• Published 26th Sep 2019
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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 Eleven: Insidious Injuries

One Month Later

Mob War Escalates; Ten Dead, More Injured in Mid-East Shootout

The ongoing street war between the three largest crime families in New Pandemonium City took another ugly turn last night when a violent shootout erupted in Mid-East’s Southwest Block, killing ten and leaving twenty-four injured and in critical condition.

It has been two weeks since the Fantasia, Rossa, and Amore mob families - better known as the Three Families - reignited their decades-old blood feud and took to the streets of New Pandemonium, and there seems to be no end in sight to the bloodshed. Police informants have provided no information as to the cause of this cold war suddenly going hot, and the NPPD has yet to provide a solid plan to put an end to the violence.

When asked for a statement, Chief Smokestack of the NPPD had this to say:

“The Three Families haven’t taken their feud into the streets in over fifty years, but it’s really little more than a gang war. Usually these things end up solving themselves after a time. It is this department’s recommendation that citizens stay aware of their surroundings, and if at all possible remain indoors until this all blows over.”

This marks the eighth shootout since the mob war first started, along with three bombings, which have in total claimed nearly the lives of one hundred innocent ponies not involved with any of the families, and left hundreds more injured or missing. The death toll within the families themselves is unknown but is estimated to be significantly higher.

Blackburn set down today’s copy of the New Pandemonium Times on her apartment’s dining table, a deep scowl across her face. She looked across the table at Lockwood, who’d dropped by to deliver the news as soon as she’d arrived. Gadget and Crossfire sat at her sides and had been reading along with her; Crossfire continued reading after Blackburn set the paper down, as he hadn’t finished yet. The table had been set for a friendly breakfast.

“See? I told you it was bad,” Lockwood said, putting his hooves on the table. “I’ve lived in this city all my life, and I’ve never seen this little blood feud between the crime families get heated, certainly not to cost innocent lives like this. Now, I haven’t spoken to the Don in months, but I know he’s gotta be livid about what’s going on.”

“Any of our contacts hurt? Killed?” Blackburn asked, concerned.

“Thankfully, no, at least not that I know of, but it’s certainly put most of them on edge here and there.” Lockwood took a deep breath. “Most importantly, Mint and Matcha are worried for their own safety if anypony finds out they have any sort of involvement with Don Virtuoso, even if it’s relatively benign. These articles have been particularly scathing towards the NPPD, after all.”

“What is their involvement with him, anyway?” Gadget asked. “I mean, they were at his daughter’s party and everything.”

“His wife invited them, I think. They often cover the fashion shows she’s involved with and usually give her glowing reviews.”

“Yeah, well, serves the NPPD right if they’re getting a good reaming from the press,” Gadget snorted. “Useless bunch of wannabe ‘cops’ without the guts to stand up and defend the citizens they’re sworn to protect. We wouldn’t let this get this bad back home, not by a long shot.”

“Probably would’ve nipped it all in the bud ‘fore it even got started,” Crossfire agreed. “‘Tain’t right, all them ponies wit’ the power ta do somethin’ but they’re just gonna let it go on like this. Bunch o’ cowards.”

“They’re not all bad,” Lockwood insisted, giving them both a small smile. “Sure, a lot of them are cowards just on the force for money or power. Sure, some of them might even be dirty on one or more of the mobs’ payrolls and just want to look the other way or cover things up. And sure, some of them might even be involved somehow. But they’re not all like that.”

“Always looking on bright side,” Blackburn scoffed. “Your optimism is amazing.”

“I just don’t see the sense in generalizing the entire organization just because of a few bad bananas in the bunch, y’know,” Lockwood said with a shrug. “But I digress. Given everything that’s happened, I think ‘business as usual’ is gonna have to take a backseat for a little while.”

“Why?”

“Well, like I said, Mint and Matcha are braver than most by printing these articles, but they’re still worried it might come back to bite them. Several others have made it clear that until things cool down, they’re going to distance themselves from the Tea sisters and from one another so they don’t get caught up in any potential crossfire, figurative or literal.”

Blackburn frowned and nodded. “Would include Thunderbolt and Crown Spectrum. They know my involvement with Virtuoso, won’t risk danger.”

“Can’t say I blame them, either,” Lockwood continued. “I’m sticking by you is because we’re friends, and I always look out for my friends. Otherwise this whole thing would be making me kinda nervous.”

Blackburn smiled. “Appreciate it, Lockwood. Thank you.”

Gadget huffed. “So what, we just sit around and wait for this whole thing to ‘blow over’ like this Chief Smokestack wants?”

Blackburn thought for a few moments. Then: “Opportunity presents itself.”

Lockwood raised an eyebrow. “Huh?”

“Earlier, you said that Virtuoso is upset. Agree: he surely wishes to ‘win’ this war. If Crown Spectrum provides solution, would be grateful; Crown Spectrum can be more aggressive with smuggling operations, maybe convince Virtuoso to openly endorse.”

“Alternatively,” Gadget interjected, “this could be just the opportunity we need to weaken his position so much that we can come out on top by default. No more Fantasia crime family, no more competition.”

“Win-win scenario; requires direct involvement, however.”

“Isn’t that awfully dangerous?” Lockwood asked, nervous. “I mean, up until now your dealings with Virtuoso have been purely business. You’re not going to suggest getting physically involved in the Three Families’ blood feud, are you? What about his wife and daughter?”

Blackburn shook her head. “Wouldn’t incite violence. Would offer advice towards success, or undermine his efforts to ruin his business. Either way, need to evaluate situation more closely. Need to meet with the Don, judge state of mind.”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea at all.”

“Hmm? Why not?”

“Like you said, ponies are likely going to distance themselves from you if they think you’re close to Virtuoso. They’d completely cut ties with Crown Spectrum if they think you guys are involved--”

“Would think we’re complacent with violence,” Blackburn finished. She nodded sadly. “Of course, hadn’t considered. Am not complacent, by the way.”

“I never suggested you were,” Lockwood said with a smile. “You’re just trying to look out for the ponies of Hope’s Point, now and into the future. I understand. Those are your ponies.”

“Thank you,” Blackburn said with a weak smile.

Lockwood paused, then let out a breath. “However, I can see that this is an opportunity for you to make great strides in advancing your network. Virtuoso has enough contacts and businesses under his hoof that if you gained even a portion of it, you’d never have to worry about your operations here again.” He stood up from his seat. “I’ll go see him. I might be able to find something out that would be of use.”

Blackburn frowned and stood up as well. “No. You fall into same conundrum: contacts may think you’re complacent.”

Lockwood shook his head and grinned. “Nonsense. Everypony knows me well enough that they’d figure I’m just trying to be courteous. I’m a personal friend of his, remember? I helped his daughter get her cutie mark and everything? Nopony would hold it against me if I was just checking up on a friend in need, no matter who it is.”

“Hmm… very well, acceptable,” Blackburn said with a nod. “Crossfire or Gadget can escort--”

“Oh no no, I’ve got to do this alone,” Lockwood said, waving his hoof. “If any of you are with me, the Don would suspect ulterior motives for the meeting, or it might link you guys to what’s going on with him somehow and that defeats the purpose. It’s better if I’m the only one going to see him. Trust me.”

Blackburn paused and frowned. She didn’t want to risk him going off like that by himself in case something happened, but she knew his insistence and stubbornness was particularly difficult to crack. “Fine,” she sighed.

“Good, glad we’re on the same page. You guys can meet me back at my place later tonight, okay? Say… ten o’clock? That way, nopony thinks I’m coming to see you and makes assumptions.”

“Very well, can agree to that.” She turned to Gadget and Crossfire and nodded; the two rose from their seats. “Meantime, we will… indulge ourselves.” She smiled at Lockwood. “Thank you, Lockwood. Appreciate this.”

Lockwood smiled back and tipped his hat. “No thanks are necessary, Princess. That’s what friends are for, right?”

*****

Lockwood arrived at Don Virtuoso’s penthouse apartment late that afternoon, dressed in his best hat and jacket and as neatly-groomed as he could manage on short notice. He otherwise acted as casually and normally as possible, whistling a little carefree tune as he disembarked the elevator. The hulking enforcer at the door nodded politely as he approached, then performed a customary pat down. Satisfied that Lockwood was clean, he opened the door and gestured for him to head on inside.

Lockwood looked through a few rooms until he found Virtuoso alone in the dining room, nursing a glass of scotch over ice and smoking one of his trademark fat cigars. Though Virtuoso wasn’t technically alone; he did have one of his captains with him, a sea-green unicorn mare with a long white mane. Lockwood recognized her as Lyrica, as she had been present when Crown Jewel got her cutie mark, and had even helpfully provided accompanying music - via a harp that was in the room - when asked. She wasn’t one of the Don’s higher-ranked captains though, Lockwood knew that much, and she certainly wasn’t his underboss; he’d expected Cotton Candy to be here, but to his surprise, she wasn’t.

Virtuoso noticed Lockwood enter the dining room, and gave him a small smile, barely noticeable from the other side of the room. “Lockwood.”

Lockwood removed his hat, but otherwise stayed at the entrance to the dining room. He didn’t smile back just yet. He knew the appropriate etiquette. “It’s been a while, Don Virtuoso.”

“It has been, hasn’t it? Quite a few months, actually. Crown Jewel’s been asking about you, you know. Wants to invite you to her dance recital next month.” Virtuoso gave Lockwood a long, hard look. “You’re going to attend, of course.” It wasn’t a question.

“Of course,” Lockwood replied with a smile. He gestured towards the across from the Don. “May I sit?”

Virtuoso gave a tried wave with his hoof. It was as good as a “yes”, so Lockwood approached and took a seat. The two then sat in silence for a long while as Virtuoso sipped his drink and puffed his cigar. Lockwood knew the game well enough by now to know it wasn’t his place to initiate too much, not when the Don was in such a sour mood; it was easy to tell his mood was, indeed, quite sour, as the stallion hadn’t shaved in a few days and had stubble slowly encroaching on his normally-smooth chin.

“So,” Virtuoso said at last, puffing the last of his cigar and mashing it into his ashtray, “To what do I owe the pleasure of your visit? Just dropping by to say hello?”

Lockwood gave him a small grin. “Don Virtuoso, please. I’m here to check on the wellbeing of my friend. The papers haven’t exactly been quiet about what’s been going on, y’know? This ‘war’ or whatever it is must be quite worrisome for you.”

Virtuoso gave a half-hearted shrug. “What’s to be worried about? My family buried the hatchet with the Rossa family in my grandfather’s time. My mother’s sister, Melodia, married into the Amore family to finally make peace with them. Two generations of my family did what dozens before them couldn’t do. They put an end to the bloodshed. Blood’s bad for business, you understand.”

Lockwood frowned. “I was under the impression the blood feud was still on, just ‘cold’. Is that not the case?”

“My boy, that’s just what the Three Families wanted everypony to think,” Virtuoso said with a sad smile. “If the city thought we’d put those petty little squabbles behind us, they’d think we’d gone soft. Might try to muscle in on our territories. Again, bad for business. All that fighting is bad for business.”

Lockwood was about to speak when Virtuoso slammed his hoof on the table and started shouting:

“So you think I’m worried?! Worried that somehow, under my watch, my grandfather’s legacy is falling apart right before my eyes?! I have to hide my wife and daughter to keep them safe! You think that might be a good enough cause for me to worry?!”

Lockwood stayed silent, then calmly leaned forward in his chair. “I think in times like these, Don, everypony needs a friend.”

“I don’t need un amico, my boy. I need answers.” Virtuoso finished his drink, then passed the glass to Lyrica, who wordlessly took it, filled it with another round, then passed it back. “Somepony started this war, Lockwood. But it wasn’t me. I know it wasn’t the Rossa family. They went legit with the casinos in the Giocatore District, they have no need for all this. And I know, ohhh, I know it wasn’t anypony from the Amore family, because my dear aunt Melodia wouldn’t allow anypony to do it. We’re her family, too, her blood.”

Lockwood paused. “So you think this is a setup?”

“I don’t know what it is, son. All I know is that my family’s been hit the hardest, and the other families think I’m to blame for their losses, so they’ve retaliated against me and made it worse. I’ve lost businesses. I’ve lost enforcers. I’ve lost some of my closest famiglia, Lockwood.” Virtuoso slumped back in his chair and took a long drink. “They killed my boy Tommy. Gunned him down in the street like a rat two days ago while he was out to lunch. Saw his bullet-riddled body with my own eyes.”

Lockwood frowned. He knew Tommy fairly well. “I’m sorry Virtuoso. I know he was like a son to you.” He paused, then shook his head. “And you don’t know who did it? You’re certain it wasn’t one of the other families?”

“I wish I knew who was responsible, Lockwood. We may not be in the business of killing anymore, but that doesn’t mean we’re out of practice. Capisce?

“Do you have any leads?”

Virtuoso sighed. “Not anymore. Cotton was this close--” He emphasized his point by holding his forehooves so close together that they practically touched “--to cracking it. But whoever this is… whoever this is knew where to hurt me most. Cotton is dead too. Bomb in her apartment.”

Lockwood was at a loss. Without Cotton Candy, Virtuoso had lost one of his valuable assets and a good friend. “That’s… wow. I’m… I’m sorry, Virtuoso. I didn’t know how hard you’d been hit--”

“It’s not your fault, my boy. You’ve got a life of your own to live. I’ve got a family to protect.” Virtuoso sat up in his seat and took another sip of his drink. “Perdonami. I haven’t been a very gracious host today. Would you care for a drink?”

Lockwood held up his hoof and smiled. “I know it’s not polite to refuse you, Don, but I’ve got business to attend to tonight and I think I should be sober for it. Wouldn’t want to disappoint, y’know?”

Virtuoso gave him a coy, knowing grin. “Ah, well, buona fortuna a te.”

“Thank you, Don. Truth be told, I’ve also been a little worried about my neighbor, Black Boulder. I haven’t seen him or his wife in a few days--”

“That was the young guy in Hotline’s crew, right? The one you got all hooked up?”

“That’s right.”

Virtuoso shook his head. “I can’t say I know where all of my enforcers are at the moment, Lockwood, sorry. This past week has been a real mess.” Virtuoso gestured to Lyrica gently. “Lyrica here’s one of the only captains who’s been reporting in regularly. I haven’t heard much of anything from Hotline, Maestro, or Octavian’s crews. I don’t even know if they’re alive.”

Lockwood frowned and let out a breath. “I see... listen, if there’s anything I can do to help--”

Virtuoso’s gaze steeled and he leaned forward. “You want to help? Here’s how you can help: if you find out anything about who’s doing this to me, you come tell me subito. If you can help me find them, I’ll be nel tuo debito - in your debt. Anything you want, it’s yours. I’ll make it happen, Lockwood, you just bring me something.”

Lockwood nodded and rose from his seat. “You’ll be the first to know, Don, I promise. I’ll leave you to your thinking.”

Virtuoso waved Lockwood off with a half-hearted wave of his hoof as he leaned back in his seat. “Grazie. Have fun with your ‘business’.”

*****

Lockwood arrived at his apartment early that evening. He didn’t bother with his keys; instead, he knocked with the distinct pattern that would let Blackburn and company know it was him. Crossfire opened the door a second later and let him in, then closed and locked the door behind him. Blackburn was waiting patiently, seated on the couch. Gadget was sitting on the rug.

Blackburn smiled as he entered the room, relieved. “Welcome back.”

Lockwood hung up his hat and headed into his room and tossed his jacket onto the bed, leaving him in just his simple white shirt. “I suppose you guys want me to cut right to the chase?”

“Take a moment, relax,” Blackburn said, patting the empty spot beside her on the couch.

Lockwood took a breath and sat down beside her, cozying up against the back of the couch. “I can relax and relay information at the same time.”

“Go ahead, then.”

“So, the war between the Three Families wasn’t started by Virtuoso, he was insistent about that much. He also firmly believes that the heads of the other two families didn’t order anything either, they’re just reacting to everything that’s going on.”

“Somepony else started the war? Hmm…” Blackburn tapped her chin. “Looking to gain from Three Families destroying each other. New rival family most likely.”

“Well, whoever it is, they’re targeting the Fantasia family in particular, and the other families think Virtuoso started it so they’re making it worse for him. I don’t know the extent that the other families have been affected, but Virtuoso’s lost contact with most of his captains… including Tommy Gun, who he’s confirmed as dead. Saw the body himself.”

Blackburn frowned and rubbed her chin, uncomfortable. “Ah… unfortunate. Tommy was instrumental in reaching this point. Decent stallion.”

“A bit touchy-feely, if you ask me,” Gadget noted, nose in the air. “Not that I wanted him dead or anything, though… I mean, I feel bad for him, and his family, but I’m not gonna pretend he didn’t get all hoovesy with me at the party.”

“That’s not all,” Lockwood continued. “Cotton Candy was killed too. Bomb in her apartment.”

“Top captain and top underboss, dead.” Blackburn leaned back and hummed. “Definitely targeted attack at Fantasia family. Other families caught in crossfire implies intent to damage Fantasia reputation as well, cripple efforts to make amends afterwards.”

“Any idea why, though?”

“Ruin,” Blackburn said, shaking her head. “Only intent is total ruin of Fantasia family. Will admit, at one point considered it myself, though not to this extent. This plan... meticulous. Required intimate knowledge of family’s inner workings. Likely inside job.”

“You think somepony inside the Fantasia family is betraying Virtuoso?” Lockwood asked, eyebrow raised. “Who?”

“Prime suspects would be one of his captains.”

“That leaves Hotline, Maestro, Octavian, and Lyrica. The former three have been completely out of contact with him for most of the war, and Lyrcia was present at our meeting. If the Don suspects anypony inside his organization, I doubt it’s her.”

“Hmm…” Blackburn shook her head. “Will not speculate. Need more information first.”

“Well, if we do manage to find anything out, Virtuoso’s basically told me he’s going to give me carte blanche. Anything I want kind of deal, y’know? I mean, I assume that he would extend it to you if you... helped me…” Lockwood stayed silent for a long moment, then turned to Gadget. “Gadget, do you have any recording equipment?”

Gadget raised an eyebrow. “Yeah, sure. Of course I do, what kind of tech genius do you take me for?”

“Can you set some up in my apartment?”

Gadget blinked, more confused. “Uh… yeah? Why? This isn’t a kink thing, is it?”

Blackburn narrowed her eyes at Lockwood. “You have a plan.”

Lockwood nodded. “I do.”

“Tell me.”

Lockwood shook his head. “No. If I do, you’ll refuse to help me.”

“Well, now I’m really curious,” Gadget said with a grin. “Let me guess: you have a theory on who it is and you’re gonna invite them over or something?”

“I’m not saying anything else,” Lockwood said, looking sternly at Blackburn. “Will you allow Gadget to bug my apartment?”

Blackburn paused, then snorted and rose off of the couch. “Keep your secrets, Lockwood. Will not help if you can’t trust me--”

“I do trust you, Princess, but you need to trust me. This’ll get you all the information you need, I guarantee it. But you need to trust me.” Lockwood hopped off the couch and bowed slightly before her. “I promised you I would help you in every way I could, and I meant it. Please.”

Blackburn looked down at him, quiet in her contemplation. At long last she turned to Gadget. “Go on, then.” She then turned to Lockwood. “We will be watching.”

“Of course, I wouldn’t have expected otherwise.” Lockwood rose back up and smiled. “I’m going to assume you need to be close for the equipment to be of use?”

“Not really,” Gadget said with a shrug. “But if Blackburn wants to watch, that means she wants to be close in case something happens. We’ll probably scope out a place across the street, or maybe camp out on the roof.”

Lockwood shook his head. “I’ve got a better option. Head down to apartment 0791, just down the hall. My neighbor’s wife still rents it out, uses it for storage these days. That way, you’re close by and everything and nopony will bother you.”

“And you expect us to just break into this lady’s apartment?” Gadget scoffed.

Lockwood nodded. “Nopony’ll be there, so you’ll have plenty of quiet to listen in and whatnot. But I need you to promise me you won’t do anything until it’s all over. Don’t come barging in on me, okay? Then, you’ll be able to get whatever you need out of Virtuoso.”

“I can’t--”

“Please, Blackburn. Promise me.”

Blackburn looked him in his eyes for a brief moment, then grunted, annoyed. “Fine. Only hope you’re not doing anything stupid.”

Lockwood clapped her on the shoulder. “C’mon now, Princess, when have I ever done anything stupid?”

*****

Later that evening, Lockwood relaxed on his couch while reading a book - this one not made of paper, but contained on a datapad - that had been given to him by Mint and Matcha several weeks ago. It was a copy of an old, almost ancient book that detailed the intricacies of societal organization, namely how it was possible to determine a culture’s needs, values, and interests based on their habits for constructing their settlements. He’d been hoping to use it to learn why Pandemonium was organized in such a nonsensical fashion yet didn’t feel like it was done at random. It wasn’t helping.

He prevented himself from glancing over to where Gadget had installed her recording equipment - a magnet on the refrigerator that contained a miniature camera complete with audio sensor. If he kept himself from looking now, he could do so later.

Suddenly there was a knock at the door, five knocks in a distinct pattern that Lockwood recognized as many ponies liked to knock with those five notes. He hopped off the couch and set his book down on the kitchen counter, then trotted over to the door. Just as he went to open it, he noticed the subtle glow of unicorn magic on the locking mechanism.

The knob turned and the door burst open in one swift movement, and a mare on the other side shoved him harshly back into the room, where he fell onto his rug. Then she and two others strut inside; all three were earth ponies, and one of them carried one of Gadget’s TS-200 devices.

The mare who’d shoved him had a steel-gray coat and a smoke-gray mane that she kept straight back. She wore a black leather jacket with spiked shoulders over a white shirt, and chewed on a toothpick. She was built a tiny bit bigger than the other two, hardly noticeable but the jacket’s size made it more apparent.

A second mare entered behind the first. Her coat was smoke-gray and her long, sweeping mane was charcoal-black and covered most of her face. She wore a white, spotless blouse that clung tightly to her much smaller frame. She quietly slid into the room and took a seat in the corner on the floor where she remained for now, just staring unblinkingly at Lockwood.

The third mare had a plain gray coat; her mane was a grayish-purple and cut very short but with long bangs. She wore a turtleneck sweater over her comparatively average build. She was the only one who took the time to check out Lockwood’s apartment to make sure they were alone, not speaking a word as she did so.

“Well well well, look who it is!” exclaimed leather jacket mare, her voice deep and gravely. “It’s our old friend Lockwood. And hey, he’s got a new rug. Fancy shit.” She turned to the quiet mare in the corner. “And after all that work we did to dye it for you. Ungrateful prick, isn’t he?”

The quiet mare’s mouth curled in a very tight smile. “Uh huh.”

Jacket mare turned back to Lockwood, who was rising to his hooves, and shoved him back down. “Hey hey hey, what do you think you’re doing, huh? Who said you could stand up? I sure didn’t. I told you last time, dipshit, you listen to me.” She punctuated this by punching him hard across the face.

“Now now, Gem,” interjected the turtleneck mare, her voice a dull monotone, eyes half-lidded. “Don’t get started just yet.”

The jacket mare - Gem, apparently - wheeled on turtleneck. “Whoa whoa whoa, you don’t get to tell me what to do, Rook. We all know that I’m in charge--”

Turtleneck mare - Rook - shook her head. “That was last time. You know the drill this time, sis.”

Gem rolled her eyes. “Yeah yeah, but until then, I’m the one in charge. So keep your trap shut while I put the squeeze on this wuss.” Rook’s reaction was just a small shrug. Satisfied, Gem turned back to Lockwood. “So, looks like you didn’t get the message last time, bucko. I thought we were clear.” She turned to the quiet mare. “Ruby, we were clear, right?”

Quiet mare - Ruby - nodded and grinned wider. “Uh huh.”

“See, I knew we were clear.” Gem turned back to Lockwood and lifted him up by his collar. “We told you, buddy. We told you that if you went and talked, we were gonna make you regret it. We were clear. Crystal. Clear. And you went ahead and talked anyway. You got a death wish, pal?”

“I didn’t tell anypony anything about you,” Lockwood said.

“Yeah, I call bullshit.” She lifted her hoof up to strike him again.

Another voice came from the doorway. “Ah ah ah, don’t get started just yet, Gem. You heard your sister.”

Lockwood’s eyes widened as Cotton Candy walked into his apartment none the worse for wear. She was dressed in a loose-fitting red suit, still with an unnecessary eyepatch. She closed and locked the door behind her.

Gem turned to Cotton and tilted her head. “But Cotton, this jerk didn’t listen to us. We told him what we’d do if he went flapping his gums about us, and I’m just trying to remind him--”

Lockwood scowled. “Y’know, Cotton, you’re looking awfully healthy for a dead mare.”

“Well, obviously the rumors of my death were greatly exaggerated,” Cotton laughed. “I’m sooo close to finding out everything I need to know, but this whole little scuffle between the Three Families is making it hard to focus and keep my mind clear. I needed time to think think think.”

“So you faked your own death with a bomb?”

“Pretty neat, huh? Boom! Bam! Kablamo!” She did an exploding gesture with her hooves. “No more Cotton Candy to worry about. Peace and quiet at last. Sure, okay, maybe a few ponies might have gotten caught in that blast, but what’s a little collateral damage every now and then, eh? I gotta do what I gotta do to get what I need, you understand.”

“You really live up to your reputation, don’t you?”

She shrugged and grinned. “I try.” She then headed over to the fridge, opened it up, and grabbed a packet of Dolor Blue. “Ugh, you like the Blue crap? You’ve got poor taste in food, Lockwood, I’ll tell you that much.” She ripped it open and sucked down a mouthful. “Pah! It doesn’t taste anything like me at all. What a load. Oh well.” She turned to Gem. “Anyway, go ahead, sis. Teach this schmuck his lesson.”

Gem smirked, then turned back to Lockwood and clocked him across the face; she kept a grip on his shirt so he wouldn’t fall to the floor. “Ooh yeah, that was a good crack right there.”

She hit him again, and again, and finally on the third strike she let him go so he’d fall onto the floor. His lip and nose were bleeding all over his rug. She then roughly ground her hoof into his ribcage to keep him from squirming and moving around as she continued her assault, striking him again, and again, and--

Cotton held up her hoof after about a minute of punishment. “Stop.”

Gem withdrew her hoof mid-punch and stood at attention. Lockwood’s nose was broken at this point, and there was a hideous red stain all over the rug. He flicked his tongue against his teeth to make sure he hadn’t lost one; he hadn’t. Yet.

Cotton then stepped over, still sucking on the tube of Dolor Blue, and knelt beside Lockwood and ruffled his mane. “As you can see, I can stop all the pain at any moment I want. Just a single word, and they won’t lay another hoof on you. Doesn’t that sound nice? Guess what? I’ll do just that if you tell me everything I want to know.”

Lockwood spat out some blood and lifted his head to meet her gaze. “And what’s that?”

“I need to know everything about your good friend Thunderbolt and her associates at Crown Spectrum, especially that tech wizard of hers. Ooh, she’s good, that little filly. I can’t find any information out about those three no matter where I look. There’s some kind of block on their profiles in the city’s database, and I bet she put it up to protect them. So I need somepony close with them to get me that information. And I. Picked. You. You should feel honored! Lucky!”

Lockwood took a deep breath. “I’m not telling you anything.”

Cotton stared at him for a moment, then shrugged and turned to Rook with a coy smile. “You heard him, sis. Your turn.”

Rook stepped forward and cracked her neck. “Gem, spread his wing out for me.”

Gem pushed Lockwood onto his stomach and spread his left wing out wide on the floor. Rook then pressed her hoof hard against the base of the wing, eliciting a pained whimper from Lockwood.

“With the right pressure,” she explained, still monotone, “this will inflict intense pain without snapping the bone. Too little and it’s just uncomfortable. Too much and the bone snaps. Snapping the bone could be painful enough to send you into shock.”

“And we don’t need you passing out on us now, do we, wimp?” chided Gem, moving over to dig her hoof into the base of his neck. Lockwood tapped his hooves against the floor in pain. “Awww look, he’s tapping out. What do you think this is, pal, a wrestling match?”

Cotton finished the tube of Dolor Blue at last and dropped it nonchalantly onto Lockwood’s bloodied face. “Y’know, I bet you think you’re doing those friends of yours a favor by not talking to me, don’t you? Well, here’s a little secret for you: you’re not.”

“I’m not telling you anything!” Lockwood hissed through the pain.

Cotton sighed and lay on the floor in front of him, lifting up her eyepatch and giving him a sympathetic look. “C’mon. You’re just making it harder on them in the end, really. I mean, think about how they’re gonna feel when we have to do this to all their business partners until somepony squeals. Somepony will give me what I need.”

Lockwood paled, so Cotton held up her hoof. “Stop!”

Rook released her pressure on his wing; Gem did the same for his neck.

Cotton smiled and ruffled his mane again. “There we go, girls, that got a reaction. You get it now, don’t you? If we have to kill you, we’re just gonna move on to the next ponies that might be able to help us instead. That would probably be… the Tea Sisters, wouldn’t it?”

“You wouldn’t--”

“Oh, that’s where you’re wrong, buddy boy. I know how close sisters can be with one another, so I know just a teeny-tiny bit of motivation goes a long way. Now, I haven’t decided on whether or not we’re gonna torture Mint or Matcha first while the other watches.” She lifted her hoof, struck by an idea. “Ooh, maybe you’d be able to make a suggestion? Which one’s easier to break, you think?”

Lockwood sneered. “I’m not telling you anything.”

Cotton sighed, shrugged, then gestured to Rook and Gem. “Keep it up, girls.”

Rook nodded and applied pressure to Lockwood’s wing again, both of them this time. He started groaning in pain once more trying his best to squirm away from his tormentors, so Gem pressed a hoof to the back of his skull and slammed his face into the floor.

Cotton then turned to Ruby, who’d been quiet the entire time with a slowly growing smile on her face. “Ruby, sweetie, would you care to join the fun? I know you’ve been waiting a while for this.”

Ruby’s grin widened, showing her teeth. “Uh huh.”

The quiet mare stepped towards Lockwood, her eyes darkening as she drew a switchblade from her blouse. She popped the blade out; Gem grabbed Lockwood’s hair and pulled his face up to look at her. Ruby then gently drew her knife across Lockwood’s face, making a very shallow cut along his cheek. Lockwood struggled to turn his head away and soon was unable to prevent himself from crying as she repeated this along his foreleg over and over.

“I can do this all day, sweetheart, but I don’t think you’ve got what it takes to last that long. Typical stallion endurance, tsk tsk tsk.” Cotton sighed, patting Lockwood on the cheek Ruby hadn’t cut. “But if you’re not going to give me anything, I can’t make it stop. Won’t you give me just a little something to work with here? If you tell me what I want to know, this can allll stop.”

“What are you going to do to them if I tell you?” Lockwood asked through gritted teeth.

“Oh, well that’s easy. Since you’re curious, I might as well, right?” Cotton grinned wide. “Now, Fireblast, as handsome as he is, is of no practical use to me. He’ll just get in the way, you know that, so he’s gotta go. A shame, too, he’s a real studmuffin, but nopony’s too handsome to squash if they get in my way. Now, Thunderbolt, she’s my ticket in to making sure that little tech wiz gives me what I want. I’m thinking that breaking a wing might be a good start.”

“Or maybe just tearing it right out of its socket,” Gem snickered. “Just rrrriiiip that wing right out. Which one do you think she favors, huh? Left wing? Right? My bet’s on the left, but Ruby thinks it’s the right.”

“Ruby wants to use it like a paper fan,” Rook added. “Keep herself cool in the summer when we head down south. Right sis?”

“Uh huh,” Ruby agreed, drawing her knife across the back of Lockwood’s neck.

Lockwood whimpered again. “Why are you doing this?”

“Look, I’m gonna make you an offer you can’t refuse. You tell me what I want to know and I’ll let you live. Refuse, and I tell Ruby to cut a little deeper.” Cotton had Ruby punctuate this point by digging her knife into his back near the base of his left wing. “What’s it gonna be, hun?”

“Okay! Okay! I’ll tell you!” Lockwood shouted as tears began to roll down his bloodied face.

Cotton held up a hoof. “Stop!” Rook and Gem released their pressure, and Ruby withdrew her knife. “Good boy, Lockwood. I knew you’d see it my way eventually. Shame we had to ruin your rug to do it. It really tied the room together.”

Lockwood, out of breath and having trouble breathing, glared at Cotton through his tears. “They live in Mid-South Central Plaza, at a place called North Point. Room 44-6:15. They just got back in town after a vacation so they’re probably still getting their things unpacked.”

Cotton smiled. “Good. Very good. See? Was that so hard?”

“What did they ever do to you? Are they the traitors that Virtuoso was talking about?”

“No no, they didn’t do anything quite like that. I’m just interested in what that little Tinker gal can do. She’s got the potential to be a valuable, valuable asset to Don Virtuoso.”

Lockwood blinked, dumbfounded. “But… but she already works for--”

“And he wastes her talent on toys!” Cotton spat, her gaze intensifying. “He and Thunderbolt squander that mare’s potential on worthless junk! They’re both idiots, blinded by sentimentality and novelty. Do you know what a mind like that could do if she was using that genius for making weapons? With somepony like that on our side, we could take over this whole damn city! None of this Three Families truce bullshit. There would be one empire to keep this city in check, and nopony could stop us!”

“Wait, that means… you’re the traitor?”

Cotton snorted. “I prefer ‘visionary’. You couldn’t possibly understand what true ambition looks like. You’re just as blind and small minded as they are. Never seeing the bigger picture!” She rose to her hooves. “You went to the Don earlier today. Obviously that’s why we’re here - you talked. What did you tell him?”

Lockwood shook his head. “I was just checking in on a friend, and checking up on another. I haven’t seen my neighbor in days.”

Cotton smirked. “Black Boulder? Oh, he’s dead.”

Lockwood paled. “What?”

Gem guffawed. “Yeah, we killed that piece of shit. What a waste of space.”

“Technically, we killed his wife,” Rook pointed out. “He just jumped in the pit we threw her in while we filled it with cement.”

Lockwood shook his head. “Why?”

“To keep him out of the way. Hotline started getting suspicious after Cotton ‘died’, had his enforcers trying to figure out what happened. Smart stallion, that one.”

“And so Black Boulder had to die,” Cotton finished. “So did Hotline and most of his crew, actually. We’re still wrapping up a few loose ends, of course, but you were more important right now. You should feel honored!” She gestured to Gem. “Anyway. Girls, put this poor soul to sleep. He needs some rest after a hard day.”

“With pleasure,” Gem snickered.

Lockwood’s eyes widened. “But… but I told you--”

Gem cut him off with a vicious stomp to the ribs. And another, and another. Rook joined in the act by applying pressure to his left wing again, more than before; the bones in his wing started cracking. Ruby didn’t join in, merely held Lockwood’s head aloft and watched the pain flicker in his eyes as she cleaned her blade on her blouse before putting it away.

Cotton smirked and gave Ruby a sisterly pat on the back. “They’re just gonna knock you around a lil’ bit, ol’ buddy ol’ pal. Can’t have you trying to warn Thunderbolt we’re coming, can we? But don’t worry, I gave you my word that I wasn’t going to kill you, didn’t I? Now, if nopony shows up in time to get you medical attention, that’s not our fault.”

Another few stomps from Gem was enough to crack one of his ribs, then she kicked him in the side of the head; Lockwood’s vision briefly blurred in his right eye. Rook applied enough pressure to snap the bones in his left wing. This was enough that Lockwood finally passed out from the shock. Once he was out, the sisters stopped their assault and joined Cotton at her side.

“You sure you don’t want us to put him on ice, Cotton?” Gem asked, mashing her hooves together.

Cotton shook her head. “Now now, Gem, I gave that scrawny wimp my word, didn’t I? C’mon, we’ve got time to hit up that hay fries joint I like before we go pay Miss Thunderbolt a visit.”

With that, the four mares left the room and closed the door behind them, not bothering to lock the door this time around.

A few minutes later, Blackburn, Crossfire, and Gadget came barging into the room. Gadget saw the blood pooling around Lockwood and staggered in the doorway just a little; Crossfire caught her, but she was able to keep herself mostly upright. She went straight to retrieving her recording equipment, taking deep, deep breaths so that she didn’t throw up.

While Gadget grabbed her recording equipment, Blackburn helped Crossfire ease Lockwood onto his back. She grabbed some towels out of the restroom and tried her best to stop the bleeding; it was working, but most of his injuries were internal at this point.

“Quick, we have to get him to Miracle,” she said in a panic. She looked at Lockwood with terrified concern. “You idiot. You stupid, stupid idiot.”

Part of that was for him, if he could hear her. The rest was for herself.

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