“No,” Barrier answered flatly as he stepped from the train onto the platform, the tan pegasus following closely behind.
“Come on, it’d be hilarious!” Daring whined, jabbing the unicorn in his bandaged shoulder, causing the stallion to flinch. “Imagine Princess Celestia’s reaction if she woke up with you in her bed. I bet Princess Luna would be down for it.”
“No,” the unicorn answered flatly once more, his eyes scanning the late-evening crowds of Canterlot, finally settling his gaze upon a quickly approaching white unicorn. “Odd,” he mused aloud, “I didn’t expect anyone to meet us here, much less Shin-” Barrier was silent as the white unicorn reached them and without hesitation slugged the unicorn in the jaw, causing his head to jerk hard to the side.
“Are you out of your mind?!” Daring suddenly shouted at the younger unicorn, immediately drawing the attention of several nearby ponies.
“Shining Armor,” Barrier’s voice was level as he nursed the inside of his jaw with his tongue. “If you don’t have a very good reason for striking me, I’m going to paint Canterlot with your face.”
“You made me think you slept with my parents!” The unicorn shouted, drawing the attention of any ponies that weren’t already watching to them.
Barrier didn’t reply, instead staring at the unicorn for a moment before his gaze slowly drifted off to the side; after a short moment, the white unicorn’s gaze followed. As it did, Barrier threw a left hoof of his own, connecting neatly with the underside of the unicorn’s jaw, driving him backwards in surprise. “It was a joke,” Barrier spat a glob of thick red saliva to the ground. “And your parents’ idea for that matter.”
Daring just stood there, mouth moving but no words coming out.
“Now, did you come here for any reason other than to strike me?”
Shining nursed his own jaw for a moment before responding, “The princess sent me to take you both to her for whatever reason.”
“Then what are we waiting for, let’s go.”
“Announcing Sir Barrier and Miss Yearling!” a guard announced loudly before ushering both Barrier and the disguised pegasus into the throne-room.
“Your Highness,” the disguised pegasus bowed low while Barrier inclined his head respectfully, eyes staying forward as they always did when he bowed his head.
“How did your trip go? Any luck with the Diamond Ray?” Celestia asked softly, eyes resting on the pegasus.
“It could have been better,” Daring admitted. “It wasn’t there when we arrived.” The pony kept her statement intentionally vague.
Celestia simply nodded in understanding. “Very well. There are no pressing requests at this time so you may consider yourself on vacation for the time-being.”
“Yes, Princess.” Daring bowed once more before taking several steps back.
“And have you anything to report, Barrier?” Celestia directed her gaze at the unicorn this time, smiling fondly, much to his surprise.
“Ma’am, I must inform you tha-”
“Other than the magic of the empire, Captain.” Celestia tittered slightly; she and her sister had both felt the pulse clear in Canterlot.
“Nothing else particularly worthy of note ma’am, though I could write a report if you’d like. Princess, I have to know, what do you intend to do about the empire if it returns?”
“I already have plans in motion for it, I assure you.” Her tone then became much sterner, “I will not allow history to repeat itself. Our mages believe we have approximately one month before the empire returns. Until then, we shall be making careful plans and preparations.”
“Princess,” Barrier bowed his head once more before taking several steps back, a hard edge present in his gaze as both he and Daring departed the throne-room and made their way onto the streets of Canterlot once more.
“So,” Daring glanced up at the slowly darkening sky. “How about after I drop this revised scene off with Velvet, we go out and get something to eat somewhere nice? Think I’ve got a suit in your size.”
Barrier raised a curious eyebrow before voicing his agreement. “I don’t mind, but why do you have a suit in my size?”
“You’re not the only pony I’ve had to work with.” The disguised pegasus continued towards the Sparkle household, a slight hop in her step, not noticing the slight shiver that ran down her companion’s spine.
“Fair enough. I have to go take care of some business.” The unicorn continued to follow her even as he looked over his shoulder before turning forward once more. “Where would you like me to meet you?”
“Oh,” It was Daring’s turn to gaze curiously at the unicorn, but when no explanation was forthcoming, she simply smiled, “I’m staying at the Canterlot Suites, in room three-thirty-seven. Just come up whenever you finish whatever you’re doing.”
Barrier nodded but didn’t reply otherwise, instead separating with Daring at the first intersection available to them, turning into the first narrow alley available to him, turning to face the mouth, his expression set in a narrow line.
“You’re good,” A black stallion with a silver mane and a seven-pointed star on his flank stepped into the mouth of the alley, a grin clear on his muzzle.
“You’ve been following me. Probably since the train station.” Barrier sat down on his flanks and took a deep breath, eyes narrowing. “Why?”
“Shadows don’t go away, Captain. They just wait. I’ve been watchin’ because you’ve got the skills to deal with shadows. And because I’m in need of a drinking buddy.”
“Not interested.” Barrier stated before stalking towards the mouth of the alley, bypassing the stallion completely with the soft pop of teleportation. “I’ve spent enough time in the shadows.”
The stallion just chuckled before adjusting the brown colston atop his head before pivoting to follow the charcoal unicorn. “Says the pony that went trotting down a dark alley.”
Barrier snorted in slight irritation. “There’s a difference between using the shadows and living in them. Believe me, I know the difference. Now, what do you want?”
“I read your file, Captain Barrier. We wouldn’t miss an officer showing up a thousand years after his last rodeo. I came to see if you wanted to get back in the game, but I think you’ve made it clear that you’re tired of that bullshit. That’s fair enough, but as far as I can tell, drinks are still fair game. Besides that, I’d wager you’d appreciate talking to somepony that actually knows.”
Magic Barrier’s expression fell slightly as the thoughts ran through his mind. The stranger wasn’t wrong; he’d felt lost since his return. The unicorn didn’t know how to act in this new world and there wasn’t a day that went by that he didn’t feel overwhelmed in some way. “Alright,” he finally replied. “I have a little time to burn. You have somewhere in mind for the drinks?”
“This city is full of uptight fuckers, but yeah, I know a place. There’s a nice little tea-house that serves the hardest booze inside the walls. Low-key too, so it’s unlikely we’ll have any unwanted interruptions.”
“Lead the way, unicorn.” Barrier made a sweeping motion with a forehoof, eyes carefully watching the stallion.
A grin spread across the pony’s muzzle as he stepped around Barrier. “Congratulations, you’re the third pony to actually catch that, and by the way, the name’s Trigger.”
“A shame,” Barrier sighed, his voice melancholic. “Once upon a time, a lot more ponies would have noticed.” He followed carefully behind his new acquaintance, eyes resting more on the cobblestone than the pony leading him.
“A shame in some ways, but not so much in others. The same things just rest on far fewer ponies today than they used to.” Trigger trotted on, weaving his way through the streets with practiced ease until he finally stopped at their destination.
“Success breeds complacency and complacency breeds failure.” Barrier recited the quote with ease as he gazed over the small teahouse and realized he’d passed by it several times but never taken note of it. A shame since the rustic, homey feel it seemed to give off was certainly something he could enjoy. “There’s no such thing as true peace, and I worry for when this peace is shattered.”
Trigger pushed the door open and both ponies quickly shuffled through the door. “That’s why some of us took up the call, Captain. There’s peace here, but it isn’t everywhere.”
Barrier followed the unicorn to a booth, sliding into the seat across from him. “I take it your group isn’t exactly official?”
“We were once upon a time,” Trigger replied with a shrug. “Maybe we will be again someday. It’s not an easy thing to when it’s all done off the books. Not like we’re cutting checks on this. Just a few smart ponies who know when shit has to be done.”
“So what do you guys do? Same thing that I used to do just without the princesses’ command or…?”
“Not really on the same scale as your day, but pretty much. There are still some unfriendly things out there that need to be put in their respective places.”
Barrier glanced briefly at the menu before sliding it away. He knew better than to drink too much with the upcoming date; it’d be rude to Daring. “You know, if you guys had asked me when I first returned, I’d probably have joined in a heartbeat. The first few weeks here weren’t the greatest. If I’d been able to jump back into my old job, I would’ve, if only to avoid coping.”
“That’s exactly the reason we didn’t.” Trigger explained. “Not even gonna pretend to understand the shit a one-thousand year skip brings. Though, I did get assigned to tag you because Princess Luna is likely the only one who gets it better than I do. For what it’s worth, I didn’t make any preconceived expectations. Right now, you’re just a stallion sitting in a teahouse with me. I’m about to throw back a drink and you’re going to pussy out of one and order something safe for that marefriend of yours.”
“Double-shot of plain vodka if you have it, if not then a double of something with a burn.” Barrier half-smiled at the unicorn across from him. “She’s not my marefriend, and I think she probably drinks more than I do. Plus, I like to think I can hold my booze pretty well. I am glad they sent you though. At the very least you’ve not run off knowing some of the crazy shit I’ve done.”
Trigger grinned wide and looked over to the staff. “Two Artillery Punches! Give it some kick please, I have a guest.” He turned back to Barrier. “At least Luna isn’t a desk-warrior. The guard these days is a joke. It’s easy for ponies to weasel in, and you don’t even want to know half the shit I dug up in the Badlands. But enough about me, it’s terrible first date material. I’m sure you have some stuff on your mind, so vent away.”
“Luna was always in the thick of it with the ponies, but at the end of the day she was still our princess. She was still the one giving orders.” Barrier fell silent for a moment, contemplating the intelligence of spilling his problems to someone that was still quite the stranger.
His contemplation came to an end as his mouth started moving of it’s own volition. “I don’t know what the hell to do. Up until a few months ago for me, I was killing griffins and ponies -thestrals specifically- in droves. Then, all of a sudden, I’m in a damned utopia. I don’t know how to act around ponies anymore. I can’t tell them why I’m jumpy or why I have scars. I…Faust, I killed for so damned long because I had to. I became the captain my team needed me to be, but I ground so much of myself away doing it I feel like I lost myself in the process. I don’t know how the hell to act in a world where every day isn’t life and death.”
The stallion played with the brim of his hat for a moment. “Understandable, but I think you’re forgetting the obvious, Captain. The only currency in war is life. Once the war is over, what matters is friends, and despite your misgivings, you look like you’re on way to gaining some.”
“Ponies these days aren’t really friend-material for a pony like me. If any of them knew half of the stuff I’ve done, they wouldn’t want anything to do with me. Maybe Daring would be okay, but most other ponies…”
Trigger nodded as the drink were set on their table. “One thing doesn’t define us though. You took up the burden and became something else, but if not you, then what? Even with your situation now, if you hadn’t been sealed with Nightmare Moon, you would have had the same transition of navigating peace. I think you’ve handled yourself better than most.”
“Maybe,” Barrier conceded, staring down at his drink. “But at least that transition would have been gradual rather than just shoved onto me.” Magic Barrier threw his drink back, not so much as flinching as it burned it’s way down and gave his stomach a pleasant tingling sensation. “There’s also trying to come to terms with everything I left behind. All the loose ends I didn’t think I had. Ah well,” the unicorn levitated several bits out of his saddlebags and stacked them neatly on the table. “That’ll be a conversation for a later time. I’ve gotta go meet my date, after all. And thanks for the drinks, Trigger. Maybe I’ll see you around sometime. Maybe back here at the teahouse.”
The stallion cocked a grin. “We’ll be keeping an eye on you, Barrier. Shadows have a way of finding those that dabbled. If you need us, we’ll be around.” He paused for a few seconds to let the grin spread. “And that unicorn thing, you were only half right, but that’s my story for another time.”