• 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 Thirteen: Amorous Admission

Blackburn and Crossfire waited patiently in the dining room of Virtuoso’s penthouse early that morning, mere hours after their violent, exhauting ordeal. It gave them just enough time to check on Lockwood’s condition over at Miracle’s before they came; Gadget remained with their friend to evaluate his recovery, and to get some treatment for her post-hemophobic nausea, and most importantly, so that she could get the blood and puke cleaned off her clothes.

Blackburn, seated on one side of the dining table, hadn’t bothered to clean up much, so her jacket was still stained with Cotton Candy’s blood; Crossfire, standing behind Blackburn, still wore his armor but had since removed his helmet, showing off his sweat-drenched coat and mane. Lyrica was with them too, though she’d had the time to change into a fresh suit at least; she stood behind Virtuoso, who sat opposite Blackburn, still in his pajamas. For once he wasn’t smoking a cigar, at least not yet. He’s also shaved his stubble and trimmed his mustache.

“I know that I should be happy,” Virtuoso muttered, shaking his head, “but I’m not. I should be glad that filthy pink snake is dead. I should be glad that she’s paid for what she did to me and my family. I should be glad, but… I can’t help but feel that I’ve lost more than I’ve gotten back thanks to all this nasty business.”

“I understand how you feel completely, Don,” Blackburn said with a sad nod. “For what it’s worth, I’m not too happy with this whole thing either. None of what happened these past twenty-four hours should’ve happened at all, and I blame myself for it. I’m the one that suggested Lockwood come talk to you, and that’s why the Candy sisters went after him.”

Virtuoso waved the thought off with his hoof. “Figurati. I know that colt too well to blame you for that, no matter what reason you had to send him here. He probably would’ve done it on his own.”

Blackburn chuckled quietly. “Yeah… he probably would’ve. Still, I don’t know whether or not Cotton had any notions to betray you before my company came into the picture. She made it clear that she was going to use us to take out the rest of the Three Families.”

“She had to have thought of it before you, Thunderbolt,” Virtuoso said dismissively. “You don’t put together a plan like she did and get the equipment she had per un capriccio. She must’ve been planning this out for a long time. You and your tech wiz coming along might have just given her the motivation to push it forward sooner. If anything, it made her sloppy. I should be thanking you.”

Virtuoso gestured briefly to Lyrica, who nodded knowingly, fetched a fresh glass of scotch for him, and passed him a fresh cigar, which he didn’t light just yet. “You said you checked on Lockwood before you came by? How is our mutual amico?

“He hasn’t regained consciousness as of yet, but the doctor we’ve got taking care of him is optimistic about his recovery.” Blackburn shook her head and sighed. “But I don’t want to send him back to his dump of an apartment yet, not until I get it cleaned up and secured. He needs to recover someplace with ponies that care about him… and away from me; I have a lot of things to say to him, and he doesn’t need to hear them yet.”

Capisco. I’d like to give that colt a piece of my mind, too.” He gave her a slight grin and lit his cigar. “Though I suppose you want to give him more than that.”

Blackburn didn’t acknowledge his remark, just kept speaking. “I’d like to arrange for him to be taken to his family’s place to finish recovering, and for the truth about what happened to be kept from them. Do you know where his family lives?”

“I do. I can definitely arrange something,” Virtuoso said with a nod. “As for the story, we’ll say it was… a mugging gone wrong. Simple.”

“Good. Please see to it that that’s taken care of then. I’d do it myself, but… I’m trying to limit my exposure to him right now.”

Virtuoso took a puff of his cigar. “Thank you again for doing all this for him, Thunderbolt. That colt’s practically famiglia to me. Did you know my little Crown Jewel calls him ‘Uncle' Lockwood now?” He chuckled and shook his head. “If he were of a different mind, he’d make a great consigliere. I’ve thought about asking him once or twice, but I know he’d turn me down no matter what I offered.”

“But, luckily for us, that’s not the kind of pony he is,” Blackburn noted.

“No, luckily for us he isn’t. He wouldn’t be the same pony I trust with my daughter if he was.”

Blackburn rose from her chair and nodded politely. “We should be going now, Don. We only came by to let you know what had happened, and it’s getting… well, early. I need sleep, my crew needs sleep, and you need sleep.” She and Crossfire then headed for the exit. “Come on, Fireblast.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Crossfire said with a salute.

Virtuoso paused and chewed his cigar for a moment as the pair started out of the room, then held up a hoof. “Hold on, Thunderbolt. Don’t go yet.”

Blackburn stopped and turned, confused. “Hmm?”

“If you don’t mind… I’d like to have a conversation with you. In privato,” he added, glancing at Crossfire, “per favore.

Blackburn paused and pondered this for a moment; Virtuoso wasn’t the type to ask anything of anypony without good reason, and technically she did still owe him that much. She turned to Crossfire and nodded. “Wait outside for me.”

Crossfire blinked, glanced at Lyrica and Virtuoso. “Are ya sure it’s alright bein’ by yerself right now?”

“I appreciate the concern, but I’m sure.” Blackburn walked back over to retake her seat at the table.

Crossfire waited a few seconds, then let out a breath and left the room. “Roger that, boss.”

Virtuoso took a drink from his glass, then turned to Lyrica with a firm look. “Lyrica, you’ve had a rough couple of days with all this trouble going around,” he said gently. “Why don’t you go home to your wife, huh? Take the week off, maybe have yourselves a little vacation together.”

Lyrica raised an eyebrow. “Are… are you sure, Don?”

“Don’t make me ask twice, Lyrica,” Virtuoso said firmly. “And tell Sweet Cream I said 'ciao'.”

Lyrica paused, then nodded. “Of course, Don Virtuoso. Let me know if you need anything else.” She headed out of the room, giving a quick look to Blackburn as she went. “Good show out there, Thunderbolt.”

“Lyrica,” Blackburn replied with a nod.

Virtuoso waited a moment to make sure Lyrica had left and that he and Blackburn were alone, then finished off his drink and rose from his seat. “Can I offer you a drink, Thunderbolt? It’s been a rough morning.”

Blackburn nodded appreciatively. “Sure. I could use a stiff one right about now.”

“You take scotch?”

“Yeah, that sounds nice.”

“Rocks?”

“No, that’s alright.”

Virtuoso poured himself another glass of scotch, then poured one for Blackburn. He put hers in front of her, which she took in her hooves, but he didn’t retake his seat. Instead, he walked over to the window and looked out over the city, calmly sipping his own drink. He took a long drag of his cigar, blowing it out at the ceiling in a ring. He didn’t turn to Blackburn when he started speaking.

“When I was just a colt, I took an interest in classical music,” he started. “My father encouraged my talent, did everything he could to help me realize my dream of being a world-class musician. I attended the best schools, had the best instructors, and used the best instruments.” He chuckled and turned to Blackburn. “Did you know I can play eight different instruments?

“Oh? Which ones?” Blackburn asked as she took a sip of her drink.

“Violin, harp, clarinet, flute, oboe, trumpet, bassoon, and piano. A full classical collection. Even learned how to conduct and write music, if you can believe that.”

“Impressive.”

“Still, despite all that, my father also taught me things about the family business, even though I didn’t really show much interest in it back then. He fell ill shortly after I graduated from the New Pandemonium Music Academy… and so I finally took an interest. There was nopony to take over for him except me. And when my father finally passed, I became the new Don of the Fantasia family.”

Blackburn nodded, understanding the similarities between the two of them more and more. He may not have the title of “King”, but he was the king of his empire in his own way all the same.

“I gained a lot that day… but I also lost something.” Virtuoso puffed his cigar again. “I gave up my dreams of being a musician to take over as head of my family, because there wasn’t a choice. Family means everything to me, Thunderbolt. Do you understand that?”

Blackburn leaned back and considered his words. “Family’s important, Don, I agree… but I’m sorry to hear that things went down like that. I sympathize more than you can imagine.” This was sincere. She was well acquainted with the concept of sacrificing everything to protect what was most important to you.

Virtuoso sighed and looked forlornly out the window. “I arranged a meeting with the heads of the other families for later this week. I’m going to explain everything that happened these past couple of weeks, especially today.” He took a long sip of his scotch. “I don’t expect it to do much to smooth things over after all that’s happened, but I have to try to salvage our truce. I have to try and repair my grandfather’s legacy.”

Blackburn smiled weakly. “I know the feeling…” Virtuoso couldn’t possibly know who she really was and how much this resonated with her, but she almost wished he did. They could actually be friends if she didn’t have to keep her identity secret.

“It’ll be tough, repairing the damage Cotton Candy did to me and my family. She destroyed some of my most profitable businesses. She killed some of my best ponies, killed famiglia. I have to rebuild everything from scratch.” He let out a heavy breath. “Seven generations of my family’s work brought to ruin in just two weeks. It’ll take years to fix what Cotton did. Decades, even.

“But thanks to you, Thunderbolt, and thanks to Lockwood, I have the opportunity to try.” Virtuoso puffed his cigar, then turned to Blackburn with a small smile. “And thanks to you two, I’ve also reconsidered how I want to go about that. If I even want to go about that.”

Blackburn raised an eyebrow, confused. “I’m sorry?”

“I’ll do what I can to keep the business going, of course, to keep the ponies that work for me well-paid and happy… but I’m going to take my time bringing things back to how they were. I’m going to focus on my family - my real family - instead of making money and building up our territory.”

He mashed his cigar into an ashtray. “My daughter has a passion, Thunderbolt, just like I did. I want her to pursue it, and I never want her to worry about taking over for me someday. I need to start figuring out if I can trust anypony enough to fill my horseshoes. Lyrica maybe - she’s proven herself loyal and capable - but I don’t know...” He smiled again. “I’ve even thought about getting back into music.”

“Well, that’s commendable of you, Don, but… why are you telling me this?”

He finished off his drink. “Like I said, you gave me the opportunity to consider it. Until this whole thing with Cotton went down, all I’ve cared about for the past twenty years was business. I ignored my passion. I ignored my wife. I ignored my daughter so much that Lockwood was there to help her get her cutie mark, not me. Not her mother. I ignored my family for the family. So… I wanted to thank you.”

Blackburn leaned back in her seat and pondered this. She could see what was coming. “You want to give me what you thought I wanted in the first place, don’t you? Control over my company.”

“More than that. Crown Spectrum belongs to you, certainly, but so do all of the resources I’d given you, and all of the contacts that came with it. The profit split will be more generous too. Let’s say... sixty-forty in your favor; I gotta take a cut too, capisce?” He stepped over to the table and extended his hoof to her. “You no longer work for me, Thunderbolt. As far as I’m concerned, we’re legitimate business partners now.”

Blackburn stared at his hoof in a daze. She hadn’t expected this at all. But after a moment’s thought, she took his hoof and gave it a shake. “It’s a pleasure doing business with you, Virtuoso.”

Virtuoso broke the shake, then poured himself another drink. “I do have one request for you before you go, Thunderbolt.” He gave her a coy grin. “Take care of him.”

Blackburn paused in consideration, then returned the smile and nodded. “I will.”

One Week Later

Late that evening, Lockwood, dressed in a fresh jacket and hat, climbed the stairs of his apartment complex slowly but surely, taking a few breaths after every flight he climbed. After a week recovering with his adopted family, he was quite desperate to get away and had taken the first opportunity to do so when his planned recovery time was up. He loved them all dearly, but he didn’t want to burden them with his care for longer than was needed. Besides, Flathoof wouldn’t shut up about finding the criminals that mugged him, criminals that he knew didn’t really exist, and Lockwood got tired of trying to make excuses.

Miracle most definitely had lived up to his name. While Lockwood was already well aware of that fact, it was always incredible to see it up close. The base of his left wing had a small cast and brace around it to keep it in place while the bone repaired itself; he couldn’t fly until it was healed, which was supposed to take another week. The cuts and bruises across most of his body had healed completely, though he still sported an impressive shiner around his right eye; a little ice would take care of that.

As he arrived at his apartment, he inserted the key into the lock and opened the door, then stopped dead in the doorway. Sitting on his reupholstered couch, wearing a fierce scowl on her face, was Blackburn. Standing just to her side with an equally fierce scowl on her face was Gadget. Crossfire, who was standing by himself in the kitchen, was the only pony who didn’t seem angry to see him; he didn’t seem too pleased, either, but it was better than the rest of the "warm" welcomes Lockwood was getting.

“Uh… hey guys? How’s it going?” Lockwood asked, hesitant but maintaining a calm veneer. He slowly stepped into the room, closed the door behind him, and locked it. “I wish I’d known you were gonna be here, I would’ve brought dinner with me. You guys hungry?”

Blackburn got up off the couch and gestured to it, her scowl unflinching despite his nonchalance. “Sit.”

Lockwood looked at the couch and grinned. “Hey, would you look at that? You guys got my couch reupholstered. That’s awfully nice of you.” He glanced down at the new rug on the floor - a black-and-brown striped affair - and pointed excitedly. “And a new rug too? Wow, guys, you shouldn’t have. It really ties the room--”

Sit,” Blackburn said through gritted teeth. “Now.”

Lockwood adjusted his collar and trotted over to the couch, then took a seat. He nodded in appreciation as he settled in to the newfound comfort; the new upholstery was certainly comfortable. “Ooh, hey, this is nice. I like the texture--”

“You have explaining to do,” Blackburn said, glaring at him intensely. “Get started. Now.”

“Hmm? Oh, yeah. Sorry it took so long to get back home. Shortcake’s not easy to get away from when she gets all doting--”

“Not that, ya idjit,” Crossfire snorted hotly. Lockwood was taken aback at his sudden outburst; it was unusual for the big stallion to be anything but cordial and calm with him. “Ya done tricked us. Ya tricked us inta lettin’ ya use yerself as bait fer yer stupid lil’ plan. D’ya take us fer dopes? Huh?”

Lockwood held up his hooves in his defense. “Hey now, it wasn’t--”

Crossfire stomped his hoof. “It was stupid! Ya damn near got yerself killed, ya damn featherbrain! The hay is wrong wit’ y’all, huh?”

“Look--”

“Y’know, when we first met, I pegged you for a moron, but after the past year I figured I was wrong about you,” Gadget interjected. “But I guess I was right in the first place, wasn’t I? You’re just a big, stupid moron, because only a total moron would put themselves through the kind of torture you did after surviving an encounter with the same ponies that tortured him months before.”

Lockwood gave Gadget a small, kind smile. “Gadget, really, there’s no need--”

“We found you beaten half to death, jackass! In a filthy alley! Covered in trash! And if we didn’t find you, you would’ve died. Then you go and put yourself through all that shit again?! You’re an idiot. A nitwit. A real blockhead. A colossal dumbass!

Lockwood waved off her concerns with his hoof. “C’mon, now, it wasn’t that big--”

“Shut up,” Blackburn hissed. “You put yourself in danger; no reason for it. Risked death; no reason for it.”

“There was plenty of reason for it, guys, c’mon now. You got all the information you needed to appease Virtuoso, didn’t you?”

“We didn’t need to get it that way, idiot!” Gadget snapped. “Do you have any idea what kind of stress that put us through? Huh? Do you?”

Crossfire snorted and stomped his hoof again. “We sure as hay didn’t need ta come bustin’ in here ta take ya ta Miracle so ya didn’t die. What part o’ all that d’ya think was necessary?”

Lockwood rolled his eyes dismissively. “It was the best plan--”

“Bullshit,” Blackburn huffed. “‘Best’ plan wouldn’t have nearly gotten you killed. ‘Worst’ plan more accurate.”

“It was the only option we had--”

“No! It wasn’t!”

“Listen, Princess--”

“Don’t call me that,” Blackburn snapped, pressing her hoof into his chest so he was pushed back against the couch. “No right to call me that after what you did.”

Lockwood looked at her hoof, then into her face. “Blackburn, c’mon--”

“Don’t. You owe me an explanation. Now. No more diverting. No more brushing off. Just talk.”

Lockwood paused, then took a breath; even he couldn’t stand that withering glare forever. “Okay okay, look. I took a wild guess that the three mares that attacked me way back had something to do with whatever was going on with this whole mob war, especially with Don Virtuoso’s end of it. They’d specifically told me not to talk to the Don before they tossed me out the window, okay? I just figured it was obvious.”

“And you didn’t tell us the truth.” Blackburn shook her head in disbelief. “If you’d told us, could’ve avoided all this,” she noted, gesturing to his black eye. “No need for you to get injured. No need to almost get killed.

“Blackburn, telling you anything wouldn’t have helped things at all. What were you going to do, huh? Go to the Don and tell him about me getting attacked?” Lockwood shook his head. “First off, I had no idea those three mares were Cotton Candy’s sisters. I didn’t even know she had sisters, and I don’t think the Don did either. They don’t look alike at all, in case you hadn’t noticed.”

“That’s true. Virtuoso didn’t recognize them in the recording…” Gadget noted, tapping her chin.

“Irrelevant,” Blackburn retorted. “Could’ve protected you. Would’ve narrowed our investigation to discover who attacked you. Might’ve found out--”

“Nothing. You would’ve found out nothing. Cotton had all the cards at that point,” Lockwood interjected. “Your best case scenario would’ve been telling the Don I got attacked and asking him to keep an eye on me. I guarantee you that he would’ve trusted Cotton, his underboss, to handle that. And where would that have left us?”

“We could’ve done research. Found out they were related. Brought that information to Virtuoso.”

“And it would’ve been your word against Cotton’s, who had been his trusted ally for years by that point, compared to a mare he barely knows and who I’m sure he considered ambitious and worth keeping tabs on. He might have suspected it was for the wrong reasons if given the chance to. And you’ve admitted to me that he would’ve been right.”

Blackburn paused, gritting her teeth, upset that he was dead right. Still, she had other counterpoints. “Could’ve told us your plan, then. Could’ve prepared better: ambushed them, avoided further bloodshed, gotten you medical help faster.”

Lockwood shook his head. “Maybe, but I couldn’t risk putting you three in danger by telling you any more than I already did. I’m at least expendable.”

Blackburn stared at Lockwood with an intensity that pushed beyond unsettling. She pushed Lockwood hard against the couch and leveled him with a fierce glare. “How dare you use that word. You are not... expendable.”

Lockwood fidgeted; she wasn’t applying any real pressure to his injured wing, but his other wing was pinned uncomfortably behind him now. He grimaced. "Compared to whom, exactly? None of you could walk down there and do what I did. You need each other. Hope's Point needs you. The whole city would mourn your loss. Can you honestly say anything like that about New Pandemonium with me?"

Blackburn said nothing even as her eyes pulsed with her anger, so Lockwood went on. “If any of you had been present when Cotton and her sisters showed up, I wouldn’t have been able to work a confession out of them, so you’d have gained nothing by doing anything to them. Worse, they could’ve injured or killed one or more of you. They were after you guys specifically, so why give them the chance to get to you?”

“Would’ve been worth the risk.”

“I disagree. I may not know her sisters that well, but I know Cotton Candy. She wouldn’t have let her sisters kill me unless I kept refusing to give her what she wanted. But they would’ve killed me for sure if they thought I was useless to them; I had to make myself useful, and that’s what I did, and it lured Cotton into false confidence.”

“Could’ve killed you after getting information.”

“Maybe, but Cotton said she wouldn’t outright kill me if I told her what she wanted to know, and I knew she was telling the truth. Twisted as she is, she’s a mare of her word. Besides, like I said, I’m repla--”

Blackburn scowled and jabbed her hoof in his face, just short of slapping him. “No. Replaceable just substitute for expendable; I will not let you use. That. Word. Because you are not.

Lockwood backed away from her hoof; her anger was actually getting to him now. “Why not? Even if something happened to me, you’d get what you needed. Does it really matter?”

“Of course it matters!” she snapped. “Ends do not justify means! You said ‘New Pandemonium would not mourn’? That is expendable opinion. That’s this damned city talking for you. You are better than that. Better than it.

“Fine. I’m better than this city. Fine.” He took a deep breath, and suddenly shifted away from his torment. “Well, did you at least get the things you needed from the Don? Was everything I did worth it? I sure hope it was, ‘cause I’m not up for doing it again, y’know?” Under his breath, he muttered, “Not that you’d let me, apparently.”

“He did,” Blackburn said. “But not because I asked.”

“Huh?”

“Virtuoso offered me anything I wanted. Suggested exactly what we had discussed. I turned him down. I wanted revenge.” Blackburn’s mouth curled in a small, cocky grin. “We went with Virtuoso’s crew that night. Candy sisters are dead; killed Cotton myself.”

“You...” Lockwood paused, blinking. He leaned his head back, and took a full ten seconds to speak again, his eyes wide at Blackburn. “You… did what?

“Nopony hurts my friends, Lockwood. Nopony.” She was proud of herself, and it showed in the darkly predatory smile she allowed herself to wear for a moment.

“But… but that means you wasted the chance to get what you needed from the Don!” Lockwood blurted, pushing back against Blackburn’s hoof. “Virtuoso would’ve given you whatever you needed to take complete control of your operations here… and you wasted it? On revenge?!

Blackburn was unperturbed by his sudden anger, her own anger fueling her justification. “No. He gave us what we needed anyway after the fact. Considered our contributions useful.”

“That may be, but you didn’t know that he would do that!” he snapped. “You nearly wasted the best chance to get everything you needed to better your city! And what about yourselves, huh? You could’ve been hurt! Or killed!”

“Golly, that’s rich. All this coming from the guy who nearly got himself beaten to death trying to weasel a confession out of those nutjobs,” Gadget snorted. “You have no right to lecture us on putting ourselves on the line.”

“We got trainin’ fer a reason,” Crossfire added. “Y’all put yerself in danger fer no reason; we did it fer a damn good reason.”

“Other than getting you guys what you needed--” Lockwood paused, looking up and out of the room for a moment, his eyes searching nothing as he thought for a way to rephrase what he was about to say, but then, slowly pulling the words out of a well, he went on flatly: “My... life, it just doesn’t have the same, ah, value that--”

Blackburn grit her teeth. “You are not expendable!” she spat. “You are irreplaceable! Your life matters to us! To me!” she exclaimed, her voice on the edge of cracking. She saw Lockwood narrow his eyes at her at this, and cleared her throat angrily as she went on.

“You’re not just some tool for me to get what I want! I will not sit by and let somepony I care about die when I can do something about it! Not now!” And before she stopped herself, regretting the words the instant they slipped out: “Not again!”

Lockwood blinked, taken aback. Blackburn was breathing heavily right in his face and her words visibly troubled him. Audibly confused, he quietly asked: “Again? What are you talking about?”

Blackburn snorted. “Mother died when I was young. Was older than you were, but still young. Airship ‘accident’; actually sabotage. Crimson Dust, friend of father’s, worked for company developing engine. Found out later he was on NPAF payroll. Could’ve prevented it. Could’ve warned her; warned grandfather. Didn’t.” She let out a pained breath; remembering it still hurt even today. “Still blame father for bringing Crimson. But blame myself for not stopping him. Share the blame…”

Lockwood paused and frowned. “I… I’m sorry, Blackburn. I didn’t mean… I didn’t--” He put his hoof up on her shoulder to comfort her. “I’m sorry.”

Blackburn took a heavy breath, then brusquely pushed his hoof away. “Don’t. Don’t want your sympathy. Don’t deserve it.”

Lockwood’s frown was deep, and it made Blackburn ache for some reason she couldn’t articulate. He shook his head in light disbelief, his voice still quiet. “Blackburn. That’s absurd. Everypony deserves sympathy.”

“I killed a mare for revenge; ordered my friends to do the same.”

“So what?”

“So... I’m not a good pony.”

Lockwood shook his head. “You killed somepony that would’ve killed you, would’ve killed others, and had already killed many more before then. Same with her sisters. I’m all for giving ponies a second chance, but Cotton Candy and her sisters had no remorse for the things they were doing. I’m not saying they deserved to die, but… I don’t blame you for what you did. Neither should you. For this, or for your mother’s death. I can’t claim to know the details, but you saying you share the blame sounds like an excuse to be guilty.”

It was Lockwood who raised a hoof to Blackburn, pressing it as firmly as he could into her chest, tapping so hard that his forelimb was shaking with the effort. “Now who’s not worth it? Now who’s happiness is expendable?”

“Comparing life and feelings pointless.”

“If it is, then you can’t complain about what I did at all,” Lockwood said angrily, holding his hoof hard against Blackburn’s shoulder, the intensity making his pastern shudder like a leaf. “I did what I did because I felt like it. Like my decision mattered, even if my life didn’t.”

Blackburn pulled back for a moment, staring at Lockwood with muted white-hot rage. As her mouth opened and closed almost noiselessly, the faint gasps of indignation were the only sounds she could muster. Her cheeks grew hot in her anger. Lockwood’s grim satisfaction flew in her face as she gaped at him like a fish; Gadget and Crossfire looked equally gobsmacked, and she realized what they already had: this was the first time in her life someone had ever rendered her speechless. Even for a moment.

“Satisfied?” Lockwood said, the bitter victory in his voice making Blackburn bristle.

“No. No.” Blackburn hissed between clenched teeth. “You are good. You matter. You make this terrible place less terrible. I can only emulate. I copy. I cope.

“Again, so what?!” Lockwood outright sputtered. “That doesn’t mean your feelings don’t matter!”

It came spilling out. “Mutual friend, Briarthorn. Yes?”

Lockwood blinked. “Sure. Briarthorn. Up and coming transporter. What about him?”

“Has he ever told you about Diffusion sickness?”

Lockwood blinked. “I… don’t know what that is, so I’m gonna say ‘no’, he never told me about it.”

“Of course he didn’t, because he doesn’t know it himself,” she huffed. “Side effect of Diffusion system we use in airships to provide defenses against Belt of Tranquility magic. Causes severe organ damage. Lethal after ten or more years.”

“I see…” he hummed. “Is there a cure?”

“No. Only treatments to lessen impact of symptoms. Alcohol primary treatment method.” She took a deep breath. “Hope’s Point offers all flight crews free alcohol to cover up truth. Only certain ponies know, all sworn to secrecy; if secret revealed, risk ponies not volunteering for position. Have to keep it from him, keep from all Diffusion flyers. Necessary… but unpleasant.”

Lockwood frowned. “So… Briarthorn’s going to die in ten or so years if he keeps that job of his up? And there’s nothing you can do about it?”

“Briarthorn, son of Bramblejam, son of Ruby Thorn, daughter of Briarpatch. Latter: pegasus pony who invented Diffusion system, based on NPAF designs, used own unique pegasus ‘magic’ to replicate. Diffusion, his family legacy. Tried to... steer Briarthorn away. He became involved regardless.”

Lockwood paused for a long moment, then gently set his hoof on her shoulder again. “Look… I can’t say that I fully understand everything about this Diffusion situation, but from what you’re saying, what choice do you have? If you tell him, or anypony else… then you risk your city not having the flyers it needs to prosper. Right?”

Blackburn nodded glumly. “Yes, but… still terrible secret to keep.”

“And you’re clearly not happy about keeping it. You regret it, don’t you? Feel guilty about it?” Lockwood pressed his hoof against her chest. “That’s what keeps you from being a bad pony, Blackburn. You feel empathy. You feel regret. If you had another option, you’d take it, right?”

“I would, but--”

“Then there’s nothing more to say. What’s done is done, and all you can do is try to find an alternative. If I know you - and I think I do by this point - you’re already trying to figure something out to help him and all of the other flyers in your city. Because that’s who you are - a pony who makes the hard decisions but tries to help as much as she can.”

“You don’t understand!” Blackburn said desperately.

“No, I think I do. Would you risk everything by telling Briarthorn the truth? Risk your city’s prosperity? Take away what he loves most? I may not know much about this sickness, but Briarthorn has told me how much he loves his job. Would you take that away from him?”

“I would not. Do you know why I would not? Briar…” She paused. “Not just any Diffusion pilot.”

“If his family’s legacy means that much to him, then it’s just more fuel to your city’s standing decision to omit this particular truth--”

“Let me finish,” Blackburn growled at Lockwood. She surprised herself with how angry it had sounded, and overcompensated by speaking more softly. “Briar... he loves his family. Loves his home. Loves Hope’s Point. He... loves me.”

Lockwood’s eyes became full and sad instantly. “And you say you don’t deserve any sympathy? Because he’s your coltfriend?”

“Lockwood. Shut up!” Blackburn snapped. Again, she surprised herself, so she cleared her throat and her voice became small and controlled again. “I think now, was... my coltfriend, more accurate.”

“You left him because you didn’t want to be close enough to him when... when the sickness became too much. Like I said, a hard choice.” Lockwood’s smile was gentle and forgiving, and Blackburn felt her heartbeat in her ears as she shook her head.

She thought she would admonish him for speaking again when she opened her mouth to reply, and was shocked when, instead, what came unprompted was:

“Hard choice to lie to him? No. Do you know what I did, Lockwood? Didn’t ‘break up’ with him. Concocted a plan; executed it perfectly. Let a group of ponies organically come to us in basement of his favorite bar under darkness and noise. Led him into orgy. Didn’t even do anything myself.”

She began talking faster. “Worst part? Knew exactly how to not participate. Keep his attention on me, on making me happy. All I had to do then? Get him to close his eyes. Close his eyes as he tried to kiss me! And... it was flawless: another mare in my place. Then I left. Left him there in the dark, to indulge in drink and flesh. Afterward? Never knew I left.”

Her eyes prickled with tears. “Three days later, we talked. First time since. Told him it was fine for him to continue. That if he played cards right, I’d join him. Like the first night! The lie, Lockwood. That was it. Told him to give himself to anyone who would have him, that even if I wasn’t there, I was happy for him to do it!” She let out a mirthless, barking laugh. “Ha! Can’t be there for him, so anypony else can. When I said it, he smiled, was happy for the both of us. Happy to believe my lie. Because that’s what happened: I lied, Lockwood. I lied.”

Crossfire and Gadget both avoided Lockwood’s eyes, hanging their heads in shame. They didn’t say anything, but Blackburn knew how much they hated their part in that night. Lockwood was staring at her, his eyes wide, but his expression otherwise serious. Blackburn couldn’t help breathing heavily. An inescapable warmth in her stomach made her hang on every twitch of Lockwood’s face as he looked up and down hers.

He whispered, “That wasn’t a good idea.”

Blackburn shuddered. “Correct. It wasn’t. Difference between us, Lockwood: you do everything you can to make ponies better. I have to try my hardest not to make them worse.” She felt the heat in her cheeks now, bright with a shame that she knew would never wash off. “And now he’ll die just like his father before him, and grandmother, and great-grandfather. But keeping their secret? Not the worst of it.”

Lockwood’s sadness hurt her as he simply said: “No.”

“In order to make him happy… have manipulated him. Give him all he wants: a life of vice and pleasure. Possibly accelerate sickness… but he will live happily.”

“For ten years.” Lockwood said, exhaling heavily through his nose.

“At most.” Blackburn sagged, leaning into Lockwood against the couch, and her gaze faltered. She shook her head, despondent. “Yes. I am lying to my friend about his life, the lives of his family. Only conclusion? Do not deserve your sympathy.”

“You are lying to a good pony,” Lockwood said sadly.

Blackburn tilted her head downward, her head almost coming into contact with Lockwood’s shoulder. “He’ll never forgive me if he finds out.”

Lockwood exhaled hard. “And!” he exclaimed with a sudden sharp movement that inclined his face over Blackburn’s as she leaned into him. “You’ll deal with that if it happens. And, if he’s as much of a friend to you as you say he is, he will forgive you. He will! He might be upset at first. He might be mad, so mad that he yells and screams and tells you how much he hates you. But he’ll forgive you when he understands.”

He lifted her chin up so she would look at him in the face. “And I know you won’t give up trying to fix that broken system. I sincerely believe that.”

Blackburn pulled away from him, breaking eye contact. “Why? Why do you keep doing this, Lockwood?” she asked. “You give and give and give; never ask anything in return. Why?”

Lockwood paused, then leaned back against the couch, eyes up towards the ceiling so it was hard to read his face. “I’ve never told anypony this, but… I used to have passion for something once upon a time. I liked dancing…” He twirled his hoof gently through the air. “I liked dancing more than anything. I can still remember when I would dance for my mom before she… before she died.

“But this city… it crushes you down into a pulp. It doesn’t care about your hopes and dreams. I lost that passion after my mom died. My first foster family never danced with me or tried to nurture that passion of mine. So … I gave up on that dream a long time ago… never even got far enough with it to be my special talent. I can’t see myself having that kind of dream anymore.”

He let out a breath and tilted his head back down, then used his good wing to tilt Blackburn's chin so he could look her in the eye. “So instead, I’ve made it my goal in life to help others achieve their dreams. That’s why I help ponies meet others that can help them in some way.”

He prodded her in the chest again. “That’s why I helped you. Because I saw the way you reacted at that fundraiser when you thought we were taking advantage of the poor, saw your passion for truly helping ponies. Because I saw the passion that your friends share with you,” he said, looking to Gadget and Crossfire meaningfully.

“I understand that sometimes you have to make difficult decisions. Sometimes, just like anypony else, you even make the wrong ones. But I also know that you stand by your decisions and your beliefs, and that even despite mistakes, your friends stand loyally and unflinchingly by your side.” He put his other hoof over his heart. “So I’ll stand by you too. I’ll do whatever I can to help you make your dream come true, because your dream is worth fighting for. Because you are worth fighting for. Worth dying for.”

Blackburn stared at Lockwood for a long, long moment as she processed his words, not saying anything or even moving at all. She just stared into his eyes and thought, and thought, and thought.

Then, without warning, she pushed herself forward and pressed her lips roughly against his in the most brusque kiss she’d ever given.

She’d kissed Briarthorn before, certainly; she’d lost count of how many times they’d kissed, in fact, but knew it wasn’t a small number. But this kiss was something totally different. When she kissed Briarthorn, it made her feel good, that was an absolute, undeniable truth. It was a highly pleasurable experience in very sensual terms because they were so physically compatible; her royal self-restraint was the only thing that kept her from going all the way with him at any point in time.

But this kiss? This kiss made her feel good in places she hadn’t felt good before, as well as the usual places. Her heart was pounding in her chest like a jackhammer; her stomach was twisting and turning, but in a good way; her head was swimming with thoughts she’d never had before.

And just as quickly as she’d kissed Lockwood, she pulled away, her face red with unbelievable embarrassment and pleasure both. “I… I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have done that,” she stammered, uncharacteristically nervous. “That was wrong, I… you--”

Like she’d done before him, Lockwood didn’t say a word as he leaned up and roughly kissed her right back, putting his hoof behind her head to pull her in. She was surprised for all of a second before melting into it and sinking down onto to couch with him.

Gadget’s jaw dropped as she watched everything happen. Crossfire, ever the collected one, leaned over and used his hoof to close Gadget’s jaw for her, then gestured behind him towards the door. Gadget looked between him, the door, him, the kissing pair, the door, then him again. She nodded slowly in understanding, and the two wordlessly walked out the door and closed it behind them.

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