• Published 10th Aug 2016
  • 669 Views, 31 Comments

Light Pollution - Quillamore

When her mother drops her off on the Manehattan streets to fend for herself, Diamond Tiara takes the opportunity to mend ties with Babs Seed...and to regain just a bit of the light she had always kept herself from.

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Fourth Night: Blood Diamond

Just like before, nothing had been particularly memorable about the trek back from the Statue of Livery. Any excitement Diamond might have had before about finally getting to the source of the mystery had vanished, and only a strange feeling of dread remained. In fact, she didn't even realize until she came down that she’d managed to do so in less than a half hour’s time, an amazing feat, even for her.

Sure enough, just as she’d promised, Coco was waiting for her at the exit, acting as natural as she could as she searched through the gift shop. As soon as she saw Diamond, though, she quickly embraced the filly, making her younger companion wonder why she’d ever seen her as a distant mother.

“I’m so glad they didn’t catch you,” she whispered, stroking the foal’s fur. “At least now, if they do, you’ll know what you’re dealing with. I’d say it’s far more than anything your mother could come up with on her own.”

Diamond tried to press further into the conversation, but just about as soon as she opened her mouth, the mare whisked her off to the nearest taxi and cupped her hooves around the driver’s mouth. Wherever they were going, it had to be a place ordinary citizens didn’t even know about, as Coco seemed to spend an awful long time guiding him on how to get there. Like always, the ride seemed to continue on for hours at a time until they finally approached their destination, and Diamond Tiara suddenly had a fleeting fear that she would be pushed out of this taxi as well.

If that were to happen, she realized, she would be in a far worse place than before. Unlike the glitzy Bridleway district she’d first witnessed, this area was as eroded as could be, filled with cracks in the road and abandoned buildings. Somehow, this entire part of Manehattan had turned into one of the ghost towns Cheerilee had told her about. Yet, it lacked the sort of collateral damage that would indicate that one of Equestria’s many villains had attacked it.

“This place used to be part of our industrial district,” Coco explained, opening her mouth for the first time since they’d left the statue. “Nopony really knows what happened to everything around here. But I do know what happened to one place in particular.”

The cream-colored mare looked the entire street over, glancing at each popping streetlight as if trapped in a memory. Diamond couldn’t imagine what somepony like Coco would’ve done in a place like this, but all too likely, this was nothing more than the quietest place she could find.

“Where are we going?” Diamond suddenly asked.

“Suri’s boutique. It’s just another block or so, and then I’ll explain everything.”

The name sounded vaguely familiar from somewhere, not from a fashion magazine or anywhere like it. Still, Diamond couldn’t quite picture a place like that in a part of town like this, and stayed shocked at the situation for the next few minutes. Until, that is, she laid eyes on their final stop.

Like just about everything else, its windows were boarded up, yet the building had a certain color to it that the others lacked. Remnants of a sign showed that it had once been a corner pharmacy, but they were so faded she figured it had to have left over fifty years ago. Other than that, the front of the building seemed thoroughly unmarked.

Stranger still was the fact that, even though this place had been closed for who knows how long, Coco managed to find a key in her saddlebag that matched the door perfectly. It creaked as it opened, and as the mare turned on the light, Diamond saw the last thing she could possibly imagine.

The inside still glittered with all sorts of dresses and accessories, almost as if the store had been suddenly abandoned. Some sewing components, swatches of fabric and the like, still remained, strewn all over the place. There was even a cramped cubicle area in the back, where the designing team would congregate and create their latest works.

Diamond shuffled through the racks, trying to figure out where she’d seen some of these items before. Now that she thought about it, she felt like Rarity had mentioned somepony by that name, and if that was the case, then this place had to be familiar for a reason. Still, she couldn’t help but notice that, rather than stopping her, Coco appeared to be watching her intently.

“Recognize any of these?” she finally asked, back to her usual meek voice.

Diamond gave a brief nod and continued searching, not even noticing the way her companion seemed to hang her head in shame.

“I’d imagine a pony like you would. This was my old workplace. It just got shut down a month or so ago…for running a knockoff ring. Everything you see in here is fake, myself included.”

Come to think of it, the filly had heard about something or other like that going out of business. All too likely, it’d been another, similar one, but her mother often railed about such establishments in large cities that catered to social climbers. Supposedly, they were meant to be near-indistinguishable from the real thing, and regrettably, Diamond hadn’t yet honed the skill it took to tell the difference.

What she could tell, though, was how dangerously close Coco’s sea-colored eyes were coming to tears. If the confession itself stressed her out, it was likely that choosing this venue had only exacerbated her condition, and Diamond tried to calm her down as best as she could.

“So you made it from here all the way to Bridleway? You must really be talented, then.”

“Talent…is one word for it,” Coco sighed. “More accurately, I got the job I have now because Rarity put in a good word for me. And if you knew the lengths I went to in order to keep it, you just might wonder if I’m really in a better place.”

Coco continued to canter around the boutique, searching through the racks of merchandise as if there was a particular item she was looking for. Diamond followed, more out of habit than anything else, and her eyes practically bulged out of her head when she saw the dress the older mare picked out. It looked as if it had been coated in flames, protecting it from the mundane unoriginality that all too many of the clothes had. The designer stared at it absentmindedly, only to cast it off to an empty rack and continue her speech.

That, more than anything else, made Diamond fear the mare. Not necessarily for her safety, but rather for the lack of life or anything else that she seemed to show. Even her mane was far paler than it’d been the first time the filly had met her, and as she spun her story, her eyes had never been duller.

“The police were aware of the ring’s existence, but we survived by moving from one abandoned building to another. This was simply the one they were able to track down, and the investigations here have been so intense, they aren’t even close to clearing it out. Because, as it turns out, it was linked to another string of Manehattan criminals, one that had a foal in their ranks.”

She turned back to the dress and explained, “In fact, I suppose you could call this a collaboration between Babs and I. Most items in here are, or between Babs and the other workers. For, you see, our pasts happen to be linked, and if you knew how we’d met, you might just ask yourself if we were meant to be mother and daughter. I know I have.”

Even though this was meant to be a briefing, Diamond found that Coco spoke in riddles for the first half hour of their visit. She’d look from one place to another, punishing herself by flooding her mind with memories of her past. That much, Diamond Tiara knew from experience. But everything else seemed to be the utterings of a madmare, one who’d trapped her someplace nopony could find her.

Yet, for every moment she had like that, she had another where Coco broke down into tears, breaking down on the ground in a way Diamond would never imagine a Bridleway costume designer to do. Finally, after at least three of these depressive episodes, Coco revealed the one thing Diamond had been wondering all along.

“How was Babs involved with this place?” the filly asked for what seemed like the millionth time.

“She was kidnapped as a foal. I’m not sure how much you know about her story, but before I found her, a gang of criminals got to her first. They were our suppliers, no different from the way your father sells products from the Apples. They were employing all sorts of ponies that shouldn’t have been employed in the first place: the sick, the elderly, and everywhere in between. Including foals, unfortunately.”

It took a few minutes for the implications to fully sink in, but once they did, Diamond’s pupils became little more than pinpricks. Granted, she’d heard of such things happening before—her father had attended numerous conferences that instructed businessponies like him on how to avoid such schemes—but she always figured it couldn’t happen in Manehattan. Especially not with Babs.

Yet somehow, it made all too much sense and lined up with every mystery she’d been faced with so far. Babs had been able to help so much because she hadn’t had a foalhood in the first place—but her reasons turned out to be far more dire than anything Diamond could’ve imagined.

“By the time I found her, she’d already been kept there for at least a couple years,” Coco continued. “I didn’t know anything about her, but once I saw her, I didn’t need to. I was supposed to pick up a delivery and come back here, but I distracted the suppliers long enough for her to escape. When she first saw me, she told me she was surprised anypony had tried to save her in the first place.”

The next time Diamond turned around to look at the ornate materials in front of her, she almost jumped. Now that she knew, she could practically feel the blood of the sweatshop ponies on it, and suddenly, everything in the room lost its beauty. She felt as though she was in an armory after a major battle, contemplating the weapons that had brought casualties onto innumerable ponies.

All except for the flame-patterned dress Coco had shown her earlier. Unlike her other projects, manufactured for ponies who didn’t care what consequences came out of their desire to fit in, not a single piece of it was unoriginal, and the costume designer spoke of it with an odd amount of pride. It had to have been a memorial of sorts, a way of showing off the filly’s skills without exploiting them for profit. In that moment, it seemed far more of a monument to Diamond than the statue she’d stayed at all day long.

“I had to hide her from my boss,” Coco went on, “and the hours were just about as long here as they probably were for the factory ponies. When I finally got to the hospital, they told me that she had severe respiratory problems from the work and she was underweight for her age. It took months just to get her body back into healthy shape, much less to make up for all the school she lost over those years. Once this place closed down, I thought I’d make up for everything and adopt her, but even that didn’t seem to work out. Because just when we were making progress with her, somepony showed up to ruin all that.”

The previous sentences shocked Diamond so much that she barely even thought about Coco’s ominous last words until it was too late. She’d known Babs as a tough and unbreakable filly for so long that she could barely imagine the tiny mass that must’ve greeted Coco, the one that barely fought for her life in a hospital. The truth was, she’d always chalked the warning signs up to coincidence—the small scars on Babs’ flank, the way she seemed so skittish around ponies at times, the way she’d turned on Diamond so suddenly.

She’d expected trust from a pony who’d probably never received it in her life, she couldn’t help but realize. Even with the way she’d behaved under her mother’s influence, if she would’ve known sooner just what the filly had gone through…

“It started a month or so ago, at my new job,” Coco finally continued.

She’d seemed all too emotionless during Babs’ story, almost as if she’d had to tell it far too many times to count. The revelation that came next, however, was one Diamond could tell had almost never been brought into words, and Coco struggled just to let sound escape from her mouth.

“I wasn’t on my guard then. Everything seemed so perfect—I’d finally managed to track down Babs’ sister Bambi, and the three of us finally had some semblance of a family. But there’s a reason I haven’t been part of it lately, and it’s something so bad that, even if I do manage to escape it, I may never be part of it again.

“Word had gotten out of my past dealings, and a lot of ponies on Bridleway didn’t trust me at first. I wasn’t even sure if I could keep this job Rarity gave me, but then my producer, Mosely Orange, came to me with a deal. Or, at least, that was what he called it.

Now, I don’t like bringing up anypony’s past, since I’ve had to deal with enough of that lately, but from what I know of yours, I suppose you know what it means to blackmail somepony?”

Diamond nodded, but her past deeds didn’t even register at this point. At any other time, she might’ve recalled how she’d convinced the Cutie Mark Crusaders to stay on the Foal Free Press, or one of the many other times she used the technique Coco mentioned, but the way Coco said it gave her pause. One look at her, and Diamond knew that she certainly wasn’t the pony doing the blackmailing.

She might not have known about the foal labor ring in Manehattan, but she’d certainly heard enough gossip about Bridleway executives to know exactly where this conversation was going to go. And if it went that way, she had a feeling that this Mosely Orange was far worse than any of the fillies the Crusaders had reformed.

She could practically hear flushing sounds as the Reformation Society went down the drain.

“Well, from the way you’re looking at me, you’ve probably figured it out,” Coco continued. “I didn’t become Mosely’s marefriend by my own choice. By the time I figured out I was forced into it, I was also able to find out about some of his past activities. Since he’s Bambi’s father, and Babs was staying with him before she was kidnapped…I have reason to believe that he targeted me in order to separate the three of us.”

“So you’re saying he intended all this to happen? But why?”

Coco gave a regretful sigh and shook her head just about as slowly as it could go.

“Even I don’t know why. A lot of us think it was because Babs’ mother had her with another stallion, but not even Bambi knows for sure. And as for Babs…she doesn’t even remember that he betrayed her. At this point, I’m almost afraid to tell her because, well, what does that make me, really?”

As much as Diamond wanted to tell her that she couldn’t have known any of this, that she was just as much a victim as anypony else, she knew from experience that Coco wouldn’t believe it. Being reformed had a way of sticking guilt complexes into you, ones that words couldn’t always heal. And yet, even then, she couldn’t help but notice a severe flaw in Mosely’s plan.

“So if he’s so focused on ruining everything for you guys,” she finally asked, “why’s he dating my mother, anyway? Wouldn’t that kind of blow his cover?”

“Because he can get something even more valuable out of it,” replied Coco. “Thankfully, I made enough of a scene back at the café for him to tell me everything. He could very well be lying again, but he claims he was never attracted to your mother in the first place. He wanted something I didn’t have.”

Diamond could envision several possible responses: money, fame, or anything else, really. Anything Coco had, Spoiled had more of—intangible qualities or morals excluded, of course. Except none of those things could possibly appeal to a stallion who already had it all. Even as she puzzled and puzzled over the answer, however, nothing could prepare her for the truth.

“He’s practically given up on Bambi, since she’s made her own path over the years. What he wants, what your mother wants, what just about every rich pony in this town or anyplace else wants—is an heir. Which, unfortunately, you seem to be all too qualified for.”

Coco briefly cursed under her breath, so low that Diamond almost couldn’t hear it. But it was clear that all the pain the mare had dealt with over the past few months was nothing compared to the terrifying possibilities unfolding around her.

“Your mother abandoned you in the middle of one of the most dangerous cities in Equestria, and pushed you to do unspeakable things on top of that. If two ponies like that managed to get together and raise a child…do you really think anything good could come out of that?”

Yet again, tears were streaming down her face, yet for the first time today, they weren’t for herself or for Babs. They were for the filly she had barely known, the one her blackmail had torn her away from just as much as it had with her own daughter. The one she’d accepted into her own home without hesitation.

One who’d been raised by a pony almost as bad as Mosely was, or perhaps even worse.

Almost thoughtlessly, she pressed Diamond Tiara to her stomach and held her tighter than she’d ever done to anypony else.

“I let this happen to Babs. I didn’t fight anywhere near enough to save her. But even though I’m still scared of him…I’ll fight him with everything I have if he ever comes near you! You don’t deserve to be another pawn in his games, or in your mother’s.”

That, above all, was very likely the most shocking thing the filly had heard all day. She’d caused her daughter nothing but grief, but here Coco was, holding her closer than her own mother ever had. For a slight moment, she could feel everything Babs had felt when the mare rescued her, every ounce of desperation and the way it mixed with relief.

Neither do you, Diamond almost said just as Coco unleashed her final bombshell.

“Before we go back home, let me tell you something. I’m going to fight against Mosely and your mother getting together with everything I have, but if they still do, and if they try to challenge your father for custody…I will always be there to protect you. Even if it means gaining another daughter. I may not have been the best mother to Babs, but I guarantee I’m still better than anything they can do to you.”

Coco’s distance had never been her own fault, not even once. And every last word she said then were the truest ones Diamond would hear.

“If you’re ever put through anything like that ever again, our door will always be open for you.”

Author's Note:

Note: none of this necessarily means Coco will end up adopting Diamond. It's more of a worst-case scenario type vow. Still, I like to consider her part of the family now.

A lot of the things in this chapter are covered in way more detail in If You Give a Little Love, so if you're looking for a further exploration of this situation, you'll be able to find it in Act II of that story.

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