• Published 26th Sep 2019
  • 511 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 Fifteen: Just Jewelry

One Year, Six Months Later

The Gate District of New Pandemonium City was located, as its name implied, directly adjacent to the gate that led in and out of the city for those traveling by hoof. Not that anypony really ever entered the city, apart from a few brave souls with protective gear who would leave and return over the course of whatever work that they performed. Typically these were scientists - geologists and zoologists, mostly - who studied the Wasteland on a frequent basis to determine that, yes, it was still dangerous. Ponies without such gear were allowed to leave, of course, but were not allowed to come back in; these ponies typically didn’t want to return, as they were making the journey for Hope’s Point.

The Docks were located here as well, as airships were the preferred method of travel for those who could afford it whether their destination was ultimately Hope’s Point or Utopia. The Gate District was such a frequently used locale, typically by the wealthiest ponies in the city who used airships to travel to Utopia for vacations, that the whole territory was given very particular care to ensure it was always presentable. Despite being located in the Outer District by virtue of necessity, it was more akin to the Inner Districts in its quality of life.

The silver-and-black buildings were all of a high-tech design rather than the decorative architecture of the Inner Districts - they valued function over form - but more importantly they were clean, with not a hint of rust or disrepair in sight. None of these buildings were shops or businesses, just domicile complexes with numbers; the ponies that lived here were usually the sort that didn’t care for the frills of the Inner Districts, but were still wealthy enough to afford living there. The iron - not concrete - streets were utterly devoid of trash and filth to the point of being sterile. The air was also completely clear of smog, and even had the pleasant scent of freshly-dried linens thanks to air vents that purified and scented the air.

Blackburn and her crew typically didn’t pass through the Gate District to travel to or from the Docks, preferring instead to travel directly there via chariot taxi. On this particular evening, however, they made an exception, since Lockwood had never visited the Gate District before. The native pegasus marveled at the sights, sounds, and smells around him; he marveled at the well-dressed ponies that walked to and fro through the streets; he marveled at the technology used to make the district so clean. He was amazed that the city could, if it wanted to, create such a neighborhood in the first place.

“How do they even manage all this?” he asked, genuinely flummoxed for the first time in the others’ memory at how his own city worked. “I’d heard that the city itself maintains this section of the city, but seeing it up close, that doesn’t make any sense. Where’s all the red tape? Where’s the dangerous negligence? Where’s the outright apathy?”

“The way I see it, the only ponies that come through here are the rich, the influential, and the well-connected,” Blackburn said, gesturing at a gaggle of well-dressed mares that walked by, giggling and talking amongst themselves. “Most of them live in either the Inner Districts or here, right?”

“Yeah, I suppose so.”

“Well, those sorts of ponies typically don’t care about those beneath them. They’d prefer to ignore their existence entirely, from what I’ve seen; nothing against Virtuoso, but I doubt he’d have cared about you one bit if you still lived out in the slums.”

“So the city bureaucracy makes sure this place stays neat and tidy so that those ponies aren’t reminded that the rest of the Outer District exists,” Lockwood finished, shaking his head in disbelief.

“That’s about right, yeah.”

“It astounds me that this city can be so… so dismissive of such a large portion of its population. I always knew the neglectfulness was bad, but seeing this makes me realize just how bad it is.”

“How so?”

“Well, clearly the city has the capacity to maintain something like this, right? So why don’t they? The Inner Districts are self-maintained and mostly self-governed, and I don’t expect everypony to be altruistic, but the city should be doing more for its citizens. It’s deplorable that they just ignore the poor out there...”

“All the more reason to do what we can to give those ponies the help they need to make a better life for themselves,” Blackburn said with a smile. “Thanks to you and me, and to all of the friends and contacts we have, someday, anypony that wants to leave this city will have the means to do so, no matter how rich they are.”

As they reached the entrance to the Docks, which was as crowded as it always was, Gadget, Crossfire, and Blackburn set their suitcases down so they could give Lockwood hugs goodbye, in that order.

“You’d better keep yourself safe while we’re gone, featherbrain,” Gadget said, poking Lockwood in the chest with her hoof. “I swear to the stars, if we find out that anything happened to you when we get back, no matter how small, I’m gonna make you regret it. If you get so much as a stubbed hoof or a damn sore throat, you’ll never hear the end of it.”

“Okay okay, I promise, I’ll be careful,” Lockwood chuckled, fluffing his wings in embarrassment. “Sheesh, you’d think I had something happen to me every other week or something. Though I do appreciate the concern you have for my well-being.”

Your well-being? I’m concerned about her well-being, dumb-dumb,” Gadget huffed, gesturing back at Blackburn. “She’s already worried sick about you and we haven’t even left yet! If you give her a reason to worry, and I mean any reason, I’m gonna shove a lightning bolt so far up your scrawny butt you’re gonna think you’re a storm cloud, you got it?”

Lockwood saluted, nearly knocking off his hat. “Got it, boss.”

Gadget then smiled and leaned up to wrap her hooves around Lockwood’s neck; Lockwood returned the hug earnestly.

Crossfire approached next, and after Gadget released Lockwood, he gave the pegasus a huge, bone-crushing bear hug, lifting Lockwood into the air like a little colt, which, to Crossfire’s size, he might as well be. “Ooh, we’re gonna miss ya, pal. Now, y’all’re gonna do what I asked ya ta do, ain’t ya? Ya ain’t gonna back out on me now?”

Lockwood, struggling to breathe, chuckled and nodded. “Yeah yeah, big guy, I promise that I’ll eat more. I promise. You can let me go now.”

“Three square meals a day?”

“Three square meals a day. Please let me go.”

“An’ y’all’ll make sure them meals are all balanced ‘n’ healthy, not just junk food, right? I’m talkin’ real food e’ry now ‘n’ then, not just that Dolor crap.”

“Healthy food, absolutely. Let… let me go... ”

“Even the Dolor Blue?”

Lockwood, turning blue himself, hastily nodded. “Can’t… can’t breathe… but okay…”

“Good.”

Crossfire finally released the hug and set Lockwood back down on the ground; Lockwood took big, long gulps of air and clutched his chest, feeling like his soul had left his body for a minute there.

“Now, we ain’t gonna be gone long ol’ buddy, but I don’t wanna come back in a month from now ‘n’ find out y’all been skippin’ meals, y’hear? I know I sound like an ol’ granny tryin’ ta make sure her gran’kids’re eatin’ proper-like, but dagnabit, I don’t care.”

“I hear you, big guy, I hear you. Please, I promise, no more skipping meals for me, okay?” Lockwood smiled and patted Crossfire’s shoulder gently now that his breathing was back to normal. “Hey, y’know, since you guys are heading down south for a bit, how about you bring some fresh stuff from down south for me, huh? I’d love to try your famous succotash made with what you consider the best ingredients.”

Crossfire smiled and set his hoof on Lockwood’s. “Will do, Lockwood, will do.”

Blackburn approached next, a small smile on her face, and gave Lockwood a tight, loving hug. “We’ll be back soon, Lockwood, I promise. I wish we didn’t have to go, but--”

“Don’t worry about it, I know,” Lockwood replied as he returned the hug just as tightly. “I know it’s only going to be a month, but I’m not looking forward to it either.”

“It’s gonna be the longest month of my life,” Blackburn murmured. “I don’t want to go…”

“Ooh, hold on, I’ve got something for you before you go--” Lockwood reached into his pocket and fished out a small, black box. “This… this is for you. I hope you like it. I was gonna sneak it into your suitcase or pocket or something... but then I thought it would be better to just do it this way.”

Blackburn eyed it warily; she knew what usually came in these kinds of boxes: jewelry. “Lockwood? What--”

He opened it up and revealed a plain silver chain, and not a particularly fancy or expensive one either. There was a small charm on it shaped like and painted in the same colors as the Crown Spectrum logo, which had always been just a stylized version of Blackburn’s cutie mark. Despite the inexpensive quality, Blackburn looked upon it like it was some sort of marvelous, forbidden treasure.

She could hardly speak as she looked at it. “It’s... lovely. You said… you said it’s for me?”

Lockwood helped her take it out of the box and gingerly slip it over her foreleg. “Yeah, of course it is. You’re always getting things for me, y’know, and I figured… I figured I’d get something for you for once. I know it’s not a competition or anything… but I wanted to give back.”

“Lockwood--”

“Hang on, hang on,” he interjected, smiling. “I know you’re not going to be away for very long, but… well, it’s something to remind you of me… of our work together while you’re gone. So that you don’t get lonely at night...” His cheeks reddened and he chuckled nervously. “That… that sounds cornier than it did in my head.”

Blackburn admired the plain silver bracelet on her foreleg like it was the most expensive diamond-and-gold; she had never, ever, been one for jewelry, but because it was Lockwood’s gift to her, she’d make an exception. Just this once.

“It’s beautiful, Lockwood. I love it.” She gently kissed his neck, using her wings to hide the gesture from any prying eyes. She then pulled away, her hoof just lingering on his chest for a moment. She cleared her throat and got back into business-mode. “Speaking of work together, you’ll keep things running on this end, won’t you, partner?

“You have my word,” Lockwood said with a pleasant smile. “Just you watch, you’re gonna get back here and you won’t have anything to do for once.”

Blackburn bit her lip. “Oh, I’m sure I’ll think of something.” She leaned up and whispered into his ear: “Or somepony.” Just to tease him again, she tugged his hat over his eyes.

When she stepped away, she made a few quick, subtle gestures with her wings, each one meaning a particular word; pegasus wing language was well-known to most, but this was different. This was a secret code that she had developed just for Gadget and Crossfire so she could communicate quietly when words had to be carefully used and chosen. Lockwood knew it too, after spending weeks with Blackburn learning it.

Blackburn just needed three short gestures to communicate her message:

She waved her left wing down words over her face, like a mask: I.

She brought the tip of her left wing to her chest and tapped it three times, quickly, against her heart: Love.

She then spread the feathers of her right wing and pointed the tip towards Lockwood. You.

Lockwood smiled and repeated the gesture right back to her, capping it off by tipping his hat. To a regular pegasus trying to decipher their message using regular wing language, they’d think Blackburn and Lockwood were just complaining about a mutual case of bad heartburn - the chest tapping- so bad that it was giving them the sweats - the left wing over the face - and making them throw up - the spreading of feathers in a forward direction.

With her final message to Lockwood delivered until they returned, Blackburn picked up her suitcase, and Gadget and Crossfire did the same with theirs, then the trio made their way through to the airship dock to board their airship to Newhaven.

The entire route there, Blackburn’s eyes were transfixed on her new bracelet. She absolutely hated jewelry, but had never told Lockwood that or even indicated it, but now she wasn’t sure it was all that bad.

*****

After a home-cooked meal and a pleasant night’s rest at Shining Steel’s home, Blackburn, Gadget, and Crossfire gathered their things and headed for Newhaven’s airship docks to book passage back for Hope’s Point for the first time in what felt like forever. They were surprised to learn that their ship was slated to be none other than the Southern Sun, which would be docking later that morning to take on a fresh shipment of tech parts - courtesy of Crown Spectrum, of course - as well as the three of them, the only passengers.

While they waited for the Southern Sun to arrive, Blackburn had time to think, and, of course, to worry. She hadn’t seen Briarthorn in nearly two years at this point, let alone spoken to him; in fact, her only contact with him whatsoever had been via proxy through Deadlift, their mutual contact at Pandemonium’s airdocks who handled everything necessary on that end as far as Crown Spectrum’s deliveries were concerned; this was of course all handled by Lockwood, who was in actual contact with Deadlift. Blackburn couldn’t imagine how awkward Lockwood must’ve felt interacting with Briarthorn, knowing full well the extent that their relationship had once been.

Blackburn was more concerned with how awkward it would be for her to interact with Briarthorn herself. Until things had progressed with Lockwood, her only concern with dealing with Briarthorn’s likely insistence on continuing their “relationship”, which he had every reason to believe still existed to some level, was just deflecting his advances with excuses. She hadn’t originally had any intention of completely shutting him down; she’d even kissed him the last time they’d seen one another as if nothing was different. But there could be no more of that, no matter how much easier it would make keeping the masquerade going; it would be a betrayal to Lockwood, even though Blackburn was certain Lockwood would likely dismiss it.

So, when the Southern Sun docked and its crew began loading up their cargo and greeting their passengers, Blackburn had to take a long, deep breath to center herself. This was going to be a long month indeed.

Briarthorn, naturally, flew right over to the trio just as they were preparing to board. “Hey hey, welly well well, isn’t this just a barrel of surprises?” he chirped as he settled down beside them. “It feels like it’s been forever-and-a-half since I last saw you guys. That must’ve been some vacation, huh? Probably explored every inch of the continent, knowing you guys. Soaking up the sun and snow and everything in between, good fun, gooood fun.”

Briarthorn of course knew the truth of the matter, insofar as where they’d really been and what their work needed them to do. Nothing more than that, and certainly none of the specifics of their work, but enough.

Blackburn smiled and nodded, trying not to meet his eyes and hoping Briarthorn didn’t notice her bracelet. “Quite enjoyable. Plenty of stories to tell.”

The trio, with Briarthorn following, boarded the ship; Gadget and Crossfire couldn’t get a word in edgewise if they tried, so they didn’t bother, content to keep quiet and let Blackburn sort things out. The rest of the Southern Sun’s crew made the preparations for takeoff while Briarthorn escorted the trio to the seating area, over the half-hearted objections of the ship’s Cadet, whose job it was to actually do what Briarthorn was doing.

“Excellent, great, and most of all, good! Glad to hear it. We can share some back-and-forths - or ups-and-downs - over drinks back home,” he replied with a wink and a nudge and he gestured for Blackburn to take her seat. Gadget and Crossfire took their seats without his assistance and without a word.

“Perhaps, if time presents itself,” Blackburn lied.

“Well, if you can find the time, I imagine that you’re all sorts of wound up inside, Princess. Let me just say that it is my duty, my solemn honor, in service to the crown, to offer my services to put that pep back in your step and get that swing back in your wings.”

“I’m sure.”

He waggled his eyebrows and held his hooves up with a cocksure grin on his face. “And, FYI, I learned how to give a killer back-and-wing massage, by the way. I’ve even been told that I’ve got magic hooves, not to brag, but yes, to brag. My magic could make a unicorn blush. Believe me, I know.”

Blackburn shook her head as she took her seat, fidgeting as Briarthorn kept trying to unnecessarily help her. “Sounds wonderful, but must decline. Won’t be in city long, have work ahead to deal with. No time, but will let you know if there is.”

Briarthorn frowned for all of half a second before his pep returned. “Well that’s fine, just dandy, and I understand completely, perfectly, and totally. But, but, but, if you should happen to change your mind, I am ever your loyal subject.” He checked the room to make sure that it was only the four of them, then leaned in to kiss her.

He clearly did not expect her to shift her wing up to block his lips. “Not here, Briar, please. Not now. Feeling stressed, did not sleep well, wish to just relax and nap on flight home. Do not wish to get... excited.”

Briarthorn tilted his head, confused and a little disappointed. He paused for a few short moments, then shrugged. “Well, uh… yeah, okay, sure thing Your Princessfulness, you’re the boss. But, uh… yeah, you just say the magic words - I’m thinking ‘Do Me Now’ - and I’ll be there for you, okay? I can hook us up with whoever or however many you want, too, just like last time. Vroom vroom, yeah?”

“Will consider it, thank you.” She managed to give him a small smile. “Glad to see you, Briar. Hope work is going well.”

Briarthorn nodded proudly. “Sure is, sure is. Living the dream, babe, that’s what I’m doing. Speaking of which, uh, I’d better get up top. We’re gonna be approaching the Belt soon and I gotta do my thang.” He politely nodded to Gadget and Crossfire on his way out. “Good to see you guys too, of course! Sorry for the rushy greetings and all, but duty calls! Enjoy your flight!”

He left the room to head up onto the ship to start his Diffusion pattern, leaving the three of them alone.

Blackburn sighed and leaned back in her seat, so far from being comfortable she couldn’t find “comfortable” if she had a map.

*****

A few hours later, the Southern Sun docked at Hope’s Point, and the crew disembarked to start unloading cargo. Blackburn, Gadget, and Crossfire did the same, but when they did, they were sincerely surprised at the welcome they’d received. They were used to have a small collection of some kind there to receive them, considering Blackburn’s status as Princess, but usually it was a few guards, maybe a ranking officer at best, and it was just a matter of formality, really.

They certainly did not expect to see Gleaming Star, Chief Intelligence and Enforcement Officer waiting for them, and certainly not with a small detachment of guards. Even the crew of the Southern Sun was confused, but they just went about their duties and didn’t get involved; not even Briarthorn did anything, not when his captain made sure to give him something else to do.

Blackburn spent the few seconds it took for her and her friends to walk across the hangar to meet with the welcoming party to figure out why Star was here; by the time they got across the hangar, she'd figured out exactly why. Star pretty much confirmed it a few seconds later as she started speaking:

“Princess Blackburn, welcome back to Hope’s Point,” Star said with a slight bow, her tone polite but not at all friendly considering who she was talking to. “I’ve been asked to escort you to meet with your father immediately upon your arrival.”

“Hmm. Need to unpack first,” Blackburn said nonchalantly, observing Star and the guards for anything worth worrying about. “Won’t take long.”

“I’m afraid I can’t let you do that, Princess. I am under royal order from His Majesty himself to escort you immediately after you arrived in the city, in case I was not clear about that before.” Star turned to Gadget and Crossfire and scowled. “Your bodyguards--”

“Friends,” Blackburn insisted, giving Star a sharp look. “Do well to learn proper terminology.”

Star flinched just slightly under Blackburn’s gaze. “Your… your friends can deliver your things to your quarters for you and unpack them, if you wish, Princess. However, His Majesty asked that they not be allowed to accompany us under any circumstances, so that should give them something to do if you’re worried about them being… bored.”

“Uh uh, no dice. We’re her friends and bodyguards, Chief,” Gadget said, taking a bold step forward to but herself between Blackburn and Star. “Where she goes, we go, under royal order from King Flashfire: we are sworn to protect her.”

Star leveled Gadget with a glare of her own; Gadget didn’t flinch for an instant. “I am well aware of that fact, Gadget, as is His Majesty, but His Majesty King Stormchaser’s orders trump your duties for the moment even if they were given by the previous King Flashfire.”

“An’ what if we refuse ta let ‘er go wit’out us, huh?” Crossfire said, also taking a step forward and stepping in front of Blackburn, forming a shield with himself and Gadget. “No offense, Chief Star, but our duty is ta protect Princess Blackburn under any 'n' all circumstances, an’ we can’t rightly do that unless we go wherever she goes.”

“Oh, believe me, I understand your concern, and I also understand your orders,” Star said, shaking her head in disappointment. “But I have my orders too, and if you wish to prevent me from following His Majesty’s orders, I’ll have to have the two of you arrested. I do apologize, but that’s just the way of things. Don’t make things difficult.”

“You’re welcome to try it--” Gadget started, grabbing her sidearm with her magic; this caused the guards with Star to reach for their own weapons.

Blackburn held up her hoof to keep Gadget from doing anything rash. “Gadget, Crossfire, stand down,” she said, looking at them both with sincere authority. “I’ll be fine. Take our things to my quarters, do nothing else until I arrive. Understood?”

Gadget and Crossfire shared a look with one another, then sighed and nodded in unison. “Yes, Princess,” they said together.

And with that, they collected their things as well as Blackburn’s, and headed off down the hall towards the stairs instead of the elevator, shooting piercing glares at Gleaming Star as they went.

Once they were gone, Star let out a sigh of relief. “Thank you for seeing reason, Princess. I wouldn’t have to do anything--”

“Only did it so your guards wouldn’t have to get electrocuted into drooling messes on the hangar floor.” Blackburn turned to the guards and gave them a nod. “You’re just following your orders. Don’t blame you.” A few of the guards shared looks with one another and immediately relaxed. Blackburn then turned to Star. “You, however… escalation was tactless.”

My esca--” Star stopped herself, took a heavy breath, then gestured towards the elevator in the opposite direction. “Whatever. Shall we, Princess?”

Blackburn nodded, but said nothing more.

The elevator ride up to the royal palace was long and awkwardly quiet; Blackburn glared daggers at Gleaming Star the entire way up the elevator shaft, only shifting her gaze when the elevator reached their destination floor. Here, they walked just a short distance to a small, circular, private room which was empty of decorations and only had a small table and half a dozen chairs; Blackburn knew it well, as her grandfather often used it for hastily-organized meetings for arriving dignitaries.

It was not empty, though. King Stormchaser waited patiently in one seat opposite the door, and beside him sat Queen Silver Glow. The latter wore a lovely dress that matched her beautiful mane, her face painted with a neutral expression that Blackburn knew was just as polite as it was nervous; Silver Glow knew she didn’t really belong here, but had come anyway, probably at Stormchaser’s insistence. Stormchaser wore one of his many royal dress jackets, this one black-and-green and decked out in lavish gold chains. His face was decidedly hostile, his mouth curled in an angry scowl, his eyes narrowed and brows furrowed as Blackburn entered the room.

Not a single word was spoken just yet. Gleaming Star arrived and left with her guards after a bow to the king, her orders fulfilled; for such a powerful, influential pony to be used as what basically amounted to a mob enforcer did not escape Blackburn’s notice.

Blackburn took a seat directly across from her father and stepmother, her stellar poker face on and ready to go. She wasn’t nervous in the least; the moment Gleaming Star had opened her mouth down in the hangar, Blackburn knew why she was asked to be here. Blackburn was angry though, because she knew what was coming, because this was all just a huge waste of her valuable time, and because this could present an obstacle to her work now and over the coming month.

After a few tense moments of uncomfortable, pregnant silence, Stormchaser leaned forward ever-so-slightly in his seat, hooves pressed together tightly in front of him, and, with the most intimidating sneer he could manage, finally addressed his daughter: “Welcome home, Blackburn. How was your vacation?”

“Can’t complain,” Blackburn said, her voice flat and uninterested. Her attention was more focused on her bracelet than anything her father was saying. Her only thought now was whether or not whatever happened here would make getting back to Lockwood difficult.

“Don’t play cute with me, young lady!” he snapped, rising up and slapping his hooves on the table with a loud bang. “I know what you’ve been up to, missy. I know where you’ve been, and I know what you’ve been doing when you thought I wasn’t watching. Did you think I wouldn’t notice you’ve been gone for nearly two years?! Do you think I’m an idiot?!”

“Idiot? Not at all, dad,” Blackburn said, shaking her head calmly. “Perhaps… slow on the uptake?”

Stormchaser’s grit teeth indicated he made to say something particularly vulgar, but he calmed just slightly as Silver Glow put a hoof on his shoulder and spoke instead. “Blackburn, please, this is serious. Your father--”

“Let him speak for himself, my Queen,” Blackburn interrupted, eyes still on her father. “I can take it.”

“You watch your tone when talking to your stepmother, Blackburn,” Stormchaser snarled. “I don’t care what you think of her, she is my wife and you will treat her with respect!

Blackburn didn’t react in the slightest, not even a word or the barest movement of her mouth or body.

Stormchaser, seemingly satisfied, pushed a datapad across the table towards his daughter, hard enough to nearly fling it straight off. “Take a look at that. Would you mind telling me what you see? It’s very interesting.”

Blackburn glanced at the datapad out of the corner of her eye. Displayed on it was an image: the logo of Crown Spectrum; her gaze shifted to the charm on her bracelet, which bore the exact same appearance down to the color. She looked back up at her father, still expressionless. “Looks like some company logo.”

“Don’t give me that. Don’t play your little mind games with me. You know damn well it looks like your cutie mark, young lady,” Stormchaser said, stepping away from the table and circling around to come behind Blackburn.

“Hmm. So it does. And?”

“I noticed it once this Crown Spectrum company started to dominate our import shipment sheets. At first I didn’t mind having them be so prolific, since their prices were low and they even contributed to our infrastructure, but then, I noticed that logo,” he said, pointing at the datapad image; he didn’t notice her bracelet.

“So, I had Gleaming Star look into this Crown Spectrum about, oh, say… a year ago? It took her a few weeks to sort through all the diversionary data, but she was eventually able to find out a few very interesting pieces of information. Want to take a guess what she found?”

“No. Waste of time. Going to tell me anyway.”

Stormchaser snorted, annoyed at her ambivalence. “The owner of the company is one ‘Thunderbolt’.” He tapped the datapad a couple of times, showing a picture of Thunderbolt herself on the screen, which, of course, was just Blackburn with a different manestyle, a more casual outfit, a pleasant smile, and makeup covering her scar. “Wow, doesn’t she look familiar? Where have I seen her before?”

Blackburn shrugged; she fiddled with her bracelet absently with her other hoof. “Suppose she does.”

“Stop playing cute with me, dammit! That’s you!” he spat, jabbing the picture with his hoof. “You’ve been up north in New Pandemonium running a damned tech company for over a year! You’ve been going behind my back!”

“Certainly seems that way.”

“Would you care to explain yourself, young lady? Would you like to tell me, your father, what you’ve been doing?”

“What’s there to explain? You caught me, dad. Congratulations.”

Stormchaser’s eye twitched. “What? That’s it?”

“You caught me, dad,” Blackburn said, shrugging again. “Not much else to say. Not important. Don’t see the big deal.”

Silver Glow looked between the two for a moment - Stormchaser with his practically audible glare, Blackburn with her composed apathy - then cleared her throat loudly enough to distract her husband. “Blackburn, dear, don’t you think--”

“Nothing to say,” Blackburn interjected, shifting her gaze to her stepmother for just a moment, the first time she’d given any attention to anypony but her father.

Stormchaser took a deep breath and grit his teeth, trying to remain calm and failing horribly. “Fine. If that’s how you want to be, I’ll explain it for you. Gleaming Star was able to piece everything together for me, but I just wanted to hear it from you, to give you a chance. But if you’re going to give me that self-righteous attitude--”

“Don’t need your ‘chances’, dad.”

Stormchaser slammed his hoof on the table; she was getting deep, deep under his skin, as usual. “You deliberately went behind my back to ignore my royal edicts! Solarian’s database constructor was installed while you were on vacation, just months after Crown Spectrum was founded, and mere days before you returned from your ‘vacation’. That was you who installed it. And I have a sneaking suspicion that it wasn’t his idea.”

Blackburn merely nodded, but otherwise said nothing, just stared forward.

“But, since Solarian still gave you the plans for it, whether it was through carelessness or done intentionally, he still went behind my back to help you, so his punishment still stands. Just in case you were thinking he’d be off the hook now that I know it’s because of your actions.”

“Never had any such thoughts.”

“He was punished for what you did, Blackburn,” Silver Glow interjected, giving the sternest look she could manage, which wasn’t much. “Don’t you feel even a little--”

“Solarian knew risks. A shame he was punished for my actions, but ultimately worthwhile.”

Stormchaser drew in a breath to try and keep calm; again, he was failing. “And around the same time, this… this Crown Spectrum company started shipping tech parts to the city en masse, completely outstripping the connections I took years to make before I became king. That was you again. You went behind my back to travel up north, you went behind my back to install that database constructor, and you went behind my back to undermine my contributions to this city.”

Blackburn eyed her bracelet, then nodded. “Will grant former two. Latter, debatable. Intent was preventing competitors from undermining you. Should be… proud? Hmm… you’re insecure about your contributions.”

Stormchaser was shaking with rage at this point. “Whatever your intentions were, you put yourself in danger to do it!” he shouted, face red, veins bulging. “After what happened to your mother, why would you even consider putting yourself in danger up north? And for what reason? To try and show off? To make me look bad? Why would you do this?!”

“Don’t.” Blackburn shifted her gaze to her father, though she still remained expressionless. “Don’t bring up momma. Your fault--”

“And stop blaming me for that,” Stormchaser seethed. “I’ve told you, I told your grandfather, I’ve told everypony that would listen: that was not my fault. Don’t think I feel horrible about what happened? She was your mother! My wife! I loved her too, Blackburn.”

Blackburn narrowed her eyes at her father. “Yet, thanks to database constructor, was able to do research on Crimson Dust. Were you aware Steelbank Engineering’s largest shareholder is the NPAF? That Crimson Dust’s brother is an NPAF Captain? I took interest in full story even after all these years; you let it go unanswered, content with your lack of blame.”

Stormchaser was given pause for a moment. But he was not about to let Blackburn get to him more than she already had, and his mouth twitched in a slight sneer. “If that’s true, then that’s all the more reason not to endanger yourself like that! I thought you were supposed to be smart, Blackburn! But this… this field trip of yours is the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen. Maybe if you’d established yourself in the Inner Districts, where it’s safe, I would understand, but--”

“Inner Districts source of most NPAF investors; if exposed, greater risk. Also more expensive, would require more resources; risks imposing on Hope’s Point to make it work. Took best option available, spent months planning it.” She shrugged. “But, what’s done is done, dad.”

Stormchaser slammed his hooves on the table. “Stop brushing this aside, dammit! Do you have any idea how worried I’ve been? Huh? Do you? As far as I knew, until Gleaming Star found you you’d been missing for over a year! Nopony knew where you were except the few ponies covering for you, and they had no way of helping you if you got in trouble! Ponies I have no authority over--”

“Ponies you couldn’t force to talk, you mean,” Blackburn corrected. “Besides, had Gadget and Crossfire with me, was never in any danger. No need to worry--”

“And those two!” Stormchaser snapped, slamming the table again. “I should remove them from their posts immediately and strip them of their benefits for letting you put yourself in such danger! They’re sworn to protect you, and that should imply preventing you from endangering yourself!”

“Take them away from me, then? Take away only friends?” Blackburn snorted and shook her head. “Just like your actions and incompetence took away momma?”

Stormchaser was given pause again, and he was about to retort, but Silver Glow spoke first.

“Honey, they were just doing their job,” Silver Glow said, rising from her seat and tenderly putting her hoof on Stormchaser’s shoulder. “You know they’re sworn not just to protect her, but to take orders from her--”

“Didn’t ‘follow orders’,” Blackburn interjected, turning to Silver Glow again. “Helped me because I am their friend. Also knew risks, will accept punishment.”

Silver Glow blinked. “But… but they--”

“Will accept punishment if His Majesty feels he needs to deliver it,” Blackburn repeated. “However, insist that punishment belongs to me, and me alone.”

Stormchaser took a deep breath, able to calm himself a little with Silver Glow giving him a chance to breathe. “Your actions, young lady, are absolutely unforgivable. You made me sick with worry. You went behind my back. And, you made me look like a fool doing it.” He pointed right at Blackburn. “You are grounded, young lady.”

Blackburn allowed a small grin to crop up as she eyed her bracelet. “I’m an adult, dad. You can’t ground me.”

He leveled her with a glare. “Just watch me. As of right now, you, and your friends, are confined to the palace indefinitely. You will not be visiting the surface. There will be no visiting your friends in the residential sector, no matter who that may be. And you are definitely not ‘visiting’ Newhaven or anywhere else outside the city.”

Silver Glow cleared her throat and rubbed her husband’s back gently. “Honey, don’t you think that’s a little harsh?”

“She could’ve been killed, Silver!” Stormchaser shouted, not looking at his wife as he did so, not wanting to shout at her. “My little girl put herself in danger and could’ve been killed, and she went behind my back to do it! She needs to learn that there are consequences to her actions.”

“But honey--”

“Don’t need you to defend me, my Queen,” Blackburn interjected, her mouth curling in a snarl. “What’s done is done. Understood risks--”

“I am not defending you, Blackburn,” Silver Glow interrupted right back, fiercely narrowing her eyes; it wasn’t a particularly intimidating look, but it was surprising enough to quiet Blackburn. “I am merely trying to see this from an objective standpoint. Your father’s right, darling, you put yourself in terrible, undue danger. You went behind his back to disobey the rulings he made, and undermined his efforts and authority in doing so, even if that wasn’t your intent.

“But... what your father has neglected to mention,” she continued, giving Stormchaser the same fierce look, “is that what you’ve been doing up north has helped this city, and obviously that was your intention: to help Hope’s Point by any means necessary.”

Blackburn paused, eyebrows raised; she’d never seen this side of Silver Glow before. It came as a total shock.

Crown Spectrum, from what I’ve heard at least, is now the largest provider of technology for the city, and at prices cheaper than what we used to pay to your father’s old connections. Furthermore, most of that same money we pay Crown Spectrum for their technology is invested right back into our infrastructure. That’s why your father was suspicious, dear, but it turns out it was to our benefit, was it not?” She tugged Stormchaser’s ear gently. “Honey?”

Stormchaser blinked, opening and closing his mouth as he tried to find the words to retort. He couldn’t.

“In addition, several ponies have arrived in the past year or so that used Crown Spectrum as a reference, and many of those ponies have proven of use in important fields.” Silver Glow closed her eyes to recall a few names. “Doctor Heartthrob, a gifted surgeon and specialist in magical diseases; Cookie Dough, a former Dolorcorp representative who helped improve our ability to synthesize the product ourselves; not to mention the rather large amount of engineers.”

Silver Glow then turned back to Blackburn, her face still stern, but no longer angry. “Now, you may have done these things to be of benefit to the city, darling, but you also should have let your family know what was going on and what you were going to do about it. If you had a plan in mind to fix all these problems you saw, your father should have known about your ideas, so that he could help--”

“Help?!” Blackburn blurted, eyebrow raised. “Had to do what I did the way I did because his policies prevented doing it openly!”

“Because those things were dangerous and expensive for anypony to do!” Stormchaser retorted. “The risk you put yourself in… the risk your actions put the entire city in should anything have happened to you--”

“Enough!” Silver Glow shouted, unintentionally flaring her horn and knocking over all the chairs in the room with a burst of magic. “Enough, both of you!” She glared at the two of them with intensity Blackburn had never seen before, even when she was mad earlier. “You two are father and daughter! You are family! You should be supporting and loving one another, but all you do is bicker and argue over everything! If I were able to bear foals, I’d… I’d never--”

She paused; the other two’s looks of anger immediately softened as they were reminded of her condition; she kept it to herself, and the only reason they even knew was because they were her family here in Hope’s Point.

Silver Glow then turned to Stormchaser, her voice soft. “Honey… Stormchaser… before you do anything rash to punish your daughter, think about the things she’s done. Think about the reasons she had for doing them. You’ve heard her piece, so… so just think about it first. If you still feel the need to punish her after that… then do so. But not before you think.”

Stormchaser paused, then snorted, shaking his head in disbelief, clearly not expecting this meeting to go the way it did. He gave a terse look to Blackburn. “Fine. I’ll think about it. You, young lady, are to remain in your chambers until further notice. I’ll let you know what I decide in the morning.”

And with that, he left the room.

Blackburn sat in silence for a long moment, not looking at anypony or anything in particular, just staring off into space as she considered what had happened. She never considered for a moment that her father’s stubbornness could even remotely be diminished, let alone by Silver Glow of all ponies.

After a minute to think, she rose from her seat to leave as well; as far as she was concerned, there was nothing else to say. Silver Glow was tepidly putting back the chairs she’d knocked over.

“Wait,” said Silver Glow, raising a hoof. “Stay a moment, Blackburn… please?”

Blackburn paused, looking at Silver Glow in consideration, partially confused, partially intrigued. She nodded in acceptance; she had the time for now.

Silver Glow rose from her seat and walked over to Blackburn and gave her a weak smile. “I know I’m not all that close with you, darling… and I know we don’t speak much. But… I know you well enough that I can tell when something is off with you.”

Blackburn raised an eyebrow; this was legitimately confusing. “Off?”

“Your father might not have noticed anything because he was too upset and angry about what you did, but I noticed.”

“Noticed… what?”

“You were clearly distracted, darling, if you don’t mind my saying.” She pointed at the bracelet on Blackburn’s foreleg. “You were distracted by that, to be specific. That lovely little charm bracelet.”

Blackburn glanced at the bracelet, then back at Silver Glow, not following her stepmother’s train of thought at all; she hadn’t been distracted, had she? “What of it?”

“You were so focused on that little trinket, dear, that you merely deflected your father’s questions most of the time. You hardly bothered to defend yourself, or your friends, over what happened up north, not the way I’m used to seeing. You hardly even argued with your father, Blackburn. You.” She shook her head in disbelief. “It was a pleasant change of pace, to be honest.”

“Didn’t see point in arguing. Had facts to present, nothing more.”

Silver Glow chuckled lightly. “Mhmm, ‘no point in arguing’? Now I know something’s changed, darling. And that bracelet is to blame, I’m sure of it,” she said, gesturing at the charm. “You’ve never been one for jewelry, Blackburn. Ever. I believe the last time I tried to give you a necklace for your birthday, you threw it against a wall. And it was most expensive.”

“Point?”

“The point is, if you’re wearing jewelry at all, let alone something like that… somepony truly special had to have given it to you.”

“That’s quite a leap,” Blackburn said, nervously pawing the bracelet with her hoof; this was not a conversation she wanted to have, least of all with her stepmother.

Silver Glow noticed her stepdaughter’s sudden nervousness and gave Blackburn a coy grin. “I believe that the charm itself resembles your cutie mark, yes? That means that it’s not just some simple bracelet; it’s a personalized gift. I highly doubt either Gadget or Crossfire got that for you, considering they’d know you hate jewelry more than anypony would. So... who are they?”

Blackburn narrowed her eyes. “There is no ‘they’--”

“Blackburn, really, I’m no stranger to the matters of love. I know all the signs, no matter how subtle, and I remind you that have a fine eye for detail.” She lit her horn to create the illusion of an empty box. “Let’s see… you’re unusually distracted? Check.” A check mark appeared in the box; another box appeared below it. “You’re acting abnormally in recognizable situations? Check.” Another box. “You’ve spent an inordinate amount of time away from home and are keeping secrets about what you’ve been doing there? Check.”

Blackburn made to retort, even though she knew anything she said would be an outright lie; Silver Glow was hitting nails on the head with astounding accuracy.

Silver Glow pressed her hoof to Blackburn’s lips to quiet her. “Don’t try to deny it, dear, but don’t worry. You don’t need to tell me anything.” She paused for half a second, then moved in and, without warning, wrapped her hooves around Blackburn in a gentle hug. “Whoever they are, Blackburn… I hope they’re making you happy.”

Blackburn stood still, stunned, silent, and shaky on how to respond to whatever this was that was happening. She felt like she was being accused of something.

“I know I’m not your mother, Blackburn… I never could hope to replace Blue Blitz, and… I never wanted to replace anypony. I know that a moment like this is something that should be shared with her… but...” Silver Glow tenderly rubbed Blackburn’s back. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, Blackburn…”

Blackburn, still motionless, could only mutter. “Don’t… don’t be sorry. Not your fault…”

“I never wanted to try and replace her, Blackburn. I just… I can’t…”

Silver Glow shook as she started to cry. Blackburn, without a single bit of hesitation, put her hooves around Silver Glow’s back as a sudden rush of sympathy washed over her; she knew about Silver Glow’s condition and came to a realization that all her stepmother wanted was a son or daughter of her own. This was the closest she’d ever be able to come to that feeling.

The two mares remained like that for a long, long moment, before Silver Glow regained her composure and pulled herself away, wiping tears from her eyes.

Silver Glow sniffed and pulled a handkerchief from her dress to wipe her nose. “You should really get going, darling. Your friends are waiting for you. Your father…” She hesitated a moment, knowing what she was about to suggest. “Your father will be busy considering your punishment, likely for the rest of the evening if I have anything to say about it. If you want to leave… to go back north… you need to go. Now.”

Blackburn paused, then nodded in agreement. “Yes. Yes, need to go now.” She made for the door, but, just as she went to leave the room, she turned back to Silver Glow and gave her the tiniest hint of a genuine grin. “You… you would like him, I think…”

Silver Glow smiled back. “Then go to him, Blackburn. And never let him go.”

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