• Published 2nd Jul 2018
  • 1,556 Views, 114 Comments

Menace to Propriety - PatchworkPoltergeist



As part of their joint effort to grow closer, come together as a family, and comply with their therapist, Diamond can choose a new pet. Any pet at all. (Terms and conditions may apply.)

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Dove Is A Battlefield

“No.”

The negotiation smile crashed. “What do you mean, ‘no’? I didn’t even say anything yet!” Diamond Tiara braced against the wall of the gazebo, clutching a bundle of silk napkins tight against her chest. The napkins squirmed against the sudden pressure.

“You don’t need to.” Spoiled Rich turned a guarded squint from the rustling napkins to Diamond’s squared shoulders and braced hooves. “I know that look, and I am not in the mood for your games.” Her gaze rose over Diamond’s head and across the lawn. “Not today.”

Beneath the arc of lilies, the wedding party rallied around the understudy cake (a paltry little five-footer) with plates and hovering forks, chatting and laughing amongst each other. Three guesses what they laughed about.

Every few minutes, Carat Cut turned to stare at the gazebo. Diamond couldn’t see her expression, but she still felt her outrage boiling across a solid acre of sub-par zoysia grass. Spoiled had shooed Diamond off to the gazebo before the fallout, but whatever Carat told her had taken more than twenty minutes. She’d come back red-faced and low-eared.

Count on Diamond’s luck to get a hard sell at the worst possible time. Best-case scenario, she could have broken the ice with small talk, maybe a couple of sympathetic questions to wheedle into a decent segue. She glanced at the scaly foot poking out of the napkins. Unfortunately, secrets had a bad habit of leaking early.

Fine, forget the negotiation process. She’d had enough decorum and delicate pussyfooting this morning to last a month, anyway. Diamond peeled back a napkin.

The bundle rustled harder. Slowly, the head of pigeon Two Three Seven rose from the napkins, silk curtaining his head like a noblemare from olden times. Icing and chunks of cake freckled him in yellow and blue. Black and white feathers crinkled and twisted in opposite directions, some pasted flat with icing, some smushed by the crash. The bird’s pupils zoomed in and out, matching the quick pulse of his heart. Diamond felt him shiver through the layers of silk.

“I’m keeping him.” A declaration of terms, not a request. Harder to deny. Besides, who could deny this bold trendsetter of the Canterlot underground? She held him up so Spoiled could fully appreciate his elegant neck and big white eyes. “Look, he’s excited to meet you.”

Flapping wings erupted beneath Spoiled’s nose.

“I—ohgoodheavensno!” Spoiled Rich reared backward with a thoroughly undignified squeal. With a shaking hoof, she plucked a black feather from her dress, shuddered, and dropped it.

The pigeon tilted his head to watch it float down. The right eye blinked, then the left. He looked at Diamond and cooed.

“Okay, maybe a little too excited.” The frosting on his beak probably didn’t do him any favors. Diamond wiped his nostrils with a napkin corner.

Spoiled took a breath. Then another. She smoothed her bangs and cleared her throat. “No, Diamond Tiara. Absolutely not.”

“But—”

“But nothing. Look at that thing; it’s a cesspool of disease! Thank Celestia you had the foresight to put it in some napkins first.” She shied from the feathers on the gazebo floor. "You-you’re going to catch a death of salmonella or pigeon fever or rabies—”

“Birds can’t get rabies!”

“—or the Cloudsdale fur blight or lynks disease, or whatever else it’s carrying. I don’t know what that putrid animal’s got, but it’s got something, and I don’t want you touching it.” She reached to take the bundle away.

The pigeon’s neck rocked backward until the bird stared at her upside down.

“Ugh.” The hoof went down. Spoiled glanced from the bird’s splotchy feathers to the wedding cake rotting in a nearby garbage can. Her face paled again. “Ugh. The answer is no, Diamond. I won’t have that thing anywhere near my house.”

“It’s not just your house, it’s my house too.” And it had been Diamond’s house first. She had seniority. “Besides, it doesn’t matter if you like him or not, we had a deal.”

Number Two Three Seven nestled deeper into the silk. The quick beat of his heart pattered against Diamond’s hoof. It reminded her of somepony tapping their pen in a hospital waiting room.

Did he know they were fighting about him?

“Don’t worry, it’s not your fault,” Diamond told him. “We’re just having a discussion.”

That line had low mileage, but it’d work at least another four times. “It’ll be okay.” Which was what you were supposed to say, even when you knew it might not be.

A spare part of her wondered if pigeons could figure out the truth before fillies could. From the look on his face, Two Three Seven didn’t really believe her. Then again, she hadn’t believed Dad about his “discussions” with Mom, either. Wanted to, but didn’t. Not really.

Diamond folded the silk back over the pigeon’s head and turned back to Spoiled. “Actually, no, we had better than a deal. We had—” She reached for her pocket and nearly fell on her face. For a second, she’d forgotten the other hoof was full. “Hold on.”

Spoiled Rich rolled her eyes.

Through a series of complicated maneuvers, Diamond transferred the nest of silk so that it balanced between her chest and the gazebo wall. With the wall for leverage and one hoof cupping the pigeon for stability, her free hoof fished deep in her dress pockets.

“I got it…”

No, wait, that was Silver Spoon’s student council notes.

She rooted deeper. Receipts… marbles... coin purse… markers… last year’s Cutie Mark Crusader revenge plot/manifesto/blueprint (she really needed to shred that)… more receipts… a cool rock Scootaloo gave her…

Spoiled checked her watch.

“One sec.” She tried the other pocket. Bingo. “Better than a deal, we had—” Diamond slammed down her trump card “—a contract!”

Only history would tell whether the therapy idea would pan out. Diamond Tiara didn’t want to talk about her feelings at all, much less with a stranger once a week. The trouble of keeping sessions under wraps (because “what would ponies think?”) was more trouble than what it was worth. Maybe this whole exercise had been a waste of Saturdays, and they’d only gone along with it for Dad’s sake.

All that said, when Doctor Batina Belfry struck gold, she struck the mother lode. Diamond owed her big for the contract idea. Ponies broke promises just as soon as they’d break bread, but ink and paper were the glue that made those promises stick.

Diamond skimmed the fat until she found the good stuff:

…pending a satisfactory final report card and qualification for Ponyville Schoolhouse Honor Roll…

The aforementioned report card waited in Diamond’s other pocket, just in case, along with the honor roll ribbon.

The party of the first part (hereinafter referred to as “Diamond Tiara”) may be granted by the party of the second part (hereinafter referred to as “Spoiled Rich”) one (1) animal of Diamond Tiara’s own choosing* for purposes of companionship, responsibility, character-growth, and show-and-tell excursions (hereinafter referred to as "a pet").

For safety, she checked the fine print.

*Disqualifying traits include: shedding of fur, excessive noise, and size exceeding fifty (50) inches in any dimension.
Pet must be domesticated under Equestrian Companionship & Husbandry Organization (ECHO) standards.
Venomous creatures prohibited. Rodents prohibited. Arachnids and insects prohibited. Pet must be suitably housed.

Mrs. Spoiled Rotten Milk Rich’s signature curled at the bottom, full legal in ink bluer than Luna’s hide. Diamond’s hoof swung from the signature to her stepmother. “You can’t say no, because you already said yes.” She tapped the section that read "of her choosing". “And YOU said I can have ANY pet I want.”

“Yes, a pet within reason. I don’t know where you’ve gotten the delusion that a mangy confection terrorist applies to that distinction, but I assure you it doesn’t.” Spoiled whipped out her reading glasses and skimmed the fine print for an out. She wouldn’t find one.

The idea to draw up a contract might have been Doctor Belfry’s, but running it by Silver Spoon ahead of time had been Diamond’s. Silver Spoon, in turn, ran it by her grandfather, the lawyer. This watertight deal could hold Horseshoe Bay.

Diamond waited until Spoiled gave up before she pointed out, “The contract doesn’t say anything about cake terrorism.” Nopony, thankfully, had considered criminal records or bad behavior as a stipulation. “He’s not diseased, either. His keeper said so.”

Both of Spoiled Rich’s ears pricked.

Diamond winced. Me and my big mouth.

It dawned slowly. “He’s not your bird to take…” Spoiled whispered it under her breath, hardly daring to believe it. Then louder, giddy with the realization, “He’s not your bird to take!”

“I…” There had to be a way out of this. There had to be. Diamond ransacked her brain for solutions but only found panic and curse words. “Y-yeah, technically, but—”

“In fact, I’m sure his keeper’s looking for him right now, and it’s our civic duty to return lost property, isn’t it? Of course it is. Come, Diamond Tiara, let’s not dawdle.”

Diamond hardly had time to pocket the contract and secure her pigeon before Spoiled shoveled her out of the gazebo.

Three steps out, they paused at a sudden flash of gemstones and bad taste. Carat Cut prowled the edge of the wedding party, gnawing candied petals while she searched for somepony better to sink her teeth into.

Spoiled nudged Diamond back into the gazebo and out the opposite side. “Let’s not dawdle, quietly.”

Diamond Tiara followed three steps behind while Spoiled tried to sniff out a trail. “I think she bailed after my pigeon fell in the cake.” Saying it out loud might help it come true. “I know I wouldn’t stick around after something like this.”

“Oh, Dainty’s cowering around here somewhere, mark my words.” They rounded the sunroom and clipped past the servants’ quarters. Spoiled picked up the pace, head high and avoiding eye contact with the resting valets and waiters. “That cage weighs two hundred pounds, and she wouldn’t abandon a flock of three-thousand-bit birds in the middle of Canterlot. Can’t run for her life, either, the loafer.”

Never mind that Spoiled Rich herself never went faster than a menacing trot.

The sudden movements and brighter light woke the pigeon up. Two Three Seven curiously twisted his head at the moving landscape and chewed Diamond’s dress ruffle.

Feathers dusted the grass around them. Away from the festivities and the main hall, the groundskeepers likely took their time cleaning this part of the estate. Feathers, but no pigeons. In fact, Diamond hadn’t seen any pigeon besides her own since she’d hidden in the gazebo. No doves in the trees, no doves foraging in the grass or ambling down the walkway.

“They fly off and home back by instinct,” Dainty had told her. “Even this moron can do it.”

Diamond hugged the nest of silk, where the bird had begun to fidget. “It’s okay, I know you’re not a moron.”

Cooing softly, Two Three Seven squirmed and twisted about until he zeroed in on something. He cooed again. Patchy feathers on his breast and shoulders fluffed out, and his noodley neck went rigid and swung hard left.

Spoiled side-glanced the pigeon, thought a moment, and smiled. “Homing instinct.” They shifted course due south. “At least the sky rat’s good for something.”

Diamond frowned at the bird. “You know, I didn’t ask you to prove it.”

The back gates rose over the horizon, along with the steady thrum of five dozen pigeons. Ten feet to freedom, Dainty Dove galloped for her life. Threads of her golden tail streamed behind her while her legs pumped and thundered across the cobblestone path. Her white chest heaved hard beneath her tasteful dress, the tendons of her neck bowstring tight.

Behind her, a colossal cage of gold squeaked across the cobblestones. Its speed clocked somewhere around a hundred inches per hour.

Spoiled caught up in two strides. “Dainty Dove.”

“Oh, crackers!” Dainty yanked into a panicked gallop, triple time. The cage squeaked six more inches.

Long shadows fell over the birdkeeper’s withers. Spoiled Rich stepped into her path. “We need to talk.”

“Missus Rich! Why. What. A. Lovely. Surprise!” She clapped out every word in her own personal disaster countdown. Dainty’s smile gleamed while her life flashed before her eyes. “Hello again, Miss Diamond Tiara. Did you have a nice time at the wedding?”

“She was looking forward to sampling the cake,” Spoiled dryly said.

Dainty Dove swallowed a bowling ball sized lump in her throat.

“However, it appears she’s discovered something of yours in its stead.” Spoiled gave Diamond a small nudge. “My daughter has something that belongs to you.”

It’s not over yet. Diamond tucked the silk tight around the pigeon’s shoulders. It gave her hooves something to do and hold him for a little bit longer. Don’t break. You can still win this.

“I scooped him out of the frosting while everypony was yelling.” The silk brushed back to let Two Three Seven stick the rest of his neck out. “It scared him so badly, he didn’t want to move for a long time.” In fact, he still didn’t move that much. It must have been a nasty shock.

So Plan A didn’t pan out. Okay, fine. That’s why you drafted a Plan B.

Unfortunately, most of Diamond’s Plan B had relied on at least making it to the train station first. The hours spent on the train home and/or turning around to catch a train back to Canterlot would have given her precious time to form a real plan. Ideally, she’d have gotten the pigeon all the way to Ponyville, where she could rally support. (Not that Diamond Tiara couldn’t win on her own, but wise investors knew how to pool resources.)

Ponyville had Silver Spoon for brainstorming and extra bargaining power. And, assuming Whinnyapolis winds hadn’t delayed the airships, it also had Dad. Dad knew how to honor a contract.

Gently, Dainty Dove unwrapped the pigeon from the silk. She kept a tight grip with both hooves, lifting him up and down to assess the damage. “Ten feet. All I want is a measly flight of ten feet, and you couldn’t even do that.”

Number Two Three Seven burbled in protest as Dainty lifted his wings and wiped crusted frosting off his feathers. When he squirmed, she gripped him harder.

If she was a pigeon expert, why did she hold him so tight? He didn’t like it, and he obviously didn’t like being turned upside down, either. He’d just had a bad fall—an accident that could have happened to any bird here. It wasn’t his fault, and she didn’t have to hurt his feelings when he already didn’t feel good.

Forget Plan B. Plan B is dead, no funeral.

In the long run, it’d be better to do this straight and legal. Even if Dad supported the idea—and he would—that didn’t change the fact that Two Three Seven belonged to somepony else. If Spoiled hadn’t figured that out now, she would have later; a breach of contract didn’t change with the location.

“That’s that, then.” Spoiled tapped Diamond’s withers. “Come along, sweetheart. We can finally get ourselves a decent meal in town.” And a decent pet while we’re at it. She didn’t say the second part, but she didn’t have to.

No use crying over sunk cost. What can you do now?

The empty napkins twisted in Diamond’s hooves. She took in her stepmother, the dove keeper, and the heart-shaped cage with sixty-five wedding doves. Sixty-five, caught in mid-escape.

By the time Diamond found pigeon Two Three Seven, he’d fallen out of the cake and onto the ground. He’d been splayed out on the grass where the waiters or wedding guests could have trampled him. Carat Cut’s awful little dog with the smushed face could have eaten him. More likely, Carat would have ordered a servant to dump him into the street to get smashed by a carriage.

And I bet you don’t even care. The napkin wrapped around Diamond’s fetlock until it cut off the circulation. Her hot blue stare burned into the back of Dainty’s neck. Because you tried to abandon him.

Two Three Seven had gone limp in his keeper’s hoof, too tired or too overpowered to struggle. The dark noodly neck swung in midair like a pendulum, save for the white eye that stayed focused on Diamond and never seemed to move at all.

Diamond stepped forward. “How much?”

“Yeah,” Dainty sighed. “Knew that was coming.” She flicked out a checkbook. “Okay, I can cover a percentage of the cake damages in monthlies, but if you want a down payment right now or a lump sum, I need time to stop by the bank—”

“No.” She pointed. “How much for the menace?”

Spoiled’s nose crinkled. “I am not paying to keep that… creature in my house.”

A hefty little sack jingled in Diamond’s pocket. She cupped it and lobbed a spare frown to her stepmother before continuing, “I’ve been saving my allowance; I’ll make a down payment right now.” Those bits were supposed to be for bird treats and a new currycomb, but whatever.

“Have some sense, Diamond.” Spoiled flicked her tail in the bedraggled bird’s direction. “The animal’s damaged goods; he can’t be worth that much.”

True. Which was why Diamond never actually said how much she’d brought. Her hoof pawed through the top layer of bits. The final count came around to six hundred and ninety. She wished that she hadn’t tipped the driver this morning.

Before Spoiled could kill the haggle, Diamond started the opening bid at, “Forty bits.”

Dainty Dove goggled at the both of them. “For the menace?” She jiggled the pigeon in her hooves. “This one?”

“Yes. I want that one.” After a second thought, Diamond added, “Please.”

Spoiled glanced between the pigeon keeper and the filly. “Diamond. Sweetheart.” Panic laced the edge of her voice. “I’m sure Miss Dove is already attached to—”

The bird plopped into Diamond’s hooves. “He’s on the house.”

“Wait, but—”

Dainty shoved a pile of papers in Diamond’s mouth. “There’s his vet records, pedigree papers, breed line, everything.”

“You can’t just dump your—”

“You can get a book on the specifics, but he mostly eats seeds, grains, chickpeas, and checkbooks.” Dainty pulled a tattered bundle of paper out of her breast pocket. “I’m not kidding about that last one. Stick to hard coins.”

The pigeon’s head rolled upside down in Diamond’s shuffle not to drop anything and talk with a muzzle full of documents. “And he’s free? Really?” She’d been willing to go upwards of a thousand. (Dad could have allocated a small loan.)

“Free, and no strings attached.” Dainty shook her head with a light smile as Diamond cuddled the raggedy pigeon. “Besides, you’ve obviously made friends. I’ve never seen anypony hold him this long without throwing a fit.”

Spoiled glared at the languid bird, then at Dainty. “There could be more than one reason for that. Don’t you think?”

Dainty Dove blinked at her innocently. “Well, who are we to stand in the way of true friendship, Mrs. Rich?”

Come to think of it, her pigeon did seem to move slower than he had a while ago. Not as much fidgeting or cooing. He didn’t even need the napkins to keep him still anymore. Diamond scratched his upside-down chin. “It’s been a long day, so he’s probably tired.” She kissed the tip of his little pink beak.

Spoiled Rich yelped in abject horror.

Dainty coughed into her hoof. “Yeah, maybe get some mouthwash if you’re going to kiss him. The mouth-burning kind.” She glanced at Spoiled, who continued to glower at her. “What? He’s already free; it’s not like I’m scamming you. She likes him, that’s not my fault. I sure as sugar can’t do a thing with him; he’s already off the breeding roster and flies like a baked potato.”

Papers shuffled and feathers ruffled while Diamond tried to balance the bird and read his papers at the same time. Unless she learned hornless levitation in the next two seconds, something had to give.

Pigeon Two Three Seven flapped in minor surprise as Diamond lifted him up to tiara height.

“Do me a favor and don’t do anything gross until we get home, okay?” Thank goodness for mane insurance.

Little claws dug into her scalp while he nibbled at strands of shampooed hair. Maybe if he stayed up there long enough, he’d come out smelling like Strawberry & Cream Sensation. The bird’s weight settled in the crook of the tiara, and Diamond could feel the warmth of his little body through her mane. Cooing rumbled in her ears.

“Why yes, it is a luxury ride. No, you don’t need to thank me. Better than the napkins, right?” Certainly better than sharing a cage with sixty other pigeons. Diamond flicked an ear in Spoiled’s direction. She didn’t need to see her face to know the expression. “I’ll wash it again when we get home.”

The pedigree papers had unfurled in the shuffle. Diamond sat back on her haunches to keep her head steady, squinting at the tiny mouthwriting.

Aviary: East Canterlot’s High Rollers

Birthdate: 06/04/1002

Category: Fancy/Tumbler

Breed: Trottingham Magpie Pigeon

Color: Blk

Registered Number: #237

Registered Title: E. Canterlot’s Menace II Society

Diamond quirked an eyebrow. “You literally named him Menace?” And were the Roamin numerals really necessary?

At the sound of his name, Menace poked his head through the tiers of the tiara and blinked at her upside down.

“After his sire, yes.” Dainty indicated the family tree beneath the show records. Apparently, the original Menace to Society had taken first place seven years in a row. “Too bad it didn’t run in the family.”

“Isn’t there a basket or something to stuff that into?” Spoiled tried to shoo the bird away from the tiara in a limp-hoofed wave.

Menace bobbed his neck, following the polished hoof above his head. He flicked his tattered tail against Diamond’s ears and burbled curiously. The tip of his beak poked the soft center of Spoiled’s hoof.

Spoiled yanked it back with a revolted grimace.

Menace tried to follow, slipped forward, and almost tumbled off Diamond’s head, tiara and all.

“See? He likes both of you already.” Dainty poked the pigeon’s head back through the tiers and nudged the tiara into place. “Sweet little filly befriends a lost little bird: beauty from the ashes of tragedy. It’s practically a fairy tale—you could sell the book rights tomorrow.” That mile-long smile wouldn’t fool a yearling. “And best of all, nopony needs to be fired for circumstances beyond her control!”

Spoiled Rich blinked slowly.

The smile sank. “...I’m fired, aren’t I?”

“Incinerated.”

With that, Spoiled turned to go, but paused a moment. Thoughtfully, her tail curled upward. “However.”

Both of Dainty’s white ears pricked.

“However, I might be convinced otherwise. If...”

The mares exchanged knowing looks. Together, they inspected the grubby little bird in the tiara.

Diamond Tiara clenched her jaw and glared.

Neither pony acknowledged her. Dainty clicked her tongue in thought. “Today’s gig ran what, fifty bits a head?”

“Up fifteen from last time, yes, with thirty-three hundred altogether. I’d be willing to ignore this incident of gross negligence and stay your continuing rate at that number. Regardless of flock size.” Spoiled shot Menace another glance, as if reconsidering the price range, then shook her head.

Technically, that meant Spoiled already paid for Menace either way. Fifty bits sounded low for a purchase. Was it a rental price, since she’d only borrowed him for the flight?

“I can still pay for him...” Nopony acknowledged her, and Diamond didn’t really blame them.

Rentals ran about a quarter of full price; she could run that, but it wouldn’t matter. Dainty had shifted back on the fence, and it’d take more than a fair asking price to turn her again. Even if Diamond pooled her current allowance, plus savings, plus the pageant winnings not locked in college funds, it only came out to five thousand bits rounded up. More than Spoiled’s deal for one gig, but those jobs repeated at least six times a year.

She’d been officially outbid. Time for a different strategy.

Diamond’s wide eyes sparkled with unshed tears. “But you already said I could have him.” It may have been weak to cry in public, but they weren’t in public right now and all rules had asterisks. Tears were a commodity like any other. Frugal investors used their assets wisely.

“Oh, gosh.” Dainty Dove rubbed the back of her neck. “Mrs. Rich, she does seem awfully attached…”

Menace let his weight rest against the tiara. One wing dangled from Diamond’s head, languishing halfway between a hug and a miserable slump. He gave a sickly little coo, and Dainty’s frown grew.

So did Spoiled’s. “Yes,” she said, “that’s the problem.” She whispered something in the keeper’s ear, and the white pony frowned. Spoiled whispered something else.

“That’s not for sure, Mrs. Rich. You’ve got the vet records, he’s already healthy—”

Spoiled’s whisper rose to a low hiss. “Records from last month, before it fell into a cake. Don’t be naïve, mare. Look at it.”

Dainty looked.

Diamond adjusted her tiara, guarding her bird with one hoof.

Spoiled Rich sighed. “She’s just a little filly, Dove. She’s not ready for it.”

What was that supposed to mean? Diamond pursed her lips. “I’m not that little. I can take care of a bird, Mother, it can’t be that hard.” She nudged the dangling wing back into place. “If I need extra help, I can always ask Fluttershy.”

Something seemed to click for Dainty Dove. “Oh.”

It wasn’t a good sort of ‘oh’. It was the kind that came after a bad day on Stall Street or forgetting your homework.

Dainty switched back to that syrupy You’re-Too-Dumb-For-Grownup-Words voice. “Heeey, honey, I know you guys got off on the right hoof and all, but are you really sure you want that pigeon?” She gestured to the cage behind her. “Listen, I’ve got a grand champion Magpie on the nest right now—spitting image of Menace II Society. After the next clutch hatches, she’s all yours. On the house, same as before.”

The wing had fallen out again. Diamond tucked it behind her ear. “No deal.”

“She’s the next best thing. Better, even.”

“The next best thing’s just a first-place loser. Everypony knows that.” Only an idiot got talked out of a closed sale. Diamond stamped her hoof. “No. Deal. You gave me the papers already. I want Menace. He’s mine.”

Spoiled narrowed her eyes. “Sixty bits a head.”

“Hmm.” Dainty leaned against the cage while she mused. “Four thousand a gig, or put up with the menace for another month...” Another glance a Diamond, then at Menace. She shuddered. “Bird’s yours, kid.”

Diamond Tiara humphed. “Good.”

“Don’t know what you see in him, but whatever. It’s your funeral.” Dainty checked her watch. “And mine’s up in an hour! Come on guys, let’s get to the cemetery.”

Spoiled nipped her heels all the way to the end of the lawn. “Wait! What about seventy a head?”

“Not worth it.”

“Eighty.”

“Taxi!”

“Ninety a head and a free ride to the cemetery!” Dread crept into Spoiled’s face. “A-a hundred?”

“Sorry, ma’am. At least you’re not losing any money from it; you can probably just use a nest for the next couple days and be fine.” Dainty paused as the taxi rolled up to the gate. “Am I still fired?”

“Yes.”

“In that case, I lied. That dress makes you look like a boiled onion.”

The last chance to weasel out of her contract pulled away and melted into Canterlot’s steady traffic flow. For a time, she watched it in some last-ditch hope it might turn around. When it finally pulled out of sight, Spoiled rubbed her temples and turned around.

The frown had vanished, along with her work smile. She bore a thin slash of a mouth, glacial and blunt. Circumstances aside, Diamond Tiara couldn’t help but welcome the sight of Spoiled’s real face.

“Diamond.” Spoiled paused to rearrange her opening argument. “Diamond, I know we had a deal, and I know that you’ve become attached to the bird, but—”

“But nothing! I’m on the honor roll, I kept my room clean, I didn’t get in trouble, and I didn’t complain about the wedding I didn’t even want to go to, not even once. I even made Class Treasurer, and maybe it’s not President, but it still looks good on college stuff.” Diamond took Menace off her head and into her hooves, just in case somepony tried to snatch him again. “I did my part, Mother. You do yours.”

Menace’s little toes curled around Diamond’s horseshoe. His head rocked sideways, dangling over the edge of her fetlocks.

Everypony said that you had to give respect to get respect, but that only counted between adult ponies. Foals had to respect whoever had been alive longer than them. It didn’t matter if they’d earned it. It didn't matter if they deserved it.

Which means the contract doesn’t matter, either. The stirrings of tears—the awful, pointless, stupid, real kind—pricked the corners of Diamond’s eyes. She blinked them back and sniffed hard. “Just because you’re bigger, it doesn’t mean you don’t have to keep your promises.”

Spoiled rubbed the bridge of her muzzle, groaning into her hoof. “Sun’s sake, do you need to make a production out of everything? It’s not a pony, it’s a bird, and not even one of the particularly smart ones. It’s barely even sentient.”

“That’s got nothing to do with—”

“With the contract. Yes. I know.” Another pause to regroup. “We can’t keep it. Any other bird, fine; maybe even one outside the contract. But not this one.”

“Why?!” Diamond’s sudden volume spike sent Menace into a flapping fit.

“Diamond Dazzle Tiara, you are not stupid; don’t condescend to me pretending that you are.” Spoiled glared at the pigeon. “You know why.”

“What, because he’s missing a few feathers? Because he fell into the cake? Mother, that was an accident and you know it! It wouldn’t have even happened if Dainty didn’t make him fly when he didn’t feel good.” Despite his cooing protests, Diamond hugged Menace tighter. “There’s nothing wrong with Menace. Nothing!”

Spoiled Rich blinked. She shook her head, laughing softly, though there was nothing to laugh about. “‘Nothing wrong with him.’” Another laugh—more like a sigh, really. “I-I don’t even know if you’re being obstinate or if you’re just that delusional.”

Neither, but if her stepmother wanted obstinate, Diamond wasn’t about to deny her. “Menace is beautiful.” She held him up to admire his distinctive charm. “He’s avant-garde with new-wave aesthetics.”

“Hmph. ‘Avant-garde’ is a weasel word used to trick ignorant ponies out of their money for something somepony vomited on a canvas.” Spoiled sniffed. “So, I guess you’re not wrong.”

Like that mattered; Cheerilee said nopony ever appreciated masterpieces in their time, either. Besides, art appreciated in value. Menace just needed to settle in.

The top of Menace’s head pressed under Diamond’s chin. She felt his cooing in the hollow of her throat. “Just give him a chance. Look, I’ll keep him in my room. You’ll never even have to see him or take care of him or anything.”

The gravel walkway crunched as Spoiled knelt to Diamond’s eye level. “I’m sorry you’ve grown so attached. I really am. You can learn to love another bird. In the long run, it’ll be the best thing.”

She glanced at Menace again, and Diamond couldn’t grasp the expression. Not disgust or disdain, something else. Sadder, maybe?

Diamond frowned. Did Spoiled actually feel bad about this?

Spoiled patted her withers. “You’ll understand when you’re older.”

Apparently, she didn’t feel that bad. Not enough to matter. Sure, maybe Spoiled was willing to try a token gesture of togetherness and bonding, so long as it didn’t take any real work on her part.

Diamond flattened her ears. Her stomach still growled, but she’d stopped caring about that a long time ago. “No, I’m pretty sure I understand right now. It’s not the first time my mom wouldn’t keep her promise.”

The moment she said it, Diamond regretted it. She had said it to hurt Spoiled (and it did) and because it was true. Nothing hurt more than the truth, but the shrapnel of it ricocheted and struck her in the face. Now Diamond couldn’t stop thinking about when she’d asked Mom to come for Family Appreciation Day last year. Or last winter, when Mom said she’d visit for Hearth’s Warming and then sent a drum kit instead. Or any of the other times she’d lost count of.

Silence fell over the yard. Diamond never knew Spoiled’s teal eyes could stretch that big. They matched delicate panels of her dress that fluttered in a cross-breeze.

“I wanted,” Spoiled softly said, “to do something nice for you. I thought if we started on the same page with terms we could both agree on…” Her eyes scrunched tight. “You did this on purpose.”

Lost, Diamond stared back at her. “What?”

“You… you took a gesture of kindness and twisted it.” Spoiled’s voice had become so quiet, Diamond strained to hear her. “That’s why you chose the worst possible option. Isn’t it?”

Diamond blinked. “I—what? N-no I didn’t.” Why did the truth always end up sounding like a bad lie?

Spoiled blinked back. “Alright.” She brushed the gravel off her skirt, stood to full height, and strolled back down the gravel path.

Diamond toddled on three legs to catch up. “Mother! I didn’t!

“Keep your voice down. We’re still at a wedding.”

Menace squirmed in Diamond’s tightening grip and began to burble unhappily. Sometime in the past few minutes, he’d pooped on her dress.

“I didn’t go looking for Menace on purpose, we just sort of… um…”

“Save it. You win, Diamond.”

Spoiled bundled the pigeon’s papers and shoved them into her purse. “I tried, but so be it. Keep the gutterbird if you want to. Full ride, as promised: cage, birdbath, food, whatever.” She cast one last glance at Menace. “So much good as that will do him. Whatever happens, you brought it on yourself.”