Barrier subconsciously pushed himself deeper into the soft mattress that had come with his borrowed room, a soft smile working its way onto his features even as he slept…until the warm body next to his began to sing in her sleep and wrapped him in a vice-like grip in an attempt to hug the stuffing out of him.
Daring Do didn’t know what she was hugging, but it was warm and had just the right amount of give. “Oh, chica-chica-chica, when you're in a jam; chica-chica-chi, remember I'm your ham..." the mare sang out weakly before a particularly loud snore took over the song.
Barrier groaned but didn’t move to free himself. He knew better. Daring had a grip like iron and the more you struggled, the harder she held on.
“Sir,” a voice called from beyond the door to his bedroom, followed by several sharp taps of hooves on crystal. “The princesses and Empress Cadance have summoned for us. We art to report to the throne room as soon as possi-” Swiftsword had nosed the door open as her speech drew to a close, fully expecting to have to wake her superior up, only to find the life being strangled out of him as the tan pegasus held him like a giant teddy bear. Despite her efforts, one side of her mouth turned up very briefly in an amused grin.
“Alright,” Barrier didn’t so much as move to face Swiftsword. “It’s probably so she can have us all formally discharged. Tell her I’ll be along as soon as I can extricate myself from Death-Grip Do here.” Barrier carefully tried to wriggle away only for the mare to tug him closer, driving the wind out of him. “On second thought, tell her to give me a bit…”
“Art thou certain he is coming?” Luna frowned as she, Celestia, Cadance, the element bearers and all of the former cadets stared at the door.
“He said he would be along shortly, your highness.” Swiftsword replied dutifully. “Though the grip that Miss Yearling had on him…”
“I said I was sorry!” The pegasus-in-question’s voice was audible even before Barrier nosed the doors open. “How was I supposed to know you were about to pass out? I was asleep!”
Barrier took a deep breath through his nose and shook his head. “We can discuss it later. I’ve delayed the princesses long enough.”
Daring huffed but didn’t object, instead following the unicorn into the throne room where only two days prior one of the greatest threats to history had resided.
“Princess Celestia, Princess Luna,” Barrier bowed respectfully. “Empress Cadance,” Rather than the same deep bow he’d given the princesses, he gave a half-bow, his eyes focused upward the entire time. “Captain Armor.” Shining Armor gave a quick nod as Barrier spared the element bearers a brief glance and a smile from their location off to the side of the room.
Celestia nodded at the unicorn before speaking… “Good morning, Captain. I assume you’ve puzzled out why you’re here?”
Barrier winced at the hoarse, gravelly tone the mare had. He’d heard throwing up ruby reapers was bad, but Celestia sounded like she’d been swallowing glass.
Barrier nodded and kept his thoughts to himself as he replied. “I assume we’re all to be formally discharged, your highness?”
Celestia and Luna nodded simultaneously, though Luna picked up the narrative to save her sister the pain.
“We would have liked to do this at a later date, however We also doubt any of thee would wish to stay in the Empire any longer than is required. Rest assured, all of thy valiant efforts will be rewarded, but for now…” Luna stood up and strode forward, suddenly seeming to project a heavy air around her. Barrier and the cadets all snapped to attention almost autonomously as Luna began to approach them one by one.
“Private Verdant Range, Private Swiftsword, Private Hat Trick,” She met the eyes of each pony as she moved, her eyes seeming to bore into each of them. “Private Winter Gem, and Private Iron Forge. Thou art all hereby honorably discharged from the Equestrian Royal Guard. Thy discharge papers shalt be delivered to thee upon settling on an address.” All five of the ponies saluted sharply but otherwise didn’t speak.
Luna turned her attention to Magic Barrier. “Captain Barrier…” The two stared hard at one another, unspoken words seeming to pass between them. “We would ask thou to stay on, given recently risen circumstances…” Luna glanced back briefly at Empress Cadance and the alabaster unicorn by her side. “But We know thou would not consent to such a thing at this point in time.”
Barrier nodded, eyes shifting to his freshly discharged privates.
“With that out of the way.” Celestia smiled and nudged the smaller pink alicorn with a wing. “I believe Empress Cadance has an announcement some ponies will find quite nice, given recent circumstances.”
Cadance blushed slightly, eyes twinkling with excitement as she took a deep breath. “Twilight,” Cadance stated in a surprisingly composed manner. “You may want to sit down for what I’m about to say.” Twilight hesitantly did so and Cadance’s willpower seemed to give out as she all but squealed. “Shiny and I are getting married!”
A squeal of joy rang out as six mares rushed the blushing empress. The cadets looked on as they all snapped to attention. Celestia and Luna looked on with proud smiles.
“Congratulations Captain Armor, sir!” The privates all stated in chorus.
“Congratulations, BBBFF!” Twilight squealed as she seemed to hop around in place. “I’m so happy for you! And Cadance, I’ll love having you for a sister.
“Congratulations, young Armor.” Barrier gave him a solid nod while Daring looked to be stroking her chin with the smile of a planner.
“When is the wedding?” Twilight asked as she approached the throne and gave both of them a tight hug.
“It’ll be a while, unfortunately.” Shining was the one to answer. “Sub-captain Onyx has been reassigned to the Empire as the Guard Captain. I’ll have to go back to Equestria and train another pony to take my job.”
“It’s not ideal,” Cadance confessed, “But we have to put our responsibilities to Equestria and the Empire first.”
“Well, you know the old saying,” Shining Armor leaned into Cadance and nuzzled her. “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.”
“Oh gag me.” Rainbow Dash rolled her eyes and made a gagging face.
“On note of the wedding’s postponement,” Luna drew everyone’s attention once more. “There art a few more issues of import we need to disclose. Firstly, we expect thou and thy ponies,” she glanced at Barrier and the newly-discharged civilians. “Will be leaving the Empire at the first opportunity?”
Barrier glanced in silent askance at the five, receiving simultaneous nods.
“We will.” He answered Luna firmly. “No offense, but I think they’ve had enough of the Empire for one lifetime and I certainly know I have.”
Luna nodded in understanding. “Hast thou any inkling of where thou might settle for their rehabilitation into civilian life?”
“Ooh, ooh!” Pinkie squealed and jumped with her hoof in the air. “You could all move to Ponyville!”
No, no, no, no, no, no, no. The little Barrier in his head was panicking.
“As nice as it would to be near the element bearers, I understand that things have become somewhat…hectic in Ponyville, as of late. I believe my ponies would benefit from someplace more...calm. Oh, that reminds me, what will happen to all of the soldiers who were in Dr. Harvest’s care?”
“They were sent out on a train to Canterlot.” Celestia answered hoarsely. “They’ll be treated at the Rosedust Memorial Hospital for both their treatment and rehabilitation into modern life. Private Thunder Aegis chose to accompany them so he may take classes.”
“It’s good to hear they’re in good hooves. I confess, I wasn’t certain where to even begin with them.Though with that in mind, where should we send you five?” Barrier turned to them. “I know you’re unfamiliar with modern Equestria, but you have a multitude of options, aside from joining the others at Rosedust Memorial if you’d like.”
“Sir,” Swiftsword stepped forward, seeming to speak for the group. “We may no longer be thy soldiers, but we believe we should follow you. Thou hast already partially acclimated to modern Equestria. Having thou with us would greatly aid us.”
“Would do’em more good than if we sent’em to the hospital.” Daring chipped in. “The ponies there do good work, but they just got a bunch of new patients, each with a unique problem. They’ll be stretched thin. Besides, we both know you don’t want to be separated from them again so soon.”
“I confess, I’ve no desire to be parted from them, but am I really suited for their reentry to this world?” Hesitation was clear in his voice.
“You’ll be fine,” Daring hip-checked him. “Besides, I’ll be there to help. Someone’s gotta give them lessons in modern equish and it sure as hay won’t be you.”
“I’ve gotten better.” Barrier weakly argued.
“Sure you have.” Daring patted the stallion on the cheek as one would a foal. “Oh, what about the other pegasus?” Daring asked. “The blue one with the filly you told me about, Fleetfeather.”
“We discharged her in private this morning,” Luna confessed. “She seemed to have a great deal on her mind.”
“Yeah…” Barrier sighed and carefully sat down. “She just lost her husband and all save one of her children, in addition to all of her friends and family. All she has left is her youngest child.”
“Where did you last talk to her, Princess?” Daring asked, surprising the unicorn next to her.
“The palace gardens.” Luna answered with hesitation.
“I’ll go talk to her.” Daring smiled at the charcoal pony. “You finish figuring things out for you guys.” Daring quickly departed before the unicorn could raise any questions.
“Barrier?” Celestia’s hoarse voice drew his gaze. “May I give you a suggestion since you chose not to go to Ponyville for you and your former soldiers?”
“Of course, Princess. I would greatly appreciate any advice.” In truth, he had no clue where to go. He’d mostly wandered since his return and the only town he had any intimate knowledge of was Canterlot, which also happened to be the last place he wanted to be, on account of the nobles. “I know what they need, but not where to acquire it.”
“I assume you would prefer a location that’s neither a large city nor too far out of the way?” Celestia offered, receiving a nod of affirmation. “May I recommend Vanhoover? They have a peaceful atmosphere, a low crime rate, access to plenty of places to learn about modern life, and one of the best therapists in Equestria. I could easily arrange for you to meet with her.”
Barrier glanced back at the five whose future were being decided, receiving a nod from their silently elected spokespony, Swiftsword.
“Vanhoover sounds like the ideal place for their recovery.” Barrier bowed respectfully once more. “Thank you, Princess. If I may, when is the next train to Canterlot due?”
“Fairly soon, but it may be best if you waited until tomorrow, so you’ve time to properly prepare for your departure.”
Luna gave a sharp salute as the privates and Barrier had done. “It has been a great honor having thou in our service. Thou art all dismissed.”
The ponies all gave a final salute before they slowly dispersed, as well as the element bearers. When it was only himself and the princesses, Barrier gave his own salute before he too departed, immediately making his way towards the palace gardens.
Fleetfeather sniffled, eye blinking in an effort to force back her tears.
Fleetfeather, Wind Whistler, and Daring Do were all seated at the edge of the palace gardens, overlooking one side of the city. Like her mother, Wind Whistler was fighting to hold back her tears. Daring fidgeted, clearly uncomfortable with the situation and apparently having had far less ground to aide them than she’d initially thought. Silently, Barrier approached and gave her several light taps before motioning towards the palace. The mare consented, and with a nod, left the three alone with Barrier taking her spot.
“Hey Fleet…” Barrier began somewhat awkwardly. “I’d ask how you’re feeling, but I know you always hated stupid questions.”
Fleetfeather’s only response was a half-choked sob.
“I won’t tell you it’s okay either, because we both know that’s a load of crap. Honestly, this is one of those things I don’t entirely think will ever fully heal.”
“How…” Fleetfeather spoke with a surprisingly steady voice considering the thinnest trail of tears fighting to make it’s way down her face. “How didst thou cope?”
Barrier sighed and sidled closer to the mare. “I didn’t, honestly. It wasn’t until I met Miss Yearling that I really started to allow myself to cope and it wasn’t until weeks later I allowed the first thoughts of Ember to enter my mind. I tried to forget the whole thing. Even now, I still don’t know how I’m supposed to act. I’ve been…erratic, since my return. I actually assaulted the first griffin I saw and got myself arrested.”
“I don’t really know what to say to help you here, Fleets. Just…don’t bottle it up, please. Talk to somepony. If not me, then Yearling or the Princess. I know they’d be more than willing to listen.” Barrier shifted so that he was in front of the mare before pulling her into a tight hug, joined shortly by Wind Whistler. Wind Whistler was the first to give, a half-sob turning into full-blown crying, followed shortly by her mother who put the unicorn and filly in a death grip as she bawled.
For nearly ten minutes, the trio sat there, Barrier paying no attention to how soaked his shoulder and side were getting before Fleetfeather finally seemed to cry herself out and pulled away. Wind Whistler, cried herself to sleep and the unicorn carefully lifted her by the scruff of her neck and deposited her on his withers.
“Just know you don’t have to stand this whole thing alone. I…” Barrier hesitated but shook his head vehemently and continued. “I have a hard time admitting this due to my upbringing and career choice, but the cadets…I love my cadets. Far more than I should. They’re like the children I never knew I wanted. When the Empire vanished, I felt like a lost a huge part of my family…but it wasn’t just them. I lost you and Wind Whistler as well. You two were as much family as Ember or my mother. Hell, you were more family than my father.” Barrier ran a hoof through his mane, surprising himself with how tired he was, given that he’d woken up less than four hours ago. “I’ve invited the cadets to come live with me until they’re ready to head out on their own. We plan on going to a nice little place called Vanhoover. Princess Celestia said it’d be a great place for us all. I’d like you and Windy to come along.”
Fleetfeather didn’t reply immediately. “Give it some thought. There are plenty of other options and I’ll personally help you with whatever you decide, but I know the cadets and I would love to have you with us.” Barrier gave the mare one last short hug. “I’ll see you soon, Fleet.” Barrier carefully deposited the sleeping filly with her mother again and turned towards the castle interior. “If you need anything, don’t hesitate to find me.” Barrier didn’t turn around as he spoke the last line, instead departing the gardens.
“Sir,” Cobalt Lancer was waiting inside the palace, likely having witnessed the whole scene. “I have a message from Princess Celestia.”
Barrier nodded. “What’d she say Cobalt?”
“Sir, she said for your efforts in the Empire, she has pardoned you from your charges of assault and missing your court date.”
Barrier’s brow furrowed in confusion. “What court date?”
“Corporal Soundwave scheduled your court date for an assault charge two weeks from the day you made bail. Due to your duties in helping to prepare for the Crystal Empire, you weren’t in Ponyville for it. The warrant for arrest was only issued after the train had left for here.”
Barrier snorted in amusement.
Cobalt continued, “The princess also says, ‘Don’t expect me to bail you out every time you land yourself in hot water’.”
Barrier sighed “Very well, thank you for the message, Miss Lancer.”
“Sir,” The mare saluted before leaving into the palace.
“Barrier.” Fleetfeather spoke softly from behind the stallion. “I didst not have to think of it too long. Mayhaps…nay,” the mare corrected herself. “I believe we should accompany thee to Vanhoover. No doubt it will do the both of us a world of good to have a few familiar faces. Beyond that, I believe that Wind Whistler will wish to know her step-brother.”
“Wassat?” The filly sleepily poked her head up from her mother’s back. “I have a step-brother?”
Barrier smiled. “Something like that, young Whistler…”
Fleetfeather turned to nuzzle the filly. “The train departs tomorrow, correct?”
“Aye, I’ll be joining the cadets tomorrow morning at the train station for our departure.” As soon as I find a pony to deliver that message to them…
“Then we shall see you there. And…thank you, Magic. It was good to have a pony to lean on during…that.” Fleet motioned vaguely towards the gardens before departing, leaving the charcoal pony alone once more.
“How’re you holding up after that?” A familiar voice spoke as soon as the silence had settled.
“Tired.” Barrier turned to face his pegasus paramore.
“All things considered, she seems to be taking it pretty well.” Daring lightly hip-checked the unicorn before moving further into the palace, knowing the stallion would follow.
“I’ve known Fleetfeather a very long time.” Barrier began with a sigh. “She’s putting on a brave face for Wind Whistler… and herself.” You did much the same, burying your emotions. The voice in his head spoke up, reminding him that it was still there. “Still, she and Windy will both pull through.” For better or worse.
“I’ll take your word for it.” The pair walked in companionable silence for a moment before Daring started again. “So, Vanhoover huh?”
Barrier nodded. “The princess suggested it and I trust her.”
“It’s a good place for it.” Daring agreed. “Little more out of the way than I personally enjoy, but I think I could stand a place there. It’s got a really nice water park and some great food. Plus there’s the added bonus of you being there.”
Barrier nodded once more. “It will be interesting to learn the intricacies of modern courting.”
Daring snorted. “Courting. Man that’s weird to hear seriously. Ponies don’t really call it that any more. Plus I don’t think our relationship actually falls into standard dating, or courting if you want to call it that.”
Barrier hummed in acknowledgement, allowing them to slip into the same comfortable silence as before they turned a corner and saw Applejack with a hoof around Winter Gem’s shoulder and Pinkie Pie holding a camera.
We meet again, Pink Devil…
Pinkie Pie turned and stared at the charcoal unicorn with an almost frightening intensity, not breaking the stare as her camera clicked, taking several pictures.
It’s like she can see into my soul…
“Once ah get this developed, I’ll mail it out to Apple Family members all over Equestria, that way all our family will know yah when they see yah.” Applejack took the camera from Pinkie Pie, paying no attention to the staring contest she seemed to be locked into.
“I… thank you, Applejack.” Winter Gem gave the apple farmer a short hug before the two slowly departed together.
Barrier blinked. In that split second, Pinkie had crossed the distance between them and morphed her expression into a grin. “You blinked, I win!”
Barrier tilted his head slightly. “What?”
Pinkie Pie just grinned wider until she gasped, leaving the ground entirely. “Hey Barry, since we’re all gonna be going home tomorrow, we’re having a party just for us. Wanna come? We may not have cake or other snacks, but we do have a karaoke machine that I brought along.” Pinkie gasped again. “Oh and pin the tail on the pony, and a bunch of other games!” Another gasp. “AND fireworks!”
Don’t think about it. Barrier opened his mouth to politely decline but the pink mare cut him off again.
“Now that I think about it, I never did get to throw you a party back in Ponyville since you never showed up.” The mare’s gaze hardened and her posture straightened as she stared at the unicorn hard. “It would be awfully nice if you’d come to this one.” her voice was frighteningly saccharine.
Barrier swallowed nervously, something about Pinkie Pie telling him to say no would be the wrong move.
“Sorry, Pinks,” Daring interjected, “Barrier promised to show me the library.”
“Oh. Okeydokey then! Still, you should have this!” The mare shoved a slip of paper into Barrier’s hooves before literally vanishing, leaving behind afterimage of herself in the form of a dust cloud. Barrier glanced down at the paper and read its message.
I.O.U. one super awesome party at a time I think’s right. - Pinkamena Diane Pie
Almost subconsciously, Barrier found himself reaching towards his flask, only to remember it had been empty for quite some time.
“Thank you for that, Daring. I know she means well, but I really didn’t feel like going to a party. Though…what should we do to pass the time?”
“The library.” Daring replied as if it were obvious.
“Of course.” Barrier chuckled.
“Come on!” Daring groaned and nudged the stallion forward. “There’s gotta be tons of books that nopony has seen in literal centuries!”
“Well, it’s certainly preferable to the party, but I don’t understand why you need me to go to the library.”
“Well, we wouldn’t want me to have lied to Pinkie…annnnd I might be able to use your clearance to get into the more restrictive sections of the library.”
“I don’t think I have clearance any more. I was discharged less than twelve hours ago…”
“Not in Equestria, no,” Daring grinned. “But the Empire’s running on outdated paperwork. I bet you still have clearance here.”
“I’m...fairly certain that’s highly illegal.”
“Oh come on, it’s all one-thousand year old books. What’s the worst that could happen?”