• 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 Six: Heading Home

One Month Later

Blackburn, Gadget, and Crossfire came up to the door of floor one-nine-nine, room one, of The Torre Gloriosa late one afternoon, dressed in their nicest casual clothes - blouses, skirts, and jackets - in preparation for a meeting with Don Virtuoso. Gadget carried a small box with her about the size of a deck of cards, but the trio otherwise carried nothing with them. One of Virtuoso’s thick-bodied, thick-headed goons stood guard at the door and frisked them for weapons to confirm this, then let them inside with a grunt.

“None o’ these guys’re much fer words, are they?” Crossfire muttered.

“If all you need is a big stack of meat to guard your door, they get the job done,” Gadget said.

Tommy Gun was there to greet them, dressed semi-casually in a red suit but no tie. “Hey hey, there’s my star gal, right on time,” he said with a smile as he approached Blackburn. “I gotta say, you sure are one punctual mare, Thunderbolt. The Don appreciates that.”

“Good to see you, Tommy,” she replied. They hugged like old friends; Blackburn could feel Gadget’s glare burning a hole in the back of her head. “I assume we’re getting started right away?”

“Of course, dollface, of course, the Don doesn’t like to waste time. Right this way, follow me.”

He led them not into the Don’s private study, but out onto the patio by the pool, which was way too big for such a small crowd. The Don himself was relaxing in a lawn chair at poolside, wearing just a pair of grape-colored swim trunks decorated with pineapples, and a pair of extra dark sunglasses. Naturally, he had a big cigar with him. He noticed his guests and waved the trio over as Tommy led them over, but didn’t rise from his position whatsoever.

A mare stood at attention at his side, a carnation-pink earth pony with a short, curly, dark red mane. She wore a snappy dress suit that would’ve been quite presentable if not for the gaudy blue color, and a black eye patch over her right eye. Blackburn knew who she was but this was the first time she’d seen her in the flesh: Cotton Candy, the Don’s underboss, one of the most ruthless ponies in the Fantasia crime family and not somepony anypony would want to cross. At least according to the rumors.

The Don glanced at his watch and gave Blackburn a small smile. “Buon pomeriggio. Right on time, Miss Thunderbolt. I appreciate a pony who’s punctual.” He gestured to Cotton Candy. “I don’t think you’ve met my right-hoof mare Cotton Candy yet, have you?”

“Can’t say that I have.” Blackburn smiled and offered her hoof for Cotton to shake. “Nice to meet you, Miss Candy.”

“Pfft, no need to be so formal, Thunderbolt,” Cotton said, taking Blackburn’s hoof and giving it a vigorous shake. “My mom’s Miss Candy. Or rather Mrs. Candy, since she’s married and all. To my dad. But I guess Miss Candy would be okay for me, ‘cause I’m single?” She put her hoof to her lip in thought, then shrugged it off. “Ah, whatever, too confusing. You can call me Cotton. Or Cott, if you’re feeling friendly. Not Candy, though.”

She next turned to Gadget and gave her a bright smile as she trotted right up, grabbed her hoof, and shook fiercely. “And you must be Tinker, the tech wizard. I kinda expected a big ol’ pointy hat and staff, like in the stories.”

Gadget just let Cotton shake her hoof without breaking away, unable to stop staring at the pink mare. “Uh… yeah, that’s me. Tech wiz extraordinaire Tinker.”

“Neat!” She then turned to Crossfire and whistled. “Well now you are a big ol’ drink of water, aren’t you? Fireblast, right? The bodyguard?”

Crossfire nodded and offered her his hoof. “That’s me. Pleasure ta meet ya, Cotton.”

Cotton stepped up directly into his hoof so it was against her chest. “Oh I just love your accent, I could listen to you whisper sweet nothings in my ear all night. You single?”

Crossfire glanced sidelong at Blackburn, who avoided his gaze. “Uh... “

Cotton giggled and slapped his hoof away. “I’m just messing with you, stud, don’t you worry your little head.” She turned back to Virtuoso and saluted. “All good, Don. Nice buncha folks you’ve got here.”

Blackburn was baffled at the pink pony’s bubbly demeanor and mannerisms. This was the ruthless Cotton Candy? Right-hoof mare to Don Virtuoso? Underboss of the Fantasia crime family? This was the mare everypony feared?

Virtuoso gestured to the empty lawn chair beside him. “Please, Thunderbolt, take a seat.” Blackburn did just that while he took a big puff of his cigar. “So, you said you’ve got something interesting for me to see today. Is that right?”

“That’s right.” Blackburn said with a nod. She gestured for Gadget to pass over the box to her, which she then opened and presented to the Don. “This is the newest model of Tinker’s patented Telekinesis Simulator: the TS-200. The first product of Crown Spectrum ready to hit the market. And, as promised, you get the first look at our little invention before we put it out there. I assume you want a demonstration?”

The Don nodded.

Blackburn removed the device from its box and aimed it at a nearby stack of folded lawn chairs, turned one of the dials on the side, then pressed the central button. A blue glow encircled the stack of chairs and lifted them off the ground about two feet. She then adjusted some of the knobs along the top, picking a single chair out of the pile and dropping the rest back to the ground, then twisted a few more knobs to set up the chair at poolside, ready to sit in.

Cotton’s jaw dropped and she lifted her eyepatch, revealing a perfectly healthy eye behind it. Then, she whistled. “Gee whiz, would you get a look at that? Fancy schmancy stuff, Thunderbolt.”

The Don lowered his sunglasses to get a good look at the effect as it happened. His jaw dropped open just a little. “Stupefacente. Real unicorn magic from a little gizmo like that.” He gave Blackburn a serious glance. “What else can it do?”

Blackburn returned the device to its box after her presentation was finished. “Tinker says that the TS-200 has enough power to simulate the telekinetic magic of an adult unicorn for simple tasks like these and more, limited only by the imagination of the user and the battery life. Sustained use would drain the battery in about one hour, but it can be recharged between uses.”

“Only telekinetics though?”

“For now, but once we get a little more cash flowing through us, we have other plans in mind. We’ll get back to you on those once we have something in development.”

The Don sat up straight and gestured for Blackburn to pass the box over to him, which she did without a word. “This little gizmo is gonna make us... una grande fortuna.” He glanced over at Gadget with a grin. “Your tech wiz really outdid herself, Thunderbolt. A real ragazza meravigliosa. You should be proud.”

Gadget smiled and nodded. “Thank you, Don Virtuoso.”

Virtuoso passed the device back to Blackburn, who passed it back to Gadget. “So. Now for the matter of business. I provided you with the material and resources you needed to build this little wonder, you provided the know-how and expertise to develop it. I think a... 70-30 split of the profits sounds fair. Seventy for me, thirty for you.”

Blackburn shook her head. “I’m sorry, Don Virtuoso, but I can’t agree with that kind of split.”

“I didn’t ask if you agreed to it or not, Miss Thunderbolt,” Virtuoso said, leaning toward her and blowing a puff of smoke in her face; Blackburn barely reacted. “I’m telling you how this little arrangement is gonna go, and you’re going to ‘agree’ to whatever I decide on. Or perhaps you feel you’re being treated unfairly?” He turned to Cotton. “Cotton, my friend, do you hear this mare? She thinks she’s being treated unfairly. Do you think she’s being treated unfairly?”

Cotton shrugged. “I dunno, boss, but I could show her what happens to ponies that really get treated unfairly.”

To punctuate this point, Cotton cracked her neck and took a step forward, her eyes narrowed and filled with so much violent intent that Blackburn now finally understood why she might have her reputation; if Blackburn wasn’t so certain she’d be able to negotiate with the Don, she might actually consider this mare a threat.

Crossfire instinctively took a step forward towards Cotton, but Tommy Gun put a hoof on his shoulder to stop him. “Easy there, southern charm,” he said. “We wouldn’t want this to get messy now, would we? Capisce?

Crossfire didn’t take his eyes off of Cotton. “I dunno, Tommy, but I sure would hate ta get blood all over yer boss’s nice patio. And yer nice suit.”

“You misunderstand me, Don,” Blackburn replied, addressing Virtuoso and not at all intimidated by Cotton staring her down. “I just think that a simple 70-30 split of profits is too simple of a deal, too… boring. We can do better, make this little arrangement more exciting.”

Virtuoso let a small smirk play across his face and sat up straight again. “Really now? Well, let’s hear your proposal then, Miss Thunderbolt. I’ll humor you, but only because my little Crown Jewel just loves that necklace you got her. Wears it every day.”

“Thank you, Don.” Blackburn leaned back in the chair just slightly, getting comfortable. “Crown Spectrum will give you the schematics for the TS-200, and instead of us producing it ourselves, you can produce it and market it under our brand name. Since we’re not fronting any production or advertising costs, I think it’s more fair to have a 90-10 split, in that scenario. Ninety for you, of course.”

The Don rubbed his chin and puffed his cigar. “Interessante. I do all of the work but keep more of the profits, and you still get to keep the brand recognition. But Thunderbolt, you ask too much of me if I’m expected to front all of the costs, I think. No, I think a 95-5 split would be more fair in that case. More than generous, wouldn’t you agree?”

Blackburn kept her poker face up, resisting the urge to grin; he’d taken the bait. Just like grandpa taught her: subverting expectations gave her the advantage. “I’ll accept that, on one condition.”

“Do tell.”

“Tinker says that the TS-200’s primary use is helping unicorns that have lost the use of their magic to function at some level of normalcy, and I agree. So, you offer the device at a discount to Central General and the other city hospitals. I’d very much like it if Crown Spectrum were to have a reputation for caring for the community, so I want the TS-200 marketed as such.”

Virtuoso stared at her for a brief moment, then smiled and laughed. “You brought too much of that Utopian sentimentality up north with you, Thunderbolt. But if you’re feeling sentimental, fine, I see no reason why we can’t ‘serve our community’ if it means I get a bigger cut of the profits going forward.”

“One more thing,” Blackburn added. “I get homesick sometimes, for the southern continent, for my family. And if I decide to go on vacation on the spur of the moment, I don’t want to come back here and find that I’ve lost my place of business, because my company needs it in order to continue developing new wonders. I’d very much like to have confidence that nothing will happen while I’m gone.”

“So you want your apartment taken care of. That’s nothing. Dimenticalo. It serves both our interests to keep you in business.” He offered her his hoof. “I believe we have ourselves a deal.”

Blackburn took his hoof and shook it. “A pleasure doing business with you, Don.”

“No no, a pleasure doing business with you, Thunderbolt.” He laughed and leaned back in his chair again, placing the sunglasses back over his eyes before waving Blackburn away with a hoof. “Leave me. We’re done here.”

Blackburn nodded, and she and her friends left under escort of Tommy Gun, and the watchful eyes of Cotton Candy.

“That Thunderbolt’s an interesting mare, huh?” Cotton asked, stroking her chin, her prior intensity gone at last. “Got a little bit of a high-and-mighty air about her. I hear she’s making waves out in the Mid Districts, too. Not like, real waves with water and such, but like, social waves. I mean, there’s sharks either way, but... y’know what I mean.”

“She’s ambitious,” Virtuoso muttered, not turning to face his underboss as he took another puff of his cigar. “Not a lot of ponies like that out here these days. Everypony just goes through the motions. Might be worth keeping an eye on.”

“So you want I should spy on her or something then, Don? Ooh, I know just the pony for the job--”

“I don’t think there’s any need for that, Cotton. She’s ambitious, not stupid. She’ll play along in this game with us, but I don’t think she’s anypony to be worried about. Just somepony to keep an eye on. She’s going places… I can feel it.”

Cotton shrugged. “Whatever you say, Don.”

Two Months Later

Central Database Holdings was one of the largest buildings in the entire city, taking up the entirety of four city blocks and standing ten stories tall. The building was made of black metal covered with pulsing neon blue lights that pointed towards the entrance. The metal was still sleek and new, having only been built within the past few years; an upgrade to the old building, complete with upgraded power lines beneath the streets to supply the servers inside with the vast amount of power they needed to be maintained.

Most of the building’s space was taken up by servers that held the entirety of information that was available to the public: research documents, literature, newspaper articles, public records, legal statements, and more. Thus, the interior that was actually usable by ponies was limited to a space the size of a large gym, loaded with tables topped with computers for ponies to use for finding whatever information needed. Many of the tables were in use at the moment as ponies did research for school or work projects, others for personal interests.

There was also a small, pathetic coffee shop in the corner, the CDH Café, and it was here that Blackburn, Gadget, and Crossfire were meeting with Bookworm, who was currently on lunch break. Bookworm was the only one drinking any coffee, if one could even call the thick blackish-brown liquid “coffee”; he didn’t seem bothered by the atrocious flavor, but his guests were bothered by the smell. Then again, he’d added enough sugar and cream to it that it probably didn’t even count as coffee anymore.

“So, tell me more about this fancy device of yours one more time,” Bookworm said, taking a sip of his drink with a loud, almost soup-like slurp. “I want to make absolutely sure that I’m not agreeing to anything dangerous or overtly illegal.”

Gadget adjusted her glasses. “It’s essentially a sophisticated backup system. It copies every piece of information available in the database and stores a copy of it on the drive, which is then transmitted to a private server for perusal at a later time. It can be browsed through at will from anypony with access to the private server, and it’ll update files automatically as they’re changed or if new files are added.”

“Think of it like a personal encyclopedia,” Blackburn added. “Only you won’t need to come down to Central Database Holdings to access it. You can access it from your own home if it’s connected to the server.”

Bookworm hummed and rubbed his chin. “The ability to access information from the comfort of your own home is definitely something that interests me. The main reason most ponies don’t know how to improve their situations in life is a lack of information and education after all.” He nodded in agreement. “Okay, I’ll do it. But, I want something in return. I’m risking my job if I get caught.”

“Naturally you’ll be compensated,” Blackburn agreed. “Name your price.”

Bookworm leaned forward in his seat. “You said you’re leaving for Newhaven tomorrow, right?”

“That’s correct. Fireblast misses his mama,” Blackburn added with a smirk in Crossfire’s direction. “Isn’t that right, Fireblast?”

Crossfire nodded. “Yes ma’am, I’m feelin’ a mite homesick. I miss my ma, but most of all I miss ma’s cookin’. ‘Tain’t nothin’ like a homecooked meal I tell ya what, and this here city don’t got none o’ that.”

Blackburn shrugged. “And I figure if he’s gonna be a stick in the mud, I might as well take a little vacation while we’re at it. Plus poor Tinker here’s never been to the south.”

“And I am so excited to see it!” Gadget squealed. “Blue skies, green fields, clean air, and gorgeous beaches. I can’t wait. I hear they’ve got nude beaches.”

“And you said you’re leaving tomorrow?” Bookworm asked.

“Yes,” Blackburn replied.

“I want to come with you.”

Blackburn raised an eyebrow. “Oh? One way, or round trip?”

“Round trip, of course. I’ve still got work to do here to help educate the masses as best I can, but heck if I don’t need a little vacation too, Miss Thunderbolt. I’ve been under so much stress lately, you have no idea.” Bookworm leaned back in his seat. “So you get me a round trip, one week vacation in Newhaven, and I’ll help you with your little project.”

Blackburn didn’t need to think twice to agree, but she needed to account for the issue of switching personas again when she got to Newhaven; Bookworm’s presence would complicate matters.

“I’ll agree to get you a ticket, certainly,” she said, “but I can’t agree to having you come along with us. There weren’t any more tickets available on our flight; just getting ours was a pain in the ass. I’ll get you a ticket for the day after tomorrow’s flight. Is that acceptable?”

Bookworm considered this. “Okay… okay, the day after tomorrow could work. Gives me more time to pack, I guess. You’ve got yourself a deal, Thunderbolt.”

“Excellent, we’ll have your ticket put on reserve at the airport.”

Bookworm downed the last of his drink, leaving a syrupy residue at the bottom of his cup. “Okay, let’s get this done then. I’ll need one of you to come with me. CDH policy requires that only two ponies - no more, no less - be present in the Database Hub at any time, and I obviously can’t ask just some random pony, nor can I ask any other employees.”

Blackburn tilted her head towards Gadget. “Tinker will go with you since she knows how to install the device.”

“Good, good.” He glanced at the clock. “Okay, my break is just about up. Let’s get going then, shall we?” He hopped out of his seat.

Gadget nodded and stepped out of her seat as well. “Sure thing!” She turned to Blackburn. “Wish me luck, boss.”

“You won’t need it, Tinker,” Blackburn said with a grin.

Gadget followed along with Bookworm first to the central desk, where the Chief Librarian, Archimedes, was dealing with another client. Archimedes was an olive-green unicorn stallion with a lime-green mane, wearing a plaid tweed jacket and overly-large glasses. Bookworm gave him a little salute as they passed, but Archimedes paid him no heed; he was much too engrossed in not being engrossed in whatever the pony at the desk was asking him.

Bookworm and Gadget then headed towards the back of the room, where a large blue door led into what the plaque above the door called the “Database Hub”. Bookworm drew out his personal keycard and inserted it into a slot; the door then opened with a loud swish; the pair entered, and Bookworm closed and locked the door behind them.

The Database Hub was a small room, no larger than the average office cubicle or storage shed. The only other things present were a desk bolted to the wall, a computer monitor bolted to the desk, and a pair of chairs bolted to the floor. The wall behind the monitor and desk contained a number of ports for inserting devices, such as those made for copying information. These weren’t what Gadget was interested in, not directly anyway. No, what Gadget was interested in was what was behind those ports: the central server tower.

Gadget took a deep breath. “Hoo boy, here we go.” She drew the database constructor out of her pocket and set it down on the desk, then drew a screwdriver from her other pocket and set to work.

She unscrewed one of the port panels from the wall, drawing it along with a tangle full of wires; she could now see behind the panel into the server tower. She carefully felt around inside with her magic for the server’s hard drives; she didn’t want the primary drive, but the backups. When she found them, she slowly lifted the database constructor through the opening with more of her magic, and attached it into one of the empty drive ports, then replaced the wall panel.

She then drew a small datapad from her pocket, turned it on, and check to see if she could access the database constructor’s network. It worked like a charm, and within seconds she was able to look herself up and find confirmation of all the information she’d hacked into the system all those months ago, all without hacking a thing. It was free for the taking.

“Whew, all done,” she breathed. She turned to Bookworm and smiled brightly. “Thanks again, Bookworm. You’ve just contributed to the greatest step forward in information circulation this city’s seen in decades, maybe longer.”

Bookworm nodded. “Glad to be of help.” He unlocked the door and gestured for her to follow him out.

As soon as the two left the room, they were face-to-face with Archimedes, his face the picture of lethargy. “Bookworm,” he said, his voice dripping with boredom. “What are you doing?”

Bookworm paled and began stuttering almost immediately. “Oh.. Ch-Chief Librarian, hi. Um… wh-what can I do for you?”

Archimedes turned to Gadget. “You can start by explaining your guest.”

Gadget stepped forward and offered her hoof. “Name’s Tinker! Nice to meet you!”

Archimedes didn’t take her hoof, just continued staring at her. “And why were you and Bookworm in our Database Hub? It is restricted to librarians - so Bookworm is cleared - but you shouldn’t be in there without good cause. Do you have good cause?”

“Chief Librarian, I… she... “ Bookworm sputtered.

“I’m a tech specialist with Crown Spectrum,” Gadget said with practiced confidence. “Bookworm and I met at a fundraiser a few months ago and he was telling me all about your fancy schmancy servers here at CDH, and well, I just couldn’t help myself: I had to see it. See, I’m a bit of a tech-fanatic. It's a compulsion.”

Archimedes continued to stare at her, unblinking. “Still doesn’t explain why you were in there without due cause. A bit of curiosity isn’t due cause, you understand.”

“Just wanted to see the specs on your equipment here, that’s all,” she said with a grin. “It’s an official visit, actually, sorry if I didn’t make that clear. Like I said, I work for a tech company, and we’re top of the top-of-the-line, no lie. When my boss found out about Bookworm she asked me to see if maybe we could offer you guys any upgrades.”

“I assure you, we do not need any.”

“Oh, and I can see that! Golly, you’ve got yourselves a pretty extreme setup here, chief. Nothing I can offer you at this point in time, no sir.” She pulled a business card for Crown Spectrum out of her pocket. “However, technology’s always improving, so if you ever need to make upgrades in the future, I hope you’ll consider Crown Spectrum for your technological needs. Remember, we’re top of the top-of-the-line.”

Archimedes wordlessly took the card and gave it a once-over, then tucked it in his pocket and turned to Bookworm. “Next time, Bookworm, clear appointments like this with me. I appreciate the initiative, but we have a system in place for a reason.”

Bookworm nodded. “Yes sir, sorry sir, won’t happen again sir.”

Archimedes grunted and walked away without another word.

Bookworm turned to Gadget. “Wow, thanks Tinker. I was so nervous I thought I was gonna pop. How’d you come up with that story so quick?”

Gadget shrugged. “Learned from the best, bud.”

*****

Late that night, Blackburn and her friends were just finishing getting packed when there came a knock at their door. Blackburn remained in her seat at the dinner table while Gadget took up a position opposite the door, sidearm drawn and ready. Crossfire waited for Gadget to signal she was ready, then answered the knock when it came again.

“Who is it?” he called.

“It’s Lockwood,” came a familiar voice from the other side.

Crossfire breathed a sigh of relief and gestured for Gadget to lower her gun, then opened the door. Standing there was Lockwood, alone, in a simple brown jacket, white shirt underneath, and his usual fedora. He was all smiles as usual, carrying a small box tucked under his wing and nothing more.

“Lockwood ol’ buddy, what’re y’all doin’ here so late?”

“Well I know you guys are leaving tomorrow, and I thought I’d say give you a couple of parting gifts to hold you over until you get back," Lockwood said. "Can I come in?”

Crossfire nodded and let Lockwood past him. He checked the hall to make sure nopony else was out there, and finding the hall empty, he shut and locked the door behind him.

Lockwood waved at Gadget and Blackburn as he entered. “Hello Miss Thunderbolt, Miss Tinker. How is everypony this evening?”

“Just fine, Lockwood, thanks. I’m mostly looking forward to heading back south,” Blackburn said with a smile. “I need a breath of fresh air from all this work.”

“Ha, literally,” Lockwood chuckled.

Blackburn let out a short, genuine laugh; Gadget stared at her in disapproving disbelief that Blackburn didn’t notice.

Lockwood then brought the box over to the table and set it down. “Anyway, I thought you guys could use a few pick-me-ups as a showing of appreciation for all the good work you’ve been doing around here.”

He pulled a small stack of twenty or so papers out of the box and set them on the table, face-down. The trio stared at the papers, confused.

“Y’all brought us… papers?” Crossfire asked, scratching his head.

“Wow. You really know the way to a lady’s heart,” Gadget deadpanned.

“Hey hey hey now, trust me, this is a gift-and-a-half,” Lockwood said defensively, hoof over his heart. “I know you guys were having some money troubles earlier, and I know it’s gonna be some time before you start seeing a real profit from your little deal with the Don, so I’m here to make sure things go smoothly on this end for you while you’re gone and when you get back.”

“Ah, then these are tax papers.” Blackburn shook her head. “Virtuoso and I have an agreement that the apartment will be taken care of from now on, as long as we’re business partners. I appreciate it, Lockwood, but--”

“Oh no no, you misunderstand. I already know all about that. This has nothing to do with that. These are from the Tea sisters.” He flipped over one of the papers. “I know your product’s not on the market just yet, not until Virtuoso finishes up things on his end, but they want to make sure you get your due in case it launches while you’re gone.”

Blackburn blinked and looked down at the paper he’d flipped over carefully. It had the Crown Spectrum logo on them - her own cutie mark with the company name superimposed over it in tech-like text - and the company motto beneath, same as what was on their business cards. She flipped over some of the others, and they had the same information, just with a different layout. Advertisements.

“After they decide which one they like, they’re gonna put these in the New Pandemonium Times when your product launches, help spread the word. Virtuoso’s paying for the ad, of course, and Mint and Matcha are donating most of that money to their charity in your name. They’re also working on an article about your product; sorry I don’t have a copy, but they haven’t finished it yet.”

“That’s… wow, that’s more than I expected…” Blackburn murmured.

“A lot more,” Gadget noted, eyeing the advertisements suspiciously. “What gives? What’s the catch?”

“No catch. I just convinced them to go a little above-and-beyond with it,” Lockwood said with a tip of his hat. “After all, that little gadget you worked up is gonna do a lot of good for a lot of ponies out there, not just unicorns.”

Blackburn paused for a long moment. “Why are you doing this for us?”

Lockwood blinked. “What do you mean?”

“All this,” she said, gesturing to the ads. “This is more than I would’ve ever asked, more than I would’ve ever expected. And you’re still not asking us for a thing in return. Why?”

Lockwood shrugged and laughed. “Look, I help a lot of ponies out there, okay? It’s just what I do, don’t think anything of it.” He tipped his hat and loaded the papers back into the box. “Just thought I’d give you guys a little extra bright spot during your vacation.”

Blackburn eyed him for a moment, then nodded and stood from the table. She offered him her hoof. “Thank you, Lockwood. I appreciate it.”

Lockwood shook her hoof gently. “No trouble at all, Miss Thunderbolt.” He hoisted the box up and nodded. “Well, I’m gonna get outta your hair. Big day tomorrow, right? Have fun!” He nodded politely at Gadget. “Miss Tinker.”

Gadget nodded back, though not as politely. “Lockwood.”

He turned and smiled at Crossfire, clapping him on the shoulder. “You too, Fireblast.”

Crossfire smiled and clapped Lockwood right back. “Thank ya kindly, Lockwood. Y’all take care now, y’hear?” He opened the door for Lockwood and let him go, then closed and locked it after he’d left. He turned to Blackburn. “Well, that sure was mighty nice o’ him.”

Blackburn nodded and retook her seat. “It was.”

Gadget rolled her eyes. “I still don’t buy it, sounds too good to be true.”

“Story makes sense, having trouble finding holes.” Blackburn shook her head. “Will need to think on this while out of the city, away from him.”

“I still say he’s bein’ straight wit’ us,” Crossfire added. “He’d fit right in back at home, I tell ya what. Not jus’ Hope’s Point, neither, he’d fit in great in Utopia too.”

“Not worth concerning with now.” Blackburn took a deep breath. “Get some sleep; flight leaves early.” She got up and headed for the bedroom, shutting the door behind her.

Crossfire waited a full minute before turning to Gadget. “Y’all owe me a hundred bits, by the way.”

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