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

CRISIS: A Royal Affair - GanonFLCL



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

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Chapter Five: Building Bridges

One Week Later

Blackburn and Gadget sat at the dining table of their apartment staring at the bill that had just arrived, which contained a thorough breakdown of the amount of bits they owed in rent: all of their utilities - electricity, gas, water, and sewage; their insurance policy, which only served to push them up the waiting list for a new apartment if something happened to theirs but didn’t cover any damaged or stolen property; and of course the rent itself, minus their tax deductions for using it as their place of business.

That last point complicated matters. Everypony had neglected to mention that they would have to pay a fee for using the apartment as a business space, which basically eliminated the benefit they got from doing just that. The charge had come completely out of nowhere.

Blackburn leaned back in her seat, eyes closed in thought. This mission to Pandemonium was important to her, important to her friends, and important to Hope’s Point even if nopony knew they were here but Solarian and Shining Steel. She needed to succeed, to prove to herself that she could keep her city safe even with her father standing in her way at every turn. She couldn’t afford to fail, but there was no way she could’ve anticipated just how corrupt and greedy the system in Pandemonium was.

They’d expected it to be expensive once they found out they were in a top-tier complex within the Mid Districts, but this was, as Gadget would put it: “Ridiculous. Absolutely ridiculous!”

“Agreed,” Blackburn sighed.

Gadget did the math in her head again, which still perfectly matched all of the information on the bill, and shook her head in disbelief. “Golly, this is straight up robbery, that’s what this is. I’m surprised they don’t just send over a guy in a suit with a gun to shake us down if they want this much. At least then we could put up a fight.”

“Unexpected development,” Blackburn muttered, rubbing the back of her neck. “Bits on hoof won’t cover rent for four months at this rate. Cuts into planned itinerary.”

Gadget did the math again in her head, then nodded. “Considering the expenses from that party last week and what we had to spend on the parts we needed for the database constructor, we’re not gonna make it three months unless we all go on a diet of Dolor Brown for the rest of the trip. And that’s a generous assumption which also assumes we don’t run into any more surprises.”

Blackburn slammed her hoof on the table. “Whole system corrupt, more than initially believed. Damn them.”

Crossfire grunted from his spot on the couch. “There’s gotta be somethin’ we can do ta earn some bits ta get us through. Should me or Gadget look fer, like, regular jobs or somethin’ maybe?”

“If you think I’m desperate enough for bits to work retail or something you can forget it,” Gadget said sternly. “We have jobs, Crossfire. The problem is we’re not able to transfer money from our accounts without attracting suspicion. Besides, our identities would make me overqualified for most anything and you wouldn’t qualify for anything but heavy lifting. No offense.”

“Managing schedules difficult as well,” Blackburn added.

Crossfire held up his hooves. “Fair ‘nough. We could always sell some o’ them gizmos ya whipped up, right? Those’ve gotta be worth somethin’.”

Blackburn shook her head. “Out of the question. Don Virtuoso expects first bid on Tinker’s developments, cannot risk angering him. Too soon to reveal new version of our ‘sample’ to him either, would seem suspicious.” She took a deep breath. “Other options?”

Gadget hummed. “Well, we could always just push forward as quickly as we can, then bail before third month’s rent is due and not worry about paying it.”

“No, would impact our reputation for further visits. Would need new cover identities, possibly abandon current progress.”

“We could always do what Gadget suggested ‘n’ just try ta stomach the Brown stuff for a while.”

“Oh hell no, I’m not living on that crap for the next two months,” Gadget snorted. “Your tastebuds might not work right, but mine do, and I have my dignity. That wasn’t a real suggestion and you know it.”

“Possible loopholes to exploit?” Blackburn suggested.

“None that I know of.” Gadget paused, then brightened and gave Crossfire a devious look. “How about Crossfire heads down to talk with Sunspot about arranging a little deal?”

Crossfire raised an eyebrow. “Huh? Y’know I ain’t the negotiatin’ type, Gadget. That’s Blackburn’s deal.” He took a sip of his soda.

“You wouldn’t have to use your words, stud. Just head down to her room tonight and see if that mare’ll give us a little discount or something in exchange for a lovely evening alone with you.”

Crossfire spit a mouthful of soda out onto the floor. “Wh-what?!” he coughed.

“Oh, quit the whole oblivious bullshit, Crossfire, you know exactly what I’m talking about. You’re a drop-dead gorgeous piece of Grade-A hunk that drives all the mares crazy, and that includes our landlady who, I might add, also has a soft spot for younger stallions, of which you are one.”

“Interesting consideration,” Blackburn mused.

“Right?” Gadget trotted over to the couch and prodded Crossfire in the side. “So, give it a shot, you hunka-hunka burning love. Show that mare what a good ol’ southern boy like you is packing and she’s sure to give us a little break on the rent.”

Crossfire shied away from Gadget’s insistent look. “I really don’t like the way this conversation’s goin’, Gadget. I ain’t no stud, an’ I ain’t gonna do anythin’ like that wit’ nopony. Y’all can forget it.”

Gadget looked him straight in the eye for a second, then pulled away and started laughing. Blackburn joined in the laughter.

Crossfire rose up, indignant. “What’s so funny?”

Gadget snorted loudly. “You thought I was serious? Crossfire, c’mon, you know neither me nor Blackburn would ask you to do something you weren’t comfortable with.” She turned to Blackburn. “Right, Princess?”

Blackburn cleared her throat to regain her composure. “Didn’t even cross my mind. Played along though, served as good distraction from stressful thinking.”

Crossfire grunted and gave them both dirty looks. “‘Tain’t funny.”

“Awww…” Gadget cooed as she sat next to him on the couch. “I’m sorry, big guy, I didn’t mean anything by it. I mean, I meant every word I said about you being a total dish - it still boggles my mind that you’ve never even had a fillyfriend - but I never thought for a second you’d agree to go downstairs like some kinda gigolo.”

“Yeah yeah, whatever,” Crossfire huffed. “I bet if we had a stallion landlord an’ I suggested the same thing--”

“That would depend on if he was cute,” Gadget said matter-of-factly. Crossfire stared at her in disbelief. She laughed and held up her hooves. “Kidding! Kidding. I’ve got my dignity same as you, hot stuff. But I appreciate the insinuation that we’d have a landlord that dug me enough to make that suggestion worth even joking about.”

Blackburn rolled her eyes. “Back to business. Rent due in three days, need solution by then. Will consider other options. Meantime, keep up appearances. Fundraiser tonight, must make good impressions.”

Gadget and Crossfire saluted. “Yes ma’am.”

“Want both of you to keep eyes on this ‘Lockwood’,” Blackburn said as she took a seat on the couch between them. “Don’t trust his intentions.”

Gadget nodded. “Right there with you, boss. This whole thing stinks of ulterior motives. He’s too nice, and I’m well acquainted with the kind of things we can expect from a ‘nice guy’. I checked his record, too, and I couldn’t find much that makes him seem as important or useful as he seems to be.”

“So, what, ya really think he’s tryin’ ta do somethin’ shady?” Crossfire mused. “I mean yeah it’s kinda weird how nice he seemed, but there’re lots o’ ponies in Hope’s Point that do nice things fer folks just ‘cause they wanna be nice.”

“Maybe, but then why isn’t he in Hope’s Point?

“Not everypony can afford ta make the move. Pardon me sayin’ it, Princess,” Crossfire said, turning fully to Blackburn, “but His Majesty’s tryin’ ta make it easier fer folks ta get in, so if that lets ponies that’ve got good intentions get in--”

“Have never denied father’s intentions have benefits,” Blackburn grunted. “Only that policies risk security threats he chooses to ignore. Been over this.”

“Right, but mah point is, I ain’t gonna make the assumption that this Lockwood fella ain’t the type o’ pony that’d fit right in at home ‘til I see ‘im do somethin’ wrong. Pays ta be vigilant, but I ain’t gonna make assumptions off the bat.”

Blackburn nodded appreciatively. “Good. Counterbalance suspicion with open-mindedness.” She took a deep breath. “Glad to have both opinions. Both of you. Couldn’t do this alone.”

Crossfire and Gadget leaned over to pull Blackburn in for a three-way hug.

*****

Blackburn and her crew rode in an earth pony chariot taxi to Mid-South West Plaza right up to a large recreation center, whereupon they disembarked. They’d dressed up for the event, though not quite as formally as they had for their visit to Don Virtuoso’s: Blackburn wore a red cocktail dress, and she had her mane tied back into a ponytail; Gadget wore a snappy dress suit and glasses, and again tied her mane up in a bun; Crossfire wore a black dinner jacket.

The neighborhood around the rec center wasn’t quite as nice as those in Central Plaza; Blackburn could feel eyes on her from several directions and was certain not all of them were just curious glances. The buildings were dingier and not quite as tall, the air was just a little dirtier, the streets weren’t as clear of litter, and the ponies weren’t as well-dressed. It was a rather stark, unnerving difference between two sub-districts that were just next door to each other, not even an hour away on by hoof.

The security at the event wasn’t as tight as it had been at Don Virtuoso’s either - just a doorpony in a simple jacket checking names off of a list - but that was understandable. The inside of the rec center had been rented out and decorated for the fundraiser: dozens of tables covered with white tablecloths; several buffet tables laden with assorted varieties of Dolor-brand colors prepared in varying styles; a large bar already in full swing serving dozens of ponies beverages, alcoholic and not; balloons, banners, and colored lights; and a stage set up at the far end of the room by the tables.

Lockwood was quick to greet them. “Hey! Glad you guys could make it,” he said as he trotted over. He was dressed in the exact same dinner jacket he’d worn at Don Virtuoso’s party; Blackburn made note of it - either he was trying to maintain the lie of having only one nice shirt or had been pathetically truthful.

“Ah, Mister Lockwood,” Blackburn said with a polite smile as she approached. “Nice jacket.”

Lockwood’s smile faltered for a split second before he turned and nodded to Gadget and Crossfire. “Miss Tinker, Mister Fireblast. Glad to meet you. Sorry we didn’t get a chance for proper introductions at the Don’s party. Bit of a busy affair, wasn’t it?”

Crossfire stepped forward first to shake Lockwood’s hoof. “Nice ta meet ya, Lockwood. Thanks fer invitin’ us ta this here shindig.”

Lockwood smiled. “Thunderbolt mentioned in our correspondence that you were from Newhaven? This is my first time meeting anypony from there. That’s a charming accent you’ve got.”

“Well thank ya kindly.”

Gadget rolled her eyes discreetly, then flashed a wide smile and offered her hoof as well. “Hi! Good to meet you too, Mister Lockwood.”

“So you must be the tech ‘wiz’ Thunderbolt was talking about.” Lockwood took her hoof and gave it a light shake. “I guess between you and Thunderbolt, ol’ Virtuoso’s got a real deal coming his way.”

“I guess so. I mean, I’m gonna give it my best.” She glanced around the room. “Golly, I’ve never been to so many fancy parties before Thunderbolt hired me. Now I get to go to two in the same week? This is all so neat!”

“Oh? What did you do before joining up with her?”

“I just mostly tinkered with stuff at home, didn’t have a job so to say.”

“Really? How’d you two meet if you don’t mind my asking?”

“At the C2 Convention last year. Hired me on the spot when she found out how smart I am.” Gadget breathed on her hoof and scuffed it on her dress in a bragging gesture. “Yeah, I guess I am pretty great.”

“She’s humble too,” Lockwood said with a smile to Blackburn.

His jovial attitude was almost disconcerting. Blackburn knew well that ponies from the city, except the rich and powerful, tended to take time before they climbed out of the “Pandemonium funk” as her grandfather had called it. So was this a facade, or was he somehow genuine? It bothered her that she couldn’t get a read.

“So, what’s this fundraiser all about, anyhow?” Blackburn asked. “You said it’s being held by the Tea twins, who are editors on the New Pandemonium Times?

Lockwood nodded. “Yup. They told me it’s a yearly thing they do to try and bring attention to some of the neighborhoods in the Outer District that are in need. They get a good amount of donations, a lot of press - thanks to being on the press, of course - and everypony gets to make new friends and see old ones again. This is my first time at theirs, but I go to these sorts of things all the time.”

“A good-will mission?” Blackburn asked, genuinely impressed and surprised. “Wow, I didn’t think the ponies of this city had it in them. And you attend them regularly?”

“As regularly as I can, sure. You’d be surprised what ponies can do when they put their minds to it,” he said with a grin. “Will you be donating anything today? I mean, you don’t have to - I don’t have the money to donate anything myself - but it’s encouraged.”

Blackburn paused; he’d put her on the spot without realizing it. Her crew was so short on funds that making a donation here was pretty much out of the question unless she wanted to totally ruin her itinerary or put her and her friends under undue pressure. Then again, not donating might look bad in front of all these other ponies that were being generous with their own bits, and that might make it difficult to expand her influence.

“I’ll make that decision after I see what exactly my money’s going to,” she said, a sort of non-answer to give her an out if she needed one. “I wouldn’t want to donate to some fake charity, you understand. I don’t know these ponies too well.”

“Ah, that makes sense. Yeah, there’s been a lot of those popping up lately.” Lockwood smiled and tipped his hat. “I can assure you that this charity is on the level, but I understand if you don’t want to take my word for it. But hey, enough yapping from me right now.” He gestured over to the catering table. “Go get some food and head to our table, maybe mingle a bit. Whatever you want.”

Blackburn raised an eyebrow. “‘Our’ table?”

“Yeah. You guys are my guests and all so we’re at the same table.” He pointed off towards a table near the front; it was hard to see from here but a card on the table had his name on it. “Right over there.” He turned back to her. “I’m gonna go mingle a little for now, but I’ll join you in a bit. Okay?”

“Yeah, sure,” Blackburn said with a nod. Lockwood smiled and went off on his way.

Gadget snorted. “Okay, now this guy’s really sending up all kinds of red flags on my ‘total sleaze’ radar,” she whispered. “I mean being nice is one thing, but he’s kinda latching onto us real tight-like, don’t you think? Even that slimeball Tommy Gun didn’t register this much, and he was all hooves with you.”

Blackburn nodded in agreement. “Definitely.”

“Y’know, he got a good look at you in that dress last week, boss,” Gadget added with a smirk. “Maybe he’s into you? Looking to score with the Thunderbolt, eh? I mean, you put Tommy in his place but this guy--”

Blackburn grunted to quiet her, but otherwise barely reacted; total poker face as usual. “Maybe. Wouldn’t surprise me. I am a real ‘dish’ as you’d put it?”

Crossfire shook his head. “Or, hear me out, maybe he’s bein’ legit? I mean, we are his guests, so it makes sense that we’d be at his table. I’m all fer keepin’ yer eyes open ‘n’ all, girls, but don’t go makin’ worst-case assumptions just yet, okay?” He clapped Blackburn on the shoulder. “Let’s go get some grub ‘n’ think about what we’re gonna do, maybe talk ta some other ponies.”

“Sound idea, thank you Fireblast. Food sounds wonderful right now. I knew we shouldn’t have skipped lunch.” She turned towards the buffet table and led the way.

Gadget nudged Crossfire. “Just you watch, I’ll bet you one hundred bits that this Lockwood guy is totally trying to tap that.”

Crossfire chuckled. “And so what if he is? Thunderbolt can handle herself just fine, an’ he can still be a fine fella an’ have a thing fer her all the same. I think we both know that from experience wit’ our favorite wingnut back home.”

“Yeah yeah, don’t remind me. Are you in or not?”

Crossfire thought a moment, then nodded. “Deal. If he makes a move on her by the time we head home, you win. But if he turns out not ta be interested in her like that or if’n the boss goes after him first, you lose.”

“Deal.”

They shook on it, then headed off to catch up to Blackburn in the buffet line.

As the fundraiser continued, Blackburn had plenty of opportunities to speak with a few ponies here and there, some of whom she, Gadget, or Crossfire had already met at Don Virtuoso’s party, others who they hadn’t. A few ponies stood out, and Blackburn figured they might be useful contacts to have:

The Tea twins, of course, seemed to hit it off pretty well with Blackburn when she got a chance to speak with them; they recognized Thunderbolt from the Don’s party, having seen her and Lockwood talking immediately after they moved on from him. They seemed intrigued that a new tech firm was trying to rise up in the city amidst competition from the established firms, moreso that she’d been at the Don’s party. Considering the latter, they believed Crown Spectrum might be worth keeping an eye on.

Doctor Heartthrob, a unicorn stallion with a dark pink coat and bright blue mane, worked at Central General and had been mentored by the Chief of Medicine himself, Doctor Blutsauger. He was a talented surgeon who specialized in the study of magical diseases and illnesses, particularly those affecting unicorns. He seemed interested in the potential of Crown Spectrum’s first product when it got released, but admitted that Central General would likely not see it that way and would need convincing to consider purchasing any.

Cookie Dough, a golden brown earth pony mare with a white mane, worked at Dolorcorp and was the representative of the company who’d been responsible with providing the food present at the fundraiser. Blackburn learned that she had a passion for cooking but felt trapped in her job as little more than a sales representative, but gladly donated the food to the fundraising event to help attract more ponies to it; the leftovers would be distributed to the Outer Districts along with the charity funds. She seemed nice, and the way she talked about food impressed Blackburn: she’d be welcome in Hope’s Point for certain if she ever decided to come.

Most importantly was Bookworm, a green pegasus stallion with a brown mane, who was a clerk at Central Database Holdings - essentially the city library and depository - and served as the personal secretary to Chief Librarian Archimedes. While the NPRD was the original ideal for installing the database constructor, CDH was a perfect substitute; it had all of the same information in its own central server and then some, including some things that even the NPRD didn’t have easy access to. The server would be harder to access, but not with somepony like Bookworm on their side. Blackburn hadn’t been aware of possibility; as far as she knew, CDH was just a library.

After several minutes back at their table, Lockwood finally joined them, just in time as the fundraiser event officially started. The Tea sisters stepped onto the stage that had been set up and stood by the microphone stand; Mint Tea tapped it with her hoof to get everypony’s attention. “Helloooo everypony! Are you all having a good time at our Fifth Annual Mid-South West Fundraiser?”

Several ponies clapped, others cheered; Blackburn’s crew kept their enthusiasm minimal.

Matcha Tea took the mic next, and the two alternated every few lines. “Okay everypony, let’s cut straight to the heart of the matter: why we’re all here today. As you all know, the Outer District is rife with filth, devoid of compassion and love, and in desperate need of aid, be it food, clothing, schooling, cleaning, and especially law enforcement.”

“Every year, we get together to spread the word of what goes on out there, and to collect from you, our friends and associates, in an effort to help those in need. Some of you we know, some of you we don’t, but we hope that after you all go home tonight, you think about coming to next year’s event too.”

“If you wish to make a donation this year, please make your pledges over at the donation booth,” Matcha announced, gesturing off to a table that had been set up as they were talking. “And thank you all again for being here, and for your donations to the cause. With your help, we can make a difference.”

Mint pointed off towards the buffet table. “And let’s all give a big thank you and round of applause to our friends over at Dolorcorp, represented here by Miss Cookie Dough, for providing the catering for this year’s event.”

There was another round of applause as the Tea sisters stepped off the stage, and several ponies rose from their tables and headed for the donation booth. Blackburn, Gadget, and Crossfire remained at their table for now, as did Lockwood. The latter gave the former three a curious, charming smile. “So, thought about making a donation yet, Thunderbolt?” he asked.

Blackburn hummed; she’d expected the question long before it came. “I’ve given it some thought. It’s a good cause, I’ll admit, but…” She took a deep breath and considered her options. “We received our first rent bill today. The funds we brought with us when we came back north aren’t going to cover our expenses for much longer unless we go through some... extreme measures.”

Lockwood nodded in understanding. “Ah… and you’re worried you won’t have enough to keep going if you make a donation, huh? I understand. Perfectly natural. I mean, I’ve got pretty much the same troubles, so I just donate my time and try to bring ponies together for events like this.” He pointed at Cookie Dough. “Like our Dolorcorp rep, Cookie Dough. I got her in touch with the Tea sisters last year--”

Blackburn raised a hoof to stop him. “Hold on. Is this another one of your ‘I knew a guy who knew a guy’ stories?”

“I… guess?”

“Well then let me just stop you there. You’re telling me that the fundraiser caterer and the fundraiser hosts only happen to know each other because of you?

“Well, yeah. I mean, is that so hard to believe?” Lockwood pointed at Gadget. “I mean, the reason this little genius is working for you because you just happened to meet her at a tech convention attended by thousands.”

He then pointed at Crossfire. “And this big guy, who’s now your bodyguard, you just happened to meet down in Newhaven the day before you left. Everypony meets each other through happenstance in the end, don’t they?”

Gadget and Crossfire looked at one another, genuinely impressed at the defense. Blackburn was impressed too, but kept her poker face up.

“That’s not what I’m saying,” Blackburn responded. “I’m saying that it’s astounding to me that you’ve somehow brought all these ponies together from such different walks of life without much more than a ‘hello’ to the right ponies.”

“It’s kinda my special talent and all,” Lockwood said with a shrug. Blackburn made a note of that; it was a useful talent to have.

“I can’t deny that you’re good at it,” she admitted. “I happened to get in contact with Virtuoso and went to a party he was hosting, and that’s where I met you, amongst others, and now here I am at a fundraiser you invited me to where I met more ponies that I wouldn’t have met otherwise.”

“And I bet you’d be able to meet a lot more if they saw you were interested in donating,” Lockwood said with a wink. “If you’re considering not doing it because you don’t have the money, I’m sure something can be worked out.”

Blackburn took another deep breath. It wasn’t a subtle manipulation but damn if she couldn’t admit it was working. She’d already made a few new contacts at this event and she didn’t want to risk alienating them. But she wasn’t going to let him manipulate her completely; if he was going to insist she donate because it was a good idea, then he’d have no problem doing the same.

“Fine,” she said. “But I’ll only donate if you do too.”

Lockwood blinked and leaned back in his chair. Then, he smiled. “Okay. Deal.” He stood up and headed off towards the donation booth. “I’ll see you over there, Miss Thunderbolt.”

As soon as he left, Gadget leaned forward sharply before Blackburn could follow. “Thunderbolt what the hell?” she hissed. “We can’t afford this!”

“I know!” Blackburn hissed back. “But we don’t have much choice. If we show up after Lockwood invited us to this event and then don’t donate, the ponies we’re trying to connect with might think we’re not worth talking to. Look.” She pointed at the donation booth. “Everypony here has lined up. We’d be the only ones not joining them.”

“Might make us look bad not ta follow along,” Crossfire noted.

Gadget rolled her eyes. “You know that’s a logical fallacy, boss--”

“Of course I do, but we’re caught in a rather unfortunate pickle,” Blackburn said, shaking her head. “I don’t like it but here we are.”

Crossfire added: “Plus, I don’t much like the idea o’ not tryin’ ta help ponies in need when we’ve got the opportunity. This is the only play we’ve got.”

Gadget huffed. “But we can’t afford it. I’m all for being the benevolent, generous paragons of virtue we are back home, but we’re tight on bits here.”

Blackburn put her hoof on Gadget’s to calm her. “We’ll figure something out. We always do.” She sighed and stood up, then trotted over to get behind Lockwood in the line.

Gadget groaned and leaned over to Crossfire. “I’m beginning to think there’s more to this Lockwood guy than just trying to get in Thunderbolt’s pants. This whole thing with the fundraiser and donations just reeks of suspicious behavior. I don’t like it.”

“Me neither, but I’m gonna keep my hopes up fer now,” Crossfire replied. “The boss knows what she’s doin’, so I’m gonna have faith that she’s doin’ the right thing.”

“Yeah… yeah, I have faith in her too, but… ugh.”

At the donation table, when the line moved forward and it was Blackburn’s turn, the pony behind the booth passed over a few forms for her to look over. Lockwood, who’d already finished the process himself, stepped over to offer assistance: “I understand this is your first time doing this, so I’ll help walk you through the process if you want.”

Blackburn nodded; she’d never filled out anything like this before so it seemed like a good idea to have the help. “Thanks.”

The process was simple at first, just a few forms asking how many bits were being donated under what name and at what address, explicitly because she could write some of this donation off for tax purposes. The tax deduction she was getting, according to the form, would not nearly be enough to make up for anything she donated, so Blackburn had to think hard about how much to donate, and settled on the most she and her team could afford at the moment: one hundred bits. It wasn’t much - barely more than the minimum recommended amount - but it would have an effect and make her false identity seem as altruistic as she really was without breaking the bank.

Lockwood looked over her forms after they were filled out and nodded in approval. “Thanks, Miss Thunderbolt, this’ll go to a good cause.” He passed the forms back to the booth operator, who then handed him another set of forms. “Now for the next step.”

Blackburn raised an eyebrow. “Next step?”

Lockwood spread the new forms out on the table for her to perview. “These forms are for other tax purposes related to the donation. A basic donation form only gets you so many breaks, you understand, and bits are generally hard to come by unless you live in the Inner Districts.”

“I’m not sure I understand.”

Lockwood paused, then smiled. “Right, first time, you don’t know what this is all about.” He gestured at the other ponies that had already finished their forms and were now returning to their tables to continue eating and socializing. “These fundraisers are mostly just social events, a good chance to meet new ponies and build bridges here and there, but also a good chance to get some tax breaks for the coming year.”

Blackburn processed this, then frowned. Now she knew what was going on, and she didn’t like it. But she needed to hear it from him to confirm it. “Let me get this straight: these ponies are here at this ‘fundraiser’ so that they can make friends and get breaks on their taxes? The former I can understand, but you’re gonna need to explain the latter.”

“Oh. Sure, I guess I should, huh? First time and all. Well, the New Pandemonium tax code is filled with so many loopholes and oddities that ponies smarter than me figured out a long time ago how to basically use these donations to make more bits. I don’t usually participate because I don’t have the bits to make it worthwhile, but I know the code inside and out. So, I’m basically invited to these events on principle these days as an expert of sorts.”

“How would they make bits from donating bits?”

“Well, you saw how the simple donation form gave you a tax break on your next rent payment? These forms,” he said, gesturing to the papers before them, “will categorize that donation as several other things that you can write off as well, which will give further tax benefits that spread throughout the year all on one initial contribution. Typically before the year is out you’ve already saved enough on taxes to completely nullify the expense of the original donation.”

“And the money that gets donated?”

Lockwood raised an eyebrow. “Huh?”

“The bits that the ponies are donating in the first place. Where does it all go? Surely you don’t expect me to believe that this corrupt, greedy city’s bureaucracy just lets that money slip away.”

“Well, the majority of that donation money goes to lining the pockets of the officials that look the other way so that the charity doesn’t get shut down,” Lockwood admitted with a shrug; his nonchalance infuriated her. “It’s just how the system works.”

“How much?”

“Huh?”

“How much of the money I just donated is actually going to help the ponies this fundraiser is allegedly for?”

Lockwood thought about it a moment. “I’d say maybe twenty percent?”

Blackburn could not contain herself from gritting her teeth. Only twenty bits was going to actually get used to help the ponies she thought she was helping. That wasn’t enough for a single pony to live on for a week in this city, even if they didn’t have to pay for their housing. A new set of cheap clothes could cost that much; eating just once a day for a week would cost more than that.

She didn’t know how much the other ponies were donating, but considering the size of the Outer District - larger than the Mid and Inner Districts combined - the money raised by this fundraiser wasn’t even a drop in the bucket compared to what was needed to actually help.

She raised her voice, starting to get angry. “You’re telling me that all the ponies here are donating money, knowing full well that it’s barely going to affect the cause they’re supposedly trying to support, but they’re doing it anyway because they make money on the deal?”

Lockwood seemed unperturbed. “Well, yeah? I wouldn’t really expect anypony to donate and not expect to get anything back out of it. It’s a give-and-take--”

Blackburn rose from her seat sharply. “Donations are supposed to be altruistic!” she snapped, suddenly getting the attention of most of the room; Gadget rose from her seat nervously, ready to approach and try and calm Blackburn down. “You’re supposed to be donating to this cause because you want to help.”

Lockwood tilted his head. “You weren’t even going to donate in the first place, if I remember right.”

Blackburn grit her teeth harder. “Because I couldn’t afford it. I don’t have the funds available that some of these other ponies do, otherwise I’d have no trouble donating far more than I did. And that was before I knew what was really going on.”

“But now that you know about the tax loops, you can. So what’s the problem?”

His nonchalant attitude about the whole situation got under her skin more and more with every word. She was used to ponies arguing with her, but usually they did so out of anger, fear, or worry. Lockwood was too calm. “This entire event is being held under false pretenses. If you wanted to help ponies, really help them, you’d be donating without worrying about these exploitable tax loopholes.”

“Nopony’s going to donate all their bits just to help some downtrodden ponies. Believe me, I know from experience.” Lockwood shrugged; Blackburn didn’t know what that was supposed to mean. “The charity is still providing help though, so what’s the big--”

“You lied to me, that’s what’s the ‘big deal’! You led me to believe this whole thing was to help, but it’s just a racket, a scam to help the rich get richer.” Blackburn noticed that her outburst had attracted a lot more attention than she would’ve liked, and realized she just fell into a situation she had no idea how to get out of.

“Boss, is everything okay?” Gadget asked, stepping over and putting a hoof on Blackburn’s shoulder.

Crossfire also came up behind her. “Yer gettin’ all hot under the collar, boss. Maybe we oughta leave--”

“Is there a problem here?” asked Mint Tea as she and her sister approached.

“No problem,” said Lockwood, still cool as a cucumber. “Just having a little debate with Miss Thunderbolt.”

“Are you sure? Because it sounds like there’s a problem,” noted Matcha Tea, giving Blackburn an icy glare.

“No problem at all, just two ponies trying to come to terms with something.”

“Shut up,” Blackburn said, looking right at Lockwood with an icy glare of her own. “Don’t try to get cute and pretend you’re trying to defend me like some sort of white knight.”

“I wasn’t--”

Blackburn turned to the Tea sisters. “I know what you’re doing here, and I find it despicable. Your charity is a scam, little more than a money laundering scheme to help put more bits in your pockets under the false pretense of generosity. No wonder everypony hates this city, when even the ponies supposedly looking out for them are just as greedy and corrupt as the rest.”

“Oh really?” Mint snorted. “Is that what you think? These donations go to help--”

Twenty percent of the donations to the charity actually get used for what they’re supposed to get used for, and I’m not going to even assume that number’s accurate. A charity is supposed to give all of its accepted donations towards its cause.”

“Minus the cost of expenses for running the charity,” Matcha said. “You don’t expect everypony to front the costs for everything, do you?”

“Yes! That’s the point of charity. You’re taking advantage of the corrupt system to make yourselves get richer under the guise of philanthropy. If these loopholes didn’t exist, none of you would even think to be donating a single bit to the needy, not unless you could get something out of it.”

Lockwood shook his head. “That’s completely untrue.”

Blackburn looked at him harshly. “Oh? Enlighten me.”

Lockwood shrugged. “Well I mean, I can’t speak much for myself. I already told you I don’t have the bits on hoof to donate much. But nopony here just signed up for this event just because it was going to make them money, at least not that I know of.”

“That’s right,” said Bookworm, who stepped out from the crowd. “I know that my donation here isn’t going to do much for the ponies in the Outer District by itself, but I know that the money I make back from the tax loopholes lets me afford to donate things besides bits. I donated a bunch of new datapads to one of the schools just last week, which I purchased with the money I made over the last year thanks to my donations.”

“The doctors at Central General usually prescribe medicines they’re told to because of the kickbacks they get from the pharmaceutical companies,” added Heartthrob, also stepping forward. “Not me. I can afford to prescribe the medicines that I think will actually help and are affordable, because I can afford not to take the kickbacks thanks to the donations I make at these events every year.”

“My sister and I are editors on the New Pandemonium Times,” said Mint, standing tall and proud. “The last editor was a corrupt stallion who took bribes constantly and printed only what his friends and allies wanted, squashing stories that would upset them and suppressing the spread of information.”

“It took us a few years,” continued Matcha, “but we were able to buy his position from him. Now, we print the actual news. The ponies of this city will be better informed thanks to the efforts we put into it. And the only reason we can afford it is because of the tax breaks we get from these donations.”

“Not to mention that it’s not like the donations aren’t being used to help,” Mint added. “Sure, it’s not much, but it’s better than nothing. Some of the ponies we donate to can’t afford food and clothes, and we give them enough so they have something.”

“For you to assume that we’re just money-grubbing jerks like the rest of the city is, frankly, insulting. Sure, we’re not the only fundraiser in town that’s benefiting from the loopholes, but there aren’t many that still actually make donations. We’re proud of the contributions we make, no matter how small.”

“Most charity operators just take the rest of the bits leftover for themselves. The city bureaucracy doesn’t bother to check if the money gets to where it’s supposed to. We’re not like that. We’re better than that.”

Blackburn flattened her ears. She hadn’t known these ponies long enough to know these bits of information, and had merely made an assumption of their characters based on a brief interaction with them and on the reputation of the city. She’d only looked at them for how useful they’d be to her, not whether they were actually like-minded ponies that she could count as allies, maybe friends. She’d been suspicious of their intentions, and acted on that instinct before having all the information.

She’d made a mistake.

Lockwood broke the silence. “Still, though, you have a point Miss Thunderbolt. And you certainly live up to your name, if I might say so.” Several ponies looked to him in confusion, not least of all Blackburn herself. Lockwood turned to the crowd. “I’ve been to so many of these things over the last few years that I actually forgot why I was coming in the first place: helping ponies. I think that’s why poor Thunderbolt was so confused.”

Blackburn remained silent for a moment, then nodded. “I… I just thought that everypony here was just like the rest of the city. I never got to see the corruption myself, only hear the stories, but… I just assumed--”

“You said you’ve been living on the Utopian continent for years, right? From what I hear, their entire society operates completely differently from ours.”

“It does. Ponies there just help one another whenever they’re in need, no questions asked, and they never expect anything in return. I knew this city wasn’t like that, but I made that assumption about about everypony living here.” Blackburn looked at the floor. “I’m sorry. That wasn’t fair of me to make such a sweeping generalization.”

“We’re also under a lot of stress right now,” Gadget added, giving Blackburn a gentle nudge. “We just got our first rent bill since we got all set up and we’re worried about being able to afford living here for much longer. Before we came in we were worried if we’d make it two more months.”

“And yet you still donated?” Mint asked, eyebrow raised. “Before you even knew about the whole tax thing?”

Blackburn nodded.

Matcha frowned, ashamed and contemplative. “That’s... really generous of you, Miss Thunderbolt.”

“See? We’re all in the same boat here, just a bunch of ponies looking to help those in need,” Lockwood interjected with a smile. “So can we all just relax and get back to the party, no hard feelings?”

There was a low murmur of agreement amongst the crowd, who then all mostly returned to their seats, though the Tea sisters remained nearby, waiting to speak with Blackburn and her entourage.

“If you’re having money troubles, Miss Thunderbolt, we’d be happy to help,” said Mint with a nod. “When your company is ready to start selling products, you let us know first thing. You’ve got a reserved spot in the ads as far as we’re concerned. It’s the least we could do.”

“In the meantime, we’d also be happy to extend an invitation to you to attend any of our future events,” added Matcha. “I understand you don’t necessarily approve of our methodology, but the way I see it, you can still do exactly what you’re suggesting, even if it’s in a sorta roundabout way.”

“Yeah! If you donate, say, a thousand bits, you’ll eventually save over a thousand bits in taxes over the year and can use some of that to do some good out there if that’s what you want to do.”

“Or you could put that money towards your company’s growth so that you can develop the gizmos you want to use to help ponies, like that thing you were talking to Heartthrob about.”

“Either way, welcome to the club, Miss Thunderbolt.”

Blackburn nodded. “Thank you. I appreciate it… and I’m sorry for the outburst.”

“Oh don’t sweat it, dear, I think it’s a good thing that everypony had a chance to remember why they’re here and what they’re doing,” Mint said with a smile. “I think your little outburst was just the kick in the pants these ponies needed.”

“To tell the truth, we’ve been in kind of a rut lately, just going through the motions with these fundraisers and such,” Matcha added. “Maybe we’ll see about organizing a… a food drive, or something. It’s easy for us to get word out, and there’s sure to be a few ponies out there willing to donate unwanted foodstuffs.”

“Anyway, enjoy the rest of the party, Miss Thunderbolt. Be seeing you around.”

And with that, the twins walked off back to join the party.

After they walked away, Lockwood smiled and turned to Blackburn. “If you’re having money troubles right now, of course, these donation loopholes won’t be of much help. But not to worry, I know a few twists and turns in the code that might be able to get you some cuts on your rent for a little bit. If you’ll let me, of course.”

Blackburn stared at him for a long moment, then nodded, trying to hide the pure befuddlement she was feeling. “Sure… I’d appreciate that…”

Lockwood tipped his hat. “Excellent. For now, let’s just handle what we’ve got here. I’ll send over the other forms for you sometime tomorrow, and if we work together we can get it all filed away before your rent is due. Sound good?”

“Yeah… yeah, that sounds good,” Blackburn said with a slight grin. She turned to Gadget, who was giving her a tense, concerned look, then turned back to Lockwood. “If you don’t mind, I’ll be right back. I need to use the restroom.”

“Sure, no problem. I’m not going anywhere.” He turned to Crossfire and grinned. “Besides, I’d love to have a talk with Mister Fireblast here, maybe learn a thing or two about Newhaven. You guys make it sound wonderful.”

Blackburn and Gadget stepped away and headed for the restrooms, leaving Crossfire to deal with Lockwood for now. As soon as they were alone, Gadget hissed up at Blackburn: “What the hell was that? I’ve never seen you get so… so out of sorts, boss. You damn near ruined everything you’ve been working towards. Why?”

“I know… I know. Something about that guy…” Blackburn muttered, glancing in Lockwood’s direction. She sighed. “But I think the better question is, what happened after that. I thought for sure I’d messed up… and all it took to fix it was him saying a few words and not only was everypony willing to overlook my outburst, but the Tea sisters offered to help us. Are you as confused as I am?”

Gadget glared in Lockwood’s direction and snorted. “I’m more concerned than confused. There’s something about that stallion that I don’t like and this just makes me even more suspicious. What does he stand to gain by helping us like that?” She paused, worried. “You don’t think… you don’t think he knows who we are, do you?”

Blackburn shook her head. “No, but I haven’t eliminated the possibility yet. Nor have I eliminated the possibility that he’s as altruistic as he seems. We’ll need to continue to watch him, but in the meantime we should make use of his offerings.” She took a deep breath. “Constant vigilance. Eyes open, eyes forward.”

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