Apple Bloom emerged from undercover tentatively, not quickly enough for an impatient Spoiled. "Come, come little Apple. The gangs all here, we're just waiting on you now."
The farm filly squirmed her way into the light, and made her way next to Diamond Tiara. "Are you alright? We don't have to stay here, you know...". Motioning to the unguarded door.
Diamond turned around to face her friend, trying to be as pleasant as possible, considering her underlying rage. "It's okay, Apple Bloom." She reassured her. "I've been waiting for an opportunity like this to say what I want to ever since you changed me for the better. You can leave though, if you like..."
Tiara's offer was instantly rebuffed. "No way." Stated the farm filly. "I'm not leaving you alone with her. I'm with you in everything you do from now on. Besides, I get the feeling I'll have a few things to get off my chest with the 'head of the school board' myself..."
Diamond looked gratefully at the young Apple who had, in such a short space of time, become her closest friend, with the exception of Silver Spoon. Together, the two children faced the haughty mare in front of them, in the same mindset as if they were about to engage with one of Equestria's greatest villains.
"Well, isn't this nice. The two extremes of society, rags and riches, getting along so swimmingly..." Spoiled's sarcasm cut like a razor. "I must say, when I heard my precious Diamond had been adopted by the dirtiest bunch of mud dwellers this side of Equestria, I was mildly perturbed. But now, it appears my fears were completely unfounded! I mean, look at you. You've got a nice red colour in your cheeks, a ratty old second-hand ribbon in your mane, a mucky bandage on your hoof and a tangled up, mussed up, tail and mane! I can see they're taking really good care of you. Tell me, when does the apple bucking start? Tomorrow? Bet you can't wait!"
Spoiled let out a guttural laugh, followed swiftly by the mutual derision of her new underlings behind her. Both Jet Set and Upper Crust had recovered from the shock of the sudden emergence of the two fillies, and were now glaring nastily at Apple Bloom in the same manner as Mrs Rich, while casting looks of intrigue at Tiara.
Bloom had had enough of these toffee-nosed snobs mocking her way of life, and decided to launch a volley back. "Well, at least we actually give something back to the community, instead of walking around with our noses in the air bumping into each other, telling everypony who'll care to listen just how much 'better' we are. Well, from where I'm standing, you're not 'better' than us at all. Y'all waste your time complaining, and trying to one-up each other, whereas we fill our lives with working together, helping out those in need and making friends. You might be rich in bits, but in common-sense and decency you're as poor as a homeless Manehattanite."
Jet Set and Upper Crust gasped at the sheer effrontery of this little wretch to lecture them on their cosseted lifestyle, while Diamond glanced at the farm filly, impressed. If Spoiled had any kind of reaction to Bloom's words, she hid it very well. Not even one facial muscle twitched, as she responded in the same uninterested tone she'd used since bursting into the room uninvited.
"Oh, I forgot..." She remarked. "Your family is branching out into other areas. Silly me. Obviously fruit doesn't pay as well as it used to. You don't just hang around dirty animals and assault trees now, you've branched out into kidnap and brainwashing. Very impressive expansion of the business there! You Apples have quite a few irons in the fire, don't you? Well, you better be careful one of them doesn't poke your eye out someday..."
Bloom instinctively took a step back at this implied threat, which allowed Tiara to finally have her say. Ignoring the continued curious looks that Jet Set and (especially) Upper Crust were giving her, she walked right up to her mother to stare her down.
"First of all, the reason I'm in this hospital today is because of the stress that you've put me through after years of your constant mountain-high expectations of me! I cut my hoof on a fragment of glass from a picture I smashed, guess who was on the photo! And I regard looking less-than-presentable at the moment as a small price to pay, for getting away from you. As for the ribbon, I have to say, it took some getting used to, but now I think it's really growing on me. I might even prefer it to that old tiara you've got stashed away of mine..." As if to illustrate her point, she smoothed out the bow, before returning to put a hoof around a very pleased Bloom.
Despite her best efforts, Spoiled finally began showing some emotion over her daughter's rejection of her formerly prized headgear. "Why, you ungrateful little..." She seethed. "Do you have any idea how much that Tiara cost me? Why, I ought to..."
Her reply was cut short by Jet Set, who'd wondered over to whisper something in her ear. By the time the grey stallion had finished, the confident smirk was back on Spoiled's face, and she addressed him and his wife,
"Well, of course you can wait outside, dears. I understand that this little argument might be uncomfortable for those who aren't family members or... The ones who helped cause the trouble in the first place. And yes, before you go, I do give my permission for your dear wife to do that. After all, if we are to go into partnership together, we must make sure that we're all on the level, yes?" She turned back to grin evilly at Diamond and Bloom, who were completely in the dark as to what had been agreed.
They were about to find out. Suddenly, both Jet Set and Upper Crust's horns flared up, and the two fillies found themselves encased in a prison of magic. Bloom was the one caught by the grey stallion's power, and she found herself shoved unceremoniously into the corner, unable to move. As for Tiara...
Worse was to follow for her. Much worse. She found herself being levitated towards an expectant Upper Crust, and as she floated through the air, she felt herself turn one-hundred and eighty degrees, until her flank was facing the yellow mare. She stopped a few inches away from the female unicorn's face, still hovering, with her hindquarters being studied by the inquisitive grown-up.
"Stop, what are you doing?!" Yelled Tiara, as Upper Crusts hooves prodded and poked all over her flank area, especially around her cutie mark. Unable to cope with her friend's distress, Bloom tried to charge forward to help her, only to find that Jet Set's magic held her firmly in place. All while this was going on, Spoiled had her hooves crossed, smirking at finally getting her own back on her daughter's verbal dressing-down of her outside the school.
In response to Tiara's struggle and strangled sobs, Upper Crust's declaration that "It's okay, dear. I was a filly once too, I can see you haven't got anything I haven't seen before. " Just made matters worse. Diamond could do nothing whatsoever during the intimate examination, but wait until the ordeal was over.
Finally, after what seemed like forever, but in actual fact was just a few minutes, Diamond felt the probing around her rear cease. A very happy Upper Crust confirmed to her husband. " It's true. This is the special symbol of leadership Spoiled told us about, no sign of tampering or paint on this filly's flank."
Upon hearing this, Jet Set released Apple Bloom from the restraints of his power, and the farm filly just collapsed straight onto the floor, her futile exertions from trying to free herself to aid her roommate really taking their toll.
Upper Crust did the same to a now completely broken Tiara, but not before gripping her forcibly in a tight hug. "You are a very special little girl." she whispered to Diamond. "You could do great things with your life, if you'd only listened to the right ponies. I could be like a second mother to you, if you'd let me. I'll see you very soon, Miss Tiara. I'm sure we'll form the closest of bonds."
Then, after giving the pink filly a big, sloppy kiss on the cheek which even made Spoiled raise an eyebrow, she dropped Tiara, before leaving the room, her husband in tow.
As soon as the door was closed, Apple Bloom struggled to her hooves. "H-how could you..." She stammered through tiredness and pure anger "Y-your own daughter..."
Spoiled rolled her eyes at the farm filly's remarks. "Oh, and what do you Apples know about raising children? Apart from sending them off to do hard labour, while they're still barely even foals? At least my Diamond, like me, won't have to work until she's an adult. And look at your lax discipline! The way you rampage around the town with your misfit friends, destroying everything in sight, and getting away with it, just because your family is well connected to that counterfeit princess! In my household, we believe in an eye for an eye! And that's exactly what I just administered to my daughter. She'll think twice next time before sassing me publicly, again."
Blinking the tears away, and wiping spittle off of her cheek, Tiara disagreed that this form of punishment was universally agreed on in the mansion. "D-daddy would never have let you..."
"Well, I've got news for you, precious. " Spoiled sneered back." Daddy doesn't care about you. Why else do you think he spends most of his life, gallivanting around the nation, as far away as possible, making up any excuse not to come home? Because he can't stand the sight of you, that's why! I shouldn't really be telling you this, but... When I was pregnant with you, he really wanted a colt. All he could do was prattle on about all the boys' games he could play with his new son and how a stallion could take over the business one day. Before you were born, he had your room decorated all blue, he was so sure he was going to get his wish. He was so excited that day in the delivery room...Then he saw you, and his enthusiasm died down considerably. Actually, it would be more accurate to say, he lost interest altogether."
"You liar!" Diamond shouted, quite unable to believe her ears. "My Daddy loves me! I've seen the picture of the day I was born, and you're the one who looks like you couldn't care less in it. Not my Daddy!"
Spoiled sighed with annoyance. "And I suppose this is the photo you smashed on the floor, when you cut your foot? You really need to be more careful around glass, dear. Listen to me: The only reason your father looks so happy in that image is because I made him smile. It took various 'promises' from me that I won't go into now, to even persuade him to sit in front of the camera, let alone put on that phony grin! I looked fed up in the picture because of my frustration at having to go to such extreme lengths, just to convey the illusion that your father loves you, when quite clearly he doesn't. We actually took a much better photo later on with both of us holding you, looking happy, but I guess he threw that one away. It wouldn't work in his mission to label me a 'monster' now, would it?"
"I-I..." A highly pressured Tiara wasn't thinking rationally. "H-he came to my Parents Appreciation day. H-he always offers me good advice when I need it. H-he might not be around a lot, but..."
Spoiled gingerly trotted over to her distraught daughter and began tenderly running her hoof through her mane. "Sh. Sh. It's okay, sweetheart. Let it all out. Mama's here. I tell you, that stallion has some nerve calling himself your father. He only went to your school that day because it was mandatory. You should have heard him complain the day before. Why must I waste my time with children, when I have a business deal in Fillydelphia on the verge of collapsing he told me. Just look at the way he took out his frustration on you afterwards, when the deal fell through, due to his absence. He humiliated you in front of everypony, by making you wear that ridiculous rabbit outfit! That stallion has no morals! At least when I cost you your dignity a moment ago, it was for a good reason. I was teaching you a valuable lesson about respecting your elders. As for his 'good advice'..."
Spoiled looked up for a moment at the frowning face of Apple Bloom, before returning to talk to Diamond, this time in a whisper "I didn't want to tell you this way, but... Your father is an expert manipulator. He tells you things that you want to hear, so he can get his own way with you later. He does it with me a lot, so I don't complain while he's travelling around the world, and his tactics seem to work on you, too. He's even got you convinced that I'm to blame for all the bad in your life, when I'm the only one that's ever cared about you, and supported you all the way. Isn't it so much easier having the benefit of my life experience and doing exactly what I tell you to do, instead of making decisions for yourself and getting all confused and depressed, like you are at the moment?"
Tiara's fragile spirit was in tatters. "I... Don't know." She croaked.
Spoiled smiled sweetly at her daughter, and started to unravel her ribbon. "Well, let me answer that for you then, darling. Yes, it was much simpler to just follow my lead and obey the instructions I gave you. I mean, look at how lost and bewildered you are, and you moved away less than a day ago! Do you really want weeks and weeks of what you're feeling right now, pounding away in your head, driving you up the wall, until you explode? No, I'm sure you don't. I've got a great idea. How about, you go over to that librarian Twilight Sparkle's castle, convince her to drop the charges against me as nothing more than a huge misunderstanding, then the two of us can escape to Canterlot together, away from that awful Filthy. Me and him'll separate later of course, and I'll get most of the bits, supporting a child all by myself. Then, I can enrol you in that wonderful boarding school I was telling you about, you'll return to your old self eventually and everything will be fine again. We'll have a much better quality of life too..."
"W-what should I do? W-what should I do?" Diamond's brain was frantically searching for an answer.
"Well..." Spoiled pondered for a moment. " I think a good start would be to get rid of this..." She completely removed the bow from her daughter's mane, to throw it at the feet of a now approaching Apple Bloom. "And put on something that more befits your status..."
She reached into a saddlebag she'd worn the entire morning, and from inside produced a shiny trinket, Diamond's tiara. "I was going to have this passed onto you today while you were at school, to show there are no hard feelings between us, despite your uncivilised behaviour of late. But right now, I feel you need it more than ever, as a reminder of who you truly are."
Spoiled pushed the mini crown on her daughter's head as far as it would go, almost to her nose. Trying to comprehend everything that had happened, Diamond listlessly stared at the floor, with teardrop marks fresh on her face, as Mrs Rich continued to communicate with the pink filly in a childish voice, as if lecturing a mental defective.
"Listen to me. You are my Diamond Tiara. I carried you around for nine months inside me. You'll always be a part of me, whether you like it or not. And right now, I don't like what you're doing. If you have any appreciation for all the times I've accepted your many failures, the way I take care of you in the absence of your deadbeat father, and my overwhelming compassion in my willingness to forgive you, despite your betrayal of our family and everything it stands for, you'll wear this tiara for as long as I say. Then, when you've cleared my good name, you will be relocated to St Winnean's until such a time that the trained staff there strip you of all the subversive thoughts you've had of late, which go against my direct teachings. Do I make myself clear?!" Spoiled had her daughter right where she wanted her. in an almost catatonic state of misery, ready to do her bidding.
All of Tiara's fire and resolve from the time she'd crawled out from until her bed was gone. Didn't her father love her? Did he really hop around Equestria, skipping her birthdays and Hearth Warmings, because... He couldn't stand the sight of her? Did he really want a male heir, instead of the prissy pink filly he found himself lumbered with? Was she... A mistake?
The sight of fresh moisture in Diamond's eyes brought a fresh smile to Spoiled's smug lips. "Now settle down, dear. It's not becoming to cry for too long. What you need to do now is acknowledge that I'm the only one who's ever cared about you in this life, the only one who thinks about you now, and the only one willing to take you away from all this torment. Just say the word, and we'll leave Filthy and this Tartarus cursed hole behind, and leave for Canterlot together at the earliest possible opportunity. After all, what can anypony else possibly offer you, that I can't...?"
"...Love." Came a small, yet resolute voice from a few yards away.
Spoiled immediately shot up, to bare her teeth at one third of the bane of her recent existence. She thought she'd taken care of that annoying little upstart already. She was so close to winning her prize back, and all without even having to make convoluted plans or enter a courtroom. Well, she was just going to have to deal with this child in the same way she'd browbeaten her daughter.
She left the zombie-like form of Tiara behind for a moment, to address her latest target. "Oh, and I suppose you think you're special, because you got your cutie mark at the same time as your little friends? Well let me tell you something, to me you're just as worthless as your sister and her entourage, who went through the same thing. 'Special'? More like: Freaks of nature! I bet other ponies whisper about you behind your back, all the time. Just think: for the rest of your miserable lives, you'll be stuck with a flightless pegasus and a talentless unicorn! You'll never have any individuality. Don't you feel any shame at all?"
Spoiled finished off her rant with a flourish. She stared derisively at Apple Bloom, expecting her to meekly back down to her oratory genius. Or, run away in tears. Now, that would be worth seeing. She waited...
Bloom did nothing of the sort. She just stood where she was, glaring at Spoiled with the same tenacity that her oppressor was showing. Giving as good as she got.
Spoiled decided she'd had quite enough of this farce. "What's the matter with you, you useless little mud pony? It's over. You've lost. Soon, Diamond will realise the only pony who wants her is me. She certainly doesn't need the likes of you tainting her reputation, or that yokel-spouting hick you call a sister. Do you really think I'd let such an unworthy specimen become the sole provider for my precious jewel? Such a concept is beyond laughable..."
"Mrs Rich. There's something I've been curious about. What does your cutie mark mean?"
"W-what?!" Spoiled couldn't believe it. The irritating little nuisance had dared to speak again, when by all rights she should be a prostrate mess cowering on the floor. And, she'd just asked quite the armour piercing question. " I... What relevance does that have?!"
"Well, you may not know this, but..." Apple Bloom did wonders to keep a civil tongue, considering who she was speaking to. "Me and the other Crusaders aren't exactly 'talentless'. Aside from me having a big heart, Sweetie Belle's singing ability and Scootaloo's being able to ride as fast as lightning, our shared true destiny is, as you can see in the colour of our manes on the shields, to help other ponies find their calling in life, based on their cutie marks. A very important job, I'm sure you agree. We did it for Troubleshoes in Appleloosa a while ago, and we helped your daughter discover that she could harness her leadership ability without becoming... Well, like you. Now, my friends aren't here so I can't be entirely accurate with my reading, but I just got to thinking... Do you need my help?"
The usually unflappable Spoiled retreated a couple of steps. "N-no of course not! W-why would I ever..."
"So, what does the ring on your flank represent then?" Bloom asked with genuine interest, her eyes trained on Spoiled's mark. "Are you good at making jewellery?"
"Never! If I want something, my husband just buys it for me!"
"Me?Get a job? Huh! The day that happens will be the day I jump over the moon!"
"So, what does it mean, then?"
Spoiled glanced back at her insignia, drawing a complete blank. The room felt like it was beginning to close in on her. She never felt this unsure about herself since... That day.
"If I may, I have a theory I'd like to run by you." Apple Bloom stated, plainly. " It's up to you whether you take it at face value or not, and of course I could be completely wrong. But, I'm going to tell you it anyway.
Spoiled continued to stare dumbly at her mark, not saying a word.
"The ring on your flank, shows your aptitude for marrying well. And you did. Look at you, hitched to the most successful businesspony in Ponyville! One who loves his daughter dearly, contrary to what you say. One willing to journey around the world, earning extra bits to keep his selfish and ungrateful wife happy! One who tolerates her many childish tantrums and outbursts, because he has unlimited patience! His only fault is not putting his hoof down when he sees how much you mistreat and abuse your beautiful daughter, out of some wrongheaded sense of keeping his family together, because Diamond Tiara needs a mother! Well, let me say, after what I've witnessed today, forget about Applejack, Queen Chrysalis would make for a better parent than you! At least she knows what love is. It's a term that you clearly don't, and probably never will, understand!" Apple Bloom was uncompromising in her ire.
For the first time in quite a while, Tiara's head ceased to slump, and she looked up, captivated by what was unfurling.
Spoiled was in a state of shambles. She didn't know whether to lose it there and then, or run off through the welcoming front door. So instead, she just stood there, eyes glazed over, while Bloom resumed her tirade.
"If you ignored your sole talent, and left your husband to try and make it in Canterlot with your daughter by yourself, do you really think you'd survive? That other ponies wouldn't turn against you, once they saw you for what you truly are? An abusive, lying, manipulative, nasty piece of work? No, they wouldn't. And I promise that soon, Diamond wouldn't think much of you, either. You might be able to win her favour for a while with your non-stop threats and deceit, but I've already opened her eyes to other possibilities. Soon, she'll see you as the beast you clearly are, and you'll be all alone! And, guess what? You'll have no pony to blame but your own rotten self! If I've learned one thing from you, it's that cutie marks don't just tell us about the pony they belong to, the name can reveal a lot too! Spoiled by name, Spoiled by nature. That's you!" Apple Bloom had Spoiled on the ropes.
Mrs Rich began to totter, while Apple Bloom made her way over to see how Diamond was doing, picking up her old ribbon along the way.
Spoiled's eyes began to roll into the back of her skull, as Bloom helped Diamond up, removing the unwanted tiara from her head in the process and tossing it across the room, where it broke into pieces against the wall.
Spoiled's feet started to buckle out from under her. Apple Bloom began to tie her bow into Tiara's mane, with the pink filly watching her mother's gradual collapse in silence. Neither pony laid a hoof to help her.
Spoiled's long snake-tongue began to unravel yet again, just like the last two occasions she fainted. The children continued to wait for the knockout blow. The ribbon was nearly on securely.
The door burst open, with a great deal of noise caused as a result. Spoiled, on the precipice of darkness once again, suddenly woke up, all of her faculties restored. So near, and yet so...
In the meantime, the bow-wearing Tiara and Apple Bloom's attentions turned to the grey stallion who'd intruded on their fun. It was Jet Set, out of breath and looking as if he had something to say.
"Ponies... Lots of them... Here... To see Diamond... We need to leave... Now." He pounded his chest as he spoke.
Spoiled didn't need a second invitation. She gave each filly in that room an unreadable expression, mostly one made up of hatred and bitterness, before swiftly making her way outside.
The door shut.
Peace and serenity reigned.
At least, for now...