Barrier blinked after he strode into Luna’s private conference chamber. The scenery was certainly reasonable, considering the stature of the princess. A hefty white oak table sat in the room’s center, and the furniture, amidst the darker stone background, stood out like a full moon. It fit Luna to a T. What smashed the T to pieces, however, was the sight of Shining Armor and Trigger sitting side by side with grins plastered upon both their muzzles.
“My session with Indar was rough,” Barrier blurted, taking another step forward, “but he certainly didn’t land a hit that would make me hallucinate.” He took a sniff and caught the unmistakable scent of alcohol. “Have you two been drinking? Did someone go throw a bone at Cerberus again?”
Shining nodded before a sheepish smile crawled across his countenance, and the unicorn gradually held up a bottle of Sweet Apple Red. “Trigger brought the A.J.D., some Fireball for Spits, and some revolting shit for you and Lulu.”
The charcoal-coated captain quirked his brow, though the subsequent chuckle that dripped through Trigger’s parted lips was utterly unsurprising. “You are absolutely terrible, Trigs.”
“Aw, c’mon Barry!” the stallion protested with a shout and a dismissive wave. “Ya get a few shots down his throat and he actually isn’t that bad to be around. We have to do something while waiting for Mes Étoiles to wake up. Might as well be loose for whatever crazy scheme you two are trying to concoct for Flicker.”
“She’s ready to move forward—”
The scampering of hooves in the hall hushed Barrier’s explanation. The taps grew louder until the crescendo climaxed with Spitfire and Princess Luna lunging through the opened doorway. “Verily!” Luna gleefully shouted when her teal gaze found the outline of Trigger’s frame. “He came indeed, and Shining is in one piece.”
“That’s what I told you,” the fiery pegasus remarked before she plopped down in the other chair next to Shining Armor.
“Though, you left out the part where he brought alcohol to this meeting.” Luna’s tone momentarily held a serious edge. “Try not to get my Captain of the Royal Guard hammered, Sir Trigger, or Mes Étoiles might just have to impose a liquor tax on those bits.”
A gritty gasp broke from Trigger’s mouth as he leaned back in the chair and drove a forehoof into his chest. “What a low blow, Your Highness.” A sarcastic tenor flirted with the royal title, and Trigger’s other foreleg ventured beneath the tabletop to retrieve an opaque glass bottle. “Threatening me with taxes after I brought ya a little Moonlight Spirytus.”
Moving towards the source of the group’s escalating inebriation, Barrier grunted. He lightly swatted the brim of Trigger’s hat while on the way to one of the vacant seats. “Getting a princess trashed isn’t any better. Trust me. I have more experience in that department than even you.”
“Indeed,” Luna countered once her sly smile blossomed. The princess claimed her chair and pounded the table as though she were using a gavel. “We shall drink later, my bartending creature of reverie. For now though, I believe we should focus on what Captain Barrier needs us to do.”
The slightly spirited Shining chuckled upon nudging Trigger’s side. “You’re in so much trouble,” he whispered, making no effort to actually lower the volume of his statement.
Barrier squinted, catching the playful, borderline sultry visage that swept itself upon Trigger’s appearance in a quick flurry. “Anyway,” he began, shunting that potential line to the wayside. “Ms. Tail’s skills have improved. Frankly, they’ve improved at a rate that is greater than what I expected at the start, but B.C.T. is not going to be enough for her.
“You’re all on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, with the exception of Trigs. I don’t think anypony here has a problem sharing this information. Tail and Bonecrusher beat the shit out of each other, and Proud made an immediate move for Tail’s discharge. It was unsettling then, and it became even more so after I saw Tail’s lab.”
“Pfft,” Shining interrupted. “That pushy bastard has wanted his hooves on Tail’s research since she received her grant.” Shining’s airy tone drew another snort from Trigger, which in turn drew a shushing stare from Luna.
“Which is why,” the princess said, reining in the conversation, “we need to have Tail’s B.C.T. final examination be as convincing as possible. Her combat certification will silence the army’s concerns. We need to test her abilities in a way that, should she succeed, dramatically showcases the combat and decision-making talents she gained under Barrier’s tutelage.”
Spitfire straightened her seated posture while her burnt orange eyes methodically focused upon each pony in attendance. Eventually settling on Magic Barrier, she crossed her forelegs and leaned forward. “She’s your rookie, so what’s the plan, Boss?”
A playful grin met Spitfire’s inquisitive stare. “Ms. Tail will be leading the squad during the Summer Sun festivities. What kind of officers would we be if we didn’t make her first patrol one she’ll never forget?”
With her eyes closed, Amora calmly wrapped Tail’s broken wing in her magical aura. She hummed an improvised melody through the examination, and as she went, a smile continued to flourish. “You can come home with me once I get off shift. You’re still taking my spell extremely well, so there’s no problem on that front.”
Tail turned the page of her reading assignment and hummed along with Amora. The unicorn was kind enough to levitate the book through the scan, which allowed the patient to continue studying despite the intrusion. “I miss my bed already—and my pillows. No offense, Ams, but the pillows here are just not the same.”
The medic grinned and took a playful swat at Tail’s flank. “Oh, is that why you’re spending so much time planted into your drill instructor’s coat? The nurses are starting to wonder if you two eloped, after all.”
Red invaded the tips of Tail’s ears, and her coat stood up while that primary defensive wave made its way through her system. She shushed her roommate. “Would you just stop?”
“This is Luna-sanctioned behavior,” Amora happily quipped before she lowered her head to give the pegasus a reassuring nuzzle. “Don’t worry your cute feathers off. There aren’t really any rumors. Still though, he’s pretty cute, so after B.C.T.…”
The Rouge March annexed the pegasus’s cheeks. “And how much is that from genuine thought versus your addiction for his pancakes?” she blurted in a higher-pitched voice after recovering from her latest squeak.
A snort erupted from Amora’s muzzle. “As much as I’d love to say that his breakfast drives all of my Magic Barrier opinions, they don’t. When your shit’s on point with him, you shine brighter. Don’t think I haven’t noticed, Ms. We-Have-to-Go-to-My-Lab-Right-Now.”
Plucking her book from Amora’s hold, Tail glared at the snowy unicorn. “Somepony is late for her rounds,” she said before averting her gaze from the rising doctor. “And that was one of the best decisions I ever made.”
Amora turned away from the mare and trotted towards the door. With a cheeky grin, she tossed her head to the side, throwing a sidelong glance at her roommate. “See you tonight, Hun. And, just so we’re clear, I didn’t really hear a no.”
Barrier and Luna made their way from the conference room after the meeting had concluded—and after it had become clear that Trigger was going to get Shining Armor absolutely shit-faced drunk. The privacy of her bedroom seemed far more fitting to Princess Luna, and Barrier had a date with his home.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve seen you like this,” Luna speculated aloud as she and Barrier made their way through the castle. When the stallion didn’t reply, Luna continued without hesitation. “Not since before my fall. Back then, you always had this energy about you. No matter the horrible thing that needed to be done—no matter how horrible your deeds had to be—you never let it show, and you never let it get the better of you. But upon our return to this world—”
The unicorn’s lips strained, and his brow quivered. He huffed, releasing his jaw from the building tension, and finally replied, “I no longer had the strength to keep my own demons at bay. What I’ve done—and what I do—has always weighed heavily on me, but I’ve always had friends and companions to see me through. Without them, why bother?”
Luna maintained her stride, though the features of her countenance began to droop beneath the weight of her mounting worry. “I know—I know that you did not want to speak with me, but you could have always spoken to my sister.”
“No,” he replied flatly. “No, I couldn’t. I was angry with both of you. You became an insufferable brat whose imprisonment took away everyone I ever knew, and your sister knew exactly what the banishment would bring. I never signed up to be cast a thousand years into the future. I never took an oath to that. I took an oath to lay down my life if need be, not to live through my death.”
The princess winced. She came to a halt and instinctively moved to offer yet another apology, but Barrier had already raised his foreleg to cut her off.
“Things change,” he spoke in a softer, smoother tone. “The hatred wasn’t worth it, and it certainly isn’t what they would have wanted from me. I resigned myself to my fate because it was what it was.”
“But this is far from a quiet fate, Barrier,” Luna calmly added, in spite of the emotions that the timid tapping of her hoof and the solemn stare upon her face betrayed. “You’re fighting again, and for the first time in ages, you are alive once more. I wish to know if this shift has something to do with your introduction to our little physicist.”
Barrier’s ear flicked once Luna’s less-than-subtle reconnaissance dropped a bit for his thoughts. “You’re just as terrible as Trigs,” he answered after a mischievous grin split his muzzle, “but I don’t think you can take full credit for this one, Lulu. She… surprised me. She’s the first one in a long time who didn’t shy away when I told her everything.
“The things we did back then, the things I did, they still haunt me. I can’t speak about them openly because nobody born in this era would understand. Until recently, I was beyond convinced that everyone would recoil in disgust or call on the guard to have me arrested. Ponies here are so passive. Even the aggressive ones are tame by our standards, so how could they possibly understand? How could they look at me, hear my words, and not see a monster?”
“You don’t think much of ponies in this age, do you, Barrier?” Luna ventured in an off-the-hoof, quiet tone.
“They’re soft. They don’t comprehend the sacrifices that were made to build this nation, barring the few notable exceptions of Trigger, Shining, and that awkward pegasus in the intelligence department. Maybe Spits, but she’s got that showpony in her. The point still stands. Harmony isn’t free, but most ponies think it is. Those are the fronts that make me feel like the demons from fairy tales of old, and those are the types of fronts today’s ponies carry. I just figured they’d all look upon me with fear or disgust, and then…”
Luna captured the ground yielded by Barrier’s fading voice. She leaned forward as a smile conquered the anxiety that had previously gripped her aura. “And then… along came Tail?” she offered in a gentle tone.
Barrier pivoted until his back faced the alicorn. He tilted his head towards the ceiling, and his muscles momentarily relaxed. He wouldn’t dare let Luna see the warm smirk that brightened his expression. It was a victory that he couldn’t give to her, not just yet. He couldn’t let that threat degrade his instructor edge, but at the same time, there was absolutely no way for him to conceal the gratitude that sat etched within his tone as he walked away. “And then along came Tail.”