• Published 26th Sep 2019
  • 510 Views, 30 Comments

CRISIS: A Royal Affair - GanonFLCL



In an alternate Equestria, a young filly, Blackburn, was destined to be Queen of Hope's Point, a beacon of light in the darkness. See her grow alongside the friends and loved ones that made her the ever-watchful, iron-hoofed Queen she was born to be.

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Chapter Ten: Royal Revelations

Four Months Later

Lockwood lounged on his couch early one evening, reading a book he’d been recommended about surviving out in the Wastelands. Not that he had any intention of ever walking outside Pandemonium’s walls, but he knew ponies that did want to and figured if he could impart any advice to them at all it would be prudent for him to do so. It was a fascinating read, truth be told, if a bit graphic in its descriptions. There were many books on the subject, and he’d read quite a few of them, but this one went into gruesome detail on the various things that were particularly dangerous out there.

One of the greatest dangers of the Wasteland - apart from the risks of starvation, dehydration, injuries sustained while traversing hazardous terrain, and just plain exhaustion - were creatures called ‘Gargantuans’, which the book described as hulking insectoid creatures of suitably gargantuan size that possessed equally exceptional violent tendencies. The book’s author seemed particularly eager to explain just the sorts of grisly things these creatures could do to a pony, who was smaller than even the most juvenile stage of their growth process: they could be ripped to shreds by scythe-like claws, impaled and crushed by sharp, hefty legs, torn apart by razor-sharp mandibles, and worst of all, experience a slow, agonizing death if stung by their scorpion-like stingers, which contained a lethal venom.

One thing was for sure, he was glad the Outer Wall of the city kept the Gargantuans out, especially the bigger adult ones, described as being the size of buildings. He certainly never wanted to see one of these things up close.

The book also described, albeit briefly, a few of the important locales. To the southwest of the Gate were the Redblade Mountains, a range of active volcanoes in a constant state of eruption, making the area quite impregnable to all but the bravest, or stupidest, travelers. To the southeast was the mountainous Goldridge Pass, the only safe region of the entire Wasteland; rumor had it there were ancient ruins underneath the great caverns spreading throughout. Further east was a region called the Blood Mire, though the information was scant on it because nopony went inside as it was blocked by some kind of magical force field. Rumor was that ponies who died in Pandemonium and couldn’t afford a proper burial service were just tossed into it, but that was just a rumor.

And far to the south, there was just the tiniest glimmer of hope, the city of Hope’s Point, a veritable fortress of a harbor that had stood in defiance of Pandemonium’s efforts to quash it for more than forty years. The book didn’t have much information on the place, since it had been written before its author ever managed to reach it. Supposedly it was ruled by a king, it was protected by an impenetrable shield, and the vast majority of its citizens were defectors or refugees from Pandemonium itself. It sounded like a nice change of pace, and the occasional pony Lockwood knew from there - all of them part of some airship team - seemed decent enough.

There came a knock at the door - three knocks in a distinct, slow pattern. Lockwood knew it as the secret knock that he’d developed with Thunderbolt so that he’d know it was either her, Tinker, or Fireblast, or all three together. He set down his book on the couch and trotted over to the door, opening it to reveal Blackburn, Gadget, and Crossfire carrying a bunch of boxes.

“Well isn’t this a pleasant surprise,” Lockwood greeted with a smile. He stepped aside to let them in and set down their boxes. “I wasn’t expecting you guys for dinner. I thought you had to catch and early flight tomorrow?”

“We do, but we figured we’d stop by and see you before we left,” Blackburn said. “You haven’t eaten anything yet, have you?”

“Not yet, no. I was gonna have a snack in a little bit, but--” Lockwood eyed the boxes curiously. “What’s all this?”

“A little gift for a friend,” she replied with her own smile.

“A gift? For me? What for?”

“Besides you being our friend?” Blackburn chuckled. “Well, last time we took a little vacation down south, you surprised us with those advertisements. So, I figured it would be a nice little idea to show you just how much we appreciate all you’ve done for us this past year.”

Lockwood smiled politely. “I appreciate that, Thunderbolt, but you don’t need to do anything like that for me. I’m not your friend just so that I can get something out of it.”

“Oh, just let us thank you, featherbrain,” Gadget huffed, tugging his ear with her magic. “Sheesh. Some ponies just don’t know how to accept a little kindness and generosity now and then, do they?”

“To be fair, I think you’ve done more than enough for me,” Lockwood noted. “As I recall, you guys saved my life and paid for Miracle’s treatment - and then some - out of pocket, no matter how much I’ve tried to insist I pay for my own medical expenses.”

“That’s different. We didn’t do that because we’re friends, we did that because that’s what ponies are supposed to do when they see somepony in need,” Blackburn said with a grin. “This though, this is us actually thanking you. If it weren’t for you, we’d never have gotten as far ahead as we are.”

“Yeah, thanks to your advice, I was able to whip up another little gizmo for Don Virtuoso and get us a solid partnership with him,” Gadget said with a proud smirk. “I mean, I could’ve figured out he’d like a portable music player eventually, but it was nice knowing he’s got a passion for that kinda stuff so I could get started. To be honest I’m surprised nopony’s thought of it before.”

“Oh please, that was nothing,” Lockwood said, dismissing the thought.

“If’n ya got a problem taking these here gifts, just don’t think of it like we’re repayin’ ya ‘cause we feel obligated or somethin’,” Crossfire said, clapping Lockwood on the shoulder. “Think of it like we’re doin’ it ‘cause y’all’re our friend, and friends look out fer one another.”

Lockwood rolled his eyes. “Fine, fine. You seem insistent, and I suppose it would be rude to refuse whatever gifts you brought.” He took a seat on his couch. “So, what’d you bring?”

Crossfire opened the largest box to reveal a rolled up rug. “Ta da!”

Lockwood tilted his head. “A new rug?”

Blackburn nodded and smiled. “You’ve mentioned more than once how much the old one meant to you. It really ‘tied the room together’, right?”

Crossfire hoisted the rug out of the box and unfurled it, setting it down where Lockwood’s old rug had once been. The new rug was of rather decent quality, colored with blacks, whites, and grays in a series of spirals and waves. Lockwood examined it closely, then shook his head with disapproval. “Guys, I… I can’t take this. This had to cost you a fortune, it’s way too nice for me.”

“Nonsense,” Blackburn huffed, waving off his notion with her hoof. “Sure, we didn’t fish it out of some bargain bin somewhere, but it wasn’t exactly expensive. We can more than afford it. Remember, your help made Crown Spectrum pretty damn valuable.”

“Thunderbolt, really, you know I’m not one to take charity--”

“This isn’t charity, doofus,” Gadget snorted, flicking Lockwood’s hat off his head. “We’re your friends, and you needed a new rug, so we bought one. That’s it. Thanks to all the contacts you’ve made us we have the money to afford even better rugs, but we got this one because it wasn’t too fancy.”

“It’s just a gift, Lockwood,” Blackburn said, putting her hoof on his shoulder. “Just a little token of friendship from one friend to another. Okay? If you don’t like it, fine, we’ll take it out of here and won’t say another word about it, but I want to make sure you understand that we’re giving this to you because you are our friend. Not out any sort of pity.”

Lockwood paused a moment, then sighed and smiled. “Okay, okay, sorry. I’m just a little hard-headed about taking things from others, you know that. But I suppose if you guys insist, I’ll be glad to have it.” He eyed the rug and smirked. “I mean, it’s a pretty nice rug. Should tie the room together nicely.”

“Good, glad to hear it. But that’s not all we brought you.”

Lockwood shook his head. “Really, guys, this is already so much--”

“Hush.” Blackburn opened up one of the other boxes, and gestured for him to look inside. There was a stack of little blue tubes inside bearing the Dolor brand label. “Enough Dolor Blue to last you a whole month. I know it’s your favorite, so we decided to get you some. I’ll never understand why you like something that tastes like toothpaste, but everypony’s got a little quirk here and there.”

Lockwood couldn’t help but lick his lips. “That’s… that’s a lot, Thunderbolt. You didn’t need to do that, I can feed myself just fine.”

“One packet a day doesn’t count as feeding yourself, Lockwood,” Blackburn tutted, tapping him on the head with her wing. “Fireblast’s been concerned about your health for a long time, and this was his idea. Isn’t that right, Fireblast?”

Crossfire nodded. “Yup. Y’all’re a scrawny lil’ thing, Lockwood, an’ that ain’t right. Ain’t nopony need ta live like that, so I suggested we get ya somethin’ ta get some meat on them bones o’ yers while we’re gone. Maybe y’all’ll get big ‘n’ strong like me someday.”

“I doubt that.” Lockwood shook his head. “Still, guys… a whole month’s worth? And I assume it’s enough for three meals a day and everything?”

“Sure as shootin’.”

“Guys, this much Dolor Blue could feed an entire neighborhood in the Outer District for more than a month, and it’d be better tasting and better for them than the Brown they usually have to deal with. I can’t accept this--”

“You can, and you will,” Blackburn said, stomping her hoof. “You can do what you want with it, of course. We’d rather you get a chance to relax and enjoy yourself for a little while, but if you feel you have to be your usual selfless self, we’re not going to stop you. It’s what I… what we like about you.”

“You’re not gonna let up on this, are you?”

“Not a chance.”

Lockwood let out a breath. “Fine, if you insist. I’ll make sure to keep some for myself, but most of it’s getting donated. What else?”

Blackburn opened up the next box, and Gadget floated out a plethora of vegetables and spices, as well as a tablecloth and some kitchen utensils, and set them on the kitchen counter.

“We may have brought you enough Dolor Blue for a month, but for tonight you’re eating a high-quality meal. Fireblast insisted on giving you the opportunity to have a home-cooked dinner made with real ingredients for once.”

“They ain’t the freshest or firmest,” Crossfire noted, “but it’s the best we can get up here in the city. It’ll still taste mighty fine, I promise ya that. Might make ya homesick fer Utopia even though y’all ain’t from Utopia.”

Lockwood eyed the ingredients: lima beans, onions, garlic, okra, corn, tomatoes, and assorted spices. He had no idea what to expect. “What sort of dish are you making with this?”

Crossfire beamed and stood tall and proud. “My ma’s old-fashioned succotash recipe, which she learned from her ma, who learned it from hers, an’ so on an’ so on through twenty generations o’ mah family. Kinda gotta make do with the ingredients we got, but it’ll hit the spot just right, swear on Harmonia’s wings.”

Lockwood tapped his chin and nodded. “Hmm. Well alright, this sounds fun. Can’t say I’ve ever had Utopian food before.” He gestured to the last box. “And this one?”

“That’s for after dinner,” Blackburn said. “For now, you’re going to help us in the kitchen with Fireblast.”

The quartet helped Crossfire prepare the meal with much gusto: chopping veggies, mixing spices, cleaning utensils, serving, etc. Apart from Lockwood, everypony present had sampled Crossfire’s exquisite cooking before, particularly his family succotash recipe, so their opinion was pretty much to be expected: good, not great, because the ingredients weren’t farm-to-table quality.

Lockwood, however, had never had Utopian food before, much less succotash, let alone Crossfire’s family recipe. It was the most wonderfully delicious meal he’d ever had in his entire life. It brought honest-to-goodness tears of joy to his eyes.

Once the meal was concluded, Blackburn opened the last box with a little flair, revealing… cleaning supplies and a new window filter. Lockwood raised an eyebrow, not expecting his last gift to be so mundane. “Uh…”

“Your place is filthy,” Blackburn said, gesturing around at the dust. “So we’re going to clean it up a bit. Maybe then you won’t have to live in a sty, at least for a little while. You might have to put some effort in now and then to keep your place clean afterwards, but that’s on you.”

Lockwood rubbed his head nervously. “Thanks? I think? I guess I could maintain the place a bit better…”

“Also, the window filter’s because yours is in disrepair. Now you won’t have to breathe filthy smog every day while in the comfort of your own home.”

“Well… yeah, okay, that’s actually helpful. I’ve been having a bit of a cough the past week or so.”

“Excellent, then it’s decided. Here.” Blackburn passed him a feather duster out of the box. “You can help too. That way it’s not just us cleaning, because I know you’d object to that.”

Lockwood blinked, then shrugged. “Eh… I’ve done worse things with my time after dinner.”

The quartet set about cleaning up the apartment: Crossfire took the kitchen, Gadget took the living room and the restroom, and Blackburn helped Lockwood with the bedroom. It only took the two a few minutes apiece to clean the walls, floor, and ceiling, wiping them clear of dust and other filthy residue that had been there for a long while. Blackburn helped Lockwood make his bed next, then set about helping to clean his nightstand.

“Anything in here you need to get rid of?” she asked as she pointed to the assortment of junk and stuff inside the top drawer.

Lockwood grabbed out the important things - his wallet and his identification - then gestured at the rest - the dried up pens, the old notebook, the dozen or so paperclips, and everything else. “That can all go. Just a bunch of junk I never got around to throwing out.”

Blackburn lifted all the junk out and threw it into one of the plastic bags they’d brought along, then cleaned the dust and gunk out of the drawer with a wet paper towel. She then gestured to the bottom drawer. “Next.”

Lockwood glanced at the drawer for too long, then looked back to Blackburn. “We don’t need to clean that one.”

“Nonsense. Go get your key and open it up. We’re cleaning the whole apartment, remember? Don’t worry, I’ll be very careful with the couple of things in there. I know it’s sentimental and all.”

Lockwood paused. “You… know what’s in there?”

Blackburn raised an eyebrow. “Of course I do. When you didn’t show up to our meeting, we came up here and searched your whole apartment for clues. I found the photo and the diary, but I didn’t look through it much. Just enough to determine it wasn’t useful to finding where you’d gone.”

“You looked through it?!” Lockwood blurted.

Blackburn paused, taken aback. “Only a little. I was just trying to find out what happened to you.”

Lockwood narrowed his eyes. “Well, it wasn’t in there. I could’ve told you that,” he huffed. He trudged out into the living room. “What’s in there is none of your business.”

Blackburn watched him go, then marched after him. “Hey! What’s the big deal?” This drew Gadget and Crossfire’s attention.

“The ‘big deal’, Thunderbolt, is that you violated my privacy,” he snorted, pointing at her accusingly. “That drawer’s locked for a reason.”

“Why?” Gadget asked, putting herself between him and Blackburn. “To hide your fillyfriend’s old lovey-dovey diary?”

“My what?” Lockwood asked, eyebrow twitching.

“Your fillyfriend. You’ve got a creepy old photo of her and everything in there. Like a little stalker shrine or something. Thunderbolt told us everything.”

Lockwood wheeled on Blackburn. “You told them? Why? That’s not your business to share around!”

Blackburn frowned, confused and at a loss for words. She’d never seen Lockwood get mad before, even a little bit, so she was having trouble processing what was happening. “Like I said, I was hoping the diary might have an idea that would help us find you. I share things with Tinker and Fireblast because they sometimes think of ideas I hadn’t considered.”

“Yeah, like how you’re only getting all upset because we found out you’ve got yourself a little fillyfriend,” Gadget scoffed. “Y’know, you oughta be more careful around some of the mares you hang out with. They might get the wrong idea about you and them. Like Keeneye. She thinks she’s got a chance getting into your pants.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Lockwood said through gritted teeth.

Gadget rolled her eyes. “Yeah, sure you don’t, loverboy. Fine excuse.”

“It’s fine if you don’t want ponies knowing you have a fillyfriend, Lockwood,” Blackburn said, trying to be sympathetic to him keeping such a particular secret so as not to feel a hypocrite. “But Tinker’s right, I think some ponies might have the wrong idea about your relationship with them. Keeneye seems convinced you’re just playing hard to get.”

Lockwood glared at Blackburn. “Excuse me?”

“I mean, I can certainly tolerate a little lying here and there - everypony does it - but I’d hate to find out you’re playing the field--”

“How dare you,” Lockwood snarled, shaking with anger. “I’m doing no such thing, and for you to even think I’d do something like that--”

“I… I don’t think that at all,” Blackburn said. She wasn’t used to being on the back hoof in a conversation but Lockwood’s outburst here had come so completely out of nowhere that she wasn’t sure how to react. “I just… I was just…”

“Why are you getting so defensive about your fillyfriend, huh?” Gadget asked, poking Lockwood in the chest with her hoof.

“She’s not my fillyfriend!” Lockwood snapped.

“But... your name’s all over the inside of her diary,” Blackburn said, raising an eyebrow. “It seemed particularly amorous.”

“If you’d actually read it, you’d know how wrong you are about what you’re accusing me of.”

Blackburn narrowed her eyes, more confused than ever. “So you wanted me to read it?”

“I didn’t want you to read it at all, but since you did, I guess I wish you’d actually been thorough, like you usually are with everything else!” Lockwood snorted and turned for the door.

“Lockwood!”

“Whoa, where d’ya think you’re goin’?” Crossfire asked, stepping in front of him.

Lockwood huffed, unperturbed. “Out. I need some air, as dumb as that sounds.” He circled around Crossfire without another word.

“Lockwood, come on!” Blackburn went after him, but Crossfire stopped her with a hoof.

“Stay here, boss, I’ll tail ‘im,” Crossfire said. He glanced back at Gadget. “Maybe y’all can figure out what put a bee in his bonnet.”

Blackburn paused, then nodded. “Fine. Take care of him, please.”

Crossfire headed out, leaving Gadget and Blackburn alone in the living room. Gadget scratched her head. “Golly, what the hell was that all about?”

“I don’t know. I’ve never seen him get angry like that…” Blackburn turned to the drawer key hanging on its hook. “But if the diary’s the key to all this, let’s find out.”

She grabbed the key, headed into Lockwood’s bedroom, unlocked the drawer and removed the diary, then sat on Lockwood’s bed and cracked it open. Gadget took a seat next to her, holding up the mare’s photograph. The two began reading together; the pages weren’t dated, unfortunately, but they were still easy enough to follow.

Dear Diary,

I never thought about getting a diary before. I used to make fun of my friend Stardancer for having one when we were fillies all the time. But I needed someplace to write down my thoughts.

Something fabulous happened today. I met the most wonderful, gorgeous stallion in the whole of Equestria. It was like a dream come true, right out of those old storybooks mom used to read when I was little. He came into the office today looking for somepony, but he found me instead.

His name is ♥Lockwood♥

We’ve got a date tomorrow night. I’m so excited!

Dear Diary,

The date was the most wonderful thing I’ve ever done. Lockwood was a total gentlecolt. I’ve never had somepony say such nice things about me before. It was a wonderful experience. He’s so handsome. He forgot his wallet at home so I paid for dinner, but I didn’t mind, I’ve got the money.

We’ve got another date in a couple of days. We’re going to that new Baroque place that opened up a few blocks from here. It’s so romantic.

I’m so glad I met him. Now I have something to think about when Mister Zipline tries to hit on me. He’s such a creep. Nothing like Lockwood♥♥♥

Dear Diary,

I know that my date with Lockwood is tomorrow, but I just can’t stop thinking about it. I’m so nervous. What if I screw it up? What if he thinks I’m weird? Or that I don’t like him? I still don’t know how I lucked out with such a wonderful stallion. Mom used to always tell me I’d never find anypony, but I proved her wrong.

I wish the date was tonight, but I have work because that stupid Rain Cloud couldn’t come in. If it wasn’t for her, I’d be with Lockwood tonight. Ugh! She’s probably just doing it so she can get away from Mister Zipline for a little while. I guess he got too frisky with her last week. What a creep.

Dear Diary,

The date was magical. I didn’t think it would go the way it did at all, but Lockwood’s such a beautiful stallion, I just couldn’t say no. After dinner, we came back to my place and it finally happened. It finally happened, Diary! It was everything they said it would be. Fireworks. Butterflies. Everything. It hurt a little at first, but he was so gentle and loving. I know my friends told me all about protection and stuff but ♥Lockwood♥ told me it felt better without it. He just wants me to feel good.

I knew I’d find somepony someday.

He left this morning, almost without me noticing, but we have another date planned for next week. I told him we didn’t need to do anything special if he wanted to come here and do it again, though. That made him happy. He’s got a beautiful smile. I just want him to be happy with me forever♥♥♥

Dear Diary,

It’s been a while since I wrote in you, sorry about that. I’ve been so distracted with Lockwood and work that I didn’t think I needed to write anything. We’re doing it all the time now. I can see why so many ponies do this for a career!

But I’m writing because I’m angry. Mister Zipline reprimanded me today, that big jerk. I guess I wasn’t paying attention during one of the phone calls we got and forgot to take down something important. He told me I’ve been daydreaming lately, and that I’ve been distracted. Well, he can go buck himself, Diary. If he was paying more attention he’d know his wife is cheating on him with his brother.

Dear Diary,

I was thinking today about what life is going to be like when Lockwood proposes to me. I’ll say ♥♥YES♥♥ of course. We’ll live in one of those nice penthouses in the Inner District someday, where other ponies will wait on our every need. I already know he’ll be a wonderful husband, even if he’s forgetful sometimes. I just hope I can be a wonderful wife.

Dear Diary,

Something wonderful has happened! I went to the doctor today because I was feeling a little queasy this morning, and guess what? I’m pregnant! It finally happened! I’m so ♥happy♥. I’m gonna be a mommy, Diary! I’ve already started thinking about names. If it’s a filly, I want to name her after my grandmother, Cloud Dancer. If it’s a colt, I want to name him after my father, Windstorm.

Mister Zipline reprimanded me when I got back, though. I guess I forgot to tell him I was going to the doctor. Whatever, he’s just mad that he can’t have the same happiness that I have, the impotent jerk. That’s why his wife’s sleeping with his brother, Diary. If I were his wife, I’d do the same thing. I never knew how much I wanted to be a mother before I met ♥Lockwood♥

Dear Diary,

Lockwood was really surprised when I told him about the wonderful news today. I understand though, apparently it was just a really surprising day all around. He got a new job - finally! I was a bit sad to hear that it might keep him away from home every now and then. He goes on his first assignment next week. It’s something really confidential too, he couldn’t tell me where he was going. Probably something with the NPAF. I knew he’d be an important pony!

Dear Diary,

Lockwood’s job must be really important. He hasn’t written at all since he left. I know it’s only been a couple of weeks, but I was hoping he’d have a chance to come home eventually. He’s such an important pony, Diary. Handsome, strong, smart, confident. No wonder they hired him!

I almost tripped today while walking down the stairs at work. I was distracted, I guess. Luckily nothing happened - I wouldn’t want anything to happen to our foal!

Dear Diary,

I tried to find out where Lockwood’s been working, but I can’t find anything! I spent all day at work looking through the database to try and find something, but he must really be doing something confidential.

Luckily Mister Zipline didn’t catch me. Stupid geezer thinks his newborn son is actually his. What an idiot.

Dear Diary,

I don’t know what to do. I got fired today. Apparently I’ve been caught wasting company time too much lately, and Mister Zipline had enough. I don’t know what the big deal is, but now I have to figure out how to pay for the apartment. Lockwood hasn’t sent any bits since he left. His employers must be trying to protect his identity.

Dear Diary,

I’m writing this from my new place out in the Outer District. I hate moving back here, but I can’t afford to live in the Mid District anymore, not if I want to afford the hospital visit to deliver my foal. The foal’s coming soon, Diary, and I’m so worried that Lockwood won’t be back in time to see his foal be born! And now that I had to move, can he even find me?

I haven’t been able to find work, either. Nopony wants to hire a heavily-pregnant receptionist. Bunch of jerks.

Dear Diary,

I’m home from the hospital. I was so worried the foal would have something wrong - I couldn’t afford the best service - but he’s a healthy, beautiful colt. He looks just like his father, Diary, he’s so beautiful. That beautiful gray coat. The lovely brown mane. A pegasus too. He doesn’t have his father’s eyes, though. He has mine. He looks so cute, but I wish he’d had his father’s eyes, Diary.

I decided to name him after his father. Lockwood Jr.

Blackburn froze. “Wait… this isn’t his fillyfriend’s diary. It’s his mother’s?”

Gadget frowned. “Golly… I guess we, uh… made a mistake? Guess we know why he wanted us to read it all the way through.”

“Shit,” Blackburn swore, setting the diary down and getting up. “I should go apologize--”

“Wait!” Gadget blurted, hoisting the diary back up. “There’s more entries after that. See? She skipped a bunch of pages for some reason.”

Blackburn paused, then sat back down on the bed. “Well, he wanted us to be thorough…” She opened the diary back up to the next entry, then started to read again.

Dear Diary,

It’s been a while, Diary, but taking care of Lockwood Jr. is hard to do by myself. My parents refuse to help me. Mom even called me stupid for getting ‘knocked up’, but what does she know? Dad knocked her up with me when they were in high school, and they turned out just fine. They’ll see how wrong they are when Lockwood comes back. I hope he’s safe.

Dear Diary,

Lockwood Jr. is just like his father, a beautiful little bundle of joy. He smiles a lot. His smile reminds me of his father. Someday soon, his father will smile like that at me again. Someday my little colt will meet his daddy and we’ll be a happy little family.

I’ve had to ration our food a lot. I still can’t find work. Nopony wants to hire a single mother receptionist that got fired from her last job. That jerk Zipline is ruining my life! I hope he finds out his son isn’t his and has a heart attack and dies.

Dear Diary,

Lockwood Jr. turned two today. I wish his father had been here. I miss him so much. Every time I call out to our son, it hurts to say his name. He looks so much like his father. He even sounds like him when he laughs. I miss my Lockwood’s laugh, Diary. How he would laugh when he ran his hoof through my mane. How he called me his little dream mare.

Where is he?

Dear Diary,

I was giving Lockwood Jr. a bath today when I remembered a time when Lockwood and I took a bath together a long time ago. I still remember his touch. But when I looked down and saw that I was bathing with a little colt.

I don’t know what happened.

I sort of blacked out, I think? I don’t remember. I remember being mad.

So mad. Where is Lockwood, Diary? Why hasn’t he come back to me?

WHERE IS HE?

I hate this place Diary

We got robbed today

Lockwood and I werent home at the time but when we came back our television was missing

I hate this place

I hate this place

I hate this place

I want to get out of here I have to get out of here

Lockwood Jr started school today I have never been apart from my son I was alone

Alone

I dont want to be alone

I cant be alone again

Where is he

When is he coming back to me

That’s right. He’s at school. He’ll be back later today. I’ll give him a big hug when he comes back. I don’t want my son to be away. But he must go to school.

He must

He mustnt leave

He mustnt be away from his mother

I had a dream. Something happened to Lockwood. He was hurt. He was scared. He was alone.

I will protect him

I woke up

I went into his room

He will never be alone

I miss his father

I miss his touch

I held my son close to me as he slept

It was like holding Lockwood again

I was holding Lockwood again

I slept and dreamed again

lockwood is a good colt just like his father

i wont let them take him from me hell grow up smart and handsome just like his father

hell be just like his father

and well be happy together

because his father loved me

he will love me too

ill teach him how

That was the last entry.

Gadget stared blankly at the last page, barely able to process what she’d just finished reading.

Blackburn, meanwhile, stood up and headed outside immediately without a word. She found Crossfire just outside the building, staring up at a smog cloud that lingered overhead. “Where is he?” she asked.

Crossfire pointed at the cloud. “Saw ‘im fly up inta that there smog cloud. Ain’t seen him fly anywhere else, so I’d bet he’s still up there.”

Blackburn nodded and flew up towards the cloud, holding her breath as she passed through the filth. She found Lockwood sitting alone on the edge of the cloud, quiet and despondent. She approached him tentatively. “Lockwood?” she said, barely above a whisper.

Lockwood didn’t turn towards her. “So. You read it?”

Blackburn nodded. “I read it. And I’m sorry.”

“I don’t want your pity, Thunderbolt.”

“I don’t pity you, Lockwood. I’m sympathetic, but I won’t pity you. I’m sorry because I jumped to conclusions and made a judgement about you without all the information. That was uncharacteristic of me, and I’m sorry.” She paused. “Before I make any other conclusions… I want to hear more from you. I want to hear you tell your story.”

Lockwood flattened his ears, still not turning to face her. “Why?”

“Because… because you’re my friend, and I care about you. Because I want to get to know you better. Please.”

Lockwood stayed silent for a long moment, then rose to his hooves and nodded. “Fine. I’ll tell you what you want to know.”

Blackburn gestured down. “Let’s head inside. The others should get to hear this too, since they’re also your friends. Right?”

“Yeah, that’s fair.”

The two flew down to ground level and met Crossfire, then headed back up to Lockwood’s apartment to meet Gadget, who was still sitting dumbfounded on Lockwood’s bed, but moved into the living room with the others when they arrived.

Lockwood took a deep breath and sat down on his couch. “So… you read the whole thing then?” Blackburn nodded. “Need me to clear anything up?”

“Two things,” Blackburn said. “First… what was your mother’s name?”

Lockwood paused. “Skydreamer. Her name was Skydreamer.”

“It’s a pretty name,” Gadget murmured meekly, scuffing her hoof on the floor.

“Do you have any idea what happened to your father?” Blackburn asked.

Lockwood snorted, looking angry again. “No, and I don’t really care to find out what happened to him. I’m nothing to him, so he’s nothing to me.”

Blackburn nodded again. “Then please, tell us what happened with everything. We know you’re adopted, so… I’ll assume something happened to your mother. Her last entries were rather… unsettling.”

“That’s right.” Lockwood leaned back on the couch and closed his eyes in thought. “I woke up late one morning when I was very young. It was late, so I figured mom forgot to wake me up. I saw her lying in the doorway. I didn’t realize she was dead at first, I thought she was asleep. But then saw the horrible, blissful smile on her face. I have no idea what was going through her head in those last moments. So, I did the only thing a colt my age could think to do: I screamed my lungs out.

“The neighbors came around to complain about the noise, but when they saw what was going on, they took me in until authorities showed up. Paramedics pretty much instantly realized my mom died of starvation.”

“She was so consumed with her fantasies of your father that she wasn’t eating,” Blackburn concluded.

“But she certainly made sure I was fed. She was still lucid enough through everything to keep doing that, I guess.” Lockwood shook his head. “Probably only because I look just like Lookwood Sr.”

“So that’s when you were taken in by the foster system.”

“Yeah, the city’s wonderful foster system,” Lockwood huffed. “Got taken in by a pair of well-to-do ponies from the Mid-North District, Sparkling Wine and Blackberry Wine. I was only allowed to bring a few things with me, so I brought a photo of my parents and my mom’s diary. I didn’t know what else to bring.”

Blackburn sighed. “Because that was all you really had…”

“Pretty much. The Wines weren’t exactly the most loving parents, either. See, the foster system gives families a tax benefit for taking in colts and fillies like me, so they only took me in to get the money. They just gave me the bare minimum amount of bits to get by, and only because they were legally obligated to do so.”

“Golly, that’s awful,” Gadget said with a frown.

“Started right back at school pretty quick, no time to grieve,” Lockwood continued. “Got bullied a lot. Young ponies are cruel, y’know.”

“And you’re not exactly the most intimidating pony,” Blackburn agreed.

Crossfire snorted. “Shucks, I wish I could’ve been there, pal. I would’ve whupped them bullies right inta shape, I tell ya what. Ain’t nopony touches mah friends.”

Lockwood pointed at Crossfire knowingly. “See, I appreciate that, Fireblast, because you would’ve done what nopony else would’ve done. Except somepony else beat you to the punch: Flathoof.”

Blackburn raised an eyebrow. “Flathoof?”

Lockwood brightened just a little. “Yeah, Flathoof. He stepped in to put a stop to one particularly rough incident I got involved in. He got roughed up a bit himself, sure, but he chased those bullies off in the end. Got his cutie mark out of the deal and everything. We became fast friends after that, and have been ever since. Close as brothers we are, me and Flathoof.”

Blackburn turned to Gadget and Crossfire with a slight smile. “I know that feeling all too well. Tell me more about him.”

“Well, Flathoof’s family wasn’t as well off as my foster family was, not by a long shot. Big family, only two meager sources of income, you understand. Better off than my mom had been in her last years, but that wasn’t saying much. They basically took me in as one of their own… they showed me more love in one afternoon than the Wines did in all the years I’d been with them.”

“You wanted to repay them for their kindness…” Blackburn muttered. Her eyes widened in realization. “Keeneye mentioned you had her forge adoption papers. But the Wines had already adopted you… so it wasn’t for them, was it?”

Lockwood smiled. “That’s right. I heard about her talent at school and figured if she was so good at forging signatures I could get her to do the same on something more important than a permission slip or report card. It was easy to get the Wines’ signatures - they were winos, see, and got drunk and stupid often, so I had them sign a permission slip for me to go on a free field trip when they were on a bender. After that it was easy to get Flathoof’s parents to sign the rest and make it official.”

Blackburn paused again. “And so you became actual brothers?”

“We did. I was determined to make sure that if I was going to be of benefit to anypony’s family because of what happened to me, it was going to be somepony who deserved it. I spent the next couple of years getting acquainted with other ponies that could help me to help them with their taxes - earned my own cutie mark in the process, a little late in life but better late than never, right? They live in Mid-North now, just like the Wines.

“It took me a few years after that before I decided to read my mom’s diary. I didn’t know it was a diary at first, actually… I thought she was writing a story. Figured maybe I’d finish it or something, maybe publish it? I don’t know. I thought I was doing something right for her. I didn’t know… I didn’t know what she’d really written.”

Gadget frowned. “Golly… that must’ve been a… a pretty nasty shock. I’m sorry you had to go through that.”

“Nasty shock… yeah, you could say that.”

Crossfire raised an eyebrow. “Why? What’s in it?”

“We’ll tell you later,” Blackburn said. She put her hoof on Lockwood’s shoulder. “I’m sorry, Lockwood. That had to be hard.”

“I went to a pretty bad place after realizing just what happened to my mom. What she’d become. What had been done to her. The only ponies apart from you that know the full story are Stouthoof and Shortcake--”

“Your adopted parents,” Blackburn finished. Then she raised an eyebrow. “Wait, ‘Shortcake’? The same one Miracle and Vaccine helped when she was pregnant?”

Lockwood smirked. “Ah, they told you about that, huh? Yeah… yeah, they’re my family, so I do what I can to make their lives better. They are my life. They kept me grounded when I thought I was going to go crazy. When I found out the truth… I tore that photo in half,” he said, gesturing towards the photograph with a scowl. “Tore him out of my life for good. As far as I’m concerned, he’s dead. I certainly hope the bastard is.”

Blackburn frowned. She knew what it was like to hate one’s father, but even in her angriest moments, when she felt lower than low, she’d never wish Stormchaser was dead, even injured or ill. Then again, even at his worst, Stormchaser would never do what Lockwood’s father had done.

Lockwood spread his wings in a gesture of presentation. “So, there you have it. There’s Lockwood, laid out bare for you all to see. Are you happy now?”

Blackburn paused, then took a deep breath. “I need a moment with Tinker and Fireblast, if you don’t mind.”

She pulled Gadget and Crossfire outside into the hall, where they talked in hushed tones for several tense moments. Lockwood watched them with great curiosity, but couldn’t hear a word they were saying. He could tell that they were arguing, though. Well, Gadget and Blackburn were arguing at least, and Gadget in particular seemed pretty vehement about whatever she was talking about; Crossfire was notably calm, but then again he almost always was.

At last, the trio walked back into the apartment, closing and locking the door behind them. Blackburn spoke first. “Made a decision. You shared deepest secrets; we’ll share ours.”

Lockwood raised an eyebrow. “Huh?”

“First secret: have been lying to you for nearly a year. Apologies.”

Lockwood leaned forward in his seat, holding up his hooves. “Wait wait… what? Lying to me about what?”

“Ponies you know as ‘Thunderbolt’, ‘Tinker’, and ‘Fireblast’ don’t exist. Not our real identities.”

Lockwood blinked. “Come again?”

Gadget cleared her throat and took a step forward. “We’re not really a tech company called Crown Spectrum. The company’s a front for a smuggling operation. We use it to ship technology and engineering materials south to Hope’s Point without the NPAF realizing it.”

“Wait, you guys are from Hope’s Point? Like, the city?”

“Correct,” Blackburn continued. “Believe you know a personal friend: Briarthorn.”

Lockwood’s eyes widened. “No way. Really? That guy’s a riot! You guys know him too?”

“We are… acquainted, yes,” Blackburn finished, clearing her throat.

“So wait, then who are you guys, really?”

Gadget waved her hoof. “My real name’s Gadget. Pleased to meet you, for real this time.”

Crossfire nodded. “An’ I’m Crossfire. Sorry we had ta lead ya on all this time, buddy. Can’t let anypony know where we’re really from, y’know?”

Lockwood turned to Blackburn. “And you?”

Blackburn smiled slightly. “Blackburn, Princess of Hope’s Point.”

Lockwood froze. There was a long moment of silence. “What.”

“Understand this is a lot to take in. Take your time.”

Lockwood started breathing heavily. “You… you’re the princess… of… of Hope’s Point?”

“That is what I stated, yes.”

“So… so this entire time, I’ve been business partners with… with the princess of Hope’s Point?”

“And friends, yes,” she replied with a smile. “You belong to an exclusive club."

That realization set in and Lockwood slumped back onto his couch. “Oh stars, I’m friends with the princess? I… I--” He paused, looking around his half-cleaned apartment. “Oh stars! This place is a dump!” He paused again. “Oh stars! The princess was cleaning my apartment! My room!” He paused again. “Oh stars! I yelled at the princess!” He immediately leapt off his couch and bowed low to her. “Please, Princess, forgive me, I didn’t mean--”

Gadget snorted. “Golly, Lockwood, pull yourself together. You’re embarrassing yourself. More than usual.”

Blackburn placed her wing on Lockwood’s head. “No need to worry. All part of false identities. Incidentally, will require you to continue addressing and interacting with us in public by those names.”

Lockwood looked up and hastily nodded. “Of course, Princess, absolutely--”

“And stop the ‘Princess’ treatment,” Blackburn said, stomping her hoof. “We’re friends, Lockwood. Friends don’t speak to me like that.” She gestured to Gadget and Crossfire. “They treat me as any friend would. They speak back to me. They get angry with me. They argue with me. I accept their words, because I am their friend first, their Princess second. You are the same.”

Lockwood took a deep breath. “So… I… I’m sorry, this is a lot to take in. A lot.”

“Sorry for sudden reveal. Never planned this scenario; circumstances changed suddenly--”

Lockwood held up a hoof to stop her. “I’m… I’m sorry, but I have to ask… why are you talking like that? Not that I have a problem! Just… just it’s different and I’m lost and--”

Blackburn smiled. “My typical speech pattern: brief descriptions, simple sentence structure, plain words, few figures of speech. Concise expression of information.”

She cleared her throat. “It’s a lot different from Thunderbolt’s manner of speaking, which is still rather direct but more eloquent. It helps to complete the image of a false identity - I might look like Princess Blackburn to a point, but I don’t sound like Princess Blackburn. It throws off possible spies.”

Lockwood blinked. “W-well. Okay. Yeah, that makes sense. So, um… what… what am I supposed to do with this information? I mean, I did not plan for this. Like, at all. This is so out of left field...”

“Nothing different. Still friends, still business partners. Just clarifying motivations for business partnership.”

“So… all these business connections you’ve been making are to help Hope’s Point somehow?”

“And helping ponies seeking to go there.”

Lockwood tapped his chin. “Yeah, lowering Keeneye’s prices make it easier to get the passports needed to leave the city, among other things. Hmm… okay… okay, I’m gonna need some time to process all this…”

“Have plenty; we leave tomorrow, remember?”

“Yeah… yeah, that’s right.” He took a deep breath. “Okay. I’ll figure out how to work this into my whole, uh… ‘thing’. Wow, I’m friends and business partners with a princess? Pretty exciting.” He paused, then pointed at Gadget and Crossfire. “So wait, are you guys, like, Lady Gadget and Lord Crossfire or something?”

Gadget scoffed. “Golly, I wish. Maybe I’d get paid better for being this big dope’s bodyguard,” she said, patting Blackburn’s side.

“We ain’t nothin’ fancy,” Crossfire said with a shrug. “Far as anypony’s concerned we’re just the Princess’s trusted bodyguards, nothin’ more.”

“But like she said, we’re her friends. Better than friends. Blackburn’s like the sister I never had. And Crossfire’s like my big brother. We’re family.”

“Kinda like y’all ‘n’ that Flathoof fella,” Crossfire added. “Only we ain’t adopted or nothin’. No offense.”

Lockwood shrugged. “None taken.” He let out a breath. “Well, okay. Okay. It’s a lot of pressure you’ve got me under here, Princess, but while you’re gone, I’ll make sure to keep your network in tip-top shape. You have my word,” he added with a bow. “After all, it’s a royal decree.”

Blackburn grunted. “Told you, don’t need ‘princess’ treatment--”

Lockwood looked up at her with a wide smile. “Oh, but I insist! It’s not every day I get to make friends with somepony of the royal persuasion, so you’re gonna have to humor me for a little while until I get used to it.” He waggled his eyebrows briefly.

Blackburn paused, then nodded and smiled. “Very well.” She cleared her throat again. “Just a reminder, Lockwood: after this conversation, you’ll have to go back to referring to us as Thunderbolt, Tinker, and Fireblast, unless we’re in private. Starting now, I think.”

“I can manage that, Thunderbolt.”

“Good.” She turned to Gadget and Crossfire. “Come on, let’s get going. We need to get some sleep ourselves.” And with that, they left.

Lockwood shook his head and let out a long breath, then headed into his bedroom. The diary and photograph were still on his bed. He looked at them and frowned, and without a word, put them back in their drawer and locked it again.

*****

On the way home to Hope’s Point, Blackburn couldn’t stop thinking about what had happened over the last few months in New Pandemonium City. She’d intended to go back to that horrible city, continue to build her smuggling network there, and undermine Don Virtuoso in secret to strengthen Hope’s Point enough to essentially muscle him out of Hope's Point. And with the help of her friends, she’d certainly done all of that or at least made strides towards it, and done so extraordinarily well by her admittedly high standards.

What she hadn’t expected was everything that had happened revolving around Lockwood. She hadn’t expected to need to save his life at any point, and certainly not the way she’d done so. She also hadn’t expected to spend a great deal of her resources unsuccessfully attempting to track down his attackers, who had eluded her thus far to her great consternation. She definitely hadn’t expected to learn so much about his upbringing, about his mother’s death, his adoption by two separate families, or his non-existent father. She most certainly hadn’t expected, not even the slightest bit, to tell him who she really was.

Most importantly of all, she hadn’t expected to feel so… connected with him. That was the only word she could think of to describe what she felt: connected. She’d felt something like that with him before, but over the past four months it had just gotten stronger and more difficult to ignore or rationalize. It was different than the friendship she had with Gadget and Crossfire; they were like her sister and brother, and they felt the same. It was different that what she had with Briarthorn, too… and that’s what really bothered her.

Briarthorn was her friend. Her coltfriend, specifically. She cared for him deeply and wanted nothing but the best for him, that much was undeniable. But she’d been evaluating their relationship for several months now - easier to do when he wasn’t around - and she had started to realize that the foundation of their relationship was almost purely physical. She liked Briarthorn, maybe she even loved him, but she didn’t know; what she did know was that it wasn’t the kind of love she sought. He was handsome, talented, funny, and loyal, but he didn’t have the deeper connection with her that she wanted in a partner.

She thought about Lockwood’s mother and what had become of her, and it frightened her to her core. She thought about what might happen if she decided she wanted to be with Briarthorn forever in the same way, and what would happen to her when he eventually succumbed to Diffusion sickness and left her alone. Could she live with herself if she let that happen to him? To herself? To their foal if they had one?

By the time they landed in Hope’s Point, Blackburn had come to a decision. Something needed to change.

*****

Blackburn did her mane up and wore contact lenses and makeup over her scar to disguise herself completely - it wouldn’t do for word to spread around that the princess was involved in what was coming.

Briarthorn was drinking regularly after every mission now, and had become a regular at the Wyrm’s Head Tavern. Blackburn found out one evening that she just couldn’t compete with him as a drinker anymore. Was that where the drift had started? She wasn’t sure; she wasn’t sure she wanted to be sure.

There were several larger private rooms at the Wyrm’s Head Tavern used for private parties. She booked one such room under an alias.

The room she got contained just a large half-circle couch that took up an entire wall of the room, buried in the second basement of the tavern, just above the final sublevel, filled with humming power meters. There wasn’t a table. The drink machine was in the center of the couch, within convenient reach of anypony on said couch.

When she told Gadget and Crossfire, the former reeled with abject horror, and the latter frowned heavily. They understood the oath of secrecy regarding Diffusion sickness, but this?

Their words hurt at first, and they would continue to hurt for a long time. Undoubtedly a preview of his future if she didn’t give him more than drink. The poor young stallion needed other ponies. Ponies that could occupy his time in a way Blackburn couldn’t. She never had, and now, she never would.

Didn’t they understand? Briarthorn wasn’t just anypony. He deserved more for his service to the city. More for his loyalty to a princess who couldn’t be there for him. As she explained her plan, their faces became grim. The average life expectancy of a Diffusion flyer could be mitigated, sure, but that was for an average flyer. Not for a pony who’d inherited the legacy of Diffusion’s origins. Didn’t they agree? Didn’t they think it was only fair that Blackburn could give him a taste of something better before he destroyed himself?

She looked her friends in the eyes and contacted Briarthorn via a private communicator. Gadget’s eye twitched when she heard Blackburn’s voice, jovially telling her coltfriend to expect “a truly wild, special evening”. His reply was eager: he just had to be involved in whatever Blackburn had planned, even if all he knew was that Blackburn hinted, not at all subtly, that tonight was the night, and she wanted it to be memorable.

Crossfire’s stare was dead-eyed as he heard Briarthorn’s joyful reply, heard the real happiness in his voice. Her retainers said nothing, though, when she ended the call, breathing heavily as she turned to them. She gestured hard, with wing and hoof. They had heard him. They heard that he cared. They simply nodded.

And so, on the evening of, Crossfire stood guard inside the room, by the door, dressed in a crisp suit, explicitly a bouncer to keep those inside the room in check. He would have a special role besides guarding Blackburn, but that would come later in the evening. He stood there with a face like stone, like a pony awaiting an execution. Not a “wild night”. Not that Briarthorn would notice.

Gadget, in a similar suit, stood guard outside the room, where she would be allowing other guests inside. She had expressly wanted nothing to do with what was going on inside, and had argued vehemently against any thought of it. Blackburn thought she saw a hint of pity under Gadget’s usual disregard for Briarthorn. That was when she finally believed Gadget would do her part of the job well.

Said other guests weren’t explicitly invited. Instead, the bars above were informed of a party going on downstairs, and that it was a very exclusive and intimate V.I.P. event. The only ponies allowed had to meet some very specific qualifications, which Gadget would be evaluating with extreme prejudice:

They had to be very physically attractive. They had to be drinking heavily, preferably beforehand. Most importantly, they had to be receptive to a very particular, very open, sensual experience. Enough hints were dropped to make it clear what this room was really being used for.

Blackburn and Briarthorn began drinking heavily as soon as they arrived in the room; Blackburn insisted they start off with the hard stuff. Briarthorn smiled at the thought of “liquid courage” and Blackburn fought her guilt and smiled back at him warmly. The lights were half-dimmed and colored red and black, just dark enough that they had some privacy from Crossfire.

The solid earth pony, in his role as bouncer, kept the room’s control pad with him, ordering new drinks for the pair every time they finished one. A thumping bass beat echoed throughout the room, loud enough to almost drown out a conversation, but not loud enough to be uncomfortable.

It only took about ten minutes of drinking for the pair to start getting physical with one another, kissing, nuzzling, and rubbing each other like the couple of horny and foolish teenagers they were.

Then the first guests arrived. A trio of ponies were allowed into the room: an earth pony mare, an earth pony stallion, and a unicorn mare. Gadget’s first choices were exemplary: no new pegasi just yet. They had clearly been drinking already by the time they arrived, and Crossfire took their orders for their next rounds. They introduced themselves briefly to Blackburn and Briarthorn; the former barely paid attention to any names, more concerned with how they’d fit into the evening’s plans.

Minutes passed. Blackburn and Briarthorn didn’t let up on their heavy petting of one another, and Blackburn’s occasional, meaningful glances at the newcomers made sure they understood that it was okay to do the same to one another. When Blackburn noticed they’d taken the hint, she maneuvered herself and Briarthorn closer to them, and that’s when things escalated.

There weren’t many words involved. Blackburn didn’t need words to exert her authority, even in disguise. Blackburn merely positioned Briarthorn in such a way that one of the other mares, the unicorn, could grope and fondle him to her heart’s content. Briarthorn wasn’t apprehensive, in fact he seemed quite enthusiastic to have two beautiful mares putting their hooves and mouths all over him, even as he kept reaching for Blackburn. At no point did she ever stop keeping at least one hoof or wing of her own against him, letting him feel the familiarity, letting him know she was there with him, making the thrill of the others a spectacle that was piercing even the cloud of alcohol that hung thickest over Briarthorn himself, his tolerance for the booze impossibly strong, but not unbreakable.

More guests arrived: two pegasus mares and a unicorn stallion. They stared awkwardly at first as they introduced themselves, perhaps because they thought they were interrupting, but again Blackburn barely paid much mind to that and instead gestured for them to join in; she subtly made sure she was just distant enough from the center of the action to avoid being really involved with anypony but Briarthorn. Her authority was clear even now, and her movements were careful, nudging bodies away from her carefully, not callously, to keep her way to Briarthorn clear.

By now, everypony was drinking heavily and getting more physical. The last set of guests - two earth pony stallions - arrived to fill out the crowd. Blackburn was the only pony who was keeping her wits about her; she’d stopped drinking just after the first guests arrived and had built up a respectable tolerance for the Gunpowder’s Guzzler by now, so the tastier stuff was easier to handle. Still, she had reached the limit of what she felt was acceptable for herself, and as the drink orders kept coming, she kept gently, mockingly, lowering glasses to the other bodies in the throng. Briarthorn was still near the center, still holding onto Blackburn’s middle with his oversized wings, stretched out from behind him and still curling into her.

“Briar...” she breathed softly.

The moment had come, and Blackburn bit her lip hard, clenching back tears even as the smell of sweat threatened her for only a moment to abandon her plan. She felt the agony of wanting, and only relieved it a little as she gently pulled Briarthorn’s wings away from her, moving her hooves from the tips to his shoulders. She drew Briarthorn in for a deep, sensual kiss. When they parted, she looked dazed, up and out of the throng, and raised her head with a sloppy rhythm to see Crossfire’s grim face. He nodded, and Blackburn dove back down into Briarthorn’s shining, jubilant eyes, and he looked into hers. This was it. She began to close her eyes, and Crossfire turned down the lights just as Briarthorn sweetly closed his eyes and leaned in to kiss Blackburn again.

But she didn’t kiss him back. She didn’t close her eyes. Instead she gently nudged the pegasus mare next to her into position so that it was her kissing Briarthorn instead; the new mare didn’t seem to mind at all, and in fact got into it quickly. In the darkness of the room, with his eyes closed, Briarthorn didn’t notice, and the other mare took his aggressive, amorous behavior as a sign to go further.

And all the while, Blackburn swiftly slid off the couch and over to the door. Crossfire gently placed the control pad onto the floor and the pair exited the room, where they joined with Gadget; Blackburn wondered if the scowl on Gadget's face was at Briarthorn or Blackburn herself. Gadget handed Blackburn a towel, and the trio then left the Wyrm’s Head Tavern without looking back and without a word between them.

Blackburn thought snidely at herself that, aside from feeling terrible, she desperately needed a cold shower. She deserved that, at least.

*****

It was three days before Blackburn saw Briarthorn again, and as it was out in the streets of Hope’s Point, naturally she, Gadget, and Crossfire were incognito. They noticed Briarthorn walking along one of the busy market streets together with a small group composed of two mares and another stallion. Blackburn recognized one of the mares from the party - the pegasus she’d directed him towards, in fact.

With Gadget and Crossfire in tow, Blackburn approached the group. “Excuse me, can I borrow Briarthorn for a minute?” she asked.

The other three ponies looked at her and her entourage curiously, likely wondering just who she was. The mare from the private party didn’t recognize Blackburn, Gadget, or Crossfire in the slightest. She’d been too drunk and it had been too dark. Just as intended.

Briarthorn recognized her, of course, and nodded in agreement. “Sure!” He turned to the others with a smile. “Hey, you guys head on without me for now. I’ll catch up in two shakes of my tail.”

“Sure thing, Briarthorn,” said the pegasus mare. She and the other two ponies then made their way down the street.

As soon as they were gone, Briarthorn turned to Blackburn, a curious smile on his face. “Hey babe, good to see you. I… actually, I haven’t seen you since the party, have I?” He tapped his chin. “In fact, I don’t think you were there when we all woke up. It was a bangin’ party, by the way. Like… bangin’.”

Blackburn nodded. “Yes. Quite.”

He stepped forward and put his wings around her so nopony else could see their faces as he gave her a kiss on the nose. “I can’t believe we never did anything as... as... I don’t know, freaky-deak like that sooner. That was just… wow. I never knew you had such a vroom side to you, my princess.” He blinked. “I mean, I didn’t even know I had such a vroom side to me.”

“Both full of surprises,” Blackburn said quietly.

“So where’ve you been? I’ve been looking all over for you. High, low, and in-between. You’re a tough pony to get in touch with, y’know?”

Blackburn shrugged. “Had business to attend to, left early, been busy since. Sorry, Briar.”

Briarthorn brushed the thought away with a flick of his wing before returning it to her side. “Hey, no worries, you’ve got important things to do, I get that. I just hope you had as much fun as I did.” He leaned forward to whisper in her ear. “Y’know, I’ll be honest, I never thought we’d finally do the deed together in that set of circumstances. Wait ‘til I tell my crew I got a cherry-popping going on for me, of all ponies, in a flippin’ orgy. A certified, grade-A pretty pony party ball! That’s a story to tell for years.”

Blackburn smiled weakly. “Glad you enjoyed yourself.”

He paused, and Blackburn thought his eyes faded just a bit, but then Briarthorn frowned. “Didn’t you? I didn’t, uh, I mean, you, you, you had fun too, right?”

“I did! I did. Very much so,” she lied a little too quickly, the words just spilling out. “Unfortunately, business matters have become complicated…”

“Aww, I’m sorry to hear that, babe. You heading back up north soon?”

“Yes. A few weeks from now.”

“Well, hey, I mean, it doesn’t have to be crazy like before, but... would some fun help until then?” he asked, sliding his wings over her backside, ignoring Gadget clearing her throat. “I mean, you’ve got time for that, I hope? If you need to make time or something--”

Blackburn shook her head. “Can’t. Too busy, Briar… I’m sorry.” She set her hooves on his shoulders. “But… been thinking. Had fun at party. You did too. Maybe… maybe we should change nature of relationship?”

Briarthorn raised an eyebrow. “Huh?”

“I leave too often, have to focus too much on work. Focus more than ever - close to closing deals. Cannot be here to attend to your needs.” She gave him a weak smile and kissed him. “You should be free to enjoy self. With whoever, whenever, wherever, however. Cannot keep you to myself; noticed that at party. Selfish of me.”

Briarthorn scratched his head. “So wait… you want to make this an open relationship or something? Are we, like… swingers now, or--”

Blackburn nodded, again, too quickly, the jolt almost whiplash-inducing. “That seems appropriate! Yes, appropriate. Indulge yourself! Whoever you want. No questions asked,” she said, forcing an approximation of sultry on her face as she finished. “If I have time, will join you. Make an evening of it, like before.”

Briarthorn was taken aback, but not, as far as Blackburn could read, upset; a confused smile trembled across his face. “I… wow, okay. This was not a conversation I was expecting to have today. Or ever. Then again, that bangin’ party wasn’t anything I was expecting to attend, either, and you made that happen in a day. You’ve got surprises like a riddle wrapped in an enigma covered in mystery, babe, y’know?”

“I know. Have said as much. About surprises.”

“Well, of course, but you know, a sexy riddle…” Briarthorn leaned in, and she met his lips with hers. When he broke away, he gave her a genuine smile. “That line work? Sexy enigma. Mystery. Whatever’s your favorite.”

Then he unfurled his wings so they were able to be heard clearly by others. “Well, I’ll let you get to that work you needed to get to. I’ve got a lunch date with my other friends, so… I’ll see you around?”

“Yes. See you around, Briar,” she said with a nod.

He flew off on his way in the direction the other ponies had left. Blackburn watched him go.

“So... okay, I swear, last time, but... are you sure this is the right thing to do?” Gadget asked as she shared another look with Crossfire.

Blackburn couldn’t face Gadget when she spoke, she just kept watching as Briarthorn flew off out of sight. She wanted to say, “No.”

Instead: “He will be happier this way. Will live life to its fullest. End of discussion.”

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