want you to meet. Come alone and hungry.

        Barley shook his head as he placed the note back in his pocket. “Still orderin’ me around, aren’t ye sir?” He exited the court house and stepped out onto the base; the sounds of drill sergeants ordering around recruits and the cadence of marching ponies replaced the tense silence. He passed groups of soldier ponies as he walked through the base; some of them glared at him as he walked by, while others avoided eye contact with him completely. Looks like tha story’s out already, he thought, wonderful.  He picked up his pace and arrived at his barracks just in time to see a blue Earth pony open the door and step out, nearly bumping into Barley as he exited.

        “Whoops, sorry about th- oh. It’s you…” the colt said, his face scrunched up as if he had just smelled something foul.

        “Yeah, it’s me. Good to see you too, Spade.” Barley stepped past him and entered the barracks.  “I’d love ta stay and chat with ye, but I’ve got orders ta clear out of ‘ere immediately.” Spade snorted.

        “Oh, now you follow orders. I guess it makes sense that you listen when you’re told to run away; that’s all you cowards know how to do, right?” Barley ignored him as he walked over to his bunk and started to fill his bag with his belongings.  Shirts, books, a picture of his family; all of it went into his knapsack while Spade stood behind him and continued to belittle him. “I knew you were a coward since the day I first saw you, Mops. I was just waiting for the day that you’d run so you could prove me right.” Barley took off his dress uniform and carefully folded it up and placed it into his bag, and then pulled out a gray, woolen cap from underneath his bed. He smiled slightly as he looked at it before he placed it on his head. Then he slung his bag over his back and headed towards the door.

        “Goodbye, Spade” Barley said nonchalantly as he passed by the blue pony.

        “Yeah, and good riddance!” Spade shouted back. “You didn’t care about serving the land or helping other ponies at all! What are Mister and Misses Everyday Pony supposed to say the next time somepony decides to abandon orders in the middle of a mission and run off somewhere else, huh?” Barley stopped in the doorway for a second.

        “How about: ‘Thank ye, ya just saved our lives’?” Spade stood there confused as Barley walked out of the barracks and shut the door behind him. He breathed a sigh of relief as he headed towards the entrance of the base. Most of the ponies had gone to the mess hall by this time, leaving him all alone as he walked down the road. As he approached the front gate, one of the guards lifted the arm and nodded at him sternly as he passed by. Barley stopped to tip his hat at the guard, and then continued to walk past the gate and finally out of the base. As he got to the end of the road, he turned around and took one last look at his home for the past three years.

        “So long, boyos” he sighed. He watched as the sun began to set behind the trees near the base and turned back towards the road, headed into town. A little over an hour later, he entered Hoovesville; a small but lively town home to the Prancing Pony Bar, the highlight of the local night life. Barley made his way over to a local inn and rented himself a room. After he received his room key and entered his room, he threw his bag to the floor and walked over to the window. The neon sign of the Prancing Pony flashed brightly in the growing darkness, and Barley could hear the muffled pounding of the music all the way on the other side of the street where the inn was located.

        “I sure hope ya know what yer doin’, sir” Barley sighed. He stepped away from the window and started to unpack his bags; a quick glance at the clock hanging on the wall told him that he still had a few hours before he was supposed to meet Borealis. Good, he thought. Gives me plenty a’ time ta scout out tha place before our rendezvous. Barley took his clothes out of his bag and folded them neatly before placing them in the drawers at the foot of his bed, and then left his room and walked out of the inn.

        The streets of Hoovesville were fairly empty, with only a few young ponies still running around playing and the occasional carriage that passed by. Barley walked up and down the main street twice, observing the Prancing Pony from all of its possible angles. He took note of every possible exit and entrance, the number of windows on both of its floors; even the weakened hinges on the back door that lead to the kitchen didn’t avoid his gaze. Even if he wasn’t a soldier anymore, his training continued to keep him looking at every situation as a potential fight. After his fifth patrol of the bar, the time came for Barley to meet Borealis. He walked up to the entrance and waited while the bouncer, a large white Pegasus, patted him down.

        “Don’t worry lad, I’m not lookin’ ta cause any trouble” Barley told him. The stallion simply grunted and continued to search Barley. As the Pegasus reached towards Barley’s hat, Barley’s hoof shot out and stopped the Pegasus before he grabbed it. “Don’t touch me hat. I can assure ye nothin’ going on under there, boyo” Barley said tersely. The bouncer snorted in anger and glared at Barley, who glared right back. The air around the two grew thick with tension until Borealis ran out of the bar and called to both of them.

        “Whoa now! There’s no need for this to get violent, fellas.” He jumped in between Barley and the bouncer, which caused the two ponies to take a step back. “Don’t worry Mack, he’s with me” he said to the pegasus. The stallion glared at Barley one more time and then huffed impatiently.

        “You better watch your boy, Borealis. Next time you might not be around to save his sorry hide.”

        “I gotcha, Mack. We’re just going to walk into the bar calmly now; he’s not looking to start any trouble, right Barley?” Barley continued to glare at Mack until Borealis nudged his side with his elbow.

        “Wha- Oh yeah… No trouble at all.” Borealis steered Barley towards the entrance, smiling apologetically back at Mack as they walked. As soon as they entered the bar, Borealis’ smile faded and he sighed.

        “For goodness sake; you need to lighten up, Barley. I realize you might be a little sore about earlier today, but you need to learn to relax.” Barley raised an eyebrow.

        “Not ta seem disrespectful sir, but ye seem too relaxed. I guess bein’ discharged from tha service wasn’t excitin’ enough for ye?”

        “Barley, Barley, Barley…” Borealis shook his head as he spoke. “I took solace in the fact that no matter what the judge said, I knew I was in the right. I had hoped that you saw it the same way, but…” he sighed, “it looks like I was mistaken.” Barley remained silent and looked around the building. His eyes traveled over each of the doors and windows as he devised different escape plans for every one of them. Borealis noticed the stallion's eyes wandering the club and shook his head. “C’mon Barley, it’s about time I showed you what I called you here for.” He walked towards a group of tables near the bar and waved to the bartender as he passed.

“Is it gonna be the usual for you, Borealis?” The mare behind the counter asked.

“Sure thing, love. And bring my friend here a lager, if you’d be so kind” Borealis answered, motioning towards Barley. The bartender nodded and began working on their drinks while the two stallions walked over to a table in the corner of the room. Already sitting there were two ponies Barley had never seen before, but they seemed to know Borealis well enough.

“’Bout time ya got back, Bor. I figured ya managed to get lost on your way to the front door” A yellow Pegasus joked. He eyed Barley as the two of them sat down at the table. “I take it this is the boy you were telling us about?” Barley frowned at being called “boy” and started to open his mouth, but Borealis stopped him.

“Yes, this is him. Barley, I want you to meet Trade Winds, former Master Sergeant of the Equestrian Royal Air Force.” Barley saluted him, and Trade Winds laughed.

“Well now, nopony’s done that to me for a long while.” He outstretched a hoof towards Barley. “Good to meet ya, Mops.” Barley shook his hoof.

“Nice ta meet ye as well.”

“Discharged for unsafe flying and being a danger to innocents” Borealis continued. Trade Winds frowned.

“Aw c’mon, Borealis, did you have to bring that up now? The kid just met me.”

“Better now than later, TW” Barley turned towards the sudden deep voice to Trade Winds’ left and saw a large Earth Pony half hidden in the shadows sitting beside him. “Why bother keeping him in the dark?” The stallion extended his hoof towards Barley. “Former Gunnery Sergeant Brimstone; discharged for assaulting a superior officer. Pleasure to meet you.” Barley slowly shook his hoof and raised an eyebrow.

“Well, now that everypony’s airing their dirty laundry; what brings you here to the loser’s table, Mops?” Trade Winds asked, taking a swing of the drink he had ordered earlier. “Borealis already told us his, so now it’s your turn. So what was it? Insubordination? Theft?” He leaned in closer and smiled wickedly. “Murder?” he whispered.

“Cowardice” Barley answered, frowning at the strange Pegasus. He was starting to wonder what Borealis had got him involved in.

“Bah…” Trade Winds huffed. “Where’d you get this guy, Borealis? He’s such a stick in the mud.” He took another swing of his beer. “Are you sure this is the guy you want working with us? It feels like he’s just going to cramp my style.” Borealis looked at Trade Winds disapprovingly.

“He was the only pony to help me back in Trottingham a few days ago, not to mention he refused to save his own hide and throw all the blame on me. Yeah, he can be a bit stiff, but you won’t find a more loyal pony than this one here.” Brimstone whistled softly from the shadows.

“So you were the one with Borealis that night?” he asked Barley. “I read about that. Nasty bit of business you had there, but you did a bang-up job.”

“How’d ye manage ta read about that? Last I heard there wasn’t even gonna be paperwork fer tha case.” Brimstone smiled; his ebony teeth seemed to glimmer in the darkness as he spoke.

“We have our ways.” Borealis cleared his throat.

“Well, now that the introductions are out of the way, perhaps we can get down to business.” A waitress came by their table and levitated Barley and Borealis’ drinks over with her magic. “Thanks, love. Just put on my tab with the rest of them.” She nodded and headed back to the bar. “Barley, have you ever heard of the Tear of the Seapony diamond?” Barley shook his head.

“Can’t say I have; I thought tha Seaponies were just a legend anyway” he said. He took a sip of his beer and continued to listen to Borealis.

“Well they are, but the Seapony part isn’t important; the diamond is. For years it was the treasure of a small coastal town a few miles away from here. The tourism it generated pretty much kept the small town from going bankrupt, so it was a pretty big deal for them,” Borealis grabbed a newspaper from beside him with his mouth and laid it on the table “until a few days ago, when it was stolen.” Barley looked down at the paper and whistled.

“Now that’s a big rock…” The front page picture showed the Tear of the Sea Pony, which measured seven inches across and nine inches high. The paper reported on how in the middle of the night the diamond had simply disappeared without a trace. None of the numerous guards posted around the building that housed the diamond ever reported noticing anything out of the ordinary that night, adding further mystery to the theft.

“It’s some piece of work, isn’t it?” Trade Winds asked, taking another large drink. “Twenty-seven guards surround that place every night; that’s nearly a third of the town’s total population. These ponies were seriously dedicated to this diamond, and somepony just waltzed in and took it like it was nothing.” Borealis nodded.

“We’re obviously dealing with a professional here. That’s why I gathered all of you here today. All we need to do now is get ahold of one more pony and we can start planni-“

“Excuse me sir,” Barley interrupted. “Why are we gettin’ involved in tha first place? Isn’t this a job better suited fer their local police or somethin’?” This time, Brimstone shook his head.

“They don’t have one. This is a pretty small and peaceful little village. Even during the tourist season there’s barely a crime committed throughout the entire community.”

“One question then,” Barley said, raising an eyebrow. “Why have all tha guards surroundin’ tha diamond if it’s such a peaceful little town? Are they afraid somepony’s gonna get an urge fer theivin’ or somethin’?”

“They think there’s curse” Trade Winds answered. He grabbed a few peanuts out of a bowl in the middle of the table and cracked them open as he continued to talk. “Something about the Wrath of the Seaponies condemning them for losing their sacred treasure or some malarkey.”

“Anyway!” Borealis said loudly, interrupting the two. “The fact is, their diamond was stolen and nopony is willing to help them. The four of us, for our own reasons, were found unfit to serve in Her Majesty’s armed forces; I feel like that makes us the perfect candidates to do the jobs they won’t bother with.” He looked over at Barley. “That is, if you want to. None of us will think of you differently if you choose not to.”

“I will” Trade Winds interjected. His comment earned him a quick elbow to the ribs from Brimstone. “Ow! Hey, it was just a joke!” he pouted as he rubbed his side. Barley looked at each of the three ponies before him carefully. After a few seconds, he nodded his head in agreement.

“All right, I’ll join ye. We may not be in tha service anymore, but that doesn’t mean we can’t keep helpin’ anypony who needs it.” Borealis smiled warmly.

“Good to hear it, Barley. Now,” he waved a waitress over to their table “who’s hungry?” The group spent the next hour enjoying their food and getting to know each other better. Barley was halfway through his eggplant sandwich when Trade Winds poked his side.

“Don’t look now Mops, but I think that mare over at the bar is checking ya out.” Barley looked up from his sandwich and turned his towards the bar, but Trade Winds grabbed his head and turned it back to the table. “I said don’t look!” he hissed quietly.

“Then what’s tha point in tellin’ me?” Barley asked, annoyed.

“Ya have to do it discretely. Don’t let her know that ya know she’s looking at ya. It’s all a part of their game…” Trade Winds let go of Barley’s head and pretended to look at his own food while he sneaked several glances over at the bar “discretely”. Barley rolled his eyes and turned towards the bar.

        Sure enough, a red unicorn mare sat there at the bar. Her golden yellow mane seemed to glow in the low light of the club as her sapphire eyes locked onto Barley. Borealis noticed the two colts looking towards the bar, and glanced over to the mysterious mare.

“Looks like you caught another fly in your web, Barley” he said amusingly.  Barley and Trade Winds both looked away from the mare and turned back towards Borealis.

        “Another?” Trade Winds asked incredulously.

        “That’s right. Mops here was the resident heart-breaker back on the base. Had all the ladies falling for him.”

        “You’re kidding, right?” Trade Winds pointed a hoof at Barley. “This ol’ buzzkill? No offense, of course.”

        “None taken, lad.”

        Borealis shook his head. “I’m not kidding, TW. The ladies must have a thing for a stern looking stallion in a uniform. What was the last count Barley? I think the boys over in Ops said it was about 30 mares that professed their love for you, right?”

        “I wouldn’t know, sir.” Barley sighed. Trade Winds looked at the two ponies before groaning exasperatedly.

        “I tell you, life just isn’t fair.” Brimstone laughed darkly beside him.

        “You’re preaching to the choir here, boy.” Barley shook his head and looked back towards the bar, only to find that the mare had vanished.

        “I don’t think it really matters anymore. Looks like tha lass saw all she wanted ta.” Trade Winds lazily glanced over to where she had sat and snorted in annoyance.

        “Looks like she’s the one that got away, lover boy.” He looked up at the clock on the wall and sighed. “Anyway, I think I’ve done all the socializing that I wanted for tonight.” He reached into his saddlebag and threw several bits on the table to cover his meal. “What’s the next step Borealis?” The rest of the ponies got out of their seats and put their own money on the table.

        “We’ve got one more pony to recruit before I want to start this, and Barley and I are going to meet him tomorrow afternoon.” He nodded to the bartender as they headed towards the exit of the Prancing Pony. “After that, we’ll start gathering information about where the diamond is now.” Mack watched the group as they exited. He glared at Barley briefly as he walked past, but said nothing.

        “So what do you want us to do, boss?” Brimstone asked. The night air had chilled quite a bit since they first arrived at the bar, and their breath was briefly visible as they talked.  In the light of the moon, Barley could finally see what Brimstone looked like. His dark brown coat was covered in numerous scars; the majority of them gathered around his stomach and front hooves. His cutie mark, a potter’s wheel, had one long scar that ran down the middle of it that traveled halfway down his left hind leg. His sandy brown mane was cut short, only an inch away from a total buzz cut, and his green eyes seemed to glow in the low light.

        “For now, I want you and Trade Winds to do some basic research about the diamond. Just stick to the local library and the like; let’s try to not attract too much attention if we can. If we want this to go off without a hitch, we’ll need to keep a low profile for as long as possible” Borealis instructed. Brimstone nodded silently.

        “Great, send me to go do research with the freakin’ ghost. I already love this mission…” Trade Winds lamented. He hovered on his back several feet above the group, his hooves placed behind his head in a nonchalant pose as he lay there. “How come I have to read about rocks while the newbie gets to go with you, Bor?” He flapped his wings and righted himself as he floated down to the ground.

        “Because Mops has something that you don’t, Trade.”

        “Yeah, a stick up his-HEY!” Trade Winds was interrupted midsentence when Brimstone knocked him on the back of his head sternly. “C’mon! I didn’t even finish” he said indignantly as he rubbed his shaggy grey mane where he was hit. Borealis ignored him as he continued to talk.

        “He has a way of talking to ponies, and we’re probably going to need to be extra persuasive when we meet this pony tomorrow.” He placed a hoof on Barley’s back. “Do you think you’re up to the task, Mops?”

        “I’ll do me best, sir. Ye can count on me” Barley replied. Borealis smiled widely.

        “That’s all I could ask for.” He took his hoof off of Barley and turned to face the whole group. “Well then gentlecolts, I believe it’s time for us to retire for the night. Trade Winds, Brimstone; you know what to do. Barley, meet me at the Hot Trotcholate Café at 0900. Do you need directions or…” Barley shook his head.

        “No need, sir. I scouted it out earlier when I was waitin’ ta meet ye at tha bar. Not ta mention most of tha town as well.” Trade Winds shook his head.

        “We need to get this guy a marefriend…” He flinched reflexively, but nopony hit him that time. Brimstone had already started walking towards his own hotel, while Borealis shook Barley’s hoof one last time. Trade Winds sighed in relief and took to the skies, only to be hit by a wayward bat in mid-air which caused him to lose control and crash into the ground. “OH COME ON!”

The next morning

        Barley arrived at the Hot Trotcholate 15 minutes early, his military state of mind still ruling his daily schedule. As he opened the front door, he spotted Borealis sitting at a table sipping a cup of coffee in the corner of the café. He noticed Barley and motioned for him to join him at the table.

        “Good morning, Barley. Glad to see I’m not the only one having trouble letting the old habits go.” He levitated a doughnut from his plate and dunked it into his coffee before taking a bite. “How are you holding up?”

        “I’m doin’ all right, sir. I just try not ta think about it too much” Barley responded. He sat beside Borealis, his back straight and his front hooves placed squarely by his sides. The former Lieutenant watched as Barley’s eyes roamed the café and sighed.

        “Some habits are harder to break, it seems” he said softly. Barley scanned the restaurant for several seconds before finally looking back at Borealis.

        “Sir, can I ask ye somethin’?”

        “Of course you can, Barley. What do you want to know?” Borealis’ horn glowed briefly and he set down his coffee cup and doughnut.

        “Exactly how long have ye been plannin’ somethin’ like this?” Barley looked at Borealis inquisitively. “Tha way ye got this crew together as fast as ye did, not ta mention already havin’ a plan set out ta get this diamond back, ye must have had worked this out in advance; but accordin’ ta ye, it was stolen just a few days ago.” He arched his eyebrows as he continued talking. “I’m not accusin’ ye of anythin’, it’s just…” Borealis raised a hoof to interrupt Barley.

        “It’s fine, I understand.” He took a sip of his coffee. “The truth is: I read about the diamond theft during my stay in the brig after our little ‘incident’. I managed to still have the daily paper brought to me every day, so that’s when I got the idea. I knew there was the very likely possibility of being discharged soon, so I sent a letter to both Brimstone and Trade Winds the day before our trial and told them to meet us here in Hoovesville. I’ve known them for several years, so I knew they could be trusted. As for the plan…” he placed his coffee cup back down on the table and sighed. “To be honest I don’t really have everything sorted out yet. That’s why we’re meeting with this pony today, so we can finally iron out the details and get to work.” He smiled softly at Barley. “That about answer all your questions, lad?” Barley nodded.

        “Just about. Now all I’m wonderin’ about is exactly who we’re meetin’ today.” A waiter walked over to the table and took Barley’s order, and with a quick bow, retreated back to the kitchen. Borealis smiled slyly.

        “Have you ever heard of the Sneaking Steed?”  Barley’s eyes grew wide.

        “Tha famous thief?”

        “The very same” Borealis said nonchalantly. The waiter came back with Barley’s order and sat it in from of him, but Barley barely noticed as he continued to stare at Borealis, dumbfounded.

        “Don’t tell me that tha two of ye were ol’ war buddies as well.”

        “Nothing of the sort. Brimstone has some… underground connections, so he called in a few favors and managed to set us up with this one-time chance to talk to him. That’s why I brought you; I’ll need your help in convincing him to join us on this mission.” Barley lowered his head and remained silent, his mind deep in thought. Borealis tilted his head. “If you’re not sure you want to help, you don’t have to, Barley…” he said, concerned.

        “Don’t worry, it’s fine sir. Just tha thought of bein’ a soldier one day and then workin’ with a thief doin’ merc work tha next  is an odd feelin’ fer me.” Unconsciously, his eyes once again roamed over the café. They noted every possible exit, every way out that he could see in his field of vision. He continued to scan the café until the sound of the front door opening drew the attention of both Barley and Borealis. A gray unicorn wearing a wide brim hat and sunglasses walked inside and glanced around the café. When he noticed Borealis and Barley, he quickly made his way over to their table. Borealis got out of his seat and met the pony mid-way, while Barley looked the stranger over.

        Odd, he thought. I imagined that he would’ve been taller. Then again, maybe that helps ‘im hide better. Barley shrugged and watched as Borealis talked to the colt for several seconds; he made a few motions with his hoof and nodded several times towards Barley, who waved back. The mysterious colt simply nodded as Borealis talked, and when he noticed Barley he said something to Borealis that Barley couldn’t quite hear from that distance. Borealis nodded once more and then the two walked over towards Barley’s table.

        “Barley, meet Mr. Hoof, also known as the Sneaking Stallion.” Borealis announced, gesturing to the colt beside of him. Barley nodded held out a hoof towards the new pony.

        “Pleasure ta meet ye, lad.” The gray unicorn looked at Barley silently for a few seconds before her shook his outstretched hoof.

        “Likewise.” The pony’s voice was raspy, and a bit strained. He let go of Barley’s hoof and turned to Borealis. “Now then, should go ahead and get started? I’m afraid I can’t stay here for long.”

        “Of course, of course” Borealis replied as he took his seat beside Barley. Mr. Hoof sat in front of the two and adjusted his glasses; the morning sun now reflected off the lenses which gave him an even more mysterious appearance. “It’s all yours, my boy” Borealis whispered to Barley as they had sat down. He nodded and cleared his throat.

        “Mr. Hoof, we would like ta ask fer yer assistance in an operation we are plannin’. It involves tha theft of tha Tear of tha Sea Pony diamond that happened a few days ago.” Barley watched Hoof’s face as he talked for any sign of change or emotion, but the other pony’s sunglasses hid his eyes from Barley’s gaze and his face didn’t show any noticeable alterations. “We were hopin’ you’d join us and a few other ponies in getting’ tha diamond back ta where it rightly belongs.” Mr. Hoofs stayed silent, but now it seemed as if his attention was focused on something behind Barley. “Excuse me fer askin’, Mr. Hoof, but is there somethin’ botherin’ ye-“

        “All right then! I shall be glad to join you on your operation.” Mr. Hoof’s voice raised in pitch slightly as he quickly got up from the table, nearly knocking over his chair in the process. “Here’s my card, it’ll tell you how to contact me once you’re ready to start your little operation.” A small white slip of paper flew out from under his hat and slid across the table, and Mr. Hoofs walked quickly towards the back entrance of the café.

        “Wait!” Barley cried. He jumped out of his own chair and tried to catch up to the thief. “What about -“

        “The card!” the odd colt shouted back. He rounded a corner and with the slam of a metal door, he had left. Barley stood in the middle of the café and stared where the panicked thief had run, and then he sighed and walked back to his table.

        “Well, that sure was… interesting” Borealis quipped. Barley took a seat in front of him. “At least he agreed to help us though, which is all we really came for in the first place.”

        “I guess so; I’m just wonderin’ what tha lad saw that spooked ‘im like that.” Borealis shrugged.

        “Perhaps we’ll never know what goes in the mind of the criminal element, my boy.” Borealis took a sip of his coffee and stood up. “Well, shall we be going Mops? We’ll catch up with Brimstone and Trade Winds and tell them the news. Hopefully the two of them have managed to find some information about the diamond.” He levitated a few bits out of his saddlebag with his magic and placed them on the table. Barley went to stand up when a very familiar looking gray unicorn walked up beside their table.

        “I’m sorry to make you wait, gentlecolts. I would have been here earlier, but it seems like somepony had messed around with the road signs and it took me quite a while to find the place.” The stranger looked at Barley and Borealis’ confused faces before shaking his head apologetically. “How rude of me, I haven’t even introduced myself yet.” He bowed slightly. “The name is Mr. Hoof, but you probably know me better as the Sneaking Stallion” he added with a whisper.

        “But we thought-” Barley began, but Borealis jumped in before he could finish his sentence.

        “We thought we might have missed you! That’s what we were just discussing.” He put on a fake smile and shook the stallion’s hoof, again. “We’re glad to see that we were mistaken, right Barley?”

        “Uh, yes. We sure are, sir.” The three ponies sat down at the table and Borealis began discussing the plan with the “Sneaking Stallion” while Barley merely listened. The white business card caught his eye and he quickly hid it from view of the new Mr. Hoof as the conversation continued. As he went to put the note away, Barley’s eyes caught the neat, feminine-like hoofwriting on the card and stopped to read it.

        As soon as you’re done talking to that guy, meet me behind the café. Then we can really discuss your operation.

        It wasn’t signed; the only thing on the card besides its brief message was a small drawing of a masquerade mask in the lower right corner. Slowly, Barley placed the card beside him on the chair and tried to maintain his calm as his mind raced with the new information he had found.

        Somepony knows about tha mission. That’s not good at all. Could it be tha police? Even if it was, we’re not breakin’ any laws, so they can’t really arrest us. Maybe somepony from back at tha base? Nah, that wouldn’t make any sense. Maybe it’s tha diamond thief tryin’ ta keep us from findin’ it in tha first place…

        “Isn’t that right, Barley?” Borealis’ voice snapped Barley out of his thoughts and made him look back up at the two ponies in front of him. “Mr. Hoof” quietly sipped on a cup of tea he levitated to his mouth with his magic as he waited from Barley’s response.

        “Yes, absolutely sir” Barley said absentmindedly. Hoof didn’t seem to mind though, and smiled brightly as he set down his cup.

        “I must say, you two make a most inviting offer. I’ll have to think about this for a day or two, but I’ll be sure to deliver my response to you as soon as I make up my mind.” He rose from the table and bowed again. “’Till we meet again, fellows.” As he walked out the front door, Borealis moved beside Barley and looked at him disapprovingly.

        “Where were you during that conversation, Mops? I brought you along so you could help us seal the deal, not drift off to dream land during the negotiations. We should count ourselves lucky he was a nice enough pony, though.” Barley picked up the card and gave it to Borealis, his face serious.

        “This was tha card that tha other Sneakin’ Stallion left us. Somepony knows about our plans, sir.” Borealis’ eyes scanned the card, and then he sighed.

        “Nothing simple can ever happen to us, can it?” He levitated the card into his saddlebag and started to walk to the back of the café.

        “Sir? Are we just goin’ ta follow this imposter just like that? Don’t ye think we need ta get ahold of tha others first?” Borealis shook his head as he continued to walk to the back exit.

        “Whoever this pony is, they seemed pretty intent on seeing us today. Not to mention they somehow knew about our meeting with the Sneaking Stallion on such short notice.” He stopped walking and looked back over his shoulder. “Now that’s something worth investigating, don’t you think?” Barley shook his head and walked over to Borealis.

        “I just don’t know sir, it all seems too suspicious ta me.” The older unicorn chuckled.

        “Barley, everything makes you suspicious.” He nudged Barley playfully and walked towards the back door. “You just need to lighten up a bit, my boy. What’s life without a little risk?” Barley frowned as the two of them stepped outside.

        “A little risk is what got tha two of us in this situation in tha first place, sir.”

        “Well it certainly took the two of you long enough.” The sudden feminine voice caused them both to turn and find the “Sneaking Stallion” watching them as they closed the door. The raspy, strained voice they had heard earlier was replaced by a smooth, velvety one that seemed to glide across the air before reaching their ears. “I was beginning to think that old coot would never leave.”

        “I guess it’s safe ta assume we’re not talkin’ ta ‘Mr. Hoof’ anymore.” Barley replied, eyeing the confusing pony in front of him.

        “And you’d be right, handsome.” The gray unicorn glowed a dull blue, and the gray fur seemed to dissolve around their body until a dark purple mare was left standing in its place. She took her hat off and shook her head a few times to let her flowing, black mane fly free, and then took of her sunglasses; her baby blue eyes seemed to sparkle as she looked at the two stallions in front of her. “Allow me to reintroduce myself,” she turned a small circle to show off her cutie mark, a silver masquerade mask, and then resumed talking. “My name is Ink Ognito, Master Thief.”

        “Not to sound rude, Miss Ognito-“Borealis began, but she raised a hoof to interrupt him.

        “Please, just Ink will be good enough.”

        “Okay then, Ink. What I meant to say is that we’ve never even heard of you before.” She smiled slyly.

        “I’d be surprised if you did. I pride myself at being completely unknown. For instance,” she glanced over at Barley, “this isn’t even the first time we’ve met.” Barley raised an eyebrow.

        “How do ye figure that? I certainly don’t remember seein’ ye before.” She chuckled softly.

        “Oh stop it Barley, you’re making me blush.” Her horn shone brightly, and in a flash a mare with a red coat and golden mane stood before the two stallions. “Do you recognize me now?” she said with a smirk.

        “Well I’ll be…” Borealis chuckled. “That sure is one heck of a talent you have there.”

        “But why were you spyin’ on us that night?” Barley asked, unimpressed. Ink tisked as she returned to her normal appearance and looked at the emerald pony.

        “You’re always so serious; you should try lightening up some. But if you have to know, I wasn’t really spying on you per se. I just sort of… overheard your conversation.” She smiled at Borealis. “You had the right idea about going to a crowded, loud place to hold your meeting, but you shouldn’t have picked the table furthest from everypony else. All of the music never really reaches the bar, so I could still hear your plan easily enough.” Borealis laughed and gave a little half-bow.

        “Truly we are dealing with a professional here, my boy.” He gave Barley a playful nudge. “It looks like you’ll have to keep your eyes peeled even more from here on out, eh Mops?”

        “Yes sir, I will.” Barley looked at Ink once more. “If ye were that interested in us, why did ye leave as soon as we spotted ye?”        

        “And show you my real identity in the crowded bar with all of those witnesses? If I didn’t know any better Barley, it seems like you’re really keen on me exposing myself…” She winked at him.

        “N-no, that’s not what I’m tryin’ ta say -“Barley sputtered. A small blush rose to his cheeks, causing both Borealis and Ink to chuckle.

        “Now that’s a first! Ink, I think you might just be the only mare to leave Barley at a loss for words.” Barley took a deep breath and regained his composure, and then turned to face Ink again.

        “So if we do decide ta hire ye, what’s in it for ya? What kind of cut are ye askin’ fer?”

        “Aww, you’re all serious again” she pouted playfully. She leaned against the side of the building and looked at Barley and Borealis as she spoke again. “Actually, I don’t want anything. Whenever I steal something, it isn’t for the money or the infamy; I do it for the thrill of it. The adrenaline that pumps through your veins as you hide in the shadows, hoping that the guards didn’t see you when you ran by. That huge breath you take once you know the coast is clear, even the rush of endorphins from when you finally nab the target and make it out without leaving a trace that you were even there,” she grinned widely “it just gives me the shivers.” Barley pulled Borealis aside while Ink continued to smile at them.

        “So what do ye think, sir? Should we hire ‘er or tha Sneakin’ Stallion?” Barley whispered.

        “At this point, I’m starting to lean towards Miss Ink over there. She seems to have a better knack for being a thief than Mr. Hoof seemed to. Which reminds me…” Borealis looked over Barley’s shoulder and addressed Ink. “Excuse me,  Miss: Exactly how did you know that the Sneaking Stallion was going to have a meeting with us today? We never said who we’d be meeting at the bar last night.”

        “That was actually all up to chance. I got lucky the night your boy Brimstone sent out the message, because it just so happens I was stalking the same messenger pony that day. For professional reasons, of course.” She winked. “Then it was just the simple matter of buying some time to get my message to you before the real Sneaking Stallion got to the café.” Even Barley had to admit that was impressive.

        “All right then, thanks for clearing that up for us” Borealis looked back at Barley and smiled. “I think we got a winner, lad.”

        “I have ta agree with ye, sir. She’s got tha credentials, that’s fer sure.” Barley heard a giggle behind him and felt Ink brush against his side.

        “Wow Mopsy, you sure do know how to flatter a girl.” Barley looked at Borealis and mouthed ‘Mopsy?’ while Ink outstretched a hoof towards the two stallions. “So, do we have a deal?” Borealis took her hoof and shook it, returning her smile.

        “Indeed we do Miss Ink. Welcome aboard.”

        “Glad to be a part of it” She replied. Ink turned towards Barley and offered her hoof to him as well. With a sigh, Barley returned the gesture.

        “Welcome ta tha team, lass. Here’s hopin’ everythin’ turns out fer tha best.” Ink smiled slyly at him as they shook.

        “Oh, I think we’re going to get along just fine, Mr. Barley.”

In the present…

        Of all tha taverns, in all tha towns, in all tha world, she walks inta mine…

        Ink sat in front of Barley; her long black mane pulled into a tight bun as her blue eyes peered out at him from behind silver, half-moon spectacles. “Hello again, Mopsy. It’s been a while”

        “What are ye ‘ere for, Ink?” Barley said bitterly. He threw his rag over his shoulder and turned his back to Ink as he worked on the drinks for his other customers.

        “I think I’ll start with a Caribou Lou, and then see where we go from there” she joked. Barley scoffed as he placed the finished drinks on a tray and brought them over to the counter.

        “That’s not what I meant and ya know it, Ink.” The two other ponies took their drinks and paid, and then Barley walked back over to Ink who smiled sadly back at him.

        “Oh come on Mopsy, can’t a pony just stop in to say hello to an old friend? Maybe I just wanted to check in on you after all this time; after all, it’s been- “

        “Seven years,” Barley interrupted “It’s been seven years since I last saw ye; since any of us saw ye.” Ink blinked, surprised.

        “Wow. Time sure flies, doesn’t it?”

        “Felt like an eternity fer me” Barley huffed, his voice quivering in anger. The purple unicorn frowned.

        “Ever since you’ve seen me you’ve been acting weird. Just what is your problem, Barley?”

        “You know bloody well what tha problem is!” he growled, his voice now loud enough to make everypony else in the tavern stop talking and look towards the bar. The awkward silence continued until the back door swung open and Spritzer walked in with a stumbling Bar Fly behind her.

        “Sorry I’m late Barley; Bar Fly here managed to hit a billboard on his way back from lunch so I had to help him the rest of the way.”

        “I’m tellin’ you boss, the thing just came out of nowhere.” He mumbled as he staggered down the hallway headed towards Barley’s office. Before he got too far, Spritzer picked him up with her magic and turned him back towards the bar.

        “Right, the same billboard that’s been there for two years suddenly got up and moved right in your way as you were flying” Spritzer said sarcastically. “I just hope you’ve been saving your money, Fly. You put a pretty big dent in that-“she trailed off when she noticed the silence of the bar and Barley’s glowering at somepony she had never seen before. “Um, is everything okay Barley?”

        “Yeah, ev’rythin’s fine.” He grabbed his rag off his back and laid it on the counter. “I need tha two of ye ta watch tha bar fer a while, I need ta have a discussion with an old acquaintance a’ mine.” He stepped out from behind the bar and walked towards his office, and Ink followed close behind him. When the two passed Bar Fly and Spritzer, Ink winked playfully at them and chuckled. As soon as Barley stepped in the room and shut the door behind them, Spritzer turned to Bar Fly, her brow furrowed in concern.

        “Did Barley seem, I don’t know, tense to you?” she asked. Bar Fly simply shrugged and squinted in the direction of the bar.

        “I dunno, I didn’t see anything out of the ordinary.” Spritzer sighed.

        “Oh course not, forget I asked.” She put a hoof on his head and turned it to face the wet bar. “Come on Fly boy, let’s get to work.”

        Inside Barley’s office, Ink walked around the room and admired the decorations while Barley stared at her silently from his desk. She made several “oohs” and “ahs” as she looked at the walls of his office. “It looks like time has been kind to your wallet, Mopsy. Did you pay for all of this with your merc money, or did you-“

        “Why’d ye do it, Ink?” Barley asked, his voice low. He looked her in the eyes as he talked while she looked back at him, confused.

        “Do what, come and visit? I told you, I just wanted to check up on you. What’s wrong with that?” Barley shook his head and sighed, and then walked closer to her.

        “Why did ye leave? Seven years ago, what made ye decide ta abandon ev’rythin’?” She looked away from his gaze, but he continued to question her. “Did somepony else make ye a better offer? Were ye just fed up wit’ tha whole thin’?” His voice grew louder after each question, years of stress and anger finally being released into a swarm of inquiries.

        “It was nothing like that…” Ink whispered. Barley stomped a hoof on the floor angrily, and the resulting tremor caused a framed photograph on his desk fell onto its face.

        “Then what was it?! I’ve waited seven years ta hear tha answer ta this, lass. I think it’s time ye told me!” Ink looked up at him and sighed.

        “I got… complacent.  I let myself get too comfortable with everything, and I started to forget who I really was, what I really wanted. Things just got too…” She trailed off.

        “Borin’?” Barley finished. Ink didn’t say anything, but hung her head.

        “I never said that, Barley” she said softly. He shook his head and walked up to her, his anger now diffused and replaced with sadness. He raised a hoof to Ink’s chin and lifted her head so that she was looking him in the eyes.

        “But ye meant it, didn’t ye?” She looked at him for a few seconds, and then shook her head. She lifted her head off of Barley’s hoof and started to walk towards the office door.

        “Your words, Mopsy; not mine.” Barley trotted past her and stood in front of the door, his eyes once again focused on her own.

        “So that’s it? Ye come on down ‘ere ta say ‘Ello’ and then ye just run off again? If that was tha whole reason ye came, why didn’t ye just write a letter or somethin’?”

        “Believe it or not Mopsy, but I did want to see you again. I wanted to give you something, but I could only do it face to face. This is something a simple letter could never convey.” Her horn glowed softly, and the hair around the base of her horn began to part. A small silver band slid up her horn and floated towards Barley, which caused his eyes to go wide.

        “Ink, that’s…” he whispered. She nodded silently as it hovered past Barley and landed softly on the dresser next to the door.

        “The second thing I’ve ever given back after I stole it” she said sadly. Barley walked up to the dresser while Ink opened the door with her magic and stepped halfway through. “It was always yours, Barley. It was… wrong of me to take it. And I’m-“

        “Don’t” Barley interrupted. “Just… don’t.” He nudged the ring with his hoof, and it sat on its side. On the inside of the ring was a small inscription: For my dearest Ink. Love, Mopsy. Barley stared at the ring for several seconds before he pushed it away and walked to the door. Ink stood there, a small frown on her face as Barley walked up beside her.

        “I guess this is goodbye, Mopsy.” She held out her hoof, which Barley wordlessly shook. “I never really got to say that last time, did I?” Barley remained silent. “Hey, chin up Mopsy” She looked him in the eyes as she talked, the smallest of smiles forming on her face. “We had some good times all those years ago, didn’t we? I mean, we’ll always have Stalliongrad…”

        “When I told ye I’d never leave ye” Barley said softly.

        “And you never will, it’ll always be me that leaves. But now I’ve got a job to do. Where I’m going, you can’t follow me Mopsy. You’ve got a life now, and I can’t take that away from you, not again. I hope you can understand that.” Barley sighed deeply.

        “Yeah, I understand lass. Believe me, I do…” He said as he hung his head.

        “Now, now…” Ink tilted his head up with her magic and looked deep into his eyes. “Here’s looking at you, kid.” And with that, she walked out of his office, out of the tavern, and out of his life. Again. Barley closed the door to his office and picked up the ring from the dresser. He carried it over in his mouth to his desk and gently laid it down, and then sat down in his chair and looked at it silently. A knock on his office door broke his concentration, and he looked up from the ring, annoyed.

        “Tha office is closed!” He shouted at the door. The knocking stopped, but then the door began to open. Barley looked over towards the door angrily. “Did ye not just ‘ear what I said? Tha office is clos-“He stopped himself when he saw a concerned Spritzer standing in the doorway, her hoof still raised in the air as the door slowly swung open. “Oh… ‘Ello Spritzer. Sorry about that, lass.”

        “Is everything okay, Barley?” She walked over to his desk and looked at him, her brow furrowed in worry. “I saw that purple unicorn leave here and I thought I’d check up on you. You seemed really upset when she was here, what happened?”

        “Nothin’ ‘appened, Spritzer. Nothin’ at all.” He sighed deeply and scooped up the ring in one hoof and placed it in his desk drawer. “How’s ev’rythin’ at tha bar?”

        “It’s fine…” Spritzer looked Barley over, and then sat beside him. “Barley, are you sure you’re okay? You don’t look like it.” He shrugged and laid his head on his desk, his eyes closed.

        “Ta tell ye tha truth lass, I don’t know. I really don’t know.” He turned his head and looked at Spritzer. “But fer now, I think I just need ta be alone, lass. Just fer a while.” He turned his head back to face the front and closed his eyes.

        “Okay Barley, whatever you say.” He heard her walk over to the door and shut it, but his ears perked up when he heard hoofprints return back to his side.

        “I thought I said I wanted ta be alone, Spritzer.” He opened his eyes and saw the orange unicorn sitting right beside him, a small smile on her lips.

        “And you are, same as me. Guess the both of us are just going to be alone, right Barley?” He looked at Spritzer and smiled.

        “It seems that way, lass. And ain’t that a shame?” He laid his head on his desk and closed his eyes. “Oh, and Spritzer?”


        “…Thank ye.”