• 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 Two: Teenage Troubles

One Year Later

The hospital room was white and mostly empty, save for various pieces of medical equipment, a single chair, and a large, comfortable bed that definitely did not belong in a hospital. There was a guard - an orange-coated, green-maned earth pony mare - stationed just outside in the hall; inside the room was another guard, Shining Steel, who stood at attention in the corner. The room had no windows.

In the bed itself was King Flashfire. His coat had dulled in the past year, and his mane was thinning terribly. His once broad, healthy frame had weakened greatly, leaving him gaunt and pale. He was hooked up to several of the machines to monitor his health, none of which had much positive information to say. Flashfire himself was breathing normally, but was clearly tired.

There was a slight commotion from the doorway, and Blackburn stepped into the room. She’d gotten taller over the past year, and wore a long, white, high-collared jacket and her gold-and-green striped scarf. Gadget and Crossfire remained in the hall. The latter had had a growth spurt and was almost as tall as the adult mare outside; the former, not so much.

Blackburn approached the bed and pulled the lone chair over to sit in. “Grandpa. Good to see you.” She tried to smile, but found it difficult.

Flashfire smiled weakly and held a hoof up to her face. “My not-so-little ray of sunshine. How are you today?”

“Doing well,” she lied. “Came as soon as you called.”

“Of course you did, sweetheart. I knew you would. I got something for you.” He gestured at Shining Steel. “Shining.”

Shining nodded and moved over to the side of the bed, fishing a gift-wrapped, bottle-shaped package from underneath. He passed it over to Blackburn, who looked it over curiously.

“Go on, dear. Open it.”

Blackburn unwrapped the package. Inside was a wine bottle labeled “Hundred-Year Burgundy”. Blackburn raised an eyebrow. “Wine? Not old enough to drink, grandpa.”

Flashfire smiled. “It’s not for right now, sweetheart. It’s called ‘Hundred-Year Burgundy’ for a reason: it’s best after being aged for one hundred years. It’ll hit that year when you’re of age. Save it for then, share it with somepony special.” He put his hoof on hers. “I shared a bottle of this with your grandmother the night we met. It was a gift to me from Obsidian, our mutual friend from the Checkpoint.”

Blackburn gave a slight smile. “Wish I’d been able to meet her…”

“I wish so too, dear… she would’ve loved you so--” He stopped to cough into his hoof, letting out harsh, wheezing coughs. Blackburn rose to tend to him, but he waved her off. “Don’t mind me, don’t mind me. Just a little fit, nothing more. Have you spoken with your father recently?”

Blackburn frowned and took a deep breath. “Still not speaking with him. His fault momma’s gone.” Flashfire pat her hoof, and she held his hoof tight as she started fighting back tears. Flashfire pulled her in for a hug. “Don’t want to lose you, too, grandpa…”

“I know, sweetheart… I know… but we all have to go someday. My time is coming, but I don’t want you to cry for me. You have so much life left ahead of you. Don’t waste it mourning an old stallion like me.”

Another commotion at the door, and this time Stormchaser entered the room, dressed in a regal coat. Flashfire’s expression soured as he walked in, and he started coughing again.

Blackburn noticed and turned to see her father had entered the room, and her expression soured as well. She turned to Flashfire and gave him a kiss on the cheek. “Goodbye, grandpa. Will visit later.” She turned and headed for the door.

“Blackburn, honey, where’ve you been all--” Stormchaser started. Blackburn pushed past him without a word, leaving the room in a huff. “--day.” He shook his head and turned back to his father. “I don’t know what’s wrong with that girl.”

“Really? You don’t know what’s wrong with her?” Flashfire scoffed. “And you wonder why I never trusted you to raise her, why I made sure she was raised right. It’s because you are a blind fool. She blames you - rightfully, I might add - for Blue Blitz’s death.”

Stormchaser scowled. “That wasn’t my fault and you know it. It was a technical malfunction in her engine. A freak accident, nothing more. I’m tired of you trying to pin it on me because of Crimson Dust’s incompetence as an engineer. You know damn well he ran because he thought he’d be blamed for it, which obviously he is.”

“And I’ll tell you again that witnesses said he was seen fleeing the scene before the explosion. All the evidence we have suggests the Rainbow Blitz was tampered with.”

“As if I’d trust the clues you put together. I wouldn’t put it past you to have your loyal subjects fudge the data to serve your ridiculous narrative. Stop acting like I don't care that my wife is dead.”

“You really are an idiot. I’m not the one who put the clues together; your daughter did.” Flashfire shook his head, disappointed. “She figured it out immediately after it happened, and it was her testimony that helped us put together the truth. She probably would’ve figured it out before it happened if you hadn’t been your usual self--”

“You’ve turned my daughter into a paranoid freak!” Stormchase snapped. “Normal ponies don’t talk the way she does! Normal ponies aren’t obsessed with the things she is! No matter what I did, she always listened to you, you old fool. You took my little girl from me!”

“This old fool built the most successful settlement in the Wastelands in hundreds of years. This old fool gave the ponies of Pandemonium a beacon of hope to look to, protected them, let them prosper. This old fool gave you everything you could ever want in life and all you did was show contempt--”

Flashfire coughed fiercely, and leaned back on the bed. After taking a breath, he continued. “You are a disappointment as a son, and a disappointment as a father. If you were even half the stallion I am, Blue Blitz would still be alive.”

“If you weren’t such an obsessive nutcase, mom would still be alive!”

Flashfire sneered, and turned to Shining Steel. “Shining, slap my son for me.”

Shining didn’t hesitate, slapping Stormchaser hard across the face with his armor-clad hoof, nearly knocking the prince to the ground

Stormchaser glared at his father’s bodyguard, placing a hoof to his jaw. “You… you dare strike your prince?”

“I dare to follow my king’s orders, Your Highness,” Shining said, unperturbed. He turned to Flashfire. “Shall I strike him again, sire?”

Flashfire snorted. “No, that’s quite alright.” He turned back to his son, eyes narrowed. “Get out. I have nothing more to say to you.”

Stormchaser straightened himself. “Fine. I said my piece.” He stormed out of the room.

Flashfire sighed and turned to Shining. “I shouldn’t have had you do that, Shining. He’s going to make life hell for you when he’s crowned because of that.”

“I’m not worried,” Shining said with a slight grin. “The wife and I already planned on taking a vacation in Newhaven after he takes the throne. Maybe we’ll make it a permanent move, raise our daughter someplace sunny and warm.” He paused a moment. “You know, Flashfire… it’s not too late for you to do something about Stormchaser taking the throne. You’re the king, you could appoint anypony you want to be your successor.”

Flashfire frowned and stared at the ceiling. “I know I can… but I couldn’t. The ponies of this city have come to expect Stormchaser to succeed me when I’m gone. He’s the rightful heir. If I put somepony else on the throne, even if just to keep it warm for Blackburn… I fear that there would be some that consider her rule illegitimate, and my son would make sure of it. There might be unrest. I can’t put her through that.”

“Fair point.”

“Sometimes makes me wish you’d all nominated me ‘president’ or something less constricting than ‘king’,” Flashfire added with a laugh. He coughed into his hoof. “I wish I could ask you to watch over my granddaughter. I know she’ll be safe… but I worry…”

“Don’t worry, sire. I’ve watched her grow up just as much as you have. If there’s anypony in this world that’s more capable of keeping herself safe than her, I’d love to meet them.”

Six Months Later

The royal wedding chapel was exquisitely decorated with whites, blues, and purples. Hundreds of flowers of varying kinds lined the aisle and scented candles sat at the edges of the room, all combining to give the chapel the smell of a pleasant spring afternoon. All of the pews were packed tight, save for an empty spot near the front row on the groom’s side. Half a dozen camera crews had taken up spots throughout the chapel: one at the back near the doors; one halfway down the aisle; two on the ceiling, one above the doors and one above the altar; and two more near the altar, one facing the groom, the other facing the bride.

The groom himself, King Stormchaser, stood proud and confident facing towards the camera crew that was focused on him; his tuxedo was pressed and clean, and the collar was high and decorated with the red-and-gold of Hope’s Point. Six groomsmen stood at his side, all well-dressed stallions in dark gold tuxedos with impeccable grooming. Opposite them were six bridesmaids, all lovely mares in periwinkle dresses, their manes decorated with white and gold flowers. The officiator of the ceremony was an older stallion dressed in ceremonial military gear.

Then, the traditional Bridal Chorus played, and the entire crowd’s attention turned towards the chapel entrance. Entering the room was the bride, a gorgeous pearl-white unicorn with a luxurious dark pink mane, dressed in a long, flowing bridal gown decorated with glittering gemstones. As she approached the altar, the crowd and cameras followed her with their eyes the whole way. When she reached the altar, she met eyes with Stormchaser and gave him a loving smile, which he returned, then took her place.

The music stopped, and the officiator addressed the crowd. “Friends, family, and compatriots, we are gathered here today to bear witness to the union between these two, King Stormchaser and Lady Silver Glow, in matrimony. If anypony can show just cause why these two should not be lawfully joined together, let them speak now or forever hold their peace.”

Stormchaser glanced out into the crowd, fully expecting Princess Blackburn to speak out. However, when his eyes drifted over to her reserved seats, the seats were empty. Blackburn wasn’t there.

*****

Princess Blackburn sat at a table in a small diner on the city surface, situated off in the corner away from the crowd that had gathered near a television set above the bar. She was dressed in a red jacket with the hood pulled up, no scarf. Across the table from her were Gadget and Crossfire, dressed in similar jackets - Gadget’s blue, Crossfire’s green. Between them, on the table, were mostly-emptied plates of food; there was evidence that they’d all ordered hay fries, that Blackburn preferred hers with ranch dressing, Gadget with ketchup, and Crossfire plain.

Also set up was a deck of cards. The trio was in the middle of a tense game of poker; the flop currently held a four, five, and six of spades. Blackburn’s pocket cards consisted of a nine of clubs and a ten of hearts; Gadget’s was a two of hearts and a three of diamonds; Crossfire’s was a two and three of spades.

Blackburn’s poker face was unreadable; her expression was that of a pony who was half-awake and trying not to fall back asleep. Gadget’s wasn’t nearly as perfect, because her eyes kept darting from Blackburn’s face to her own cards, her mouth curled in the tiniest of grins. Crossfire, meanwhile, was trying too hard, keeping a dumb grin on his face but shifting his eyes excitedly between the other two.

Unsurprisingly, Blackburn’s pile of chips was the largest. She pushed ten more chips into the pot. Gadget put ten as well; Crossfire put fifteen. Gadget then drew a new card, the turn: a three of hearts. Blackburn, expression unchanging, pushed five more chips in; Gadget added ten, Crossfire another fifteen. Gadget drew the last card to add, the river: a nine of spades. Blackburn pushed forward forty chips.

Gadget hesitated; Blackburn didn’t even acknowledge it. Gadget took a breath, then placed her cards face-down. “I fold.”

Crossfire was sweating. He licked his lips, checked his pocket cards again, then took a deep breath and placed his cards face-down too. “I fold too.”

Blackburn leaned forward in her seat and shrugged, tossing her cards face-up onto the table before pulling the pit towards herself.

Gadget rolled her eyes. “Sonuva... not again.“

Crossfire groaned and put his hooves to his face as he leaned back in his chair. “Dagnabit! I had a dang straight-flush!”

Gadget looked at him incredulously. “You had a straight flush and you folded? The heck is wrong with you, Crossfire? That’s the best hand you could possibly have here.”

“I had the two and three. I thought she had the seven and eight!” He stared at Blackburn. “You’ve got a killer poker face, Blackburn. How in the hay do ya do it?”

Blackburn shrugged. “Just comes natural.”

She tilted her head towards the crowd at the television, where she could see that the display was focused on the royal wedding. At present, rings were being exchanged. Then, the bride and groom kissed to seal the deal; the crowd applauded and cheered. Blackburn, meanwhile, just huffed.

Gadget turned to see the display for a second, then turned back to Blackburn. “Guess it’s finally official, huh? You gonna be okay, Blackburn? I know this whole thing is… awkward.”

“Awkward nothin',” Crossfire said, shaking his head. “The three o’ us know dang well that this whole thing ain’t right. ‘Tain’t right at all…”

Blackburn snorted and sunk into her chair, but did not respond for a long time. “Changes nothing,” she muttered at long last.

This poker face wasn’t nearly as good.

One Year Later

Hope’s Point had, over the years, attracted a great many ponies from all walks of life in Pandemonium City: the downtrodden and well-to-do, the desperate and the simply curious, the brave and the meek. And, be they earth pony, unicorn, or pegasi, there was an opportunity for prosperity in Hope’s Point only surpassed by the southern Utopian continent itself. Nearly half of the ponies that came to Hope’s Point eventually left south to make better lives for themselves and their families.

Those that remained in Hope’s Point were expected to contribute to the city’s well-being and thriving society in whatever manner they could. Some had entrepreneurial spirit and opened businesses that catered to the wants and needs of the city’s population. Some had the money to provide for themselves from the get-go, and provided a much-needed influx of currency into the city’s economy. Some had skills or talents that led them to working in the city’s numerous fields of labor both menial and not: engineers, lawyers, doctors, soldiers, technicians, plumbers, reporters, etc.

Of the latter group, the most favored and most important were pegasi with a talent for flying, for they could serve the city as pilots in its fleet of airships. The ships were ostensibly used for the transport of cargo or passengers between Hope’s Point and Utopia, or Utopia and Pandemonium City, which in every case required them to travel south through the Belt of Tranquility, the ironically-named storm of chaotic magic that stretched along Equestria’s equator.

These pegasi pilots were trained and equipped at Fleet Headquarters, a large building in the underground levels. And it was at Fleet Headquarters that Bramblejam now waited in a lonely training room on one of its many floors dedicated to the service. The room was equipped with dozens of pieces of training equipment, most prominently an elevated glass tube connected to a series of mechanical contraptions.

Bramblejam himself was a golden pegasus stallion with an orange mane, currently dressed in a simple green jacket. His wings were a little longer than those of the average pegasus, so when they drooped at his side as he paced to-and-fro, they dragged along the ground. He constantly looked at the time displayed on the clock above the door; currently it read 11:56 p.m.

“What’s got you all in a tizzy, dad?” asked a younger pegasus stallion in the room with him. “Flight lessons make newbies nervous. They made of glass?”

The younger pegasus was similarly colored, though his coat and mane had more of a healthy luster to them. He was dressed in a green-and-gold flight suit, and his wings, too, were much longer than the average pegasus his age; his primaries stretched out behind him.

Bramblejam turned to his son and licked his lips. “More like steel. I suppose since she’s gonna be here any minute, any second, maybe even right now!” he said with a long exhale. His vision glazed over. “To be honestish, a long-a-rino time comingly, you know, milad--”

The younger pegasus furrowed his brow briefly with concern, and quickly slid a wingtip forward hard, flicking his father’s forehead.

“Sorry,” Bramblejam coughed. “Anyway, since she’s gonna be here soon I think it might be a good idea, prudent even, to let you know just what, or rather who, yes, who, we’re giving this lesson to: her royalful princessly Princess Blackburn!”

The young pegasus’s eyes widened. “We’re giving royal lessons?! Why am I just finding out about this now?! Is my mane okay? How about my breath? Acceptable for princessliness?

Bramblejam covered his son’s mouth. “Shhhhshhshh! Keep quiet, son, we can’t let anypony know about this, okay? This is very hush-hush-hushed, tip-to-the-top secret, confidential, and dare I say it, classified. Princess Blackburn doesn’t want anypony to know, least of all His Majestical Majesty himself. So you keep your lips tight, hmm?”

“Yeah, tip-to-the-top, sure thing dad, whatever you say,” the son replied with a nod. “Whoo, the Princess wants private flying lessons. From us. Whoo.”

Just as the clock on the wall turned to midnight, the door opened, and Princess Blackburn strode in with Gadget and Crossfire in tow. Bramblejam and his son bowed immediately upon the entrance, which earned a polite nod from Blackburn, who stepped in front of the two. Crossfire moved to close the door and stand guard nearby; Gadget made for the myriad devices that filled the room, giving them scrutinizing looks.

“Captain Bramblejam,” Blackburn said as she gestured for the older pegasus to rise. “Punctual, excellent. Eager to get started.” She turned to the younger pegasus. “Briarthorn, your son and assistant. Pleasure to meet you.”

The son - Briarthorn - nodded and smiled. “Pleasure to meet you too, Princess. I didn’t know we were having royal company tonight, so this is a nice surprise, if you don’t mind me saying so. I didn’t think many ponies even got to interact with you.”

Blackburn turned to Bramblejam. “Good, secret has been kept. Whatever happens here stays between us.” She then turned to the equipment that Gadget was examining. “As said: eager to get started. Shall we?”

Bramblejam held up a hoof. “Certainly, absotively posilutely, and we’ll get started right away your Princessfulness, but you're not gonna blast off just yet, no sir. I know you’re royalicious and all that jazz and such but… uh…” He suddenly paused, a faraway look in his eye as he stared off at the wall like it was the most interesting thing in the world.

Blackburn raised an eyebrow. “Captain?”

Briarthorn cleared his throat. “Sorry about that, he gets like that sometimes.” He poked his dad hard in the side with his wing. “Dad! Hey!” He even stomped his hoof to punctuate it.

As if nothing had happened at all, Bramblejam continued. “But I’ve gotta keep to my teacherly lesson plan or I’m just setting a bad bad bad example, you understand?” He clapped Briarthorn on the shoulder. “My son here’s gonna demonstrate the equipment first for you while you get suited up.”

“Am familiar with equipment already,” Blackburn stated matter-of-factly. “Learned from… from my mother.”

Bramblejam’s expression softened. “Yeah… yeah, I figured Blue Blitz probably showed you a few things before…” He caught himself and cleared his throat. “Still, lessons are lessons, and rules are as rulesy as water is wettish, and I can’t just go… uh... “ Again, he stopped, this time tilting his head to the side as he looked at a particular spot on the ceiling.

Briarthorn poked him again. “Dad! Focus!”

“Can’t just go breaking my system, even for you, Princessy,” Bramblejam finished. He shook his head to gather his wits. “Sorry, had a flight earlier tonight and came straight here afterwards, so I’m a little wibbly-wobbly-woozy. Should’ve stopped to wet my whistle, have a little nip, and perhaps even paint the town red first.”

Blackburn was given pause, but realized what was going on: effects of Diffusion sickness. It was an illness that affected the crew ponies on the various flight teams that flew for the Diffusion system that kept the ships protected from danger. The system’s side effects caused severe organ damage after repeated use, and though developments had been made to reduce the effect, it was still lethal after ten or so years of constant exposure.

Bramblejam had been the Diffusion flyer aboard the Blizzard, one of the larger cargo ships in the fleet, and a valuable member of their team. His mother, Rosethorn, had also been a Diffusion flyer, aboard the first passenger vessel the fleet had built, the Cloud Nine. Her father, Briarpatch, had invented the Diffusion system along with some help from Solarian, an adaptation of the same technology used to make the city’s defense shield.

Briarpatch died young; heart attack was the official diagnosis, but Blackburn knew the truth, just as her father did, and her grandfather before him. Same with Rosethorn: kidney failure officially. In truth, it was the Diffusion sickness that had finally taken its toll on their bodies, as it would do to every Diffusion flyer in the fleet, eventually. Flashfire forbade his medical staff from revealing this information, afraid that nopony would volunteer for the Diffusion positions, which were crucial to the fleet’s operations. Stormchaser upheld Flashfire’s secret, and Blackburn continued the trend.

So she knew what was wrong with Bramblejam. But she also knew she couldn’t tell him; he didn’t know. All he and the other Diffusion flyers knew was that Diffusion flight caused discomfort and headaches, but that alcohol cleared that right up, a treatment discovered by Doctor Berry Syrup, Rosethorn’s husband. There was no cure, and no technology advancements were available to prevent it.

Blackburn maintained her poker face. “Fair enough, will not dispute it,” she said with a nod. She turned to Briarthorn. “Ready for demonstration.”

“Aye aye, Princess,” Briarthorn said with a salute.

Briarthorn smiled and nodded, then flew up to the glass tube. Bramblejam walked over to one of the many machines, pressed some buttons and flicked some switches, and the entire collection came to life. A monitor on one machine flickered on, but didn’t display anything just yet; the other machines hummed softly as various meters, dials, and displays began showing readings.

The glass tube opened and Briarthorn stepped into it, whereupon the tube closed over him, and after a few seconds, a black aerosol sprayed from the ceiling onto his wings, coating them in a liquid-like black substance that clung to his feathers. A panel opened on the ceiling and a green visor descended over his face. After it did, the monitor below flickered a little before an image appeared on screen, showing viewers exactly what Briarthorn was seeing, which was currently the room as-is.

Bramblejam cleared his throat. “First of all, that aerosol spray on the wings--”

“Developed by Solarian,” Blackburn finished. “Liquid is conductive sleeve, connects to ship’s flight controls. Allows pegasi pilots to control ship’s flight accurately.”

Bramblejam nodded sagely. “Correctamundo. Well-spoken and informative. Learned that from the ol’ super-science sage himself, did you?”

Blackburn shook her head. “Mother told me.”

“Well, moving on to the next part.” Bramblejam pulled a small green visor from the top of the nearby control module, though this one was inactive. “These visors serve as a virtual, visual, and also video aid, a sort of camera if you will, that allows the pilot to see around the ship they’re piloting as if their body were the ship itself. Regardless of how big or small the ship is, it will… uh…” He became fixated on a smudge on the floor.

Blackburn looked between him and Briarthorn, then gently nudged Bramblejam in the side. “Captain?”

“It will adjust itself to give the pilot the sensational sense of being in complete control,” Bramblejam continued, “especially when combined with their now liquid-coated wings.”

Gadget whistled. “Golly, Solarian is a real genius. Some of this stuff is more advanced that anything I worked with when I was under Spark Plug.”

“Tippity top top top-of-the-line and nothing below it,” Bramblejam bragged, puffing out his chest. “That’s our motto in the Hope’s Point Fleet.” He turned back to Blackburn and gestured towards Briarthorn as he himself turned one of the dials on the control panel. Once he did so, the sound of rushing air filled the room.

“Now,” he continued, “the pilot’s chamber is filled with an air substitute, a fake breeze if you will, that simulates the wind conditions outside of their ship. You can’t see anything different right now, of course, because I haven’t turned on the simulator yet” He paused, then gasped. “Oh! Silly me, I forgot to turn on the simulator. Uh, let’s just skip right ahead and move on to that step now, shall we?”

He pushed another button on the panel, and the monitor flickered before displaying a new image: the airfield on the surface, devoid of any other ships. Briarthorn looked left and then right; as he did so, the wings of the “ship” that Briarthorn was supposedly piloting came into view.

“And with that, let’s start our engines and get all revved up. Briarthorn’s going to do a run on our most basically-basic simulation course to show you what it’ll look like, and then you can go get suited up and give it a raring-good run yourself. Sound good?”

Blackburn nodded and turned her attention solely to the monitor. “Proceed.”

Briarthorn saluted, then took to the air within the tube; his ship on the monitor did the same, and as he tilted himself forward and beat his wings, the ship moved forward, though its wings did not “flap” - the motion was just a gesture to indicate forward movement.

The basic simulation course was rather simple. A multi-colored ring appeared above the city in front of Briarthorn as he took off, which Briarthorn made for immediately. As he passed through it, another ring appeared further ahead and just off to the left; Briarthorn shifted his wings slightly to tilt the ship to the left, sailing through the ring easily. Every time he passed through a ring, another would appear elsewhere in his vision, requiring more and more effort and maneuvering to pass through as he flew a course around the simulated city.

When at last he had passed through thirty rings, they had directed him back to the airfield, where he descended and made and easy landing. As soon as he landed, the simulation ended and the view of the room returned to the monitor. Briarthorn removed the visor, causing the monitor to go dark.

“How was that, Princess? Impressive, huh?” Briarthorn called down to her. He brushed his chest a little with his hoof. “Yeah, if this thing kept records I bet I’d have the high score,” he bragged. “Gonna be the best pilot in the fleet someday, just you watch.”

Blackburn nodded. “Skilled flyer, will agree. Take after your father.” She turned to Bramblejam. “I wish to try.”

Bramblejam gestured towards a small door in the corner of the room. “Locker room is over there. Go ahead and get changed into a flight suit, Your Princessfulness, and we’ll get you all hooked up, strapped in, and all that hullabaloo. You even get to pick your color!”

Blackburn nodded and headed behind the curtain. A moment later, she came back out in a red-and-gold flight suit that clung tightly to her body, though she’s kept her scarf on; in the time she’d been changing, Briarthorn had left the tube, the black substance on his wings no longer present.

Gadget grinned as she gave Blackburn a once-over. “Looking spiffy, Princess. Golly, you look like you were made for that suit.”

Bramblejam put a hoof to his chin. “The scarf is a nice touch, adds a touch of panache, a little swigger-swagger to the whole deal, real flashy-like. Not really supposed to be wearing anything else but the flight suit while flying though, pretty much against regulations and protocols, or rules if you catch my drift.”

Blackburn frowned and held the scarf in her hooves. “Gift from mother, lucky scarf. Always wear it when not incognito. Must I remove it?”

“Hmmm… well, to be frank it’s not really a rule so much as a suggestion, a guideline if you will. So as long as it’s not interfering with your wingdings I don’t see the harm in wearing it,” Bramblejam said with a shrug. “Anyway, looking like… uh…” A sound that nopony else could hear suddenly attracted his attention to a few different locations in the room.

Blackburn poked him in the side.

“Looking like hot stuff in those suits isn’t all there is to being a top-notch stunt pilot, my Princessly pilot-in-training, you’ve gotta walk the walk as much you look the look… though I guess it’s more fly the fly? Eh. Whatever. Head on up, Princess, let’s get you all hooked in.”

Blackburn smiled and flew up to the glass tube. She didn’t notice Briarthorn gawking at her as she flew. She entered as Briarthorn had, and waited for the tube to close. When it did, it sprayed the black aerosol over her wings; the sensation was awkward to her at first, like dipping her wings in maple syrup, and it smelled like mint and lavender; after she got used to it, it was a pleasant feeling. She picked up the visor that Briarthorn had discarded and placed it over her head. Presently, it was no different than putting on a cumbersome headset and goggles.

After Bramblejam turned on the simulation, however, she felt a sudden rush of a light breeze inside the tube, and the sensation of being out on the airfield as this nameless, featureless “ship”. She looked to her left and right and Briarthorn had done to see what it felt like from her perspective; lifting her left wing, she saw flaps on the ship’s left wing adjust to match her motions.

“Whenever you’re ready, Princess, you can take off,” Bramblejam said. Despite him being in the same room with her, it sounded more like it was coming over a comm channel in her ear.

She nodded, and mimicked Briarthorn’s motions from earlier to perform the take-off maneuver. Suddenly she was filled with the sensation of a brisk breeze rushing through her mane and wings, of her scarf flapping gloriously behind her and flicking her tail. It didn’t take more than a few seconds to get accustomed to the feeling that she was the ship, and that the ship was her; they were one.

As she lifted off further, she caught sight of the multi-colored ring in the sky ahead. She flapped her wings quickly to pick up speed and flew through the ring like a rocket, and the next ring appeared just after that but slightly to her left. She banked and tilted herself to the left enough to clip through the ring. The next ring appeared below her and to the right, but rather than bank right, she continued tilting left and pulling up, making a tight roll that swung her through the ring gracefully.

Outside the simulation, the other ponies watched her perform the course with an almost practiced precision, clipping through the rings slower than Briarthorn had done but with much more advanced maneuvers. Bramblejam wordlessly nodded in approval as she swung, twirled, and darted through every ring in her path with all the flair of a practiced pilot. Gadget and Crossfire, too, watched in admiration of their Princess’s performance.

Briarthorn, meanwhile, watched with mouth agape as the Princess, who was supposedly coming here for lessons, completely outclassed his earlier display, which had merely been to demonstrate the simulation; granted, he’d done it faster and more directly, but she was still making it look good.

“She’s… how is she doing that?” he asked, turning to Gadget. “Figuring out where the rings are gonna be, I mean. Most first-timers have to do several loops around the course in one run just to get all the rings.”

“She’s had a lot of practice,” Gadget said, watching Blackburn pull off a loopdeloop to swing through one of the rings rather than just fly straight through it. “That and she watched you perform the course first. She memorized it.”

“After just seeing it once?” Briarthorn asked, astounded. “It took me ten runs to get that course memorized enough to start beating records, and I’m at the tippity-tip-top of my class. I didn’t even get all the rings on my first lap on my first try.” He paused, then stuck up his nose. “Took me two, if you’re wondering.”

“I wasn’t.”

“I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m impressed and all, but… why’s she doing it the way she is, with all the flashy maneuvers? If she’s got everything all memorized she’d finish faster just going straight through, like I did. Not fast enough to beat my time, of course, but--”

“Yeah, well, you’re not Princess Blackburn, and she’s not one for simple solutions,” Gadget chuckled. “No offense, you’re good - she wouldn’t have said so if you’re weren’t - but remember who her mom was.”

Briarthorn nodded. “Blue Blitz, yeah… I remember. I used to watch vids of her stunt shows when I was a little colt, just a teeny-tiny novice flyer. She was amazing… best pilot I’ve ever seen.” He turned to Gadget directly. “She trained the Princess, didn’t she? That would explain, like, everything. Hot dang… to be trained by Blue Blitz herself, what an honor, no, a privilege! An honored privilege, even.”

Blackburn finished the course, and without much ado she removed the visor and ended the simulation. “A… unique experience. Never felt anything like it,” she muttered. She turned to Bramblejam and the others. “Would like to continue training. Unsatisfied with completion time.”

Bramblejam glanced at the clock above the door. 12:45 a.m. He shook his head. “Not tonight, my dear Princessfulness. As much as I want to, all equipment is supposed to be shut down at 1:00 a.m. so the maintenance crews can do their routine checky-checks and so on and so forth and such. You might have time but, since you’re trying to keep this all incognito, all super secret, somepony else might see you.”

Blackburn nodded. “Very well. Will schedule next appointment for tomorrow night, same time. Preferably different room. Wish to test advanced simulations if possible.”

“Yessiree, I’ll see what I can get cooked up for you, Princess,” Bramblejam said with a smile. He turned to his son and nudged him. “You wanna come along, kiddo? I’ll book the dual-simulator room next time, maybe we can set up a little competition, a contest, a head-to-head so they say.”

Briarthorn beamed. “Heck yeah, dad, that sounds awesome! Amazing! So cool, I get to hang out with the Princess on her super-secret flight training sessions with my dad. Oh wow oh wow, this is like… I mean, I never even dreamed this would happen so not like a dream come true, this is like, winning a contest you didn’t even enter. And the grand prize is getting to hang out with the Princess!”

Blackburn looked around the glass tube and flexed her still-coated wings. “Um… how do I--”

Bramblejam slapped his forehead. “Whoopsie! Let’s get you out of there, Princess. One sec. You might feel an odd tingly-tingle when that stuff comes off.”

He flipped a switch on the console, and another spray filled the gas tube. As it did, the substance on Blackburn’s wings hardened, then crumbled away to the floor like powder. As this happened, Blackburn shuddered and bit her lip; the sensation was incredibly exhilarating, not at all like it had felt having the liquid sprayed on in the first place. If that’s what it felt like every time she finished a flight, Blackburn thought, it was no wonder the pilots loved their jobs so much.

She exited the tube and fluttered down to the rest of the group. “Time to leave,” she said, turning to Gadget. “One moment while I change.” She made for the changing room.

Bramblejam nudged his son. “You too, squirt, go get changed. We’ve got an early day ahead of us, what with your mother wanting to try out that new pancake joint that opened on Fifth Lane. I hear they’ve got really-real pancakes on some kind of hush-hush menu, like you need a password and everything.” He hummed. “I wonder what the password would be? Maple? No, waffle!”

Briarthorn saluted. “Aye aye, roger wilco sir!” And he made for the changing room as well.

Gadget swiftly grabbed him by the ear with her magic. “Whoa whoa whoa, buster, where do you think you’re going?”

Brairthorn squirmed in her grip. “Hey! What gives?”

Blackburn turned at the commotion and narrowed her eyes. “Wait your turn.”

Briarthorn raised an eyebrow. “My turn? What do you mean ‘my turn’? We don’t take turns in the changing room.” He turned to his father. “Right, dad?”

Bramblejam cleared his throat. “Strictly speaking, locker rooms are communal, even intermutual amongst all flight teams in the fleet. Even Blue Blitz shared a locker room with us when she and I were still on the Marvelbolts. Typically we didn’t bother taking the time to ‘take turns’ - kind of makes it difficult to do when you’re in a hurry, y’know? Wouldn’t want to be taking off your clothes in the middle of a dangerous situation. Unless you’re into that sort of thing.”

“See?” Briarthorn said, giving Gadget a told-you-so look. “The flight teams are like sports teams, and they share locker rooms too. No sense in getting all fidgety about it. I get changed with the other students all the time. It’s perfectly normal.”

“To be fair, to be fair,” Bramblejam added, “her Princessfulness isn’t an official student here at HQ, nor is she looking to join an official flight team, nor would she be any position to want or need either of those things what with being of the royally-royal persuasion and all. I can’t really expect to impose our… traditions? No no, our, uh… habits? Yeah, habits. Routines, you might say. We can’t really impose those on her if she doesn’t want to.”

Blackburn pondered this for a moment, then nodded. “Mother was official pilot, shared lockers with her flight team. Signed up for full educational experience. Acceptable.” She turned to Gadget. “Release him.”

Gadget’s jaw dropped. “Princess, you don’t need to--”

“Need, no. Want, yes. Helps develop camaraderie.” She turned to Briarthorn. “That is intention of sharing lockers, yes? Camaraderie?”

Briarthorn nodded. “Yes, ma’am, your Princessfulness.”

Blackburn turned back to Gadget. “Release him.”

Gadget rolled her eyes and dropped her spell. “As you wish, Princess.” She poked Briarthron in the side. “No funny business though, you got that?” She gestured to her sidearm. “This baby’s got enough voltage to put down stallions twice your size, and I’m not afraid to use it.”

Briarthorn tensed and held up his hooves defensively. “No funny business, got it, roger that, yes ma’am.”

Blackburn snorted in amusement, then turned and made for the changing room, Briarthorn right behind her.

They changed in silence, and Blackburn noted that Briarthorn was true to his word - no funny business - though he did glance in her direction from time to time. She only knew this because she found herself just as unable to stop glancing in his direction while he got undressed. She got a good view of his cutie mark, a bronze shield with a golden “V” emblazoned on it, decorated with two white-gold ribbons that trailed down his leg. She blushed as she turned away, just as he glanced in her direction, desperately hoping she hadn’t been caught staring.

She didn’t know why she cared, really.

Three Months Later

King Stormchaser strode through the royal halls with an air of disdain, accompanied by his bodyguard, a dark blue earth pony stallion with a silver mane. Servants and guards bowed just slightly as he walked past, but he replied with no gestures of his own as he went. He passed through hall after hall, climbed stair after stair, until he reached a room at the mid-level of the easternmost tower of the palace. The guards outside the door bowed and opened it for him, revealing a small meeting room.

A table was set up in the center of the room, surrounded by chairs which were filled with assorted ponies in important positions within the city’s hierarchical structure. Stormchaser knew their names and duties well enough but with few exceptions didn’t know them personally; he had to take stock of the room to make sure he could recall what he knew of everypony present.

Spark Plug, Chief Engineer. An orange earth pony with a stocky build and a neon blue mane, dressed in a blue jumpsuit. He was responsible for running the city’s power plant, with particular focus on the systems that kept the defense shield operational. A genius with anything mechanical in nature.

Solarian, Chief Science Officer. He wasn’t responsible for much these days except for consultation purposes, and within the last several years had served as personal tutor of Princess Blackburn. Stormchaser blamed him for his daughter’s bizarre manner of speech, but knew he couldn’t fire the stallion for that; he was too critical to the city. Instead, Stormchaser just made sure to keep his influence minimal.

General Avalanche. A rock-gray earth pony with an impressive build, his black mane cut short, decked out in his medal-strewn dress uniform. A defector from New Pandemonium’s military, appointed to his position mere weeks before the passing of King Flashfire and placed in charge of the city’s respectable ground defenses. Stormchaser hardly interacted with him, and didn’t care to anyway; military matters didn’t interest him.

Secretary Featherfree, Chief of Sanitation and Infrastructure. A butter-yellow pegasus mare with a pink-and-white streaked mane, dressed in a neat dress suit. Stormchaser knew her well enough since she was always trying to get more funding as the city grew more and more populated, insisting that if they continued their work they could make the city’s surrounding geography livable for plants and animals - a pipe dream, really, everypony knew that. She was meek, but eager to help.

Concord, Ambassador to Newhaven. A green earth pony with an orange mane dressed in an impeccable suit and tie. He’d made the journey here from Newhaven, where he spent most of his time in the past few years as the little town slowly expanded its port to include proper accommodations for Hope’s Point’s larger airships and even an official embassy. Stormchaser knew him as an excitable stallion but one who got the job done, and since he rarely butt in on matters in the city proper he’d been given a great deal of autonomy in his duties abroad.

Fleet Master Skyrocket. A powder-blue pegasus with a dark blue, windswept mane dressed in a neatly-pressed flight jacket. He was in charge of maintaining the city’s fleet of stunt flyers, cargo ships, and the new heavier transports they were developing. Stormchaser had assigned him to the role himself after his predecessor, Sonic Boom, retired, but only because the stallion was one of the few pilots in the fleet with experience in management. The position had originally been intended for Blue Blitz, and everypony knew Skyrocket was a distant second choice, even Stormchaser, but especially Skyrocket; the stallion was so eager to please and prove himself that he was easy to manipulate.

And lastly, Evening Glitz, Chief Intelligence and Enforcement Officer. A light purple unicorn mare with a dark blue-and-pink mane that she kept tied in a bun, wearing a sharp dress suit and glasses. She was in charge of maintaining the city’s security, both at the gate into the city and throughout the streets. She was a paranoid mess most days, a result of a close working relationship with King Flashfire, but Stormchaser knew she was retiring within the next year or so and he could assign somepony more reasonable and less obsessive.

After Stormchaser took stock of everypony, he cleared his throat. “I hope I didn’t keep everypony waiting long? This is our first council meeting since I took the crown and I forgot where the room was. It’s been a while.”

“Only one hour, fifteen minutes, forty-two seconds,” said Solarian, checking his watch, not a hint of sarcasm or hesitation in his voice. “Not long at all, sire.”

Stormchaser snorted, took his seat at the center of the table and turned his attention to the crowd. “Let’s get this over with then, shall we? My Queen and I have plans for this evening and I’m hoping to make it back by dinnertime. What’s the first order of business?”

Evening Glitz was the first to speak, clearing her throat with a punctuated, “Ahem!” She lifted up a folder full of papers, opened it, and without missing a beat began to speak. “Well, Your Majesty, the Department of Intelligence and Enforcement has been requesting extra funding these past few months and I believe it’s time we addressed that request. It's sort of the main reason we called this council meeting.”

“What sort of extra funding?”

“We’re looking in the realm of--” She read through her papers. “An extra eighty-eight thousand bits for the current year, and an additional forty thousand next year. A total of two hundred and sixteen bits over a two-year timespan, then we can cut back to current funding.”

Stormchaser looked at Glitz like she was from one of Equestria’s moons, probably the smaller one. “What in Equestria do you need that many bits for?”

In one breath, Glitz presented her case: “Upgrades to security systems, particularly improvements to the database system as suggested by Chief Science Officer Solarian to better collect data from New Pandemonium’s registration and documentation network with particular focus on the more guarded files in the NPAF, NPPD, and FIB - military, police, and intelligence bureau, respectively - as those are the most frequent sources of infiltrators.”

Solarian nodded. “The system would improve our precision in spotting infiltration attempts. There would be an accuracy increase of forty percent, bringing us to a new total of eighty-one percent. Further influxes of data would further increase accuracy. Our estimate to reaching a perfect accuracy is within five years of the implementation, at least by our original projections.”

Stormchaser grumbled. “And why is this system costing over two hundred thousand bits?”

“It requires undetectable surveillance equipment implanted into New Pandemonium servers. The technology is expensive, and the mission is risky.”

“But as said, with this new system, within five years we could spot imposters at the gate with near-perfect certainty,” Glitz chimed in. “The sooner we get it installed, the better. We can never be too careful.”

Stormchaser shook his head. “No, too expensive. We need those bits to further the development of the new ports on the cliffside to accommodate the increase of air traffic in the past two years.” He turned to Featherfree. “I believe you put in that request, Featherfree?”

Featherfree gave a nervous glance to Glitz, who was giving her a stern glare. “W-well, yes, sire, I did. Our current stock of hangars can, um... barely service the influx of airships we currently take in on a daily basis, and m-my department’s estimates are that we’ll have to begin placing a limit on incoming traffic within the next six months if we don’t expand.”

“But if we take in that many new ponies, it’ll be harder to profile them to make sure they’re not a threat,” Glitz pointed out. “Our current system is already having difficulty keeping up with the influx of new residents, and the budget cut we got last year didn’t help matters whatsoever. My ponies are understaffed and overworked with inferior equipment.”

Solarian hummed. “Here’s a suggestion. Use the airfield as a sort of temporary housing for the city’s incoming traffic while our security improvements are implemented. One year maximum.”

Skyrocket bristled at this. “Hold on one dang minute, you’re not taking my airfield just because you need time and bits to whip up some fancy doohickies. Where are all of the stunt flyers supposed to park?” He turned to Stormchaser. “Sire, this is a ridiculous suggestion. Not to mention that we’d need that influx of traffic in order to increase the city’s income so that we can even afford these ideas in the first place.”

“I agree,” Stormchaser said with a nod. He turned to Glitz. “I’m turning down your request for additional funding, Glitz. We’ll discuss it again at a later date… if you’re not retired by then,” he added with a smirk. “Though I’m sure your successor will be glad to carry this torch of yours.”

Glitz’s eye twitched. “Your Majesty, really, this is a matter of city security I’m trying to improve here. It is of utmost importance that we implement improvements to the detection system: rumors suggest the New Pandemonium is developing improvements to their A.M.P. Troopers to bypass our current systems and might finish within the next six years. This new system needs to go into effect sooner rather than later. This year is the last chance to get it in before--”

“I’m sure our ground forces can handle any of those robots if they make it into the city,” Stormchaser snorted before looking to Avalanche. “General?”

Avalanche nodded. “Certainly, sire, my troops can handle anything those rusty bolt-buckets could possibly throw at us. However, if they infiltrated the city without prior knowledge, innocent civilians may come to harm before my troops could arrive to handle the problem. I’m not suggesting we follow along with Solarian’s earlier suggestion, but perhaps other alternatives could be considered?”

Glitz pointed her hoof at Avalanche. “Thank you! Finally, somepony’s taking this seriously besides me and Solarian.” Spark Plug cleared his throat, and Glitz rolled her eyes. “And Spark Plug, since his department would be developing the device and he’s already signed off on the project if it gets greenlit.”

Concord raised his hoof. “Honestly, sire, the flow of air traffic into the city could certainly be slowed for a time while security measures are improved upon. I’ve spoken with a few ambassadors from Utopia itself and they’re making plans on sending material and personnel to Newhaven to speed along further port development. We could accommodate travelers for a time.”

“Out of the question,” Stormchaser said, shaking his head. “All the ponies making the detour to Newhaven might just decide to stay in Utopia and then we lose the major portion of our potential income. My decision is final: no additional budget to the Department of Intelligence and Enforcement. I’m approving Featherfree’s request to make additions to the cliffside ports; the increased traffic flow will help us afford these sorts of fanciful endeavors in the future.”

Featherfree gave Glitz an apologetic look and shrugged. Glitz shook it off, it wasn't Featherfree's fault.

“Any further objections?” Stormchaser asked.

Nopony at the table spoke up.

Somepony in the corner, who Stormchaser had failed to notice because he hadn’t really looked throughout the room extensively, did speak: “Decision puts city in undue danger.”

Stormchaser scowled and turned to the corner, where Blackburn sat in a small chair with her usual entourage of Gadget and Crossfire. “What are you doing here, Blackburn? This is a private council meeting and you are not on the council. Not since last I checked anyway.”

“Always sit in at meetings when able,” Blackburn said matter-of-factly. “Acquaint self with process, acquaint self with those in hierarchy. Improves understanding of city’s inner workings. Thus, improves quality of rule later in life.”

“What do you mean you ‘always sit in’?” He turned to the other council members. “You all knew she was here the entire time and said nothing? Why?”

Avalanche scratched his chin. “Well, sire, I don’t know about ‘always’, but she was present at most of the council meetings King Flashfire held in the later years of his life. And this is our first council meeting since you became king.”

“I know that, but these meetings are supposed to be between the king and his advisors only!” Stormchaser said with a sneer. “You’re telling me you all just let her sit there this whole time? None of you even thought to point her out to me, did you?”

Spark Plug bristled. “Frankly, Yer Majesty, I bloody well figured ye knew since yer father allowed it. Why in Harmonia’s name are ye getting all in a tizzy for it, eh? The lass isn’t botherin’ anypony, now or before. I actually like havin’ her around, if ye don’t mind me sayin’ so; gives me a chance to speak with my former student again.” He winked at Gadget, who smiled back and waved.

“Furthermore, she’s always punctual,” Solarian said with a slight grin.

Stormchaser glared at Solarian. “Keep running that mouth of yours, Solarian, just you watch, and I’ll make sure you’re writing your shitty little science papers from a three-by-five cell!” He turned to Blackburn. “And you, young lady. You’re not the queen of this city, not yet, and you do not get to sit on my council meetings without my permission. Understood?”

Blackburn merely stared at her father, her expression unreadable. “Why?”

“Because I am the king, dammit!” Stormchaser snapped, punctuating his words by slamming his hoof on the table. “And I am your father, and you will listen to me. Your grandfather may have given you permission to be here, but you do not get to assume that I would do the same. Leave. Now. We’ll discuss this more later.”

Stormchaser was breathing heavily, but Blackburn just shrugged and started for the door, Gadget and Crossfire right behind her. “Very well. Decision made. Will no longer attend meetings, father.” She subtly glanced at a few of the council members as she walked out: Solarian and Evening Glitz in particular. Stormchaser didn’t notice.

Solarian discreetly twisted a dial on his watch, activating a recording device that wouldn’t be detected by the room’s sensors that should prevent that sort of thing; after all, he’d designed them and knew how to circumvent them, and had done so at King Flashfire’s request in case he suspected anypony on the council was compromised. More importantly, he’d told some of Flashfire’s most trusted associates: Evening Glitz, who slid her hoof along her glasses to activate her own recording device; and Spark Plug, who’d of course built the sensors to Solarian’s specifications and would keep his mouth shut.

Blackburn would never attend another council meeting while her father was king.

Blackburn would never need to attend another council meeting while her father was king.

Three Months Later

Blackburn waited patiently in an empty, dusty room of a nondescript building on the city’s surface, dressed in her typical incognito hooded jacket, this one a dark green. The floor of the room was covered in dust-caked mats; the walls and ceiling were cracked and falling apart. A wall of mirrors on one end of the room reflected its contents, but most of the mirrors were cracked; some were missing, revealing the rotted wood behind them.

Crossfire, in his own green jacket, relaxed with his back against one of the walls, absently fiddling with a broken chair leg he’d found in all the debris. Gadget, also in a green jacket, paced back and forth in front of the mirrors, trying not to look at herself in her nervous state.

“Y’know, you really don’t need to do this, Blackburn,” Gadget said with some trepidation. “You’ve got me and Crossfire for a reason. I know I’ve said this a lot already--”

“Thirteen times, have counted.” Blackburn shrugged. “True. However, emergencies happen. Example: we are separated. Another example: you both are injured. Need to account for such situations. Grandfather completed basic training in NPAF. Cannot replicate experience. Thus, next best thing.”

“Ya really think some self-defense class is as good as professional military trainin’?” Crossfire asked, tossing away the chair leg. “No offense ta Mister Savage - I helped ya pick the guy out - but I don’t really see the connection.”

“Already have proficiency with small arms; learned from one ‘Crossfire’, if you recall,” Blackburn said with a grin.

Crossfire rolled his eyes. “Yeah yeah, I showed ya how ta shoot a gun an' y’all’re a decent shot, but obviously that ain’t good enough for ya.”

“Naturally. Must account for various possibilities. Unarmed combat next logical step.”

“Okay, look, you've obviously got your mind set on this, Blackburn,” Gadget said with a sigh, putting her hoof on Blackburn’s shoulder. “But did we need to come into this dump to do this? I swear, if I get tetanus because of you, I’m gonna shock your royal ass.” She punctuated the last part with a flourish of her new sidearm, a larger pistol-like device lined with odd attachments.

“Have ya even tested out your new doohickey, Gadget?” Crossfire asked, giving her a curious look.

“As a matter of fact, I have tested my new ESP-2100,” Gadget said, twirling the weapon around in her magic. “Got it fitted out with two settings depending on what I need to do to the target. One: stun ‘em with fifty-thousand volts of pure electrical mayhem. Two: pump enough electricity through ‘em to power a city block for a week, give or take. That one’s lethal, by the way.”

Crossfire rolled his eyes. “Yeah no shit.”

There was a knock at the door. “Enter!” called Blackburn.

The door opened and in walked a hulking, golden-yellow earth pony stallion with a dark gray mane, bushy mustache and full-chinned beard. He wore a purple tank top with lavish frills and an overly-large pair of sunglasses, both decorated with sparkling sequins, and carried a large duffel bag with him. He looked about the room with some disdain, but nodded after a few moments, removed his glasses, and set them on his duffel bag in the corner.

“Princess,” he said with a low bow. His voice was gruff and deep, but he was rather loud. “It is an honor and a pleasure to be here, in the service of the most royalest of royals, the cream of the crop, her highest of highnesses.”

“A pleasure, Hulk Savage,” Blackburn said with a polite nod. “Thank you for punctuality and secrecy.”

“Oh yeah, you can always count on me to keep your secrets nice and tight. If I might ask though, Princess, what exactly are you hopin’ to accomplish here? You’ve got two mighty fine bodyguards there with ya, seems to me you don’t need no trainin’.”

“See?” Gadget said. “Even he’s confused.”

Blackburn rolled her eyes. “Wish for training in self-defense. Learned to use small arms, hoof-to-hoof combat next logical step.”

Savage grinned and pounded his chest. “Well then you picked the right stallion for the job of teachin’ you the art of being a rough and tumble mare who’s too hot to handle and too cold to hold. Oh yeah! You got trainin’ gear on under that jacket there, Princess?”

Blackburn nodded and removed her jacket; she too was dressed in a tank top, though hers was not nearly as flamboyant as his. Meanwhile, Savage opened his duffel bag and removed a device, which he set up on the floor. He pushed a button on it, the top opened up to reveal an inflatable pony-shaped dummy.

Savage settled into a very basic fighting stance, and gestured for Blackburn to mimic him, which she did - dominant foreleg forward, hindquarters raised, ready to strike - in front of the dummy. “Okay then, little Princess, I’m gonna assume you know how to buck like a bronco, so let’s start with something more useful: a basic spinning kick. Like so.”

He put all his weight into his dominant foreleg to lift his hind legs off the ground and spin in one swift motion, then put weight into both forelegs to kick the air - punctuating it with an “OH YEAH!” - then returned to his original position. “Your turn, Princess,” he said.

Blackburn took a deep breath, and mimicked his maneuver to the best of her ability. She whiffed, kicking far too early, and nearly tripped trying to get back to her original position.

“Try again,” Savage said.

Blackburn settled back into her stance and tried again. This attempt, she struck the dummy but this had the effect of pushing herself forward; she lost her balance and hit the floor.

“Get up. Try again.”

Blackburn took a deep breath, settled back into her stance, and tried again. This time, she kept her balance with the kick and managed to get some force into it, and was able to swivel around and almost get back into her original position.

“Good,” Savage said with a nod. “Again. Keep at it ‘til you get it smooth as silk and strong as steel, ‘til you feel like a tower of power, oh yeah!”

Blackburn practiced the kick several more times for nearly thirty minutes, and by the time she was done, she could kick the dummy with enough force to knock its head back several inches. They moved on from the basic spinning kick to a leaping spinning kick, to a leaping stomp.

Then, it was time for holds and throws. For this, Blackburn needed a partner; Savage was too big, but Crossfire was just the right size and was asked to step in. He wasn’t dressed for it, but it was good enough. Blackburn practiced several holds and throws, each rougher than the last, but Crossfire was a durable pony and took the beating like a practiced professional. If anything, he was glad Blackburn was eventually tossing him around; it meant she was getting better.

However, one throw attempt did not go as smoothly.

As Blackburn lifted Crossfire up, she lost her balance and tripped, sending her and Crossfire straight into the nearby cracked mirror. Crossfire’s back slammed into it hard enough to crack the glass that hadn’t yet been cracked. Blackburn hit it face first, right on a nasty crack that was already there; the glass sliced her face as she slid down, tearing into the right of her muzzle all the way across to just above her left eye. She fell unconscious.

“Blackburn!” Gadget yelped, rushing over as quickly as she could. In a panic she got a good look at the blood trickling down Blackburn’s face. Her own face paled. “Shit, that’s a… a lotta… blood...” Her eyes rolled into the back of her head and she passed out, falling to the mat like a load of bricks.

Crossfire, none the worse for wear, grunted and rose to his hooves. “Gadget? Hey! Get up ya dang--” He shook her with his hoof; she didn’t stir. “Dagnabit.” He turned to Hulk Savage, who was staring at the situation developing before his eyes like a deer in headlights. “Okay, Mister Savage, here’s how this is gonna go…”

*****

Blackburn lay in bed in her room later that night, holding up a mirror to her face. She put her hoof up to the fresh stitches; the cut was still sore but at least it wasn’t bleeding anymore. It was certainly going to leave a nasty scar when it healed, but she knew the medical staff at Hope’s Point could almost certainly touch it up enough that nopony would ever know it was there, if she decided to have it touched up at all.

Gadget - when she came to and could bear to look at the injury - was of the opinion that it should be fixed so that she wouldn’t have to tell everypony the embarrassing story of how she got it when she tripped while trying to suplex her bodyguard. Crossfire thought she should keep it and wear it with pride, arguing that she could fudge the facts about how she got it and that the scar looked “cool as hell”.

There was a slight commotion at the door; Blackburn heard the muffled voice of Crossfire - who was currently on watch duty while Gadget got some sleep - speaking with somepony else, but she couldn’t tell who. He was certain it was her father, come to scold her for her accident and likely to punish Gadget and Crossfire for letting her come to harm.

She was wrong.

The door opened, and Queen Silver Glow - her stepmother - entered the room. She was as regal and beautiful as ever, dressed in a lavish purple nightgown that sparkled with glitter, her mane done up in an exquisite bun. While she’d been all smiles when she entered the room, her expression faltered briefly when she saw Blackburn’s scar, but only briefly before regaining her composure.

“What are you doing here?” Blackburn asked, eyes narrowed.

Silver Glow faltered again, just briefly, before clearing her throat and giving the best smile she could manage. “I just wanted to check on you, dear. I heard about your little accident.”

Blackburn snorted and set her mirror down, letting Silver Glow get a better view of the scar. “Come to gawk, then.”

Silver Glow approached the bed. “Oh no no, darling, not at all. I wanted to make sure you’re okay, that’s all. Your father is, um… too busy to come himself, so I figured maybe I should do this in his place.”

“Ah, not to gawk. To reprimand. Not your place.” Blackburn shifted in the bed to hide her face. “Not my mother.”

Silver Glow frowned, paused, then: “May I sit?” Blackburn grunted in response, not really in the affirmative or negative, so SIlver Glow sat. She leaned over to try and get a better look at Blackburn’s face. “If you don’t want to show me, dear, I understand, but… I assure you I’m only looking out for your well-being.”

Blackburn grunted again and rolled back over so Silver Glow could see the scar up close. “Better, my Queen?

Silver Glow winced at the sight. “Oh darling, that is a most ghastly-looking cut, no wonder dear Gadget fainted. Are you sure you’re alright? It looks like it still hurts. And all those stitches!”

“I’m fine,” Blackburn stated flatly.

“How in Equestria did this happen, dear? This looks like a lot more than just a simple trip on the pavement.”

“That’s all it was,” Blackburn lied. “Save concern, doesn’t hurt. I take responsibility as well: wasn’t watching where walking. Gadget and Crossfire--”

“Oh hush, dear,” Silver Glow said with a reassuring smile. “I’m not here to dole out any silly punishments to your friends just because you had a nasty fall, if that is what caused all this. How many times must I say I’m just here to check on you and make sure you’re okay?” She pat Blackburn’s hoof gently. “But if you insist--”

Blackburn pulled her hoof back. “I do.”

“Then I’ll let you get some much-needed rest.” She rose from the bed and let out a breath. “And when you get those stitches out, if you’ll let me, I’d like to take you to Doctor Sugarcane to have that scar patched up. She does wonders with that sort of work, at least according to my friends; never had any work done myself, I assure you,” she added with a grin. “All secondhoof information.”

Blackburn huffed. “Haven’t decided if ‘patching up’.”

Silver Glow raised an eyebrow. “Oh? But darling, surely you’re not even considering keeping that scar, are you?”

“Why not?”

“Why, because it’s a most dreadful mark on your lovely face, sweetheart. I don’t think your father wouldn’t want you walking around with something so unbecoming for a lady. It wouldn’t be proper to have such a disfigurement.”

Blackburn scowled. “Disfigurement. Tone implies ugliness. You think scar will make me ugly.”

Silver Glow frowned. “That’s… that’s not what I meant, dear--”

“Hadn’t made decision before, making it now: keeping scar. Spites father, spites you.” She pointed her hoof at the door. “Leave.”

“But… Blackburn, darling--”

“Stop feigning motherly concern. Disgusts me. You are not my mother.” Blackburn pointed at the door more insistently. “Never will be. Leave.

“I was just…” Silver Glow frowned, sighed, and nodded. “Good night, Blackburn.” She left the room without another word.

Blackburn snorted, rolled over, and gripped her pillow tight as she tried to get some sleep.

Six Months Later

Blackburn, Gadget, and Crossfire stood and waited in a line outside Hope’s Point’s only movie theater, dressed in their typical incognito attire. Blackburn’s scar had healed, but it would always be there unless she decided otherwise; she'd decided on using makeup to cover it instead. The building took up nearly a third of the city block and was a bright and colorful affair, complete with neon lights of a staggering variety of colors. The line stretched around the block, mostly teenaged ponies like them but with a fair amount of young adults dressed in costumes or carrying merchandise, and young fillies and colts with their parents.

Gadget checked her watch. “Ugh, movie time in twenty minutes. When are they gonna let the line start moving? We’ve been here for like two hours now and my hooves are killing me. Just absolutely killing me.”

“Patience,” Blackburn said. “Can’t be much longer.” She tilted her head to scan the crowd not in line. “More concerned about our fourth. Should be here by now.”

“Don’t ya worry one hair on yer head, Blackburn,” Crossfire said, clapping her on the shoulder. “He won’t be late.”

“He better not be,” Gadget snorted, glancing at her watch again. “You know how much trouble it was to get these tickets without invoking our special privileges?”

Crossfire rolled his eyes. “Well aware, seein’ as ya remind me ‘bout it every twenty minutes. Just be patient, like Blackburn says. He’ll be-- there!” He pointed up a ways into the air above the crowd, where Briarthorn, wearing a green flight jacket with a fluffy collar, was fast approaching.

Blackburn brightened and waved her hoof to get his attention. “Over here!”

Briarthorn swooped over with a smile, landing right next to Blackburn. “Hey hey hey! Sorry it took so long to get here, dad’s last client wanted a demonstration on the level seven course before we got out and you know how long that sucker takes.”

“No worries, you’re here now.” Blackburn grinned pulled him close with her wing to hug him, pecking him once on the cheek. “Excited?”

“Are you kidding? I’ve been looking forward to this movie for the last two years!” He pulled open his jacket to show off a t-shirt with the movie’s logo on it. “Finally get to see how the trilogy ends, so yeah, I’m excited. Excited, excited, so excited. Nobody’s a bigger fan than me, not a soul. Go on, find someone that’s a bigger fan, I dare you.”

Gadget snorted. “Have you looked behind us in the line, Briar? There’s a guy back there dressed just like Lord Blood with his laser sword and everything, top notch costume, had to cost like two hundred bits, easy. A lot bigger deal than just a t-shirt,” she added, pointing at his shirt. “I think I even saw a mare back there with a tattoo of Star Junction on her neck.”

Briarthorn tapped his chin and shrugged. “Okay, fair, I don’t have a two-hundred-bit costume, or anything permanent like a tattoo, but, but, that doesn’t mean they’re bigger fans, just that they have bigger budgets. I mean, I could afford a costume or tattoo if I was on a pilot salary but I’m still just a student. Best student ever, sure, but it’s not like I’m getting paid to help my dad teach a bunch of newbies how to fly an airship.”

Blackburn slapped his chest. “‘Best student ever’? Beaten some of your records.”

He smirked and nuzzled her neck. “Besides you, of course, and you haven’t beaten all of the records yet. But technically, technically, you’re not a student at HQ. Private lessons don’t count.”

“Then technically, you’re the best pilot in the fleet,” Blackburn said with a grin. “Will make fine Captain someday.”

“Yeah, maybe. Still, I’ve kinda had my eyes set on joining a team as a Diffusion flyer, like my old man, and like his mother before him, and her father before her. Bit of a family legacy, y’know?”

Blackburn maintained her poker face. On the inside, she wanted to tell him to stay as far away from the Diffusion position as possible, even if he had to settle for being a Cadet until he got promoted to co-Captain or something. But she knew she couldn’t without telling him why. Subtle nudging would have to do for now.

“Beneath your skill level, hun,” she said, pressing her nose against his. “Best pilot in the fleet should Captain a ship. Captain Briarthorn… mmm, sounds sexy...”

He leaned up and whispered in her ear. “Wanna schedule some private lessons with ‘Captain Brairthorn’ for after the movie? I’ll show you how to do an unloaded extension. Maybe a little rolling scissors?”

Blackburn blushed and giggled - actually, honest-to-goodness giggled like a schoolfilly - before pushing him away. “Easy, tiger. Not here.”

Gadget and Crossfire shared a look between themselves that the other two couldn’t see, so preoccupied were they with their lovey-dovey public display of affection. Crossfire rolled his eyes and put his hoof to his head, miming a gunshot; Gadget made a gagging motion, followed by miming herself hanging from a noose.

An usher approached the front of the line and unhooked the rope, allowing those at the front to head into the theater. Blackburn’s group was near the front and followed along, entering the theater lobby. They moved straight for the concession stands, buying a few large tubs of popcorn, several boxes of candy, and soft drinks for all four of them. They then entered the theater proper and took their seats, which were in the back corner.

The quartet sat through the previews of coming attractions: a highly-anticipated comic book superhero film that explored to origins of a fan-favorite mare who hadn’t gotten her own solo film; a thrilling action film focused on two hardass stallions facing off against a genetically-engineering supervillain, a spin-off from a popular franchise; another thriller about a trained assassin that had to face down his clone out to kill him starring an actor that hadn't had a good performance in ten years; and a live-action adaptation of a popular animated film from thirty years ago that didn’t change anything about the original, just cast live actors - a blatant cash grab.

Gadget and Crossfire waited patiently as the previews played; Blackburn and Briarthorn were too busy putting their hooves all over each other and kissing, taking advantage of the dark theater to get as frisky as they liked without even Blackburn’s bodyguards noticing too much. They almost missed the start of the movie.

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