A Mother's 'Love'

by deadpansnarker

First published

Diamond Tiara finds out the consequences of her actions against Spoiled Rich after she stood up to her in front of the entire school. Disgraced, her precious tiara taken away...Then, somepony knocks on her door late at night, and everything changes.

Diamond Tiara's joy at her newfound outlook and friends is shortlived. Exiled to her bedroom while her uncompromising mother decides what to do with her, she can only listen in as Spoiled Rich tells her too-meek-by-half husband Filthy EXACTLY how useless his daughter is. Then, there's a sudden knock on the door... and Tiara's adventure is about to begin.
Set after the events of 'Crusaders Of The Lost Mark'.
Now rated T for some disturbing scenes
Beware of SPOILERS in the comments.
Great new cover drawn, completely at their own behest, by the very talented robsa990. What a nice chap he is.

Part 1: A Late Night Argument

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"... It was disgraceful behaviour!! How dare she speak to me like that in front of everypony!! This is what happens when we allow her free reign to associate with worthless blank-flanks, it poisons her mind and makes her forget her place!!" Sufficed to say, Spoiled Rich was not a happy pony.

Listening to her from the top of the stairs, Diamond Tiara's ears flattened. It had been a great moment of exhilaration when she'd called her mother out for her rudeness and bad foal-rearing prowess in front of the entire class, but now she was paying the penalty. The filly may have gained countless new friends as a result of her change of heart, and even helped her long term rivals the Cutie Mark Crusaders receive their long awaited symbols of destiny, but life at home remained pretty much the same...

As in, Spoiled Rich berating her at every opportunity for any perceived 'lowering of standards', and Filthy Rich just sitting down impassively in his comfortable chair reading the paper, while her mother ranted and raved.

And now, having already received an earful from the mare as soon as she'd arrived back from her new friends's cute-ceañera, she'd been banished to her room for the rest of the month. The punishments didn't end there, either. There would be no more trips to Manehattan EVER. No spa treatments. Fancy dresses. Expensive chocolates. Her precious tiara was confiscated and locked away (She felt naked without it...Maybe because, she was).

Worse of all, if she was ever caught talking to any of those 'insignificant low-lives' ever again, then her punishment would be doubly serious. As in: being packed off to an 'exclusive' boarding school, where they would teach her how to be a proper lady. Shame about the lack of personal freedoms and militarised education program, though...

And now. here she was, eavesdropping on a very private, one-sided conversation between her tyrannical mother and easy-going father when she should be pondering 'what she'd done' while grounded on her four-poster bed. For the second time that day, her so-called failings were laid bare by her control-freak mother.

On the plus side, Filthy Rich was barely acknowledging his wife. The stallion was quite used to Spoiled's little tantrums by now. As usual, it was best to wait until she ran out of steam, while nodding every few minutes to convey the illusion he was actually paying attention. Worked every time...

What he wouldn't give for a quiet life, though. He worked his tail off every day at Barnyard Bargains. The least he believed he deserved was a bit of peace and quiet when he returned to his mansion, to make himself an oat cocktail while he perused the sport section. No chance of that with the old nag he'd found himself lumbered with.

Why did he agree to marry her again? He really didn't know. He never was as good at picking the ladies as he was at business. An Achille's hoof that had paid a hefty contribution towards his current stressful situation.

"... High horse, am I? Well, considering the state of the populance of this backwater province, I think I'm perfectly entitled to feel that way. Honestly, if there wasn't a princess living here now, I highly doubt anypony would have even heard of 'Ponyville'. Also, why did you agree to fund that playground for those ungrateful brats at the school?! Does that mean I won't be able to buy a new outfit for the party Prince Blueblood is hosting next week? Well? dear? Are you even listening to me?!" Spoiled continued her tirade.

"Hmm?" Filthy Rich's eyes were momentarily diverted from the headlines "Oh, yes darling. Whatever you say, darling. You know best, after all." There it was. His generic, stock response. One which he'd honed over the years, and words which seemed to get him out of any argument with his 'beloved', without actually having to concentrate on her ramblings.

This however, was the first occasion his tactics had failed him "I knew it!!" Spoiled put her hoof to her head, and took on the airs and graces of a tragic heroine."You don't care our only daughter is being lead astray by the riff-raff, and that I'm here looking after her every day when you're away on business. I'm doing my best to make her a presentable member of society, and you're more concerned with who won the recent Wonderbolts derby!! Honestly, I don't know how I cope sometimes. Why are you so selfish?!"

Filthy Rich was about to point out the irony behind that statement, but decided wisely against it... He didn't want another all-night moanathan, like that time Diamond had lost the job of flag-carrier at the Equestria Games to that 'flightless chicken' and her two friends. Spoiled had been absolutely incandescent at that decision, and had even tried to use her clout as head of the school board to declare the result as a fix. Mrs Harshwhinney and Cheerilee had soon shot down that attempt, though.

Needless to say, Filthy really got both barrels that night. He was found slumped on his office desk the next day, with bags under his eyes the size of saucers. I wonder why...?

So, unable to think of a suitable response without poking the timberwolf cage with a stick, he again took refuge behind his printed material, while Spoiled launched a fresh assault on his ears. "Corrupt her, would they...Friendship doesn't pay the bills. Doesn't keep you pretty. I know what's best for her... How dare anypony tell me different. Just you wait until tomorrow... I'll have a few things to say to those hooligans and their families... Let them know their place. If they try to interfere with my project again..." *KNOCK KNOCK*

Suddenly, the mare's heedless ire was cut abruptly short by a loud tapping on the front door, and both she and a listening Diamond Tiara, secretly present at the top of the steps, flinched in surprise, while Filthy raised an eyebrow in his usual understated way. (Not just at the unexpected interruption... Did his wife just call their daughter... A project?!). It was late evening, who on Equestria could be paying them a social call at THIS hour?

All three waited for the familiar trot, and wheezing gasp of their veteran butler Randolph as he strolled over to answer the call. Spoiled had wanted to replace the old stallion for a while, complaining that he took forever to bring her a fruit smoothie as she reclined by the pool, and that she'd started to notice a few specks on the staircase he judiciously wiped every day.

Filthy was more sentimentally inclined to keep him on. The ancient retainer had been with the Rich lineage for generations, and until there was a dramatic deterioration in his standard of work, he was happy for the loyal servant to retire at his leisure.

Diamond had possessed the casting vote in the end, and, while the senility of Randolph annoyed her, not to mention the musky aroma of old pony... She did find his acrobatics skills a useful tool to show off in the playground, so she agreed with her father in the end.

The old butler was as surprised as anyone though, when the pink filly had approached him that day soon after her return home, apologized profusely for treating him like an object, asked if he was okay after being crushed by a statue of her likeness earlier on, and had even helped him prepare dinner. "Maybe..." Randolph had mused "I should hand in my resignation after all. I'm clearly going mad."

Regardless, the three occupants of the most prestigious address in town (apart from a certain castle, of course) waited nervously to see what was so important that their guest(s) couldn't wait until daylight hours. Filthy, by instinct, was reaching for a poker. He had a family and fortune to protect, after all.

They all heard an audible gasp of surprise from their loyal butler, before the sound of the front door creaked as it flew wide open. A few mixed voices could be heard from Diamond's vantage point, and she craned her neck to see who it could be. No, surely not...

Filthy was prepared. He had his improvised weapon in hand, and was ready to defend his nearest and dearest with his life.

Spoiled was caught in a dilemma. Should she shield behind her resolute husband, or make a gallop for it? If her partner was overcome, She'd be next in the firing line, after all...

As it turned out, neither option was necessary. Randolph staggered in on tottering hooves, his bottom jaw a-quiver. "P-p-p-p-presenting..." He stammered, his visage a picture of shock.

He never got time to finish, though. It was pointless introducing the arrivals, anyway. Their faces were so familiar even the Cake twins would have recognised them on sight.

Filthy Rich dropped his poker. Spoiled Rich spilt her cup of imported honeysuckle tea. They stared pop-eyed at the unexpected visitors, before glancing at each other, and back to those who had gathered in the room.

Things had certainly taken on an interesting turn that night.

Part 2:There's Somepony At The Door...!!

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Diamond Tiara couldn't believe it. Why did they make the long trek, at the dead of night, to her mansion? As if the day hadn't been active enough with all the emotion and joy attached to their close family members and loved ones getting their cutie marks, why had they taken it upon themselves to stop by, when most ponies were tucked up in bed after the festivities?

The little filly had no idea. All she could do is stand there on the staircase, slack-jawed, as four of the heroines of Equestria made their way past her vantage point and into the lounge, where her parents must have been equally nonplussed. The quartet of guests were as follows: Applejack, Rainbow Dash, and Rarity, with Princess Twilight Sparkle taking the lead.

As they past her amazed stare, none of the visitors noticed the young child watching them intently... That is, apart from Applejack. The farm pony seemed to possess a sixth sense for such things, and without warning turned to give Tiara a friendly smile and a wink, before following the rest of the party.

After all Diamond had done to pick on her sister and the other Crusaders, she could only feel humbled. At least that reaction from the older mare might prove that the four ponies weren't there because she was in trouble. In which case, what were they doing there...?

The pink filly's train of thought was interrupted by Randolph's stammering introduction, before the real confrontation got underway. Taken aback as they were by the sudden appearance of these unscheduled guests, it was Twilight who was able to get the opening salvo, ahead of the usually sharp-tongued Spoiled Rich.

"Sorry to bother you at this late hour." the Princess Of Friendship announced formally, fluffing out her wings "But my friends here have heard some rather disturbing things that may have transpired recently at the school and in town I felt had to be addressed urgently. I wanted to clarify these rumours to see if there was any truth in them, and if there was... Take appropriate steps."

Twilight sounds awfully stilted thought Tiara, renewing her surveillance of the situation. Not like herself at all. I wonder what these rumours could be...

The next voice to be heard was, strangely enough, Filthy Rich. The laconic stallion, used to dealing with high pressure meetings, wasn't sure what this was about, but whatever it was, he was sure it could be straightened out. Adjusting his tie, he spoke to those assembled in his usual authoritative tone.

"Now see here, Ms Sparkle. I appreciate what you have to say might be important, and being a member of the Royal Family might give you some clout. But you can't just barge into other pony's houses at night without prior warning. So, unless what you have to say is of the utmost importance, I suggest we take this up in the morning, and..."

"I'd call child endangerment 'the utmost importance', Filthy... Wouldn't you?" Applejack spoke for the first time, taking a step forward and aiming a purposeful glower at Spoiled Rich. Also noticeable was her calling Filthy Rich by the nickname he hated, and not correcting herself.

The rich stallion flinched in surprise at his old friend subjecting him to this insult, while the orange mare's harsh words earned her a look of surprise from Dash and Rarity, along with a disapproving glance from Twilight. Applejack wasn't backing down though. There was nothing more she hated than child abuse and after what she'd heard from her little sister earlier on, she was sure there was something rotten going on in the Rich household.

She continued "As soon as my little Apple Bloom had finished partying with her pals at her cute-cenera, we got talking about how she earned her cutie-mark. Apparently, she spent the day helping your daughter... Following her around, trying to cheer her up, teaching her how to be a better pony. The poor thing sounded miserable... And it wasn't too long before Bloom figured out why. It was..." At this point, Applejack pointed a hoof at where Spoiled Rich was sitting.

"Because of you." The farm pony finished her sentence with aplomb, a scowl decorating her features.

"W...WHAT?!" Spoiled was outraged beyond belief. How dare this smelly bumpkin force her way into the mansion, and accuse her of such a heinous crime?! She didn't care if the leader of this group was a princess, she was going to have them thrown out this instant. Spoiled reached over to grab the bell, which would summon the guards who'd fulfill the task...

Only to be stopped in her action by an angry looking Rainbow Dash, who'd flown over to Spoiled, so they were almost muzzle to muzzle. "Scootaloo told me what you said about her and her friends, in front of the entire class and the teacher. Let me tell you that that 'confused insignificant low-life' has done more in her short life than you have in your entire existence. Marrying into wealth, and getting fat off the proceeds... Yeah, great talent, that!!" The sarcasm was so thick, you could cut it with a knife.

Spoiled retracted her hoof. Why, she'd never been subjected to such uncivilised language before. Well, not since her daughter had chewed her out earlier on, but coming from another adult, that she couldn't punish, was unbelievable.

Next, it was the turn of Rarity, who had been scanning her surroundings with interest. "Much as I love what you've done with this place, darling, I'm afraid your parenting leaves more than a little to be desired. Shouting at your daughter in the middle of the town like that, just because she didn't win a class election. Yes, my sister has been with Diamond today too, and I hesitate to say this, but from what I can gather, a lot of the problems Sweetie's had with your daughter over the last few years would seem to originate from your bad lessons."

Spoiled listened in amazement. Even Rarity, the only pony there she vaguely used to respect for her fashion and designing skills, was giving her a mouthful. Well, she'd just lost herself at least one customer, that's for sure. The wealthy mare was going to take a trip soon to shop at the new boutique the unicorn had just opened in Canterlot... No chance of that happening now.

Twilight, who had lost control of the situation long ago, visibly facehoofed. This was supposed to have been a genial discussion about dealing with a fraught domestic situation, but events had spiraled completely out of control. She was glad Celestia wasn't around to see this, some mediator she'd turned out to be.

Still, in their own unsubtle, roundabout way her friends had kind of laid out exactly what she'd popped over to discuss: Spoiled Rich's toxic influence in the form of verbal and emotional abuse on her daughter which had apparently gone on for years, and had turned the filly into a friendless, obnoxious spoiled brat (at least, until now). Having come from a loving home herself, Twilight found it impossible to believe anypony would put so much unwarranted pressure on their offspring, as well as imbue them with so many unhealthy prejudices about the less well-off.

The princess wanted to understand.

Even though, she was quite sure she wouldn't.

"So, Mrs Rich..." Twilight spoke politely "You have heard from my friends our concerns for the way you've raised Miss Tiara, along with your publicly belittlement of the students at our local school, which may I just say, is shocking behaviour for the head of the board. Do you have anything to say for yourself?"

Spoiled almost exploded with anger.

This wannabe princess had the gall to tell her how to bring up her own progeny?!

Somepony who hung around with a baby dragon all day?

Somepony who was nothing but a common librarian, until recently?

Somepony who was lecturing her about being a mother, when she was childless herself?

(Of course, she left out the part where the purple alicorn had saved Equestria from certain destruction on a few occasions... Let's just say Spoiled has a very selective memory when she wants to).

THIS. SHE. WOULD. NOT. STAND.

"Who do you think you are?" Spoiled huffed. "She's my daughter, and she's mine to do with as I see fit. I have high hopes for her... She's certainly not going to end up a common farmer, a failed Wonderbolt, an overrated fashionista or a princess in name only. Honestly, I don't know what Celestia was thinking by giving you wings. Clearly you don't deserve such a position, you don't even know how to talk to your superiors. I'd like you to leave now, I have enough to deal with, undoing the damage those three little runts did to my blessed Diamond, without you four malcontents sticking your hooves in. Randolph will see you out."

Everypony present in that room wore an absolute looks of horror on their faces, and the one who looked most distressed of all was the usually stoic Filthy Rich. Once again, his wife had engaged her mouth before her brain, and had ended up making a complete fool of herself, and, by extension, him. How could he have let things deteriorate to such a degree? He was always happy to play the part of the silent breadwinner. Spoiled would be the one who'd actively bring up Diamond, and he'd respect whatever decisions she'd make without question.

He was only now starting to realise the folly of such an arrangement.

He only hoped he wasn't too late to fix it...

As it turned out, he might very well might be.

The next thing to happen was Twilight's horn glowing, which had the effect of covering the doors to the lounge in a purple hue, closing them abruptly before the butler could send her and her friends on their way, and cutting off an increasingly anxious Diamond's eavesdropping.

Then Dash, Rarity, Applejack and Twilight got into a miniature huddle.

To the accompaniment of murmurs such as "It's worse than we thought" and "Poor filly deserves better", the princess quickly conferred with her three friends, before they firmly nodded to each other, having reached a conclusion.

"Mr and Mrs Rich." The princess stiffly told a scowling Spoiled, and a nervous Filthy. "I didn't want to have to do this, but your uncompromising stance..." (she angrily glanced at Tiara's mother) "And your determined inaction..." (she cast a disappointed look at the father) "Has given me no option. I feel your daughter, emotionally speaking, is in clear and present danger in this environment, and is not being being nurtured to the best of her considerable potential."

The alicorn then levitated a piece of paper, with a few signatures on it, in front of the shell-shocked couple." I have here a temporary restraining order, written on her behalf. She'll be leaving with me tonight to a foster home. Perhaps only for a little while, depending on how long it takes for both of you to get your act together. You can see her on supervised visits twice a week, and you will of course be given regular updates of her progress. But for now, this is no longer her home. I hope you both see the error of your ways eventually so she can return here. Now, who's going to tell her, either of you, or us?"

Filthy started to cry, tears of shame and regret. Spoiled fainted, unable to cope with the gravity of what was unfurling.

Diamond, now having crept downstairs, with her ear glued to the door, stood motionless in stock silence.

What was going to happen to her now?

Part 3: Where Will I stay?

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Seeing as neither parent was in any fit state to tell their daughter about the sudden upheaval that very evening (With Filthy Rich sobbing into his paper, and Spoiled sprawled out on the floor with her tongue hanging out in a most unladylike fashion) The princess and her entourage decided to take it upon themselves to tell Diamond that she'd be moving away for a while.

Twilight did not relish such a discussion, especially with a filly she barely knew. Her memories of Tiara consisted of a far-off cute-cenera she attended where the child acted all high and mighty, and the time the child had gatecrashed a specially organised Twilight Time for the CMC, where she did nothing but smirk as the Crusaders failed at their various tasks. If you'd asked the purple alicorn about Diamond at that same point yesterday, she would have said the filly was a stuck-up, irredeemable bully of the worst kind, the sort that used to pick on her a lot as a youngster, for being a bookish nerd.

But just that very day, two events had happened to completely turn around Twilight's opinion of the filly. For one, Tiara had not only organised the funding of the new school playground via her father when she could have quite easily taken back the reigns of power as class president from an ailing Pipsqueak, she also managed to make possibly the first selfless use of her cutie-mark talent for leadership since she received said symbol. The way she had caroled the other students into assembling the structure in record time, by making use of the same characteristics of the pupils she used to mock was very impressive, and showed a total sea change in maturity for her.

Not to mention, she had managed to get the Princess Of Friendship to help out with the construction too. Twilight was still trying to figure out how the child had accomplished that. Maybe it was down to the fact that (no matter how indirectly) the alicorn felt somewhat responsible for the ruination of the original play equipment, caused by her epic struggle with Tirek. Or, perhaps it was a nice break from sitting around the Crystal Castle all day long, with nothing better to do than twiddling her hooves, and listening to Spike complain about the lack of a decent gem vendor in the neighbourhood. Either way, she had enjoyed being part of the big community effort, and she was sure that if Diamond Tiara continued on her new righteous path, she would make a fine leader one day, perhaps, even mayor.

The second reason the princess felt for the former bully was exactly the reason she'd made the late night call, bad parenting. It was quite late in the evening when Twilight heard from three of her closest friends about what their sisters had told them they'd witnessed over the course of the day. Even during one of the happiest occasions of their lives, Scootaloo, Sweetie Belle and Apple Bloom had been more concerned with the mental well-being of their newest pal than the appearance of their long-awaited cutie marks, a true testimony to how thoughtful and decent those three fillies were. After hearing such dire tales, Rainbow Dash, Rarity and Applejack had all made a bee-line straight to the purple alicorn, and Twilight judged the matter as so serious, she'd wasted no time in rushing down to the Rich mansion within minutes.

Obviously there was no telling what Diamond had had to cope with since she was born, but having received just a small dose of Spoiled's wrath since her arrival, Twilight could see how this kind of treatment day in, day out could impact the psyche of a delicate foal, and make it very hard for them to grow up as a well adjusted individual. If Mrs Rich had really told her daughter non-stop that she was better than everypony else and should act accordingly, then, well, that would explain an awful lot. What a terrible way to raise a filly and an almost guaranteed recipe for ostracizing and loneliness until old age.

Fortunately, by some miracle (and thanks to the timely intervention of the Crusaders) Diamond Tiara had apparently taken the first few steps towards forging a much more promising future for herself, by being herself not the artificial construct her mother had designed, with her father behaving like an accessory to the crime by simply not doing anything. It was now Twilight's job to make sure the progress the filly had made wasn't lost due to the damaging schemes of her control-freak Mom and the only way of doing that, if Spoiled Rich was unwilling to change, was to remove her from the unhealthy environment she was in, at least for a little while.

The princess had prepared for this eventuality for getting all the requisite paperwork, with all the necessary authorities signing in the right columns at very short notice. Twilight didn't want it to come down to having Diamond taken away, she was more than happy to negotiate with the Rich's, set up a meeting with a third party who could have helped aid them to become better parents, allowing them to maintain custody while improving their skills as caregivers. But, faced with Spoiled's unyielding attitude, and Filthy's impassive demeanor, the alicorn felt she had no choice but to utilise the least worse option... Have her relocated for now, but leave enough hope that the parents could get her back someday if they'd actually try to improve themselves.

'I don't think it'll be anytime soon, though.' Mused the princess, as she opened the door to the lounge. She was almost bowled over in the process by one Randolph, who'd taken a peek inside at some point, seen his mistress out for the count, and had, with speed that belied his advancing years, rushed off to grab some smelling salts before running back to revive her.

Also noticeable just in front of the entrance was Diamond Tiara, who grinned sheepishly at the four mares as they emerged. Twilight couldn't help but feel relieved she could tell by looking at the filly's expression she'd been listening in on their 'private' conversation, and this got the alicorn off the hook from having to relay the life-changing news to the child herself.

But, as soon as she stared into those confused, worried eyes which seemed on the verge of tears, the princess couldn't help but feel guilty at her own selfish mindset. For Diamond Tiara, despite all her tough talk and brave facade, was still just a child, and would require the most delicate of treatments at this time if she was to remain unscathed by what was going to happen. Twilight might be a prodigious reader, but she certainly didn't know much about foal-rearing, so, despite feeling empathetic towards the filly in a big way, she had no idea what to say next.

Fortunately, it was Applejack's turn to pick up the slack.

Adjusting her hat, the orange mare addressed the child "So, I guess you heard everything that was said in there?"

Tiara nodded, still with the same unsure gaze, peeking at her father's mini-breakdown and Randolph's failed attempts at waking up Spoiled Rich going on behind the quartet of mares in the other room.

Realising what was going on, Applejack subtly nudged Rainbow Dash, who took the hint, and quickly shut the lounge doors, so as not to stress out the filly even more than the current situation permitted.

"Now, don't you go concerning yourself about your folks. They'll be fine. It's you we need to take care of now." Applejack trotted over to Tiara, and lightly patted her on the head. "Go upstairs and pack some stuff. Not too much, just enough so we can transport it across to the farm."

The three other adults present, along with Diamond herself, all had their jaws fly wide open simultaneously, as if they were exchanging a silent 'what'?!

Recovering her composure for a minute, Twilight stammered "B-but, we haven't planned that far ahead yet! We need to discuss this in more detail, before we..."

"Oh, fiddlesticks to that!!" Applejack quickly shot her down. "It all makes sense. We have closer ties to the Rich's than any other family in Ponyville, and Filthy comes down to the farm at least once a week anyway to discuss business, which would make it much easier to organise supervised visits. Plus, we have a big family who can always watch her when somepony else is busy, and now her and Apple Bloom are getting along, that's removed the only real stumbling block to the idea. Finally, we can always use an extra pair of legs to help out. I hope you're ready to get your manicured hooves dirty, missy!!"

The orange mare gave a friendly wink to Tiara at this juncture, as if she was joking, so why did the pink filly feel she was being completely serious? Uh oh.

Still unsure at this sudden turn of events, Twilight hesitated. "I don't know..."

"Well, let's look at the facts, shall we?" Applejack continued. " Diamond needs somewhere to stay, we're all agreed on that. I can't see her living up with Rainbow Dash in the clouds, and Rarity is rushed off her hooves at the moment, what with her new shop and all. Twi, I know things are quiet for you right now, but you could be called up for your 'Princess' duties at any time. Imagine if Diamond needs you for something urgently, and you're all the way over in Canterlot! Now, with me, even if I am called away by the Cutie Map, we still have Big Mac and Granny Smith to watch her. It's a no-brainer. Leave her with me, sugarcube, I promise to look out for her as long as it takes."

Weighing up all the options in her head, It did make a lot of sense to Twilight. But there was one pony who's opinion they hadn't heard from yet, and her view was the most important of all.

"So Miss Tiara, you've heard Applejack's proposal. It does seem sound to me, and I am tempted to approve it, but tell me, what do you think?" The purple alicorn gently asked the filly.

Diamond's head was in a state of flux. She was still getting to grips with the fact she was going to have to move out of her comfortable mansion that very evening for an indeterminate amount of time. Now, she was being asked if she wanted to live in a decrepit old farmhouse, with somepony who she'd hated until recently, and would probably be expected to do child labour, to boot. Not to mention, the three baths a day she'd have to take, and all the modern creature comforts she'd have to forego.

She couldn't possibly say yes. There was no way on Equestria she could say yes.

And yet, she felt her lips move of their own accord.

"Yes." came her reply.

Oh no!! What had she done?! In her befuzzled state of mind. She'd said the first thing that popped into her head.

And had more or less signed herself up to weeks, possibly months of bad hygiene, back breaking work, and life in the dark ages.

Not to mention, no parents...

Her parents... Oh, no...

That's when she realised for the first time that day, despite the arguments, the fights, and the outright neglect...

She was going to miss them terribly.

As if on cue, the tears started appearing.

No!! This can't be happening!! I'm a Diamond!! I don't break!!

But, those hollow words her mother taught her, proved to be as inaccurate as almost everything else.

Diamond Tiara starting whining unconsciously. That whine became a blub, that blub became a sob...

And that sob...Became a full-on bawlfest.

It was like someone had turned on a faucet, and that faucet was now broken.

The more she tried to stop the flow, the more water seemed to leak out.

How pathetic thought the filly, in the midst of her pity party. And right in front of the Princess, too.

I bet I look like such a loser right now, even Applejack wouldn't want me.

Tiara's mistake, however, was ascribing her mother's beliefs onto other ponies.

And It wasn't too long, before she felt a strange sense of warmth as the aforementioned mares, along with Rarity...

And, with a bit of hesitation, even Rainbow Dash too, had enveloped her into the tightest of hugs.

A completely foreign feeling to the magenta filly, but one she nevertheless enjoyed greatly.

Part 4: Moving Away

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After a minute or so of being encased in her furry cocoon, Diamond Tiara's sobs gradually abated. She looked around at the four sympathetic faces around her, and mumbled "Thank you".

Applejack gave the filly a nod. "Anytime, sugarcube. Never forget, we're all here for you if you ever need us, and I know I speak for Fluttershy and Pinkie Pie on that score as well. Now, in regards to what I said a minute ago, do ya think you'll be okay with getting your things from upstairs? Or do you want my help? Take your time." The farm pony smiled back at Diamond patiently.

"No. I think I'll be fine..." Tiara was able to squeeze out, as she overcame the last of her tears.

"Well, off with you then. Don't worry. We'll all still be here when you get back..." Applejack spoke with the same friendly tone.

"Okay. I'll go now..." Diamond slowly trudged up the stairs, her head still pounding at the rate at which everything was moving. Not to mention, her complete meltdown in front of the quartet of mares, who were all still watching her concernedly as she ascended the steps.

And yet, none of them had seemed the least bit embarrassed at her display, and they'd barely thought twice about comforting her during her lowest ebb. The filly had always been taught that to show such emotion in public was unseemly, and to accept compassion from 'lower classes', a sign of weakness they could exploit.

Yet, these were four of the heroines of Equestria, Who had helped save the world from the likes of Discord, Queen Chrysalis, Tirek, so nopony could call them unimportant, or 'weaklings'.

Despite all that though, They hadn't hesitated to cuddle the sadness out of her when she feared her dam was about to break. There seemed to be no ulterior motive either, behind their words of empathy and solace.

Nothing about it added up.

Unless...

What she had been lectured about, drilled into her brain on countless occasions since the day she was born...

Was wrong.

'Arrgh!! My head...' Diamond winced at the overanalysing going on in her brain. She'd already been through so much that night, any more mental gymnastics might cause her skull to implode. Besides which, it was already long past her bedtime, and she still had to gather up some personal possessions, make the long walk to the farm...

Upon reaching her room, she grabbed a velvet travelling bag from under her bed and stumbled around like a zombie, opening drawers, taking random stuff out and just throwing it in her case.

She was so not ready for this right now.

MEANWHILE, DOWNSTAIRS...

While Rarity was wandering around the hall admiring the decor, and Rainbow Dash pondered why anypony would want to waste their bits on such pretentious trinkets, Applejack and Twilight were going over the arrangements for Diamond Tiara's arrival.

"... And she can share a room with Apple Bloom, help her out with her chores..." The farm pony seemed quite enthusiastic about having the magenta filly as a guest.

Twilight scratched the bottom of her chin. "Are you sure about this? I mean, it'll be enough of a culture shock moving from this" (The princess gestured at her ornate surroundings) " To where you live, no offense. And now, you're going to bunk her with somepony she bullied until fairly recently, and make her do jobs that she's probably never done in her life? I don't know..."

Applejack put a reassuring hoof over the alicorn's neck. "Don't worry Twi. we'll soon get her settled in. The Apples aren't known as the most welcoming family in all of Ponyville for nothing. And we won't give her any of the heavy stuff to do, just pick a few apples up and whatnot. Don't you worry about my Apple Bloom neither, she can handle herself, and now she knows all about Diamond's personal circumstances, I'm sure she'll be just as patient as I plan to be."

Twilight's fears were slightly allayed by Applejack's confident words. "What will Granny Smith and Big Mac think about this, though?" She added.

The farm pony grinned at this question. "They'll be over the moon. Granny loves children, having another young 'un around the place will make her day. And I'm sure Mac would enjoy having somepony else to talk to..." Applejack laughed at her little joke, and catching onto the pun a few seconds later, Twilight followed suit in chuckling.

Their revelry, along with Rarity and Dash's examination of the property, was suddenly interrupted by the sound of a door closing.

It was Randolph, who had just emerged from the lounge, and was now staring at the four guests with a quizzical frown.

Glancing at each other nervously, it was Rarity who popped the question. "Errmm, so, how are Mr and Mrs Rich doing, darling?"

Randolph stared down at the ground, and replied in his rarely heard, crackly voice "Mistress Spoiled is still unconscious, but she is stirring. With a bit of rest, she'll be fine tomorrow morning. Master Filthy Rich has calmed down, and is aware of the situation. He would also like to see his daughter before she leaves. Now, if you'll excuse me, madam, I have to get a cloth to clean up a honeysuckle tea stain with."

At this point, the butler brushed past those present in a rather brusque way. The quartet of mares looked at each other in surprise.

"What's eating him?!" Remarked Rainbow Dash, with a raised eyebrow. "You know, apart from waiting on the biggest snobs in Ponyville for the best years of your life..."

"Now, dear, don't be too hard on him..." Rarity was quick to speak up for the servant. " He's just seen one of his employers faint, another one in floods of tears, and is about to witness the filly he perhaps thought of as a granddaughter being removed from the mansion she's lived all her life. I would say his conduct, despite being a bit unprofessional, was at least understandable."

"...Oh" said Dash, her head slightly bowed "When you put it like that..."

Just when everypony was pondering the mood of the veteran butler, another voice could be heard in the echoey chamber.

"... I said I'm ready. Did you hear me?"

It was Diamond Tiara, clutching a rather large holdall with her teeth, and looking pensively at those who were about to take her away from all that she'd ever known. Having had time to think things over upstairs, she wasn't exactly ecstatic at the prospect, but, as a tough filly, she was determined to make the best of things, and there would certainly be no more impromptu crying sessions from that point on.

...Right?

Applejack approached her new house-guest with a bemused look "WHOA there, missy!!" The orange mare exclaimed. "That's rather a lot of stuff, isn't it? I told you to pack light. How are you going to transport everything in there to the farmhouse, by yourself? There's no horse-drawn carriage waiting for you outside, you know."

Tiara was shocked. "Y-you don't mean y-you expect me to..." The filly stammered, her face turning an attractive shade of scarlet.

Applejack rolled her eyes with a soft smile. Of course, the filly expected everything to be done for her without question. It was a common theme running throughout her upbringing, after all. Oh well, hopefully it was a habit the Apples could ween her off of during her tenure at the farm. It would do the child the world of good to learn some independent skills for a change.

"Tell you what, sugarcube" the orange mare told a perplexed Tiara "I'll help you this once. But in the future, don't try to pack more than you can carry, because I won't always be around to do your heavy lifting for you. Even your servants have days off, you know. Do you agree?"

Still getting used to this state of affairs, Tiara nodded her confirmation. She was going to have to learn, and fast.

As Applejack went to clasp the filly's bag (Which was so heavy, even the fit farm pony struggled a little with it's weight) Twilight suddenly remembered Randolph's words.

"Oh, by the way, Diamond..." the princess told the youngster "Your father would like to say goodbye to you before you leave. Do you want to see him?"

Tiara thought about her answer for a few seconds. "Yes. Yes I would. Very much."

Twilight smiled at the filly. "Of course you would. Take as long as you need, me and my friends will be right out here, waiting for you."

The other three mares present also gave Diamond reassuring grins, as she made her way to the lounge, for possibly the last time for quite a while.

Wondering what she was going to find inside, she pushed open the double doors...

And saw her father tending to her dazed mother, who was propped up on their luxurious couch with silk cushions, and a glass of water by her side.

She'd never seen either of her parents in this state before. Filthy Rich, the usually hard-nosed businessman, was sitting there, his eyes bloodshot and his face a picture of sorrow.

Spoiled Rich was even worse off. The prim and proper mare who took great pride in her appearance was dead to the world, her mouth agape, mane ruffled and a most unflattering expression set on her stony features.

Unsure of what else to do, Diamond meekly entered the room, and held onto one of Filthy's vacant hooves, while the two of them just sat there for a few minutes, staring at the motionless form of her mother.

Finally, Randolph arrived back with his flannel to clean up the spilled tea, and it was as if this action was enough to spur Filthy to life, as he at last said something.

"Diamond Tiara..." His voice sounded uncharacteristically hoarse "My precious Diamond. I have to apologise to you..."

'Oh no...' thought the filly. 'He sounds so sad...' And, contrary to what she promised herself a little earlier, she felt her eyes fill up with moisture once again.

"I've done you so wrong" the wealthy stallion continued, too ashamed to even turn around to look at his daughter. "I was so focused on work. So obsessed with striking deals and earning money. I didn't realise... How bad..."

Desperate to hold it together, Tiara frantically wiped her eyes and tried to console her broken father. "D-daddy? What are you saying? It's not your fault. I'm the one who should have been better. Please, don't cry..."

Her words didn't seem to have much effect. "No, sweetheart. I should have been here. But, I wasn't, and now, thanks to my blind stupidity... My precious Diamond... Is being taken away..."

That did it. There was no tough words, no pretensions of keeping a stiff upper lip left. Father and daughter just collapsed into one other, their tear ducts given free reign to unleash their contents, mostly on the comatose person in the middle of it all who was more responsible than anypony else in that room for their current predicament.

And yet, even as she was getting soaked by her family's misery, she slept peacefully on.

Part 5: Goodbye

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She didn't want to let go. This was the closest Diamond Tiara had been to her father for as long as she could remember. Away from the pressures of his job, away from the nagging of his wife...

Just her, and the dad she adored, holding onto to each other, finally letting their emotions run free. What a shame it had taken such a tragic turn of events for them to finally connect. Just when it looked like they were making a breakthrough, she'd have to depart soon afterwards for an unfamiliar life with a family who were almost perfect strangers to her.

Cleaning up the tea stain that Spoiled Rich had made after her shock to the system, it was all Randolph could do to avoid shedding a tear himself at such a moving spectacle. Sure, he knew that the mistress could be demanding, and sometimes placed unrealistic expectations on her daughter, but surely, removing Tiara entirely from the mansion was a little extreme?

Still, he was a mere servant, and it wasn't his place to get upset, or even, have an opinion. He could only show his disapproval in a raised eyebrow, a curt remark or a slight increase in physicality during his duties, as demonstrated in the hall just a minute ago. He was there to take orders, obey commands and an occasional bout of acrobatics. If the Master needed any comforting after Diamond had left the premises, he would surely give it, but only if asked.

Tiara and Filthy continued to sob, until their reserves of fluid were all used up, and then they simply clung to each other, trying to savour every second of this reforged relationship. Not a word was exchanged during this period, they were just happy to feel each other's hooves around their necks...

An activity which neither had participated in for far, far too long.

Eventually though, all good things must come to an end, and Diamond felt her father slowly but gradually pull himself away from her. "You better get going, sweetheart..." Filthy Rich informed her. "It's getting late, and you have to walk all the way to Sweet Apple Acres. I don't want you to be tired for school in the morning..." He proffered her a wide smile, even though inside his heart was breaking.

Tiara wanted to object. She wanted to scream the place down, and tell him that no way was she leaving. That she could work things out with her mother and they could be a family again, A proper one this time...

But she knew in her heart of hearts that this wasn't possible. She was only a mere child, a decision had been taken on her behalf by higher powers, and she was just going to have to accept it. She looked up at the melancholic face of her father through wet eyes, before glancing briefly at the still form of her mother on the couch.

"Will you tell M-Mom, that despite everything, I-I still love her..." Diamond had conflicting feelings about how Spoiled had raised her in what she now knew was an erroneous way. On the one hoof, it had made her mentally strong in her destined power of leadership. On the other, because the filly had been encouraged to channel her talents in the wrong way, it had warped her personality into that of a heartless bully.

Hopefully, all that was behind her now, and part of her new outlook was to not let her past weigh her down. True, she didn't feel exactly like she could forgive her mother yet for all the mistreatment she'd had to endure over the years. But the least she could hope for is that if she showed the same faith in Spoiled as the Crusaders had in her, then one day Spoiled might turn into the kind of Mom that Tiara had always dreamed of.

Nothing wrong in that, right?

"Yes, darling I will, but knowing her, she's not going to be very happy when she wakes up..." Filthy's face showed a trace of unease at what was bound to follow. "I'll try to explain things to her, get her to see sense, but if that doesn't work, I..." His voice trailed off, and he slumped back in his chair.

Ten seconds of complete silence passed.

"Just, look after yourself, okay?" Her father resumed speaking. "Applejack is a wonderful mare, and her little sister could be a great friend to you. Be good, and try to listen to them. Life may be hard for you there at first, but when I was a colt, I had to work hard to get where I am today. Maybe this will be a good lesson for you, who knows? Whatever happens, remember, I will always be your father, And I'll always love you, no matter what. If you ever have a problem, you can always come to me..."

He stopped speaking for a minute and frowned. "Well, you can tell me about them twice a week, at least..."

And with this declaration, he gave his daughter one quick, final hug which she gleefully returned, and, unable to say goodbye without completely losing control of his emotions again, he looked away once more.

"Go now. The princess will be waiting. I'll see you again, as soon as I can, okay?" He went back to attending to his wife, as Diamond realised her time was up, and with great reluctance, made her way to the lounge door. She paused briefly to scan the room and it's contents one final time, as if to ingrain the image into her head.

Randolph was waiting for her there, and although it was strictly against protocol, he couldn't resist whispering "Good luck, miss" to her, as she opened the double doors.

Still stunned by everything, she only responded with an appreciative nod, before exiting.

The butler watched her leave, before peeking at the Master, and breathing a sigh of relief when he realised Filthy was too preoccupied to bother chastising him over his break with tradition.

If Spoiled had still been awake, there was no way the elderly servant would have even dreamed doing something so outrageous.

OUTSIDE THE LOUNGE...

At the sound of the door creaking, the four mares looked up to spot a very red-faced Diamond sluggishly make her way over to them.

Rainbow Dash was tempted to ask why she'd kept them waiting so long in that stuffy old room, but one look at the filly's gaunt expression and slumped posture told her that this wasn't the time. The Pegasus had had to say goodbye to her pet turtle for the Winter, something which she'd been devastated about when it'd occurred.

Tiara was bidding her folks farewell for possibly even longer, and as much as she loved her companion animal, Dash knew there was no contest in terms of emotional impact. So, she wisely kept her mouth shut.

The other Elements Of Harmony's reactions ranged from wanting to ask her if everything was okay, or wrap her up in another long, comforting embrace.

But eventually, they decided the best thing to do was to keep quiet, and let Tiara's mind digest all that had happened before attempting to intervene. If she really needed anything, she'd come to them, trying to force the issue, no matter how well intended, might end up alienating her from them, and at this fragile stage of her departure, that was the last thing they wanted to happen.

So, they made their way out to the front door together. Twilight leading the way (as before), Rarity and Dash taking up the middle, and Applejack, with Tiara's possessions in tow, trotting adjacent to the filly in question at the back.

Two of the Rich's other servants had obviously been briefed on the situation, for as soon as the five ponies approached, the hired help was on hand to open the door for them, before shutting them out and locking up when the cold night air made itself known.

Shivering a little, Diamond looked over her shoulder at the mansion. This was it. There was no going back now, who knew what challenges lay in wait for her ahead?

One thing was for sure, she was soon going to find out.

Part 6: Arrival

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Ponyville looked weird at night. All the familiar sights, like Sugarcube Corner, the Carousal Boutique, even the schoolhouse Diamond went to every weekday seemed to take on a mysterious aura.

Unused to seeing these landmarks unlit and bustling with other ponies, it was all the filly could do to avoid stopping to stare at them as she trudged through the empty roads.

Only the Crystal Castle shone with the meager amount of moonlight on offer, the turrets reflected in the glow from the star perched on top. Ever since it had been erected magically that day, Tiara had always looked at it in envy, wishing she could be the one living there, instead of that 'bookworm' Princess who probably didn't even appreciate what she had.

Now, things were different. Where she was going to be staying during her enforced absence from Rich Mansion seemed of lesser importance to when she was able to go back. Would her parents ever be able to convince the authorities of their competency? Would her father lose his motivation for work without having his 'precious Diamond' around? What would her mother say when she woke from her extended nap?

'Scream blue murder', the filly thought with a shudder. Half of her was glad she wasn't around to witness such a terrifying ordeal, the other part felt sorry for the wealthy stallion who inevitably would be on the receiving end of her tantrum. Objects would be thrown, expletives would be yelled, and the property might just look as though an earthquake had hit it come this time tomorrow.

Diamond knew that she was wrong for thinking this whole mess was her fault, but the pervading sense of guilt was still tangible in her brain. Maybe some of the feelings of responsibility she possessed at this time were the remnants of countless other misdeeds she'd perpetuated over the years, perhaps a part of her felt like she deserved to be unhappy, as recompense for her unsavoury past.

Whatever the reason for her malaise, all she knew is she'd miss her father like crazy, and not having Randolph around as a crutch to lean on in times of trouble would be almost unbearable. At least she'd still have Silver Spoon to confide in at school...

Silver Spoon. When Tiara had almost lost her as a friend on that fateful day at the beginning of her own personal transformation, it had almost destroyed her. She'd been forced to take a long, hard look at the way she'd treated her so-called 'bestie', from attempting to steal her milkshake during an outing, to shutting her up during the election campaign when she was only trying to help.

In retrospect, it had been amazing that Silv had stayed around as long as she did, and even more unbelievable that all it took for the pair to reconnect was the mutual reparation of a fence. If the horseshoe had been on the other foot, Diamond knew that she'd never be anything like as forgiving. Just dwelling on it now humbled the formerly stuck-up filly immensely and strengthened her resolve to be a better friend, as well a better pony overall, of course.

Her thoughts briefly returned to her mother, who would no doubt be back at school in the morning presiding over her esteemed position as head of the board. Thanks to the injunction, there was little chance the two would cross paths, but Tiara still felt uneasy about being stared at by Spoiled all day, particularly if she decided to hang out with the 'three little runts' who'd changed her life for the better.

It was during her soliloquy that Diamond felt a gentle tap on her head, and it was Applejack, smiling down at her. "You okay, sugarcube? You looked like you were away with the Breezies there for a minute..."

The pink filly blushed slightly at being caught in such a distracted state. "S-sorry. I was just thinking about stuff."

Applejack nodded in an understanding way "You don't have to apologise. I know you're going through a pretty tough time right now, and you must have a lot of things on your mind. If you ever want to share any of them, you can come straight to me. I might not be your mother, but now that you're living under my roof, your problems are my problems. We can deal with them together. Does that sound good to you?"

Remembering her father had made a similar offer made Diamond momentarily choke up, but she tried to be as polite as she could. "Yes, M-Miss Applejack. Thank you."

The orange mare beamed at this over-officious moniker. "Jus' plain ol' Applejack is fine, 'Madame' Tiara. Not all of us are hung up on those fancy titles. Even 'Princess' Twilight prefers to be known as Twilight. Speaking of her, she's leaving now to return to her castle, and my other friends are returning to their homes for the night. I think they want to say goodbye, if that's alright with you."

Diamond considered her request. Despite the fact they'd taken her out of her comfortable life on that evening full of surprises, and placed her in a new residence where she was sure to feel like a fish out of water, she bore them no ill will. They were just doing their jobs, after all, and besides, that hug they'd all given her had been the first time she'd truly felt cared for for eons.

So, she felt she had no option but to say "Yes, of course." She approached the three mares who were waiting to issue their farewells.

Rainbow Dash was the most impatient. "Glad you're looking better, kid. Say hi to Scoots for me in the morning, okay?" Was all she could muster, before flying off at high speed towards her home in the clouds.

Rarity rolled her eyes slightly at Dash's abruptness "Don't worry about her, darling. Rainbow does care, she just tries to avoid mushiness whenever she can..."

At this point, the unicorn put both her front legs on Diamond's shoulders, and stared into her eyes. " I just want to let you know I'll be thinking of you. I'll tell Sweetie to keep an eye on you at school tomorrow, and don't worry, you have a lot of ponies who care about your well-being, now more than ever. So, try to keep smiling, okay?"

Tiara felt her spirits lift. Like her mother did once, she idolised Rarity, but unlike her mother, the pink filly had lost none of her respect or appreciation for the dressmaker. In fact, at this moment in time, the unicorn was Diamond's role model for the kind of mare she wanted to be. Graceful, elegant, but also generous and kind to go with that.

She waved to the boutique owner as she trotted away, and her action was replicated in turn by the white mare.

Finally, it was time for Twilight to bid the pink filly goodnight. Unsure whether to adopt a formal or friendly tone, the princess decided on a mixture of the two.

" I hope you find your new accommodation to your liking, Diamond Tiara." The alicorn addressed the filly. "Applejack is now your foster carer, and is responsible for feeding, sheltering and looking after you. I'm sure she'll do a wonderful job, but if for any reason you have any complaints, my door is always open. I trust you found our conduct this evening to be satisfactory, under the difficult circumstances. Perhaps you could put in a good word for me with Celestia, if you agree..."

If the last sentence was meant as a joke, it went down like a lead balloon. Applejack and Diamond both looked at each other in confusion, as Twilight let out a nervous laugh, before deciding to move swiftly on.

"Anyway, I'll be monitoring your case closely, and if there are any changes in the situation, you'll be one of the first to know. I know how hard this transition is going to be for you, but I also hope you understand that we did this for your benefit. We truly feel, with a change of scenery for a while, you could really blossom. And my intuition is rarely wrong. Applejack, look after her like she was your own, and I'll see you both again as soon as I can. I have to get back now, Spike will be forming a search party if I'm not. Take care..." At this point, the alicorn took off in a vertical swoop to the omnipotent castle.

Tiara was a little skeptical that Twilight knew exactly what she was going through, after all, the pink filly had read an unauthorised biography of the princess soon after her coronation, and by the sound of it the alicorn's loving childhood was in direct contrast to her own turbulent one.

But Diamond appreciated the kind words anyway, and resolved to do her best no matter how hard things got. And, she had a feeling they were going to get pretty rough indeed.

Now left all alone with her new primary caregiver, Tiara suddenly felt a hoof around her back. The pink filly turned to see Applejack gently guiding her on the path towards Sweet Apple Acres.

"Come on now." The orange mare told her. "We've got a lot to talk about, but we're not going to get anything done out here. Let's go to the farmhouse, and I'll sort-of introduce you to everypony."

Diamond decided that sounded fair enough, and she started walking again alongside Applejack... But then, a sudden thought popped into her head that made her screech to a halt.

"Wait a second..." She inquired to the farm pony. "You mean to tell me... They don't know I'm coming?!"

"No, of course not, silly!!" said Applejack with merriment. "It was sort of a spur-of-the-moment decision you'd be living with us, after all. You've got nothing to fret about, sugarcube, the Apples always help those in need. Especially the daughter of one of our best customers! I'm sure it'll be a wonderful surprise for everypony. Now, quick march!!"

The orange mare, with Tiara's bag hanging from her mouth, increased her speed to a half-gallop, looking behind her to make sure Diamond was keeping up.

Struggling to keep up with her new caregiver even at this reduced running pace, the pink filly felt a fresh sense of dread in the pit of her stomach. If the rest of the Apple clan didn't know about their unexpected house-guest, what would their reaction be when she walked through that old wooden door?

Would Apple Bloom, her old nemesis, still be as friendly if she had to live with her former bully?

Would Big Mac, the giant stallion who loved his littlest sister so much he dressed in drag for her to compete at the Sisterhooves Social, accept the filly who used to pick mercilessly on the apple(!) of his eye?

Would Granny Smith, the 'crazy old kook' Diamond had publicly derided in front of the entire class on Family Appreciation day, want to have anything to do with the mean-spirited youngster Tiara had used to be?

She would soon find out,

After a brief journey, that is.

TEN MINUTES LATER...

And, there it was. The ramshackle farmhouse in the centre of Sweet Apple Acres, it's tall spire just visible in the night sky.

Diamond had been too exhausted, and too nervous to say anything to Applejack in the time it took them to get there, whereas the orange mare seemed too focused on getting the pair to their destination to bother with small-talk.

All that was left to do was stand side by side with Applejack, as she knocked on the front porch. Loud and quick footsteps could be heard, approaching the door.

It was Apple Bloom, standing on her hind legs who answered. She was excited to see her big sister, and looked like she was about to ask her something.

But, the words seemed to get caught in her throat when Bloom noticed who was with her. The farm filly noticed the posh bag in Applejack's mouth.

Her eyes flashed from the sad looking Tiara, to the bag, several times. Then, it all clicked. Apple Bloom had it all figured out.

Without a single sentence being exchanged, she'd already got it all worked out.

Diamond closed her eyes, and braced herself for impact. "I'm not staying with her!!" Or "She's not coming in!!"

At least, that's what Tiara expected to hear from the farm filly.

For the second time that day, she was about to be surprised.

Not a word was spoken, As the reformed bully felt the hooves of her old victim firmly grip her in her third tight hug of the day.

And, overwhelmed by the emotion and exhausion of the day, it was all Diamond could do to mumble "Thank you..."

Before, like her mother previously, she fainted dead away.

Part 7: Awakening

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The first thing Diamond Tiara noticed as she began to stir from her unscheduled nap was the chill. Used to living in a fully-insulated mansion with triple glazing windows as she was, she couldn't help but wonder what was letting the draft in.

Fidgeting a little as if to try and keep warm, she attempted to turn over onto her back, but something was holding her in place, preventing her from facing the direction she wanted to be in. It was clamped around her midriff, and no matter how much she struggled, she remained firmly locked in place.

Slowly emerging from her half-awake status, the next sensation she felt was the strange material covering her, up to her neck. If she was still safely tucked up at home, this sheet over her frame had to be the coarsest, most roughest bedding she'd ever slept underneath. Silk and velvet were what she'd grown accustomed to, this, whatever the Tartarus it was, was making her skin itch.

Instinctively reaching over to scratch her belly, and still with her eyes closed, she accidentally made contact with something. It was pushed up right next to her like a soft toy, but felt more solid.

Her curiosity getting the better of her, the pink filly decided to open her eyelids, just a crack. Her vision was a little blurred at first, but after around thirty seconds had cleared, just enough for her to make out...

Nothing.

It was pitch black, you see.

Why hasn't Randolph left my night light on, or at least lit a few candles? Tiara huffed, still caught up in that strange world that exists between waking and dreaming. She also made plans to speak to whoever did the laundry, Clearly somepony had made a dreadful mistake by giving her some kind of towel to sleep underneath.

'And what's this pressing down on my ...'

She stopped suddenly, as she subjected the object keeping her penned in to a closer examination. First, by nudging it, and then, by touch.

There was no mistake. The shape. The texture. The bone structure.

It was a hoof. This would mean...

Somepony... Was in bed with her.

Diamond's consciousness sprung onto high alert. She jerked upright, causing whoever was sharing her personal space to murmur as she moved to push the strange leg away. The pink filly would have screamed, but she was too terrified to even make a sound. What was going on?!

Her questions were answered by the second presence in the room sitting up beside her, rubbing her eyes and asking in an unmistakable country accent. "Are you alright, Diamond Tiara?".

That's when it all started coming back to the newly fostered child.

The punishment from her mother. The argument between her parents. The late night visit from four of the Elements Of Harmony. Being told her home was no longer her own. The heart-to-heart with her father before she left. The long, exhausting journey to the farm. And then...

She couldn't recall anything else. The next memory was waking up here, in this freezing cold room, under a cheap synthetic sheet, with one of the fillies she used to pick on the most.

It was indeed Apple Bloom in the flesh.

And now, the farm filly was waving a hoof right in front of Diamond's eyeline.

"Equestria to Tiara. Come in please!!" The youngest Apple did a passable impersonation of a spacemare... (Probably one of the many things they'd attempted during her club's long quest to uncover their 'special marks'.)

The pink filly's attention gradually returned to the present, as she squinted at the movement in front of her through the darkness, before batting it away. "W-what's going on?! H-how did I get here?!" she stammered.

Apple Bloom giggled a little, not put out one bit about having her leg slapped. "My sister carried you, silly! When you arrived on our doorstep you were dead to the world, and the only way to get you to our room was to give you a little lift."

She then proceeded to give Diamond a visual demonstration of how this great feat was achieved, though in the pitch black surrounding them, it was a little difficult to see.

Ignoring her new friend's theatrics, Tiara continued her questions. "But why are we together..."

"Oh, that..." The pink filly couldn't see Bloom's expression, but she felt she could detect an embarrassed smile along with the reply. "Well, you arrived at such short notice, we didn't have time to put out anything for you to sleep on. So, me and Applejack figured just for tonight, you could share my bed. I don't mind, it makes the room a bit cosier..."

Diamond was a little perturbed at this stage. Waking up in a completely unfamiliar environment was one thing, but in such insalubrious conditions, and in such close quarters to another filly, having never shared a room with anypony in her short, privileged life, was almost enough to make her freak out.

So, rather than dwell on it, she decided to ask something else. "How long was I out for..." she murmured.

"Well, a good few hours at least I'd say..." Replied Bloom, as if peering out at something through the window. "Judging from the sky, it'll start turning light soon, and then, it'll be time for school."

Her eyes having slowly adjusted to the darkness, Tiara was able to spot the farm filly turn to her.

It was now Apple Bloom's turn to ask a question. "Anyway, how are you? You don't have to talk about it, if you don't want to..."

The pink filly couldn't help but grin ruefully a little at this innocent query. Applejack had obviously instructed her sibling to approach the subject of their house guest's family problems with kid gloves, and for that she was grateful.

"I'm still coming to terms with everything." Tiara answered truthfully. " Moving out. Coming here. It's going to take a lot of getting used to. I don't know... If I can..." Uh oh. The tears were returning.

"Hey, hey. It's okay. I'm here..." That was Apple Bloom, shuffling closer to her newest pal and giving her another sympathetic hug. "Don't say anything about it, if it upsets you. Just know that I've got your back, along with my family and all the friends you've made. Remember, whatever it is you're going through, you're never alone."

Diamond could barely believe her ears. Here was a filly, who she'd bullied mercilessly for years, probably even more so than the other Crusaders combined. And yet, she was willing to extend the hoof of friendship in such a big way? It was... It was...

"I-I don't deserve y-your help. T-the w-way I've been..." the pink filly stammered through her tears, but it looked like Bloom's timely intervention had prevented the trickle from becoming a monsoon at least.

" Stuff and nonsense!" The youngest Apple pulled away for a minute to gently stare into Tiara's damp eyes. "We're friends now, that's all you need to know. I forgave you for all that stuff the minute you stood up for me, Sweetie Belle and Scoots in front of..."

Bloom stopped suddenly, and frowned. She was approaching a difficult topic that she'd been expressly told by Applejack not to bring up, but how she wanted to! Just seeing the way Spoiled had treated her only daughter had really shone a light on why Diamond had acted the way she did, and had made the farm filly even more thankful that she came from such a loving family background.

Even without her parents, Bloom had never wanted for love or advice, two commodities that apparently were in short supply at the Rich household. Realising that, with just a simple twist of fate, she could have been born into Tiara's overbearing horseshoes, made the farm filly a lot more empathetic to her roommate's plight, and she resolved to make the new arrival's stay at Sweet Acres as comfortable as possible.

Diamond picked up on Bloom's sudden pause, and sighed. "It's okay. I know what a terror she can be. Otherwise, I wouldn't be living here in the first place..." She went to rub her tears away, but something flopped into her eyes. "Oh no..."

"What is it now?" Apple Bloom asked, inquisitively.

"It's my mane. Usually, before I go to bed, I spend at least an hour shampooing it, washing it and drying it so it's ready to impress everypony in the morning. But, thanks to my change in routine, It's going to look a mess, and..." Diamond suddenly stopped with rising panic, as she remembered something else.

" Oh no!! My tiara!! I left it at home!! It's still locked up in the cupboard!! It's too late to go back for it!! I need it!! How will everypony know I'm me if I'm not wearing it?!! What'll I do?! What'll I ..." The pink filly was slowly but surely turning red through hyperventilation.

"Now, now. Pull yourself together." Bloom took a hold of her gasping roommate and shook her moderately in an attempt to calm her down. "I thinkeverypony, for better or for worse, 'knows who you are' by now, and if they don't, I'm sure your cutie mark will fill them in. You don't have to be wearing that thing for them to figure that out. As for your mane difficulties, I believe I do have a solution..."

Diamond ceased her minor panic attack, and stared at Apple Bloom with slight incredulity. "You do?"

"Sure. Just wait right there, and close your eyes. I want it to be a surprise..." The farm filly lit a lantern on her side of the bed, before getting up and trotting to a nearby cupboard. Wondering what was in there, Tiara felt herself craning her neck to see what the glow of the lamp cast.

"I said no peeking!!" Bloom insisted in a not unfriendly way, as she rummaged in the back of her closet.

"Okay, okay..." Diamond rolled her eyes. She couldn't see what the farm filly could do that she couldn't. After all, she had been doing the same careful hair routine for years to keep her mane perfect and straight. How could her new friend hope to emulate that?

If only she had been slightly less dazed when she packed to leave home, she may have had the presence of mind to take items like her hair products she might actually use, as opposed to random junk that just so happened to be the first things that came to hoof. Even now, she had no recollection of what she, or rather, Applejack had carted over to Sweet Acres. She hoped at least some of it was usable.

Bloom returned, and insisted on Diamond turning around, and not moving an inch while the farm filly worked on her mane. Tiara felt her hair get primped this way and that, and protested vigorously, but despite all the struggling, managed to remain seated during the process.

Just a few days ago, she probably would've rather been thrown in another muddy puddle repeatedly than allow anypony else to even touch her delicately coiffured locks, but right now she had slightly more pressing concerns than looking good (although, it still meant a lot to her).

Besides, she was at a loss to solve the problem for herself, and desperate times call for...

"Finished!!" That was Bloom's call to attention, as Tiara was roused from her deliberations, with the farm filly standing proudly in front of her. "And a fine job of it I did, too, even if I do say so myself!"

Diamond had no idea what her friend had done to her mane, as she was led over to the mirror, but at least the hair was out of her eyes now. It did feel rather odd, though...

And the reason for that became apparent as soon as the pink filly saw her reflection, with the lantern being dangled by Bloom above her so she could see the extent of her new roommate's handiwork.

For, perched on her head was a large red ribbon, exactly the same as the one Apple Bloom wore.

It was like looking at a different pony.

Tiara's jaw dropped. She continued to stare at the strange filly in front of her.

She stuck out her tongue. Did a pirouette. Touched the glass. Yep, definitely her.

Suddenly she felt a pair of hooves on her back, and saw another image in the mirror that now resembled hers to a worrying degree, apart from the yellow fur and red mane, of course.

"So, whaddya think?" The new face enquired, grinning. "In my opinion, it suits you a lot more than that stuffy old tiara."

"It's different..." Was all Diamond could muster, still dealing with the myriad of thoughts running through her head.

"Tell you what, we'll ask everypony at school tomorrow their opinions. It'll be just like the presidential election all over again, you know, without the blackmail and the bribery. If more colts and fillies prefer this new look of yours, I say you should keep it for at least a week. Are we agreed?" Bloom rubbed the back of Tiara's neck, half jokingly.

Unsure how to respond to that, Diamond began to fiddle with her adornment. It was very securely tied in, obviously put in place by somepony who'd had plenty of practice.

"Just look at us. We could be sisters." Bloom compiled her visage next to the pink filly's. "I suppose we sorta are now, for as long as you're here. Oh well, I'm going back to bed. Keep that ribbon in overnight, I promise you won't have to brush your mane or nothing. Good ni- I mean, good morning, Diamond Tiara."

Leaving the lantern by the side of the mirror, Bloom gave her new roommate a little wink, before wandering back to the comfort of the bed. "You know what, I think I'm going to kind of like having you here." Was the last thing she said, before she dozed off again into a gentle slumber...

Studying her radically changed appearance, Diamond dwelt on all that she and her new friend had conversed about.

It had been illuminating, to say the least.

But out of all the many words that had been exchanged, two things stood out, both in Bloom's final sentences to her.

First, the thought of her not brushing her mane for the day ahead. Completely unheard of!! That was going to take some getting used to...

The second was when she'd said they looked just like...

Sisters. Sisters...

The term rolled off the tongue easily enough, but somehow Tiara couldn't say it.

Yet, just thinking about the word bought all sorts of new emotions bubbling to the surface, that she wasn't quite ready to deal with yet.

Sisters...

Part 8: A New Day

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After Apple Bloom returned to her now blissful, non-cutie mark related dreams, Tiara continued to stare into the mirror for quite a while. Both at the unfamiliar ribbon-wearing filly mimicking her every movement, and also, in a deeper sense, wondering what exactly the future would hold for her as a pony.

She'd now decided on a new course for her life, which involved using her cutie mark to help others, rather than for personal gain. This in itself would take some getting used to, but, added to that change, the backdrop of a completely different lifestyle? How would she cope, without all the mod-cons and luxuries she'd grown accustomed to over the years? The rundown farmhouse she now resided in was as far removed from her old palace as she could possibly imagine.

And what would the reaction of the other pupils be at the school later, when they saw her waltz in the front door with Apple Bloom? Almost everypony knew they were now friends, but word would quickly spread they were sharing a house, and even a room. Would some of her old victims tease her for her sudden 'fall from grace'? She knew she deserved it, for all the anguish she'd put them through for years, yet it wouldn't make the ordeal any less easy.

There were many other questions, like what would she do if she saw her mother (who was still head of the school board)? When would she get to meet with her father again? What were Granny Smith and Big Mac's faces like when Applejack carried her in last night, to inform them they'd have an extra guest staying for a while at Sweet Acres? One with a rather chequered history involving their clan, to say the least?

At least she'd find out the answer to the last one soon. As Celestia's sun began to rise on the horizon to drive off Luna's moon, the weight of all that was going through her head began to tire Diamond, and despite the fact it was so close to everypony getting up, she couldn't help but feel exhausted again.

Now that there was proper daylight, the pink filly got up, and surveyed the room she would be staying in. It was small. Cramped. And that was just for one pony. With a couple of fillies living there, she'd barely have enough space to stretch.

But, it would have to do. Also of note was the peeling wallpaper, the cheap furniture and the cracked window, which may explain why the temperature inside felt like that of a freezer. And, no wonder she could barely move in the tiny bed Apple Bloom now quietly snoozed in. Her four-poster counterpart at home had to be ten times the size of the tawdry creation she was now staring at.

Tiara mentally slapped herself. Didn't she promise herself in the last few days, that she'd be less judgemental of others, the very moment she'd decided to turn over a new leaf? Not everypony was as wealthy as the Rich's, and if the Apples were comfortable living in this rustic monstrosity, then that was their choice...

"Aargh... I'm doing it again!!" Growled Diamond, who was beginning to realise that totally changing who you are overnight was going to be tougher than she thought.

Who knew?

In any case, due to her slight tiredness she decided to catch a few more z's before the inevitable wake-up call that would arrive, probably much sooner than she'd like. Walking over to the side of the mattress, she somehow managed to squeeze herself between Bloom and the edge of the bed, before elevating the starchy fabric that passed as a sheet over her lithe form again.

"This better be a temporary arrangement". The pink filly muttered about the lack of her own sleeping quarters, before the Land Of Nod claimed her once again.

30 MINUTES LATER...

"Get up! Get up!!!" This was what Tiara heard when she opened her eyes, but what really woke her up was the incessant shaking as Bloom enthusiastically had her by the shoulders.

"Alright!! Alright, I'm up..." Diamond observed the excited face of her new friend, as the farm filly grinned by her side. She was in no shape, physically or mentally to start the day, but it would seem that she wasn't going to receive a moment's peace from the hyperactive youngster next to her, so with a great deal of reluctance, the pink filly began to leave her comfort zone.

"I can't wait to show you round! There's the living room, the kitchen, the animal pens, the orchard..." Bloom was practically a blur as she danced round her new roommate. "You'll love it here, you'll see!! Oh and by the way, there's your stuff. D'ya need any help unpacking?"

Tiara gulped as she noticed Bloom point out a bag in the corner she'd filled just after her late night egress from her former home. Knowing that, due to her stress levels at the time she loaded it up, she hadn't put any effort into carefully selecting anything in there, she doubted it would contain much of use.

Still, no harm in looking right?

"No thanks, Apple Bloom, I'm fine. Just stand over there, while I empty it, please..." Diamond asked the farm filly to make way for the avalanche of items which were sure to come cascading out of the overstuffed container.

Curious to see what rich folk pack on their travels, Bloom observed as the contents spilled onto the floor, and it was as bad as Tiara had predicted.

A couple of empty bottles of perfume.

A hula hoop.

Half of a pair of curtains.

And tons and tons of pricy, pretentious gowns and frocks.

Great for dinner parties and social gatherings, not so much for life on a farm.

Diamond sighed as she observed the heap, while Bloom's eyes nearly popped out of her head. "Wait, is that...?"

"Yes, that's the outfit I was wearing for my flop of a cute cenera, the day you met Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle to form the Crusaders, and I haven't worn it since. Too many bad memories, you see, and even more so now, as it reminds me of who I was..." Tiara stared at the ground guiltily.

Not wishing to dredge up the past, Bloom decided to change the subject. "And what about..."

"If you're referring to that stupid hoop toy, then yes I did get my daddy to buy that for me, when you got your fake cutie mark. I wanted to beat you at your own game..." Diamond shook her head at her own childishness.

"And, how did that work out for ya?" Bloom inquired, with interest.

"Well, let's just say I'm about as proficient with it now as I was back then, and that's not a compliment. Here, you can have it." Tiara tossed the unwanted toy over to her new roommate, before kneeling down to rummage through her possessions.

Bloom thoughtfully eyed the hoop. "You know, as much of a bully as you were, that was one of the occasions you were in the right. I was lying to everypony about that mark, and you're the only one who called me out on it. If you're pony enough to admit to your past mistakes, then I should be too. So, I'm sorr..."

The farm filly's words got caught in her mouth. For she'd turned around, to see her new friend clutching something in her hoof, one of the random items thrown into her bag without any preparation, but an object which held a far greater level of value than the rest.

It was a silver photo frame, and inside was a picture, taken soon after Diamond Tiara's birth. In it, the young foal was being cradled in blankets by her adoring father, while her mother stood aloof at the side, staring away with disinterest.

If anything encapsulated the state of the Rich family dynamics, it was there. In a nutshell.

Tiara began to sob, but she didn't break down like before. This was more of a silent cry, as she reminisced about all the friends she could have made over the years if it wasn't for her trying to reach her mother's impossible standards. All the time she missed out spending with her father, as Spoiled insisted on her attending ballet or piano lessons on the rare occasions he was home from business. And her life from the very beginning, where she always felt more like a robot than a filly...

Guess who held the remote control?

Bloom was over there in a flash to put a hoof around her, gently patting the back of Diamond's neck, as small rivulets of water ran down her cheeks. Another thing that Applejack had warned her little sister about the previous night was the pink filly possibly demonstrating a few unpredictable emotional outbursts, and the farm filly should be prepared to leave their new house guest alone or call an adult in the event of such a situation.

Bloom had refused point blank at the mere suggestion. She was determined to be a good friend to Tiara, through thick and thin.

She knew there would be times that Diamond would sink back into her old ways, Bloom could act as her conscience.

She knew there would be times when Diamond would lose her temper, Bloom could act as her peacekeeper.

And there would be times that Diamond simply needed a shoulder to cry on, like now. Bloom had suffered more than a few sleepless nights herself, wondering what her parents would have thought about the type of ponies her and her siblings had grown up to be.

She hoped that these experiences could help her new roommate come to terms with everything, as complicated and convoluted as it was for a child to understand.

If not, at the very least she could be there to offer comforting words and moral support.The farm filly's heart was as big as the one emblazoned on her new cutie-mark, and seeing as Tiara had unwittingly helped her earn it, perhaps it was time to put it to good use.

Even as Bloom cradled Diamond's head in her hooves though, there was one crucial aspect that the youngest Apple had got wrong.

You see, this wasn't a 'I Miss My Parents' moment...

It was a 'I Can't Believe What My Mother Has Taken From Me' occasion.

This meant, after consideration of everything that lead up to this point... Tiara stopped crying.

And got angry. Very, very angry.

The warning signs were there, but Apple Bloom chose to ignore them, so wrapped up was the farm filly in stroking Diamond's mane, she failed to hear the sobbing stop, and the telltale sound of teeth-grinding pick up where it left off.

All in an instant, Bloom was shoved to the ground, as her apoplectic roommate jumped into the middle of the mounds of clothes, and began tearing them up.

The expensive outfits, the indulgent frocks, even the cute cenera dress, nothing was spared...

All chosen, and paid for by her. All symbols of her control and tyranny over her daughter.

They must be destroyed.

She held each one down with her hooves, and used her teeth to tear them to shreds.

Tiara seemed to be enjoying it, too, as a sadistic smile appeared on her face in the midst of the destruction, one that Tirek himself would've been proud of.

Diamond started to speed up the ruination of her wardrobe. Her legs began to chafe. Her gums began to bleed. But, she didn't care.

Everything. Must. Go.

And, as the full extent of her demons was unleashed in that tiny nook that day. The innocent little filly...

Became a mini demon herself.

In the process, frightening the life out of her new roommate, who'd picked herself up off the ground and could only watch open-mouthed at this unprecedented display of aggression, the likes of which she'd never seen before.

Bloom began to think, despite her earlier rock-solid confidence, this was beyond her level to deal with. She wanted to go and fetch a grown-up from downstairs, but in the same way ponies stop to observe a crash at a Wonderbolts rally, she couldn't drag herself away from the chaos in front of her.

Eventually, when the last item of clothing had been reduced to confetti on the floor, it was like Diamond became one of Pinkie Pie's balloons that somepony had taken the air out of. The pink filly simply collapsed in the centre of the dump she'd created, while Apple Bloom debated with herself whether or not to approach her volatile friend.

Before the farm filly could reach a decision, Tiara had one last task to fulfill. Weakly taking the picture frame in hoof while on her back, she had just enough strength left to dash it on the floor, smashing the glass and sending shards everywhere.

Next, she took the image inside out, ripping it in half, and throwing the piece she'd torn off against the wall.

Bloom's eyes followed it as it landed, and there it was, the bit of the photo showing Spoiled Rich's surly face.

As for the fragment of the picture she'd kept, Diamond stuffed it back into the now broken silver frame, before giving it a gentle kiss and delicately placing it back in her bag.

Finally, the pink filly lied back down on the materials strewn everywhere, her expression befitting one who was at peace.

And in all this turmoil. All this trauma. All this mess, what was the only thing going through Apple Bloom's mind?

Thank Celestia Rarity isn't here to see this.

Yes, it sounded stupid, but considering the shock and awe the farm filly was going through at this precise moment, perfectly justifiable.

And, as if things couldn't get any worse, the bedroom door was flung open a few seconds later, and there was the unmistakable face of Applejack.

"Morning you two! I hope you like eggs, because..."

She stopped her friendly patter, noticing at once her distraught sister pressed against the wall, as if she was trying to move the house, and Diamond Tiara, who appeared to be trying to crowd surf in a giant heap of rags.

"Just what in tarnation is going on in here?!" Asked the orange mare, that trademark eyebrow being raised again.

Part 9: A New Way

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Applejack warily scanned across the room, both at the shredded garments that now cluttered the floor, and at the two startled fillies, looking nervously at each other.

She might have guessed this would have happened at some point, what with all the baggage, both mental and physical, her new young charge was carrying around with her. Well, she knew what she was taking on when she agreed to let the heiress of the Rich family stay. It was time to put on her 'soft but stern' face.

"Now, now, both of you calm down. Nopony is in any trouble, we just need to get this mess cleaned up. Diamond, your feet look a mite sore. You can come with me to the bathroom in a bit, and I'll sort them out". Applejack smiled sympathetically at the pink filly.

"What? That was it?!" Tiara couldn't believe the leniency of her new caregiver. If she'd got up to these kind of dastardly shenanigans at the mansion, Spoiled would have had her guts for garters. Or at least, locked her in her room for an entire week.

"You're just going to let me get away with this?!" Diamond couldn't prevent herself from blurting out the question. This lack of discipline was completely foreign to her. She had to know if it was some kind of joke.

Applejack gave the pink filly a solemn nod. "From where I'm standing, punishment wouldn't serve any purpose. The only pony hurt around here is you when you destroyed all your clothes, and made your hooves sore. We can talk about it more later, but in the meantime you can help me and Apple Bloom pick up all this stuff. I can think of at least one boutique in town we can donate it to as haberdashery, so it's not a complete loss..."

The orange mare afforded Tiara a warm smile, and the fostered child felt a strange glow spread throughout her being. What the cause was of this sudden feeling the youngster didn't know. Relief? Pleasure? She had no idea, but it felt good. Really good.

Either way, it was time for Diamond to help clear up. She wasn't used to doing any work at all, but she guessed she was responsible for the state things were in. She worked her way out of the impression she'd left amongst the strips of fabric on the floor, took a step forward...

OUCH!!

Tiara had stepped on something sharp, which had gone through her hoof and pierced her skin. She winced, before lifting up her right hind leg to see what had caused the pain.

It was one of the slivers of glass from the broken picture frame that had been smashed during her tantrum, and a rather big one at that. Diamond could just see it protruding from underneath her foot, and so decided to try and remove it by herself.

YOWCH!!

The pink filly only succeeded in taking out half of the piece, which left the other part firmly embedded under the skin. It was worse than she'd thought, If it hurt that much now, who knows how much it would sting if she tried to walk on it? She was at a complete loss what to do next...

Before she felt a pair of strong hooves pick her up off the ground, and carry her over to the bed.

It was Applejack of course, who had seen Diamond's distress and her injury, and the orange mare had taken it on herself to get their house guest to a safer location to inspect the casualty's foot.

"Oh sugarcube, why didn't you tell me you'd broken some glass on the floor?" Asked Applejack concernedly, while Tiara blushed at the unfamiliarity of such close contact. "Hey, Apple Bloom. Forget what I said a minute ago. Stay where you are, me and Big Mac will clean this room today while you're at school. It's too unsafe for little hooves to go stomping around..."

Diamond listened with her mouth wide open. More selfless kindness, from somepony who her mother would have dismissed as a worthless hillbilly on the spot. More and more of Spoiled's lessons were starting to unravel in her mind, and it was becoming apparent that her sheltered upbringing had taught the pink filly very little about the world around her, and the ponies in it.

Just how much her mother's propaganda was going to be blown to smithereens in the days to come Tiara didn't know, but one thing was for sure: It promised to be an interesting ride.

In the meantime, the pink filly felt herself being carried to the bedroom door, as Applejack told her "Looks like I'll be opening that first aid box I got from Golden Delicious for Hearth's Eve sooner than I thought. Don't worry, sweetheart, we'll get that nasty bit of glass right out. "

The orange mare then addressed her sister. "Apple Bloom, you can go downstairs for breakfast now., but when you leave, try to stick to the perimeter of the room. Watch out for any sharp pieces that might be on the floor, too. I'll come and join you, Big Mac and Granny Smith as soon as I've taken care of business up here."

Bloom watched Applejack leave, carrying a hapless Diamond in tow, with mixed feelings. On the one hoof, it was good that her new friend was finally getting the mothering she deserved from her big sister.

On the other hoof, she remembered a certain incident from around a year ago which had caused Applejack to massively overreact to safety issues regarding the farm filly, and caused the older mare to treat Bloom like a baby for the duration of a day. She sincerely hoped that Tiara wasn't about to experience the same kind of mollycoddling.

On second thoughts, where did she put that camera?

Yes, every pony has a slightly mischievous side, even the basically decent Apple Bloom.

Don't worry, she soon ditched the idea.

Maybe...

**********

"So, who's idea was the bow?" Asked Applejack, as she got the disinfectant and medical pliers out of the kit.

"Who'd you think?!" Humphed Tiara, as she self-consciously fidgeted with it, while looking in the mirror.

The orange mare chuckled at the moody response. "Of course it was her. Silly question, really. And you say your tiara is at home. I'm surprised you left something as important as that behind..."

Diamond looked at Applejack as if she was mad. "Of course not! I had it confiscated from me the moment I got back, on account of my 'disreputable conduct'. I probably wouldn't have seen it for ages anyway, even if I were still living there. So, it really makes no difference if I remembered it or not..."

Applejack tried to hide the scowl that appeared on her face. Fancy being punished like that, for doing the right thing. "Well, I know you miss it a lot, but if you want my honest opinion I think I prefer your new look to your old. And I'm not just saying that, because my little sister wears a ribbon every living minute."

Tiara would have been inclined to scoff at the opinion of somepony so obviously biased in this matter, but then she realised, she was talking to the Element Of honesty, which gave the orange mare's words more credence than most. "R-really?" she spluttered.

Applejack smiled back at her. "Yup. You look more free, a lot less full of airs and graces, as a child should be. Getting dirty and playing with their pals, not strolling around, thinking they're lady of the manor. Just my opinion..."

Diamond considered this carefully. She'd been wearing her valuable headgear ever since she'd gotten her cutie-mark. It had been a present from Spoiled at her cute cenera, and from that moment on became almost an extension of her persona.

It was something her mother was very firm about. Wherever her daughter went, the proles must know about her illustrious bloodline, and the tiara was symbolic of that. To remove it for any length of time would be almost sacrosanct, and Spoiled made sure to drill into her offspring the importance of always leaving it on, and the unbearable shame of removing it for any length of time.

That's why taking it away had been such an efficient punishment. The intended effect had always been for Diamond, conditioned as she was, to feel utterly worthless without it, and make sure there were no more outbreaks of disobedience from the unruly filly.

Now however, free from the yoke of her mother's rules and expectations for the first time in her young life, a different mindset started to creep into Tiara's thoughts. What if, all the affection she had for the piece of jewelry that rest atop her head every single day, was...

Fake?

Manufactured?

Something instilled in her by Spoiled, and not an opinion she'd formed herself?

Whenever she'd worn it to school, she'd always stood out from her fellow pupils. She'd always used to think this was a good thing, set her apart from the commoners, assured her position as a precious stone in a sea of mediocrity.

Now, she saw the error of that viewpoint. Instead of making her important, all it had achieved was to isolate her. Made the others fillies and colts feel inadequate and intimidated. This, combined with her haughty attitude, left her all alone, save for Silver Spoon.

And even the grey filly's unimpeachable patience with her had cracked the day of the election. Who knows what awful, lonely future had laid in store for her, if it hadn't been for the timely intervention of Apple Bloom and her friends. She owed them all so much...

"Now, try not to move while I take this out. It might sting a bit, so brace yourself...". Diamond's train of thought was interrupted by Applejack's warning, as the youngster felt her affected leg being lifted in the air from her seated position, And the tiny pliers were drifting ever closer...

Tiara closed her eyes. Grit her teeth...

A little throb aanndd...

"That's it, we're all done here!" Applejack's declaration bought Diamond out of her stupor, and the pink filly was shocked at how painless the whole process had been. Her eyes flickered open, and there was the offending shard, held aloft triumphantly by her caregiver like some kind of trophy.

She really thought the orange mare was going to have to dig deep.

"Is that it?" Tiara asked, unable to believe the ordeal was over.

"Yup." Stated Applejack, matter of factly. " I'm used to this sort of thing. Why, Apple Bloom used to get splinters all the time playing on the porch when she was younger. Now, I'm going to put a bandage on your hoof. You'll still be able to walk on it, but it might ache for a few days. Try to take it easy, okay?"

"Yes, Miss Applejack." Diamond politely responded, relieved beyond all measure.

The orange mare sighed gently. "I told you before. Applejack is fine. Jus' plain old ordinary Applejack. That's who I am, and that's all I'll ever be. Now, as regards your injury, I guess that means you won't be as active round the farm as I'd like you to be. Are you sure you didn't plan this little escapade in advance?"

Applejack gave Tiara a wry smile, which turned the pink filly's face an attractive shade of scarlet. "What?! Nnnooo, of course not..."

Her caregiver stared deep into her blue eyes for a minute, before bursting into laughter. " Got you good, didn't I? You should have seen your face! It was as red as the top of a jar of zap apple jam!"

Diamond initially frowned at Applejack's juvenile prank, but, oddly enough, the more she thought about it... The funnier it seemed.

She began to chuckle...

Then, giggle...

Until finally, a hearty laugh emerged...

And the two of them were clinging onto each other, guffawing away as if their lives depended on it.

Finally, they both stopped their revelry to wipe away their tears (happy ones on Tiara, for a change).

That simple moment of levity had already formed a bond between filly and mare...

After all, it was far more fun that Diamond was used to at home, where Spoiled would have been more concerned with blood on the carpet, than comforting her daughter.

Having got her in a good mood, Applejack decided to move to the next part of the conversation she'd planned to have with her charge, and this one was a bit more serious "Listen, sugarcube... "

"Yes?" Tiara was all ears for the mare who'd helped her experience joy for the first time in months.

"I appreciate you're going through a very rough patch at the moment, and Celestia knows, I'm always up for somepony destroying a heap of overpriced, useless outfits worn by ponies with more bits than sense. But please darling, if you ever feel like blowing your top like that again, come and talk to me or one of my friends about it. Don't injure yourself by taking it out on inanimate objects. Twilight is trusting me to look after you, and Apple Bloom really cares for you..." The orange mare looked away sadly for a minute.

The spurt of happiness Diamond had felt melted away, to be replaced with hard guilt. "R-really?" she croaked.

Applejack solemnly nodded her head. "Yup. Ever since she had her cute cenera, she's been talking about all the things you and her friends can do together. She was so excited last night when you showed up with me, I think she's looking forward to having somepony her own age around the place when I'm away on Cutie Map business. So be good to each other, okay? Try not to worry her too much, that one has a heart of gold, and I'd hate to see it weighed down by the problems of those around her."

Tiara's eyes watered up, and a wave of humility washed over the formerly stuck-up filly. She looked straight at her new caregiver, and uttered possibly the most genuine sentence to ever leave her lips. "I P-promise, Applejack."

The youngster got a smile, and a light hug in response. "Good girl. Now, let's get some of this healing cream on those chafed hooves. Granny Smith swears by it. Incidentally, she's really looking forward to seeing you, just be patient with her if she goes on a bit. Now with Big Mac, you'll have the opposite problem..."

Diamond Tiara continued to listen, as soothing lotion was applied to each hoof.

She felt cared for.

Appreciated.

Valued.

It would take some getting used to.

.

Part 10: Family

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It didn't take long for the attentive Applejack to cover each of Tiara's hooves in a fine coat of fragrant smelling cream, and the pink filly immediately felt the cooling effect on her skin.

"There we go, It should dry pretty quickly, just in time for you to get to school. But for now, I suppose I better carry you downstairs. We want to give the stuff chance to sink in." Applejack pondered, as she lifted Diamond up for the third time that day.

Tiara was unused to being transported in such a manner. She started to feel a little embarrassed at being so reliant on somepony else. True, she had been waited on hoof for most of her life, but the likes of Randolph had never done such personal tasks for her, or been so touchy-feely...

Still, it was better than her mother's usual tactic of tugging her by the mane and tail, and the fact that Applejack seemed to take such great care and pleasure in fulfilling these tasks softened the blows to her ego considerably.

As they approached the stairs together, Tiara continued to glance around at her less-than-elegant surroundings. Wherever she turned, there were rickety fixtures, peeling walls and damp ceilings. Every step Applejack took seemed to creak, and her equine load began to genuinely worry about falling through the rotting planks, onto the ground floor.

There were also pictures. Lots and lots of pictures. Diamond squinted at a few while they descended, but barely recognised anypony. The Apple clan was a large and varied one, and she knew that every year there was a big reunion of the family where they reminisced, played games, exchanged apple recipes. Her Dad had told her all about it, and at the time she could remember sneering at the whole idea and saying "Those mud ponies can drown in their own filth for all I care, I've got a pool!"

Forgetting she was an Earth pony herself. Hypocrisy? What's that?

This callous remark had been met with a giggle from her mother. "That's my girl!" she could remember Spoiled stating, proudly. Filthy frowned at the impudence though, and then spent the next few hours lecturing his daughter on exactly how much the Rich's owed to the Apples, and why it was wrong to make fun of them just because they were less well off.

Tiara had rolled her eyes at his sermonizing, in the same way she had dismissed Granny Smith's tale at Family Appreciation Day. Even insulting Applejack's grandmother in the process. Her father very rarely got involved in her discipline, but when he had heard what his child had called one of his oldest friends in class that day, he was absolutely mortified.

In one of his few incidences of taking the initiative away from his wife, he punished his daughter by forcing her to wear a pair of bunny ears, and participate in a recreation of the ancient zap apple ceremony. Tiara still didn't understand to this day the bizarre rules of this venerable ritual, but they seemed to work. All over the town, ponies queued for hours to get a taste of this local delicacy.

Despite her rudeness at the time , the Apples had been kind enough to offer Tiara a crate of the popular food for her coerced involvement in the reenactment of the ceremony , but as prideful and as stubborn as she was, she'd refused point blank. Her mother had given her more kind words on her return "You did the right thing, sweetie, who knows what kind of muck those rednecks put in that swill. We have all the imported spreads from Canterlot that you'll ever need" she'd said back then.

Not to mention, reassuring Diamond that she'd never have to go back to 'that disgusting hovel' ever again, and having serious words with Filthy about their progeny taking part in such an undignified activity. "What would have happened if a paparazzo had taken a picture? I'd never be able to show my face at the ladies bridge club ever again!!" she'd screeched.

And, as usual, Spoiled had got her way. Filthy's half-hearted attempts to socialise his daughter with everyday ponies came to naught. It just wasn't worth the aggro, and all the sleepless nights that would follow. Diamond never went back to Sweet Acres ever again, save for now. And the time Babs Seed came to town...

Speak of the... There was the Manehattanite now, staring back at her from an image on the wall amongst all the others. Tiara recognised that arrogant smirk and short red mane anywhere, but what she didn't spot before, that she noticed now, were her eyes.

Was it her imagination, or did they look, Kind of sad?

No matter. She doubted they'd cross paths again, which was fine with Diamond. It was yet another shameful chapter in the pink filly's history she'd rather forget.

From misusing her power of influence over Babs to make her pick on her cousin, to the acrimonious circumstances of their last meeting where the Manehattanite had inexplicably changed her attitude and threatened to tell her mother about their misdeeds (causing Tiara to fall into some mud in surprise that anypony would think Spoiled would actually care) it was another reminder of the kind of pony she was...

And hopefully, would never be ever again.

As wrapped up in her thoughts as she was, she failed to see Applejack reach the bottom of the stairs, turn left and go into the dining room where the rest of the orange mare's family were hard at work. Not kicking trees, but demolishing plates full of scrambled eggs.

Tiara returned to reality just in time to see a grinning Apple Bloom motioning at the seat next to her, while Granny Smith stopped eating for a minute to give the pink filly a welcoming nod and Big Mac kept right on with his meal, a neutral expression on his face.

Applejack moved over to the table, and deposited Diamond on an empty chair by Bloom. The farm filly immediately saw the fresh bandage on her new friend, and with a hint of worry asked her "Are you alright, now?"

Tiara knew that her roommate wasn't just asking about her injured leg. "Well, my hooves feel better, though I'll have to wear this thing for a while. As for everything else, don't worry, you won't be catching me tearing the place apart again. I'm going to try to talk about my feelings more now. Your sister is a great listener, by the way."

Bloom smiled broadly at this compliment to the sibling she idolised. "She is, isn't she? I don't know what I'd do without her..." She began, before the farm filly ended the sentence abruptly, to cast a wary glance at Big Mac who'd recently had a few jealousy issues regarding the achievements of the orange mare.

Seeing her big brother continue shoveling down his breakfast unabated, Bloom continued. "Yeah, she does everything for me. Gives me great advice. Sing me songs. Kisses me goodnight. And she's one of the six heroines of Equestria! Sometimes I have to pinch myself that I'm not living in a dream, that I could be related to somepony so awesome!!"

Tiara may once have thought all this was hyperbole from a doting little sister, but the way Applejack had made her laugh upstairs, a happy, snide-free laugh, and had seen to her wounds with more tenderness than her own mother could ever muster made the pink filly wonder just how much she'd been missing out on.

"B-but songs and kisses goodnight?!" stammered Diamond, seeking to reassure herself. "Aren't you a bit old for that sort of thing?"

Bloom responded to the question with the look of somepony who was trying to understand another language, before she burst into a fit of giggling. Slightly phased by this unusual reaction, Tiara was caught by surprise when Granny Smith replied in the farm filly's absence. Her sharp old ears had been listening to the conversation from the start, and the elderly pony felt she had something of substance to add.

"You ain't ever too old to sing to and kiss your loved ones." She told her new house guest, in her cracked but clear voice. "You young un's these days might think you're too cool and hip to show affection for those you're closest to, but they'll come a day when you'll have to say goodbye to them, and you might just regret not showing them more love when they were around, just to keep up a reputation among ponies who shouldn't matter a lick to you, if they find such important things demeaning."

Diamond wasn't sure if the veteran was directly addressing her or making a more general point, but she nodded back at Granny Smith anyway, just to be civil.

"You like that, did you? Well, there's a lot more where that came from, and if you're willing to listen, I'm willing to tell you. I didn't have chance to say hello last night, on account of the fact you just wouldn't wake up. Welcome to Sweet Apple Acres, Miss Tiara. We're happy for you to stay as long as you like. Just remember though, that all guests must put in at least 10 hour shifts each day for their bed and board. You better start learning how to buck those trees lickety-split..." the matriarch of the Apples announced stiffly.

Diamond's mouth was the size of a small cave. She was about to launch herself into the most vocal of protests. How she wasn't trained. How it was unfair for a child to work such long hours. How her injured foot precluded her from any strenuous work...

But it took was one little chuckle from Granny to set off a chain reaction of laughs from everypony else at the table, save for Mac, who just smiled in an subtle way. Tiara's incoming tirade died before it left her mouth, and the only reaction from the pink filly was a lopsided, sheepish grin.

They'd got her. again.

Those darn Apples.

Dark horses, one and all.

After the fun at Tiara's expense had faded, Applejack finally seemed to notice her new charge's empty plate. "So, what do you want for breakfast, sugarcube? I'm afraid we've got nothing fancy here, just eggs as you can see, and a few other bits and pieces if you're lucky. Any requests?"

Diamond carefully considered her options. She wasn't very fond of eggs, no matter how they were prepared. She'd always found they played havoc with her digestive system, which wasn't the most comfortable experience around.

Even being given the choice of what to eat was a novelty in itself, usually she'd ended up with the blandest of cereals picked out by her mother, under the guise that she should 'maintain her figure' so she could be shown off at various functions to VIPs.

A bit much too expect from such a young filly, but considering the amount of control Spoiled had in every other aspect of her life, perhaps no great surprise.

So, presented with such a unique opportunity, Tiara racked her brains to think of a) Something the Apples might actually have and b) Something she might actually enjoy, as opposed to pieces of cardboard with milk.

What to do, what to do...

Suddenly, it was perfectly clear what she was going to ask for.

She'd been wondering what it had tasted like for a while now.

She'd been cutting off her muzzle to spite her face for too long.

And, now her mother wasn't around to stop her, It was time to see if the hype was justified.

"Could I have... some zap apple jam on toast, please?" She plaintively requested.

All of a sudden, the Apples were a stir. They didn't know what they expected their new house guest was going to ask for, but it certainly wasn't anything like THAT.

It was Applejack who responded first. "I don't know about that, sugarcube. Hey, Big Mac, do we have any left over from this year's crop? I seem to recall it going pretty quickly..."

The red stallion finished off his mouthful, wiped his lips and looked directly at Diamond Tiara. "Yup" he matter-of-factly stated.

Part 11: New Experiences

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"Whaddya mean, You've never had it before?!" This was Apple Bloom's stunned reaction to the revelation that Diamond Tiara had never sampled the wonder that was zap apple jam.

Taken slightly aback by the farm filly and the rest of the Apple clan's amazement, Tiara nervously scratched the back of her head. She felt she owed them an explanation. "Er, well you see, my mother..."

Before she could utter another word, the looks of surprise were soon replaced with eye rolling and exaggerated sighs.

"Of course." Commented Applejack.

"Makes sense." Shrugged Apple Bloom.

"What a shame." Mumbled Granny Smith.

Big Mac probably would have merely grimaced a little, but as he was in the other room, getting the jam and making the toast for their new house guest, so nopony would ever know...

"So, what did you eat in the morning, then?" Bloom was curious to know more about an alternate lifestyle she'd never been privy to.

"Well for one thing..." Began Diamond "I never got to pick what I ate. My father was usually away by the time I got up, and my mother usually had it waiting for me on the table when I arrived downstairs. It was always something grain related, highly nutritious, but not very nice. She'd have a fit if she knew what I was about to eat now..."

"Is that so..." Applejack slightly smirked. "Well, I tell you what sugarcube, I won't tell her, if you don't.

"Er, okay." Tiara responded, as if she didn't even have to ponder the offer.

"Yay, our first secret together with Diamond Tiara as part of our family!" Bloom cheered, as she put a hoof around the pink filly's neck.

"Thanks, I guess..." Diamond was astounded that not only had the youngest Apple forgiven her so easily for years of unprovoked bullying, she was now considered...

A member of the family?!

Tiara shot a questioning look at Applejack, as if she'd put this idea in her sister's head. The orange mare just winked, and went back to eating her breakfast, while Granny Smith seemed preoccupied with stroking a dog under the table.

Putting her hoof to her head, Tiara struggled to make sense of it all. But there was one thing the pink filly was sure of...

Her mother would be bashing down the door right now to 'rescue' her if she'd just heard Bloom's statement.

Thinking about Spoiled again made Tiara realise, she'd probably have woken up from her fainting spell by now. If would be safe to say, she wouldn't be in the best of moods to discover her daughter gone from the mansion, and in the clutches of possibly her most despised family in Ponyville.

Had her father been reduced to a gibbering wreck on the floor by now as a result of Spoiled's ire? Would her mother be well enough to attend school today? And, in the broader scheme of things, would she attempt to get Tiara back through the various channels available to her?

True, it was hard to go against the ruling of a princess, but if there was one thing Diamond had learned, it was not to underestimate her resourceful female parent.

Snapping back to reality with some telltale clip-clop sounds approaching, Tiara spotted the not inconsiderable frame of Big Mac emerge into the room, plate in hoof, and on it two pieces of toast spread with the infamous Apple family speciality itself.

Without a word, the passive stallion deposited the dish next to Tiara on the table, before shuffling back to his seat. The pink filly took a moment to watch him sit down, before her eyes focused on the food that had been brought in.

It really didn't look that amazing. Just a colourful spread, on top of a couple of slices of homemade bread. She was starting to wonder whether she'd set herself up for disappointment by building this clandestine delicacy up so much in her head, that being confronted with the real thing would only be a comedown.

Still, anything had to be an improvement on her stale, enforced diet before, so rather than hesitate any longer, she reached for the first bit of toast, ready to either have her world rocked or expectations dashed...

"Ahem!". A loud noise suddenly stopped Diamond in her tracks. The pink filly looked up, and saw it was Applejack who'd made the interruption, and the orange mare was observing her with a disapproving frown.

"Ain't you forgetting a couple of things, darling?" Applejack spoke plainly. "For one, it took Big Mac quite some time to find the ingredients for your special breakfast and take it over to you. I reckon the least you owe him is a 'thank you'."

Oops. Tiara realised her bad old habits were starting to show, and blushed a little. Daring to raise her head and glance at Applejack's brother, she murmured. "Thank you very much for bringing me this, Big Mac. And sorry for forgetting to tell you that. I've still got a lot to learn about certain things..."

This honest apology was met with positive nods all around the table, and Mac gave Diamond his first big smile since she arrived downstairs that day. Unwilling to risk breaching any other Apple family etiquette, Tiara decided to ask her caregiver for advice.

"What was the second thing?" The pink filly was completely in the dark about what it could be.

"Did you forget, sugarcube? Your hooves are still covered in the cream I put on them upstairs, I know I said it would be quick-drying, but it ain't that fast." Applejack reminded her.

"Oh, yes. Well, what do I do, then?" Tiara was getting quite impatient. The toast would be stone cold by the time she'd taken the first bite.

Apple Bloom, could you help her out with her breakfast?" The orange mare requested of her sister. " Cut it up into small portions, and put them on a fork?"

"Already done, Applejack!" The farm filly leaned over to Diamond's plate and began dividing the slices of bread into smaller pieces, using her knife.

Before Diamond knew what was happening, Bloom finished her set task and had picked up a fork, which was now dangling precariously above her new roommate's muzzle, a fragment of toast on the end.

"Open wide!" the farm filly grinned, ready to feed Tiara by hoof.

"What?!" Choked Diamond. "You can't be serious. You've cut it up for me... That's enough. I'm more than capable of doing the rest myself thank yo-oof...!!"

The sentence was curtailed by the sudden lunge of Bloom's hoof, who'd taken advantage of Tiara's momentary lapse in concentration to shove her piece of cutlery in the pink filly's mouth, making sure it dropped the toast on her tongue as she withdrew it.

For the first moment after Bloom's brazen maneuver, Diamond was so shocked she couldn't even chew.

For the second moment was on the verge of another massive temper tantrum.

How dare she be fork-fed like a little foal?!

Then, the taste kicked in. Wow.

It was as if she could see them. All the colours of the rainbow.

Red, orange, green, yellow, blue and purple.

Dancing in her mouth. Jumping on her tongue.

It was like nothing she'd ever experienced.

Yet, it was all over too soon.

She'd already instinctively swallowed it, and the wonderful feeling was starting to dissipate.

No don't go!!

She needed more. Fortunately, there was more.

And so, rather than snarl and shout at Bloom like she'd intended, the pink filly simply gestured to her mouth that she wanted another portion...

All thoughts of the loss of dignity and pride about being hoof-fed were banished.

Apple Bloom was more than happy to oblige her friend, and for the next few minutes Tiara was taken on a magical mystery tour of flavour...

The world faded around her, as nothing else seemed to exist but the multi-coloured fireworks going off in her mouth.

Somewhere, as if in another dimension, she thought she could detect the sound of loud laughter.

But she didn't care one jot. She was in taste heaven.

Her state of nirvana lasted for ten forkfuls, then alas, it was all gone.

Diamond slowly came down from her fruit-related high, to be confronted with the amused faces of the watching Apples.

"Lord sakes, I haven't seen a reaction like that to my zap apples since Rainbow Dash tried them for the first time...!" Applejack declared.

" I think it's safe to say you enjoyed that, didn't you Diamond Tiara?" Apple Bloom smirked, pleased at the pink filly's approval.

"Now you can see why your Daddy invested so much in our special product." Granny Smith stated, proudly.

"Yup." Big Mac smiled, as if answering a question nopony had asked.

Still recovering from the high, Tiara struggled to form a cohesive sentence. "Me... Why... Missing out... Mother... How could... She... Lie... Amazing!" This was about all her flavour addled brain could muster.

If Applejack had understood what her new charge was saying, she chose to ignore it. "Anyway, sugarcube, you're in luck. Big Mac tells me there's just enough jam left over for the five of us to enjoy tonight, as long as you've calmed down a bit since then." she ended the sentence with a wink.

Diamond heard these words, and immediately started uncontrollably salivating at the mouth. "Yes, yes!!" she shouted, almost without thinking.

Applejack grinned at the foster child's enthusiasm. "All I ask in return is you have a good day at school today, and stay close to Apple Bloom. Take care of each other, try to stay out of trouble and talk to Miss Cheerilee if you have any problems. If you know what I mean..."

Tiara's ears drooped a bit upon being reminded of the kind of hassle a certain head of the school board could cause her. "I will, Applejack." she sincerely promised the orange mare something else for the second time that day.

Suddenly, Diamond found herself in the grip of an impromptu hug from Bloom. "Don't worry nothing about today, sis. I'll be with her every step of the way, and I'll get Scoots and Sweetie to help out, too. Silver Spoon as well, if she's willing. Everything'll be fine, so don't fret."

Observing her granddaughter and house guest in such close proximity to each other, Granny Smith felt she had to comment on something. "Gee, Why didn't I see it before, Miss Tiara? You've got the same ribbon on as my Apple Bloom! And seeing the pair of you side by side like that, you could almost be sisters! Why, if I didn't know any better..."

There was that word again, 'sister'. Diamond, still in Bloom's friendly embrace, paused to consider the fact that she'd never had a sibling herself, and was always somewhat jealous of the undisputed bond that seemed to exist between Applejack and her new roommate.

If she was being totally frank, that was most likely the reason she had bullied the farm filly more than the other members of the Crusaders.

Pure jealousy.

Did she have a chance to forge a new relationship here... The same special one Applejack and Apple Bloom had?

And if she did... Would she take it? Did she even deserve it?

"We're not sisters, Granny, but one day I hope we can be as close as two sisters are." Bloom cheerily told her older relation, before releasing Tiara from her friendly grip.

"That's the spirit. I want the pair of you to really get on, considering you might be spending a lot of time together." Applejack positively stated. "Anyhow, it looks like you've both finished your breakfast, so now it's time to get ready for school. Apple Bloom, go upstairs and get your stuff. There's a couple of things I'd like to talk to Diamond Tiara here about before she leaves..."

The farm filly took the hint, and ascended to the top floor, giving her new friend a little wave as she made her way there. Realising this would be a private conversation, Granny Smith headed to the kitchen to run the taps for the washing-up, while Big Mac headed out back to do something.

"Right, Sugarcube. Let me see those hooves, see if that cream's sunk in yet..." Applejack went to check her charge's legs, and Tiara realised in all the excitement over the new taste sensation in her life, she'd plain forgotten about her injuries from earlier.

"Good, dry as a bone." The orange mare was pleased at their progress. "Now, tell me, do they still feel sore?"

"Diamond rubbed her front hooves together, and barely felt a thing. They even looked less red than before, that miracle lotion was certainly some powerful stuff.

"No, they feel much better." Tiara stated.

" Good, good." Applejack nodded. "Now, if you don't mind, I'd like to see how your hurt back leg is coping with that bandage. Can you try walking on it, and letting me know if you feel any pain?"

"I'll give it a go..." Replied Diamond, as she got off her chair to put her full weight on the affected hoof. Taking a few steps, some minor aching twinges were felt, but nothing too severe..

Applejack's prompt actions had saved her from a day in agony.

" It actually feels fine." Tiara was surprised how comfortable she felt.

Not just with the bandage, but the ribbon in her hair, and her unkempt mane.

It was almost like, in this everyday, simple little home, such trivialities didn't really matter.

Something was happening to her, that she couldn't quite explain yet.

Before she could find out what it was though, Applejack's next words pierced her soliloquy.

"Excellent. I think you're in good shape for a day of learning. Remember what I said though, any difficulties today, talk to Cheerilee. She knows all about the situation. The injunction is still in effect, so you should be alright, but better to be safe than sorry, okay?" Applejack was deadly serious in her concern.

Tiara nodded. She didn't need to be told that twice.

Applejack smiled at the confirmation."Oh, and just one more thing, a member of the Apple family who I don't think you've met yet..."

Diamond raised an eyebrow "Looking at all the pictures you've got hanging up, that doesn't come as a great surprise..."

Applejack grinned at this cheeky riposte "Well, this one's different. Say hello to Winona. Come here, girl!!"

At the orange mare's call, the dog which Granny Smith had been stroking earlier on ran from under the table, to lap up the attention her owner was about to bestow on her.

Slowly patting the canine's head, Applejack spoke to the animal as if it could understand. "Hi, girl. This here is Diamond Tiara. She'll be living here with us at Sweet Acres for a while. I want you to love and protect her as if she was a member of our family, and in return, I'm sure you'll get lots of belly rubs and scraps from the table. Does that sound like a fair deal?"

"WOOF!!" Came the predictable response, as the dog slightly rotated it's position so the pink filly could get into the action of spoiling it rotten.

Absent-mindedly stroking under Winona's chin, Tiara's brain was cast back to the one and only pet she ever had... a cat called Dazzle. Her father had brought him home one day as a present to make up for an extra long business trip away.

She loved that little rascal, for all of the week she had him. Eventually though, the amount of fur he shed, and all the antiques he kept breaking sealed his fate in the eyes of her mother, who insisted he be sent away, never to return.

And everypony knows, she always got her way.

Well, not here.

She could get used to this.

Part 12: Heading To School

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Just the simple act of petting Winona began to calm Diamond Tiara down after the stress and strains she'd suffered recently.

Maybe, if she hadn't had her beloved cat taken away from her by Spoiled so long ago, she would've been less unhinged during everyday life, and she wouldn't have taken her frustrations out on everypony around her. Three fillies in particular...

'Oh well, I can't change the past she thought, as the dog licked her left forehoof, But I can do something about the future... Her mind flashed to her apology the previous day to Randolph after arriving back at the mansion. It had helped her conscience immeasurably, and she knew what she had to do...

"I think she likes you." Applejack nudged Tiara, to bring her out of the daydream. "She's never usually this affectionate with ponies she's just met. I dare say you've made another friend already..."

Diamond looked at her foster carer for a minute, before daring to ask the question which had been weighing on her brain since her radical change in attitude. "H-how difficult is it to make friends, Applejack?"

The orange mare stopped stroking her pet for a moment to put a hoof around Tiara's neck. "Not too hard at all, sugarcube. All you have to do is to be thoughtful, kind and willing to listen, as well as sometimes put others before yourself. If you want to learn from an expert, see how Apple Bloom does it. There's your ticket, right there."

Applejack finished her little speech with an encouraging nod, and Tiara again realised the sharp contrast between the orange mare and her real mother. No room for talk of friendship at Rich mansion. It was either get to know somepony to improve your social standing, or they weren't worth your time.

After all, the lower classes were only after one thing when they were nice to you, and that was called 'bits'.

It was amazing how quickly how many of Spoiled's old teachings which had been drummed into the pink filly's head since birth were crumbling away now. Perhaps that's exactly what Diamond needed all along: Some time and space to be herself.

"I need to go and see somepony a minute..." Diamond stopped petting Winona too, eliciting a whine of protest from the animal that she was being neglected by both ponies.

Applejack nodded at her charge. "Okay, but remember, you have to leave for class in about five minutes, so please be quick about it, sugarcube."

Tiara simply replied "Yes, of course," before navigating her way around the table, towards the kitchen.

Inside the other room, Granny Smith was busy filling up the sink with hot water, ready to clean off the remnants of the morning's meal. Diamond snuck in beside her under the radar, and the first time the elderly mare became aware of the pink filly's presence was when the veteran heard a little voice pipe up.

"Hello..." Tiara hesitantly greeted. What was to follow would be hard for her, but if she wanted to make things right it was essential.

Granny Smith jumped a little at the unexpected noise. "What...? Oh, it's you child. you nearly scared the skin off this old timer. Is there something I can be doing you for?"

Diamond stared down at the ground, and began scratching the flooring with her hoof. "I would just like to say..." She took a deep breath. This was even tougher than she thought. "Imverysorryforbeingrudetoyouwhen..."

"Wo there, Miss Tiara!" Exclaimed Granny Smith, as the matriarch held the youngster by the shoulders in an attempt to settle her down. "You're going so fast, and my brain is so slow. Now. Close your eyes. Say one word at a time. and try to relax."

Diamond listened to this sage advice, and decided to give it a go. After all, her method didn't seem to be working. She shut her eyes, let all of her cares drift away, and began her dialogue anew.

"I am very sorry for being rude to you when you arrived in class for Family Appreciation Day. I now realise my family owes everything to you Apples, regardless of what my mother says. If there's anything I can do to make it up to you while I'm staying here..." Tiara recited her apology as if reading it from an autocue.

Granny Smith stared down in confusion at the pink filly for a second, before suddenly erupting into mild laughter.

Diamond was somewhat disappointed at this underwhelming response to her heartfelt words, and wondered what the joke was.

"My goodness child, I'd forgotten all about that. Is that what's been eating away at ya? Don't worry your head about that. I've heard much worse things in my life from other ponies, most of them old enough to know better. You're still a young 'un, so you can grow out of that sort of thing. And by the looks of it, you're well on your way to doing that already." Granny Smith was able to truncate her mirth long enough to reassure the pink filly that the past was in the past.

Tiara was somewhat torn upon hearing this. On the one hoof, it was good to hear the older pony wasn't going to hold a grudge and had forgiven her for the unpleasant incident. On the other, she had wanted a more fervent reaction to her 'courageous' decision to try and make amends.

Maybe she was looking at this the wrong way. Perhaps the only reason she wanted a more ardent acknowledgement of her so-called bravery was her own selfishness. It was enough that Granny Smith was willing to let bygones be bygones, so she should be happy with that, and just move on...

Then, the veteran unexpectedly pulled the pink filly forward, and planted a big wet kiss on her cheek.

Yuck.

" Thank you for making the effort to tell me so though, sweetheart. You'd best be running off to school now. I didn't get where I am today without a proper education. You have a good day, ya hear? Now, where did I put that scrubber?" Granny Smith's thoughts wandered off somewhere else, leaving a blushing Diamond behind, clutching the side of her cheek where the lips had been in contact.

Tiara's legs seem to move of their own accord, as she left the kitchen. She still had a stock expression of shock on her face, and held onto the spot where she'd been smooched as if trying to hide an embarrassing birthmark. Then, as if the situation couldn't get any more mortifying...

She soon discovered Applejack and Apple Bloom had seen the whole spectacle unveil.

After getting her items for school from upstairs, the farm filly had helped her big sister clear away the table of cutlery and plates, like she did every morning. En route to the kitchen, the pair had heard the beginning of Diamond's blurted out apology and had decided to silently observe, willing to give their new house guest the time and space to complete her arduous task.

Now the siblings were smiling widely at Tiara, looking as if they were about to crack up there and then. They had to hold in their amusement though, otherwise the only things that would be cracking were the crockery they were holding onto, when it was dropped onto the floor.

As it was, Applejack was still proud of the adopted child's actions. Stifling her giggles, the orange mare said "You did a good thing in there, sugarcube. I'm sure Granny Smith appreciated you coming to her like that. I think you can expect an extra large portion of zap apple jam tonight."

Applejack then gave another one of her customary friendly winks, and Diamond began to think maybe this was all worthwhile after all.

"Yeah, and don't concern yourself about being kissed out of nowhere like that." Apple Bloom was the next to attempt to placate her new roommate. " I've had her smooch me on the cheek everywhere. At home. In public. It ain't nothing to be ashamed of. It's just what old folk do to show you they like you, you'll get used to it."

Diamond Tiara wasn't sure about that last part, but the fact there was somepony else who had shared this ignominious experience cheered her up a little. Still a little flushed, she nodded her thanks to both Bloom and Applejack, before sidestepping past them into the dining room.

"You know, I can't believe she just did that without even being asked..." Applejack quietly said, half to herself.

" Are you talking about Diamond's apology, or Granny's kiss?" Replied Apple Bloom. "Because I know which one I'm most surprised by..."

The orange mare looked down lovingly at her sister for a minute. " You know, I really think you are having a good influence on her, sugarcube. I meant what I said, stay close to her today. She's still got a ways to go before she's a better filly, and I want you to make sure she stays on the straight and narrow. Also, try to keep her safe. If anyone is going to jeopardise that girl's future, it's that mother of hers..."

Bloom looked up at Applejack as if she knew all this already. " Done, and done. From the minute we took Diamond Tiara into Sweet Apple Acres, she became a member of our family, as far as I'm concerned. And, like any member of our family, I'll be there if she needs me, whether she knows it, or not."

Applejack smiled with pride at the farm filly. " Oh, Apple Bloom, you're too much. Mom and Dad would be so proud of you..." Echoing similar words exchanged between the two before the younger Apple's cute cenera party.

Wiping away a stray tear, Bloom corrected her on one point. "Both of us, ya mean."

After sharing a poignant look, the sisters decided that carrying a load of dirty plates and cutlery into the kitchen wasn't exactly the perfect venue for an emotional moment, so they resumed their activity, with Granny Smith still hunting for that elusive scrubbing brush.

She found it. Eventually.

Under her right hind leg.

--------------------------------------------------------------------

"...So, Cheerilee is aware that you don't have your schoolbag with you, so she's prepared all the stuff you'll need today on your desk when you get in." These were Applejack's reassuring words to Tiara, as she got ready to bid farewell to both fillies at the farm entrance.

"Alright. Thanks Applejack. I mean, not just for that, but, for everything else as well..." Despite her gratitude, Diamond's eyes remained trained on the floor. Even though she was reformed, she still found it hard to say anything genuinely nice, after behaving the exact opposite way for most of her young life.

Applejack wasn't bothered at all by the lack of eye contact, though. She knew the pink filly was at the start of a long path, and while she might stray off it sometimes, it was the orange mare's job to offer her guidance to push her back into the centre if necessary. It would take time, perseverance and love to keep her there...

Fortunately, those were traits Applejack had in abundance.

The orange mare patted Tiara on the head. "That's okay, sugarcube. I know things might seem difficult at first, but whatever happens we can work through it together. Look after that injured foot today. Try not to get it too dirty. Study hard. Be good. Arrive home on time..."

If a passer-by was just casually listening in now, they could be forgiven for mistaking Applejack as an overly concerned, but devoted mother.

Adding Spoiled Rich to that equation wouldn't have changed their viewpoint one iota.

"Oh, and Apple Bloom, remember what I said to you in private. The same goes for you too, Diamond. Just look out for each other today, okay? I'll leave you to get off now. I have trees to buck, a bedroom to clean and a whole mess of torn up old material to gather for a unicorn friend of mine. See you later." And with those parting words, Applejack took her leave.

Bloom and Tiara watched as she went back into the farmhouse, before slowly trotting side by side to their destination. Unsure of what to say to each other, they spent the next few minutes in silence, before Diamond, unable to tolerate the awkward lull for any longer, decided to get the ball rolling.

" So, your sister..." The pink filly began.

"Yes?" Bloom replied.

"She seems nice...

"Yes, she is."

"How long have you known her for?"

"What?"

Tiara hoofpalmed. Why was she so bad at small talk?!

She guessed, yet again, it was down to her mother...

She'd helped her daughter master the art of snooty quips and belittling put-downs, but when it came down to actually helping her offspring to interact with other ponies on a more personal level, the teachings had left quite a bit to be desired.

It was as Diamond was removing her hoof from her face that she noticed a plume of smoke approaching her and Bloom.

Whatever it was, was going really fast. What on Equestria...?

Incoming!!!

It was all the pink filly could do to dive into the dirt to avoid it, while Bloom seemed less surprised by it's appearance.

A few yards in front of the grounded Tiara, this strange phenomenon came to an abrupt halt, and as the fog around it cleared, Diamond was able to see exactly what had caused her to take in a mouthful of muck.

It was a scooter with two fillies on the back, both wearing crash helmets of course.

Safety first.

Although, obviously that maxim didn't apply to the nearly turned-into-roadkill Tiara.

The driver was the first to take her headgear off.

"See, I told you it was a good idea to redesign my scooter so that two ponies could ride it. Come on, you can't tell me that wasn't fun!" The young orange pegasus underneath seemed very excited, flapping her little wings with great energy.

This was the unmistakable pony daredevil known as Scootaloo. A young Rainbow Dash in training, if you like.

Her passenger was a bit slower in removing her helmet, and even though she was a white unicorn, her face had taken on a slight tint of green.

"I think I'm going to be sick..." Was the only thing she could say, while holding her hoof to her mouth.

Yep, it was Sweetie Bell alright. A talented magic user, a great singer...Not so good at white knuckle rides, though.

Scootaloo rolled her eyes at her friend's nausea. "What a wuss."

She then turned to greet Tiara's companion. "Hey, Apple Bloom. Wanna take the next go?"

Sweetie, holding her headgear over her muzzle as if she was about to vomit into it, offered a warning. "I wouldn't. Not with her driving, anyway."

"Hey. Don't deny you loved it, and you better not be sick into my spare helmet... I had to save up for a month to afford that!" Scootaloo warned the unicorn.

Both of Apple Bloom's friends were so caught up in their little feud, they'd failed to notice the pink (now, more brown) filly sprawled out on the muddy ground.

"Girls..." Apple Bloom tried to divert their attention.

It didn't work. "Well, where else am I supposed to do it? On the road? That would just be rude." Sweetie Belle was fit to burst.

"I don't care! But you're not going to mess up my personal property. Now Give it to me!!" Scootaloo was desperate to retrieve her helmet unscathed.

The two engaged in a mini tug of war, in front of an exasperated Apple Bloom and an extremely annoyed Tiara.

Finally, sick of these childish antics, Diamond decided to put an end to them.

"Enough!!" She yelled after getting up, which caused not only all three fillies to stop and stare at her, but other ponies strolling nearby.

Upon seeing her, Scootaloo was so shocked, she dropped her end of the helmet. "D-Diamond, is that you?!"

The newly fostered child fumed "Well, who else would it be... Derpy Hooves?!"

Sweetie Belle dropped her side of the helmet too, and it fell to the ground with a thud. "N-no, you just look so different.

"That bow in your mane..." Scootaloo observed.

"No tiara..." Sweetie Belle had a knack for stating the obvious.

"You have muck in your coat..."

"How did you get that bandage?"

"Didn't you brush your hair this morning"

Apple Bloom listened to the obtrusive, non-stop queries from her fellow Crusaders, and saw Diamond's gradually angering face, which was beginning to resemble a tomato.

Keeping the peace with just her and Tiara was hard enough, but adding her two best friends to the mix...

Things looked like they were about to get combustible.

"

Part 13: Meanwhile...

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"...So I'm sure you understand, Mrs Rich, in light of the nature of these allegations, it would be best if, er... You perhaps kept a low profile at the moment. Stayed in the office. Did some paperwork. Something to distract yourself, while the investigation is going on." Mayor Mare wasn't being entirely truthful with her intentions.

The dyed grey custodian of Ponyville had really wanted to remove Spoiled Rich from all school related activities, as soon as it had been brought to her attention by Princess Twilight Sparkle the full scale of the accusations laid out regarding the mistreatment of Diamond Tiara.

Rampant emotional abuse was not acceptable anywhere, least of all in her little town. If the elected official had her way, the snooty mare would be out on her ear... Or nose, seeing as that was her most distinguishing feature.

But then, unbelievably, the mayor had found that Spoiled had somehow browbeaten her long-suffering husband Filthy to agree to fund the legal fight against these 'groundless charges', and as long as there were no convictions against her name, the wealthy stallion's wife was free to continue her job unrestricted...

As long as she stayed away from her daughter, of course.

"Don't you worry about anything, mayor. I'm going to stay right here, working as hard as I usually am for all the fillies and colts of Ponyville. These spurious claims won't impact my performance at all. It is my full intention to clear my good name and secure the safe return of my precious Diamond, but it would be amiss of me to let that divert me away from my professional career as a working mother." Spoiled afforded the mayor a wide, phony grin.

The custodian wanted to say so much more. About how she could see through the magenta mare's lies from a mile away. How there were witnesses to her abuse not just towards her own daughter, but to many other foals who's parents were fed up of their children being castigated because they weren't of a 'good stock'.

And that the operation to improve her facial features had actually produced the reverse effect.

But Mayor Mare had to quietly swallow her words, and accept Spoiled's dubious promise at face value. For, the head of the school board had one trick up her silken sleeve which the politician could do nothing about. And his name was Filthy Rich.

Despite having the worst taste in mares around, the Barnyard Bargains tycoon was still a major name in the town. His business bought in a lot of money to the province. He heavily invested in infrastructure for the future.

He more-or-less bankrolled Mayor Mare's last winning election campaign...

And Spoiled had him completely under her hoof.

So, unable to communicate anything she really wanted to, the official simply nodded, before just standing there in the centre of Spoiled's office, stuck in a quandary.

She REALLY wanted to get out of the sight of this ghastly mare as soon as possible, but she felt she owed to the innocent youngsters of Ponyville. To say something else. Do something else. Which would change something, anything...

She did nothing.

"Hmm?" Spoiled Rich looked up from the filing cabinet she was leafing through. "Was there something else?"

"N-no, n-not at all, Mrs Rich" the mayor stammered, powerlessly.

"Well, in that case, you're free to leave." Spoiled waved a dismissive hoof, which indicated the meeting was over. "Do close the door on the way out, there's a dear."

The magenta mare returned to her occupation, while Mayor Mare headed to the exit. She was sorely tempted to slam the door with all her strength, but fortunately was able to just suppress the urge.

As soon as she heard the elected official depart, Spoiled stopped the pretense she was doing something, and her expression became one of somepony who'd been sucking lemons all day. She swiveled on her plush, leather chair, adopting a similar pose to her daughter during her ill-fated stint as editor of the Foal Free Press.

As if the evening hadn't been bad enough, with those four lower class ponies lead by the fake princess invading the sanctity of her home to humiliate her with their lies, she woke up to find her pathetic, sniveling wreck of a husband leaning over her in the morning, saying that their daughter had been removed from the premises...

And it was partially her fault?!

Needless to say, she soon put him right on that score, and it wasn't too long before his sad attempt at a rebellion was quashed, with the pitiful stallion on his knees, kissing her fetlocks and swearing never to speak out of turn again.

She'd informed him the only way he could possibly make it up to her was by ensuring the safe return of Diamond by the week's end, after all... She needed her child to show off at Prince Blueblood's big soiree.

She didn't want the other upper class guests to know there was anything wrong. Also, she'd picked out the most gorgeous dress for Tiara to show off there.

Her plans were not going to unravel because some 'Princess Of Friendship' (what kind of a stupid title is that, anyway) had a parasprite in her bonnet about her parenting methods.

Why, Spoiled's mother had raised her in exactly the same manner. To speak when she was spoken to. To listen to a command, and act on it straight away. To only make friends with certain cliques, and that nopony else was worth her time...

Sure, she hated it, and the restriction and lonliness caused her to cry herself to sleep most nights. But it was all worth it in the end! Look at her now. She'd married well, was known in all the right circles and was even going to rub shoulders with real royalty soon.

Meaning: Somepony actually born into an aristocratic role, not some antisocial nerd promoted well beyond her capabilities.

In case it wasn't clear enough by now, Spoiled had no respect whatsoever for Twilight, and regarded her 'concern' for Tiara as a blatant abuse of her undeserved power.

This would be one of the cornerstones of her court case against the injunction in a few days, as soon as that dozy shell of a husband deigned to find some lawyers competent enough to represent her.

The more expensive, the better... And they'd have to hail from Canterlot.

Besides her grudge against the lavender alicorn, Spoiled also mostly blamed three other individuals for the unfortunate predicament she found herself in.

She knew it was stupid to get so worked up over mere children, but frankly their contribution to the break-up of her family was so grievous it couldn't be overlooked.

Since her arrival that morning, she'd spent time digging up info on that trio of troublemakers. Apparently, they already had a rap sheet a mile long.

Including: Destruction of property, endangering other pony's lives due to their silly stunts, causing their teacher to fall in love against her will...

Why these worthless rapscallions hadn't been expelled, or at the very least suspended for their many misdemeanors she didn't know. Maybe it was something to do with the fact one was the sister of Rarity, another was related to that smelly farmer her husband did business with and the other hung out with the same rainbow coloured thug that threatened her yesterday.

And, the common link here between all the ponies? All friends of Twilight Sparkle. More evidence for the trial... She couldn't wait to see that fraud's face when the case against the Rich family was blown apart.

Sure, she'd done some stuff too which could be classified as unethical, like the numerous occasions she'd used her influence as head of the board to stop her daughter for seeing any serious consequences for her actions.

Tiara was simply flaunting her superiority in each case, She didn't deserve any repercussions for exhibiting her power over useless commoners.

One of the proudest moments of Spoiled's life was when her baby got her cutie-mark, while bossing around the servants at the mansion. It was while Diamond was complaining to one of her attendants that her glass of orange juice was two degrees too warm, before throwing it in the face of the serving pony.

The useless maid had run off in tears, much to Spoiled's approval. Learning how to handle the workforce at such an early age... Now THAT was impressive.

Things got even better when the symbol of a five-pointed tiara had appeared on the young filly's flank.

Spoiled had been overjoyed, particularly when she discovered the true power of the mark was that suddenly her daughter became a pony with a silver tongue, able to get whatever she wanted. This would be a skill the magenta mare could use to her own advantage... And had pushed forward plans for Spoiled to introduce her offspring to society, starting with the big upcoming party at the royal palace.

What she didn't see coming though, was Diamond's tactics of intimidation failing her at the school election... Because of those three fillies.

That her daughter would be chased halfway across Ponyville to somehow be brainwashed to waste her priceless talent on helping peasants instead of using it to climb social ladders... Because of those three fillies.

Then she'd lost her blessed child to Celestia-knows-who, due to unfounded accusations against her fine self.

And who'd been spying on her when she'd given her daughter a well deserved tongue lashing for her failures? Who'd subsequently reported her to the authorities, completely over-exaggerating the incident?

Those three fillies.

Spoiled couldn't even say their stupid names. All she knew is they'd taken away the daughter she knew, both mentally and physically. Through their cornball philosophising and out-of-tune singing, they'd transformed a prideful, obedient daughter who was sure of her place in the world as one of the future elite, into a humble, disobedient filly who wanted to be the same as everypony else.

She hadn't even recognised her own progeny yesterday.

Before Tiara's unscheduled departure that night, she was about five minutes away from calling the therapy clinic. Get her checked in there... Undo the harm that trio of misfits had done to her brain... Get back the daughter she'd molded and trained for all those years.

Oh, and loved of course.

Then she was gone, forcibly removed...

And it turned out those three fillies were responsible for that, too.

She looked at the personnel records she had on each one of them, laid out on her desk. The pegasus couldn't even fly. The unicorn couldn't even use magic properly. And, the earth pony...

Was an Apple...

Spoiled angrily scrunched up each piece of paper. What made them so special? They seemed like a bunch of unrepentant delinquents. Yet, despite the fact they shamefully were among the last in their class to get their cutie-marks, the whole town came to a standstill to help them celebrate this 'awesome' achievement.

Even her own daughter attended, against Spoiled's express wishes, of course.

Though they were only children, and it was most unbecoming to say so, she hated them. They had taken away everything that was important to her, even though she'd never done anything to them. Well, now she would.

Revenge was a base concept, and not one she generally approved of. Yet, if anypony deserved it, it was those brats. She'd do something to ruin their reputation around town. Show the residents of this dump that these insignificant low-lives were as contemptible as she saw them.

Of course, she'd have to keep it very hush-hush.

With the impending court case, and the big upcoming shindig at the palace which could make or break her social climbing...

She couldn't afford to make any mistakes.

If it was impossible to get her own back on a manufactured princess, ruining the lives of the three fillies that started this whole sorry affair would be a good consolation.

Why did her daughter choose to be friends with them, anyway? Had her standards really slipped that low? Why couldn't there be more children around like Sterling Silver's filly... The only one who had ever got onto her 'approved' list in this town of riff-raff?

Silver Spoon...

That was her name...

She wondered if Silver was as disappointed in the changes wrought to her daughter as Spoiled was...

Maybe there was a kindred spirit there...

Maybe, the grey filly could help her with her plan...

*KNOCK KNOCK*

Spoiled sighed at the interruption. Just when she was about to get into monologuing mode...

"COME IN!!" The magenta mare bellowed.

The door opened... And in popped Miss Cheerilee.

Spoiled internally sighed. 'Oh Celestia, not her. Shouldn't she be in class by now, being used as a painted target for spitwad throwing hooligans?'

"Miss Cheerilee. What an absolute pleasure to see you, and on such a fine day as well. How are you, my dear?" Spoiled showed off her expensive dental work with the widest of fake smiles.

Always nervous when confronted with the one who could make or break the job she loved so much, Cheerilee stumbled into the room, a little on edge. "Er, hello Mrs Rich. I'm fine thank you. And, how are you, may I ask?"

"Never better!" Spoiled spat out, almost threateningly. She bet one of the signatories on that stupid petition was this clumsy single girl. Well, she'd get her comeuppance soon enough too...

"I just came to make you aware about today. I'm sure you know the terms of the injunction." Cheerilee nervously fiddled with her forehooves. As much as she loathed Spoiled's appalling parenting methods, she still felt sorry for any mother separated from their child in such acrimonious circumstances.

Mrs Rich didn't seem too bothered, though. "Yes, yes. I'm not to go within fifty feet of her... Not talk to her... Not send her any letters... As if that useless mailmare we have would be able to find her anyway, Not breathe on her... I intend to follow all of that to the last detail, so don't worry your pretty little head about it. It won't be for too long, though... I'll have her back in the mansion where she belongs sooner than you think. You'll see."

Cheerilee wasn't sure about the reason behind Spoiled's rock-solid confidence, but wisely decided not to comment on it. "Good, because she'll be arriving soon with Apple Bloom, and..."

Spoiled's nonchalance was suddenly cast aside, upon hearing this. The head of the board jumped up from her desk like she was on springs, knocking over her carefully arranged papers in the process. "WHAT?!" She screeched, "What's she doing with that... pony?"

Cheerilee took a step backward, sweat dripping from her brow. She was used to dealing with Spoiled's tantrums by now, but this looked to be one on an entirely new scale.

"D-didn't you know?" Stammered the teacher. "Apple Bloom is living with her now..."

Spoiled continued to stare open-mouthed at Cheerilee, as if she knew what this earth-shattering news entailed, she just wanted to hear it from the teacher's lips.

So, unwilling to disappoint, Cheerilee dutifully obliged. "Applejack is her new foster parent."

That did it. For the second time in twenty-four hours, Spoiled Rich fainted dead away, her tongue unraveling like a serpent once more in her unconscious state.

Cheerilee put her hoof to her mouth. "Oops, maybe it would have been better if I hadn't said anything..."

Part 14: A Little Slip Up

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The non-stop procession of questions continued, as Diamond Tiara, now not looking quite as regal as her name would imply, was getting a little upset. To say the least.

Legend says that if you stood close enough to her that day, you could actually see her eyebrows simmer.

Not receiving satisfactory answers to their inquisition, with Diamond silently shaking with rage, Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle decided to probe further...

By actually conducting a physical examination.

Now, there's being innocently insensitive... And then there's throwing yourself into the path of a volcano.

For whatever reason on that fine morning in Ponyville, Apple Bloom's friends had a death wish.

Having a little more common sense then her fellow crusaders, the farm filly wisely decided to stay out of it...

Yet, she was too much of a coward to risk the burgeoning relationship she had with her new roommate to get directly involved.

She thought Tiara, used to dealing with the idiosyncrasies of her companions in the past, would be able to handle things on her own.

It was a choice that would return to bite her in the flank.

Scootaloo began poking Tiara's bandaged foot. "Wow, this thing looks real. She's not trying to get out of gym class..."

Sweetie Belle examined the bow on Diamond's head, where a jeweled headpiece once stood. "I gotta say, the ribbon scarily suits her...

Scootaloo gave Tiara's mucky coat a cursory once-over. "She looks like me after I've braked too quickly on one of my hairpin turns. Those dirt naps sure are fun!"

Sweetie Belle studied Diamond's mane. "Get this, I don't even think she's put any beauty products on this morning..."

Upon hearing this last revelation, both of the pink filly's examiners stared at each other in fear. They took an abrupt step back.

"Er... A-apple B-bloom..." Stammered Sweetie, her eyes glancing from left to right with uncertainty. "A-are y-you s-sure t-this i-is t-the r-real D-Diamond T-tiara?

Scootaloo, not usually one to show any outlying signs of fright, had almost turned as pale as her unicorn friend. "Y-yeah, w-where d-did y-you m-meet h-her?"

Bloom rolled her eyes at her friends paranoia. They were acting like a couple of foals on Nightmare Night, and she knew what they were getting at. Time to switch to 'long explanation' mode.

"Look, she's NOT a changeling! I know Diamond Tiara might not look like herself at the moment, but if you'll just listen to me..." The farm filly started.

"Have you been hanging around the Everfree Forest again?" Sweetie Belle interrupted her fellow Crusader, nervously. "We told you not to go there alone. Is that where you found this... Thing?"

She knew her sister Rarity had been practicing her magic of late. The older mare thought that, as much as she loved her passion for fashion, she was losing touch with her unicorn roots. One of the spells she'd been rehearsing was an enchantment that could instantly reveal the presence of a changeling in disguise, just in case Equestria was ever targeted again by those 'heinous brutes'.

Sweetie had been taking a casual interest in her sister's incantations, but the older pony's over-elaborate and time consuming preparation to master these skills didn't seem worth the effort. The young unicorn had turned down overtures to become her older sibling's sparring partner for the day, preferring instead to stick to traditional spellcasting, like picking up brooms.

Now, she was beginning to wish she'd paid more attention to Rarity's iterations, particularly the whole 'changeling spell' segment.

Scootaloo however, wasn't so sure this was necessary. "Changelings don't live in the Everfree, you doofus. Have YOU ever encountered one there before?"

Sweetie thought over all the times she'd been loitering near the dangerous forest, without adult supervision and always without permission. "Well, no, but there's a first time for everything. That place is so dark and spooky and full of nasty things already, would it really be much of a stretch for a new batch of changelings to colonise the area?"

That made Scootaloo think for a minute, and she realised her friend could very well be right. Her pupils turned into pinpricks in their sockets, and despite it's value to her, she began swinging her scooter at the strange Diamond-Tiara-shaped figure in a defensive manner.

"Sweetie Belle, get Apple Bloom to safety. I'll hold off this thing for as long as it takes the guards to get here. If I don't survive, tell Rainbow Dash I'm still her number one fan, winning the Sisterhooves Social with her was a blast, and I'm sorry I left the mayonnaise out of the fridge last time I was round." The orange pegasus carefully eyed the form in front of her, as if expecting an attack.

"Will do, Scoots. Come on, Apple Bloom. We have to alert the soldiers we have an imposter in our midst and find out what it's done with the real Diamond Tiara!" Sweetie's voice cracked with a mixture of exhilaration and urgency.

"Look, you girls don't understand." Bloom pleaded "If you'll just take five minutes to..."

"Uh Oh..." Scootaloo remarked, with a shake of the head "I was afraid of this".

"Afraid? Of what...?" Sweetie Belle was confused. No change there, then.

"Those sneaky changelings. Not only are they highly adaptable, but they're also always developing new powers. It said so in 'The National Hayquirer' last week. So, we know it's fact. Why would they be willing to put their license at risk by publishing lies? " Scootaloo was one-hundred percent sure of her source.

"What are you getting at?" Sweetie was starting to develop a migraine.

"It means... Our friend Apple Bloom here, has most likely been hypnotized." Scootaloo said that last word, as if it was the most dire thing to ever befall ponykind.

"WHAT?! That's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard. If you'd just hear me out for a second..." Apple Bloom protested vehemently.

Sweetie Belle though had caught Scooterloo-itis. Symptoms included: Recklessness, jumping to wild conclusions and ignoring all forms of logic. It was a highly contagious disorder, and one which was very hard to cure once delirium sets in.

The white unicorn was starting to feel the full effects. "Oh no, what do we do...?" She wailed.

"Take her away yourself, by force if necessary. I'll keep the creature at bay until help arrives..." Scootaloo's initial fear had been firmly replaced with a real sense of duty now.

She felt strong, resilient...This was her purpose now. To keep Ponyville safe from this new strain of changeling, she set the scene in her head. The crowds chanting her name during the parade. Standing on that pumpkin float, waving. Rainbow Dash wandering over to pin a medal on her chest. "You did good, kid..." She'd whisper. "You did good."

She could even become a superhero like the ones Spike read about in his comic books. 'The Avenger On Wheels...' 'The Too Cool For School Bruiser..." "The Scooting Rooting Tooting..."

Hmm... That last one could do with some work.

Still ANY alias was better than 'The Mysterious Mare Do Well.'

Whatever happened to that pony, anyway?

While the orange pegasus was lost in her fantasy of fame, glory and bad secret identity titles, Sweetie was trying to pull Bloom away from the scene.

The farm filly, thanks to years of farm labour, was stronger than her unicorn friend, but Sweetie had one distinct advantage over her fellow Crusader.

And, seeing as how exerting physical pressure wasn't having much effect, the unicorn filly decided to utilise her trump card there and then.

"Hey!" Apple Bloom found herself surrounded by a strange green aura, and felt herself being dragged away from her standing position. She looked up, and saw Sweetie's horn a-glow. This could only mean...

Despite her frustrated frame of mind, Bloom couldn't help but be impressed. Picking up Pipsqueak was one thing, but to be able to transport a larger filly her size, against her will... That was impressive.

Still, it didn't change the fact that the white unicorn's magical breakthrough was coming at the expense of her putting her friends right about their huge misunderstanding. She'd congratulate Sweetie later, now, it was time to put them right on a few things.

" Stop!! Just pay attention to me for a darn second. I haven't been brainwashed... That is Diamond Tiara over there... You two have got completely the wrong end of the stick. If you'd just put me down, and give me an opportunity to explain..." Bloom's exasperation was really getting the better of her now.

Sweetie, still holding the farm filly in her magical grasp, and Scootaloo, still edging towards a now highly irate Tiara, took a moment to glance at each other, before falling into spontaneous laughter.

"Wow, those changelings sure scrambled your brains good, Apple Bloom!" Scootaloo snorted, while still keeping an eye on her prey. "When you wake up later on after all this is over, you're going to feel so silly!"

"Yeah, I mean... How can that thing possibly be Diamond Tiara?!" Sweetie pointed a hoof at the alleged changeling. "I mean, just look at it..."

"It's got no tiara..." Scootaloo started the list of inaccuracies.

" It's stolen one of your spare bows..." Sweetie Belle continued.

"I bet it injured itself during it's initial assault!" Scootaloo observed the bandage.

"It doesn't have a single trace of shampoo or conditioner on." Remarked Sweetie.

"And you want to know what the REAL deciding factor was?" Scootaloo announced, smugly, sounding like Prancy Drew. " The thing that REALLY told us we were dealing with a doppelganger and not the bona fide article?"

"...Huh? No?" Sweetie was a little dazed, both at what this 'deciding factor' could be, and what all those weird sounding words meant.

"Well here it is..." Scootaloo was ready for her big moment. "Would Diamond Tiara, the prissiest, vainest, most self absorbed filly in all of Ponyville, be seen in public looking so dirty and smelly? I mean, I know she's turned over a new leaf now, and we're friends. But come on. Ponies don't change that much..."

"Oh yeah, when you put it like that, I guess it all does make sense..." Sweetie was swayed by the orange pegasus's 'brilliant' detective work.

Apple Bloom was unable to move her legs due to the constraints of her magical field, but if she could she'd have given herself the mother of all facehooves.

There would be no reasoning with this pair of dunderheads now. Lost in their delusions as they were, she was just going to have to hope that events transpired in a way which would teach them a lesson...

And, as it turned out, they did.

You see, all throughout this farce, Diamond Tiara had been like a kettle full of water.

First, she was tepid during the initial questioning.

Then, as they manhandled her person, she became lukewarm.

When they compared her to one of those awful monsters, she was hot.

Finally, when Scootaloo called her all those horrible names...

And Sweetie Belle tried to take Apple Bloom away...

Her new emotional crutch...

It happened.

Boiling Point.

Streams of lava devastating the landscape.

Evacuate all survivors.

Mares, fillies and colts first.

"SHUT UP!! SHUT UP!! YOU NINCAMPOOPS!" That was the first time anyone had heard a peep out of Diamond Tiara in a good five minutes, and so shocked were Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle that respectively, they dropped their scooter and equine loads in surprise.

"I'M NOT A CHANGELING! I'M A PONY! MY NAME IS DIAMOND DAZZLE TIARA!! THE REASON I'M NOT WEARING MY TIARA IS BECAUSE I LEFT IT AT HOME!!! I'VE GOT A BOW ON BECAUSE APPLE BLOOM, THE ONLY ONE OF YOU WITH ANY BRAINS IN THOSE EMPTY VACUUMS YOU CALL SKULLS BY THE WAY, HAS LOANED ME ONE!! I HAVEN'T PUT ANY PRODUCTS ON IS BECAUSE I WAS IN A HURRY THIS MORNING!! AS TO WHY I'M SO 'FILTHY AND SMELLY' NOW..." She yelled at the top of her voice, even outdoing her tantum from earlier that morning.

"Is because you..." She stabbed a hoof at Scootaloo, who'd now retreated to huddle alongside Sweetie in the face of this verbal onslaught "ARE THE WORST DRIVER EVER!! HONESTLY, ISN'T IT BAD ENOUGH YOU CAN'T EVEN FLY... YOU USELESS FEATHER BRAINED..."

"DIAMOND!!" A loud voice was heard above the parapets, one that was so rarely raised that when it was, everypony took notice.

Including Tiara, in the middle of her seemingly unstoppable tirade. It was Apple Bloom.

The pink filly took a moment to turn away from the two targets of her aggression. "What?" She snarled.

"What... What did you just say?" Bloom seemed slightly morose, her tone a mixture of disappointment and sadness.

What did she just say, indeed. Tiara really wasn't keeping track. In her rage, she just kind of let her mouth run. She tried to recap her words.

Nincompoops. That was a good one!

Not a changeling. That was true.

Reasons for my current appearance. Dead straight!

Vacuums in skulls. I'll have to write that down!

Scootaloo not being able to drive. HA! Don't I know it.

Scootaloo not being able to fl...

All at once, the world came to a standstill.

Every ounce of anger, bitterness and resentment left Diamond Tiara's system.

Oh, no...

What had she...

Her eyes instantly flashed to the orange pegasus.

Scootaloo was just standing stock still...

Over her fallen scooter...

Being hugged by Sweetie Belle...

A single rivulet of water rolling down her cheek.

In Tiara's peripheral vision...

She also caught Apple Bloom looking at her...

What was that strange expression in her eyes?

Hatred?

Sympathy?

Regret?

She had no idea.

One thing WAS for certain, though.

She'd just burned all her bridges...

By repeating...

The worst thing she'd ever done.

Losing her temper was no excuse.

She'd made a promise to Applejack.

The mare who was more like a mother to her...

Then her real one ever was...

And she'd blown it.

Blown her second chance.

Nopony would want her now...

Her old life was gone...

Her new life had just come to an end.

She was a disgrace.

A lost cause.

Irredeemable.

The CMC were wrong..

She couldn't be 'Somepony Else'.

She would always be rotten, nasty, spoiled old Diamond Tiara.

They'd tried so hard...

And she'd failed them.

She didn't deserve to be in their presence.

She had to get out of there.

Right now.

And, so...

Through a curtain of tears...

The pink filly fled the scene...

Leaving behind three former friends...

And two barely heard words.

"I'm sorry."

Part 15: A Chat With Pinkie

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She ran.

She didn’t know where to…

She didn’t know when she’d stop...

All she knew…

Is she had to get as far away from them as possible.

Away from her former friends.

‘Former’…

Her tears stained her vision.

Everything around her was a blur.

She passed other ponies.

Some stopped to stare at her…

Some walked on by…

She didn’t care.

She just ran…

Ran and ran…

Hey, you!!”

What was that?

A male voice...

That she didn’t recognise.

It sounded angry.

It came from behind her.

Was she being chased?

She had no idea.

She was suddenly afraid.

Now, her aimless gallop…

Was turning into an escape from danger.

She saw a colourful building up ahead through the haze.

Somewhere, in the recesses of her memory…

The term ‘sanctuary’ appeared.

Instinctively, she headed towards the entrance…

And burst right in.

After all, if she wanted to get away from Mr “Hey you!!”…

It’s not like she had many other options.
---------------------------------------------------------------------------------

It had been a quiet morning for Pinkie Pie at Sugarcube Corner. With the Cakes having a well deserved break in Manehattan with their young children visiting the new 'Foal Funland' that had just opened, the manic party pony was enjoying a rare moment of peace by engaging in an exhilirating staring contest with her somewhat lifeless pet baby alligator Gummy...

…Which had been going on for three hours.

“I’ll get you this time Gummy, I can feel it in my tail! You’re going to snap any second now…” Pinkie seemed certain of her victory, even though her tiny reptile had not shown any indication of moving an inch, let alone flickering it’s eyelids.

Alas, the epic contest was about to come to an abrupt halt. For, just as Pinkie thought she had her alligator friend on the ropes, the telltale sound of the bell rung as the door was thrown open, and almost by instinct the party mare turned to greet the customer(s) with the warmest of smiles.

“Hello, and welcome, welcome, welcome to our humble little shop! Muffins are our speciality, along with milkshakes, pastries, candies, chocolates... Anything with sugar in, we got it! Hence the name…” The party pony stopped in the middle of her spiel, and realised she’d blinked at least twice during her extended sales pitch.

She glanced ruefully at her triumphant pet, who stayed as lifeless as a stuffed toy even in the midst of it's glorious win. “Gummy, you old rascal! How did you know, we were going to get somepony through our door at that exact moment to distract me?! Sometimes, I think you’ve got a better Pinkie Sense than me! I’ll get you next time…”

The pink mare decided the champion deserved a bit of rest after his hard-fought victory, and so returned to her preassigned role of store vendor for the day. “Sorry about that… You see I was in the middle of an amazing competition with Gummy here, and…”

For the second time in as many minutes, the party pony was halted before she could finish her sentence. This was in itself a minor miracle, because once Pinkie got chattering away, short of shoving Equestria’s biggest cork in her cakehole, nothing could curb her from almost literally talking the poor listener to death.

But then again, there hadn’t been a more miserable, wretched-looking figure to stumble through the entrance to this usually joyful place in many a day. The filly Pinkie observed had an interesting colour scheme. A white bandage on her foot, pink fur with large patches of brown, and a dark red ribbon to match the scarlet rings around her blue eyes.

But what really stood out was the expression on her face. It was so sad and downcast to observe, Pinkie’s mane almost lost it’s curl and straightened out there and then. This was the look of somepony who’d given up on everything. There wasn’t a single trace of happiness or cheer anywhere on the filly's morose features, and she staggered into the eatery like a zombie on autopilot.

Confronted with such a depressing sight, Pinkie immediately sprung into action. She had long rehearsed protocols in such dire cases, and it was time to put them into effect.

Emergency, Emergency!! Sourpuss on the horizon!!!!” The pink mare then did a very passable impersonation of a siren, before turning to her toothless pet. “Gummy, I’m going to need you to take over for me for a bit. I know it’s a tough ask, but I have faith in you. Now, I must go and do my good deed for the day. Remember, keep smiling!”

The party pony removed her chef’s hat and apron, before depositing the items of clothing on Gummy’s motionless, cold form so that they almost completely covered him. She then gave him a little good luck kiss on the cheek (the only part of him now that wasn’t enveloped in fabric) before scampering over to her sad-sack customer.

“Hey there, sweetheart. Shouldn’t you be in school? I know our treats are super-delicious, but they shouldn’t come at the expense of you getting a decent education! It's not nice to play truant!” Pinkie was quickly in the filly’s face, trying out this new skill Twilight was teaching her of being concerned, but also responsible at the same time.

The child looked at her questioner for a second, before scoffing and sitting down on one of the many empty chairs. “Why should I want to go to school?! Everypony there hates me… And who can blame them? I’ve been a horrible pony for so many years… It’s only what I deserve. Just leave me alone, please.”

The filly turned away from Pinkie, who hadn’t got off to the best of starts. Momentarily discouraged, the party pony decided to find out the root of the problem to see if she could help.

“I’m sure that’s not true. And even if it is, everypony can change. I mean, who’d thought Trixie, Discord, Princess Luna… Or should I say Nightmare Moon, could be redeemed? You just have to figure out what you’re doing wrong, and stop doing it! You may not know this… But I happen to know something about friendship. Me and my five friends are…” The pink mare was desperate to prove her credentials.

“Yes, yes, I know all about the amazing 'Elements Of Harmony.' “ The filly sarcastically remarked, waving her hoof in the air. “You travel all over Equestria, spreading love, rainbows and sunshine wherever you go. Good for you! But I’m afraid you’ve never come up against a case as hopeless as mine before. I tried, I really, really tried to be a better pony, but it didn’t work. And now, I don’t know… What to do…" *sniffle*

The strange filly then started blubbing uncontrollably, causing Pinkie’s big heart to almost break in two. Maybe she didn’t have the answer for everything. The poor child seemed so despondent, that perhaps there really was nothing the party pony could do for her.

Pinkie was about to slump off dejectedly back to the counter in defeat, when…

The crying filly’s tears happen to dribble down her fur, cleaning off the mud that had amassed there. Some of the muck to get washed away was covering the youngster’s cutie mark, and Pinkie happened to notice it just as she was turning away. All at once, the party pony knew who she was dealing with, and a loud exclamation left her mouth.

“Wait just a bucking second. Are you by any chance… Diamond Tiara?” Pinkie’s attention suddenly became physical, as she grasped the sobbing child by the shoulders.

Tiara stopped crying for a second, and wiped her eyes. “Y-yes. Y-you must have heard of me, and w-what a rotten pony I am. D-do you see now, w-why nopony wants me, a-and why I merit b-being by myself for the rest of my l-life, where I can’t p-pick on anypony, or hurt anypony else with my e-evil ways?”

But Pinkie wasn’t listening, and had redecorated her face with quite the gigantic grin. “Diamond Tiara!! Of course I know you… I never forget the face of somepony I organise a cute-cenera for! I especially remember your cutie-mark because you spent half the party showing it off to everypony else, instead of trying to have a good time! Then, you just disappeared upstairs… And I didn’t see you for the rest of the party. I always wondered what happened…”

If Diamond was feeling lousy before, she felt even more dismal now at being reminded of how her own haughty attitude turned what should have been one of the best days of her young life into one of her worst. “Look, I don’t want to talk about it, okay? Can’t you just get me a shake, or something?”

A shake! That reminds me of another occasion I saw you recently, just before my good friend Cheese Sandwich came to town. You were with that friend of yours, Silver-something? You tried to take her drink off of her because she had more than you? But then, you got distracted by my beautiful voice, and she ended up getting it back. Gee, isn’t it funny the things you remember!” Pinkie continued to beam, as if she was sharing a good memory with an old chum.

Only in Tiara’s case, it was more of a greatest hits compilation of all her misdemeanors.

“I thought you were supposed to be in the business of making other ponies feel better…” Diamond groaned, her head in her hooves. “All you’re doing is reminding me what a horrible little bully I am, to the extent that even my best friend in all of Equestria couldn’t tolerate me any longer."

Pinkie put her hoof to her chin, as if in deep contemplation. “Well that’s funny, because I’m sure I saw the pair of you getting on yesterday, at the biggest cute cenera ever.…” She sighed with pleasure at the memory.

Tiara rolled her eyes. “Well, yeah. We’d made up, but when she hears what I said about one of the Crusaders this morning, she’s going to realise I’ve returned to my old ways, and not want anything else to do with me again. It’s like I have this jagged thing in me that can’t stop insulting and being mean to others, no matter how hard I try. I’m just… A hopeless case…” The pink filly felt the tears return.

Suddenly, she was grabbed by the face, and found herself eye to eye with Pinkie, who bore an uncommonly serious expression on her usually jolly face.

“Now, I’m not having any of that. Tell me… What you said this morning… Was it bad?” The party pony demanded.

“Yes…” Choked Diamond, unable to tear herself away.

“Was it really, really bad?” Pinkie’s eyes narrowed to slits.

“Yes!!” Tiara answered, emphatically.

“Was it super, duper, duper bad, with a giant cherry on top?” Pinkie continued to press, a hint of malice in her words.

Yes, Yes!! It was the worst thing I possibly could have said!!” Diamond replied, utterly shamefaced.

“And do you feel really, really, super, duper, duper bad for having said it… With a cherry on top?” The party pony was really ratcheting up the pressure now.

Yes!! Yes!! Yes!!” Diamond almost screamed out her response. “It’s eating away at my brain! It’s making me ill inside! I feel more guilty about it than anything I’ve ever done! I just wish… I’d never said anything...”

Tiara continued to sweat, as Pinkie’s glare didn’t leave the youngster's eyes for a second. The party pony may have been bested by her pet in the earlier staring contest, but when it came to a rematch against this opponent, then there really would only be one winner.

And it wasn’t the sad filly.

Fortunately, another random competition wasn’t on Pinkie’s agenda at that specific time. Without warning, the party pony suddenly pulled away from Tiara’s personal space, with a large smile returning to her lips. “There you go. Told you there was nothing to worry about!”

Diamond reacted with shock at this announcement. “What?!” she spluttered. “You’ve just made me feel worse than ever with that little interrogation stunt you just pulled. How exactly was that meant to make me feel better?!”


Pinkie merely laughed, as if the answer was obvious. “Oh, silly! Think about it. If you feel that bad now after what you’ve done, then it shows you sincerely regret whatever you’ve said. If you were that beyond redemption, then I don’t think you’d feel as guilty as you do right now. I’m sure if you go back and sincerely apologise, whichever pony you’ve insulted will realise that, too.”

Tiara was about to tell the party pony she was wrong, that she was rotten to the core and couldn’t be helped.

But then, without requesting it, a flashback started in her mind.

It was during the CMC's rehearsal of their ultimately successful routine to be one of the acts during the ceremony of the Equestria Games, which had even impressed a secretly watching Diamond Tiara.

Unsure of how to counter the Crusaders brilliant display, she’d resorted to the most underhanded of tactics: Demoralising Scootaloo by insulting her disability, so that the pegasus filly was so cut up by her inferiority complex, she wouldn’t even journey to the Crystal Empire where the try-outs were taking place.

Luckily, thanks to a last-gasp stop, and an inspiring pep-talk by Rainbow Dash, Scootaloo was able to overcome her mental blocks and deservedly clinch first place with her friends, way in front of Tiara and Silver Spoon’s (now, she admits) hopeless display.

All that was in the past, but what was Diamond's mindset at the time while she was perpetuating this dastardly deed?

She was proud. She was pleased. She was utterly without remorse.

Now, when she’d just done something similar, what were her feelings?

She felt sad. She felt depressed. Her head was swimming with guilt.

And, there was the difference.

A change.

A big change.

She wasn’t the same, ruthless bully that she was before.

She had empathy.

She had a conscience.

She was 'somepony else'.

Somepony who’d made a big mistake…

But nopony was perfect.

They all do things they regret sometimes…

But part of living was to learn from them…

And make sure they never happen again.

All at once, Tiara knew what she had to do.

She had to go back at once...

To explain things.

Hopefully, her friends would see the sincerity in her eyes...

And take her back.

If they could only give her another chance...

She could...

No, would prove…

That she was a better pony.

She was sure of that now.

Hopefully, everypony else would soon come to see that, too.

All at once, Pinkie Pie, who was used to dishing out hugs by the bucket-load, was the surprise victim of a crushing embrace herself, as an extremely grateful Diamond flung herself at the party mare.

“Thank you, thank you, thank you, Pinkie Pie!!” Tiara snuggled against Pinkie’s forelegs, feeling like the weight of Equestria was off her shoulders.

The filly was also accidentally wiping the last of her mud onto the party pony’s fur, but Pinkie was willing to let it slide. (Rarity would have been a different story) “No problem at all, Miss Tiara, anything for a member of my extended family!”

This last statement was so confusing, that even in the middle of her rapture, Diamond glanced up in confusion. “I’m sorry, what? I know we’re more or less the same colour, but I don’t think…”

“You’re Applejack’s kid now, aren’t you? Well if you’re related to her, that possibly, maybe, almost definitely, makes you my third cousin twice removed! Or my great, great niece. Or my sister’s, auntie’s, mother’s...” Pinkie stared at the wall, as if trying to calculate a weighty equation.

Tiara had absolutely no idea what the pink mare was waffling on about.

But then again, this was Pinkie Pie.

Logic had no place in her chaotic world.

Suddenly remembering what she had to do, Diamond realised she couldn’t waste another moment listening to the ramblings of her new… Great, great third auntie twice removed.

Or, something.

“Look, I’d love to stay and chat… But have three friends to catch up with, before they get to school. Thanks again, for your help, Pinkie… I won’t forget this!” Tiara told the party mare gratefully, as she uncoiled herself from the older mare’s leg.

“Okey-Dokey, see you later! And while you’re gone… I’ll figure out exactly what you are to me in my little family tree. Hmm… Perhaps Gummy might know…” Pinkie continued to rack her brains.

Diamond sighed. “I wonder how she can be so in tune one minute… And so off-the-wall the next…” she said to herself, looking back as she approached the door…

Which was flung open almost in front of her.

For the second time that day, Tiara showed unnatural ability in being able to avoid a sudden obstacle in her path. She stopped at the last minute, to avoid a rather nasty collision.

Ready to give whatever careless pony it was who wasn’t looking a piece of her mind, she squinted against the sunlight…

And saw three foal shaped silhouettes.

The one that looked like Apple Bloom stood in front, looking determined and resolute.

The other two, that resembled Scootaloo and Sweetie looked a little more uneasy, like naughty foals outside a headmaster’s office.

Diamond wasn’t expecting them to show up there, but the Crusaders didn’t seem surprised to see her at all.

In fact, it was Apple Bloom who spoke first.

“Diamond Tiara, we need to talk…”

Part 16: The Search

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The visibly distressed Diamond Tiara galloped away in tears, leaving in her wake three fillies who had varying reactions to what had just transpired.

Scootaloo hovered over her prized vehicle, obviously upset by what she'd heard from the pink filly, but too shocked to really unleash the waterworks.

Sweetie Belle too was still trying to process everything, but the moment she saw that single tear drift down her pegasus friend's cheek, her nurturing instincts kicked in and she wrapped her fellow Crusader in a warm hug.

As for Apple Bloom, she was torn. Part of her wanted to run after Tiara, to try and calm her down and to apologise for not being forthright enough in explaining the delicacy of the situation to her other friends.

The other half was tempted to console Scootaloo, as the farm filly knew how devastated the pegasus had been the last time Tiara had insinuated such remarks. It had almost led the stuntmeister to give up her lifelong dreams.

What to do... What to do...

"Er... That was the real Diamond Tiara wasn't it?!" Scootaloo's voice came out loud and clear, interrupting Bloom's deliberations.

The farm filly looked up and saw the two other Crusaders separated, having disentangled themselves from each other.

Sweetie now stood a few inches apart from the orange pegasus, with an inquisitive look on her face.

Scootaloo, on the other hoof, was done with being upset, and was now just plain cross, with her forehooves folded in front.

"Yeah... I'm inclined to agree. No imitation of DT could capture the unbridled rage of the genuine article like that..." Sweetie put her hoof to her chin." Which kind of begs the question, why was she looking so unlike her usual self?"

"Who cares?!" Huffed Scootaloo, her wings spread in anger. "Did you hear what she just said? She as good as called me a cripple, again. I really thought she'd changed for the better... Obviously, I was wrong."

"It just goes to show..." Sweetie added. "Not everypony can be redeemed. Queen Chrysalis, Tirek, and now add to that list, Diamond Tiara. After all the trouble we went to, this is how she repays us. I don't know who I'm sadder for, her or us."

"Well, us of course." Scootaloo frowned. "We made all the effort. We followed her around town to understand her. We invited her back to our clubhouse. We explained to her how she could use her power and influence for good. We even sung for her! While running backwards! And this is the thanks we get! I don't know why we even bothered. Still, at least we got these cool cutie marks out of it, so it wasn't a total loss!" The orange pegasus pointed to the freshly appeared symbol on her flank.

"It does beg the question, though..." Commented Sweetie thoughtfully. "Why did she go to all that trouble to falsely argue with her mother in public, and set up that giant playground for us to play on? It might be part of a bigger plan. I bet the play equipment is rigged to collapse when we're all on it! She might be trying to frame Pipsqueak!" The white unicorn turned to Apple Bloom. " Hey, you've been hanging around her since this morning. Did you see anything suspicious..."

"Be quiet! The pair of you!" Came the raucous reply from the farm filly.

Apple Bloom had been listening to her two friends talk complete nonsense for a good few minutes. She had been getting more and more agitated, waiting for a chance to break in on the conversation, and now she'd finally got their attention, she intended to make the most of it.

All at once Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle jumped a few feet in the air, as if they'd been stung. Being yelled at by Diamond Tiara was one thing, but Apple Bloom doing it? One of the nicest fillies around, who had only knowingly lost her temper in front of them that one time Scootaloo ran over her favourite apple-bucking hoof?

It was most unusual, to say the least.

"Now, you two are going to stand right there, while I explain everything that's happened. I don't want anypony to interrupt me. I don't want anypony to look away. I need your complete undivided attention, because this is very important! The well-being of one of our friends might be at stake, because of your weird conspiracy theories and the fact you never listen! So, get comfortable, because this might take a while..." Bloom's voice was not hostile, but very firm.

The farm filly began to explain everything. How Tiara's mother had been deemed an unfit parent. How her father had been practically a bystander, while Spoiled had got away with her mistreatment. The trip to Rich Mansion last night for four of the Elements Of Harmony. The signing of the custody papers, which meant Diamond no longer lived there.

Applejack's kind offer to adopt the pink filly. Their arrival at Sweet Acres that evening last, when Tiara had collapsed like a sack of apples right in front of Bloom. The fact they were now sharing a room. Diamond's fit caused by all of her pent-up anguish, which had led to the destruction of her new roommate's entire wardrobe. Applejack's mothering of Tiara after she got injured, which the foster child seemed to respond to with great enthusiasm.

The family meal, where Diamond seemed to be completely nonplussed, as if such she'd never been part of such a thing before. Her besotted reaction to trying out zap apple jam for the first time. The completely unexpected apology to Granny Smith. The promise Bloom had made to Applejack to watch out for Tiara, which she would have done anyway.

After all, to the farm filly at least, she was part of the family now.

And finally, the events of the present, when poor old Diamond Tiara, who'd been through more than enough the past day, had almost been run over by Scootaloo's careless driving, unwittingly called all kinds of names to her face and been accused of being a love sucking parasite bent on taking over Equestria. As Apple Bloom explained, considering her tempestuous personality and fragile state of mind, it would have been unbelievable if she hadn't lost her rag at that point.

Even if she did take it over the top by targeting Scootaloo's most sensitive area yet again.

As the orange pegasus and Sweetie Belle heard more and more details on how the pink filly had suffered under the iron hoof of her own mother, her enforced acclimatisation to a completely unfamiliar way of life and the way she'd already blown a fuse in front of a terrified Apple Bloom due to her built-up trauma, their faces visibly dropped more and more. Now the pair understood why the newly fostered child had, despite her best efforts, snapped at them as a result of their tragic misconception, and the regret was etched all over their features.

"Oh, no, what have we done?" Sweetie Belle exclaimed to Scootaloo, with droplets of water visible in her eyes. "Thanks to you being obsessed with that stupid gossip magazine, we may have lost Diamond Tiara to the dark side again for good! I never should have listened to you. She wasn't a changeling, that scooter wasn't safe, and I even suspect that chocolate you gave me this morning wasn't chocolate at all! You're a bad influence on my innocent brain, that's what you are!"

"Hey, wait just a second!" Scootaloo snarled back, her wings spread out full. "You're the one who convinced me there was a new breed of those creatures living in the Everfree forest. 'Changelings who can hypnotise you' indeed! What a load of rubbish, and as I recall, I told you that the stuff I found might not be edible, but you went ahead and ate it anyway! That's probably what made you ill, not my peerless driving! In the future, you can get your own food! And your own lift to school!"

"Will you two stop squabbling!!" Apple Bloom was determined to reign in her fellow crusaders. "You're missing the bigger picture here. It's not about who did what in this situation, it's all about a new friend going through a very tough time, that we've just made even worse! And yes, I include myself in that. If I'd just made more of an effort to say something while you both were jumping to your own weird conclusions, we might not even be having this discussion now." She stared down mournfully at the ground.

"Well, come to think of it... My sister did say something about keeping a closer eye on Diamond today. I guess, this is what she meant." Sweetie remarked, annoyed that Rarity hadn't been more specific in her order.

"And, I can kinda relate to what she's going through. I mean, I hardly see my parents at all, but to suddenly find yourself living in a house with strangers, and with everything else going on in her head..." Scootaloo didn't say anything else, but the orange pegasus was sure that in a similar scenario, she'd be very highly strung too.

"Good, so we're all agreed then. We find Diamond Tiara, apologise for the mess we caused this morning, and hope we can still be friends at the end of it. Now, did any of you see which direction she ran off in?" Bloom pondered their next move.

"Uumm"... Sweetie Belle tried to jog her memory, because staring at the path covered in almost identical hoofprints wasn't proving to be much help. "I think, this way..." She stated confidently, sure of her hunch.

"Hang on, how would you know? You were hugging me at the time..." Scootaloo disagreed, with the hint of a blush. "I was watching her every move, and I say we go this way." She pointed with her wing in the opposite direction as her unicorn friend.

Apple Bloom facehoofed. These two were worse than Film and Flam when they got going. "Okay, look, here's what we'll do. I'll try this way, you go your way, Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo, you give your way a try. If we don't find her in ten minutes, we'll meet back here. If we are late for school, we'll just tell Miss Cheerilee we were on official Crusaders business. I'm sure she'll understand! Okay, then girls... Let's head out!"

Without waiting for the other members to move, the farm filly walked off, determined to keep her vow to Applejack by assuring Tiara's safe return, even if it did result in a tardy slip.

Scootaloo took a minute to glance back at her unicorn friend. "Do you actually think our teacher will buy that excuse?"

Sweetie thought hard for a second. "...Probably not" came the frank reply.

Scootaloo sighed. "Didn't think so. Oh well, I guess it can't be helped. We should really make up for what we did. You go off first, I have to make sure this baby is secure against thieves before I start searching." She pointed to her scooter.

"I suppose there might be some kamikaze pony crooks out there..." Sweetie muttered to herself as she trotted away, very grateful to be back on terra firma.

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"DIAMOND!!" Came the shrill call from one direction.

"DIAMOND!!" Another shout, this one hoarser, from the opposite side.

"DDIIAAMMOONNDD!!" That was the loudest yell of all, central to the other two.

The winner, by volume at least, was Apple Bloom by a country mile. She did have a personal interest in things, after all, being the main instigator of the pink filly's reformation, and that meant taking responsibility for what happened afterwards.

Which included: Making sure Tiara didn't return to who she was, encouraging her to be helpful and kind to further her personal transformation and most importantly of all, being there whenever she needed a shoulder to cry on, or just moral support.

Especially as now she was a member of the family.

Alas, despite her best efforts, all the farm filly had managed to do was attract the attention of miscellaneous passers-by, all of whom seemed to doing their best to ignore the three loud, obnoxious youngsters with very similar cutie marks.

Out of pure embarrassment, most likely.

The time limit Bloom had sanctioned was almost over. It was getting to the point where she was due to meet up with her friends, and she had no idea what she was going to tell Miss Cheerilee. Or Applejack.

Diamond didn't deserve to get in trouble for her remarks or for running away. It was Apple Bloom's personal opinion that it was amazing the former spoiled brat hadn't had a nervous breakdown by now, with all she'd had to deal with.

The farm filly just wished, she'd known sooner about her new roommate's stressful background. Then, they could have been friends sooner. After all, even bullies have probable reasons for behaving the way they do...

Bloom dropped her head in resignation. It couldn't be helped, and she was no closer to finding her target. Time to trot back to the meeting place, in defeat. She just hoped her fellow Crusaders had had better luck...

"Hey you!!" Came a random voice from nowhere.

Bloom's ears flicked up. "Huh?" she said, looking around her for the source.

"Over here!" The farm filly's eyes locked onto a yellow stallion, who was pulling a cart of apples. "My name is Green Grapes. Pleased to meetcha. What's this I hear about a missing Diamond? Is there a big reward? Cos if there is, I'll help ya look for it. We can share it. I've been looking for a way to get out of this fruit transporting business for ages..." He gestured at his produce.

Bloom rolled her eyes at the stallion's misunderstanding "It's no precious stone me and my friends are looking for, but a pony. I mean, she is precious, but that's because she's our friend. Her full name is Diamond Tiara, and we're trying to figure out where she ran off to. Now, if you don't mind, I have to..."

"Wait a darn minute..." Green Grapes had gotten a closer look at the farm filly now, and his mouth sprung open. "I do know you. You're Apple Bloom, right? Sometimes I do a bit of delivery work for your family. I must say, the Apples have always given me good tips, and asked after my health. Which is more than I can say for some of my other clients now..."

Bloom was glad to hear this praise about her clan, but there was something going on that was far more crucial than taking testimonials from happy workers. "That's great, and I'll be sure to pass your message on to my sister. But, I don't mean to be rude, I have to find a friend..."

"Okay, thank you! Give my best wishes to everypony!" Green Grapes was about to head off to another day of manual drudgery, when he remembered something else. "Oh, one last thing. Do you recall the other day, when I was taking my wares through town, and that wealthy-looking pink filly tipped over my cart of apples? I'm sure I just spotted her a few minutes ago, rushing past. I called out to her, but she didn't stop. I was wondering if I should try to claim damages from her family, for ruining my stock for the day. You were there, you saw it happen. You could be my witness..."

All at once, Apple Blooms complete disregard for the seller's problems had turned into rapt attention. She ran over to the side of the stallion's vehicle. "What?" She exclaimed. "Are you sure it was her? Where did she go?!"

Green Grapes stepped away nervously at this sudden reaction, but nevertheless responded. "E-er, well she did look a bit disheveled now that you mention it, but trust me, when somepony wrecks your business for the day like that little pony did, you sure don't forget their face. She ran right into Sugarcube Corner as far as I know, and she hasn't come out since. What's a nice filly like you doing being friends with somepony like that anyway..."

But Bloom wasn't listening to the rest. "Thanks, Mister! And sorry about your apples. I'll try and get my friend back to apologise later for that. She's not as bad as you think she is, you'll see!" At this juncture, the farm filly rushed off, to round up her fellow Crusaders and confront her new roommate head on.

Green Grapes stood where he was for a moment, taking everything in from this bizarre encounter. "Oh well, that was a change to the usual routine, I suppose." The yellow stallion merrily whistled, as he carried on to his destination.
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And so, it all led to this. Gathering a relieved Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle from their wild goose chases, Apple Bloom and her friends found themselves at the entrance of the tooth-rotting hotspot of Ponyville, glancing nervously at each other.

"What do I say to her?" Gulped Sweetie Belle, sweat apparent on her brow. "I called her a fake! A changeling! What'll happen if she just wants to be left alone? I know I would if my 'friends' had treated me so badly. Especially if I'd just gone through all that she has..."

"I don't see what you've got to complain about." Scootaloo replied, tension evident in her voice. "I said she was dirty and smelly! And all that was my fault in the first place! I know she lost her temper, and said some pretty nasty things, especially to me. But, honestly, with everything else going on in her life, who can blame her?"

"Now, listen girls..." Apple Bloom tried to reassure them. "I know we seriously messed up back there, and we all wish it had never happened. But, the point to this is to make sure Diamond knows she has friends who care about her, and will be with her every step of the way. I'm sure we can put this behind us, all we need to do is apologise and move forward together. Now, are you in?"

Initially hesitant, Scootaloo and Sweetie, both looked at each other and gave little nods, then repeated the gesture to Bloom. A bit apprehensive herself, the farm filly approached the front door with trepidation, which might explain why she put too much effort into the kick that opened it up...

Almost hitting the pink filly inside the building on the other side in the process, square on the jaw.

Oops, that could have gone better thought Bloom with annoyance, as the trio of Crusaders eyed Diamond from just outside Sugarcube Corner.

Deciding to speak first, the farm filly made her opening move. "Diamond Tiara, we have to talk..." Sweetie and Scootaloo cowered slightly behind her.

Tiara glanced at Bloom for a minute, before focusing her attention elsewhere. Namely, at a certain orange pegasus she seemed desperate to talk to.

Without warning, Tiara dashed over to the perplexed Scootaloo, kneeled in front of her, and sobbed in as civil a tone as she'd ever used "Oh, Scootaloo. I'm so, so sorry for what I said to you. I'm in a very bad place at the moment, and you upset me back there, but that's no excuse for me losing my temper and being so rude. I want to tell you, I'm not that filly anymore. I'm not my mother. Please believe me, and forgive me. I'll do anything, be your slave for a week, go on long, dangerous scooter rides with you, pay for you to have flying lessons...OH NO, Was that last sentence offensive?! Aargh... I don't know what I'm saying!!" She was so bent on making up for her transgressions, her mouth was in overdrive.

And all this time, the orange pegasus just stood where she was, eyeing the apologetic filly in front of her thoughtfully, not saying a word in return, an unreadable expression on her face...

Before, out of nowhere, and in a completely un-Scooterloo like moment...

She gave Diamond Tiara, her former worst enemy, a hug.

Oh, it wasn't the strongest of hugs, as the hooves didn't even connect at the back...

But, undeniably, it was still a hug, and it was enough to halt Tiara's blithering once and for all.

This caused a gasp of surprise from the pegasus's fellow Crusaders, who usually had to almost threaten her to do anything 'sappy' like that.

All at once, Sweetie Belle decided she wanted a piece of the action. "Hey, me too!" She announced, as she literally dived into Diamond and Scooterloo's clutches.

The hug became a huddle, and became a little tighter.

Thirty seconds later, in the middle of the group, Tiara realised that all was well. "Alright, girls." She announced with a slight smile. "I understand. We all behaved a bit irrationally back there. We can talk about it more on the way to school. You can let me go now, I get it!" She expected to be released from her furry coils any minute, so they could go on their merry way together.

No response. The huddle became even tighter.

Diamond Tiara was confused. "Huh? Didn't you hear me? I s-said, t-that's e-enough. Apple Bloom, can you t-tell these w-weird friends of y-yours we don't w-want to be late for s-school, and t-they're holding us u-up?"

She glanced through the fog of orange and white fur at the farm filly, trying to blink away the unwelcome tears that had suddenly made an appearance.

Bloom didn't adhere to her request. In fact, quite the opposite.

Giving the pink filly a sympathetic look which seemed to say 'You need this...'

She ran over to the huddle, and joined it herself...

Until all of Diamond Tiara's frame was being smothered by a new friend.

"S-stop... I-I'm f-fine, r-really..." she tried to interject.

But nopony was listening.

'Well, at least I can maintain my dignity by holding in my tears...' She thought.

Until she realised, such measures were unnecessary.

Her three friends had no such qualms in wetting her fur with their eye moisture.

Yes, even Scootaloo.

So, eventually, unable to escape her warm, fuzzy prison, and realising she was the odd one out...

The proud, reserved filly gave in, and began to cry, too.

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"Hey, Gummy." Said Pinkie Pie, her ears twitching as she pored over her old ancestral records. "Did you hear something from outside? Maybe the sound of four good friends reconnecting with a monster hug, after a massive falling out?"

The small alligator next to her blinked in response, for the first time that day.

"Nah, you're right. Just my imagination. Now, where were we..." The party pony returned to her work, none the wiser.

Part 17: An Unpleasant Encounter

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Even though, in the grand scheme of things, it was only a matter of minutes, the trio of fillies encircling Diamond Tiara hugged, and cried with her for what seemed like an eternity.

They all needed this release, in one way or another. Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo were feeling incredibly guilty for triggering an emotionally fragile Tiara that morning, the pink filly in question still harboured major hang-ups about her mother, and Apple Bloom...

Well, let's just say she was a very empathetic little pony.

Their touching little rendezvous eventually came to an end, not because they ran out of tears or even a growing urgency they needed to be in class...

But down to the sound of an impatient, snobbish voice which said bluntly "Excuse me".

This sudden interruption to their mutual bonding was enough to make the puffy-eyed Crusaders look up in surprise, whereas Tiara had not recovered enough yet to stop her onslaught of moisture.

There stood a few feet away, a posh looking grey stallion and a yellow mare who were obviously a couple, judging by their close proximity. The stallion wore glasses, the mare was adorned with a purple necklace and neither looked particularly impressed at the nauseating display in front of them.

"You there..." Huffed the stallion, his nose held high in the air. "Ragamuffin children. Could you please take your caterwauling elsewhere. My wife and I must return to Canterlot today on the first train out, and we heard this place is a passable eatery, for a small hick town such as this anyway. You are blocking our route. Step aside, so we may gain entrance to the establishment."

"Honestly, Jet Set." The yellow mare rudely giggled underneath her hoof. "The way the lower classes raise their children these days, I'm surprised we haven't been mugged yet. Places like this just aren't safe for wealthy, successful ponies such as us. Shall we just head back to the hotel and pack? We can order something on our return journey...

"Nonsense,Upper Crust." The stallion was determined to get his way. "Our porter said this cafe, as downmarket as it looks, has the best eclairs this side of Equestria. He was probably just a shill trying to drum up business for the local economy, but I wish to see for myself. I am most certainly not going to be put off by these teary eyed little munchkins."

Upper Crust rolled her eyes at her husband's stubbornness... "Very well, dear. I'll take care of it." The yellow mare reached into her designer bag, and pulled out four bits.

"Here you go, darlings." She stated, in a syrupy, patronising tone. "If you make way for the grown-ups, there's a special reward in it for you. One bit each!! All you have to do is move. Go get 'em!!"

And with that, Upper Crust threw the coins a few yards away from where the Crusaders and Diamond Tiara were cloistered, an expectant smile on her face.

Jet Set just harrumphed at the senseless waste of money, before getting ready to barge past these penniless peasants when they inevitably made a break for the cash.

Nothing happened.

Well, something did happen, but it wasn't quite what the two older ponies were expecting.

Apple Bloom got up and glared at the two interloper's interruption to their private 'moment', positioning herself in front of a still crying Tiara protectively.

Sweetie Belle also removed herself from the embrace, but she seemed to be in a more thoughtful mood, as if trying to recall something.

Scootaloo... Well, she reacted as you'd expect. She jumped off her spot, and got right in the faces of the rich ponies.

"Who do you think you are?!" She raged. "We are not some kind of worthless charity case who need to be bribed with a few measly coins just to let you walk past! A simple 'excuse me'. would have sufficed. But I suppose in your little world, where ponies are commodities and everypony can be bought off, you never thought that, did you? You might have all the bits in Equestria, but to me your sort are the true 'lower classes'."

She buzzed her wings angrily, before trotting over to where Upper Crust's bits had been arbitrarily tossed away. Picking them up, she returned to the now shocked looking married couple, while Apple Bloom continued to guard Tiara, and Sweetie Belle was still deep in contemplation.

"Here, have your money back..." She snarled, stuffing it back in Upper Crust's posh bag "Perhaps you can buy some manners with it. Me and my friends have to be on our way to school now, Because some of us actually need an education to get by, without having to rely on Daddy or Mommy's fortune."

Scootaloo then did a great impression of Jet Set's snooty nose-in-the-air walk, as she sauntered off.

An impressed Apple Bloom had watched all of this play out, and couldn't help but think 'Wow, way to go, Scoots'. She nudged Tiara, who was crying less now, and half watching the action unfold.

" Do you think you're ready to make a move now, Diamond...?" Bloom tenderly asked her new roommate.

"Y-yes, I t-think s-so." the pink filly sniffed. "W-who a-are t-those t-two p-ponies S-Scootaloo i-is t-talking t-to?"

"Nopony important, apart from in their own heads" Bloom helped up her new friend. " Come on, let's get out of here. Sweetie Belle, are you coming?"

The white unicorn in question began to walk over to her companions, but she wasn't really paying attention. Something was on her mind...

"Oh Celestia, I hope Luna isn't paying her a daytime visit..." Bloom shook her head at Sweetie, before realising that was impossible. The farm filly began to follow Scootaloo, while propping up a still ailing Tiara.

Behind them, the surprise factor of the orange pegasus standing up to the stuck-up snobs was beginning to wear off, and was replaced by bitterness and anger. In Jet Set, especially.

The stallion galloped in front of the disparate group, or more specifically, right in front of Scootaloo. He was going to teach this ignorant little upstart that she couldn't speak to a member of society like that, no matter how rough her upbringing was.

And, by the looks of her, it was probably rougher than sandpaper.

"How dare you!" He roared, a few inches from her ear. "My wife puts on a very nice gesture for you urchins, gives you some free spending money, and what do you do in return? Insult us in the middle of the street! I suppose I shouldn't expect any better from the undesirables that live around here, but I'm still not going to let you get away with it! Guardsman,guardsman... Oh, where's a guardsman when you need one..."

In a flash, his wife was next to him, massaging his scalp and telling him in a soothing voice. "Just forget it dear, they're not worth it. They'll grow up poor in this pathetic little backwater, and they'll die poor in this pathetic little backwater. They'll never experience the wonders of Canterlot, or the majesty of uptown Manehattan. The only thing they'll have to look forward to in their miserable futures is the daily graft, probably on some kind of farm. Let's leave them, we can import the eclairs, if we so desire. After all, we can afford it..."

Jet Set felt the calming touch of his wife's hoof and sighed in defeat. "You're right of course, dear. Poor children, cursed to a life of sweat and toil, with parents who don't even know how to raise them properly. We should forgive them, only because we know what dead-end futures lie in wait for them all. Come on, let's head back to where we belong..."

This made two of the Crusaders even madder, and as the couple turned to leave, Apple Bloom could not help but yell out "And don't you come back, ya hear?"

This bristled the pair for a second, but that would have been nothing compared to their faces if they heard some of the language Scootaloo was about to use. Let's just say, she would have turned the air bluer than her idol, Rainbow Dash.

Fortunately, the orange pegasus was stopped mid-profanity by her friend Sweetie Belle.

The cogs were whirling. The wheels were turning. Everything was operational.

In other words, she'd FINALLY managed to access the deepest depths of her memory.

"Jet Set and Upper Crust!" The unicorn filly squeaked. "Now I remember where I've heard those names before. When my sister went away to Canterlot on the invitation of Princess Celestia, she came back with all kinds of stories. How she celebrated Twilight's birthday party there. The great time she had with Fancy Pants, Hoity Toity and Sapphire Shores. And then there were these two..." she pointed at the couple, who all of a sudden began to look a little uneasy.

"... Who weren't very nice to her, or her friends." Sweetie scowled, recalling how her sister had told her about the arrogant duo's sniffy dismissal of the fashionista's designs and small-town lifestyle.

The change in mood in the pair was so quick, it could have given them whiplash. "Y-you m-mean t-to s-say..." Stammered Jet Set nervously "y-you're R-Rarity's l-little s-sister?!"

Sweetie paused for a moment to absorb their discomfort. "That's right"!

"Y-yes, I c-can s-see t-the r-resemblance n-now." Upper Crust was just as jittery as her husband. "A-and h-how i-is t-the d-darling t-these d-days? S-still g-got t-that q-quaint l-little s-shop i-in t-town?"

"Yup, AND a new one that's just opened in Canterlot!" Sweetie huffed her chest with pride. " I'm surprised you haven't heard of it... Business is booming, apparently! You should go in sometime and say hello to Sassy Saddles while you're there, you might just learn a thing or two about being humble. Did you also know, Rarity's the exclusive designer for the Plaza in Manehattan, best friends with a princess, has helped save the world once... Twice... No, I think three times now..."

At each new revelation, Jet Set and Upper Crust visibly paled, until they both looked as white as Rarity herself. "R-r-r-really?!" Was all they could muster, their mouths flapping in the wind.

"Uh-huh. R-r-r-really." Sweetie mimicked their impediment. "Next time you want to brag, perhaps you ought to make sure you have more to boast about than the other pony. And remember, looks can be deceptive. As a token of generosity, what with it being my sister's element and all, I'll tell Pinkie to give you both a one-time discount on anything you order. Yes, including eclairs. She works at Sugarcube Corner you know, and has also helped save Equestria thrice. Isn't it amazing how well-connected a 'ragamuffin' like me can be?"

"T-thank y-you, M-miss..." Jet Set struggled for a name.

"I'm Sweetie Belle. This is Scootaloo and Apple Bloom. Perhaps you can brag about us to the next important pony you want to impress. Because we all know somepony very famous. We've met the entire royal family, for instance. Oh, and did you attend the wedding? Wasn't it great? Wait a second... You weren't there! What a shame, you missed a treat! I was a flower girl..." The white unicorn just couldn't help but rub it in.

Deciding that the now humiliated aristocrats had suffered enough, Apple Bloom decided to put an end to it. She pulled away from Tiara for a minute with a reassuring pat, to address the older ponies.

"Okay Sweetie, you've had your fun." She mock-chastised her friend."Sorry about her, she does tend to get a bit carried away sometimes. We're already late for school, and you probably have a train to catch. But, just to show there are no hard feelings, take one of our cards! If you ever need help identifying a Cutie Mark, or helping somepony get their's, The CMC are here to help!"

The farm filly then passed a small piece of paper to each of the bemused snobs, and printed on there was a hoof-drawn representation of the trio's Cutie Marks, along with their mission statement and clubhouse address.

Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo shot Apple Bloom a surprised look at this juncture, since they had no idea the farm filly had even got these done. Their friend responded with a slight shrug, before returning to the couple.

"So, yeah. Tell all your wealt... I mean, friends about us, we pride ourselves on our work. Why, Diamond Tiara here is just as well-off as you two are, and we helped her find her special place in life! Spread the word, we're an expanding business, and we'd love you to be a part of it!" Bloom finished her pitch, looking as pleased as punch with her unrehearsed speech.

Aside from a slight flicker of recognition in Upper Crust's eyes at the mention of Tiara's name which none of the fillies managed to catch, the rich duo continued to stare ahead glassy-eyed, struggling to cram the business cards in among their belongings.

"E-er, t-thank y-you M-miss A-Apple B-Bloom." Jet Set was desperate to get out of there. "I-it w-was n-nice m-meeting y-you a-all. C-cheerio. M-mind h-how y-you g-go..." And with that brief send-off, he grabbed his wife and half-galloped it away.

As soon as they were out of sight, Sweetie Belle found herself on the bottom of a heap of jubilant Crusaders.

"Sweetie, that was amazing." Gushed Bloom, grinning widely.

"You sure put those toffee-nosed creeps in their place!" Scootaloo was impressed.

"Get off, girls! You're crushing my horn!" Sweetie chortled.

While the trio were celebrating their unicorn friend's chutzpah, Diamond just continued to stand where she was, a wistful expression on her weary face.

Bloom was the first to pick up on this of course, and moved to join her while her two other friends were still celebrating. "What's the matter, Di?" she asked, while putting a hoof around the pink filly's neck.

Snapping out of her meditation, Tiara turned to the farm filly in surprise. "You called me Di... Only Silver Spoon has ever called me that."

Bloom put her hoof to her mouth. "Oh, I guess I did. Sorry, does that make you feel uncomfortable? I don't have to..."

Tiara cut her off. "No, it's fine. We're living together. We share a room. We're friends now. It seems a bit silly to have a nickname, and not share it." She went back to staring at the sky.

Bloom nodded in affirmation "...Okay, good, Di. Now, about that thing that's bothering you..."

Diamond hesitated for a second, but then realised she could confide in the farm filly with no regrets. "Well, it's just, those grown-ups you three were talking to..."

"Yes?" Bloom replied, flatly.

"They sort of reminded me..." Tiara paused briefly. "Of the kind of pony I would probably have grown up to be, if not for you and your dorky friends. Don't get me wrong, I was always very appreciative what you Crusaders did for me that day after the election, but until now I didn't realise just how..."

"Now hush." Bloom gently put her hoof over Diamond's lips. "It was no trouble at all, what me, Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo did for you. It was reward enough now that you and Silver Spoon are now our friends, and we even earned our Cutie Marks in the process. Now, we can help other ponies like you discover their special talents..."

"Yeah, speaking of that..." Sweetie's voice suddenly made both Tiara and Bloom jump.

"When exactly were you going to tell us you were having business cards printed?!" Scootaloo had also finished horsing around, and was now searching for answers.

Apple Bloom looked blankly at her fellow Crusaders for a minute, before replying. "Well... Since our cute cenera, I've been thinking. Maybe, we should try expanding our services, after all, there are only so many fillies and colts that need assistance with their cutie marks in Ponyville. Featherweight owed me a few favours, so I got the cards printed for free, and I when I saw those two, I figured, why not start with the obscenely rich? We don't have to like them, just take their bits, and Applejack could really do with a new shed..."

The farm filly continued to drone on about her ambitious business plan, as she strolled alongside Diamond on their long-delayed route to school, with Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle taking up the rear, wondering if this was actually going to work and if it did, what they could do with their share.

Clue: Not being as philanthropic as Apple Bloom, Scootaloo was thinking about a rocket powered vehicle, and Sweetie had her heart set on professional singing lessons.

So, now you know.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

"I can't believe it! Shown up like that, in public! By brats!" Jet Set couldn't remove the poorly-drawn, tacky bit of cardboard from his luggage quickly enough.

"You know, it's funny..." Upper Crust wasn't really listening to her husband's moaning.

"What?!" Demanded Jet Set. "Exactly what part of that thoroughly unpleasant experience did you consider 'funny'? Was it when we found out that little unicorn knows all the princesses personally? Or, when it was revealed to us her sister now has the hottest new store in Canterlot? Well...?"

Upper Crust rolled her eyes at the stallion's complaints. "Don't be silly, dear. I was just thinking, do you remember that ghastly garden party for charity we attended the other day? You know, the sole reason we set hoof in this grotty little dump of a town? Well, while there I got talking to a charming mare. Spoiled B...Rich I believe her name was? She's head of the education board, and married to the owner of Barnyard Bargains, don't you know. A rough place if ever I saw one, but the riff-raff seem to go for it. It's made her millions".

"Oh?" Jet Set raised an eyebrow, marginally interested.

"Anyway, she was telling me about this daughter of hers, who was proving to be a massive disappointment. Apparently, she'd just lost a class election, failed at representing Ponyville during the ceremony of the Crystal Empire Games and she couldn't even hold onto a job as editor of a local newspaper! The poor mare was beside herself with worry, she was this close to sending the little Miss to St Whinniean's boarding school for young fillies who have lost their way. You've heard of that place, haven't you?" Upper Crust inquired of her husband.

"Er... Maybe?" Jet Set gave a non-committal answer.

"Well, I almost got sent there as a child... Until my parents found out about a local filly who got horsewhipped while going there, just for talking at the dinner table! Of course, in most cases, that would result in the building being shut down, but because it's privately owned, they're free from most rules and regulations, so no chance of any prosecution. Needless to say, as soon as my mother and father heard about this scandal, the application was thrown in the bin, and I was off scot-free." Upper Crust finished her tale.

"Hmm, yes, a ripping yarn indeed..."Jet Set adjusted his glasses. "But what has that got to with our public humiliation?"

"The daughter's name was Diamond Tiara." Upper Crust grinned wickedly. "And I bet the mother would just love to know the kind of ponies that she's hanging out with, during school hours as well. Dear, could you reschedule a later train? I have somepony I need to go and see...

Part 18: A Day With The Crusaders

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If anypony would have told you within a few days of Diamond Tiara attempting to blackmail and bribe the voters for the school presidency, she would not only be friends with her worst enemies who'd helped run the opposition campaign, but also be living with one of them as a member of their family, they'd have probably have called up Nurse Redheart to give you an immediate shot, and a nice, long bed rest.

But, here they were, large as life, strolling through Ponyville together.The four fillies who used to be at each other's throats, chatting away like old chums. The fact they were around half-an-hour late for class, thanks to the unanticipated delay caused by misunderstandings, arguments and confrontations with irredeemable snobs, didn't seem to bother them.

The fact is, this was the first time that the Crusaders had ever got to talk to Tiara properly, as opposed to falling victim to her oft-chanted insults and hearing her boast about her swanky lifestyle. Hearing some of the punishments forced on her, for the mere crime of failing to live up to the Rich family's high expectations, caused her new friends to lose any bit of jealousy they might have had for the pink filly.

They'd much rather be penniless and free, than loaded and controlled, after all.

"... You mean to tell me." Scootaloo frowned, unable to comprehend what she'd just heard. "That just for talking back to your mother, you were grounded, had all your pocket bits taken away, and were on the verge of being sent to an all-girls boarding school?!"

"Not just any boarding school..." Diamond sighed. "St Whinnieans. The roughest, toughest centre for education around. It costs a small fortune to register, and by the time you come out, you're either a personality-less society filly, perfect for showing off at parties, or a broken mess, probably covered in bruises from all the beatings they hoof out. Let's just say, I'd rather stick with Ponyville Elementary if it's all the same to you..."

"Well, you don't have to worry about that kind of thing anymore." Apple Bloom was continuing her mission of placating Tiara at every opportunity. " You're with the Apples now... And the most pain you'll be in is a bit o'cramp from a hard days work bucking apples, and taking care of the farm. And that's good exercise for you, anyway. It's just a shame your leg got injured when it did, I was really looking forward to sharing my chores with you later, showing you the ropes..."

"Yeah, me too..." Diamond deadpanned. The strange thing was, her wounded hoof, which had stopped hurting a few minutes after Applejack had put the bandage on, had started to ache again.

The pink filly decided to ignore it. After all, she had more important things on her mind.

"So, anyway, I hope you don't mind if I ask..." Sweetie Belle had a question, but was hesitant in asking it. "You know all that stuff you used to do, like tease us, make us feel bad about ourselves, and get us into trouble, was that all down to your mother, or was some of it you?"

"Sweetie Belle!!" Bloom was annoying at her unicorn friend's question. "Di, you don't have to answer that. It's all in the past, now. Right, Scootaloo?"

"Well, actually..." Scootaloo replied honestly. "I kinda want to know too. I mean, I get that she made you look down on the 'lower classes' and forced you to be 'the best' whatever the cost, but why so specifically target us? You always seemed to go after me, Sweetie and Apple Bloom, when there were so many other fillies and colts in town. What did we ever do to you, to make you dislike us so much?" The pegasus's tone wasn't angry, just curious.

"Scootaloo!" Bloom's attempt to get support from her other Crusader friend had backfired. "Listen, I thought we'd agreed not to bring this up again. It doesn't matter what Di used to be like or her reasons for doing what she did. She's different now, we're different, can't we just let sleeping ponies lie?"

"...No." Tiara had heard all of this, and had decided it was time she came clean. "I think I owe you all an explanation. Not just for you three, but also, for myself. If I ever truly am to move on, I have to be truthful about my motives for being who I was, and make amends where necessary. Only then, can I find closure, and finally sever all links with my former self..."

The pink filly put on her most deadly serious of expressions, while the Crusaders were stunned at what they'd heard.

"Well, if you're sure, Di..." Bloom tried to be supportive.

"Whoa. that was pretty deep..." Scootaloo was impressed.

"You're telling me, I can't even tell half of what she said!" Sweetie Belle was all of a tizzy.

"Basically, it all came down to jealousy..." Diamond closed her eyes in shame. "You three had your own special bond, your own little hut, you did everything together, and what did I have? One true friend, who I treated like mule manure. Of course, I could always get other ponies to do what I wanted, on account of my talent and status, but it never felt that they liked me for me. If only, I hadn't been so high and mighty, I could have..." A few stray tears returned.

To say the Crusaders were shocked was an understatement. The privileged, prissy pony that is Diamond Tiara was always jealous, of them? The main cause of her non-stop harassment and bullying was envy? It was difficult to take it all in. While they digested this revolutionary information, the pink filly continued her confession.

"A-and every time my m-mother belittled me at home... Told me how worthless I was for n-not meeting her goals, told me my f-father didn't come to see me just because I was such a huge d-disappointment to the family, s-shouted at me for d-daring to disagree with anything she said. T-the only way I could f-feel good about myself again was by taking out my frustrations on o-others, whether it was my s-servants, y-you three, o-or m-my b-best f-friend. B-but especially you three, because I-I saw what you had, a-and..." Tiara finished her speech, and struggled to keep her eyes from leaking.

She didn't want to cry. She was fed up with crying. And yet, ever since yesterday, she couldn't seem to stop. Never, while under the despotic hoof of Spoiled, had she dared to even consider shedding one droplet. That sort of thing was for the feeble and downtrodden, she was a born leader, and such auspicious types know better than to show their emotions in public, for like charity and earnestness, it was a weakness that should be eradicated.

Diamond had heeded her words well, and every time the pink filly felt upset or depressed in any way, she simply bit her lip, wiped her eyes and carried on as if nothing had happened. She had thought this was working out well for her, considering the almost unanimous fear and awe she was 'greeted' with whenever she stepped out.

Now, free from the coattails of her mother's tyranny for the first time and having adopted a very different mindset, the overflow of liquid just wouldn't stop. It had started on the bridge after her mother had yelled at her that day in town, while she was watching the stallion and his daughter enjoying a day out, and had continued in fits and starts ever since.

On the one hoof, it felt quite good to release years of pent-up trauma and sadness, but on the other it was so unlike her old habit, of keeping up appearances by bottling everything inside and letting it fester in her brain...

It still felt unreal. She still felt embarrassed doing it. She hated showing off her true emotions so freely like this, particularly in such an open setting. And, yet...

Something told Tiara there was plenty more tears where that came from. It was a good job she had some committed friends now, who'd be there for her through thick and thin. At least, she hoped they would.

How ironic. The fillies she used to pick on the most, had become the ones who could save her from herself the most. The switch in dynamics had been sudden and brutal, but it was something she was going to have to grow accustomed to.

For all their sakes.

She didn't realise it, but while she was absorbed in her private debate, her three friends were having a little discussion of their own, while casting little sidelong glances at her. By the time Diamond had cleared her head enough to carry on, their mini-meeting had just concluded, and as she dried her eyes, she felt a pair of comforting hooves on her shoulders that belonged to, who else, Apple Bloom.

"Listen, Di..." The farm filly's amber eyes stared deep into Tiara's blue ones. "Me and the girls have come up with an idea... Well, actually, it's not up for discussion. We're going to make you an unofficial Cutie Mark Crusader for the day. Whether you like it, or not." She said those words in a determined manner, but there was a hint of a smile on her lips.

Out of the corner of her vision, Diamond noticed Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle nod their approval too, and was almost lost for words. "B-but, why?" she stammered, unable to form a cohesive thought.

"Well, for one thing, we can be there if you need us, help you make new friends, keep you from your old habits and teach you how to be nicer to others." Bloom now fully beamed at the pink filly. "Of course, this means you'll have to stick with us all day. We'll sit together, eat together and even play together at recess. Who knows, you might even be able to help us out too, I'm sure that talent of yours could come in handy when we're trying to help other ponies out with their Cutie Marks..."

Tiara was still getting her head around this offer. Sure, her and the CMC were friends now, perhaps even good friends, in the case of Apple Bloom, but to be forcibly enlisted in their club? Even for just a day? Have every move she make be scrutinised, as if she was a little foal? She wasn't sure she liked the sound of that...

B-but... I don't really think..." the pink filly began to protest.

"I told you, a minute ago..." Sighed Apple Bloom, affectionately ruffling her new roommate's mane. "This isn't up for argument. You need and want to know more about friendship, and we're here to teach you. Plus, me and the girls want to make up for lost time by getting to know our new friend. Is there anything wrong with that?"

"N-no, I guess not..." Tiara replied, dumb-struck.

"Well, good! I'll have a word with Miss Cheerilee about changing the seating arrangements in the classroom and dining room when we get to school. I'm sure, knowing my sister, she's explained your situation to the teacher, so it shouldn't be a problem if she knows we're here to support you." Bloom was already thinking ten paces ahead.

"U-um, okay..." Diamond said, still a bit nonplussed,

"And another thing you should know about us..." Apple Bloom winked at the pink filly. "We always walk together single-file, in a group. Today, you'll be squeezed in between Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle. Come on, everypony. Take your positions. I can see the school just ahead!"

"What?!" Tiara had been so wrapped up in her own thoughts, she hadn't realised they were just a few yards from the old building of learning, with the sign of an open book right in front. "We're here already? But... I haven't had time to prepare. How am I supposed to explain my appearance, or why we're so late...?"

"Like I said, I'll have a chat with Miss Cheerilee, and everything'll be straightened out, so, don't fret." Bloom's confidence was so high, Diamond couldn't help but feel better.

All of a sudden though, she saw the farm filly nod in Sweetie Belle's general direction, and felt herself encased in the same green light that had dragged Bloom along for a ride earlier that morning.

"Don't worry Di, she's just getting you where you need to be." the farm filly smirked slightly as Tiara was lifted into the air, before being softly deposited in a sandwich containing Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo.

Yummy.

"Hi!" The white unicorn told the squished Diamond, as her horn stopped glowing. "You might not believe me, but I actually had a daydream once, which was very similar to this. I picked you up with my magic then, too... Only, it was more of a revenge-type fantasy. I had it when you were showing-off with your butler in the playground..."

To the right of Tiara, Scootaloo facehoofed. "Sweetie, she doesn't have to know about that now. Come on, it's about time we got into class, we've had MORE than enough distractions for one day. Quick march!"

Sweetie Belle looked slightly annoyed she didn't get chance to finish her little story, so while Apple Bloom joined the trio to form a quartet, the little unicorn leaned over to whisper in Tiara's ear, "I'll tell you the rest later."

The pink filly wasn't really listening, though.

She was currently in the middle of weighing up the ramifications of being stuck with the Crusaders all day long.

Whenever they got in trouble... She'd share the blame.

Whenever they destroyed something... She'd share the blame.

They might be good ponies, but they did have a tendency to create chaos wherever they roamed...

And, what would happen if she needed to go to the little fillies room?

How would they all fit inside the...

Uh oh.

Part 19: Inside Silver Spoon's Head.

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Silver Spoon was concerned.

Perhaps 'worried' would have been a bit of a stretch, because she didn't know for certain anything was wrong yet. But when her best friend failed to meet her at the usual spot via their usual route to class, and now twenty-five minutes into the school day, she still hadn't made an appearance, leaving Silver all alone to deal with the usual motley crew...

Yep, something was definitely going on.

The grey filly watched Snips and Snails's predictable buffoonish antics, this time trying to pick their ears and nose with sharpened pencils (didn't they learn ANYTHING from the gum incident?), Button Mash attempting to play his new handheld game Horspocalypse 4 secretly under his desk and the new student Lily Longsocks who seemed to be using her seating apparatus for weightlifting practice.

She also noticed the three empty chairs where the Cutie Mark Crusaders would be positioned. By now, they would be frantically whispering to each other secretly, plotting out their next madcap scheme to earn their special marks, while she and her bestie would attempt to flag the attention of Miss Cherilee to their impudence. She never caught them, of course... Their teacher was a very nice mare, but she did have a tendency to be useless, discipline-wise.

After all, look at how much her and Di had gotten away with over the years as a perfect example.

Still, all that was in another era. Her and her best friend were now fully reformed, swore never pick on anypony ever again and would strive to become role models for the rest of the class to follow now.

The grey filly couldn't be happier.

She'd felt very low for quite some time. Whenever Di had made a 'blank flank' comment to another pony, Silver had remembered the bleak days when she had no individual mark of her own, and the many long, sleepless nights she suffered wondering if she was going to get one at all. She could relate to the struggles of these late-bloomers, and would have dearly loved to have stepped in to tell her friend to lay off them for something that they couldn't help.

Alas, terrified of losing her social status by crossing her bestie, as well as intimidated by a unique hold the pink filly had over her, she never really stood a chance at rebelling and her weak, pathetic self just went along for the ride. Acting as her friend's bullying wingmare, she didn't start many of the conflicts herself, but she certainly didn't make much of an effort to stop them.

What did a wise mare once say? All it takes for evil to triumph was for a good pony to do nothing?

That was her. And she let it go on for far too long.

The odd act of defiance, such as clapping at Granny Smith's fascinating life story in class, much to the chagrin of Di, as well as stealing her shake back from her friend when the pink filly had decided to help herself to it, were noteworthy, but hardly a sea change. She was too much of a lackey, an underling, an enabler, to seriously attempt to overthrow the order of their relationship.

It was predestined. Fate. Written in the stars.

She'd always be stuck underneath Di's pink, oppressive hoof.

How miserable she was.

Despite all her best predictions though, something amazing happened. The cracks finally began to show during the hustings for the school election, when Di decided to publicly berate Silver for daring to mention the obtrusive statue of Di's likeness the pink filly had decided to put on the site of the rusty old playground, once victory was assured. Her bestie had wanted to keep it as a 'surprise' announcement for her winning speech.

Let's just say, talking about putting a stone figure in the likeness of the most disliked pupil in school over the play equipment did not prove to be a massive vote-winner. Who'd have thought it?

The second incident, which was sort of the clincher in the ruination of their friendship, occurred while everypony was engaged in the only way each resident of Ponyville knew how to handle a big, climatic moment. Singing a song. It was after Di's second verse that Silver had nudged her friend on the shoulder, trying to get the pink filly to show the other side of her that Spoon knew existed, the one who genuinely cared about her classmates, the persona which lurked behind the vain shell of arrogance and smug superiority.

If Di had tapped into the nicer part of her nature, the chances are she might actually have stood a fighting chance of winning, despite all of her behaviour in the lead-up to the main vote, which only could be described as 'threatening'. But, unwilling to exhibit anything that could conceivably be construed as a weakness, Silver's request was promptly shut down before the grey filly could even finish her chorus..

That was it. The hopes and dreams of her mothe-of Di, lied in tatters. Nopony was going to vote for a candidate who treated their best friend with such contempt, and so it transpired that the pink filly managed to receive... Count 'em... one vote. From herself.

Even Silver hadn't been tempted to opt for her, her so-called lifelong 'bestie' had crossed a line that day. Coaxing Spoon into picking on innocents was one thing, but cutting off her good advice in the middle of a big musical number?

Completely unforgivable.

Their non-existent friendship had been blown to smithereens. It was beyond recovery. Nothing was salvagable among the wreckage. Silver had told Di so, and had walked off alone to forge her own path. She could finally make her own decisions. She was a free filly. She answered to nopony. Her dreams had, at long last, come true...

So, why didn't Silver feel better about her emancipation, then?

Part of it was, she supposed, that she would still miss her first real friend. They may have only connected because they were two of the only youngsters at all the snooty parties they were forced to attend with their well-to-do parentage, but what had blossomed from that awkward starting point was a true kinship for the ages.

She might have felt obliged to participate in Di's merciless bullying of those 'less fortunate' than themselves, but there were plenty of better times too which didn't involve such barbarity. Meeting celebrities in Manehattan, days at the spa, clothes shopping in Canterlot, money fights...

Those were the things she missed. Not mocking disabled fillies. Not turning family members against each other.

And definitely not being told to shut up, when you're about to reach your musical crescendo.

Seriously, that still really ticked her off.

Another reason Silver felt so lousy about the way things turned out was Di herself. She knew the real pink filly, behind the mask she had persisted on wearing every day. The one you could have fun with. Hang-out. Just chill, with no feeling of pretentious sense of entitlement.

If not for that mother of hers, things could have been different. Silver didn't like speaking ill of any of her friends's parents, but from what she'd seen and heard of Spoiled, it was perfectly understandable why Di acted the way she did.

She'd even caught her bestie crying silently to herself, due to all the pressure she was put under 24/7. She'd asked the Silver to keep a lookout during her tears, in case that over-sized magenta nose came snooping, for the punishment for acting like such 'a wimp' was indescribable.

No beauty products for a week. The horror!!

Silver had tried to help. "Talk to your father", she'd suggested, at which point Di had rolled her eyes and muttered a comment along the lines of him being as much use as a two-legged pony in an apple-bucking contest.

"Don't listen to your mother" was the next idea from Silver, and the pink filly had looked at her friend as if she was insane. Among all the shouting, Spoon could just about make out the fact that Di's mother was the only parent she saw when away from school, and any attempt to disobey orders didn't even bear thinking about.

"Have you SEEN my mom when she raises her voice? She's scary." Di had visibly shivered after saying that.

Silver knew she wasn't kidding.

Why couldn't there be more mothers like her own Silver Sterling? Yes, the grey filly might be dragged around to a lot of meaningless functions she couldn't give a hoof about, but at least she was able to express herself. To choose her own friends. To be bad at something, and still be forgiven. Di's mother was the opposite of all of that, and it made Spoon sick to her stomach to see what her bestie had to tolerate just to maintain Spoiled's impossible standards.

This was the main cause of Silver's anxiety, while she continued to stare at Di's vacant spot. The pink filly had actually done it, she'd braved the rapids of her mother's ire by daring to stand up to her in public, and won back Silver's friendship as a result. (Of course, the profuse apology she'd offered and a bit of mutual fence mending, both physical and metaphorical, had helped smooth things over, too).

As an added bonus, after the playground had been built, the Crusaders cutie-marks had miraculously appeared, followed by Silver and Di attending the biggest cute-cenera ever to be held in Ponyville. Needless to say, both reformed fillies had a great time...

But even in the middle of all the partying, the celebrating and watching Pinkie somehow squeeze her entire frame into an empty punch bowl, there was something gnawing at the back of Di's mind. It was the kind of thing that only a best friend could pick up on. Silver could see it in the pink filly's eyes all night, even when the duo at their most joyous.

She didn't have to ask Di what was on her brain... It was 'her'.

Want a clue? Seven letters. Starts with 'S', ends in 'D'. Rhymes with 'boiled' as in: This particular mare would be 'hard-boiled' after her daughter chewed her out in front of a large crowd, and as soon as Di got home, who knows what could've happened?

"Have a sleepover at my place." Silver had suggested "Hopefully, by tomorrow, she'd have cooled down, and you can talk to her properly." The grey filly almost laughed at her own words. If she didn't believe that outlandish scenario, why should Di?

"No" came the implacable reply. "I'm going to have to face her at some point, and there's no better time than now, while I'm on a high. I'll be fine, don't worry about me, Silv. I'll see you tomorrow, I promise." Those were the last words exchanged between the two, as Di ambled her way to her mansion, while a nervous best friend looked on.

Was she really 'fine'? What had happened between Spoiled and her daughter that night? Silver was desperate to know. In hoofsight, she should have stopped by the Rich estate on her way to school. Made sure everything was alright. Trotted to class with Di from there. Things would have been 'fine' then, and she wouldn't have this thousand-pound weight that currently resided on her head.

She averted her eyes, to the also empty chairs which usually housed the furry posteriors of Scootaloo, Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle. Surely them being late too was just a coincidence, right? Even if Di and the Crusaders had made up, she couldn't imagine them hanging out together, not straight off the bat. There was too much history there, too many differences, it would be a gradual thing, this whole friendship malarkey.

Her, Di and the Crusaders could find out what the two groups had in common, and then, they could organise a playdate based on an enjoyed shared activity. Maybe, somewhere further along the line, the two wealthy fillies could spend the day at the CMC clubhouse, provided they gave it a thorough clean first.

Then, if they really wanted to make an audacious move, Di and Silver could invite the Crusaders to one of the posh parties they were regularly invited to. The troublesome trio might just wreck the place, going by past evidence. At least it would liven up what were usually staid, boring affairs, though...

Besides, seeing Scootaloo as a frilly filly in a dress would be worth the price of admission alone.

The thought brought a snigger from Silver, but she knew she shouldn't laugh. After all, she owed a great debt to the Crusaders herself, not only for showing her bestie the right path to take in life, but also helping her pluck up the courage to stand up to her friend as an equal, rather than something to be wiped off the bottom of your hoof. Now Di and Spoon were equals in their friendship, and things were much healthier all around.

In fact, on account of their new, exclusive cutie marks, she was even pondering whether to enlist their help in properly understanding her own, the same way they'd assisted Di in deciphering her's. Silver had always been confused by her symbol of a spoon with a heart, ever since it had appeared when...

Suddenly, a commotion at the door of the classroom caused the grey filly to cease her free-thinking, and glance up in surprise. She looked up at the clock. Had she REALLY been day-dreaming for five straight minutes? She hoped she wasn't turning into Sweetie Belle...

At the sound of Miss Cheerilee rising from her seat, there was chaos all around. Writing implements taken out of various orifices, and hastily put back. Video games switched off, and unceremoniously thrown in waiting bags. Lifted desks dropped so quickly, that they were bound to leave an impression on the floor.

Their teacher saw who it was causing a ruckus, and her initial look of surprise as the door was opened was quickly replaced by an expression of... Care? Warmth? Empathy? Whoever it was, was definitely not going to be in trouble for being late...

Being late!! Realising who it could be, Silver immediately stretched her neck to see if it could be the best friend who's safety she'd been whittling about since she dropped her off last night.

Those behind the door made their way into the room. There was Apple Bloom, looking as rustic as ever. She seemed determined to have a word with the teacher about something, as she headed straight over to Miss Cheerilee without a second thought.

And, as always, just loitering a few feet away, was the unmistakable twin forms of Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo. They were standing further apart than usual, though. Maybe the orange pegasus had forgotten to shower that morning, the grey filly thought. Ha, ha.

ENTERING SILVER SPOON'S INTERNAL THOUGHTS.

'Oops, better not say that to her face, Silv, you're better than that now. Besides, you don't really want an out-of-control Scooter connecting with your jaw at a record speed, do you?'

'No sign of Di, then. Oh well, maybe she'll arrive later. Her school stuff is on her desk, anyway, so she must be expected in at some point. I'm sure she's fine, she can take care of herself...'

'Wait a second, what's that strange pink and brown filly-shaped thingie between Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle, almost hiding in the shadows? It seems to have a bandage on one foot. It's covered in patches of dirt. It has the most unkempt mane I've seen for a long time. And it's wearing a ribbon. just like Apple Bloom's.'

'Is a new Apple joining the class? Wait til' Di gets a load of this! It's a good job she's reformed now, else she'd really go to town on this scruffy, frightened new student!'

' Wonder if she has her cutie mark yet? She's skulking down so low, I can barely see it. Ah, there we go! Scooterloo just moved her tail a bit, Now I can see the mark in all it's glory...'

'A five pointed tiara.'

'Well, definitely not an Apple, then. I don't see that having anything to do with...'

'What?!'

'No, it can't be...'

'Let me just pinch myself...'

'Am I still daydreaming...'

'OUCH!'

'Apparently not.'

'I'll wipe my glasses...'

'Perhaps they're a bit fogged, it is a little hot today...'

'Put them back on, Now everything should be...'

'No, I'm still seeing the same thing!'

'It can't be her.'

'Did she lose a bet?'

'No, The losing stakes would be too high for her.'

'Is it fancy dress day...?'

'No, I don't see any other pony in costume.'

'Then, why...'

'Does she look like that?!'

'Calm down, Silv.'

'Stop breathing heavily...'

'You can ask her when she sits down...'

'I'm sure there's a perfectly logical explanation for this...'

'(Celestia knows what it could be, though)'

'Okay, Apple Bloom's finished talking to Miss Cheerilee...'

'Apple Bloom is asking Di to come forward to speak to the teacher...'

'Is it just me, or do they seem unusually close?'

' Di seems to be hobbling a little.'

'Must be her injury...'

'Another thing to inquire abou...'

'Wait just a second, Silv...'

Rewind!

'When Apple Bloom asked Di to join her in front of the teacher just a second ago...'

'Did Apple Bloom just call her... Di?!'

'But, that's...'

'That's...'

'My special nickname for her...'

'It took around a year of being her best friend...'

'For me to start calling her that.'

'She's been on good terms with Apple Bloom for a day now...'

'And they've already reached that stage?'

'How did this happen?'

'What is going on?!'

Part 20: Future Plans

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She had never felt more socially exposed in all her young life.

Diamond Tiara, the queen bee, the Alpha Filly, the example for all other ponies to imitate, was no more.

In her place, was this rather pathetic, stumbling figure with dirty fur, a sad face, an injured leg and a cheap ribbon tied around her mane.

Even worse, three of the ponies she used to pick on the most, and feel superior to on a regular basis, had now apparently been promoted to her guardians during school hours.

Strange how things work out, isn't it?

Tiara didn't want to seem ungrateful, after all Scootaloo, Sweetie Belle and especially Apple Bloom were only trying to look out for her...

But it was so much unlike what she was familiar with, such a radical change of affairs from only a few days ago, it was impossible to take it all in at once.

All she could do now was hide in the dark spot between her new orange pegasus and white unicorn friends, hoping that she wasn't recognised...

Fat chance. Not with her cutie mark on display for all to gawk at.

Meanwhile, Apple Bloom was discussing the arrangements she'd made for the day with Miss Cheerilee regarding Tiara, as well as no doubt mentioning her embarrassing behaviour since arriving at Sweet Acres...

Diamond didn't know which was worse. The fact she was too weak to object to any part of the farm filly's plans...

Or that soon, all the students would know about her adoption, her nervous breakdown that morning, crying like a little foal outside Sugarcube Corner.

The many ponies she'd bullied over the years would have plenty of fuel to get their revenge, that was for sure.

Trying to take her mind off things, she scanned the classroom. Diamond was sure she saw more than a few curious faces staring her way...

Including, of course, Silver Spoon.

She knew her best friend knew who she was, judging by the absolute look of shock she wore all over her features.

How on Equestria was she going to explain this predicament to her, not to mention the rest of the class?

During Tiara's solo about wanting to be a Different Pony a few days ago, she'd envisaged a large chasm swallowing her up, out of despair at the situation she was mired it.

How she wished that dark pit would make a reappearance, so she could dive into it head first.

But, just when things appeared at their bleakest, she felt the slightest of strokes on her mane...

And there was Sweetie Bell, a gleam in her eye, and a hoof tenderly brushing her hair.

As if able to read the pink filly's thoughts, the unicorn reassured her. "Don't worry about today. If I know Apple Bloom, she'll sort it so you won't have any trouble. And if you do, me and Scootaloo will protect you. Isn't that right, Scoots ?"

The winged speedster in question was busy picking a few loose feathers from her wings, but heard her unicorn friend and suddenly sprung to attention. "Er, yeah. Sure. It's like Rainbow Dash says, how can you call yourself a friend to anypony, if you're not there in their hour of need?"

Both Crusaders then smiled at Diamond, who despite her earlier depression, suddenly felt a warm glow encapsulate her. It was the same kind of feeling she experienced when Applejack let her off the hook earlier for messing up Apple Bloom's bedroom.

Tiara was still torn. She liked to think of herself as an independent pony. That was what her cutie mark represented, anyway: Leadership. Strength. Resolve. Being babied like this didn't sit too well with her ego.

And, yet, she was undeniably at her lowest ebb. She still felt on the verge of tears whenever she opened her eyes, and the events since yesterday had taken their toll on even a tough filly like her.

Perhaps... Sometimes it was okay to be looked after.

Maybe... Accepting help occasionally wasn't such a bad thing.

After all... Putting on a brave face had been her way up til' now, and how far had that gotten her.

Tiara's indecision was cut short by Apple Bloom's face suddenly emerging in front of her, so much so she almost fell backwards, if not for Sweetie and Scootaloo propping her up.

"I've had a little chat with Miss Cheerilee about today, Di." Bloom announced warmly. "And she thinks it's an excellent idea, us hanging around together as a group. She wants to talk to you first though, but don't fret, she already knows about your new placement. I think she has some news about your mother, too. Go and see her, we'll be waiting right here."

Diamond could only nod in understand as her two bookends made way so she could hobble over to the teacher. Aware now she was more in the spotlight than ever, the pink filly did her best to avoid what she was sure were the inquisitive stares of her classmates.

Cheerilee had on one of those cheesy 'I know what you're going through' faces that Tiara was a little sick of by now. It was slightly irritating to have to deal with ponies who treated you with the softly-softly approach all day long, on account of you being a 'special case'.

It still beat the surly, hostile manner her mother often subjected her to in her many rants, though. By a long chalk.

"Hello, Diamond Tiara." Cheerilee cooed, smiling affectionately at the filly who was formerly one of her worst pupils. "I hear you're going through a bit of a bad patch at the moment. I know it must be hard for you to get out of bed in the morning, let alone come to school. I want to commend you for your bravery, and in return I'll do my best to make sure things are easy for you here today. I've agreed to let you sit with your new friends during class and at lunchtime, and if there's anything else I can do for you today, don't hesitate to let me know."

"T-thank you, Miss Cheerilee." Tiara said, still overwhelmed at all the support she was getting. Although, she was loath to admit it.

"Would you like me to say a few words to your fellow students today, just to let them know that you're a bit low? " Cheerilee continued, still wearing that sympathetic face "I won't go into specifics, I'll just inform them of your mood so they can understand why perhaps you're not quite your usual self, and need a bit of compassion today especially for what you're going through. Apple Bloom seems to think it's a good idea. Do you agree?"

Diamond pondered the request. On the one hoof, she didn't want her dirty laundry aired in public, and the whispering and innuendo would only continue if more of the facts got out. On the other hoof, her teacher had promised to be discreet, and if Bloom thought it was a good idea...

The last point was the deciding factor. " I-I don't mind, Miss Cheerilee." Tiara approved the offer.

Cheerilee nodded upon hearing this response. "As you wish. Oh, and one last thing. I know you're not living with her at the moment, but I thought you should know, your mother fainted this morning, and I was there when it happened. Don't worry, she's going to be fine, besides, from what I can gather, this isn't the first time this has happened recently. I would say you could see her, but as you know, the restraining order is still in effect. She's in good hoofs, though. She'll be up and about by the afternoon. You can go to your regular seat now. And thank you once again, for being so brave and turning up today."

Her head in a tizzy from her teacher's news, Diamond barely heard the miscellaneous fillies and colts around her desk making way for the Crusaders, or Cheerilee beginning her short speech about having kindness for a below par Tiara that day, or even Silver Spoon's frantic whispering to her about just what the buck was going on.

All she could focus on, again was her mother. What had been said, or done that morning to make her collapse for a second time in twenty four hours? She understood the stress must be hard for her to deal with as well, but it sounded like Spoiled was really having trouble coming to terms with anything.

Rather than being concerned about her mother's state of mind or general health however, the pink filly was petrified that if Spoiled was that wound up by recent events, she might try something REALLY desperate to get her back. Tiara knew what her mom was like only too well, she hated being on the losing side, aimed to win all the time, and the same philosophy was hammered into her daughter to copy.

And so Tiara did. To often ridiculous degrees.

'Not anymore, though...' Diamond thought with a soft smile, as her new friends encircled her around where she sat, wearing friendly grins of their own. 'Friendship and helping others is so much more important, and the Crusaders helped me to see that. I'll never return to who I used to be, whatever she says...'

Feeling a little better all of a sudden, Tiara suddenly remembered something equally as important.

For, leaning forward in her chair, waving her hooves frenetically in the air as if trying to flag down a passing dragon, was no other than her BFF, Silver Spoon.

She had so much to explain to the grey filly...

She didn't know where to start...

And it was only another hour until recess.

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Spoiled Rich slept the sleep of the damned.

Those who knew her best would say she befit that status, regardless.

At least this time during her little nap, in her room at the hospital...

They'd seen fit to stick her tongue back in her mouth.

Not really for her own benefit, though.

More so because her face was hard enough to look at usually for nearby patients...

Adding an extra unsightly organ on top of her already enlarged proboscis might just frighten some of the more delicate ones away.

A few of the nurses around the unit were already amazed the surgeons hadn't been sued for a face-lift that was obviously a complete hatchet job...

As well as whispering about the child neglect allegations regarding the wealthy mare, which were common knowledge around town now.

Sufficed to say, she wasn't exactly the most popular of the day's patients...

And, with her husband already long departed for essential business in Fillydelphia...

Plus, as her daughter had so emphatically pointed out, having no friends at all around town...

Spoiled slumbered peacefully on, completely alone.

All that was about to change, though...

"Wait a second, you two can't just stroll in there! We have a victim in recovery."

"Nonsense! My husband and I have given money to various causes over the years, including to the health service! Now, step aside, Miss..."

"I'm Nurse Sweetheart... And, who may I ask, are you? Are you related to the mare in this room?"

"Even better! We're acquaintances at a recent dinner party. We have some very important news about her daughter that she has to hear now. My wife must deliver it to her personally. So if you would let us through..."

"I'm sorry, but this patient is currently unconscious. It will still be a good few hours before she's in any fit state to have visitors and even then, If this is about her child, I suspect she already knows..."

"Yes, yes. We've heard the rumours from the mayor's aides, the same ones that told us where she was recuperating. We'd still like to have a word with her, and offer our... Services. My name is Upper Crust, by the way. This is my life partner, Jet Set. We're quite important ponies round these parts, you know."

"I'm afraid I've never heard of either of you. You're not on the patient's visitor list either, so I can't let you in. If you'd like to with me to reception now, and..."

"Now, look here. My wife has asked you for a perfectly acceptable request, and we will not take no for an answer. If you won't listen to reason, I'm afraid I may have to resort to more... Forceful means. Are you aware the administrator Big Bucks at this fine clinic is a very close personal friend of mine?"

"Er, no, why should I be? And why does that matter?"

"Because, my dear, you may not be aware of this... But thanks to the recent war with Tirek, and Celestia's obscene cake tax, the budget for this worthy establishment has been halved, so your employers might be looking at a few... Cutbacks. I'd hate to see you fall victim to such an unfortunate state of affairs, Miss..."

"...S-sweetheart, sir..."

"Very good. At least you're learning how to address your betters. Now, if you'll be a good girl and get yourself a nice cup of watered-down coffee from the canteen, me and my wife will just slip past you to see our dear friend Spoiled Rich. I trust we have a mutual understanding?"

"Y-yes sir. I'll just get out of your w-way now, sir."

"You do that. It was a pleasure speaking to you by the way, Miss.

...

"Finally, she's gone. It's always good when commoners know their place in Equestria, and it's even better when you have the connections to get things done. That's why I married you, darling..."

"Yes, yes. I love you too. We can discuss how influential and wealthy we are later. I know I'm looking forward to it. But for now, Upper Crust, we have work to do..."

"Of course, Jet Set. Let's just go inside, and wait for her to wake up..."

...

"Is that her, dear? The mare you were talking to at the garden party? I must say, she isn't exactly an oil painting."

"No, darling, I completely agree with you. My facial treatment was much more professionally done, and actually enhanced my looks. You should hear her when she talks, too. Quite the frightful bore."

"Hmm. Is that so. Remind me again, why we're helping this unworthy pony out, if that is indeed the case..."

"Because, darling, regardless of what we may think of our fellow capitalists, us upper-class ponies must stick together in an increasingly immaterialistic world. Who knows, we do a favour for her now, one day, she might be in a position to help us out. It's quid pro-quo."

"...Yes, you raise a very good point, Upper Crust, but I know you. You wouldn't go to these kind of lengths just for the vague promise of a far off benefit that may or may not happen. Come on, tell me what your other motivating factor is for this subterfuge."

"Oh, Jet Set. You know me too well. I can only reply by telling you it's the oldest reason in the book. Armies have been crushed by it. Empires have crumbled. And today, it's why I'm here."

"I must say dear, your little riddle has got me intrigued, but I'm afraid I'm not as sharp as I used to be, so do you care to share the answer?

"Why, the solution is simple, darling. Revenge."

Part 20 and a half: Interlude: A Meeting

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Tiara studied the lesson plan for the morning on her desk. Her actual education at this moment in time took second precedence to her personal issues, but there was no harm in seeing what lay ahead for the day. Cheerilee, as Applejack had suggested earlier on, had been kind enough to leave everything the pink filly would need on or around her area of work, so all she'd have to do was pay attention, finish her designated tasks and everything should work out fine.

Easier said then done though, when you're surrounding by whispering, staring faces.

Diamond tried to block them out. She hid behind the paper she was reading. She pushed parts of her ribbon in her ears. She even went to the extent of humming the Crusader's awful song from that talent show, where they won 'Best Comedy Act', to drown out the sound.

No such luck. She could hear the murmurs everywhere, feel the weight of the looks burrowing into her. Oh, none of the comments or expressions were particularly malicious, the majority of them just seemed to revolve around why the school's biggest diva had come to school looking like a scaremare.

In her weakened moral state though, they really began have an effect on the unnerved Diamond, and she slowly found herself sinking into her seat, desperate to escape the unwanted attention...

All of a sudden, they stopped. Tiara didn't notice it for a minute, due to her sunken location. But, as the air turned quiet and almost by instinct, she detected less focus on her, she pulled herself up to be greeted with the stare.

No, it wasn't a drenched Fluttershy. who was at this very moment chasing Angel with a carrot in one hoof and a half-filled bath in the other (That's a story for another time ). Instead, it was Scootaloo, who was seated to the left of Diamond, giving her classmates the evil eye, daring any of them to make any further remark about her new friend, or give her any unsolicited gawks.

As far as muted threats go, it was a pretty good one. More importantly, it seemed to do the trick. Everypony seemed to take their mind off the adopted filly simultaneously, in order to concentrate on today's fascinating topic of 'The History Of The Crystal Empire'.

Her job done, Scootaloo gave Tiara a confident 'hoofs up', to which Diamond responded with a grateful smile. Turning to her worksheet, she wondered why on Equestria she didn't make friends with the Crusaders earlier, and why she ever felt they were in anyway unworthy of her...

Oh, that was right. Her mom.

Well, no time like the present for making up for lost time.
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One hour. That's how long Diamond's respite lasted, as she immersed herself in the wicked deeds of King Sombra, the accomplishments of a little dragon who became a big hero and why Princess Cadance was starting to look a bit chubby of late.

The last point wasn't part of the test, it was merely something Tiara had observed with her usual hyper-critical perfectionist mentality, and she'd added it on as an addendum in an attempt to get some extra credit.

She was sure it would work.

The lesson had overall been a good distraction from the turmoil of everything else, and thanks to a certain orange pegasus's timely intervention, she'd had no further trouble whatsoever from the other students.

She was even starting to give something back to the Crusaders for all they'd done for her. Her private tuition had ensued it was a subject she was reasonably well-versed in, and as Apple Bloom, Sweetie Belle and Scoots began to look stumped at various intervals, the pink filly was able to lean over and candidly help them with their work.

This earned Diamond a lot of plaudits, which cheered her up no end. Doing things for others, without any physical reward at the end... Who'd have known it could be so satisfying? It was an ideal Tiara was just beginning to incorporate into her life, and yet already she liked it.

I might do more of it, she thought.

The only parasprite in the ointment was Silver Spoon's continued exasperated glances over at how well she was getting on with their former enemies. The grey filly didn't seem jealous, but there was definitely a look of confusion about her constant gazes.

Guiltily, Diamond realised that perhaps she should have come down to see her friend sooner that day to clear the air, instead of sticking her through the emotional wringer like now. After all, her best friend had been there for her from the beginning of her mother problems, so to not keep her in the picture about the latest developments was quite discourteous.

Oh well, at least I get to make up for it at recess, she reassured herself.

Speaking of which, there went the bell. All the little ponies began to pack their things away, as Miss Cheerilee put down her How To Get Your Stallion paperback to usher them outside.

Tiara breathed a sigh of relief, as she made her way to the door. Finally, she could clear this entire mess up with Silv. She'd apologise. Spoon would sympathise. They'd hug. Everything would be fine. Then, they could play with their new friends, the Cutie Mark...

"Crusaders gather!!" All at once, the pink filly heard Apple Bloom's voice boom above her thoughts, and at almost the same moment she felt herself being grabbed from behind and shoved next to a white unicorn.

"Hi!" Sweetie offered up a greeting to the perturbed Diamond.

The aggressor who pushed her was none other than Scootaloo, who quickly placed herself adjacent to Tiara, hemming her in between two Crusaders in the same manner as when they'd arrived at school. Taken by surprise at the sheer audacity of this maneuver, Diamond was about to give the orange pegasus a mouthful, but was stopped by the junior daredevil before she had the chance.

"Don't you remember?" Scootaloo reminded her, in a not unfriendly tone. "You're a Crusader for the day, and we do everything together! Apple Bloom has just called a general meeting, and it's mandatory for us all to attend. Mandatory. So, let's hear what she has to say, Then we can be on our way!"

"Couldn't we just have it in the schoolyard?" Tiara huffed, clearly a little irritated.

"Don't be silly, Diamond! It's far too noisy out there..." Sweetie informed the pink filly.

"And it ain't much quieter in here!" Bloom narrowed her eyes at the delay to proceedings. "Now, if you three have quite finished, we can begin. Really, this is just a quick gathering to see how each one of us is getting on with our new cutie marks. Has anypony got anything to tell us?"

"Mine is great... Looking as cool as ever!" Scootaloo enthusiastically buzzed her wings.

"After so long waiting for them... How could they not be cool?" Sweetie Belle seemed happy enough.

"And no more nightmares for me about having a non-apple related mark, though it was nice for us to see Princess Luna together!" Apple Bloom smiled at the memory, and the other Crusaders concurred.

This announcement broke Diamond out of her malaise. What?! How was it possible for them all to have a shared dream... No, it was impossible. They must all be surely making it up...

Mind you, her father had been telling her about a mysterious dream he'd experienced himself the other day. Most of the other Ponyville residents were there, and Filthy was some kind of superhero. The 'Money Surfer' was how he'd been known, or something...

"AARGH, who cares about any of that stuff, anyway?! It was just a bedtime story!!" Tiara hadn't noticed she was shouting out loud, which led to a few concerned faces from her new friends.

"Di, are you alright?" Bloom was the first to trot forward, gently tapping her new roommate on the head to bring her out of her stupor.

"W-what?! Yes, I'm fine!" Diamond was finally brought back to reality." Can we just wrap this up? I really need to go outside..." She tried to squeeze her way out of her fuzzy prison. No chance of that.

"Oh, but of course!! We've nearly finished. It's just your turn to answer the question..." Bloom stated, indefatigably.

"A-and, what would be the point in that?" Tiara couldn't help but raise an eyebrow at this pointless query. "I said I wouldn't mention it again, but, I did get my Cutie Mark long before any of you, so it's not exactly 'new', is it? No offense."

"None taken." Bloom grinned at Diamond. Even though she was essentially reformed, Tiara still had that sass about her. And the farm filly wouldn't change it for the world. As long as it didn't get nasty, of course.

"So, what is it exactly you want to know?" Diamond was beginning to get very impatient, but to her credit, she was doing her utmost to hide it.

"Well, you know, now that you realise what your mark stands for, how do you feel about it, what do you intend to do with it, have you noticed any changes..." Bloom reeled off a list of inquiries.

"To be honest, I've had other things on my mind, as you can well imagine." Tiara stated matter of factly. " As far as changes are concerned, none at all, apart from when I noticed it temporarily glowing the same day you got your marks, while I was helping set up the play..."

"What?!" Apple Bloom's ears fair perked up upon hearing this 'earth-shattering' news, while the already-in-extreme-close-proximity Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle huddled in so close, Diamond swore she felt her ribs crack.

"Ow!!" Yelled the pink filly. "Girls, you're hurting me!!"

"Tell us more!!" Scootaloo insisted.

"You're not sick, are you?" A nervous Sweetie Belle asked.

"Hmm... Never heard of anything like this before..." Apple Bloom pondered it over.

Despite her best efforts, the frustration of being crushed to death and nopony listening to her began to cause the red mist to descend on Diamond Tiara for the second time that day... But, no. She was not going down that road again. So, using every tiny bit of self-control and restraint she possessed, she politely but firmly told them off.

"Listen to me for a minute. Sweetie Belle, it is not a contagious disease. Scootaloo, I'll tell you the rest of the story later. And both of you, stop flattening me!! Apple Bloom, please appreciate the fact that while this has been fun, I really have to head outdoors now. I have to see somepony before recess is over. So, could we please wrap this meeting up?!" She said all this with as much decorum as she could muster, under the trying circumstances.

Three pairs of eyes blinked at her for a few seconds, before two of them eased their pressure, and the other said in a country accent "Well, why didn't you say so in the first place?! We could have finished this thing ages ago. Of course we'll respect your wishes, Di..."

Tiara facehoofed for about the trillionth time since yesterday. No wonder she was getting a major migraine, as well as an aching leg. She did relish having new friends, but they couldn't half be infuriating.

"There's just one more item left on the agenda today, in that case..." Bloom continued. "And that's to welcome our new member, compadre, sister-in-arms, Diamond Tiara! Even if it is only for twenty-four hours. Everypony, put your hooves together!!"

While Scootaloo and Sweetie hooted and hollered next to a disassociative Tiara, Bloom approached the pink filly to softly whisper in her ear: "You know, it doesn't have to all be over today, Di. If you're really having a good time , I'm sure the others would agree to extend your membership past the cut-off point. Now that Babs has left, there is an opening. Just think about it, you could be an asset to the organisation!"

With that delectable invitation left on the table, Bloom gave her new roommate a friendly wink, before backing off, leaving an aghast Diamond to mutter out of earshot, "Don't count on it..."

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Finally. The time was right. The mood was set. No more annoying interruptions. No more unforeseen delays. Time to get out of that darn classroom, into the schoolyard and over to my best friend. Have a conversation with her. Set things straight. Laugh at how ridiculous the Crusaders are. Perhaps, have a game of tag...

What's that, Scootaloo? You need to scoot to the loo? Ha ha. Nice play on words there. What? You mean, you're not joking? Well, sucks for you, but I'm fine. Have a nice time on the toilet. I'll be sure to mention your absence from the schoolyard to every other pony...

Hang on. Where did this green light come from, and why aren't my hooves working? Oh no, not again!! Sweetie Belle... Put me down!! I am NOT going in the bathroom with the rest of you, just because one of you weirdos needs to go!

Why are the three of you laughing at me? What do you mean, where did I get the stupid idea that we all went into the booth together?! That the rest of us were just going to wait outside, until the other filly has finished doing their business? Well, I just thought, seeing as you said we were going to do everything together...

Forget it. It's not important. Just hurry up, Scoots. And wash your hooves. If I'm going to be super-glued to you for the rest of the day, the least you can do is have decent hygiene...

What?! Now you need to go Sweetie Belle... And even you Apple Bloom?! I thought you were the sensible one. This situation is intolerable. Unbelievable. Excruciating.

And, you know the worst part?

After all this toilet talk...

Now I need to go!!

*KNOCK KNOCK*Hey Scootaloo!! Hurry up in there, would ya?

Silver Spoon... Please wait for mmmmmeeeeeee... :(

Part 21: Nicknames And New Friends

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Finally, after using the bathroom facilities, thoroughly washing her hooves and sprucing up her tawdry appearance in the mirror, Diamond was ready to confront her best friend.

There had been oh-so-many setbacks. Aside from the impromptu cutie-mark meeting fiasco, the whole toileting scenario had been one annoyance after the other. Sweetie Belle and Apple Bloom had insisted on pushing her to the back of the line, and of course the appliance refused to be flushed at the first time of asking, not surprising considering how many previous occupants it had already seen that day. The final straw was that the sink didn't even have any of that nice soap she liked.

She couldn't help but gaze at her unfamiliar reflection afterwards, and ask herself: Is this me now? Is this what I've become, for better or worse? What on Equestria did the future hold for this uprooted, ragged pink filly?

On the plus side though, her introspection had given her a little more time to work on what exactly she was going to tell Silver Spoon. Celestia knows, she could use all the help she could get...

But now she was pumped up for the challenge ahead. Full of vim and vigour. Nothing could stop her now...

That is, except for her overzealous new Crusader buddies, who were even now trailing her to the door.

"So, who are we going to see?" A smiling Sweetie Belle pushed herself to the left of Tiara.

Diamond rolled her eyes. " We? Listen, perhaps I should have mentioned this before, but I really wanted this to be a private conversation." The pink filly attempted to escape to her right...

Only to be boxed in securely by Scootaloo, who seemed equally as curious as the white unicorn. "Come on, Diamond... You're a Crusader now. We don't have any secrets from each other! Tell us!"

"Yeah, tell us!" Parroted Sweetie Belle, and between her and the orange pegasus, it was like having two minders for the day.

The more understanding Apple Bloom wasn't quite as pushy as her fellow Crusaders. "Listen, Di. I appreciate that you might want to speak to this pony alone, but I made Applejack a promise earlier that I'd watch out for you. I don't want to see you getting upset or hurt again, so if you could just tell us who it is, then perhaps we could help you..."

Tiara's mood went from defiance to feeling as low as a snake in an instant. It would take her a long time to get over the shame of making Bloom so petrified when the pink filly had thrown a major fit inside their shared bedroom. Now she knew why the youngest Apple was so insistent on following her about, asking how she was at every interval and even enlisting her friends to watch out for her.

Because, she cared.

Enough to see through her rough, diamond-hard exterior, and find the precious, shining jewel that lurked inside all this time, only hidden from view by her manipulative and conniving mother. Enough to let her into Sweet Acres without as much as a second thought, despite all the merciless bullying she'd put the farm filly through over the years.

Enough for Tiara, to see the concern reflected in Apple Bloom's eyes there and then.

There was nothing else to be done. She had to tell all. She owed Bloom that much, and a lot more besides.

"I'm going to see Silver Spoon..." Diamond muttered, turning her head away, feeling emotional all of a sudden. "To explain about everything that's happened since last night. She'll think it's odd now with me looking the way I do, and being all chummy with you three. I can't imagine how she's gonna react when she discovers I'm the newest member of the Crusaders and the Apple family..."

The trio of other fillies present looked dumbstruck for a moment, and even Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle backed off a little, as if realising just how difficult this encounter was going to be. Tiara internally breathed a sigh of relief, surely now her new friends would see sense, let her be on her merry way, and allow her sort it out by herself.

No way. Not with Apple Bloom, the master orator on the case.

Flummoxed, albeit briefly, the farm filly's natural compassion soon came to the fore, and Diamond found herself with a yellow hoof around her neck, and a warm, grinning face in front.

"Don't worry about anything, Di." Bloom's voice sounded so confident, that the pink filly almost believed it. "We'll go over there too, and be there every step of the way. If I know Silver, she'll see that none of what's happened is your fault, and even more so when she hears about your mother..."

"She's already aware of that." Tiara informed her roommate, bluntly. " I do tend to confide in my best friend about almost everything, you know."

Bloom put her hoof over her mouth. "Oops, sorry. My mistake. Still, at least that'll make things simpler, right? She knows what you've gone through, I bet she's as glad as I am that you're away from that mansion. In fact, now that we're all friends, it'll be as easy as apple pie to get her to understand! Let's all go over there as a group, Di. After we've cleared things up, we'll all have a good laugh and wonder what we were so anxious about."

Apple Bloom's words were straight from the heart, and movingly spoken. At least, Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo seemed to think so, and it wasn't too long before Diamond found herself with a couple more hooves around her neck as they snuggled in close, and the poor pink filly found herself more squashed than ever.

"We'll help you too!" Sweetie Belle was desperate to be of service.

"Yeah, just tell us what to do, and we'll do it!!" Scootaloo joined in the chorus.

The old Tiara would have said something along the lines of go jump off a tall building, then, but fortunately these days she was above such vulgarity.

So Diamond resorted to just mumbling "Well, you can both try giving me some space, for a start."

Sweetie and Scootaloo looked over at each other with a little consternation. "Well, actually that's the one thing we can't do." Sweetie Belle began to speak."You see, when we were talking together earlier on, Apple Bloom made the two of us pledge to protect... OW!!"

The farm filly in question had just decided to give the white unicorn a not-so-subtle nudge which abruptly shut her up, while Scootaloo just stared at the wall and whistled.

Tiara narrowed her eyes in suspicion. Maybe her wild ideas about being assigned minders weren't quite so far-fetched after all...

"Anyways, shall we continue?" Bloom seemed desperate to move things along, as she rejoined the group, and it wasn't too long before Diamond found herself once again being put into motion by the two fillies crammed either side of her.

Tiara had no idea how this was going to work out. What should have been a sincere moment between two BFFs had now seemingly been hi-jacked by the goon squad, and she was just going to have to hope for the best.

"One final thing before we get there." Sweetie Belle squeaked to the left of the pink filly "We've noticed that Apple Bloom has started using the word 'die' a lot around you. At first, we thought she was just being rude, but then we realised..."

"Actually, I realised..." Scootaloo chimed in, cosseting Tiara from the right. "That it probably wasn't that kind of 'die', but maybe the other sort of 'dye'. Your mane and tail are both 100% their natural colour, aren't they?"

Diamond was about to respond with the most withering of put-downs, before she caught Apple Bloom's eye from two fillies away. Her roommate gave her a look which seemed to scream Now do you see what I have to put up with, but ended with a disapproving shake of the head, as if she knew what her new roommate was going to unleash verbally.

Tiara growled at being unable to vent her anger, but nevertheless decided to at least try the diplomatic approach for once. As insanely difficult as it would be.

"No, Apple Bloom doesn't want me to lose my life, Sweetie. Yes, all this purple and pink you see on me is the real deal, Scootaloo. I might be one day, but currently I am not the mayor!!". It was hard to enunciate through gritted teeth, yet somehow Tiara was managing it. " It's spelled D-I. Di is a nickname, short for Diamond. Now that me and Apple Bloom are sharing a house, and I've been adopted by her family, we decided it would be okay for her to have an alternative way of greeting me. Do you understand?"

*A few uncomfortable seconds of silence later*

"Oh, yeah! I knew that!" Sweetie Belle exclaimed unconvincingly, as the tight-knit quartet stepped sideways so they could fit through the door. "That was totally my third choice. And I get nicknames too. In fact, Rarity calls me 'Sweets' all the time, on account of my sweet personality of course!" The white unicorn beamed at the notion.

"More like, on account of your raging sugar addiction!" Scootaloo remarked, pointing out Sweetie's grin was not quite as gleaming as she'd have you believe. "What was it you told us once, your parents threatened to take away the broom you use to practice magic with, if they caught you hanging around Sugarcube Corner again, begging for snacks?"

Sweetie blushed upon hearing this outrageous slur "N-no, of course not. You must have imagined me telling you that, last week. How about you, 'Scoots'? From what I've seen of your motoring skills, I think 'Crashes' might be a more applicable moniker for you. The reason why I need to eat so much, is because I always seem to lose what's in my tummy after going on a ride in your safety hazard of a scooter!"

"Alright you two, knock it off!" Apple Bloom once again had to act as peacemaker between the two warring factions, especially as both fillies were arguing either side of piggy-in-the middle Tiara, who was longing for a pair of fluffy earmuffs around about now. "So, now you know her nickname. Was there anything else?"

"Yes, there was, actually." Scootaloo finished giving Sweetie a dirty look, to turn to Diamond." Do you think I could start calling you 'Di', too? I mean, you and Apple Bloom might be family now, but you're also a Crusader, which makes us pretty close too, I reckon!"

A little too close for my liking... Was Diamond's underhanded answer, before she gave her real one. "I'm only a Crusader for another... Let's see... twenty-two hours and forty minutes, Scoots. Is it REALLY worth..."

Tiara was interrupted by the orange pegasus flapping her wings excitably, tickling the pink filly's back in the process. "Aha!! You just called me 'Scoots'! Now you HAVE to let me call you 'Di'. It's only fair, Isn't that right, Apple Bloom?"

A trying-really-hard-not-to-giggle Diamond cursed her big mouth, and looked to her roommate for support. Alas, none was to be found in the perplexed shrug she got back in return. "Scootaloo is right, Di. If you're going to refer to her by her nickname, it's only right and proper she can call you by yours..."

"But-I-she... Was an accident... HEE HEE HA HA!!" Tiara was unable to contain her amusement any longer at Scootaloo's ever-increasing wing-speed, especially after the orange pegasus heard Bloom's statement agreeing with her.

"Yes!! I win." Scootaloo exclaimed in triumph, to a chortling, ticklish Diamond. " Nice to meet you... Di! I'm sure we're going to get along really well, I mean, just look how happy you are, hanging out with us already! You're even counting down to the exact minute when you leave the Crusaders, the thought of it terrifies you so much! Apple Bloom, you did tell her we offer extended membership options, didn't you?"

"Well, I did mention it..." The farm filly scratched the back of her head. "But Scoots, I'm not sure that's the reason she's laug..."

"Great!!" The orange pegasus was so excited, she cut Bloom right-off, while Tiara was rendered helpless with hysterics. "Another friend to help people out. Who'd have thought, when me and Sweetie were crouching under that table at your cute-cenera, it would end like this, Di?!"

"Ooh ooh!! Don't forget about me!" Sweetie Belle felt she was being left out of this conversation." Hey Diamond, call me 'Sweets'! Then I can have an excuse to start calling to you 'Di' too! Go on, just say it, S-W-E-E..."
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The little group was at this point passing a corner of the building towards the schoolyard, and happened to be glimpsed by an on-break Cheerilee from a window. The mare was enjoying her freshly brewed morning coffee, but nearly spat it out at the unbelievable sight before her.

Between the four former foes so cloistered together moving in perfect synchronisation, the friendly chatter shared between them and, most implausible of all, Diamond Tiara's heedless, carefree giggles, the teacher had to rub her eyes twice just to confirm what she was seeing.

Once she confirmed she wasn't going crazy through overwork, a warm smile found it's way onto her lips. Maybe combining three somewhat-occasional-nuisances and a reforming bully for the day wasn't such a mad idea after all. She credited Apple Bloom that much.

Cheerilee was pleased, most of all, for Tiara's sake. Her new friends seemed to be really helping her emerge from her shell, especially considering all the recent upheaval in her life.

She saw all the little notes the pink filly had been passing around with the Crusaders during the recent Crystal Empire test, but the teacher was just so happy to see Diamond interact with other students besides Silver Spoon, she chose to turn a blind eye to it. Not very professional, but she had no regrets.

The only blot on the landscape was that mother of her's. Spoiled seemed awfully confident of 'winning' Tiara back that morning before her little fainting episode, and Cheerilee would have loved to find out why.

All the teacher knew is that Tiara was apparently blossoming away from the constrictive and abusive regime Mrs Rich had imposed. And all the wonderful progress the pink filly had made since her enforced removal would be placed in jeopardy if the situation was reversed.

There was even a moment, just a brief moment, mind you, that Cheerilee had hesitated in calling the paramedics that morning, as she watched Spoiled slip into unconsciousness. She could have left her on the floor. Looked around for clues as to why the head of the school board was so sure of regaining her child so fast. Then called for help...

The teacher felt guilty just thinking about it. As an educator for future generations, it was her job to uphold the highest moral standards in her own conduct, to influence the youngsters to become model citizens themselves. That was her guiding principal, and one she'd never faltered from.

But, at the same time, seeing Diamond Tiara with her new friends that day, with a real smile on her face, as opposed to a smirk or a sneer, treating others as equals instead of stepping stones to reach some higher goal, and thinking how all that might be at risk if her mother ever got her tendrils back into her...

It made her sick to her stomach.

Sicker even than Sweetie Belle after a ten mile run with Scootaloo on her new, deluxe SuperScooter (copyright pending).

That one thought...

Changed her priorities completely.

She sipped her coffee pensively.

She was going to do it.

The doctors said that Mrs Rich wasn't going to be up and about until the afternoon at least.

Cheerilee could easily sneak into her office, just before lunchtime.

Do a little digging...

And try and find out exactly what made that beast of a mother so positive of her chances.

Yes, she'd be putting everything at stake.

But, if it helped save the future of this one child...

It would all be worth it.

First though, the last morning lesson...

And, of course, the coffee. Slurp.

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Silver Spoon was usually a patient filly, that's what her parents told her anyway.

Despite all the tedious parties she was forced to attend, all the intolerable guests she had to be nice to, all the over-the-top dresses she was made to wear...

She never complained once. That was a quality her mother and father truly admired in her...

It also made her the perfect stooge for Di.

Over the course of many years, Silver had bitten her lip at the countless atrocities her best friend had perpetuated upon other ponies, wanting to say something, but unwilling to risk the only real friendship she'd ever known.

She'd be lying if she said she didn't enjoy some of it. Who wouldn't like being top of the proverbial food chain, even at elementary school level...?

There was always something niggling at the back of her head though. That what she was doing wasn't right. It had all come to a head that day at the election, when Silver thought she'd turned her back on those kind of misdeeds for good. And, her former best friend with it.

Thankfully, all had been resolved peacefully. Now, a new Di lay on the horizon, who didn't pick on anypony, and used her talents for good. Silver could look forward to the future with complete optimism...

Or at least, she'd thought.

The events of that morning had been surreal to say the least. Unable to focus on them all at once, and her reaction to them, Silver decided to make a mental note of each one in turn, just for clarity's sake:

* First, Di stands me up at our usual meeting place.
* Then, she arrives half-an-hour late for class.
* Apparently, she's also now really close to the Crusaders.
* She's wearing what looks like Apple Bloom's ribbon, instead of her precious tiara.
* She's been rolling around in muck, or something equally dirty.
* Her mane looks TERRIBLE, and what's with her bandaged leg...
* She ignores me in class, preferring to help those other three with their test...
* And now, she's left me on this stupid bench, waiting for her to come out.

Silver glanced around, at the play equipment her best friend had helped pay for, and organise the building of. Rumble was rushing down the slide, Twist was sliding down the twisty pole and Pipsqueak was doing his best to ascend the climbing frame using his puny little legs, but failing miserably.

The grey filly sighed. It seemed like only yesterday, she was helping everypony complete the construction. Working as a team. Together as one...

Things were much less complicated then.

Maybe she was blowing things out of all proportion. Maybe she looking at this from the wrong angle. It was great that her bestie was making new friends after so long with just her for company, even if it was moving at entirely too fast a pace for Silver. As soon as she emerged from the school, Silver was going to apologise to Di...

"Di!"

"Di!!"

"DI!!"

The sudden shouts from the approaching Crusaders and Di stirred the Spoon from her fantasy. Adjusting her spectacles, the grey filly saw and heard more bizarre sights to add to her checklist of oddities, and confuse her even more.

* They're walking together in a very closely-hunched group. She never walked that close to me before...
* My best friend is laughing hysterically with them. She never laughed that hard with me before.
* Apparently, now they've all earned the right to call her 'Di'. After refusing to let me refer to her as that for a whole year, she lets three fillies she's only befriended for little more than a day...

Something snapped in Silver. Forget waiting. Forget patience. Forget reasoning.

She got up and marched over to the happy group. She was going to get to the bottom of this. Right now.

Part 22: Revelations

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"... I told you, Scootaloo. If you're going to get excited, could you at least try and control your wings? And call me by my full name!!" An irate Diamond Tiara, clearly fed up of laughing uncontrollably, had finally possessed the presence of mind to grab hold of the pegasus's feathers, thus managing to halt the giggles which had left her unable to speak for a whole minute.

At least the tears of laughter in her eyes now were there for another reason, besides being upset.

"Whoops! Sorry, just a little habit of mine, Di. Still, you can't say you didn't enjoy it, right?!" Scootaloo was apologetic, but she was certainly not about to stop calling Tiara by her nickname. It gave the pegasus a feeling of closeness to her new friend, and besides, it rolled off the tongue nicely.

Diamond rolled her eyes in annoyance. "You do realise tickling is a form of pain, right? Just a more pleasant feeling than getting bucked in the head. But, I suppose you and Sweetie Belle can keep calling me Di. If I'm going to be part of your goofy little clique, I may as well get used to it."

"Hurray!!" Both Sweetie and Scoots cheered in unison, and poor old Tiara got her second almighty hug of the day.

The pink filly's futile protests were drowned out by the furry heads covering her mouth, while Apple Bloom just looked on with part sympathy, part bemusement.

For somepony who'd never really shown much affection to others, except her father, Bloom realised the touchy-feely nature of the Crusader's camaraderie must come as a huge culture shock for Diamond.

She was sure that the pink filly would adjust to the level of intimacy shown by everypony in her new circle of friends and family, but it would take time...

Time Apple Bloom was more than willing to spend.

For now though, they had other priorities. The farm filly decided to break things up."Alright, girls. Don't forget what we came out here to do. We have to help Di find Silver Spoon, and..."

"Find Silver Spoon, and what...?" Apple Bloom spun around just in time to see the grey pony in question, approaching their group with a slightly sour expression on her face.

"Oh, Silver! What a coincidence! Me, Scoots, Sweets and Di were about to try and find you! I think Di has something very important to tell..." Blooms initial enthusiasm at seeing their target was quickly snuffed out when she realised the grey filly wasn't even looking at her, let alone listening.

Instead, Silver's focus was centred around her BFF, who was currently submerged underneath the warm embrace of a certain pegasus and unicorn. Neither Crusader had heard Bloom's call to pull back from Diamond, so both were still there, clinging onto a rapidly gesticulating Tiara, who had seen Spoon come over.

The grey filly gave the cuddling trio a haughty look, before crossing her hooves with impatience. "When you three have quite finished..."

Silver's voice was considerably higher pitched than Bloom's initial request to desist, and Sweetie heard it together with Scootaloo.

Seeing that their behaviour could be construed as slightly odd by somepony who hadn't been privy to the events of last night and this morning, they sheepishly leapt off Diamond together, feeling a little embarrassed in the process, especially Scootaloo.

As soon as the pair of hindrances were off her back and front, Tiara kicked into auto-gear. She rushed forward and flung herself at Spoon, her emotions a mixture of relief and anguish.

"O-oh, Silv..." Diamond stammered, between sobs. "T-thank Celestia y-you're here at last. I-it's been awful. M-my mother has been w-worse than ever. I-I thought I could g-get her to see sense, but i-instead she..."

Spoon's mask of apathy soon faded upon hearing that, and her first duty became seeing to her friend's well-being. Scooping up the pink filly in her hooves, she softly whispered in her ear. "It's okay, Di. I'm here. Tell me all about it."

"S-she punished me, Silv. W-worse than ever. S-she said... S-she was going to s-send me away to that a-awful boarding school I told you about. I-I was afraid I'd never s-see you again, after we'd j-just rediscovered our friendship..." Tiara bawled out, seemingly unaware of all the colts and fillies who were beginning to stare at her mini breakdown.

Spoon cradled Diamond with one hoof, while putting her other to her mouth in horror. "What?! Oh Di, that's awful. And all this, just because you shouted at her in public. I knew your mom was hard on you, but I didn't know she was that harsh. So... What are you going to do?"

"Well..." Tiara wiped some of her tears away. " I haven't told you the rest yet. Soon after I was sent to my room in disgrace, I got a visit from Princess Twilight, with three of her closest friends. When they arrived..."

"What?!" Silver was so shocked, she almost dropped her friend on the ground. "You're telling me, a princess, showed up at your front door, that late at night. Di, that is amazing...!!"

"It wasn't exactly a social call, Silv... "Diamond grunted in annoyance. "She'd heard how I'd been mistreated by my mother for years, and had come to investigate. She spoke to both my parents, and before I even knew what was happening, I was being taken away to live somewhere else."

Upon hearing this, Spoon turned almost as white as a sheet "Di... I-I don't k-know what t-to say. I-I'm so sorry. If I'd known t-that this morning, I wouldn't have been s-so..."

Now it was Tiara's turn to comfort her friend, who now had her head bowed and was looking ashamed. "Silv, please don't feel guilty. If you hadn't been there for me to confide in, I'm not even sure I could have made it this far. You've been like a rock for me throughout this whole ordeal, and I don't ever want that to change. So, please don't cry. One of us tearing up is bad enough..."

Despite Diamond's pleading, and as the size of the crowd around them slowly increased, Silver couldn't help but feel rotten at her best friend's plight. Still, as her thoughts turned to what could happen next...

All of a sudden, she had a wonderful notion, which perked her up almost instantaneously.

"Di!! I've just had a brilliant idea!" Spoon had seemingly banished her blues, and was ready to unveil her masterplan. "Why don't you come and stay with me?! You know there's plenty of empty rooms in my mansion, my parents would be thrilled to have you, we can stay up all night together platting each other's manes and trying on dresses..."

If the grey filly had been expecting an effusive response from Tiara, she was about to be majorly disappointed. Upon hearing those words, Diamond's face fell a mile, and she stared down at the ground as if she wanted it to swallow her up.

"T-that sounds great Silv, and I-I wish I could take you up on your o-offer. But, a-actually..." the pink filly stuttered, unable to make eye-to-eye contact. " I already h-have someplace to live for n-now."

Spoon was surprised yet again, for about the third time in five minutes. "W-what?! That was awfully fast. So, where is it then? Do you have any aunts, uncles and grandparents around here you haven't told me about? Or, you're not moving away, are you?!"

"No, no. Nothing like that." Tiara attempted to calm down the panic-stricken grey filly. "I don't have any other relatives inside Ponyville, and I'm not leaving it. Instead, I'll be staying with somepony both of us know very well. It's..."

Unsure how to break the big news, Diamond instinctively moved her head to glance at the farm filly under discussion. For now, her and the rest of the Crusaders were just chilling out nearby, keeping tabs on how things were going.

Upon hearing her name almost mentioned, Apple Bloom's ears perked up, and on seeing Tiara looking over at her, her new roommate thought this was a cue for her to make her way to the conversing duo.

So, that's what she did. Bloom innocently trotted over to the best friends, raised her hoof and said simply "Hi".

Oops.

Silver Spoon stared at the intruder to their conversation with a mixture of incredulity and shock.

Being a smart little filly, Silver Spoon had soon put all the evidence together in her head. The borrowed ribbon. The dirt encrusted pink fur. The over-familiarity which the farm filly and her friends had greeted Di with all morning.

Now it made perfect sense.

"You chose to stay with... Apple Bloom?!" The words left Silver's lips alright, though she still couldn't quite believe them herself.

A downcast Diamond found herself yet again with her eyes trained on the floor, wishing for that non-existent pit to open up, so she could jump in head first. "Well, kinda, yeah. B-but, you don't understand Silv, Applejack was there. She asked me directly if I wanted to live with her. The words just kinda came out..."

But Silver again had chosen to go temporarily deaf. "You preferred... To go live on a dirty farm... Full of smelly animals... Than stay in a mansion.... With your best friend?" The apparent illogicality of Di's apparent decision had so consumed the grey filly, that she wasn't interested in any rational arguments.

"Hey, wait a second!" Apple Bloom couldn't help but butt in. Despite appreciating how hard it must be to hear about her best friend's new living arrangements, nopony insulted her homestead and got away with it. " Sweet Acres ain't dirty! And we wash our critters at least twice a week! What's wrong with Di staying there, anyway? She might learn a few things, that her old hoity-toity lifestyle up till now won't have taught her."

Spoon blinked at Bloom, before rounding on her best friend again. "That's another thing I wanted to mention. Since when have these three earned the right to call you 'Di'? For a whole twelve months, I wanted to give you that nickname, but you always said that you 'weren't ready' or it was 'too common'. I thought the day we took our first trip to Canterlot together was something special, because you let me refer to you as 'Di' without you flinching or chastising me. Now, I find..."

Silver at this juncture pointed at Apple Bloom, Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle, before returning to her rant.

"...That only a few days after you were calling these three 'pathetic little blank flanks' that you couldn't wait to humiliate in class, now they're suddenly on the same level of friendship as me? Who's stood by you, through thick and thin?! Who's tolerated you, when you had nopony else could stand to be in the same room as you?! I thought I meant more to you than that, Di. Obviously I was wrong." Spoon finished with a huff, flicking her mane over her shoulder.

All throughout this fractuous exchange, Tiara had remained speechless and motionless, with her jaw wide open and her legs rooted to the ground. Only her reddened eyes conveyed her true feelings, with a steady stream of tears running down her cheeks to form a pool underneath her hooves, yet she never blinked, despite all the soreness.

Seeing as she was unable to defend herself, Scootaloo felt responsible for defending her new friend. "Silver, you are way out of line! You of all people should know, the hardships she's been through lately. I can't believe you'd put your own selfish pride above the safety of your best friend! Does it really matter where she stays or what we call her, as long as she's kept away from Spoiled?! If you ask me, you owe her a big apology. Think about what you've just said, and I know you'll do the right thing."

Scootaloo's uncompromising words seemed to strike a chord with Silver, and the grey filly stopped her heedless ire for a minute to consider things.

Apple Bloom, usually the peacemaker in these kind of fraught situations, couldn't help but be impressed by Scootaloo, and gave the orange pegasus a warm smile of thanks for her efforts. Who knew she had it in her, the farm filly pondered. She must have been taking inspirational speech lessons from Rainbow Dash...

In the meantime, the small crowd which had began to congregate around the quartet had slowly grown in size with every passing minute, as the drama had increased both in volume and intensity. Now, almost the entire playground equipment area was empty, as each youngster witnessed these old friends battle it out, with their new friends providing a supporting role. It was great fun, and nopony had even had to purchase a ticket.

Only Pipsqueak remained separate from the common herd, still desperately hoping his tiny legs would grow a few inches so he could ascend that pesky climbing frame. He had a bet going with Shady Daze, which he was determined to win, when maybe, as class president, in the absence of Cheerilee (who was currently ocupado after her fourth cup of coffee) he perhaps should have been doing something to stop the little fracas.

Who voted for him again?

Regardless, it looked like the saga was about to reach a happy conclusion. Silver Spoon seemed to have mulled over her sharp words, and had realised she had been a little hasty in her unwarranted condemnation of Di.

After all, what else mattered, other than her BFF's well-being? Her complaints were minor niggles, that she'd blown out of proportion. She still had a few misgivings, but it was time to put on her best conciliatory face, turn to Di, and...

"Yeah, that's right Silver! Because us Cutie Mark Crusaders ALWAYS stick together! And, that includes Di now!" At that exact moment, Sweetie Belle walked up to Tiara, and put a hoof around her neck, to give rather a delayed reaction to Scootaloo's nice speech.

The white unicorn thought she was providing a valuable service by upholding the values of their organisation.

She thought, that by preaching the benefits of solidarity to the cause to Silver Spoon, she could help the situation.

She thought...

She wasn't really thinking, was she?

Upon hearing this little nugget of info, Silver's mouth, which was about to speak words of reconciliation, abruptly snapped shut as quickly as when she'd closed Di's jaw soon after the result of the class election.

Her eyes narrowed.

Her teeth clenched.

"What?" The grey filly asked, softly.

Unaware of the gravity of the situation, Sweetie began to happily respond. "Well, you see, on our way to school today, Di became our newest member, and..." GLOMP!

That last part was the sound of Scootaloo clamping her hoof into the mouth of the chatty unicorn, while smiling nervously as the ever-more frowning Spoon.

For the first time that day, Silver chose to speak to Apple Bloom. "Is what your friend said there accurate?" She inquired, without emotion.

"Well, yes." Bloom answered as confidently as she could, considering how jittery she felt. "But, Silver, why does it matter so much?"

"No reason, really..." Spoon continued talking in that creepy, light tone. "Only that, it makes her the biggest hypocritical liar ever!!"

Those last four words were spit out with such venom, that nearly everypony present took a step back in alarm. Diamond had looked aghast before in her statuesque state. Now, the poor traumatised pink filly looked ready to collapse...

"B-but... S-silv..." She struggled to speak.

"Choosing to live with Apple Bloom on a filthy farm rather than with your so-called best friend is one thing..." Silver icily continued, interrupting her. "As is giving access to your special nickname to ponies you've only befriended for all of five minutes. But joining the club you told me you'd hated for years, that you said you'd rather chop your own mane off than be a part of... I have to ask myself. Are you really Di, my BFF? Did you tell me the truth about anything? Do I even know you at all?!"

Every word cut into Tiara like a thousand needles, leaving in their wake far worse scars than anything her mother had ever scolded her for.

D-did her best friend...

H-her trusted confidante...

T-the one pony she could always turn to...

J-just say....

S-she didn't know her...

A-at all?!

Devastated didn't describe half of how Diamond felt at that moment in time...

And, to make matters worse, yet again, having not learned from her earlier mistake, Sweetie Belle thought she could still help.

The unicorn managed to spit out the hoof of the stunned Scootaloo to inform Silver. "No, no. You've got it all wrong! She isn't a changeling, believe me. I thought that myself earlier on, until I discovered..." GLOMP! Scootaloo managed to force her hoof back inside, before any further nonsense could be uttered.

Spoon glanced witheringly at Sweetie, before turning to walk away. "Well, at least you have plenty of support from your new friends. I certainly don't want to stand in your way. Go and work on a farm, if you like. Let Cranky Doodle Donkey call you Di, for all I care. Run about with the Cutie Mark Crusaders, if that's what you want. Just don't come crying to me the next time you have any problems, made up or otherwise, Diamond. I'd prefer to be in the company of ponies who aren't disloyal, habitual liars. Now, if you'll excuse me..."

And as Silver Spoon waited for the silenced crowd to split in two so she could trot off, many things happened in the next few seconds.

First, Diamond Tiara carried out her earlier threat, of going out like a light, spread-eagle on the ground.

Then, a watching Apple Bloom screamed for help.

Finally, as those gathered made way for a frantic Cheerilee to dash her way over to the unconscious pony...

The same students parted their numbers to allow a solitary grey filly to walk carefully away from the scene...

And, all those present were so wrapped up in the proceedings, they didn't notice...

The small droplets of water on the ground that steadily followed her retreat.

Part 23 : A Storm Brews

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"Will somepony please help...!!!" Yelled Apple Bloom, as Diamond Tiara ended up in an undignified heap on the floor, completely motionless.

The farm filly was combating simultaneous feelings of guilt, anger and concern. Could she and her fellow Crusaders have handled the big showdown with Silver Spoon better than they had? Did she come in at an inopportune time? Did they say something wrong? Maybe, they should have given Diamond more space to sort things out herself...

She was also pretty miffed at Spoon for, in her opinion, completely overreacting to the situation. Who cares where Tiara lives, what other ponies call her and what clubs she's a member of, as long as she's safe? Thanks to Silver blowing up in Diamond's face, it now looked like all the good progress the pink filly had made since this morning was to be found at the bottom of the moldy apple bucket.

It wasn't really Bloom's place to say, but maybe if Silver couldn't accept the new changes in her friend's life, perhaps it was best if the grey filly stayed away. Especially if future contact was going to end up with this kind of result. After all, the health and safety of Tiara was paramount above everything else...

Her deliberations were cut short by the appearance of Miss Cheerilee, who'd rushed through the hoards of children surrounding their group to grab Diamond's prostrate form and cradle it with such tender care, you'd think she was a mother herself.

"W-What..." The teacher stammered, temporarily at a loss for words. "H-how did this happen, and why are you all standing around here?!"

"S-she, w-we, S-Silver S-Spoon, D-Di, f-fainted..." Sweetie Belle, now free from the confines of Scootaloo's grasp, tried her best to communicate the situation, but ended up making about as much sense as Pinkie Pie with a mouth full of frosting.

Cheerilee breathed a sigh of relief. "Never mind. If she only fainted, then it can't be too serious. We'd still better get her checked in at the hospital, though. It's funny that this is the second member of this family it's happened to this morning. Maybe it's congenital. Anyway, Scootaloo you're the fastest filly here. Could you please run as fast as you can, and fetch somepony with a wagon, so we can take her to get looked at? "

The orange pegasus didn't need to be told twice, and zoomed off to locate an individual who matched those specifications, pondering all the way what 'congenital' meant.

"Now..." Cheerilee decided to adorn her most authoritative face. "We've all had a bit of excitement this recess, but I think that it's high time we all came inside and settled down. Seeing as how I appear to have my hooves full right now, I'll have to cancel my original lesson plan, so next session will be Free Study..."

The assembled colts and fillies ears immediately pricked up upon hearing those two last magic words, and straightaway interpreted it as 'Do What We Like Hour'. All thoughts of what had just transpired fell from their little minds, and they began a miniature stampede forward that brought forth clouds of dust, while Cheerilee adroitly covered Diamond's nose and mouth.

Soon there was nopony left in the playground, as they were all inside retrieving smuggled-in comics, throwing scrunched up paper missiles at each other, scrawling badly on the chalkboard... Although, Miss Cheerilee would have been impressed by some of the artist impressions of her idealised form.

The only ones missing from this unexpected bonus of a free period indoors were Scootaloo, still on her essential errand, Sweetie Belle, in the middle of picking Scoots fur out of her mouth, Miss Cheerilee, involved in the care of a still unresponsive Diamond Tiara and Apple Bloom, who had returned to her private thoughts.

And of course there was Silver Spoon, who still hadn't returned from her little walkabout from the acrimonious scene she'd instigated in front of so many witnesses. The grey filly had disappeared into the nether, without realising her former bestie was out for the count.

Nopony had much chance to miss her though, as soon Scootaloo came roaring back, travelling in style on the back of a wagon driven by a stallion who, at least from Apple Bloom's perspective, looked very familiar...

"Sorry...*GASP*... This... *WHEEZE*... Was all... *COUGH*... I could find...." Scootaloo was completely out of breath, which was a rare sight indeed, indicating that the orange pegasus must have run quite some distance to find the vehicle she'd guided to the school.

As for the driver, he was a yellow pony with a blue mane, and he wandered over to Miss Cheerilee and her unconscious charge with a courteous smile. "Howdy there, ma'am. I hear one of your little fillies has been taken ill, and I'm here to take her to the hospital. Rest assured, we'll get her there as soon as possible."

"Oh, thank you kind sir!" Cheerilee blushed slightly at the civil tone of the stallion, not to mention because he was quite handsome. "Whatever would we have done without you? And cheers to you too, Scootaloo for being so swift. Not that I would have expected any less from the protege of Rainbow Dash..."

"I-it's f-fine, M-Miss C-Cheerilee. A-all i-in a-a d-days w-work..." The orange pegasus looked proud at the comparison, even as she was ready to do a Diamond Tiara and collapse of exhausion there and then. She just managed to hold it together, though.

"You're telling me..." The yellow stallion was also effusive in his praise for the speedster "This little missy came out of nowhere, like a bolt from the blue, telling me one of her friends was in urgent need of medical care. So, even though it was peak business hour, I dumped my cache of fruit immediately to make my way down here. Sure, I'll lose out on profits, but that's nothing compared to the well-being of a child. Now, shall we get her loaded onto the... what?!"

The stallion's mood suddenly changed from amiability to shock, and then irritation in a heartbeat, and after having a closer look at him, Apple Bloom soon realised why. This fellow before them was no other than Green Grapes, the same pony who'd helped pinpoint Tiara's location earlier inside Sugarcube Corner when the pink filly had done a runner...

And also the same pony who Diamond had cost a day's takings when she flipped his barrow full of apples over, to try and stop the Crusaders during their pursuit of her through Ponyville a few days earlier. Oops.

This was the exact point Green Grapes was making to Cheerilee that very moment "... Then she spilled my produce all over the ground, and without so much as a how's-your-father, she ran off! I've just sacrificed ANOTHER batch of fruit, to carry this spoiled little brat to where she needs to be! Tell me, why should I help anypony like that..."

"Sir, please!!" Cheerilee, stroking Tiara;s mane in her hooves, was beginning to get a little fed-up of this stallion's bellyaching. "What she did or didn't do, and what she cost you is somewhat irrelevant right now. What you're looking at here is a filly in desperate of attention, and if you won't transport her to the clinic, I will! So, if you'd kindly move aside, I'll take it from here..."

With her first duty always to her pupils, the teacher didn't hesitate to shove Green Grapes out of the way, before depositing Diamond safely in the back of the wagon, and beginning to attach herself to the front.

Taken a little aback at the brusque response from the seemingly docile mare, the yellow stallion realised he had no choice. "Very well..." He shook his head in bewilderment. "I'll do it. But I'll be wanting a little word with this filly when she wakes up. She owes me for a day worth of apples, at least. I think she can afford to replace them, after all..."

"Actually, I don't think she could, now..." Apple Bloom felt like it was her turn to step forward. " Her circumstances have changed somewhat recently. I'll tell you about it on the way to the hospital. After all, it'll be nice for her to see a member of her new family when she eventually comes to..."

Green Grapes was surprised enough at the sudden emergence of the farm filly, but when she started spouting on about the little snob being a member of Bloom's family, he was more confused than ever. "What...?" was his plaintive reply.

"I told you, I'll fill you in on all the details on the journey." Bloom climbed into the wagon next to Tiara, propping her head up with her hooves. "We better get going. Miss Cheerilee, is it okay if I accompany Di to the clinic? I promised Applejack I'd keep a close eye on her all day, after all."

The teacher was about to object, but then realised that the farm filly's suggestion was probably the best idea all round. She couldn't go there herself, having a class full of rowdies to supervise, and unable to get cover at such short notice. Plus, what with it just being a 'study period' Bloom wouldn't really be missing much in terms of education, and it was apparent that among all the new friends Tiara had made, her kinship with the youngest Apple was the closest that had been formed.

"Okay, that's fine. But, you two are going to stay here!" Cheerilee didn't need Zecora's crystal ball to know that the next words out of Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle's mouths were going to be Can we come too?!

So, instead the duo made do with crossing their hooves in a moody pout, while exclaiming a simultaneous "Aaawwww!"

Cheerilee grinned at their petulance. They obviously cared deeply for their new friend, but she feared three Crusaders in the vicinity of such a sensitive building could lead to disaster. Operations being cancelled, recuperating ponies being made sick again, the whole future of Ponyville healthcare could be in jeopardy...

She wouldn't be responsible for such wanton destruction.

So she tried the tact of distraction." I just thought of something. Scootaloo, weren't you constructing that brilliant ramp out of paper-mache just last week? I'd love to see it, and if possible, get a demonstration later. Sweetie Belle, what about that new spell you were working on? The one that lets you change the colour of your fur? It sounds unlikely, but I'm always prepared to be convinced..."

It worked like a charm.The unicorn and pegasus looked at each other with excitement, all thoughts of accompanying Apple Bloom on her trip banished from their minds.

"I'm first!" Scootaloo shoved Sweetie to the side as she rushed to the front door, her stamina apparently fully recovered.

"Hey, that's not fair... You're always first!" Sweetie was most put out by Scootaloo's dirty move, and tried to hold her in place with her magic.

As Cheerilee tried to contain the mini-rivalry, Green Grapes turned to Apple Bloom, just before they set off. "I do wonder, kid. How a salt-of-the-earth filly like you ended up being part of the same family as a well-to-do sort like this. I hope you'll tell me the whole story, because we have a bit of a ways to travel..."

Apple Bloom grinned at the chance to disclose for the umpteenth time the marvelous tale of how she got her cutie mark. "Well, if you really want to know, I'll do the short version. It all started the day me and my fellow Crusaders were at our clubhouse, when we heard a knock on the door..."

And with that, the cart embarked to it's destination, with the well-wishes of Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle, who by now had been collared by Miss Cheerilee, echoing behind them.

Meanwhile, the rest of the class had built a sturdy fort made entirely of desks and tables, and were in the middle of a reenactment of that well-known best-selling novel of two warring tribes of young ponies stuck on a desert island together, titled Lord Of The Parasprites.

You'd think Miss Cheerilee would have picked up by now, that rather than free periods being the least stressful of options at a time of crisis, they were by far the most demanding.

Oh well, she'd learn. One day.

Also, there was a nagging sensation at the back of the teacher's mind that there was something she'd needed to tell Apple Bloom about the hospital, but due to the mental strain of having to separate a certain young unicorn and pegasus, she'd completely forgotten to. It was too late now, as well.

Still, it couldn't have been THAT important, or she'd have remembered...

Right?

...............................................................................................................................

Silver Spoon felt like a little filly lost.

Unaware of the fate that had befallen Diamond Tiara, she'd stopped crying a while ago, and was now just roaming around Ponyille aimlessly, not sure what to do next.

She'd never been tardy from school before, but for the moment her perfect attendance record was the last thing on her mind.

Was this really it? It had been hard enough to reconnect with her best friend after their first break-up, but getting back together after their second big row in less than a week? Hard to imagine.

The irony was, she was probably now in the same position as Diamond Tiara was herself a few days ago. Wandering around the town, friendless, with nopony to keep her company other than herself.

Did she regret anything she said to Tiara? Yes, of course she did. She was angry. Angry ponies have a tendency to express themselves rather too vehemently for their good.

The gist of what she'd relayed to Diamond was still accurate, though. How could her former friend choose that stinky filly above her. How could she just let them call her by that special name as if it were nothing. How could she join their stupid little club after spending so long bashing it. How could she...

Just... Change so much? In the space of one evening?

This had to be the influence of those three. At first, when Tiara had modified her behaviour for the better, and stopped bullying others, Silver was happy. The Crusaders were her own personal heroines. They'd managed to accomplish what she'd failed at for years by improving her best friend's attitude.

Now, she wasn't so sure. Not if that new attitude came with Silver being neglected. Not if that new behaviour came with Tiara spending most of her time with more common ponies.

Yes, Silver Spoon was never as stuck-up as Diamond was at her peak, but she was still raised to have certain standards. And hanging around a dirty farm, watching somepony constantly fail at magic tricks and getting splashed by mud from a speeding scooter all day simply wouldn't do.

The old Tiara would never have gone in for those kind of uncouth, rough activities.

And now, judging by the company she was now keeping, and the closeness of their relationship after just one day, they were among her favourite things.

Silver Spoon just couldn't understand it. In fact, at this present moment in time, she was finding it difficult to decide who was having a more damaging effect on Diamond's psyche, her mother, or the Crusaders.

And, that's when it hit her.

She hadn't called Diamond Tiara 'Di' in her head for the first time since...

Forever.

She no longer thought of the pink filly as her best friend. They no longer possessed that special connection that once seemed unbreakable.

And, worst of all, never again would the streets of Ponyville, Canterlot, Manehattan and the rest of Equestria resound with that inimitable chant they'd formulated since that first trip away they took together...

How did it go again...

LUMP, BUMP, SUGARLUMP...

She couldn't even finish the line.

A single tear rolled down her cheek.

Despite Spoon's earlier words of strength, despite her ferocity when facing Tiara, despite all of her so-called desire to make a clean break....

She wanted her friend back. Just the way she was (minus the bullying, of course).

Silver didn't care who she'd have to step over to do that. Whether it was the tyrant, Spoiled...

Or those interfering Crusaders, who'd she'd been indebted to, until recently.

But, what to do next. She needed to think...

And, she had the perfectly location in mind.

She sauntered off with a spring in her step, feeling much better than before.

Everything was going to be okay.

Part 24: Ward 3A

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"... And that's the whole tale, of how me, Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle got our cutie marks, Di became a better pony and she went on to be an official member of my family!" Apple Bloom finished off the epic saga, just in time for the cart transporting her and an unconscious Tiara to turn into the road, just outside the hospital.

"My, that was... That was quite a story, young filly." Green Grapes scratched the back of his head as he pulled up. " It just goes to show, you don't know anypony until you've walked a mile in their horseshoes. So, you're telling me, the day your friend ruined my crop of apples was..."

"Yep, when me and the girls were trying to stage an intervention!" Bloom went to lift Tiara out of the back of the cart, and gestured for the yellow stallion to help. "Fact is, we knew by this stage she wanted to change for the better, and her putting your fruit in our path was just her way of lashing out. She was scared of what everypony would think if she suddenly turned 'soft', having been raised by a mother like Spoiled who put an orchard's worth of pressure on her. Thankfully, she came through in the end, and I think next time you actually see her up and about, you'll notice the difference!"

"Wow..." Green Grapes began to think that perhaps he'd been a trifle hard on Tiara, considering all she'd had to cope with her tumultuous home life. Maybe the well-off didn't have it so easy, after all. He'd also reached the conclusion that confronting Diamond about paying for his ruined apples, after the stress of relocation and the loss of almost everything she'd held dear in the previous twenty-four hours, would be a bit churlish. Instead, he wandered over to Bloom and his other motionless passenger, and aided in carrying her out.

"And you should have been there, when she gave Spoiled what for outside the school!" The farm filly continued to extol Tiara's virtues, as Green Grapes took on all the weight of the pink filly. " I've never seen anything like it! And when she called me and the other Crusaders friends, well, I was plum tuckered! My only concern at the time was how her mother would react when she got home, and that's why I had to tell Applejack my worries. Before I knew what was happening, my former worst enemy was at my front door, and I was sharing a room with her! Ain't life crazy sometimes?!"

"But, wasn't there any bad blood between you? After all, it sounds like she bullied you and your pals for years, and the two of you are from such different backgrounds..." Green Grapes was struggling to get his head around this arrangement, as he and Bloom trotted towards the clinic entrance.

"If you've spent any amount of time with the Apples, you'd know we're a very forgiving family. Why, even Flim and Flam, if they turned up in town tomorrow and genuinely apologised for their misdeeds, would be given a chance. Besides, now I know most of Di's problems stemmed from her bad upbringing, I can empathise with her a lot more. As for the two of us being from unique walks of life, well that doesn't matter a thing if you have friendship, and now she's living with me I do believe we'll get on like apples and custard!" Bloom was sure the future was bright for both fillies.

"Huh. I wish I had your faith in others..." Green Grapes raised his right eyebrow at the mention of those nefarious tricksters Flim and Flam, who he'd had shady dealings with in the past. "In my experience, ponies don't change, they merely refine their methods so their misdoings don't hold up to scrutiny as much. I appreciate that your way of thinking might work for you and your friends, but in my experience, if you put as much blind trust as that in many other ponies, you're just setting yourself up for a long, steep fall."

"It doesn't have to be that way, though." Bloom explained. "If everypony were equally nice to each other, then we wouldn't have so many Diamond Tiaras, Babs Seeds, Gildas or others that have turned rotten down to the environment they grew up in! That's why Ponyville is the best place to live in all of Equestria, because this is where the Princess Of Friendship is! The greatest power of them all! With her fellow elements, she'll change the world one day! Did I tell you, my sister is..."

"I believe you did, missy. Not that I didn't know that already, of course..." Green Grapes chuckled at Apple Bloom's enthusiasm for resolving everything with hugs and kisses, while simultaneously finding it a little naive. Try delivering that nice speech to the hoodlums who cadged hundreds of bits worth of fruit off him every month, and they'd laugh in your face, before kicking dirt in your eyes. This utopia sounded good on paper, but to that stallion at least, was far more fantasy than reality.

"Anyway..." Green Grapes continued. " I do declare we're at the front door now." He said this just in time to Bloom, who absorbed in the conversation as she was, nearly walked into the sidewall.

"Oops..." The farm filly went to an abrupt halt, not wanting to be the second unconscious child in the hospital that day. "Thanks for that. I do tend to get a little distracted sometimes..."

"So I noticed." Green Grapes afforded his young friend a warm smile, before looking down at the pink filly he'd taken all this way, regarding her with much more compassion than was present earlier that morning. "You'd better go inside and get somepony with a trolley to take her to the right department. When you come back, I'll be on my way. And, in case I forget, tell Miss Tiara here when she wakes up, I wish her all the best, and there are no hard feelings."

Apple Bloom, in a hurry to get her roommate seen to after noticing the ever-increasing queue at the clinic, simply replied "Yup!" before darting inside.

Green Grapes couldn't resist another grin upon hearing that monosyllabic response.

"Now, that's one filly who most definitely takes after her brother..." He mused.

...........................................................................................................................................

"Mmmmm. No, daddy, it's too early for bathnight..." Diamond Tiara was not in the mood for cleanliness, as she felt a warm flannel being wiped over her person.

It started on her back... Then, at the sides... Before, gradually making it's way up her neck... It dabbed her ears... Touched her nose...

"ACHOO!!"

Tiara's unexpected sneeze was enough to bring the pink filly back from her perpetual sleep, and it also sent the white mare attending to her stumbling backwards into a nearby curtain.

Having no idea where she was, or how she had ended up there, Diamond began to panic. She found she was tucked into a fluffy bed, in a room that smelt like steriliser. "W-what's happening? W-where am I?"

The nurse who'd fallen down was a highly trained professional, who despite her little trip, soon recovered her poise and trotted back to her young patient, smiled sympathetically.

"Well, hello there." She spoke in a warm voice, exhibiting excellent bedside manners. "My name is Miss Redheart. You were bought in today to the hospital about an hour ago by a friend of yours, who said you fainted in the playground. I was just here to monitor your progress, and I thought I'd give you a bit of a wash, because you appeared to have quite a few specks of dirt on you. "

"Is that so..." Tiara stated, as the events that led her to this room began to return to her memory. "Well, I was planning on having a bath later anyway, but thank you for your concern. Now, could you please tell me what time it is, and when I can get out of here?"

Redheart was slightly surprised at the quick change in tone from frightened filly to confident child, but she answered anyway in her usual jovial tone. "It's just about lunchtime. I can bring you something over, if you like. As to when you can leave, you'll have to speak to the doctor about that. Usually though, when somepony faints, we like to keep them in for a few hours, to make sure nothing more serious has caused it. I'd also like to take a look at that bandaged leg, before you depart. It looks well wrapped, but quite muddy. I just need to see that it hasn't got infected. I hope you understand."

Diamond huffed in slight annoyance, but tried not to appear too cross. After all, the nurse was just doing her job. The pink filly also wasn't feeling very hungry at all, especially considering some of the rumours she'd heard about hospital food.

She needed to get out of there as soon as possible. Explain to Silver Spoon that she wasn't abandoning her friend for anypony else. Her living with the Apples was purely temporary, and she'd had little choice in it. Same with joining the Crusaders, the decision had virtually been forced on her. A similar thing had occurred with the trio's hi-jacking of her patented nickname.

In fact, now that she thought about it...

All of her problem with Silv had started when...

"Miss Redheart." Tiara said. " You said a friend brought me here. Could you please describe them to me?"

"Sure, dear!" The nurse replied. "She's about your age, yellow fur, red mane, wears a bow just like you. In fact, she's in the waiting room right now. There was a stallion with her, but I think he's gone..."

"Is it okay for me to have visitors, and if so, could you please send her in now?" Diamond interrupted the health worker.

"Oh! Yes, of course, my love. You appear to be on the road to recovery, and judging by your demeanor, you certainly seem alert enough. I'll go and fetch her now. You just stay put for me, please?" Redheart gave her patient a little wink, before disappearing from the cubicle, leaving Tiara on her own.

Within a few minutes, the curtains around Diamond's bed were flung open, and there stood a very relieved looking Bloom. "Oh, thank Celestia!" She exclaimed, pulling in her new friend for a tight hug. "I was so worried! Just seeing you collapse like that, I really feared the worst. But you're back, everything's going to be fine now, right?"

"Apple Bloom..." Tiara mumbled from underneath the farm filly.

"And, look! I bought you some fruit! Well, apples mostly..." Bloom was trying to be nice...

Whereas Diamond was just finding her trying. "Apple Bloom, could you just..."

"When we tell Applejack about this later on, it was just an accident, right? No pony's fault..." the farm filly was a little on edge...

Tiara shouting at her didn't aid her nerves much either. "Apple Bloom! Just listen for a minute! I need to talk to you about something!!"

Diamond's sudden outburst had the dual effect of causing Bloom's embrace to be cut short, as the farm filly backed away in surprise, and Nurse Redheart's face to poke through the curtain.

"Is everything alright in here?" The white mare asked with concern.

"Yes, we're fine. Could you get us both a glass of water, please?" Tiara replied, while Apple Bloom was just grateful it wasn't Discord she'd requested that of. She'd heard things from Twilight...

"Oh, of course, dear. Coming right up." Redheart had obvious misgivings, but left the pair to their own devices anyway.

As the red cross adorned flank of the nurse disappeared from view, Bloom decided to try and clear the air. " T-talk to me about what, Di?"

Tiara sat up in her bed and fluffed out her pillow, before staring Apple Bloom squarely in the eyes. "Personal boundaries." She said, bluntly.

................................................................................................................................

Jet Set angrily paced up and down inside the room in which Spoiled was still sleeping peacefully, although she had begun to stir a little. Soon, the world would undoubtedly be graced by her presence again.

Whether anypony liked it or not.

As for the restless stallion himself, he was upset because all he did was look down for a minute, to make sure all of his numerous bits were still in his pocket. He'd heard some of these underpaid paramedics had sticky fingers, a worry he was about to share with his wife...

Who'd just vanished in an instant, leaving him in this decrepit room, staring at this freak show of a mare, all alone.

"The things I put up with from her..." He admonished himself. "Those fancy hats, those jeweled horseshoes, and now this. Her latest scheme. And what do I get in return? Not much. Sometimes, I wonder if a separation wouldn't be less hassle and cheaper..."

Fortunately for Upper Crust, her husband never got to reach his epiphany. The mare came crashing through the door at that very moment, looking a little short of breath, but otherwise elated.

Jet Set observed his partner with barely disguised irritation. "Really, dear. Isn't it enough you rush off without even telling me where you're going, but you come bustling back in here like a commoner being offered free cider? Most undignified."

For once, Upper Crust was too occupied to respond to her husband's smarminess with one of her trademark catty comebacks. "Never mind that. I was just trying to order us a decent meal, without any luck, of course. They don't even have anypony to serve their VIP guests! All I could find were some vending machines full of junk, not a dandelion salad in sight! I was about to give up in disgust, until guess who I saw sitting in the waiting room, as large as life?"

"I really have no idea, darling. Daring-Do!" Jet Set chuckled a little at his attempt at a joke.

Alas, his attempt at humour fell flat, on the deaf ears of a still raving Upper Crust. "It was that Apple... Shroom character, or something. You know, One of those miscreants who dared to publicly berate us earlier. She didn't seem too happy, either. Almost as if she was visiting somepony sick..."

"That's usually what ponies do when they sit in the waiting room at a hospital, dear." Jet Set chided. "They're visiting somepony ill. Could you please get to the point?"

"Well, yes. I know that." Upper Crust was beginning to catch onto the less than respectful tone of her husband. "But who was she seeing, that is the question. Intrigued, I decided to covertly watch her for a little while, and within fifteen minutes she was summoned to a room by a white mare, and I was able to get a sneak peek in through the door, before it was shut."

"Don't you think it is quite unbecoming for ponies of our status, to skulk around corridors like rodents?" Jet Set was beginning to wonder if this was the same pony he married.

"Generally I do..." Upper Crust agreed. "But wait until you find out who the patient was! I think you'll agree, when I tell you it was worth all the extra effort. It was..."

At this juncture, Spoiled started to mutter in her sleep. "Stupid... Blank... Flanks. Stupid... Princess. Tell... Me... What... To... Do... Would... You? I'll... Get...You. I'll... Get... All... Of ...You...Apples. And... Your... Little... Dog... Too."

Realising Spoiled would soon come to, Upper Crust grinned a knowing smile.

"I think I'll postpone the unveiling for now..." She smirked to her unsuspecting husband. "I want both of you to be awake, for the grand announcement..."

Part 25: Shenanigans

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After cleaning the chalkboard, picking up all the bits of paper off the floor, confiscating the comics which had been bought in illegally and deconstructing the fort so painstakingly assembled by her pupils, Miss Cheerilee was finally ready to leave the classroom to embark upon her mission of intelligence gathering. It had been a long morning already, but she had to do this.

Having rung the bell to indicate lunchtime, she'd watched her class slowly file outside with their snacks from home. She was always intrigued as to what they'd bought with them to eat, and sometimes, in her nosier moments, had a little peek.

In an unusual turn for somepony with a sweet related cutie mark, Twist always took a healthy green salad. It was hard to know exactly what the Cutie Mark Crusaders usual fare was, because they swapped and changed their meals with each other so often. The biggest lunchbox bought in by far was, somewhat prophetically, courtesy of a colt with a burger cutie mark. Now, what was his name again...?

No time to dwell on such matters now. Cheerilee had to make her way over to Spoiled's office, hope that it wasn't locked, find what the head of the school board was up to, then leave with no trace that she'd been there. It sounded like a task more befitting secret agent Sweetie Drops (aka Bon Bon) than a mare with nothing but a degree in foal development...

But sometimes, a teachers gotta do, what a teachers gotta do.

Stopping only to show Snips and Snails where the dining area was for the second time that week (she really needed to advise their parents to get them tested), and noticing Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo's morose faces as they ate alone, missing one (possibly two) of their number dearly, she forged on, feeling breathless all the way.

The area surrounding the office was clear. No witnesses, check.

The teacher gingerly inched her way to the handle and tried it. It opened. Check.

Things were going surprisingly wel...

BUZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ.

Oh no. Was that the sound of a...

Yep, it was a hoof powered vacuum, alright. Coming from right inside the room. Darn it! She'd forgotten that, fearful of Spoiled's reaction when returning to work in a messy office, the powers that be would have insisted that everything be tidied up before her 'glorious' comeback.

Which meant, old Spick and Span, the veteran cleaners, were there to do their job. Spick was the older mare with the feather duster as a cutie mark, and Span was the younger one with the brush for her special symbol.

Both very nice ladies, although given half a chance, they'd talk your ear off.

And now, they were standing in the way of Cheerilee's task.

The teacher frowned at this unexpected complication to her plan. The window of opportunity was a small one. Spoiled could return at any minute, hide any evidence which might link her with whatever nefarious plot she was hatching, and then probably get away with it once her scheme came to fruition. By then, it would be too late for Diamond Tiara, and whoever else might be caught up in the head of the school board's tangled web...

Cheerilee wouldn't allow it. Even if it meant doing something as underhoof as lying, she would gain access to that room, there and then.

She began to formulate a plan...

.........................................................................................................................................

The place Silver Spoon was referring to as her 'special thinking spot' was of course, Sugarcube Corner.

The grey filly had shared many happy memories here with Diamond, despite her former best friend's constant insistence on trying to steal her desserts.

Spoon had told Tiara on many occasions, that if the pink filly hadn't wasted so much of her allowance on outfits she barely even wore, she might be able to afford more than just a tiny ice cream.

"Do you think I buy all that stuff by choice ?" Diamond had harangued back. Silver should realised something was very wrong, even at that stage...

But that was in the past. Silver was more focused on the future, which would be Tiara-free unless she got her away from the clutches of those pesky Crusaders, and return her (mostly) to her old self.

To produce an idea of such magnitude, Spoon was going to need refreshment. Of the most icky, sticky variety.

She opened up the door to the cafe, and looked around. As expected, being as almost everypony was eating either at work or school, the place was virtually abandoned. Good. She needed all the quiet she could get, to concentrate...

The only unusual element (in more ways than one) inside was Pinkie Pie herself, currently poring over a large tome on the desk, and not engaging in any of her usual manic nonsense to which she was known.

Beside her, was that baby alligator called Gummy, which was, in Silver's opinion, the most useless pet ever. In fact, it was more of a doorstop than a companion animal, and right now it lay motionless, head first, in the middle of an open book. Pinkie probably thought it was helping. That dozy mare.

Having not got any time to get involved with the party pony's randomness, Spoon approached the desk, intending to place her order and leave.

That is, until she heard Pinkie murmur something that caused the grey filly to prick up her ears. " Pie... Apple... Tiara... There must be something in here about our family tree. Let's try it in reverse order shall we, Gummy? eiP... elppA... araiT... No, silly! I meant like this: Tiara, Apple, Pie..."

At this point, Silver decided she'd heard enough. "Ahem!" She loudly cleared her throat in clear audible range of the party mare.

All at once, Pinkie nearly jumped ten feet in the air, as if somepony had exploded her party cannon next to her. "What, who, why, when, where? I swear officer, that's red icing sugar on those cupcakes..."

As she landed back on the ground, Pinkie glanced around anxiously, finally relaxing when she saw the small grey filly in front of them. "Oh, phew! Sorry about that. Me and Gummy were in the middle of looking up information on my ancestors, and we got a little carried away! Now, what else was I going to say. Oh, yes! Welcome to Sugarcube Corner, where..."

Spoon stopped Pinkie's rapid spiel in it's tracks. "Ancestors? Since when did Apple Bloom and Diamond Tiara have anything to do with ponies who work on a rock farm?"

The party pony gave Silver an odd look. "Whoever said they did? Have you been spying on me?! I'll have you know, I'm the only detective around here. And don't you forget it!" The mare then donned a Sherlock Hooves type hat, before proceeding to blow bubbles out of a pipe which appeared from nowhere.

The grey filly rolled her eyes impatiently. She had very little time for Pinkie's fun and games at the best of times, and this most definitely was not 'the best of times'. "Look, I only wanted to know because I thought it might concern my best friend, Diamond Tiara. You see, I'm..."

Silver never had the chance to finish off her sentence, as upon hearing that her guest was 'Diamond Tiara's best friend', the party pony gasped, and her pipe fell out of her mouth. Placing her headgear on top of the statuesque Gummy, she went on to grab Spoon under her front hooves, lift her up to within view and examine her thoroughly.

"Hey!!" Protested Silver, fidgeting madly. It was no good though, for Pinkie was deceptively strong, as befits a pony related to those who smash stones for a living.

"Coloured Silver...Check! Spoon cutie mark... Check! Last test... Is your name Silver Spoon?" Pinkie's eyes bore into the filly's with the same intensity as she'd shown with Gummy earlier that day.

Confronted with what appeared to be a rather stupid question, Spoon decided to resort to sass. "No, I'm Queen Chrysalis! What do you think?!"

Sadly, being completely sarcasm-blind, Pinkie's reaction was quite unexpected. "What?!" She hastily dropped Silver, before grovelling at her feet, a small puddle of tears wetting the grey filly's legs.

"Please don't take away my love! It's the only thing I have! How can I make other ponies happy if I can't feel happy myself? Leave me and Gummy alone! Please..." Pinkie was practically beside herself with misery, while an agitated Spoon slowly backed away, both from the damp floor and the pathetic sight in front of her.

"Look, I was joking!" The grey filly decided to reveal the truth. "I am Silver Spoon! I was just having you on, that's all!"

"Are you sure about that?" Pinkie sniffled in return.

"Yes! Yes I am! I was just having a joke at your expense!" Spoon insisted.

"Well... It wasn't a very nice one." Pinkie rebuked Silver, wiping her tears, before conjuring a mop out of thin air to clear away the eye moisture on the floor. "I think you need to say you're sorry."

"What?" Exclaimed Spoon, her glasses almost coming off in the process. "I really don't think..."

"And apologise to Gummy too. You nearly scared him half to death, didn't she, sweetheart?" She gestured to her reptile friend still half-hidden under the hat, who for all intents and purposes, looked half-dead long before the grey filly's tasteless remark.

"What if I don't?!" Silver crossed her hooves. She was fed up of this weirdo's foolishness, and resolved not to play any further part in it.

"Because, if you don't..." Pinkie issued an ultimatum. "You'll never know what happened when your best friend came in through those very doors this very morning! So, decide soon, Silver Spoon. Tee hee! That rhymed!"

"Diamond Tiara was here earlier on?!" This was news to Spoon. Perhaps, if she found out what her former bestie had come in for, she may have a better understanding of what the pink filly's state of mind was, and what had precipitated such a radical change in her behaviour.

"That's right! And, we had a nice, long chat too. About her feelings..." Pinkie was practically goading her young listener with the information, as if the party pony knew full well why Silver wanted to find out.

"What? What did she tell you? Please, I have to know!" Now it was Spoon's turn to beg, as she completely forgot her usual decorum, and stood on her hind legs to pull on Pinkie's coat.

"Nu-huh!" The party pony looked away in mock disgust from Silver's tugging. "What you said was very wrong, and very hurtful. Either you say you're very sorry to me and Gummy, or you'll never know!!"

By this point, Spoon was so desperate, so eager to end all this pantomime and get a serious answer, she would have said almost anything. So, needless to say, she went a bit overboard with her apology.

"Miss Pie, I am very, very sorry I made you believe for one second that I was a love-stealing monster, and I bitterly regret any discomfort I might have caused you. Gummy, you are a fine, intelligent pet, and if I worried you in any way. I hope you can find it in your scaly heart to forgive me." The words came thick and fast, even before Silver knew how embarrassing they were.

Pinkie looked happy at this unfiltered, sincere acknowledgement of her misdeed, but still wanted more. "And what about all those colts and fillies you tease at school, too? I've heard stories..."

Spoon looked aghast. Wasn't her present humiliation enough? "Fine, even though I only really did all that because I was following Diamond's lead, I won't get involved in any of that stuff any again."

Pinkie paced up and down for a minute, scratching her chin, almost creating a rut in the process. "Hmm. You say that now, but I'm not sure if I believe you. I'll tell you how you could convince me, though. By making a Pinkie Promise!"

Now, everypony in Ponyville has heard of a Pinkie Promise, and how dangerous they can be. Everypony except Silver Spoon apparently, which might explain why she treated performing this major vow with such throwaway dismissal.

"And if I make this 'Pinkie Promise', do you swear to tell me all you know about Diamond Tiara, and her current predicament?" Silver was determined to get through this farce as quickly as possible.

"Yes, yes, absolutely!" Pinkie excitedly replied, relishing the prospect of enlisting another member into her Pinkie Promise club. After all, she hadn't had any new ones for quite a while. "Now, just do what I do..."

Cross My Heart...
Hope To Fly...
Stick a Cupcake In My Eye...
SPLODGE!

"Hey, what was THAT for?" Spoon had just had her glasses lifted up, and a triple chocolate cupcake shoved in her eye by the party pony herself.

"Don't worry, that ones on the house!" Giggled Pinkie. "Anyway, now I can tell you everything. Usually, I would keep this kind of thing secret between me and Miss Tiara, but I know that you're her best friend, and you're very concerned about her. I think that by telling you, I'll be helping you both! Are you ready?"

"Yes, I've been 'ready' for the last ten minutes!" Silver picked the squashed cake out of her socket, and almost by instinct put it in her mouth. It tasted quite nice, actually.

"One final thing, remember. Nopony breaks a Pinkie Promise! I'm sure you won't, but if you do, let me remind you... The consequences are dire. Almost too much for a child your age to compre..."

"Get on with it!!"

"Okay, okay. No need to shout. It all started this morning., when me and Gummy were involved in the most epic of staredowns. I was winning, or was it Gummy? Hmm. Let me ask him. Now, where did he go?"

"Groan..."

...........................................................................................................................

She'd got it.

Cheerilee had heard a lot of the loquacious cleaning ladies over-extended conversations in the past, so she knew pretty much their entire life stories. Including, some juicy details she wished she could wipe from her mind forever.

Among that tangle of broken dreams, gossip and hearsay, were their personal interests and hobbies.

Which Cheerilee had decided to put to good use.

Undeterred by the loud noise emitting from the hoover, she nonchalantly made her way into the room, waving to Spick and Span as she stood in the centre.

Both cleaners looked up in surprise at this unscheduled visitor, and Spick wasted no time in powering the vacuum down so she could discover the reason behind the teacher's sudden intrusion.

"Cheerilee!" Spick said, in a friendly tone. "So nice to see you again! I just wish we had more time to talk, but we've been given strict instructions not to let anypony distract us from cleaning this room from top to bottom in preparation for when Miss Bossyhooves comes charging through that door later on! So, if you've come in here to tell us something, you'd better make it fast!"

Cheerilee smiled at the nickname the cleaner had assigned to Spoiled. It was certainly one of the less offensive ones she'd heard.

"No, I'm not here really to chat..." The teacher announced to the pair of cleaners. "Actually, I have some news that the two of you might find interesting..."

"Oh, you're not getting engaged to that handsome stallion you were dating a while back, are you?" Span sighed, ever the hopeless romantic. "I saw the two of you walking in the park together, lovestruck. The things you said to each other, they were simply beautiful. I knew it was meant to be. So, when's the wedding?"

Cheerilee blushed majorly on Span's misreading of that situation, but thanks to the teacher's colouring, it was very hard to see exactly when she was embarrassed. " Span, I've told you before. Both me and Big Mac weren't in our right minds that day! There's nothing to tell! Anyway, what I really came in here to tell you both is..."

And, here's where Cheerilee's masterplan came into effect,

You see, the teacher knew, even under fear of death, neither Spick or Span would leave that office before it was as clean as a whistle.

And, considering who it belonged to, it was a perfectly understandable reaction.

They'd in all likelihood lose more than their jobs if they were caught slacking from such an important task.

Cheerilee knew something about both cleaners though, which might make them have second thoughts.

You see, judging by what she'd heard, when they'd commented on Celestia's lovely flowing mane, how Luna was being given a raw deal from the general populace, and the fact they'd wept buckets upon the announcement that Cadance had got hitched to Shining Armour...

Spick and Span were completely obsessed with the royal family.

So all it would take, was a little push in the right direction...

" I hear you were very disappointed the other day, when you found out Princess Twilight Sparkle was here to help with the building of the school playground. You weren't here to see her, as you were stuck cleaning up a nasty stain after one of our little darlings had too many hay sandwiches for lunch." Cheerilee smiled sympathetically at the two cleaners, who grimaced at the memory of missing out on meeting one of their idols.

"Well, guess what, ladies?" The teacher's face bore the appearance of somepony more hopeful, as she continued. "I've just heard from a very reliable source that she'll be back sometime in the next hour, to check up on the finished structure, to see if it's safe and whatnot. I thought I should let you know, seeing as how crushed you seemed when you just missed her the last time."

The two cleaners stared at each other open-mouthed, before looking back at Cheerilee, then at each other again. "What?!" They yelled in unison.

"That's right!" Cheerilee grinned at their enthusiasm.

"Spick... We have to see her !! We may never get a chance like this again!!"

"Span... I haven't even got my autograph book with me!"

"Spick... How does my mane look?"

"Span... D'ya think she'll let us take photos?"

On and on they rambled, all of the way out of the office door, so much so that neither cleaner heard Cheerilee's reassuring shout: "And don't worry about a thing! I'll cover for you!"

She felt a pang of guilt, exploiting the emotions of a pair of honest, working mares like that.

This was about something bigger than them and her, though. It was about protecting the future of one of her precious students, currently laid up in a hospital bed.

To those ends, she'd be willing to go to almost any lengths. Including fibbing and trespassing.

She pushed her failing morality to the back of her mind for a moment. She had to figure out exactly what she was looking for.

Those papers Spoiled was looking at this morning. When she'd fainted, they'd fallen all over the floor...

And now, they'd all been picked up, and carefully put back where they belonged.

Cheerilee huffed in frustration. Figures. The one time those cleaners decide to promptly do their job, it was to her detriment.

Oh well, she couldn't let a small thing like that stop her. She made her way over to the filing cabinet, intending to search all lunchtime if needs be.

Now, if only she'd bought her thermos of coffee with her, it would have made this arduous job so much easier...

Part 26: Empathy

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"W-what a-about 'p-personal b-boundaries', Di?" Apple Bloom asked her bedridden friend nervously. She had a feeling where this was going, and she didn't like it one bit.

Tiara looked for all of Equestria like she was about to give Bloom the third degree. The pink filly was poised to rip into her new roommate with heedless abandon, tell her off like there was no tomorrow. She opened her mouth, to begin the salvo...

Then, she saw Bloom's frightened posture, with a hint of quiver, and a not-so-far-off memory was bought to the forefront of her mind.
...................................................................................................................................
A petrified little pony, cowered in the corner of her plush bedroom, while her 'devoted' mother was screaming abuse at her. And, the cause of this extreme rage?

The fact that said pony had failed to win the contest to decide which youngsters got to represent Ponyville during the ceremonies for the Crystal Empire Games.

Apparently, this infraction made her a major disappointment and a disgrace to the family name, amongst other titles of a similarly gratifying nature. It was all that tiny, curled up figure could do to avoid bursting into tears as her own flesh and blood tore strip after strip off of her self-confidence. When a few droplets of water did somehow force their way to the surface, her female parent had something else to complain about there, too.

"A loser and a crybaby? Well, aren't I just the proudest mother in all of Equestria! Sometimes, I wonder what I did to get lumbered with a child as useless as you. First, you get beaten by misbegotten little blank-flanks in an easy field, then you have the audacity to get upset about it?! What were you expecting, my child? A kiss, and a cuddle? Well, not in my household! My parents never mollycoddled me, and look how I turned out! Married to the most successful stallion around these parts, a wardrobe positively dripping with the latest fashions, an auspicious position at the local educational establishment..." Spoiled's nose was pointed higher and higher in the air, as her self-congratulatory speech reached it's zenith.

Her grandstanding was cut short though, when, in her peripheral vision, she spotted her daughter trying to make a clean getaway. Mrs Rich responded to this rudeness the same way she had since her daughter was a mere filly. She yanked on Diamond's tail. Ignoring the howls of protest, she continued her speech anew.

"Anyway, as I was saying, it appears that our illustrious family name is fine for the present, in no small way thanks to me. It's the future generations I'm worried about, especially with you not pulling your weight, and leading us to one mortifying failure after another. Your grandparents must be turning in their graves! You need to buck up your ideas, Diamond Tiara. Get your head out of the clouds, and concentrate on what's really important. Money, influence and power. However you get it. Remember, Mama loves you very much, and only wants the best for her little filly. Now, you just stay up here and think about what you've cost us today, and when you think you're ready, Randolph will get you something to eat before bedtime." Spoiled leavened off her harsh tirade with a sweeter ending, to give her daughter the slightest hint of encouragement.

It always worked, too. Such moments of tenderness, whether manufactured or not, were such a rare anomaly from the stuck-up mare, that every time she heard one it caused Diamond to redouble her efforts to be just like her mother. Hoping that one day, she might actually get a pat on the head, or Celestia forbid, a hug.

No such luck. Her mother was never happy with her performance and consequently, Tiara hardly ever got the affection or support she craved. With her father being an unrepentant workaholic, she was starved of all the essential ingredients a child needed to grow up into a well-adjusted adult. It looked like the Rich family could expect another creature like Spoiled on the conveyor belt in a few years time...

Until now, that is.
....................................................................................................................
I'll never be like her thought Diamond, realising that all those so-called 'motivational' speeches had actually accomplished the reverse effect, and caused her to live in abject fear.

So, maybe it was time to rethink her approach.

The pink filly reset her demeanor from one of irritation, to a considerably more mellow disposition. Bloom, still instinctively shielding her face from what was sure to follow, as if Tiara's words were solid and could cause actual harm, suddenly felt a little tap on her head. She peeled her protection back a tad, and was confronted by this new, far more affable facade.

"Look, you know I really appreciate everything you and your friends have done for me." A softly spoken Diamond began to tell a surprised Bloom. "Before you changed me, I was the worst pony ever. I bullied, teased and lied to others with complete impunity. I was out of control. I thought I was better than everypony else. I was in danger of becoming... My mother" She recited those last two words with bone-chilling dread, as if that was a fate more horrible than death itself.

Bloom, who had now lost all trace of unease in her thoughts on hearing these conciliatory words, moved closer to the pink filly. "Oh Di, you know it wasn't any trouble. We knew you wanted to change, and we just gave you a push in the right direction..."

"But..."Apple Bloom was cut off by Tiara, who began to speak in a firmer tone. "You have to understand something. Even though we're friends now, and we might live together for a while, I do have a personal life. And there are some things that I'd prefer to handle myself, without you or anypony else's input. Stuff that I'm still a bit hazy on, such as friendship lessons, chores or tying a bow in my hair, is fine. Getting involved in the relationship between two fillies who've been best pals since they were very little... Less so."

"Oh..." Bloom began to see Diamond's point, and looked down at the ground with guilt. "When you put it like that, I guess me and the girls really messed things up between you and Silver Spoon, huh?"

Tiara afforded the farm filly a light smile. She was finally getting it. "Nothing that a bit of one-on-one time, plenty of grovelling and an extra large helping of ice cream won't remedy, I'm sure. We've known each other for so long, we can practically finish each other's sentences. We even have our own special chant, as you've heard repeatedly. Relationships like that don't just crumble because of one bad argument. But, you have to promise me, just this once, that you'll keep away. I know you do have this wonderful quality where you and the other Crusaders want to 'fix' everything, but believe me, some things are better dealt with alone."

After delivering her message as even-handed as she could, Diamond studied Bloom's features. Not a bit of confusion or bewilderment about them. Just a look of genuine understanding, and total acceptance. Tiara's true Cutie Mark talent was really beginning to shine through. You really could catch more parasprites with honey.

And all this, from ditching yet another useless lesson her mother had taught her. She was beginning to wonder if Spoiled had given her any good advice at all, other than 'How To Be The School's Most Unpopular Filly.'

Bloom interrupted her thoughts. "I-I think I know what you mean. I-It's like if I was fighting with Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle, on something to do with Crusaders protocol. You might want try to step in, and stop us from quarreling. Your intentions might be decent, but if you don't know what we're talking about, you might say or do something awkward which could make the situation worse. And, I guess that's what me and the others did when you were trying to make up with Silver Spoon on the playground. Listen, I know it might not mean much at this stage, but I'm sorry..."

"Stop." Diamond cut Bloom off with a light shake of the head. "You don't have to apologise. You only had my best interests at heart, and it was a completely honest mistake. Unlike my years of picking on you, which was all completely intentional. Come to think of it, I've never properly expressed my regret for the bad things I did back then. So, here goes. Apple Bloom, I'm sorry about all the times I picked on you in the past, even if you were a bit annoying with your earnest over-cheerfulness."

"Uh, thanks?" The farm filly realised this was as close as she was going to get in terms of genuine apologies from Tiara, so she took what she could get. "And you might not need my sorry, but it still stands anyway. I know I did wrong, and I hold my hooves up to that. But, listen, even after you've made up with Silver, can we still hang out together? I mean, I know we're totally different ponies, but..."

"Of course we can!" Diamond smiled sincerely at Bloom, and put a hoof on hers. "I told you already. We're friends now,and that won't change. I'd even say good friends, even if we've only properly known each other for a short time. We share a room together too, so it would be a bit silly not to get on. Though, I do draw the line at sharing a bed. I hope Applejack has got a new one sorted out for me by the time we get home..."

"Oh." Apple Bloom commented, hiding her pleasure that apparently now Tiara thought of her as a 'good friend' and her accidental admission that Sweet Apple Acres was 'home'. "I'm sure she has. When my big sis says she'll take care of something, she always does. If I've learnt anything in life, it's that you can always count on her."

" I don't doubt it..." Tiara thought back over all the interactions she'd had with the orange mare since arriving at the farm, and they'd been nothing but positive. "One more thing. When I talk with Silv later, if I can get her to see sense and hang out with us and your friends, do you think you could reign them in a bit? I know, like you, they mean well, but sometimes..."

"Yeah, I do." Bloom concurred with a knowing nod. She didn't need to hear any more, having experienced Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle's own endearing form of lunacy since that fateful day at Diamond's cute cenera. "Don't worry, I'll be having a little word with them later about their antics. On our side though, there's another thing I'd like to clarify. Is it okay if we all still call you 'Di'?"

Tiara closed her eyes in annoyance. Another thing she'd have to explain to Silv. " Yes, yes. Now it's out in the open, you might as well, I suppose. As long as I can refer to you as 'Bloomers', on occasion..."

" Bloomers?! What the..." The farm filly raised an eyebrow at this strange new nickname, before noticing her pink companion barely able to hold back a smirk. It wasn't too long before the former worst enemies were laughing uproariously together, and a friendship that looked about as likely as a monsoon at Dodge Junction seemed to be going from strength to strength.

Unfortunately, Bloom had to sour it with a final, ill-advised question. "So, Di..." she said, while wiping the tears of hilarity away. "Now that we seem to be getting along better than ever, and you say you're sure you'll be able to patch things up with Silver Spoon, does that mean you'll take us up on our offer to join the Crusaders on a more permanent basis?" This was said half-jokingly, but the question was still out there.

Tiara's merriment turned to an haughty snort upon hearing this, and she gave Bloom a light-hearted nudge. "Don't push your luck, 'Bloomers'. You'd have to put me in the mental section of this very hospital before I even considered such a thing. In a little padded room, right next to that goofy Screwball... "

The thought of that half-crazy mare bought a strange revelation to Apple Bloom. Come to think of it, Screwball and Di had very similar colouring. Quite a coincidence. You'd almost think at first glance, they were...

Both filly's attentions were suddenly diverted by the sound of the door opening, and possibly the most delayed glasses of water ever were deposited on a nearby table by a harassed looking Nurse Redheart. "Sorry to keep you waiting, girls. One of our patients has just emerged from unconsciousness, and is causing quite a ruckus. So, we're a bit short staffed at the moment, but at least you two seem to be getting along better!"

The two fillies responded to the healthcare worker's encouraging smile with grins of their own. Diamond looked directly at Apple Bloom, before replying optimistically. "Yeah, we are."

Part 27: Lifestyle Of The Riches And The Shameless

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She'd finally done it. Finally received the recognition for which she was long overdue. Queen Spoiled had conquered Equestria. Done what Chrysalis, Nightmare Moon and Tirek had failed miserably at. Those fraudulent posers.

There she sat, in Celestia's ornate throne on the balcony of her new home the palace, gazing out into the throngs of her loyal slav... subjects. The white alicorn herself was chained to Spoiled's side, wearing a most unflattering outfit.

They were all there, gazing in wonder at her from below. The upper classes. The middle classes. Even the spit lower classes. Desperate to serve, throwing themselves down in front of their one true ruler. As they should be.

Queen Spoiled glanced down her pointed nose at the worshiping hoards. They would find her to be a generous, benevolent monarch, a paragon of absolute virtue... As long as everypony did things exactly her way. If they didn't, well, her wrath would be swift and merciless, as anypony would expect a supreme being's to be.

Right now though, it was best to focus on the matters at hand. Namely, her effortless enslavement over ponykind. First of all, she had to plan the execution of that heretic, the so-called princess, Twilight Sparkle. The lavender menace had been a thorn in her side for a good, long while, but at last Queen Spoiled could prove that that just because you're a little bigger than other unicorns, and have a set of stick-on wings, it doesn't make you anything special. As if an anti-social librarian deserved such an honour, anyway.

Then, it was time to decide how to dispose of those ongoing nuisances who were always involved in treason against the crown, namely the Apple family. She was planning on burying them alive in their own orchard, a fitting death indeed for a pack of menial earth ponies. She would be lenient towards the youngest Apple, though. A lifetime of back-breaking slavery would do for her. It was a magnanimous gesture on her part, but that's the kind of mare she was. Those two interfering friends of hers could join her, too. Finally do something worthwhile with their wretched existences other than obsessing over cutie marks.

Phew, it was hard work being in charge. Time for some refreshment. Ring ring ring went her handheld bell.

"I'm coming, your grace." A cracked, broken voice could be heard approaching Queen Spoiled. That was Filthy the butler, a faithful retainer if ever there was one, although sadly born with a tiny, wee spine. He more than made up for his physical impairment though, for his sheer talent as a walking doormat. You could almost see the words 'Please Wipe Your Feet' tattooed across his forehead.

"Where's that honeysuckle tea I ordered two minutes ago?!" Queen Spoiled screamed at her cringing servant. "How am I supposed to run this pathetic world, on a dry mouth?!"

"P-please f-forgive m-me, y-your E-excellence." Filthy stammered, terrified in the presence of such awesomeness. T-there w-was n-no h-honey i-in t-the r-royal k-kitchen, s-so I-I h-had t-to g-go o-outside t-to t-the h-hives a-and g-get i-it m-myself. I-I g-got q-quite b-badly s-stung i-in t-the p-process, a-and a-as I-I'm a-allergic t-to b-bee s-stings, I-I n-nearly d-died..."

"I'm not interested in any of your lame excuses!" yelled Queen Spoiled, as Filthy tried to make himself as small as possible. "Just give it to me!" She snatched the drink off the silver platter it was served on.

She was just about to take a sip, when she eyed the vessel her beverage was being served in. A look of absolute disgust crossed her lips, and to her trembling butler next to her, she had this to say. "And what exactly do you call this?!"

"I-It's h-honeysuckle t-tea, y-your m-majesty, j-just l-like y-you r-requested." Filthy's teeth were chattering like piano keys.

"Not the drink, you fool, I mean this!" She pointed to the mug it was served in, before throwing the boiling contents all over her servant's grovelling form.

"I asked for fine china, not bone china, you imbecile!" she chastised Filthy, even as he convulsed in agony on the floor. "And stop acting like a foal over a little burn!" She put her hoof to her head and sighed."You really can't get the staff these days, can you?"

"I really don't want to be dealing with this right now..." Queen Spoiled groaned. "Time for me to call my future successor. Oh, Diamond, my darling!" Her voice took on a more vibrant air, as her daughter appeared from inside the castle.

"Would you be a dear, and give this useless old butler a kick for me?" Queen Spoiled communicated her wishes in a sing-song voice. "He needs to be taught a lesson, and Mommy is busy dealing with more important issues at the moment. There's a good girl!"

Without saying a word, Tiara moved over to the servant, who was by now hunched up, his hooves tucked in forming a fetal position, as he rocked from side to side. Queen Spoiled watched on in approval. All of the hours she spent training her daughter, All the effort she put into her development, all worth it. The future of Equestria looked in safe hooves, her child was a real chip off the old...

Wait a second. Is she helping him up?

Putting a hoof around his neck?

Asking if he's alright, and apologising on my behalf?!

What manner of rebellion is this?

"Just what do you think you're doing?" Queen Spoiled raged at her disobedient child. "I gave you a direct order, you ungrateful little..."

"Well, I'm through following your 'orders'." Diamond spat back, instantly shutting her mother up. "I'm my own filly, I make my own decisions, and I think what you've been doing to all these ponies is wrong! The way you treat others, the way you treated me, is totally unacceptable, and everypony is sick of suffering under your tyranny! That's why I'm going to free Princess Twilight Sparkle, Celestia and the Apples, and I've already informed everypony down there that we're starting a mutiny! Guess what, not a single one spoke in your defense! If that doesn't tell you all you need to know about yourself, I don't know what will!"

"Y-you..." Spoiled was so incandescent with anger, she couldn't quite think of the words to say. "You're no daughter of mine!"

Upon hearing this, Tiara unexpectedly grinned about a mile. "You know what, mother? That's the greatest compliment anypony has ever given me! It'll give me something nice to remember you by, at least..."

Queen Spoiled's haughty demeanor suddenly disappeared in a flash of realisation. "R-remember me by?!"

Tiara continued smiling, in a slightly sadistic way. "Yes, that's right! Out with the old, in with the new, that's what you'd always say, right? I wonder where I can find somepony to do the honours. Oh, I know! Filthy, would you volunteer, please?!" Diamond pointed at her mother, before making a hoof movement off the edge of the balcony.

Well in Ponyville they say, Filthy's spine grew three sizes that day. As soon as he realised what Tiara was getting at, it was like all of his misery and self-loathing just evaporated into thin air. "It would be my pleasure, Miss!" He bellowed as he stood at his full height for the first time in years. He marched right over to Queen Spoiled and without warning, picked her up to dangle her off the end of the veranda.

"Stop! You can't do this to me! I'm your mother!" Queen Spoiled desperately tried to plead with Tiara.

"Funny, that's not the impression I got from you only a minute ago..." Diamond mused.

Realising that lecturing her errant child wasn't going to work, Queen Spoiled decided to try a different tact. " Please, Diamond my darling. I know I've been a terrible parent to you, but I can change! Please, just give me one more chance, and I can be the mother you've always wanted me to be!" It was a blatant lie, but at this point she was willing to try anything to save her own skin.

Tiara wasn't buying it, though. "You've had ten years to 'be a better parent'. It's a bit late to start now, isn't it? Besides, I don't believe you for one second. As soon as you're put back down again, you'll return to your old ways. There's only one way to end the main cause of all evil and disharmony in Equestria, and that's to cut it off at it's source. And, that begins and ends with you, I'm afraid. Do you have any final words, mother?

Realising nopony was buying her performance, Queen Spoiled reverted to type. "Buck you all!" Was all she could muster, seemingly resigned to her fate.

"Now, that's the real Queen Spoiled talking!" Diamond laughed. "We might even have to engrave that on your tombstone! Now, Filthy you can let her go. It's a shame you know, that only Princesses have wings, and Queens don't. Then, you might have been able to escape. Say hello to everypony in Tartarus for me when you get there!"

And with that, Queen Spoiled's glorious but sadly short-lived tenure was over, as she was abruptly deposed. Thrown off the edge of the palace like she was a piece of trash into the gathered masses, by her old servant of all people. You could hardly envisage a more ignominious way to go out than that.

....................................................................................................................................................................................
Fortunately, this was the part where she woke up in bed. And of course, like after all good nightmares, it was with a good scream.

"Aaaaaarrrrrggggghhhhh!!" She yelled, springing up from under the covers like a jackass in the box. "The peasants are revolting!" She screeched, still under the impression she was in her imaginary world of revolution.

This false perception was quickly shattered, as she looked around the sparsely furnished room she found herself in. This was neither her luxurious mansion, nor her comfortable office. Then, where...

"They certainly are!" Spoke a poshly accented female voice from nearby, responding to her earlier comment. "But we're not here to talk about them..."

Spoiled spun her head to the direction of the sound, and saw in front of her a pair of unicorns. One was a grey stallion, and the one who'd just spoken was a yellow mare. Their cutie marks were hidden by the designer outfits they had on, but straightaway Spoiled could tell that they were her kind of ponies. She stayed silent for a minute, hoping that they could shed some light on what had happened to her.

"Hello, my name is Upper Crust, and this is my husband Jet Set." The yellow mare continued." We're visitors here in Ponyville, attending a garden party for charity a few days ago. You might remember me from then, we had quite the animated discussion while we waited for our cantaloupes."

Upon hearing this, Spoiled squinted a little, trying to picture Upper Crust in her memory. She could kind of recall the mare, but her mind was still a little hazy. She found it hard to even remember how she ended up in this strange room, under the covers of this cheap bed, let alone focus on any previous encounters with other ponies. Luckily for her, Upper Crust was about to fill in a few more details.

"If you're wondering where this is and why you're here, that's simple, darling. You took a nasty tumble at the school where you work, and you're currently at Ponyville hospital, in a recovery room. At Canterlot, you could have got yourself a private, five star wing, but I guess you can't have everything, can you dear?" At this remark, the yellow mare let out an arrogant little chuckle, while Jet Set smirked in the background, content to let his wife do the talking. After all, this was her show.

Some of the circumstances behind Spoiled's accident were starting to come back to her, but the direct reason for her fainting spell still eluded her thoughts. Nevertheless, she was still annoyed at Upper Crust's boastful attitude, and maybe even a touch jealous. "Is that what you came here for? Not to see if I'm well, but to brag about what you can get, that I can't? I'll have you know I've been nagging my husband to move down to Canterlot for years, and by my estimation I should have worn him down in a few months. Next time you see me, I'll be living the high life just like you, mark my words!"

If Spoiled expected Upper Crust to be impressed by that, she was in for a shock, as another spiteful little giggle left the yellow mare's pursed lips. "Really, dear? It's going to take you that long? In our relationship, all I have to do is clap my hooves together, and dear old Jet Set here sees to my needs in seconds. Not years. Months. Days. Minutes. Seconds. Isn't that right, darling? We all know who wears the saddle in this relationship..."

The very henpecked Jet Set spoke for the first time, but barely. "That's right, sweetheart." He replied, through gritted teeth.

Spoiled couldn't believe her ears. Why were all the best stallions always taken?! She would have loved to be married to somepony like that, who'd treat her with the respect she felt she was entitled to. She'd show that snooty mare up yet. She'd go home, wander straight into Filthy's study and demand to be relocated immediately. It might be hard work at such short notice, but if this arrogant pony could horsewhip her husband into abject submission, it could be done.

"Anyway, much as I could talk all day about how good my life is..." Upper Crust continued. "The main reason we're not heading back to our home in Canterlot, on the first train out of this quaint little provincial town is because we have some news about your daughter we just had to share. Do you remember, when we discussed her? At the garden party? You told me how scared you were for her future? Well, it appears your fears were well-founded. You'll never guess who we saw her with this morning! Three ruffians! Who publicly humiliated me and my beloved! Your child saw us getting set upon by these undesirables, and didn't say a word in our defense! She sided with them in fact, instead of with her own people. You need to take action now, darling, before she becomes a lost cause!"

Normally, Spoiled didn't like anypony telling her how to raise her daughter. It was a job she took a great deal of pride in, not to mention interest.

But in this situation, she agreed completely with the yellow mare in front of her. Of course, it helped that she regarded Upper Crust as a similar social class. "Yes, I know. And, I could even hazard a guess about the identities of the three commoners you're referring to. Unfortunately, there's not a lot I can do about it at the moment. You see, Diamond is no longer living under my roof. She was taken from me last night, just when I was about to send her off to St Whinneans. They would have set her straight, mark my words! But it's not over yet. I have my husband's lawyers working overtime to build up a case against that fake Princess, that'll blow the case against me out of the water! And then, as soon as my daughter is returned to me, I'll pack her bags myself and send her on her way! After that, I can concentrate on rev..."

Spoiled stopped herself mid-sentence and stared at the interested faces of her two visitors. It's true, they were fabulously wealthy, affluent ponies who seemed sympathetic to her cause... But she wasn't sure if she trusted them enough to reveal all of her plan, yet.

So, she just lied back in her bed and sighed. "Anyway, don't worry about those 'ruffians' you mentioned. They'll get their just desserts, too, as soon as I figure out what they are. They played their part in the removal of my daughter, too. Of course, it helps that I'm in charge of their school. I'm sure I can organise something behind the scenes..." She stared at the plain, white wall in contemplation.

"Well, that's where we come in!" Upper Crust reentered the discussion. "Those horrible little upstarts slighted us, almost as much as they did you, and we want to help you in your quest for justice! If there's anything you need at all, just ask. We'll be more than happy to assist you."

Spoiled gave the yellow mare a thankful smile. She wasn't sure exactly what this pair of respectable ponies could do, but it was nice to have somepony else to confide with in this town full of ignorant buffoons.

Jet Set, who had listened to most of this without taking part in the actual conversation, was inquisitive about something. "I heard you just say your daughter was 'taken away' last night. If you pardon my impertinence, where exactly is she living now?"

"What? I-I don't..." Spoiled struggled to answer that one, her mind registering as blank as the flanks of the youngsters she was forced to look upon every day.

All of a sudden though, a flashback came to her. It was just before she fell unconscious that morning. She remembered that annoying teacher coming in, mentioning something about a 'restraining order', and then...

"Oh my Celestia!!" Spoiled jumped out of bed so quickly, you'd think there were fire ants under the sheets. "My daughter. My own flesh and blood. Is staying...With them!!" Her face was a picture of panic, and she was so fidgety it was like she was attempting some kind of new weird dance craze.

But hey, at least she didn't faint this time.

Upper Crust and Jet Set looked at each other with confusion. "And who exactly is this 'them' of whom you speak?" The grey stallion was the one to ask that.

"The Apples! The Apples! Always, the Apples!" Spoiled blurted out, sounding like a market trader trying to sell their wares. She was beginning to look so deranged in her distress, it would not have been much of a surprise to see her foaming at the mouth.

Jet Set gulped upon hearing this, and turned to his wife. Even though he hadn't been told the specifics of the 'big announcement' Upper Crust was all set to make, he had made a cultured guess by now. "Perhaps, this might be an inconvenient time to tell her..."

"...That your daughter is currently a patient at this hospital, and Apple Shroom is visiting her!" Upper Crust finished off the sentence with aplomb, an absolute expression of malicious glee written all over her face.

"What?! With Apple Bloom? Here? Now?" Spoiled practically bumped into the door, she was so eager to get out of there. "What's wrong with my Diamond? Has she caught some poor ponies disease already?! Has it done anything to her looks? Would they still let her into boarding school? Oh my precious, don't worry! Mama's coming for you! Even if you did have me thrown me off a balcony!" And with that, she left the room in a flurry, the sound of other ponies and objects being knocked over echoing down the corridor.

Upper Crust seemed markedly unphased by this pandemonium. "So, her name was Apple Bloom, huh? At least I was close. Not that I'm terribly surprised I forgot, though. I can barely see the point in remembering the names of the riff-raff..."

Jet Set was a little more perturbed by recent events. "Are you sure you've done the right thing, dear?" He warned his wife. "It sounds like she's destroying half of the clinic out there, in her hysterical stampede."

Upper Crust smiled at her husband's concern, and gave him a little kiss on the cheek. "You work too hard, darling. You need to learn when to sit back, and relax. Now, let's leave this room, and go out and enjoy the fun. And of course, show her the room where her daughter is currently residing. I can't wait for that little reunion..."

Part 28: Forgiveness

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Finally, after what seemed like a million little distractions from the tale she was telling, detours into somewhat irrelevant territory and even a couple of unexpected customers in the middle of important passages, Pinkie reached the conclusion of her rather heated account of her encounter with Diamond Tiara earlier that day, leaving a stunned Silver Spoon time to reflect.

And, reflect she did, For the grey filly had no idea how emotionally wrought her former best friend had been feeling, until she heard it from the party pony's own lips. The fact Diamond had seen fit to visit Sugarcube Corner so early, and had chosen to confide in Pinkie Pie of all mares, showed how desperate Tiara really must have been.

She also wondered what bad blood must have passed between the Crusaders and Diamond, to make the pink filly feel so guilty about her behaviour that she almost had a breakdown in that very cafe. They'd obviously made up since, judging by the closeness of their bond at school. But the fact Tiara felt so awful about it, that Pinkie Pie herself was almost unable to cheer her up, began to demonstrate to Silver Spoon just how important her former bestie's new relationships were to her...

And here she was, trying to break them apart. The only real friends Diamond had made since... Well, her, years ago.

A slight pang of regret entered Silver's heart. but she wasn't quite ready to consider another option. Not yet.

"Hang on..." Spoon tried to justify her nefarious plan. "You told me that she turned up here in a really bad way. Covered in muck, her mane in a state and her foot bandaged. What other possible explanation could there be for that, other than her involvement in one of the Crusaders goofy little schemes? It shows they're a bad influence on her, and the only reason she's hanging around with them is she's out of her mind! She's not behaving like herself at all! I need to save her, from herself!"

In actual fact, Silver didn't mean a lot of that. She was just so used to it just being the two of them together, whether they be shopping, beautifying themselves or criticising others, she couldn't fathom other ponies muscling in on their camaraderie, especially ones with such diverse interests. She was looking for an excuse, anything, that would maintain the status quo as it stood, relegating the Crusaders back to occasional background annoyances.

If the grey filly was hoping for vindication from Pinkie though, she was asking the wrong mare. "Don't you think, that's the kind of thing you should be saying to her? If you two are as good friends as I know you are, you should be able to ask or tell each other anything! I'm sure if you both just spoke heart-to-heart, you'd find out what's going on, and your worries would soon disappear! Like this stale, unsold birthday cake from a week ago will, in a few minutes! Want a slice?"

Spoon indicated that no, she didn't feel like chipping a tooth that day. Even if Zecora could fix it. "Well, I kinda did try and have a chat with her outside in the playground, and I thought we were making some real progress. But then, I found out she was living with the Apple family without even considering moving in with me. Also, I heard some other stuff, sorta lost my temper, said we'd never be friends again, and just turned and ran away. When I left, she looked terrible..."

Silver suddenly felt the pang of regret in her heart turn into an ache. She recalled Tiara's horrified face, as Spoon relayed the devastating message that the two of them were no longer best pals. The look in her eyes. The silent tears rolling down her cheeks. The legs that seemed on the verge of buckling. She wondered what had happened in that playground, after her speedy exit...

It then came to Silver's attention that, away from her thoughts, something equally disturbing was happening at that present moment, too. As in, Pinkie hadn't said a word in at least two minutes. Glancing up, Spoon was confronted by the rather odd sight of a hyperactive pink mare as immobile as Discord was when he was still a stone prisoner. The only clue the stationary pony in front of her was ever alive, was the green icing sugar steadily dripping from her mouth.

Then, it happened. It started off slow, before gradually increasing in volume, until it made the entire room shake. Pinkie spat out the mouthful of gooey goodness she was chewing on, and uttered just one elongated word :

"wwwwwwwWWWWWWWWWWHHHHHHHHAAAAAAAATTTTTTTTTT?"

It was all Silver Spoon could do to remove her necklace, and use the elasticated string and beads as a makeshift pair of earplugs. Not to mention, attempting to stay upright as the mini-earthquake rocked all around her.

Finally, the trembling subsided and everything began to return to normal. Spoon breathed a sigh of relief, and went to wipe a bead of sweat off her brow...

Only for that same hoof to be caught in mid-air by her new confidante Pinkie Pie, who now wore an uncharacteristic frown on her face. The party mare had grabbed ahold of Silver's leg and the back of her neck, and was now unceremoniously frogmarching her to the exit.

"H-hey, what gives?!" Unused to this kind of rough treatment, Spoon struggled to assert herself in Pinkie's grip, but once again, as when she was being examined at close quarters by the older pony, it was all a wasted effort.

"Do you have any idea what you've done?!" Pinkie was in no mood for sugarcoating her words. "Do you know how sad your best friend was when she arrived here this morning? Her melancholy levels were off the chart! It nearly turned my mane straight, just looking at her! I won't pretend to know everything she's gone through, I've only heard snippets from some of my friends. But the point is, as her best friend you should have been there for her in her hour of need! She needed you to talk with, cry with, be with... But apparently, you were so busy thinking of your own needs, you failed to notice that, and it sounds like you might have made things even worse! You need to go and apologise, and make up with her now!"

With Pinkie's uncompromising tirade adding to Silver's growing doubts about her own actions, it finally happened.

One tear appeared. Then, another one.

The sniffling quickly escalated into something else...

And, before Pinkie knew what was going on, she found herself comforting her second ex-bully of the day.

"W-what have I done?!" Bawled Silver Spoon, weeping into Pinkie's midriff, as the party pony loosened her hoofhold in sympathy. "I-I said such terrible things to Di, e-even after I knew about everything s-she was going through with her m-mother. I-I was so determined to h-have her all to myself, I couldn't look f-further than my own s-selfish interests. I-I used to think she was the t-terrible friend, w-when all the time it was p-probably me..."

Realising she may have been a tad overcritical to such a small child, Pinkie decided to step back from her words a little, as she lightly patted the sobbing grey filly on the head. "Oh, don't say that! You know that isn't true! In fact, I get the feeling that without you in her life, things would have been so much worse for Miss Tiara! You were the one true friend she had for years, and now it looks like she's opened herself up to making all kinds of new ones, it's understandable you'd be feeling a bit left out! But, isn't this what you wanted all along, for her to stop picking on others, and be more social?"

Spoon looked up, teary eyed, from her comfortable spot on Pinkie's belly. "Y-yes, but, it's all happening so f-fast. I'm not sure if I c-can..."

"Well, you should go and see her, then!" Pinkie gave Silver an encouraging smile. "Hang out with her, and her new chums! Get to know them, too! If you have any concerns at all, discuss them with Miss Tiara on your own. Don't just stomp off like an old misery-guts, that doesn't solve anything now, does it? Just, be there when she needs you, and give everypony else a chance! That doesn't sound too difficult, does it?"

"I don't know..." Spoon conceded, unconsciously wiping her glasses with Pinkie's tail." I mean, you weren't there when I went into my tantrum. I said some really mean things, how can I even begin making up for that..."

"You know what, that's an area I have some history in myself..." Pinkie was apparently happy to be an oversized handkerchief. "Once, I blurted out some pretty harsh words to one of my friends who was trying out for a singing group. At the time I didn't realise how much I was upsetting her, but when my other pals came out and told me about it later, the next thing I did was say sorry. And, it worked! I really believe, if you're sincere in your apology, she'll come around in no time! In fact, I gave Miss Tiara the same advice earlier on about something cruel she told one of the Crusaders , and judging by how they seem to be interacting now, it must have worked! Maybe, it's your turn to give it a try!"

Silver gave the party mare a look of pure gratitude."Thank you Pinkie, for all your help. I've completely misjudged you. I'm just not sure I have the strength to face her right now, or the Crusaders come to think of it, I wasn't exactly very nice to them either..."

Pinkie listened to Spoon's apprehension, before appearing deep in thought. After a few seconds, she came to a decision. "Hey, Gummy..." She motioned to her reptile, who throughout all this had been amazingly active, blinking not once, but twice. "They comes a time in every young alligator's life, where he must put away childish things and become an adult. Today, my fearless pet, it is your time to shine. For I have decided to put you in sole charge of Sugarcube Corner, while I go off with Silver Spoon to help her with her friendship problem. Guard those macaroons with honour. Shield those banoffee pies as if your life depended on it. For duty calls, and I must heed it. I should be back in a hour, or so. Do you think you can cope with such an awesome responsibility?"

Spoon looked at the small lizard, then back at Pinkie. "Um, are you positive this is such a good idea? I really don't think...OOF!"

A miracle had happened mid-sentence, which cut Silver off due to Pinkie's excited hooves finding their way around the grey filly's windpipe.

You see, Gummy actually, believe it or not...

Blinked. Again. That made it: three times in twenty minutes.

We have a new record.

Of course, Pinkie also took it as confirmation of her pet's willingness to accept his essential mission. She was so over the moon, she began dancing around the eatery, with a protesting Silver Spoon as her unwitting partner. "Oh Gummy, I'm so proud of you! I knew you wouldn't let me down. Why Mr and Mrs Cake refuse to give you a job here, other than 'official mascot' I don't know! We'll be on our way now, but before we head out, rest assured this moment will be captured for all of eternity in my special photo collection. Everypony, say Cheese... Sandwich!!"

All of a sudden, Silver's impromptu waltz was abruptly halted, and she found herself thrust in front of a camera with Pinkie and the toothless alligator, so she could share in the 'special moment'. The lens was focused, the button was pressed and, the image of an ecstatic pink mare, an inert lizard and a flabbergasted grey filly was revealed to a watching world.

Pinkie went straight to stick it on her wall, tagging it ' Gummy's first solo shift' . Right between 'Twilight's Arrival In Ponyville.' and 'Rainbow Dash's Party.' Clearly, a historical event of great importance had occurred that day.

Pinkie blew her nose with emotion, in front of an increasingly bemused Spoon. "Much as I'd love to stay and celebrate, now I must depart. Be brave Gummy, for I shall be back soon. Hi-ho, Silver! We're going to go out together this afternoon, to win back your friend! Or, my name isn't Maud... I mean, Pinkamena Diane Pie!"

And with those words, the restless mare vaulted outside, while Spoon's ailing brain was still playing catch-up. Maybe, I didn't misjudge her that much, after all were her only thoughts, as she followed Pinkie through the front door, making sure to switch the OPEN sign to CLOSED along the way.
..................................................................................................................

Meanwhile, back in Spoiled Rich's office, Cheerilee was having a little difficulty digging up any dirt on the head of the school board.

She should have suspected as much. For all her faults, Spoiled was nothing if not a smooth operator, who knew better than to leave incriminating evidence of such importance lying around.

Like, for instance, her embargoing of Pipsqueak's proposal for new playground equipment even though the funds were there, just because her daughter didn't win the class election. Fortunately, Tiara had put her straight on that one. And, how!

Another reason for the paucity of documentation could be that her plans were at such an early stage, she hadn't got around to properly formulating them. She was sure Spoiled was up to something, she just wasn't sure what it was yet.

This might mean another trip back to this very room in a week or so for the teacher, which would require waiting for another extended absence from Spoiled, and another excuse to sneak in there to snoop. Darn it...

It was something she was more than willing to do, though. She'd taken a personal interest in Diamond's well-being since her rehabilitation, and to see it all in ruins just because her demanding mother refused to leave her daughter alone to evolve in her own way was not something the teacher was going to tolerate.

The only other oddity to be found in the many files Cheerilee perused that lunchtime was an abnormal amount of information regarding the lives of her pupils Apple Bloom, Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle. It looked like Spoiled had practically raided their personal records to gather every little bit of data on the fillies that she could lay her hooves on. It was strange alright, but hardly anything that would help the teacher's current predicament. It was something worth looking into, though.

Cheerilee looked up from her administrations briefly, to check the time. Oops, she had to get going soon. Her students would be back in class shortly and Spick and Span, who she'd so woefully misled, would realise the princess was never coming, and return to their duties as cleaners. She still felt terrible about lying to them, even if it was for a greater good. Perhaps she'd get them some flowers as a gift. To chew on.

She had all of the papers on the floor from the cabinet carefully arranged, so that when she put them back, it would look as though nopony had tampered with them. Replacing the paperwork a stack at a time, the teacher pondered if Spoiled would notice the difference, when she eventually returned from the hospital. As long as Diamond Tiara was in danger, there was no way she could afford to take any chances...

And, that's when a sudden, startling connection hit her.

Diamond Tiara...

Spoiled Rich...

Hospital...

Oh Celestia! They were in the same building, unsupervised! What would happen if...

Cheerilee went into a state of absolute panic.

Forgetting to put the last file back where it belonged, she galloped headlong out of that room at a speed that might just have caused a Double Rainboom, if it had been in the sky.

She didn't stop when her curious students passed her on the left, as they came in from recess.

She didn't stop when Spick and Span tried to flag her down on her right, to ask what had happened to the supposed royal stopover.

She didn't even stop to see what was right in front of her.

This proved to be a bit of a mistake, as she collided headfirst into Applejack just outside the school, who'd decided to pay a surprise visit to see how her new foster child was getting on.

OUCH! Stars...

Part 29: Strength In Numbers

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Receiving a teacher of the year award. Snips and Snails being top of the class. A dinner date with...

"Cheerilee, wake up, darn it! Are you alright?!" Came the strange disembodied voice from nowhere, ruining her private dream.

"Oh, I do Big Mac, I do!" mumbled the teacher, as she gazed into those perfectly rounded green eyes...

With primped eyelashes?!

Cheerilee suddenly sprang to attention, straightening herself up and offering the orange mare in front of her an embarrassed grin. "Er, hello!"

Applejack raised an eyebrow at the teacher's unintended remark. " I know Mac can carry off the whole 'female disguise' thing now Miss Cheerilee, but I ain't him. And what was all that I do nonsense..."

"Nothing, Nothing! I was delirious, that's all!" Cheerilee waved her hooves frantically, desperate to change the subject.

"Uh huh." Applejack was somewhat unconvinced by the teacher's frantic denials, but decided to let the matter rest for now. "Anyway, what were you doing charging around the corner like a minotaur in a china shop? You fair near cracked our skulls open! Is anything the matter?"

Was anything the matter indeed. Still a little groggy, Cheerilee racked her brains for a minute to try and figure out why she, as a role model for children, had acted so irresponsibly.

Did she try to avoid Scootaloo's out-of-control vehicle again?

Was she on her way to replenish her supply of coffee?

There was that whole thing with Diamond that morning...

Oh, no.

Trying to maintain as sanguine a facade as possible, but internally sweating buckets, Cheerilee confronted Applejack and grimaced awkwardly at her. "Well, as you're asking, there was a little incident today, the consequences of which I might need your help with now. Let me see, It all started when..."
...........................................................................................................................

At the edge of the Everfree Forest, that most peaceful of ponies Fluttershy was busy feeding the birds outside, while humming a soothing little tune.

"There we are my feathered friends, eat up..." She hovered slightly off the ground, while watching them peck up each tasty morsel with relish.

Alongside her were a large grizzly bear, and a small white rabbit. You'd think the furry brown mammal would be the most dangerous creature in the sector, and the bunny would be the one needing protection.

You'd be completely wrong.

Angel tapped his foot impatiently, glancing at a pocket watch he somehow always managed to carry around with him, trying to attract his owner's attention away from her joyful interaction with her winged friends.

Fluttershy noticed his impatience, and flew over there, giving him a sympathetic look. "Oh Angel, don't you worry. You'll get your food soon. As soon as I've fed the rest of these precious birds, and helped Mr Bear with his recurrent back injury, I'll be straight into that kitchen to whip you up that green salad you requested..."

Angel was a little placated, but looked as if he wanted more.

Fluttershy pondered for a moment, before remembering something. "With extra shredded carrots, of course. As a reward for being such a patient little bunny-wunny that I love so very much!"

She massaged a tender spot between the rabbit's ears, which finally made him smile and wag his little cotton-tail with glee. He wasn't much one for the goo-goo talk, but rubbing that special area just above his forehead got him every time...

All of a sudden, a loud noise echoed from the other side of Ponyville.

It was louder than Pinkie's party cannon, the super deluxe model.

More intense than a whole pack of Timberwolves howling simultaneusly.

It even rivalled the explosion that denoted the tragic end of the Golden Oak library.

A single sentence, ringing out through the treetops.

"She's where? With who?!"

The effect was instantaneous...

Multitudes of birds flying off, temporarily blocking out the sun.

A frightened bear ignoring his lumbar problems and making a break for it.

Only the unruffled Angel and Fluttershy remained. The pegasus had her hoof over her mouth, a look of concern etched into her features.

"Oh, my!" She stated. "That sounded like Applejack! I wonder what the matter could be..."

Her consternation was cut short by a small tug on her back leg, and a white paw gesturing towards the cottage. Now that all other distractions had been dealt with, her pet expected to be given his meal. There and then.

"I'm sorry, Angel Bunny..." Fluttershy conceded. "But your appetite will have to wait. This could be very important, and I don't want to let my friend down. I'll be back as soon as I can. I'm sure you understand. Be good, okay?"

And with a little kiss blown into the wind, the yellow pegasus was away, leaving behind a very irate rabbit. Angel scowled as he watched his owner go, wondering what he'd done to deserve such shabby treatment.

No, he didn't understand. No, he wasn't going to be good.

An evil little plan entered his head. Unable to shake it off, he began to hop back to the cottage.

Was Fluttershy ever going to be in for a surprise when she got home...
............................................................................................................................

More hopping was going on elsewhere in Ponyville, as Pinkie Pie made her way to the elementary, alongside a gasping Silver Spoon who, despite the party pony's odd gait, was struggling to keep up.

"Wait...*Gasp*...For me...*Phew*" Came the call from the grey filly, as she tried to keep level with her faster companion.

Pinkie looked back for a minute, with a wide grin. "What's the matter, slowpoke? This is only half my regular speed. If I went any slower, by the time we got there school would be out!"

"Well, I'm sorry, but gym isn't exactly my best subject.*Wheeze*..." Silver stopped for a minute to catch her breath, her tongue practically hanging out of her mouth by a thread.

"Oh, sorry to hear that!" Pinkie replied with genuine concern. "Would you like me to give you a ride there?"

"What? N-no..." Spoon abruptly stuck her hooves up in protest. "What would happen if somepony important saw me? I'd never live it down...!"

"Oh, come on! You don't have to be shy! I provide lifts for Gummy all the time and he never complains! Now, let me give you a hoof up onto my back. Alley oop!" The party pony went to grab onto a squirming Silver, whose howls of protest seemed to count for nothing.

Fortunately for Spoon's dignity, if not her legs, both ponies were cut short by a familiar voice nearby. "Pinkie, darling. What are you doing here? And with Silver Spoon, too? Shouldn't you be at work?"

It was Rarity, obviously. Poking her nose out of Carousal Boutique, where she'd just been sorting through a delivery of haberdashery the shop had received that very morning, before going to investigate the commotion outside.

Silver and Pinkie glanced at each other. In the middle of their set-to, they hadn't realised where they'd stopped.

Taught to be polite to her elders, Spoon was the first to speak. "Hello there, Rarity. My mother loves the new dress you made for her last week. Sorry about the noise me and Pinkie made outside your place of business. We were on our way to see Diamond Tiara about something important. We'll get out of your mane now..."

"Oh, okay." Rarity responded, still a little nonplussed as to why they were making such a racket. "I guess you must be headed to the hospital."

Pinkie and Silver's jaws hit the ground at this unexpected news. Literally, in the case of the party pony.

Rarity looked startled on seeing this reaction. "Oh, my. You didn't know? I only just found out myself, from one of my customers who was working there when she was bought in. To think, this was just after Applejack left, after dropping off a load of material scraps for me. As her current primary caregiver, she should've been the first pony to be informed. I was just finishing up, before going down to Sweet Acres to tell her what had happened..."

Silver Spoon wasn't able to listen to any more. If she'd felt bad previously, then now those feelings were now multiplied a hundred-fold. "This is all my fault..." She sobbed, tucking her head into Pinkie's body once more." Why did I say those horrible things to her? Now she's sick, and it's all because of me..."

Rarity took a moment to assess the situation, before trotting over to Spoon and putting a comforting hoof around her neck. "Now, dear. You mustn't say those things without knowing all the facts. I'll tell you what, if it'll make you feel any better, I'll come down to see Diamond with you too..."

"W-would you really?" Silver sniffled, feeling slightly better talking to a pony she had a lot more in common with than the rambunctious Pinkie. "B-but I'm not sure if I can make it there, now. I'm so tired already, and I just don't feel like travelling anymore. P-plus, what about you telling Applejack that Di is sick?"

"If you don't have any objections, I'm ready to help carry you there, on my back. I have the most darling chiffon saddle you can recline on! Of course, I'll hold you in place with my magic as an added precaution" The white unicorn offered. Silver Spoon liked this idea. Going there in style, and far safer than balancing precariously on a manic party pony.

"As for Applejack..." Rarity continued. "I'm sure Ms Pie would be more than happy to fetch her from the farm for us. Can you do that for us, darling?"

Pinkie didn't respond. She was looking at a gathering cloud of dust, heading their way. Spotting who was causing it, the party pony replied, without looking back at Rarity, "I don't think that'll be necessary somehow..."
.........................................................................................................................................................

"...So, that's the story." Cheerilee briefly filled in all interested parties on what had transpired that morning, leaving the listeners either shocked, confused, concerned or a combination of the three.

"You mean to tell me..." Rarity stated with concern, putting a hoof to her mouth. " Diamond could be all alone in that hospital with that...That..." Being a lady, she didn't want to use the word.

"Well, she ain't 'all alone' at least." Applejack replied. "My lil sis is there as well, and I trust she'll take of her. It still doesn't mean that we shouldn't get down there lickety split..."

Pinkie didn't really understand everything, having not been present the previous night at the Rich mansion, but it sounded like a fun adventure. "I'll go too! It sounds like Miss Tiara needs cheering up, and nopony is better at that than humble old me!"

Cheerilee, desperate to get going, started to once again take a few steps on the road to the hospital, which was not too far now. Her concern for Diamond was at an all-time-high, but she was also worried for Silver Spoon, who'd barely moved an inch since finding out the extent of her former best friend's suffering.

"Hold on a minute, sugarcube..." That was Applejack again, stopping the teacher in her tracks. "Didn't you say you'd left a class full of students unsupervised? I mean, I'm sure everything's fine and dandy back at school, but isn't it sort of your job to make sure they get an education and not up to mischief?"

Cheerilee froze. Oops. In her haste to make sure Tiara was okay, she'd plain forgotten about the rest of her pupils. And now, she had no idea what they were up to. She only hoped she hadn't left out any matches from the scientific experiment she was planning on exhibiting that afternoon...

"Yes, you're right." She reluctantly agreed. "As worried as I am about Diamond, I must consider the needs of the rest of the children. Now that I've informed you, her adoptive parent about her circumstances, I suppose I've fulfilled my obligations, too. Come on, Silver Spoon. Let's go back to class. I think these mares have got everything under hoof here..."

"No." Came the sharp reply from the grey filly, who'd now stopped crying and stood tall and resolute.

"What?" Cheerilee looked over at her defiant pupil with surprise. Usually it was Tiara who was the belligerent one, not her easy-going best friend.

" I said, no. It's my fault Di's in that hospital bed in the first place..." Silver stated with absolute conviction. "So it's up to me to make sure that I'm there for her now, in her hour of need. You couldn't stop me from going if you gave me with a month's detention."

The teacher listened to this determined speech with admiration. Smiling back, she replied. "Okay, I hear you. How about a year's detention? Would that tip the balance of your decision, at all?"

Spoon's strong stare crumbled under such a dire threat, and even the other ponies present seemed taken aback by this unwarranted punishment.

Cheerilee savoured the moment, before deciding to break the ice with a giggle. "I was only joking. I'm proud of you, Silver Spoon, for standing by your friend. Both now, and in the past, too. With that kind of attitude, I think we know who the next class president is going to be! Of course you can stay! I've never seen such loyalty from anypony..."

"Are you sure about that?" A voice from on high rang out.

Everypony spun round to see who was speaking, and as they'd all guessed, it was the Element of Loyalty herself, Rainbow Dash. "I don't mean to blow my own horn, but I think I may just have the edge on that score..."

Ignoring her friend's heedless egotism, Rarity asked "Rainbow, what are you doing here?"

"I heard Applejack's 'little' yell all the way over in Cloudsdale." The blue pegasus said. "I gotta say, I was impressed! I think you've finally found the one area you can beat me in!"

The orange mare rolled her eyes. "Yeah, whatever you say, Dash."

"Anyway..." Rainbow continued. "I just had to see what was up, so I followed her and Cheerilee here, until they met up with everypony else, and I've been secretly eavesdropping from the clouds."

"Hang on, hang on, isn't that a little rude?" Pinkie Pie disliked bad manners.

"Oh yeah that's rich, coming from the most obtrusive pony in all of Equestria!" Rainbow sarcastically retorted. "In any case, I figure you could use my help, too. Besides, I want to see if they've got any new Daring-Do books at the hospital. They always seem to get first dibs on them..."

"That's because the author, A K Yearling, selflessly prioritises sick foals and gives them a first read of her books a week before publication, for free!" Applejack replied crossly. "And anyway, I've got a better job for you. Could you fly down to Twilight's castle, and go and get her, please? I get the feeling she's going to want to be here for this, too..."

Rainbow was on the verge of agreeing to the request and speeding off through the sky, before she and the group were halted by another voice, this one light and soft. "Um... I don't think she's there at the moment..."

Fluttershy had finally tracked her friends down, and settled herself on the ground next to Rarity.

"Whatever do you mean, darling?" The white unicorn asked her.

Fluttershy cleared her throat, before speaking. "Well, she was called away on urgent business in Canterlot earlier on, and she asked me to look in on Owlicious this afternoon. She would usually have trusted Spike to feed him, but he's just got a fresh batch of comic books to keep him occupied, so she feared his attention might be diverted elsewhere..."

The group grimaced as a whole, upon hearing that. Could they really handle what was going on inside the hospital, without royal authority?

Pinkie Pie was in no doubt, though. "Let's go! My Pinkie Sense is telling me we have a sad filly in there, and it is my life's mission to make sure I can turn her frown upside-down! Come on, everypony! No more dawdling!"

And with that, she rushed off, followed quickly by a freshly rejuvenated Silver Spoon and the other mares, Only Applejack stayed behind a moment, to tip her hat to Cheerilee as a goodbye gesture.

The teacher watched them disappear with a sigh. How she wished sometimes she was part of an elite group of world-savers, instead of the drudgery of being a teacher, although she did love the children...

Speaking of them, the school had better be in one piece when she returned.

She galloped off in the opposite direction, trying to think of an excuse for her employers if her worst fears were realised.
....................................................................................................

"So, what'd wanna do now?" Apple Bloom asked her friend, after Nurse Redheart had gone.

"I don't know..." Diamond replied scratching her chin. "The nurse says I'll be here for a few hours at least, so they can make sure I'm okay. And this isn't like my mansion, where I have things to keep me entertained everywhere."

"It is possible to have fun without spending loads of bits..." Bloom proposed. "For instance, have you ever tried juggling apples, apple bowling, climbing trees to get apples..."

"Is there anything on your farm that you do, which doesn't revolve around apples?" Tiara asked, warily.

Bloom looked at the pink filly as if she was speaking in a foreign language. "Um, well, we could always go and feed the pigs..."

"Eww. Gross!" Diamond cringed at the mere thought. "Why would I possibly want anything to do with those foul creatures?"

"Well, there are some similarities between you..." Bloom innocently commented, much to Tiara's chagrin.

"What?!" Diamond lifted herself out of bed, and began advancing menacingly on her target.

Bloom, realising she was in trouble, regretted her choice of words. "Um, I mean, you're pink like them. And you were covered in muck earlier, like them. Hey, do you remember the day Babs caused you to fall into that mud puddle with a pig in it? You gotta admit, that was kinda funny..."

"I'm going to kill you!!" These were the hissed words that left Tiara's lips, as she launched her entire frame at her new roommate.

"I was just kidding, Di. Cantcha take a joke?" Bloom was chased all over and around the bed, before jumping underneath it to escape the pink filly's wrath.

"Get back here! Nopony compares me to one of those filthy beasts!" Tiara dived in after her.

"I'm sorry!" Bloom was desperate to avoid being throttled.

"You will be!" Came the angry response.

Then suddenly, the door swung open, and three voices were heard.

"I thought you said she was in here." Said a haughty, female voice that Diamond knew only too well.

"She was. She must have gone to the bathroom, with that common friend of hers..." That was another stuck-up mare speaking.

"Well, I hope they arrive back soon. We'll only be able to avoid the other nurses for so long, and that's to say nothing of the security..." A posh stallion now commented.

"Listen you two, I did not come all the way down here and risk everything just to give up now. I intend to stay here until my Diamond reappears. Even if it takes all day." The first voice rang out again, with added panache.

At this point, the bed creaked as the same mare sat down on it, followed by a grey stallion and a yellow mare making themselves comfortable.

Apple Bloom and Diamond Tiara, their little squabble completely forgotten, cowered at the bottom of the bed, huddled up together. What could they possibly do to get out of this situation?

Part 30: The Big Showdown: Spoiled's Lament

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"Come on, everypony! Who knows what's going on in that hospital!" Applejack had seemingly taken on her role as caregiver to heart, and had overtaken Pinkie Pie in the group's rush towards their destination.

Flying alongside Rainbow Dash who'd politely limited her speed so the others could keep up, Fluttershy had a question for her blue pegasus friend. "So... I know part of the reason why Diamond Tiara was adopted yesterday, because Twilight told me about it this morning. But, do you know why she's being treated now, and what the hurry is to get to her?"

Dash was too impatient to relay all the facts again, and besides she didn't have enough time before their arrival. She decided to lay out the bare bones, and hoped that would placate her companion. "Tiara fainted at school. Now she's in the hospital. Her mother, who also collapsed, is in there with her. We don't want them to meet. Both because of an injunction, and the possible harm it could do to Diamond. Understand, now?"

"Yes. Sort of. I suppose." Fluttershy meekly nodded, while it was all Rainbow could do to stop herself from face-hoofing. How on Equestria was she supposed to know if the yellow pegasus was up to speed with everything, with a non-committal answer like that? Oh well, she'd just have to play it by ear.

Silver Spoon, despite her initial burst of energy when hearing about her bedridden friend, was now way behind the pack, her short little legs struggling to keep up with the older ponies. Her tiredness was starting to catch up with her again, and her lungs felt in danger of imploding in on themselves. Although the mantra in her head constantly chanted your friend needs you now and urged her forward, somehow mind-over-matter wasn't working.

Then, just as she was about to slow down to a trot, and give up on ever catching the rest of the party, a strange magic field enveloped her, and carried her exhausted form upwards. Only when she saw who's horn was lit, and to where the spell was taking her, was she able to relax.

"Here you go, darling. And I even remembered to retrieve the chiffon saddle, before we departed!" Rarity was happy to help out. "Travel in comfort if you have to go anywhere, that's what I always say."

Silver Spoon nodded her appreciation. This was a mare after her own heart. She settled down on the white unicorn's back, still held in place by that blue aura.

Pinkie might have been a little jealous over the grey filly's choice of transportation, but was far too enveloped in her own thoughts as to how to cheer up Diamond Tiara once the group got inside the medical facility.

Would she start off with the whoopee cushion, or the classic glasses and moustache combo?

Oh, what fun'n'games they'd have!

...........................................................................................................

Unfortunately for the party pony, fun'n'games were the last thing on Tiara's mind at that present moment.

Hanging onto her once hated rival as if for dear life, the pink filly felt a wave of nausea overcome her at the mere sound of her mother's voice. It was a familiar feeling.

But in this instance, it had returned with a vengeance. She thought she was safe from the rants. The shouting. The petty punishments. The isolation. The outright abuse. At least for a little while.

She should have known things wouldn't be that easy.

Alongside Diamond, whispering comforting homilies in her ear such as it'll be alright and massaging her mane tenderly was Apple Bloom, who after a bit of friction had apparently returned to her self-designated role of protector.

The farm filly had never actually witnessed Spoiled's cruelty firsthand, bar the encounter with her daughter outside the flower shop and her belittlement of the students by the school entrance. But the sight of the normally headstrong Diamond, cowering in her hooves like Winona during a storm, made Bloom very mad indeed.

Just what had gone on in that mansion, for Tiara to be so nervous around somepony who she should adore? Diamond's reaction around her female parent was more akin to that of a foal with an imminent date with the school bully.

Perhaps, judging by how Spoiled's behaviour had rubbed off on her offspring, that's exactly what the head of the school board was. A big, cowardly bully. Used to getting her own way.

Well, this grown-up bully wasn't getting her hooves on Diamond again as long as she lived with the Apples, that was for darn sure. Bloom had already made it her sworn mission to make sure Tiara stayed reformed and stayed safe, both of which would be in major jeopardy if she returned to the Rich household.

Now, seeing how just hearing Spoiled's voice triggered her friend into a state of panic, Bloom's efforts would be redoubled.

Both fillies began to listen to the conversation coming from above the mattress. After all, it wasn't like they had much of a choice.

"...So, as I was saying, you have to train them from a very early age! When they want to socialise with somepony from a lower caste, shout in their face and send them to their room! When they think that 'just taking part' and 'not winning' will suffice, remove their dessert privileges and take away their toys! It worked with my Diamond, if you two ever decide to procreate, I guarantee it'll do the same with your youngsters!" No prizes for guessing who that was.

"Actually, running around after a bunch of snotty nosed little brats sounds like rather too much hard graft for me..." Upper Crust was not exactly ecstatic at the prospect of motherhood. "Maybe one day, if we can find somepony willing to sit on the little blighters, while we tour the social scene and light up the big cities. Until then, I think we're happy with just the two of us, isn't that right dear?"

"... Yes, of course." came the timid response. In reality, Jet Set would have liked an heir and to even have some input in raising it himself, but in such matters he always abdicated to his wife's superior judgement. After all, in most things, she knew best.

His compliance seemed to please Upper Crust too, and the sound of a cheek being kissed could be heard. "There you go, you see? The secret of a happy marriage. Work as a team. As in: I make the orders, he writes the cheques!"

Audible tittering. Spoiled joining in, familiar with this particular dynamic. Jet Set's hooves, seen from under the bed, all tensed up. It would have made for fascinating drama, if the fillies in hiding weren't so jittery they felt like they were about to pass out.

"So anyway, you never told us, darling..." Upper Crust changed the subject. "If your daughter was such a model filly using your methods, why is she such a disappointment and failure now, to the extent that she's even taken to siding with the enemy? "

The sound of teeth being gnashed. " Listen, darling" Spoiled responded with venom. "She never used to be like this. She was a cold, calculating, merciless filly I could be proud that I'd taught everything I know to, a future leader of society, spawn forth from the fruits of my own loins. I was beyond chuffed I'd given birth to her, and you should have seen the way the mares at my ladies club would look at me with envy, as they compared their failing progeny with my shining Diamond...!"

Upon hearing this, both Jet Set and Upper Crust gasped, while Apple Bloom shook her head in disgust. As for Tiara, well, Her response was a little odd. She stopped quaking so much, and seemed to be listening more intently.

Spoiled went on. "As I said, everything was going splendid. I was minimising her contact with that soft-hearted fool of a husband of mine, who'd have infected her with a bunch of jibber-jabber about respect for others and everypony being special in their own way. All stuff and nonsense of course, it's elite ponies like me and you that keep Equestria going, everypony else was just put here to serve us. My daughter used to believe that too..."

Apple Bloom wondered if that was the case, and was about to murmur a question to Diamond, when she noticed the usually pink filly was suddenly beginning to turn a nice shade of red. Oh, dear. Best to leave her to scowl this one out, she thought.

"So, what went wrong?" Upper Crust could not hide her interest." What horrible event could turn this perfect daughter you're describing, into such a delinquent? What caused her to rebel so much, that her own loving mother seems on the verge of despair?"

"Oh, that one's simple..." Scoffed Spoiled, with utter scorn. " Three of the most insignificant low-lives you'll ever have the misfortune to meet. I barely want to even say their names, for fear it might leave a bad taste in my mouth. But, here goes: Sweetie Belle. Scootaloo. And Apple Bloom. Especially Apple Bloom. You tell me you've a run-in with them already, and they caused you a lot of grief. I have to say, they seem to be very good at that."

Apple Bloom visibly winced upon hearing her name stated with such emphasis, while Tiara looked like she was just getting crosser and crosser. Now the roles had dramatically been reversed, with the farm filly being the shrinking violet, and Diamond as the reassuring friend shielding her from the nasty comments above.

"Yes, I must say..." Jet Set agreed. "When me and my wife tried to engage with them outside that tawdry little eatery in your town, their rudeness took us completely by surprise! We kindly offered them money to make way, they refused! We tried to put them in their place, they wouldn't listen! And the worst part is, they even tried to give us business cards! As if we'd ever use those uncouth types for anything! Oh, apart from to clean our gutters, maybe..."

More laughter. More cringing from Apple Bloom. And, more glowering from Tiara.

"Well, that's quite outrageous, I agree..." Spoiled grunted. "But that's a mere trifle, to what they did to me, and my daughter. They crashed her cute-cenera, and ruined the day for her! They forced her to humiliate herself in a bunny costume! They made her get fired from a fine editor job! They caused her to come home covered in grime! They cost her the chance of recognition at the Crystal Empire Games! They rigged the school election, so she lost to a dwarf! They made me waste my money on a statue, and a stain glass window for nothing! But that's as nothing compared to their worst crime of all..."

"What, what?" Upper Crust and Jet Set were on the edge of the bed, rapt with attention, eager to hear what could possibly be more devastating than the already long list of these despicable ruffian's acts.

"They stole my precious Diamond from me!" Unable to control her emotions any longer, Spoiled sank down into the bed, and began to sob uncontrollably." T-they abducted her from outside the school. T-they took her to their shack of lies, where they probably beat out all the wisdom and the good advice I ever gave her. T-then, just as it looked like her real self might be coming back, as she ran back to her school to reclaim the position of president that had been pilfered from her, g-guess who was lying in wait to finish off their brainwashing job?!"

Jet Set had his head in his hooves, and Upper Crust had a look of pure sympathy in her eyes. "Oh, no." The yellow mare exclaimed.

" Yes, that's right." Spoiled used a scented tissue to wipe her face. "They pursued her everywhere, shouting their foul untruths in her ears, until she couldn't take it any longer, and cracked. Now, instead of the headstrong filly I raised to believe in the motto Take what you can, when you can, now I have some pathetic little milksop who lives by the slogan You can redeem yourself, but by helping others, not by being mean. I even caught her assisting our butler with the washing up, the night before she was taken from me! And, guess who informed the authorities, to make that wonderful event possible?"

Her two adult listeners were surprised by nothing at this point, and just waited for her to name the guilty parties. Meanwhile, Apple Bloom was distracted from the waffling of the snobs above them by Tiara's transformation from nervous filly, into cauldron of boiling water. As in: Getting hotter every minute, and bubbling just under the surface.

"That's right, those pests again." Spoiled confirmed the adults' worst suspicions. " Anypony would think they had a personal slight against me, for all the horrible lies they've spread, all the disorder they've caused and the brazen way they've ruined my daughter's life. Not only by blocking her from achieving her desired goals at every turn, that wasn't good enough for them. Not only by warping her still evolving brain so she's become like a stranger to me. No, they, and their relations had to take it much further."

Spoiled paused for effect a minute, before unveiling what she thought was the masterplan of those against her.

"The ultimate strategy seems to have been to ingratiate her into the worthless Apple clan of dirteaters. Just think, In just a few short months, my precious Diamond, who was born with the ability to command legions into doing her bidding, might be as good as a common labourer! She'll forget all about her old privileged existence, and be 'persuaded' eventually to use her talent to lead others to erect hundreds of those ghastly little farm buildings, and create a whole plethora of those filthy fields for crop growing. This will attract even more rough types to lower the tone of this wretched town than it is now, if that's possible. Then, Ponyville truly will be dead. And I will feel like I've created a monster..." Spoiled's tale ended on a mournful note.

Jet Set and Upper Crust were utterly taken in by this apparently brilliant scheme to get back at the ruling order by a jealous underclass. The riff-raff would take one of their own brightest prospects, forcibly indoctrinate her in their ways before perverting her natural ability for their own ends. Not only would a skill like leadership be extremely useful for the peasants to get one over on their aristocratic brethren, it would also strike a hugely symbolic blow against their kind, that a child of the gentry could be so easily converted to the other side.

"So, what you're telling us..." Upper Crust pondered, suddenly beginning to understand things. " Is that your daughter is just a pawn to them, part of a vicious ideal that one day the serfs will sweep Equestria, starting with your town, then overthrowing everything in their sight? And they see your Diamond as a figurehead of that movement? Oh my. I knew the vermin were cunning, but I never in my wildest dreams thought they'd go that far. This has become about far more than just our petty revenge. This could hold the balance of power in Ponyville, and possibly beyond."

Spoiled nodded once again. "Even if they haven't thought that far ahead, which wouldn't surprise me as their kind seem to have rocks for brains, the fact remains the opportunity would always be there. That Tiara mark, still present on her flank, a ticking explosive, waiting for somepony to exploit. It might as well be us who reap the benefits of it! That's why I planned to send her to boarding school, to ween her little head off this drivel about 'friendship' and 'love' she's been hearing at her elementary. That's why I put so much stock in raising her personally, away from the soft-hearted dribblings of her father. That's why I need your help to get her back for me now. So she can fulfill her true potential for her people, not these mud ponies who've erroneously taken possession of her."

As each piece of new information began to sink into Jet Set and Upper Crust's craniums, they looked at each other in progressively expanding abject horror. This couldn't be allowed to pass. The scenario put forward so convincingly by Spoiled would not be allowed to happen. They'd make a stand, here and now, to keep this poor, innocent, deluded pink filly who had no idea how much power she held, out of harm's way. The very future of decent society seemed to rest on it.

Jet Set, showing some gumption for a change by electing himself as spokesman for the pair, gave their answer. "We can see how dangerous your daughter could be in the wrong hooves. The end result could be catastrophic for well-bred ponies like us across Equestria, and we cannot allow that to happen. We'll postpone our trip back home for as long as it takes until the child is back in the loving embrace of her mother, and until then we are completely at your disposal." All three then proceeded to shake hooves, as part of their new pact.

"And of course, along the way, we can look into getting our own back on a certain meddling trio, and show up a fabricated princess who, by all rights, shouldn't be allowed anywhere near true royalty..." Spoiled provided an added incentive.

Upper Crust humphed upon hearing this. "If you're referring to Miss Twilight Sparkle, I'm in complete agreement with you, darling. You should see her dance, talk about four left hooves! I doubt she can even walk properly, let alone fly!"

Jet Set concurred. " And she hasn't exactly got superior taste in fashion, either. You should have seen the dress she was wearing at her own birthday party. It was almost as plain as her face! What an embarrassment to the monarchy she really is. Celestria must have been mad the day she afforded the luxury of alicornhood to such an unsuitable candidate. Is this not living proof we truly live in crazy days?"

More arrogant tittering was heard from above the bed. Quite unable to attach the abundance of delusions, insults and plotting together for now, one thing was clear to Apple Bloom: Spoiled had her two new proteges right under her hoof. She turned to Diamond, to make a comment along the lines of I can see where you got your former manipulative side from. Thank goodness that's not you anymore...

But, she wasn't there. Tiara had disappeared.

Bloom gulped. She had a notion what had happened. Over the course of the last few minutes, the pink filly had been getting more and more agitated by what she'd heard, as the outright lies and misrepresentations from her mother flew thick and fast.

It was all Bloom could do to stop Diamond from punching her hoof through the mattress, so irate was her friend. She was pretty hot to the touch, too. And now that Spoiled's little recruitment speech was over, and the farm filly had sat transfixed for a moment to take it all in...

Tiara had taken the chance to slip away, and face her mother head-on. She didn't care about the risks, nopony badmouthed her new friends, and the Princess like that. Not to mention, all the other blatant fibs that had been exchanged that day.

Diamond had to hand it to her mother, she was a brilliant puppet master. As she'd found out through countless failed attempts to win her approval, yet still came back for more.

But her grudging admiration for Spoiled's techniques of control did not extend to letting her continue to use them. Tiara was going to put an end to this, here and now. For everypony's sake.

"Hello, mother." Apple Bloom heard her friend speak with tranquil fury, out in the open.

Jet Set and Upper Crust were completely taken aback by this sudden emergence, but Spoiled remained relatively calm, even smiling a little. "Hello, darling." She purred. "Nice bow. I wonder who gave it to you..."

Realising there was no point in her concealment any longer, Apple Bloom sheepishly made her presence aware to those gathered in the small room.

Spoiled's demeanor changed completely upon seeing the youngest Apple. Her eyes turned to daggers. Her upper lip curled in disgust. She regarded the farm filly with the same contempt one might have for a piece of dirt on a spotless white dress.

"As if I didn't already know." She spat out. "The homewrecker."

Part 30: The Big Showdown 2: The Knockout Blow

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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...

And 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!"

"Selling jewellery?"

"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.

10...9

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.

8...7

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.

6...5

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.

4...3

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.

2...and...

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...

Part 31: Picking Up The Pieces

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"... I said which room is she in?!" Rainbow Dash was beginning to get rather frustrated by the lack of co-operation of the hospital receptionist.

Loving Care was the subject of Dash's indignation. She'd just started her shift about ten minutes ago and sat down, cup of tea in one hoof, paperwork in the other, ready for a nice, easy session on a quiet morning, to catch up on some overdue filing, enjoy the stillness...

That's until this rambunctious blue pegasus burst through the main doors, demanding information straight off the bat, disturbing the peace and causing her to spill her drink all over her work. Needless to say, Loving Care was struggling to live up to her name in her miffed response.

"Listen, Miss." She pointedly answered, while glancing back at the five other ponies who'd followed her inside, which included a grey filly, somewhat bizarrely perched on a unicorn's back. "If you wish to see that patient, you'll have to provide some evidence that you're family, or a close, personal friend. We can't just let anypony in to see a minor you know, without checking their credentials first..."

"But she's my best friend, and could be in danger!" Silver Spoon hopped off of Rarity's saddle, and stood on her hind legs at the desk to look directly at Loving Care, pleadingly.

"Darling, is there nothing we can do to convince you?" Rarity fluttered her long eyelashes.

"Yeah! She's been through so much lately, she needs a good laugh! I've even bought my special fun kit, to wipe away her blues!" Pinkie produced a large bag from nowhere, full of joke shop rejects, and on top was a clown horn. PARP!

"Um. If you could find it in your heart to let us through...We'd be most grateful..." Fluttershy meekly requested.

Confronted by this motley crew of ponies from all walks of life, Loving Care didn't know quite what to do. Always nervous when confronted with a raucous crowd in a public building, and the well-being of the patients always being her first priority, she instinctively reached over for the button which would have summoned the security guards...

"Oh, for land's sake..." Applejack intervened at just the right time. "Look, when Diamond Tiara was bought in, was she accompanied by a little filly by the name of Apple Bloom? Well, that's my sister. And the pony you're treating is under the protection of Princess Twilight Sparkle, who entrusted me with the role of her primary foster carer. Now, I could easily go back to my farm and return with a copy of the form I signed, but I think it would be much easier if you'd just take us through now. If you don't believe me, send somepony to supervise us during our visit, but it's extremely important we at least make sure she's alright. Silver Spoon here is correct: Her safety could be at risk, if the information I've heard is accurate..."

At the mention of the Princess, Loving Care's hoof pulled away from the knob she was about to press, and under closer inspection of those assembled in that small waiting area, she realised the folly of her almost-action. Of course, she was talking to five of the Elements Of Harmony! How embarrassed she felt for not recognising them sooner. She blamed too much fatigue, based on her many late-night shifts. Her tone immediately changed to cordial, and, after brushing down her uniform and putting on her warmest smile, she addressed the group again.

"N-no that won't be necessary..." She spluttered. "Obviously, if the Princess sent you down here, it must be on very important business. You can go straight down there now, she's in Ward 3A. From what I've heard from Nurse Redheart, she's woken up and is currently talking to her friend. Was there anything else I could do for you today?"

"Well actually, yes there is..." Applejack raised an eyebrow. " It's about her real mother..."

........................................................................................................

"Diamond? Diamond! Are you alright?" Apple Bloom stood next to the pink filly, trying to provoke a reaction from her.

The only thing thing Bloom got in response was stock silence. The pink filly just stood where she was when her mother left the room, staring at the remains of her smashed tiara in the corner, a lethargic expression set on her stony features.

"Didn't you hear what Jet Set said? He mentioned ponies were here to see us! I bet one of them is my big sister! Everything's going to be fine! You can stop worrying now!" Bloom practically begged her roommate to emerge from her trance. But nothing, not even waving a hoof in front of her face, seemed to work.

"Oh, Di... I don't know what to say..." The farm filly was frantic with worry and guilt. "When she touched you there... I tried to help you... But I was trapped. Surely you saw that... And you know what Spoiled said about your father wasn't true. He loves you dearly... I've seen that for myself whenever the two of you hang around town together. That horrible mare was just trying to manipulate you like she always does... Don't let her win..."

Finally, underpinned by the emotional urging of Apple Bloom, Tiara turned slightly around to face her friend, but still with the same frigid countenance present on her face. "I... Don't know... What to think... Or do, now..." She remarked in a monotone voice, before returning to gaze at her shattered jewelry in apathy.

"Oh Di! I want to help you... To take back what happened... But, I can't..." Apple Bloom's head drooped in shame. She was supposed to be the one who protected Diamond. Applejack had given her the task herself, and she'd been so honoured to be entrusted with such an important role. She'd swore nothing would befall her new friend, and that she'd do her big sister proud.

But, she'd failed. Miserably.

The broken, inert pink filly in front of her was testimony to her inadequacy. What was she going to tell Applejack, when she found out everything Diamond had suffered through that day, and under her watch? She'd never be relied upon for anything ever again, her family wouldn't even let her fetch the eggs from the hen-house without being carefully overseen. She was a complete washout as an Apple, a blot on their good name. What must her long departed parents think of her now...

Suddenly, she glanced at the unresponsive, stationary Tiara, and she realised the error of her line of thinking. How selfish of me to only consider my own needs after everything she's experienced since last night She thought to herself. I can lock my own self-pity away for now, the filly I should really be feeling sorry for is right there in front of me. If only I knew what I could do to...

The door burst open again, for the second time that day. Snapping awake from her soliloquizing, (while Diamond didn't even flicker at the noise) Apple Bloom quickly put her game-face back on. If they'd dared to come back, she was ready. She ground her teeth together, ready to pounce on whoever came through the entrance first...

"Apple Bloom!" That voice. It was like nirvana for the ears. The farm filly quickly adjusted her headlong rush, and turned it into a running hug. She snuggled against her big sister as if they'd been apart for years, not hours, and finally the tears began to show.

"O-oh. A-Applejack. Y-you h-have n-no i-idea..." Was all the farm filly could say, before completely exploding into floods of moisture.

"There, there." the orange mare gently cradled her little sister, while patting her on the head. "I'm here now. Nothing bad is gonna happen to you..."

"B-but A-Applejack..." Apple Bloom struggled to speak, between deep, watery gasps. "I-it's a-already t-too l-late..."

"What?!" Despite herself, Applejack pulled her sister away for a moment, to stare into her damp, reddened eyes." Have you seen Spoiled? Is she here now?" The orange mare cast her wary gaze over the room, and saw nopony else there, except for the still form of Tiara by the bed, who'd remained strangely dormant despite the older pony's sudden appearance.

"Y-yes, s-she w-was h-here..." Bloom continued to answer through her tears. "B-but s-she's g-gone n-now..."

"Oh no, I was afraid this might happen, if she heard her daughter was in the hospital..." Applejack lowered her hat in annoyance. "At least we'll be able to get her arrested for breaking the terms of the injunction, so Diamond will be safe from her from now on..."

"N-no, y-you d-don't u-understand!..." Apple Bloom cried out, weeping freely. " I-I s-said, i-it's t-too l-late. T-the d-damage h-has a-already b-been d-done. D-Di i-is..."

"What?! What do you mean?!" Even the usually stoic Applejack was beginning to get concerned over her sister's cryptic words, and Tiara's expressionless demeanor weren't helping the orange mare's stress levels either. "W-what happened?"

Surprisingly, Apple Bloom banished her tears away for a second, looked up at the ceiling and let out a single "Ha!". It wasn't a happy laugh though, more one born out of pure exasperation. "I'll tell you what happened. I let you down. I let our parents down. I couldn't protect her. I'm a disgrace to our family name. I don't deserve to call myself an Apple. Because of my f-failure, D-Di I-is..." That was all the orange mare could squeeze out of her sister, before the loud crying resumed anew.

Realising she wasn't going to get much more out of Bloom in this state, and that something truly terrible must have occurred to turn her sister into such a blubbering mess, Applejack's attention turned to Tiara. Perhaps she'd have better luck finding out what had happened from the pink filly, though the foster child's aloofness didn't fill the orange mare with confidence.

"Hey there, Diamond..." Applejack tried to attract the scrutiny of her charge. " So, I hear you've had a bit of a rough time today. Are you alright, sugarcube...?"

"I'm fine..." Came the plaintive response from the pink filly, who didn't look away from her destroyed tiara.

Phew, that's a bit of a load of my mind then... Applejack sighed with relief." So, tell me, did you see your mother today? Did she say anything to you? Any ideas why Apple Bloom here is in such a bad way? I was so worried, I ran down here with..."

"I'm fine..." There was that same stock reply again. No emotion behind it, and there must be two holes bore in the fragments of her old headgear by now, with all the glaring Diamond was subjecting it to.

A growing sense of dread began to pervade Applejack's mind. "Er... Are you positive you're fine, sugarcube? You've been very quiet since I got here, and you sure look very tense..." Still holding a distraught Apple Bloom into her midriff, the orange mare trotted over to the pink filly, and attempted to give her foster child a comforting stroke...

"I said, I'm fine! Didn't you hear me?"...The grown-up pony's hoof was slapped away by Tiara, who's mood had suddenly changed from passive to indignant in a heartbeat.

Applejack recoiled in shock, but as quickly as Diamond's spurt of anger emerged, it disappeared, The pink filly simply returned to gazing at her smashed jewelry in silence.

The orange mare felt physically sick. In the same way that Apple Bloom felt responsible for Tiara's present hardships, Applejack began to feel that she'd let everypony down by not being here by proxy when whatever happened here, happened.

The Princess had appointed her to do a job, placed all of her trust and expectation in her when she'd chosen the orange mare as the foster carer of this vulnerable child, and in return she'd promised Twilight that she'd look after the filly, keep her from harm, support her whenever she needed it...

Now, all of those vows were in tatters. Some 'Element of Honesty' she'd turned out to be. Plus, what was even worse was that she had no idea what was troubling her little sister and her new charge.

Applejack was certain it had something to do with the nefarious Spoiled, but she couldn't be sure what. And, it didn't look like she was going to get anything out of the distressed Apple Bloom or the detached Tiara for a while. There was only one thing to do...

" Rainbow!" She opened the door, and shouted into the midst of the expectant group she'd asked to wait outside. "Fly over to the Crystal Castle, and talk to Spike to see if he can get in remote contact with Twilight over in Canterlot. Tell him it's an emergency. Rarity! Could you go over to the front desk for me, and find out what room Spoiled is staying in? I'd like to have a little word with her, before I get the law involved..."

To respective cries of "On it!" and "Of course, dear." the blue pegasus and white unicorn set off. This left Fluttershy, who Applejack trusted to be quiet enough not to disturb the delicate sensibilities of the traumatised fillies inside the room, and Pinkie, who might be useful at helping the youngsters emerge from their shells, if the situation dictated it.

Oh, and of course there was Silver Spoon. Who wouldn't be held back any longer.

Completely ignoring those around her, as soon as she got a glimpse of her best friend through the ajar door, she bustled her way in and launched herself at Tiara. "Oh, Di!" She cried, hugging her friend vigorously. " I'm so sorry for what I said today! I didn't mean a word of it! You and me will be best friends forever, nothing'll ever change that! I don't want to fight with you ever again. Please say you forgive me! I'll do anything! Just talk to me!"

Expecting a curt, even angry response from her friend, all the grey filly got in return was a blank stare, and a simple "Hello, Silver Spoon." Before Diamond resumed her ongoing perusal of her shattered tiara.

Spoon was completely shocked. It was like grasping onto a lifeless rag doll. "Di! What's the matter with you?! Please, if you can tell anypony, you can tell me. I'm here for you! Just, look at me!" She pleaded desperately, her friend in her hooves...

But there was no reply.

Part 32: Opening Up

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Applejack looked on at the scene unfolding between Silver Spoon and Diamond Tiara with an ever-increasing sense of unease. If the pink filly couldn't even open up to her best friend...

She returned to her sister, still clinging onto the orange mare's fur as if for dear life. Her sniveling had somewhat abated a little, but Applejack still felt a wet patch where Bloom's face had been ensconced for the best part of five minutes.

Applejack's gaze fell on the two mares left outside. Could they do anything to break the tension and calm a few nerves? She noticed the face of Pinkie Pie, who'd been building up the 'big reconciliation' in her head between Spoon and Tiara, and obviously was not best pleased at the results. In fact, she looked on the verge of entering the room, to try and smooth things over, with her unique blend of insanity and vivacity...

Which Applejack instinctively knew, in the tenuous circumstances, would perhaps be the worst idea ever.

Mouthing to a crestfallen party pony not now, which Pinkie unusually obeyed, maybe finally learning her lesson from the whole Ponytones fiasco, Applejack's attention landed on the yellow pegasus standing next to her.

Fluttershy had been very subdued all this time, perhaps wondering why she traveled all this way to the hospital, when her contact with Diamond up until this point had been at a minimum, and worried that her poor pet Angel was starving to death back at the cottage.

Applejack thought about the mellow nature of the pegasus... How she hardly ever raised her voice... Her kind and patient demeanor... Her knack for empathising with almost everypony.

The orange mare had an idea. It was a bit of a long shot, but it surely couldn't make things any worse than they were right now.

"Hey Fluttershy, could you come here for a moment, please?"

................................................................................................................

Rainbow Dash sped off to Twilight's castle as fast as she could. She ignored all distractions, such as tempting cloud formations she could have kicked into oblivion in seconds, and even dodged the occasional greeting her fellow pegasi dished out as she rapidly passed them in the sky. She was a mare on a mission, she could deal with the weather and catch up with her flying buddies later.

There was one small oddity that struck her as she set off from the clinic, though. A pair of unicorns, that Dash could have sworn she remembered from somewhere, anxiously glancing around, while trying to remain as inconspicuous as possible. This behaviour would have seemed strange in itself, but their attire would indicate they were more used to the salubrious surroundings of Canterlot, than the far more moderate charms of Ponyville.

Was there a snob convention in town, and Rainbow hadn't been told about it? Maybe I should inform Rarity she thought to herself with a laugh, before realising that she was in a hurry, and had no time to investigate the admittedly unusual pair.

Upon reaching the ornate new structure, the blue Pegasus went straight through an open window without knocking, and flew into the main chamber. Stopping just short of the table, she hovered above the Cutie Map and regarded the sight below her with interest.

For there was Spike, fast asleep in Twilight's throne, a (non magical) Power Ponies comic book being levitated by his snores, and a bowl of gems spilt all over the floor under his feet.

What a sight. Dash couldn't help herself. She knew that Twilight wouldn't mind for one second the dragon taking a little nap on her chair, but was the paranoid, ever-so-careful Spike aware of that?

Rainbow was banking that he wasn't.

"Spike wake up!" She yelled, affecting the voice of somepony in a state of panic. "Twilight is back, and she's looking for you! She asked me to check in here, and there you are, having some shuteye on her throne. I'll warn you in advance, she told me herself... If I catch that assistant of mine using my special chair as a bed again..."

The dragon yawned, stretched, and looked at peace for a few seconds... That is, until Dash's words began to sink in. "Oh no!" He exclaimed, springing to his feet. "She'll ground me for a week! She'll take away my ruby privileges! I won't be able to attend Blueblood's party with her! And, I haven't even done any cleaning, or fed Owlicious!! What do I do? What do I do?!" He ran around aimlessly, bumping into furniture during his groundless hysteria.

Rainbow would have loved to prolong the joke for a little longer, but alas her gag reflex got the better of her "Bwhahahahaha!" She laughed out loud, while holding onto her sides in midair. Spike stopped his frenzied rush to stare at her quizzically, before finally putting two and two together, and realising he had been duped.

"Yeah, very funny, Rainbow!" He frowned, crossing his arms and casting the pegasus a dirty look. " You don't know how many times I've nearly been caught in here. I wish I could ignore the allure of that throne, but there's just something about it. It's so much bigger, and more comfortable than my puny little seat, sigh..."

"I wouldn't worry about that." Dash landed next to Spike, and gave him a friendly rub on his head. "I'm sure Twilight has more than enough to deal with all the friendship problems around Equestria, than her number one assistant rubbing his scales against her throne. I'm sure if you asked her, she'd let you sit on it when she's not around, or maybe get you a bigger chair for yourself..."

"Yes, well I'll think about that, I suppose..." Spike walked over to the gems he knocked onto the floor during his nap, and began to pick them up. " Right now, I have to do some sweeping, get a bird to eat his lunch, deal with you..."

The dragon stopped for a moment, unconsciously putting one of the retrieved jewels in his mouth. "Why are you here, anyway?" He asked with a hint of suspicion.

"Oh. Oh! In the middle of all our fun, I forgot..." Rainbow put her hooves over her mouth in reproach.

"Our fun?!" Spike raised an eyebrow at that slightly biased comment.

Dash wasn't listening, though. " Yes, now I remember. I was supposed to check in with you to see if there was any way you could contact Twilight from here. I know she's in Canterlot on direct orders from Celestia, but this is something really important. Would it be possible to speak to her, now...?"

Recognising how serious it must be for the usually carefree Rainbow to sound so dramatic, Spike began to rack his brains. "No, I don't think so. I think she's due to return early evening anyway, are you sure it couldn't wait until then?"

"I don't know about that, Applejack made it sound pretty urgent." Dash was a little disappointed at the dragon's response. "But I suppose, if there's no other option..."

"Hang on just a second..." Spike had a sudden flash of inspiration, dropping all of his collected gems in the process. "There might be a way, if we're lucky. Just cross your hooves, and follow me..."
................................................................................................................................

"Hello, darling. It's me again." Rarity made her presence known to Loving Care at the reception desk.

"Oh, it is you! Welcome!" The hospital worker was desperately trying to hairdry the tea stains off of her important documents, without much success. "What can I do for you, and the Princess, this time...?"

"Well, actually it's just for me." Rarity pointed out. "And you needn't be so formal. I may like to be treated like a lady, but I know for a fact Twilight prefers a far more humble approach. You needn't roll out the red carpet on my account, in her name..."

"Yes, yes! Of course! Whatever the Princess wants!" Loving Care had obviously not taken any notice to what the white unicorn had told her at all.

Sighing internally, Rarity decided to put her cards on the table. "Listen, you know we were here earlier discussing Miss Diamond Tiara's mother, Spoiled Rich, who's also presently a patient here? Well, if it's not too much trouble, we'd very much like the number of her room, please. You see, she may be responsible for a unsavoury incident that took place in this very hospital..."

Loving Care's mood suddenly flipped on a coin from respect, to apprehension... "Oh no!" the receptionist wailed. " Is this involving the filly under the Princess' personal care? And you say her mother was to blame? What happened? What happened?"

Unwilling to make things even more frenetic than they already were, but always loathe to tell a lie, Rarity decided to be straight with her. "Well, you see, there was a restraining order against her on behalf of her daughter, so that she couldn't go within..."

"What!" Loving Care eyes began to bulge to the size of apples. "Nopony told me this! Why did nopony tell me this?! I'm not getting fired because of somepony else's mistake! What do I do? What do I do?" The clinic worker started hyperventilating, to the extent that it looked as though she'd need hospital treatment herself soon.

"Now, now dear, there's no need for that kind of display..." Rarity tried to calm the situation. " I promise that nopony is going to lose their job over this, the blame lies all around. If you'd just give me the number as I requested, I'll get out of your mane, and everything 'll be fine. You have my word..."

Loving Care looked unconvinced, but saw that her erratic behaviour in front of one of the Princess' attendants made her appear a little foolish. "Well, if you're sure... It's on 4A. Now, if that's everything..."

"Yes, darling. That's all I wanted. And if I may be so bold as to make a suggestion, I've always found hot water and vinegar work wonders at removing tea stains. Give it a try. Hope to see you again, soon..." The unicorn took her leave.

Meanwhile, Loving Care was caught in a bit of a quandary. What should she do first, mix Rarity's concoction, or hire a lawyer for a potential employment tribunal...?

Decisions, decisions...

..............................................................................................................

She didn't know why she did it.

She'd been given strict instructions to find out the room number, and return to Applejack...

But she just couldn't help herself.

And now Rarity stood, right outside Spoiled's door, planning her next move in earnest.

Why had the unicorn walked all this way, instead of going back as she was supposed to?

If Spoiled had done something as bad as Applejack suspected, she was probably long gone, anyway, having had plenty of time to make her getaway...

Rarity suspected there was nothing inside, but an empty bed, and a long checked-out mare, but she had to see for herself.

With extreme trepidation, she trotted forward, ready to grasp the handle and turn it...

But then, it moved of it's own accord, and there Spoiled stood, in all her glory.

"Ah, Rarity. The only one of you six troublemakers with any class..." She casually remarked. " I trust after this little misunderstanding with my daughter has been cleared up, I win her back and receive a full apology, I can go back to shopping at your boutique. You're just had a new line of shimmery dresses in, yes? I can't wait to see them..."

Taken completely aback by Spoiled's nonchalance, the white unicorn stammered in her reply. "E-er y-yes, b-but t-that's n-not w-what..."

"Let me guess, my Diamond has been telling tales about me again?" Spoiled rolled her eyes in mock annoyance. "Honestly, fillies. You can't live with them, and you can't live without them. They can be a hoofful, but you know that already, right? I bet your Sweetie Belle gets up to some mischief, too..."

Forgetting who she was talking to for a moment, Rarity's natural friendliness bubbled to the surface. "Why, yes dear! She most certainly does! Why, there was that time she nearly messed up my deal with Sapphire Shores! Not to mention, when she helped to write that gossip column for the school newspaper. I believe your daughter was the editor... Wait a second!" She suddenly recalled why she was there in the first place, and snapped to attention.

"Yes, I remember the Foal Free Press incident, and my Diamond's subsequent demotion to printer." Spoiled's mask of amiability slipped for a moment, and she pursed her lips. "It took Randolph two hours to scrub all the ink off of her that night. He almost didn't serve my dinner on time! I don't know why my pushover of a husband still keeps that doddery old fool in a job, any self-respecting family would have put him out to pasture years ago..."

Feeling they were veering somewhere off topic, Rarity interjected. "Yes dear, that is a shame, but I'm afraid I'm here regarding slightly more important matters than your difficulties with your servant..."

"Yes, I suppose..." Spoiled let out a long sigh. "Maybe we can talk about it more over coffee and scones at my mansion, once this whole sorry saga is over. I think I know what this is about, and I'll willingly come with you. I have nothing to hide, as you'll soon find out. Don't forget about our dinner date, though. After all, we have so much in common..." And with that, she sauntered off down the corridor, nose held high.

I very much doubt that Rarity thought, before following her lead.

.........................................................................................................................

"Come come dear..." Jet Set was desperate to get out of the hospital.

"I told you, darling. I wasn't going anywhere until I'd washed my hooves. Don't you know where they've been..." Upper Crust emerged from the bathroom at last.

"Yes, I was a little surprised at what you did myself..." Jet Set commented. "What exactly was that in aid of?"

"I just wanted to be certain we weren't being played for chumps, my dearest..." Upper Crust took up her position at the side of her husband, as they stealthily left the building. "Don't you know how valuable a cutie mark like that could be in the wrong hooves..."

" I understand your worry..." Jet Set replied. "But to go to such lengths, just to be sure..."

"It was mildly unpleasant, to say the least..." Upper Crust wrinkled her nose. "But in the long term, I'm sure it'll be worth it. If we can get on the good side of that filly, or whoever controls her, we could..."

"Stop, who's that?" Jet Set had abruptly halted his slow stride forward, so his wife bumped into him.

"Ow, what the..." Upper Crust exclaimed.

"Shh!" Jet Set motioned for his wife to be quiet, pointing at a strange blue blur above them that appeared to be monitoring them closely.

"Who in Equestria is that?" Upper Crust shielded her eyes from the sun, trying to see the identity of their spy in the sky.

"I have no idea..." Jet Set replied, though something niggled at the back of his mind that he'd seen that pegasus before.

They didn't have much time to ponder though, for a few seconds later, the figure seemed to lose interest, and flew into the horizon.

"How bizarre." remarked Upper Crust. "You don't suppose they're onto us already..."

"Nonsense dear. We've only just gone outside." Jet Set was sure they'd escaped undetected. "Now we must return to our hotel room like Spoiled said, and plan..."

"Yes, let's..." Upper Crust smiled a little at her husband showing initiative for a change. She liked the rare occasions he took control...

As long as he didn't do it too often.
...................................................................................................................

It had been around quarter of an hour since Rarity and Rainbow Dash had been dispatched on their respective missions, and Applejack was still waiting to hear back from them.

Apple Bloom had wrung herself dry through crying, and was now just holding onto her sister, a downcast expression set in her face.

Silver Spoon had long since given up on eliciting any emotion from the distant Diamond, but still refused to leave her side.

The pink filly in question continued to stare at the remains of her tiara, the only clue she was still even alive being the occasional blink.

As for Pinkie Pie, she'd been relegated outside the room, her usual antics not readily appreciated in such a solemn atmosphere. To pass the time, she'd been trying to solve the new puzzle sensation, known as 'Rubuck's Cube'. It looked easy enough, but she always ended up with one mismatched colour each side.

She was so frustrated by the whole experience, she was on the verge of cheating. After all, nopony would ever find out if she swapped a few of the stickers around, surely...

Fluttershy on the other hand, had a slightly more important task to fulfill.

Waiting for her cue from Applejack, she carefully made her way over to Diamond, firstly addressing the nearby Spoon.

"Um... Silver, is it? Listen... I hate to be a bother... But if at all possible, could I have a little word with your friend on my own, please? I promise I'll be quick..." Fluttershy requested, hopefully.

The grey filly looked at the pegasus, then back at Tiara. "Okay, fine." She reluctantly agreed. "But, I'm going to be right over there. Do you hear that, Di? I'm not going anywhere."

Spoon looked at her friend, wishing for a response, more in hope than expectation. Getting none, she frowned in concern, before making her way over to where Applejack and Apple Bloom stood, and all three watched as Fluttershy sat next to the unresponsive Diamond.

"Hello there. You might not know me very well... My name is Fluttershy." The yellow pegasus attempted to break the ice. " I'm not going to try to get you to talk to me if you don't want to, and I don't want to cause you any more anguish than you've suffered already, you poor thing. But if there's one thing I can tell just by looking at you now, it's that you're in pain. I see it in the eyes of the animals I treat, the birds I heal and even everyday ponies who I walk past in the street all the time. I can't say I know what you're going through, but if I've learnt anything about pain, it's that bottling it up never works..."

At this point, Diamond's gaze slightly drifted to her right, where the yellow pegasus was sitting. As soon as she realised what she was doing however, she quickly returned them to her smashed jewelry.

It's not much, but it's a start Applejack noted.

Undeterred, Fluttershy continued. "You'll just get sadder and sadder, until the feeling becomes unbearable. Of course, I don't expect you to open up straight away, but please remember, anytime you might want to confide in somepony, me, Applejack or any of my friends would be more than happy to listen. The only thing I ask of you is to not leave it too long. You're too young and pretty, for something like this to be eating away at you from the inside. Just think about what I've told you today, and when you're ready, we'll be here waiting for you."

Having said her piece, the yellow pegasus simply stood up and slowly walked away.

Applejack watched her slow retreat with trepidation. It had been a bit of a gamble to expect Fluttershy to act as a trainee counselor for the obviously disturbed pink filly, but in the short term the farm mare felt it was a better option than doing nothing.

At least Tiara hadn't blown up in Fluttershy's face, which is what had happened when Applejack had tried to comfort the child earlier. Only time would tell if she'd had made the right decision...

"I...I'm ready to talk."

Huh? Where did that come from?

It was Diamond, finally turning her cold stare away from her shattered tiara, and looking apprehensively at those present in the room, Fluttershy in particular.

Everypony present jumped a little in surprise, and even Pinkie, in the middle of deciphering her toy, poked her head around the doorway.

Applejack was the first to speak. She took a tenative step forward.

"Are you sure, sugarcube?"

"Yes... Yes, I am."

Part 33: A Friend In Need...

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"Well, that was a productive first meeting..." Twilight remarked, scanning across the large table where, until a few minutes ago, all four Princesses had been seated. Luna and Celestia had left the room to 'get some fresh air', leaving the purple alicorn alone with her former babysitter, Cadence.

"It was rather dull, wasn't it..." The pink mare offered a sympathetic smile. "I don't know why we have to have these weekly sessions now, instead of just convening together whenever there's an emergency. I suppose, after Tirek's almost complete takeover of Equestria, Celestia is only trying to keep more up-to-date with current events. After all, she rarely leaves the castle, and we're her eyes and ears in Ponyville, the Crystal Empire and beyond..."

"Yes, I know that." Twilight sighed. "But when I received the message this morning that there was some 'urgent business' in Canterlot, I assumed it would be something more important than four ponies shuffling papers for two hours, with occasional observations about the weather, and we've got to go through this every seven days? Just when I thought my life couldn't get any duller... Even the Cutie Map seems determined to keep me stuck indoors at the moment..."

"Don't worry, things'll soon liven up again!" Cadence optimistically remarked, putting a hoof around her old friend's neck. "And even if they don't, you've still got me and Shining Armour's visit to look forward to, next week! It'll be nice to spend some time together, provided we don't have to fight any more Tatzlwurms this time. Are you sure you're going to be able to keep Discord on a tighter leash this time...?"

"Well, I don't think it's exactly possible to 'control' Discord... " Twilight pondered, "After all, he is the Master Of Chaos, and he's no longer a statue, so we can't just move him from place to place. After what happened at the Grand Galloping Gala this year though, Fluttershy had a long talk with him, and he seems to be a lot more amenable to leaving his friends alone to spend time by themselves. At least that's what he says..."

Both Princesses gave each other a skeptical look at this point, before Twilight continued. "Look Cadence. It's not like I want disaster to befall Equestria again, I mean I'm enjoying this period of tranquility as much as anypony. I just thought with my castle and my new status, I might have a little more to do in my spare time than sort out books and exchange bad puns with Spike. I mean, I know there was that whole business with Starlight Glimmer, but that seems like ages ago now..."

"Don't worry, Twi." Cadence said with a knowing grin. "I have something extra special planned for my arrival that you're sure to enjoy. A game where the prize is something unbelievable, and you're sure to love! In fact, one could almost call it life-changing..."

But the younger alicorn wasn't listening. Her attention had been drawn to a strange, transparent square which had appeared in front of her, on which a face seemed to be forming. Purple, green, reptilian in appearance...

Cadence, looking on, knew who it was almost immediately. It could only be Twilight's faithful assistant...

.........................................................................................................

"Spike! I thought you said this thing would work..." Rainbow Dash stared impatiently over the shoulder of the diminutive dragon.

"Yeah, yeah." Spike groaned. "Twilight only showed me how to use it once, when she found it in the depths of the castle while exploring. Now, I think you have to press this... Then you have to shake it like so...."

The item in question was none other than a mystical mirror, which had been located in a wooden box covered in runes. Whoever had left it there, and how long it had been undisturbed was lost in the mists of time, but Twilight soon spotted a picture of it in a book while researching the artifact afterwards. Apparently, the way it functioned was that you had to say someone's name while performing a certain ritual, and that individual's face would appear in the glass, allowing a two-way conversation.

Unsure of the safety of such a powerful device, Twilight had made Spike swear a Pinkie Promise that it would only be used in the most dire of circumstances...

Like now, allegedly. Or at least, that's the impression Rainbow Dash had given him...

"Something seems to be happening now, at least..." Spike remarked, as his reflection went all hazy, and became a mosaic of many colours. "Now, let's try the next step... Princess Twilight Sparkle, please!"

There was an instant flash from the mirror, and the burst of light that emerged almost blinded Spike and Dash. With their eyes still recovering from the intense glare, they could just make out the numerous shades in the glass join together as one, to form the features of somepony both knew only too well.

"Spike! I told you only to use that item in the most desperate of situations! This better not be about you running out of emeralds again, or Owlicious pecking you on the head because you interrupted his roost.." The purple alicorn warned, secretly ecstatic that this ancient technology appeared to be functioning perfectly.

"No, no. Of course not!" Spike tried to reassure her. "The reason I'm calling is under a direct order from Applejack, via Rainbow Dash. She says it's an emergency, and you should come back as soon as possible. I'm not sure what it's about. Something to do with a tiara?

"A tiara?" Twilight was stumped for a minute. She only had one of those fancy things which was bestowed upon her the day she was crowned Princess, and being a down-to-earth kind of pony, she only wore it on special occasions, and usually stored it deep inside the recesses of a closet. "Spike, if you've lost or broken that item while cleaning, I am disappointed, but it's not the end of the world. It certainly isn't worth worrying..."

"No, no. You've got it all wrong!..." The dragon waved his claws in protest, at not being understood correctly. "Tiara is a pony, not an object! Do you know who I'm talking about now? ...Oh, hey Cadence!"

Twilight did. Her first reaction was an extended gulp, before she informed her assistant on the magical screen. "Why, what's happened?! Tell me all you... In fact, no. I'm on my way now. Whereabouts should I meet Applejack?"

Spike turned to Rainbow Dash just off-screen to find out that information, before responding to the purple alicorn. "The hospital" came the chilling reply.

Uh-oh, It could be even worst than I thought realised Twilight. She began to panic a little, though not quite at the level of the time she made all of Ponyville infatuated with a stuffed toy.

"I'm on my way!" She turned away from the image, thus severing contact. Spreading her wings wide, she turned to Cadance to offer a quick farewell. " I suppose I'll see you next week, then..." the purple alicorn hastily uttered. "Apologise on my behalf to Luna and Celestia, that I couldn't join them for tea. Honestly, you don't know what it's like, having a little one running around like that, causing trouble, taking up all your spare time..."

Cadence couldn't help but draw parallels between what Twilight had just said, and a major announcement she planned to make in the future. "Actually, funny you should say that..."

But the Princess Of Friendship had already gone.
...........................................................................................

"So, let me guess, I'm under arrest for ignoring the terms of the injunction against me?" Spoiled remarked, while she trotted alongside Rarity.

Not for the first time, the white unicorn was amazed at how upfront Diamond's mother was at how much trouble she was in. "Well, y-yes, that's part of it. But judging from the state she, and her friend Apple Bloom were in when me and my friends arrived, we were under the distinct impression something more substantial had occurred in there. So we want to look into that, before..."

Rarity's words were cut short by the quiet tittering of Spoiled, who didn't seem in the least concerned about her daughter's mental health. "Oh, I think I know what this is about. My daughter is playing her silly games again! And this time ,she's got one of her... Classmates involved. Don't worry, my dear. All of this can be quite easily straightened out. I won't say anything else for now though, as I assume you've already informed that mousy librarian moonlighting as a princess, of proceedings, and even now she's scampering down here full throttle on those little wings, bless her! Isn't she going to feel stupid when she realises this is all just a waste of time for everypony concerned? I can't wait to see her face. Perhaps I'll bring a camera, for the magic moment..."

Rarity nearly choked on her own words. Never before had she heard such blatant disrespect in all her life. "W-what?! H-how could you talk about her...your Princess... L-like that?!"

Spoiled suddenly stopped in the middle of the corridor for a moment, and afforded the white unicorn a large scowl. "Quite easily, my dear. Didn't you hear me? And she's not my princess, she doesn't represent my ideals, or my vision for this great nation of ours. I most certainly did not vote for her to govern over me. All she is to my eyes is a nerdy little bookworm who brown-nosed with Celestia at an early age, to receive undeserved rewards later on. Why should she have a custom-made castle, all to herself? Why should she have her own faithful servant she never even has to pay, even if it is just a puny lizard? You may think I'm jealous, but I'm not. I'm merely perplexed why somepony so unworthy has been given all of these rewards on a silver platter, without really having to work for them..."

Rarity could hold her tongue no longer. "I'll have you know, Mrs Rich..." She exclaimed. "That my good friend Twilight Sparkle has warranted all the honours bestowed upon her a hundred times over! Why, she's solved friendship problems the world over, saved the world from total destruction at least twice, mastered numerous magic spells and incantations, not to mention being a fine, compassionate mare that I'm proud to call my friend!" It was a most unladylike rant from the white unicorn, but she'd been driven to it by the incessant goading of her companion.

Not that Spoiled seemed put out Rarity's defence of her fellow element carrier, though. "Oh, yes. I've heard all about that 'compassionate' friend of yours, sticking her nose into everypony's affairs all over Equestria. Why can't she just mind her own business? As for 'saving the world', well, she'd be nothing without you five bookends backing her up. What would happen to us all if one of you was incapacitated for some reason? Equestria would be doomed, that's what! What a way to defend a nation! And those spells she's supposedly learnt, I'll grant you she probably did that by herself. But what do you expect? She spends most of her time shut away, like a socially inadequate recluse! What else is she supposed to do, other than read? Its a waste of a perfectly good idea, having a Princess in Ponyville, and giving the job to the worst possible candidate!"

Rarity was not sure she could take much more of this nonsense, which verged on treason. "Okay, Spoiled, do tell..." She inquired, with a hint of malice. "If you were elevated to the esteemed position currently held by Twilight, what would you do with your newfound power and influence?" She was kind of nervous to find out the answer, but she couldn't help but ask.

"Well, for a start, I'd make a lot of new friends..." Spoiled pondered, beginning to walk on once more. "No dirty animal caretakers, all that dander would play havoc with my allergies. No insane party planners, all that noise would echo throughout my mansion, ruining my beauty sleep. And most definitely no disgusting farmers... Need I even explain why? Let's just say, the company I chose to keep would be a little more of your calibre, perhaps a few hundred steps higher in prestige, but you get the general idea. Then, I'd assemble my team, and change the face of Equestria as we know it. I'll save the minute details for my manifesto, but let's just say they'd be a lot less handouts and shacks, and plenty more workhouses and palaces..."

Rarity was sure she was joking. She must be joking, right? It was purely a rhetorical question she'd posed to Spoiled, and yet the serious, considered reply she'd given the white unicorn made it sound like she was seriously considering running for the monarchy.

Celestia help us all if that ever come to pass Rarity grimly thought.

"Anyway, that's the dream..." sighed Spoiled. "Well, it doesn't resemble 'the dream' I had earlier on, that was more of a nightmare. But I'm sure it wouldn't come to pass like that, it was most likely just Luna in my head, having fun at my expense. I do wonder sometimes, if that mare is truly reformed...

A lot more so than you, I'd bet Rarity's private thoughts stuck in her head again, as the two mares approached the front desk, with a much more cheerful Loving Care still on duty.

"Hello there!" The receptionist greeted Rarity with a wide smile. "I just wanted to tell you, your home remedy for tea stain removal worked a treat! I'll be able to read these papers again now, and finish my work for the day! How can I ever thank you?"

"Well..." Rarity was about to tell Loving Care to think nothing of it, when she suddenly had a brainwave. Even though she'd already broken it once, the restraining order Spoiled had imposed on her was still in effect, so the white unicorn couldn't exactly take her to Diamond's hospital room.

By the same token, Rarity didn't want to leave the head of the school board all on her own, lest she change her mind and did a runner. Who knows how much trouble the unicorn would be in with Applejack and company, if Spoiled slipped away before facing what inevitable charges were winging her direction.

No, the best solution came courtesy of something Loving Care had said before, during their first awkward meeting together. "Actually, there is something you can do for me, darling. You remember that security button I saw you almost push earlier on? Well, I'd like you to press it now, please."

The receptionist looked understandably confused. "But why?" She inquired. "You haven't done anything wrong..."

"You're right..." Rarity shot a glance at the poker-faced Spoiled. "I haven't...."

...................................................................................................................................

"Take your time, sugarcube. We're all here for you, if you need us..." Applejack offered a comforting reminder.

Diamond surveyed the faces around her. It was a room full of love. Fluttershy. Silver Spoon. Applejack. Even Pinkie Pie, who had somehow grasped that discretion was the better part of valour in this situation, and maintained a quiet facade. At least, for now.

But the one Tiara felt closest to, the one who was giving her the most courage out of everypony present to speak up, the one she'd suffered alongside during her ordeal and the only one there able to fully comprehend exactly what she was going through right now, was Apple Bloom.

Fluttershy may have given her the pep talk, but it was Bloom trotting over to hold her hoof, and whisper it's not your fault in her ear on a reassuring loop, that truly allowed her the freedom to exorcise her demons.

"T-thank you Applejack." Diamond stammered, feeling as if any moment she could collapse like a ton of bricks, if not for the farm filly by her side, propping her up like a homemade crutch. She used to be so strong, so in charge... And now, after everything that had happened, she felt as weak as a newborn kitten.

Would she ever be that strong again?

She tried to speak. "So, y-yes, my mother came into my room, while me and A-Apple Bloom were under the bed..."

Silver Spoon couldn't help but stop her friend there. "What were you two doing under the bed?!" She asked, with a raised eyebrow.

"Silver!" Chastised Bloom. " Can't you see how hard it is for Di to talk to us now as it is, without you interrupting her with your pointless questions? Sorry, Di, please continue..."

"Yeah, sorry..." A shame-faced Spoon looked down at the floor. Some bestie I am, she thought, being chewed out by Apple Bloom of all ponies, like that.

"O-okay. Well, anyway... So we heard them talking..." Diamond continued.

" 'Them' also including a wealthy married couple who'd accompanied Spoiled into the room...." Apple Bloom added helpfully.

"Yes, that's r-right..." Tiara acknowledged, as much as she'd like to forget them. Particularly the mare. "Anyway, they were saying all k-kinds of horrible things about my new f-friends the Crusaders, and Princess Twilight, about how they'd corrupted me, how I was much better when I was c-cruel all the time and how my mother was no longer p-proud to have me as a daughter. Did I miss a-anything out?" She turned to Apple Bloom for support.

"No, you did good..." The farm filly gave her friend a sad smile. "The only thing you didn't mention was the part about how you were somehow going to help either the poor ponies or the well-off ponies take over the universe, because of your cutie mark, but let's put that down to the overactive imagination of Spoiled. Shall we go on?..."

"Hang on just a second..." Applejack stepped over to Diamond, grasped onto her front hooves and stared deep into her eyes. "Now, don't you be fretting about what your mother said about you there, if you ask me she's outta her mind not to appreciate a daughter like you. I'm chuffed to bits that you chose to make a positive decision in your life like that at such a tender age, and you couldn't ask for three more loyal friends than Scootaloo, Sweetie Belle and my Apple Bloom. As for Twilight, she cares as deeply about your well-being as I do. Do you understand what I'm saying, sugarcube?"

Wiping a stray tear away, but determined not to launch into another full scale cryfest, Tiara nodded her appreciation to the orange mare. "Yes, A-Applejack, and thank y-you."

"No problem at all. Now, you just go back to telling us your story." Applejack returned to stand next to Fluttershy, as a grateful Tiara resumed talking.

"So a-anyway, I got very cross at this stage, and ran out f-from under the bed to confront her. I-I tried to tell her how I felt, but she just laughed in my f-face, and t-then..."

Diamond visibly grimaced at this point, in no mood to go through the sordid details of the moment she felt the sensation of those hooves around her flank, touching her hind legs, going all the way up her...

Realising her friend was beginning to struggle, Apple Bloom stepped in. "...And then Spoiled started telling all manner of lies about Di's father, about how he always wanted a colt instead, him travelling the world being just an excuse to get away from his daughter, and that Filthy didn't love her at all. That's when I finally snapped, and I gave 'the head of the school board' both barrels. You should have seen me, Applejack. I was on fire! But the most important thing was, we got rid of Spoiled, and that's when you arrived."

Applejack's hatred of Spoiled seem to grow with every passing revelation. "What?!" She removed her hat, and threw it on the ground in disgust. "That Filthy Rich is one of the most stand-up guys I know! Sure, he can be a bit snooty, but he's always been nothing but virtuous in my dealings with him, never tried to cheat us or anything! And he's always banging on about how proud he is of his lil shining Diamond , how he can't wait to train her to be his successor, take her for trips around the world when she's older, how smart she is for just a little filly. That lying mare wants his daughter to believe he's ashamed of her?! It's lucky you were there to get rid of her, Apple Bloom, because if you weren't... Well, let's just say I wouldn't be held accountable for my actions."

Even though the other listeners present seemed equally appalled by what they'd heard, Applejack was taking her resentment to a whole different level. Bloom had hardly ever seen her sister this irate, but she could completely understand the reaction. The farm filly had felt just the same way, during her verbal takedown of the conceited snob.

Tiara sat quietly in contemplation. Despite all the reassurances she was hearing from all and sundry, her faith in her father had still been considerably shaken. All kinds of unwanted, obtrusive questions were beginning to enter her head for the first time, and refusing to go away, such as:

Why does my Daddy spend so much time far away from home...?
Why does he do nothing in response to my Mother constantly bullying me?
What made him marry her in the first place?

She had no idea. She did know one thing though, Her love for him would never felt quite the same again, until she had the answers to all those mysteries.

Diamond was jolted back to reality by the feeling of another hoof this time, a safe one touching her shoulder, on the opposite side of her frame to where Bloom still lingered. She glanced over to it's owner, and it was none other than the reproachable face of Silver Spoon.

"I'm so sorry you had to go through all that Di..." The grey filly wanted to make amends. "I haven't been a very good best friend lately, have I? Only thinking about myself and my needs, without even taking into account your emotions. I knew what was going on between you and your mother, and chose to downplay it. Then, I even wanted to stop you making new friends, so I could have you all to myself! I feel ashamed of how I acted, and I'd like to start making up for it right now. Starting with a sworn promise to be by your side whenever you need me, whatever happens in the future. Now, I've got something to say to your new friend..."

Hearing the term 'promise' caused Pinkie to stir a little where she sat, but she figured one of her special vows was more than enough for Silver Spoon to deal with for one day, so she kept quiet

In the meantime, the grey filly reached over Tiara's form, and grasped Bloom's hoof. "Thank you, Apple Bloom, for taking care of my best friend when I wasn't around. Now that I'm back, we can look after her together, as well as hang out with Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle too. I'm sure we'll all get on really well, and form a strong support network for Di as she recovers."

Silver's words sounded pleasant enough , but even as she shook hooves with Spoon, Bloom could have sworn she saw a glint of something resentful in the grey filly's eye. No, surely not. They were all good friends now. It was all just in her head.

While Pinkie continued to watch, beaming at the long-awaited sight of the youngsters making up, Fluttershy had one final question. "Um... If you don't mind me asking... You mentioned something about a married couple being in the room with Spoiled?"

"Yes, that's right?" Bloom wondered why they were being bought up again.

"Well..." The yellow pegasus observed thoughtfully. "You never did tell us what happened to them. Did they leave the room with Spoiled, or did they go earlier?"

Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed the already uncomfortable Diamond shift even harder in her position at the mere mention of those two, even more so than when discussing her mother. " Er... They left before, but they weren't really important to the events that followed, so we kind of forgot to talk about them again."

"Oh, okay." Fluttershy seemed happy with that answer, and Bloom sighed with relief. The less that pair were bought up, the more relaxed Tiara felt, and that was fine with her.

Besides, a new distraction was about to appear. At roughly the same time, Rarity trod gracefully into view, and at the opposite end of the corridor, Rainbow Dash, blatantly ignoring the numerous 'No Flying' signs, darted around the corner.

All the occupants of that tiny room, save for a pink filly and a yellow filly, ran over to hear the latest news, leaving Apple Bloom to ask Diamond Tiara a simple question, regarding a secret she couldn't even share with Silver Spoon.

"... How long, Di? Before you think you can tell..."

Tiara looked down at the floor, trying to push the flashbacks away, without much success.

"I don't know Apple Bloom. Possibly, never."

Part 34: The Trial Starts

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"Dash, what did I tell you about flying full-speed through hospital corridors?!" Applejack chided the pegasus, as she screeched to a halt, taking at least ten metres to do so. "This is a medical facility, not a Wonderbolts training camp! If you're not too careful..."

"Okay, I get it." Rainbow sighed at being given yet another lecture for her irresponsibility. "No harm done, though. I only almost knocked over one nurse this time, and I'm pretty sure that patient on the trolley I clipped is going to be just fine...

" And what patient would that be?" Rarity wondered, with a raised eyebrow.

"Er, never mind." Dash was eager to move the conversation on. "So anyway, I have some news, but as they always say, ladies first. Rare, why don't you take the stand..."

Rainbow's tactics of flattery worked, as an instant blush worked it's way onto the white unicorn's cheeks, and she forgot all about the blue pegasus's recklessness."Oh, yes. Um, Applejack, please try not to get mad..."

........................................................................................................

"You did what?" Applejack was a little perturbed at Rarity's impulsive actions. "I told you to head straight back here after discovering Spoiled's room number! I certainly didn't expect you, of all ponies, to go and confront her yourself! Why did you do it?"

Ignoring Dash's impudent grin that another element wielder was the one in trouble for impetuousness for a change, Rarity struggled to answer. "I-I just wanted to see if she was still there, Applejack. If we'd left it any longer she may have tried to bolt, and then where would we be? Probably combing all over Ponyville, trying to find her. Besides, what's the worry, darling? She might be a bad mother, but she's hardly dangerous..."

"I can think of one filly who may disagree with you there..." Applejack stole a look at Diamond through the ajar door to her room.

Since the return of Dash and Rarity, the orange mare had sent Silver Spoon back inside so the adults could talk in private. Both her and Apple Bloom were now sitting either side of Tiara, attempting to draw her out of her shell. But besides the occasional half-smile and appreciative nod, the pink filly remained as subdued as ever.

"Do you think..." Applejack wondered out loud. "There's something she's not telling us? I mean, I get that she's upset that her mom, figuratively speaking, tore her dad to shreds in front of her earlier on, that would be enough to rattle any child. But, and this is just a gut feeling, I reckon there's more to the story about what happened in that room. I don't know what it could be, but I don't think we've been given the whole truth..."

"Well, you trust Apple Bloom don't you, and she was there." Fluttershy attempted to offer an explanation. "If anything serious had occurred, wouldn't you say her big sister would be the first pony she'd confide in? I think Diamond is still coming to terms with everything that's happened to her lately. Give her a few days, Applejack. She'll come round, you'll see!"

"... Yeah, maybe." The orange mare replied, doubtingly. Part of her skepticism in believing she hadn't got the complete picture of the situation was the odd look exchanged between Tiara and Apple Bloom, when the former had stuttered while relaying her story. It was almost like a mutual code of secrecy had been granted at that very moment, the kind she used to share with her little sister before their parents sadly passed on.

Applejack was more than happy for the pair to keep certain truths hidden from others, after all, that's what friends do. The older mare was delighted that the former enemies were developing a bond close enough to allow them to share such confidential information. What she didn't approve of was the duo keeping anything undisclosed that could damage Diamond in the long run, as a result of Bloom's well-meaning but ultimately inadvisable silence. She intended to a have a little talk with her sister later, to clarify matters.

Regardless, that was neither here or there. Right now, she had other matters to deal with. "So, you say Spoiled is in the custody of the guards at the hospital?" She asked Rarity.

The white unicorn nodded to confirm this. "Yes, I dropped her off there before coming back. It was all quite odd really, she put up no resistance when they arrived, and took her to the holding centre behind the reception. The only thing that seemed to concern her was if anypony of importance would see her getting arrested in public like that, but when she decided in her own words, 'anypony of any prestige would have private healthcare anyway', even that ceased to bother her."

"That sounds like Spoiled alright..." Applejack grunted in annoyance. " I only had a short taste of her baloney at Filthy Rich's mansion last night, and let me tell you, it was enough to last me for a lifetime. No wonder her husband never talks about her when he comes to see me at Sweet Acres, he probably can't wait to have a break. I dread to think about the kind of mare Diamond would have grown up to be, if she'd spent anymore time with that..."

"Now, now. Let's not get too personal. We don't wish to stoop to her level." Rarity considered herself above such juvenile insults. "Most of us already know what Spoiled is like by now, in fact during my short walk with her earlier she said some truly slanderous things which, shamefully, almost made me lose control of myself. But don't forget, for better or worse, she is still Diamond's mother, and if we want to be a positive influence on the child, we must discourage conflict and attempt to engage positively with her. After all, if we could reform Discord..."

"Er, I think you'll find most of the credit of that goes to Fluttershy." Rainbow Dash claimed the commendation for her friend, seeing as the humble yellow pegasus was always keen to stay out of the spotlight. "Anyway, doesn't anypony want to hear my news? I flew all the way to Twi's castle, played a hilarious prank on Spike, found a magical mirror, got through to Canterlot on it..."

"Yes, that's very good, dear..." Rarity wanted her friend to get to the point. "But did you carry out your assigned task? Did you manage to contact Twilight, and is she on her way here? You weren't just playing around with that gadget, were you? Come, come. Tell us, we're all ears."

The white unicorn gave the pegasus a smug grin, and Dash realised Rarity was getting a bit of payback for Rainbow's barely concealed joy at her chewing out at the hooves of Applejack earlier on.

"Why, you prissy..." Rainbow arched her wings in anger. " I'll have you know, my plan worked a treat. Twi left for Ponyville about half an hour ago, all thanks to my brilliant idea about contacting her with the mirror. Of course, being the not-at-all vain diva you are, you wouldn't know anything about mirrors, would you?"

"It doesn't hurt to look after oneself, darling." Rarity dismissively replied. " At least I can have a hooficure, without throwing a fit. Does that make me the tough pony, now?"

"What did you just say?!" Dash ground her teeth together, remembering all too well the day she spent almost the entire morning gathering up each copy of the Foal Free Press, just so her moment of humiliation didn't make the national headlines.

"Everypony, please don't fight..." Fluttershy didn't like this new, aggressive atmosphere that was pervading, and sheltered behind her wings.

On seeing the stress inflicted on their skittish friend, all of the animosity felt by the feuding pair dissipated almost instantly. "Oops, sorry Flutters, I should have realised..." Dash felt especially guilty.

"Yes, my apologies too. This tenseness isn't doing anything for my nerves, or my mood. I truly think we'll only be settled once Twilight gets here..." Rarity mused.

"I hope she arrives soon, for all our sakes..." Applejack continued to covertly observe the three fillies in the ward room, pondering what they were talking about...

"I've done it!!" came a shrill voice suddenly from nearby.

Everypony spun around to see Pinkie, who'd astonishingly stayed quiet all this time, dancing around like a loon. "I am the greatest! I am the champion! Oh yeah! Oh yeah! Wait until Gummy sees this..."

Rarity decided to humour her. "Sees what, darling?"

Without saying anything, but with a broad grin that showed off all of her pearly whites, Pinkie produced the finished form of her Rubuck's cube, with everything filled in. "I bet I'm the first one in Ponyville to complete this momentous task! I'm going to shout to everypony from the rooftops, bake a cube-shaped cake for the occasion, throw a party in my own honour... Hey, what are you all staring at?!"

Considering the scale of her achievement, the least she expected from her friends was a 'congratulations', or a little hoofshake, but none of them seemed that fussed, gazing at her toy with completely straight faces...

Except for Rainbow Dash, who was barely able to suppress her giggles. "Hey, Pinkie. You may want to have a second look at that..."

"Huh?!" Pinkie wondered what the pegasus was talking about. There was nothing wrong with her cube, she'd wiped the floor with it. Thrashed it. Unlocked all of it's mysteries. She rotated it in her hoof, checking each side to see if it was done. "You must be imagining things, Dashie. This thing is as good as... Oh."

Right at the bottom, underneath one of her hooves, were two colours out of sync with the rest. One was white, and the other...

Was pink.

"Oh, Cupcakes!." She exclaimed.

......................................................................................................

Applejack might have been interested in what the three youngsters inside that small room were discussing together, but if she'd been present, she may very well have been disappointed.

All the conversation was revolving around where the first big outing the five new friends would take together was going to be. Needless to say, both Apple Bloom and Silver Spoon had very different ideas.

" How about, we freshen up at the sauna, check out Carousal Boutique for the latest imports, then lie by the pool for the rest of the day?" Silver suggested.

"No way!" Apple Bloom firmly turned down those ideas. "The steam would fluff up Scooterloo's wings something fierce, Sweetie Belle lives at the boutique anyway so there's no point, and I ain't lazing around by no pool, not when there's work to be done... Say, now there's an idea..."

"Stop right there!" Commanded Spoon, knowing exactly what the farm filly was about to suggest. " If you think I'm going to spend all day caked in mud, helping you out with your mucky chores, you've got another thing coming! Di might not have any choice in hanging out with your kind at the farmyard, but I most certainly do! Now, what about..."

"My kind?" Apple Bloom felt a bit put-out at that phrase. "What exactly do you mean by that?"

Spoon put her hooves over her mouth. Oops. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean it like that..." She remarked, apologetically. "What I meant to say is, that sort of life might be fine for ponies like you, but I expect to do something less dirty in my spare time. Now, what were we talking about again?"

Bloom wasn't really happy with this answer, or Silver's follow-up comment, and decided to push her further. "Ponies like me?" She parroted the grey filly. "Care to explain a bit more?"

"Well, er..." Spoon didn't really like to be put on the spot. "What I was getting at was... You like your mud, I only like to rub it on my face during an all-day spa. You like your hens, I only like their eggs in a lovely, fluffy omelette. You like your apples, I only like their essence in the conditioner I use everyday while braiding my mane. You see, it is possible for two ponies who are polar opposites to get on, we just have to find stuff we have in common! Just like you and Di have! Now, let's go back to what we were planning."

Apple Bloom was pleased at that response. At least she's trying the farm filly thought maybe this won't be so hard after all.."

"Yes, lets find something less disgusting that we can all enjoy as a group!" These were the next innocently-enough spoken words that left Silver's lips, and all thoughts of Bloom and her reaching an easy compromise were blown sky high.

"Wait just a darn second..." The farm filly felt the red mist start to descend. "You think my home is... Disgusting?"

Oh no, I've put my hoof in it again. "Well..." Spoon attempted to placate the enraged Bloom. "Not to you obviously, but wait, hear me out. Bear in mind all the fine things I'm used to in life, then compare them to what you've grown up with. Surely you can see, why there are some ponies, not necessarily me, who might feel that way..."

Unbeknownst to her, Silver was only stirring the pot further. "Why, you stuck-up, pompous little snob!" Bloom growled. "I'll have you know if it wasn't for working ponies like my family, you and your kind wouldn't even have enough bits to buy a glass of cider! And I'm more than happy with my life, thank you very much, at least I get some proper exercise, instead of sitting around all day on my..."

"That's enough!" The incessant bickering from the pair was even enough even to break Diamond out of her stupor, and she looked at each of her friends angrily. "If you two are trying to make me feel better, you're doing a lousy job of it! Can't you just talk nicely to each other, instead of all this mindless fighting? Me and Silv will decide what to do one day, and Apple Bloom, you and the Crusaders can choose the activity for the next time. Now, let's all shake hooves, and most importantly, have some peace and quiet in here..."

Almost simultaneously, Silver and Bloom thought of the same joke.

They looked at each other, to see if they were on a similar wavelength...

They were.

They turned back to Tiara with barely disguised grins. "Okay then, Di. You win..." Apple Bloom conceded.

"Yes, let's shake hooves..." Spoon concurred.

"Finally! You two agree on something." Diamond was relieved it was finally working out.

"But first, we must discuss the terms..." Bloom withdrew her hoof, and looked pensive for a moment.

"Terms...?" Tiara looked very confused.

"Never mind that, I've already decided!" Silver announced.

"Come to think of it, so have I!" Bloom had made her mind up too.

What are these two babbling on about? Tiara wondered.

"Here goes nothing, then. I'll be Peace..." Spoon stated, matter of factly.

"... And I shall be Quiet." Bloom affected a posh accent.

Both fillies laughed out loud at this juncture, rolling around on the floor in complete hysterics, a nice change from the tension which had gripped the pair up until now.

While they were in the middle of their joviality. Diamond just stood there, stony-faced. Taking it all in. Analysing the joke. Seeing the unbridled cheer of her friends, giggling together with wild abandon.

At the peak of Bloom's glee, something began to niggle at the back of her mind. It grew in size and volume, until it clouded so much of her thoughts she could no longer ignore it, and whatever it was abruptly stopped her elation.

Of course, Di. She recalled, mournfully. How can I be here, having fun, when she's...

Bloom needn't have worried. For, as she turned around from a still chuckling Spoon, to face the wrath of what she was sure was an extremely cross pink filly...

She was confronted with something incredibly unexpected. A smile. Quite a wide one, too.

And that smile was rapidly turning into something else.

A snicker. A giggle. A chuckle. And then...

A full blown laugh. Soon, she was on the floor next to Silver, guffawing just as hard as her best friend.

It was a lovely sight to behold for Apple Bloom. Maybe Di was recovering much sooner than she'd expected. Maybe they wouldn't have to tell anypony their shameful little secret after all. Maybe everything was going to be alright...

She'd assumed too much. Way too much.

While engaging in their mutual delirium. and swept away by the emotion of the moment, Silver Spoon couldn't help but give her best friend an impromptu hug...

And one of the grey filly's hooves lingered a little too close for comfort to a sensitive spot of Tiara's anatomy.

SLAP!

That was it. No more laughter. No more joy. No more fooling around.

For Diamond, still fresh from the memories of earlier, had instinctively slapped her best friend right on the muzzle, causing her glasses to fall off and smash on the floor, and a plume of blood to erupt from the grey filly's nose.

"Get off me!" Tiara yelled, before running over to curl herself up fetal-style in the same corner where her broken tiara still lingered.

At first, Spoon just held her heavily bleeding nose and sat on her hind legs where she'd fallen, while Bloom looked on in complete shock.

A few seconds later, something did happen. Silver screamed in anguish, grabbed the empty frames of her spectacles off of the floor, and ran out of the room, to the bemused expressions of the grown-ups cloistered outside.

"Wait, Spoon she didn't mean to..." Bloom tried futilely to intervene, but it was far too late. The grey filly was long gone.

Sighing in frustration, Apple Bloom's attention turned to Tiara, who was mumbling incoherently to herself, while rocking up and down in a steady motion.

"Oh, Di. What are we going to do with you?" Bloom sighed.
.................................................................................................................................

With barely a sound or a fanfare, Twilight landed outside the hospital unnoticed. Just the way she liked it.

Stepping into the busy room though, a hush soon descended, as many of the patients inside stopped wondering when they were going to be seen, or whether they were going to get better, to stare at the alicorn in awe.

Great. I don't think I'll ever get used to this, She thought, wilting a little under all the scrutiny.

The only pony who didn't react straightaway to her arrival oddly enough, was one of her biggest fans. Loving Care was just finishing off her shift for the day, and was finally putting the last touches to the documents she'd been slaving over for the best part of the afternoon.

"Finished!" She said to herself with satisfaction, finally able to go home for a well deserved rest. She reached over to finish off the rest of her coffee, before noticing a flash of lavender standing in front of her.

Realising whoever it was had probably been waiting for quite a while due to her distractions, she abruptly looked up to apologise. "Sorry, love. You wouldn't believe how busy..."

"Oh, that's quite alright!" Twilight responded positively. "Now, I was wondering if you could help me find..."

The alicorn stopped mid-sentence. The receptionist she'd just been speaking to had somehow been hexed by a spell, as all function of movement had stopped. She just stood there stock-still, a small trickle of drool rolling down her chin.

"Um, are you alright in there?" Twilight waved a hoof in front of Loving Care's eyes. No response.

"Hellooo?!" The alicorn tried an elongated word in her ear. Still nothing.

"Is there something the matter?" Twilight put a hoof on her shoulder, to try to attract her attention.

That did it. "The princess is here! Here! In the flesh! And she touched me! She actually touched me! I can't believe it! This is the greatest day of my life!" Loving Care was absolutely cock-a-hoop, jigging around behind the desk, hooves aloft in the air.

Her coffee went flying everywhere...

Her papers were ruined yet again...

She didn't care.

"Oh, I have to tell my friends!" She exclaimed, seemingly unaware of her tenure not being over for another ten minutes. "Redheart! Sweetheart! Come here! You'll never guess who's just walked through the front door, and what she did!"

Loving Care jumped over the desk with all the finesse of a showpony, and ran off down the corridor, telling all who'd listen about her brush with royalty.

Twilight put her head in her hooves. "I do wish other ponies wouldn't act like that around me. I find it so uncomfortable..." She murmured.

"Oh, you needn't worry about that kind of special treatment around me, my dear. In fact, you'll get quite the opposite. Always glad to be of service."

Twilight froze. That voice. She knew it from somewhere. Could it be...

Yes, it could. Emerging from the holding room, flanked on either side by four guards, was the unmistakable figure of Spoiled Rich.

She didn't look any worse for wear from her 'ordeal' of being arrested, in fact those guarding her looked to be the despondent ones. I suppose anypony would feel like that if they had to listen to her natter on for ages, Twilight noted.

"You took your time, dear. Not to worry, though. I've been regaling these nice stallions here with tales of my rise to prevalence. I'm sorry to have to leave you gentlecolts in the lurch, but I have a meeting with Her Royal Hoofness now. Don't concern yourself with my well-being, however. I'll be fine. In fact, I'll have another amusing little yarn to spin soon enough. About how a power-crazed mare took advantage of her unwarranted position to wreck the lives of a loving family forever. Trust me, it'll be a good one."

Part 35: Twilight vs Spoiled

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Spoiled continued to greet the princess in her usual courteous manner. "So, my dear, how are you? You've just returned from Canterlot, have you not? What was it like, seeing the old homestead, before Celestia relocated you to this podunk town? Do all of your friends still miss you there? Or, as I suspect, did you spend so much time as a shut-in they barely noticed you were gone? Do tell all, I'm absolutely fascinated."

Deciding to skip the details of her recent troubles with Moondancer, Twilight got straight to the point. "Hello again, Mrs Rich. I returned early from my trip because I received an urgent message from Applejack that Diamond Tiara was in a bit of trouble, less than a day after her removal from your mansion. The fact that she's currently in the hospital, and you're here as well strikes me as slightly too much of a coincidence. I was going to find out the details from my friends, but perhaps you want to tell me your side of the story first..."

"Not one for small talk, eh? Well, if you want to be rude, I guess I can just skip to the part where I show you up as the irresponsible, incapable liability you are. You can go now, boys..." She motioned to the guards around her, as if she expected them to obey her command.

Rolling her eyes at Spoiled's arrogance, Twilight silently nodded her own confirmation that they were dismissed, and you could almost see the relief written all over their faces as they scampered off, perhaps hoping for something less taxing as their next assignment, like a changeling invasion.

"Those were some nice stallions, if a little rough around the edges..." Spoiled mused "Did you notice the youngest one at the front there, giving me funny looks? Of course, I had to let the poor darling down gently, after all I am a happily married mare. He looked a little surprised when I told him there was no chance of us being together, but I could tell he was disappointed..."

"Listen..." Twilight could barely hold in her impatience. "Do you want to go somewhere private, and talk for a few moments? If you have any complaints about me, then I'd like to hear about them now, rather than through a third party. That way I can defend myself in pony, and hopefully put any fears you have to rest..."

"I very much doubt that." Spoiled snorted "but seeing as how it looks as though I'm in your custody, I might as well relate my many grievances about you, face to face, right here. Perhaps, it isn't too late for you to change. What you need dear, is some good advice from an experienced public servant like myself. All that I ask is once I've confronted you with your numerous mistakes, you take some time to consider your hasty actions. When you realise you've made a gross error of judgement, I hope you'll release me back into the loving hooves of my beloved husband, and reunite me with my shining Diamond. It takes a strong pony to admit when they're wrong, but I'm confident that could be you..."

"It's a little presumptuous to assume that I need to listen to you..." Twilight interjected. "I already have a perfectly capable mentor in Celestia, who has helped me with everything I need to know since I became a Princess. I won't deny it hasn't always been easy, but I think now I've got to grips with my new role, I'm doing a reasonably efficient job. One thing I am sure of though, is insulting me on a regular basis, and breaking the injunction less than a day after it was put in place is not likely to get me to give consideration to your plea. Now, if you have something to say, please make it brief. I want to meet up with my friends as soon as possible. I've kept them waiting for long enough..."

"Okay, my dear." Spoiled said in a huff, tossing her mane to one side. " If we're going to be uncivilised about it, I suppose I can bring my main criticisms to the table now, before we get the lawyers involved. I do want to discuss each allegation in turn, but if your precious friends are more important to you than the career of a hardworking mother whose life you're in the process of destroying, then that's your prerogative. I just hope you can sleep easy at night under your silken sheets, that's all. Now, are you ready, or do you want to start taking notes?"

"I'll be fine. Shall we get started?" Twilight wasn't usually in the habit of growling. Besides, it was most undiplomatic in her new role. Listening to the irritating blabbermouth she was trying to converse with now though, such reactions were beyond her control.

"There's no need for that kind of noise dear, we're not animals..." Spoiled remarked, with deadly seriousness. "Now, my first concern about your mishandling of this situation stems from your unannounced arrival on my doorstep, the evening last after our elevenses. Me and my chosen mate were just unwinding after a hectic day, where we sadly had to disclipline our pride and joy of ten years for some rather coarse language she used towards me, her mother, in public. She also attended a party against my express wishes, and returned home late, missing her elocution lessons in the process. I'd just sent her upstairs to think about her unacceptable attitude to those who'd loved and nurtured her, and was involved in a productive discussion with the love of my life about the amount of leniency he was granting her, when there was a knock on the door in the dead of night. I think we both know who that was, don't we?"

"I was responding to a complaint about serious foal abuse. I couldn't exactly let it wait until the morning, could I?" Twilight reminded her, hoping against hope she'd understand.

Spoiled didn't, and continued on heedlessly. "Not only did you scare me beyond all belief at your unrequested intrusion upon my private domicile at a time when even the serfs are safely tucked up in bed, you also nearly gave our cherished old family retainer Randolph a heart attack! He's been with our bloodline for over fifty years, serving us faithfully through master after master. To end his distinguished reign at the hooves of an impatient 'princess' who had the gall to encroach upon our sanctuary that late in the evening, under the flimsiest of premises and based on the testimony of jealous children simply wouldn't do. You're lucky he's still breathing, or that would be yet another allegation you'd be fighting in court. Good servants aren't cheap, you know. Only you wouldn't, because you don't pay yours, right? Lucky you!"

Noticing how her alleged affection for her butler seemed to be contradicted in the same speech, Twilight nevertheless wanted to focus on something else. "Those children as you refer to them, if you mean Apple Bloom, Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo, are three of the most down-to-earth, trustworthy fillies you could ever hope to meet. If they say they saw your daughter being verbally abused by you in town, I am obliged to take them seriously. After all, what reason would they have to lie? And you most definitely did harangue them, and many others outside the school. Not only did they hear you, but also their teacher Miss Cheerilee witnessed your outrageous behaviour. Are you going to tell me she's part of your 'conspiracy', too?"

"Well, I certainly agree they're down-to-earth..." Spoiled let out an obnoxious giggle. "Especially that little pegasus from what I've seen..."

Twilight's jaw dropped in amazement. "That's a terrible thing to say!" She gasped. "How could the head of the school board be so..."

"Oh, don't you mind me, dear." She waved an uninterested hoof in the face of the princess. "Just having a little joke, that's all. We are still allowed to tell jokes, in your brave, new Ponyville, right? Besides, I give hundreds of bits to disabled charities every year, so I think I'm exempt from certain social graces. It's not just all about the good publicity, honestly! Now, where were we...?"

"We were talking about the Cutie Mark Crusaders, and how they saw you bullying your daughter, and insulting the rest of the class." Twilight said, scowling. Which isn't what she really wanted to say, but alas, protocol stopped her from truly speaking her mind.

"Oh, yes, those fibbing nuisances who don't understand proper disclipline. Funny name, for a club isn't it, it was even listed in their file. I could think of a better term to describe them, but seeing as they're mere foals, I'll hold my tongue for now. Besides, I suppose it's not their fault they're all so out of control. One sees her parents so infrequently, she may as well be an orphan. The unicorn's main custodian is apparently her sister, but she's too busy sewing outfits to be a proper guardian. As for the farm brat, well let's just say I don't think child labour, dirty fields and incoherent accents are conducive to a well-adjusted filly. What I'm getting at dear, is you may well have singled me out for my bad foal-rearing practices, when I fear the youngsters who were truly in need were right under your nose all this time. A case of blatant favoritism from their own personal 'princess' perhaps, or yet another example of Ponyville prejudice against those with a modicum of class or wealth. Either way, you can hardly wonder why any stallion or mare above the breadline bothers to live here..." Spoiled continued to feel hard-done by.

"W-what..." Twilight was almost speechless in her incredulity. Was Spoiled being completely sincere in her opinions? Did she hear the words coming out of her mouth, and attach any credence to them? The princess found it impossible to believe anypony could be this blithely naive about how ridiculous they sounded.

Taking advantage of the alicorn's stunned silence, Spoiled started her tirade anew. " So anyway, as much as I feel sorry for these poor children and their unstructured, wayward fillyhoods, I cannot allow their self-contained envy towards my precious Diamond go unanswered. I've seen them around school, watching her confidence and poise with poorly disguised malice. They've always intended from the beginning to make her one of 'them', to strip her of all the tenacity and assurance that makes her special. Well, guess what? They finally succeeded. I've had two run-ins with my daughter since that fateful moment they brainwashed her, and she barely feels like she's mine any longer. What was a ruthlessly efficient spirit dedicated to helping her family climb up the social hierarchy is now a modest, self-effacing little weakling who seems obsessed with 'helping others' and 'spreading her talent around.' That's not how I raised her! Those freaks of nature have turned her head, and it'll be a very long, very painful road to return her to the filly she once was."

Even though Twilight was beginning to wonder if perhaps a psychiatrist rather than a princess would be a better fit for this discussion, she did have to pull up Spoiled on one comment. "Freaks of nature?" She repeated, with one eyebrow raised.

"Exactly, dear!" Spoiled remarked, as if she took the alicorn's reply as confirmation she agreed. " Fancy getting your cutie marks, all at the same time! Now, that's weird, no offense. Sounds like a type of black magic to me! Such ponies should be securely locked up for study, not allowed to corrupt innocent children or act as protectors of our lands, again, just my opinion, dear. Yet, here we are, with you somehow sprouting wings like a pair of weeds, then expecting us to follow your command, despite the 'Sparkle' family having no clear link with any aristocracy ever, and believe me, I've checked. The same principle applies to those three insignificant runts, having a town celebration that everypony was expected to attend, regardless of them destroying half of it during their cutie mark 'experiments', and their flagrant untruths about the treatment administered to my Diamond being believed above that of a pillar of the community. These are crazy days we live in, when such miscarriages happen on such a regular basis..."

"Crazy, indeed..." Twilight knew herself what she was referring to there, but she kept it under wraps. "So, what I'm supposed to take from your words is: You don't have one iota of respect for me and my authority, you regard the three fillies who made the allegations against you as invertebrate liars and troublemakers,and you think your daughter was much better off, before she decided to change her ways. Would you say I was close in my summation, Mrs Rich?"

"Well, dear!" Spoiled remarked in mock surprise. "That's quite an accurate distillation of affairs! A little simplistic, but we mustn't expect miracles, I suppose. Maybe you're not quite as dim as I thought! There maybe hope for you yet! There's only one more thing I wish to draw to your attention. You mentioned Miss Cheerilee earlier? I don't want to embarrass your sources, dear, but you could have picked a much more reliable one than that simpleton. Shall I tell you a secret about her? She's on the verge of losing her job. She turns up late most days, has an insatiable addiction to coffee, lets her pupils wander off regularly, and never disciplines those who deserve punishment. You should have seen her this morning, bursting into my office without any forewarning whatsoever! And the words she used! Disgraceful! In fact, you could say, she's the main reason I'm cooped up in this little clinic, instead of still being hard at work! I bet she's been up to other mischief while I've been detained, too. I intend to get to the bottom of everything as soon as I return from my enforced sabbatical, and, as looks likely, take the first steps towards securing her unemployment."

Twilight was not sure she could take much more of this. Apparently, this mare had nothing nice to say about anypony. "Is that it..." She asked. "Or have you got somepony else to complain about, like maybe Celestia stepped on your hoof this morning?"

Surprisingly enough, Spoiled found this hilarious. "Oh, my dear..." she chuckled. "Do you see what I mean about jokes? Nothing better to lighten the mood than a well-aimed piece of whimsy. I have my own gripes about her flawed leadership, which will come to light at a later date, when I see fit. One of them is the unprecedented, shocking partisanship shown to an average unicorn to elevate her above the common herd. I think you know who I mean. But I'm getting ahead of myself here. The pony you should really be concerned about right now is your good friend Applejack, who I fear may not be the qualified foster parent you've pictured her as. I dare say, you've shown the same 'brilliant' judgement in her, as Celestia has in... Somepony else."

Despite not taking anything Spoiled said remotely seriously at this point, Twilight was still sufficiently interested to raise an eyebrow at this statement. "How so?" She questioned.

"Didn't you wonder how my Diamond ended up in the hospital in the first place?" Remarked Spoiled, her voice tinged with dramatic distress. " It most certainly wasn't anything to do with me. She's never had to visit the emergency room on my watch, and yet, lo and behold! Within one day of your farmer taking over, she ends up in critical condition! With a nasty infected hoof injury, too! Not only that, I also found out she was playing truant from school! Why else do you think I breached the terms of my injunction as soon as I heard my precious was recovering in the same clinic as me? I was so desperate to see how she was doing, I got up from my sickbed to visit her. I even took two of my good friends with me, to cheer her up and show off her special cutie mark, as well! But, what do I get when I turn up there, ready to make amends, bringing her very special tiara as a peace offering?"

"What happened then, if I dare ask?" Said Twilight, wondering where this was going.

"I got involved in an awful argument with her new 'friend', the worst filly of all those wretched 'Crusaders'... Apple Bloom." She said the child's name as if gargling on razors. "Not only did she accuse me of being a terrible parent, not loving my husband and having a bad cutie mark, she was also very rude to my guests! Do you want to know the most heinous thing she did, though? She took my daughter's precious crown, that I purchased especially for her cute cenera, and smashed it against the wall! Then, she made my little girl, who was in no fit state to argue due to her trauma, to wear one of her raggedy old bows! I'll tell you exactly what's going on here... She's trying to create another sister, all for herself. Well, she can't have my Diamond! I created her! She grew up inside me! She's mine, not that bunch of ignorant rubes'! I suppose, 'princess', it's proven one thing. It's shown me you can hate a child more than any other adult pony. And yes, I include you in that, dear. Despite all the injustices you've perpetrated against me. Isn't that something?"

"Wait just a second, Is that a threat?" Twilight, already freaked out enough as it was, didn't want to have to consider arranging special protection for Applejack's sister as a precautionary measure.

"Oh no, 'princess'. I wouldn't get my hooves dirty for anypony." Spoiled laughed haughtily. "Although, I know you'd just love to add to the list of charges against me. Who could blame me if it was, though? In fact I've just realised, that little farm brat has been the main instigator behind the ruination of my life up until now. After all, she leads the accursed group which has seen to it that every plan to improve Ponyville put forward by my progeny has fallen flat. It was mainly her idea to convert my offspring into a mindless goody-goody from the strong-willed leader I was raising. And she was the one who encouraged all of her little friends to drag my respectable name through the mire, thus leaving me in the state you see now. Talk about big trouble coming in small packages, eh? That heart cutie mark that appeared on her flank must be the most ironic symbol ever, seeing as she's done nothing but break mine..."

Spoiled finished her remonstrating with a pronounced frown, images of a yellow coat and red mane dancing around in her head, alternating with a skull and crossbones.

Thinking that she'd heard enough endless blathering for one day, Twilight decided to take her leave and find her friends. "I shall investigate your accusations about Applejack's conduct concerning your daughter myself, as well as find out from Apple Bloom the true nature of what occurred in your daughter's room. For now though, I ask you to wait here, until I need to talk to you again..."

"Oh, don't be silly, dear..." Spoiled scoffed as she took a few steps towards Twilight. "I'm coming with you. I know there's still a restraining order against me, but surely in this special circumstance you can make an exception..."

"No, I can't." Twilight flatly told the mare. "You've already invalidated it once, and now I'm back, it's up to me to make sure it's properly enforced. Don't move another step. I will not allow you to see or talk to Diamond Tiara."

At not getting her own way, Spoiled's facade of friendliness disintegrated, and a hard edge appeared in her eyes. "Really, dear. How are you going to stop me? You sent all your guards away, and from what I can see, the path ahead is clear. Now, move aside please."

Twilight's brow furrowed at Spoiled's dismissal of her authority, and the alicorn decided to utilise the one other thing she possessed at her disposal.

Her horn glowed purple, and so in turn did Spoiled's frame. The mare's face wore a look of astonishment as she commented. "Wait a second, nopony has ever used magic against me before! Now, put me down dear, and we won't have any further trouble about this."

Expecting the princess to instantly acquiesce to her demands, Spoiled instead found herself floating through the air back towards the holding room. "I can't even move my feet!" She exclaimed, while struggling without success. "Stop doing that this instant! Don't you know who I am?!"

"Not really, but I'm getting quite a good idea." Twilight said, as she guided Spoiled through the open door. "As for this being your debut experience with magic, well, there's a first time for everything! You might not like me, but I'm the one in charge of your case, and I think you should respect that, or it certainly won't be the last occasion I have to use my horn! Now, I'll see you in a little while, just as soon as I've cleared a few things up..."

Twilight then further used her magic to turn the handle in such a way as to make it inoperable, and, ignoring the frantic howls and yowls of Spoiled from the other side as she banged on the door, the alicorn began to walk away...

Right into the path of Loving Care, Sweetheart and Redheart, all of whom had witnessed the heated argument first hoof.

"See, I told you it was the princess ..." shrieked Loving Care.

"I shouldn't really be saying this, but thank you for putting that snob in her place..." gushed Sweetheart.

The calmest of them all, Redheart told Twilight. "Don't worry about Spoiled while you're gone, princess. We'll make sure she doesn't get out. In the meantime, I suppose you'll be wanting a rendezvous with your friends. If you'll just give me a minute to clean away these coffee-stained papers, I'll write you some directions..."

While Twilight waited to be seen to, Sweetheart continued to look at her in admiration, Redheart tried to find enough space to scrawl on and Loving Care attempted to remain as inconspicuous as possible due to her little drink mishap, a small unnoticed figure in the corner slowly walked away from the scene.

She had a bloody nose. Grey fur. Bad eyesight without glasses. But it didn't matter.

She'd heard enough.

Part 36: A Beginning

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Silver Spoon was caught in a state of absolute turmoil as she fled the hospital, and the associated feelings of confusion and bewilderment that threatened to overwhelm her.

Why did my best friend smack me so hard, when I was just engaging in a bit of harmless horseplay?

Is Mrs Rich right in thinking that she is innocent of any crimes, and everypony else is against her? She sounded so convincing...

Have the Crusaders done more harm than good by turning Di's behaviour around and causing such a huge rift between her and her mother? Was that why my best friend is now in care, living on a farm?

What's behind Di's erratic mood swings? One minute, we're having a great time laughing together, the next minute, she's...

Silver felt her eyes well up, and she instinctively reached up to wipe the tears away.

Of course. No glasses. I better slow down, I don't want a nasty incident like when I ran full speed into Big Macintosh in town that one time. Whatever will my mother think. She just got them for me...

She paused for a moment, screeching to a halt in the middle of her headlong rush. That's it, my mother! she thought. She'll be at the school by now, because it's so close to hometime. I'll go straight there now, and tell her everything that's happened today. She knows Mrs Rich very well, seeing as they attend a lot of the same social gatherings. Perhaps she could ascertain how much of what Di's mother said was accurate, and what exactly I can do next.

The grey filly trotted forward with renewed vigour, feeling confident that Silver Sterling could allay her fears and give her sound advice, just like always. Her best friend may have just physically assaulted her unprovoked, but Spoon was sure there had to be a good reason behind the attack. Maybe it was simply down to the stress of the new changes in her life, or perhaps there was more to it than that.

Two things were for sure though: She'd get to the bottom of it, and she'd already forgiven Di.

Oh, and she was as still as jealous as Tartarus of Apple Bloom's new 'status'.

Now, which blur will lead me to Ponyville Elementary?

...........................................................................................................................................

Speaking of the farm filly, she was currently being watched closely by Applejack, as she slowly made her way to the corner of the hospital room where Diamond currently resided, waiting to be told to "get back" any moment by the depressed youngster.

Those words never left Tiara's sobbing lips, and Bloom finally reached the place where her friend was still curled up, free of aggravation. She took the precaution of standing as close to Tiara as she could, without actually touching her. She didn't want a repeat of the unfortunate Silver Spoon incident.

"Di. Can I...Can I...Sit down?" Bloom hesitated to speak to the disconsolate, shaking mess in front of her, but surely anything was better than leaving her to cry her heart out alone.

A slight nod of the head could be seen between the hunched-up hooves, as Diamond's bloodshot eyes focused on the new arrival. Taking the time to clear away the remnants of the unwanted tiara next to her, Bloom slumped down adjacent to her friend, unsure what to say.

Fortunately, the pink filly helped her out there. "A-Apple Bloom..." She said, in a voice that was a little more than a trickle. "Y-You have t-to believe... I-I didn't mean to hurt S-Silv, i-it just k-kind of h-happened..."

"I know, Di. I know..." Apple Bloom's heart swelled with sympathy and compassion for the distraught youngster. "After what you've been through, I completely get it. I just wish there was a way we could get them to understand, without, you know..."

In a flash, Tiara sprung up and grabbed Bloom by the neck, her fear and shame putting her on high alert. "No! You mustn't tell! You must never tell!" She pleaded with her roommate, even as the farm filly began to choke. "If everypony knew... How would I ever..."

Diamond's frenzy was abruptly halted when, out of the corner of her eye, she spotted Applejack glaring at her from the entrance, about two seconds away from intervening. That's when she finally noticed the orange mare's sister beginning to gasp for air in her clutches.

Removing her hooves from the wheezing Bloom, Tiara sighed and flopped back in her spot. "Look, I'm sorry. About everything." She spoke in a much softer voice." I don't deserve friends like you, or Silv for that matter. Perhaps I had all this coming. Maybe this is what I get, for all the mean things I've ever done..."

"Horseapples!" Diamond was cut off by a single word from the recovered filly next to her. "Don't you ever think that! What happened to you back there was totally wrong, whatever you did in the past! And for your mother... Your mother... To stand by smiling while Upper Crust did what she did, was unforgivable! The thing I'm glad about most of all is that you're out of that house, away from her! I've only had a small taste of what she's like, and already I hate her guts! Sorry for saying that, but it's just the way I feel!" This was again said in a lower volume, as Bloom respected her friend's wish for privacy from those lingering at the door.

Upon hearing her companion's unnecessary apology, Tiara ruefully grinned. "You're really something, you know that? Not once, in all the times I bullied and insulted you and your family, did you ever retaliate. Yet, the one occasion you saw me miserable, walking home by myself, instead of gloating like I would have done, you came to comfort me the very next day. And even now, though you have every reason in the world to despise my mother, you're still gracious enough to say sorry when you state what you must know both of us are thinking. How do you do it, Apple Bloom? How can you be so... Nice?"

Blushing slightly at Diamond's praise, the farm filly shrugged her hooves. "To be honest, I don't really think about it. I just respect my Mom and Dad's memory by trying to act like they would. Never feel bad towards anypony, because you don't know what they're going through on the inside. Always try and help others, because one day you could be the one in need. Try to get through life with a smile, because life is too short for moping and fussing. That's the Apple way. And now you're one of us, I could teach you that too, if you like..."

Tiara was completely taken aback by Apple Bloom's selfless philosophy, which was in such direct contrast to her own upbringing, where basically either you finished at the top, or you were banished to your room for long periods in disgrace. She thought about all the terrible things she'd done, all to try and satisfy her mother. None of them had worked, and in most cases had just made her personally miserable. She'd never felt appreciated or loved by the onerous Spoiled, and as for her father, why was he never around when she needed him? Like now.

She tried to think back to happier moments in her life. Her Daddy giving her ponyback rides through town, before work completely consumed him. Days spent frolicking with Silver Spoon, before the pressure exerted by her mother forced her into 'bullying' mode. The most joyful occasion of late was when she supervised the construction of the new play-centre outside the school, where in comparison to her usual berating of all and sundry, her carefully chosen words of encouragement seemed to stir her young workers into life, and the edifice was completed in record time. It had felt extraordinarily satisfying to achieve her goal without having to resort to her old tactics of bribery and manipulation. It was a feeling that could not be replicated, and one she wanted to experience again and again...

And, that's when she realised it. The significance of the Tiara shining on her flank in the middle of the building work. Her true destiny.

Not to be a rude, stubborn, conceited and cruel dictator, like her mother.

But a decent, reasonable, humble and considerate leader, like the Apples were, all around the community.

Like the...

An invisible veil had been lifted from her eyes. A seed of hope was planted in her mind. For the first time since that incident, she felt like she had the strength to carry on.

"You do understand, that despite him leaving me alone all the time and not paying me enough attention, I still love my Daddy, right?" Diamond's words came out of nowhere for Apple Bloom, who had allowed her eyes to wander during the pink filly's long deliberation.

"Um, yeah. Of course I do. You heard me tell Mrs Rich as much a couple of hours ago, right?" Bloom answered in puzzlement.

"And I like pretty much the same things I used to when I lived at the mansion. I don't think I'll ever be as hard-working, forgiving or as nice as you, and we might argue a lot..." Tiara continued her profiling in earnest.

"That's fine. Twilight told me once everypony is special in their own way, and even though me and the Crusaders are definitely the best of buddies, sometimes we plain just feel like tearing each other apart..." Bloom was always one for honesty, just like her big sister.

"Well, that's good, I guess..." Diamond raised an eyebrow at such a forthright confession. "Because it makes what I'm about to say a lot easier. After seeing what my own mother is capable of, and what those rich friends of hers' did to me, I'm through with my old life for now. I want to learn what you Apples have been teaching each other for years, and I need your help to do it. It'll take a lot of getting used to, living at the farm. But, with your help and the rest of your family guiding me... I think, we can make it work..."

Despite Apple Bloom's earlier aversion of setting off Tiara's trauma by touching her, she couldn't help but throw herself at the pink filly in the tightest hug she'd ever been given. " Oh, Di!" She exclaimed, joyfully. "I'm so happy you feel that way! I promise to do my best to help you however I can, and I'm sure the same goes for the rest of my... I mean, our family. I know it'll be tough for you at first, but if we work together, I'm positive we'll do all kinds of great things! I can't wait to get started! That is, when you're ready..."

It took all of Diamond's mental strength not to shove Bloom away, but this kind of affection felt kinda nice. As long as her friend didn't venture too near the 'problem" area, everything should be fine. As for what her new roommate had said, she wasn't quite prepared to call the rest of the large Apple clan her 'family' just yet. It had been less than a day since her forced eviction after all, and she still planned to see her Daddy regularly.

One thing was for sure though. She certainly felt a lot closer to her new foster relatives than her own mother, who, after her major role in reducing her to the pathetic, weeping heap in the corner that day, as well as the countless other mistreatments she'd administered over the years, she'd quite happily never see again. To think, she could have ended up like that, if not for...

Tiara smiled at Apple Bloom. Kicked what was left of the remains of her old headgear on the floor away...

And then, returned the hug.

Hang on a sec. Does this make Apple Bloom my auntie, now?
.................................................................................................................

As Silver Spoon ran off into the distance, leaving a trail of blood and tears in her wake, at first the adults were taken by surprise.

Then, the debate raged as to who should go after her.

Applejack wanted to stay with her sister. Fluttershy felt she didn't know Spoon well enough. Rainbow Dash said she needed to wait for Twilight. Rarity balked at the idea of her hooves being stained red.

And, by the time Pinkie Pie got over her disappointment over her incomplete toy to volunteer, the grey filly was long gone.

"I do hope she's going to be alright. I wonder what made her run off like that..." Rarity pondered.

"Well, I guess we'll never know now, due to all of y'all's indecision..." Applejack remarked, silently cursing that she'd taken her eyes off the occupants of the room for just a second when the incident unfolded, and resolved never to let it happen again.

"You're one to talk! You could have easily caught her up, asked her what was wrong, brought her back here..." Rainbow commented.

"Yes dear, all of us are guilty of that. If only I hadn't just polished my hooves before setting out here, I would have been the first to go..." Rarity sighed, as if that was a viable excuse.

"Sh! Something's happening in there..." Applejack silenced her friends, to observe what was taking place in the room. All five mares listened and watched intently, as Diamond Tiara almost throttled Apple Bloom, while shouting "Never Tell" about something, as if her life depended on it.

"That's it, I'm going in there..." Applejack sounded for all the world like a soldier about to head into battle, at the sight of her sister being ponyhandled in such a way. She didn't care what Diamond's personal hang-ups were, nopony did that to her flesh and...

"Wait!" A little noise sounded behind Applejack, followed by a far stronger hoof, which stopped her in her tracks. The orange mare turned around to see who'd halted her charge, and shockingly it was Fluttershy.

"Um... I hope you don't mind me interfering..." The yellow pegasus meekly commented, while still grasping her friend's shoulder. "But, I think this is something related to what Diamond Tiara is going through now, and the best pony to help her deal with it is right there in that room. If you go in, and make the situation more complicated than it is, Diamond may resent you for it, and I don't think Apple Bloom would like it too much, either. I don't believe your sister is in any real danger. See, look! Things have already calmed down in there..."

Applejack's gaze returned to the room, and sure enough, both fillies seemed to be a lot more congenial towards each other, the only problem with this was now they were talking in whispers.

Nodding her thanks to Fluttershy for interpreting the situation much better than she did, Applejack was still frustrated at the lack of information as to what exactly was bothering her sister and foster child. "That pretty much darn confirms it. They're hiding something from me. I gotta find out whatever it is, otherwise..."

"I'm sure that 'whatever it is', they'll tell you in their own time..." Fluttershy tried to placate the orange mare. "Forcing the issue now won't do any good. I think my talk with Diamond has really opened her heart, she'll let you know when she's ready..."

"I'm just worried in the meantime, before 'she's ready', that whatever's eating away at her might cause her to lash out at others. You saw what she just did to my sister, and I suspect that thing with Silver Spoon is connected with that little filly too. I knew things would be tough when I took her in, but I never thought..." Applejack mused at what a gigantic mess this was turning into.

"Oh no! You can't give up on her! You can't!" Pinkie Pie began to bounce with anxiety where she stood, driven to it by the seeming resignation of the orange mare to Tiara's plight. "I know she has a lot of stuff going on in her head at the moment, and that's why she needs friends like us more than ever! Please Applejack, if I know anything about you, it's that you're always up for a challenge! And you stick at it, no matter how tough it gets! We'll all help, isn't that right, ladies?" At this juncture, everypony nodded their head, apart from Rainbow Dash who'd flown to the end of the corridor out of earshot, to wait for Twilight.

Rolling her eyes, but nevertheless moved by her friends' support, Applejack replied. "Don't worry, sugarcube. That was the last thing on my mind. I was just thinking how difficult it's going to be, for her and us, if she keeps what's bugging her locked up inside for a long time. If she's going to hit out at everypony who tries to help her, then I don't see what good it could do. I'll give her space for now, but if I feel that her bottling away her emotions is harming her and those around her, you just try and stop me from getting to the root of the matter."

Those present thought that this was a good way of handling things, an opinion further backed when the four mares watching witnessed Diamond and Bloom's apparent reconciliation in the warmest of embraces.

If Fluttershy had been less timid she probably would have nudged Applejack and said "I told you so!". As it was, the yellow pegasus was simply content to watch the fillies make up, while the others were just grateful the crisis was apparently over for now...

"Twi's here!" Came the call from Rainbow Dash, as she flew back to join her friends. "Eww, what's everypony looking so mushy about?"

"Nothing that you'd really be interested in, dear..." Rarity produced a scented handkerchief, to wipe away a stray tear. "Just two old enemies, who became friends, becoming enemies again, before becoming friends..."

"Huh?" Dash was beginning to think maybe she'd flown too high that day. "Well, anyway, Twilight has arrived, so maybe if you've stopped talking in riddles, we can go and see her together..."

The group waited for two more minutes, and sure enough along came the Princess Of Friendship herself, looking somewhat flustered, but still none the worst-for-wear. After a friendly hug of greeting with her fellow Element holders. They got down to business.

"Have we got some news for you!" Rainbow Dash started the ball rolling.

"That's most impolite, Rainbow! Where are your manners?" Rarity chided the blue pegasus. "First of all, darling how was your visit to Canterlot? I trust the princesses are doing well..."

" Yes, they're fine..." Twilight was still a little on edge from her meeting with Spoiled, but tried to keep smiling.

"I'm sorry if we interrupted anything important, but this really couldn't wait, sugarcube..." Applejack stated. "You see, something big has happened with Diamond..."

"Yes, and I'm getting quite a clear picture as to what it could be..." Twilight stared at the ground crossly.

"What? How so?" Applejack tipped her hat in confusion.

"I've just had a long talk with her mother..." An involuntary shudder ran down the alicorn's spine. "And a lot of things are beginning to make sense..."

Part 37: Complications

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Silver Spoon had somehow managed, with the help of the generally pastel-coloured town of Ponyville, a few friendly passers-by, and a huge slice of luck, to stumble her way to the front entrance of her school. Now, all she needed to do was locate her mother, receive the guidance she so desperately wanted and use it to untangle the friendship mess that was unfolding before her very eyes.

Not that she could see it all that well, of course due to her current myopic state.

All she knew for certain was that she was going to somehow heal the large rift that had developed between her and Di, by any means necessary. If that meant swallowing her pride and going along with the newly forged relationship between the pink filly and Apple Bloom, she'd do that, as difficult as if would be.

If, on the other hoof, the situation called for her to somehow side with the mare that Di repeatedly referred to as 'the bane of her existence', maybe because Spoiled was the least of two evils, or even unfairly maligned by everypony (Including her own daughter) then that would be another choice.

Of course, she could always take a third option. Splitting up Bloom and Di by force, despite her earlier promise to get on with all three Crusaders. Trying to win back her best friend's favour by making sure that she'd never have to put up with Spoiled again. Or even take a step back, watch all the chaos take effect, then approach the pink filly once all the dust had settled.

Everything was on the table. It would depend entirely on the advice about to be metered out by Silver Sterling. Perhaps her mother was a tad overbearing when it came to social standards and etiquette, but at least she could be relied upon to support Spoon through thick and thin.

Even if she was going to be apoplectic when she discovered the fate of a certain expensive pair of designer lenses. I'd better not tell her who was responsive for their destruction, the grey filly thought warily. Or that'll be Di off my friend list for good.

Of course, the first task was actually finding Silver Sterling. This was easier said then done, when at best you can see vague shapes in front of your face. There was a large crowd of parents mingling around outside, waiting for their colts and fillies to emerge from a 'productive' day of education. Spoon was lucky in that her mother, like herself, had rather a unique pigmentation, so even with her truncated vision, should be spotted easily enough.

Let's see now. Brown, Blue, Yellow, Green, Red... Every hue I can possibly imagine, yet no Grey. Where could she be? Usually she's here at least ten minutes early. I hope nothing's happened. That would be just typical, on today of all days, when I really need her... *GRAB*

That last word there, strangely enough, wasn't an out-of place term conjured up by the troubled mind of Spoon. No, it was a sound effect produced when two passing fillies saw the thinker, and snatched her off the street.

Instantly, Silver's pondering was cut short, as she was pushed and pulled from both sides by the two belligerent youngsters. "You've got some nerve coming back here!" "Have you heard? Di's sick!" "If Apple Bloom were here, she'd give you what for..." "Easy, Scoots. She already looks bashed up. Where have your specs gone?"

Although they were represented by nothing more than a collection of indistinct colourful blobs, the shrill voices clued Silver almost immediately as to who she was dealing with. "Scootaloo! Sweetie Belle!" She tried to shove them off of her body, without much success. "What are you doing here? I didn't think class was out for another..."

"We were allowed to leave early, to visit our friend in hospital, you know, where you put her..." Scootaloo snarled in the grey filly's face. "Besides, from what Cheerilee told us, everypony important is already there, so me and Sweets have nopony to wait for here. I was going to hang out with Dash for the rest of the day after school, but I guess that's cancelled now. Thanks to you, I should add."

"Er, did the teacher happen to mention I was headed there earlier too, with the rest of the group, to see Di with the others, as worried out of my head as you can possibly imagine?" Spoon groaned inwardly at the thought of Cheerilee leaving out that pertinent bit of information.

Through the optic fog, she thought she saw her two accosters exchange a quick glance, but their hooves kept her in place as tight as ever.

"No, she just said about Rainbow Dash, Fluttershy, Applejack and my sister going to her bedside, with Princess Twilight maybe to follow later..." Sweetie Belle confirmed Spoon's worst fears. "Although, going by the amount of stuff she's been forgetting lately, I suppose Miss Cheerilee might not have remembered to tell us..."

"Oh, don't give me that!" Scootaloo glowered, seemingly in the habit of cutting other ponies off that day. "She's lying through her teeth, I can tell! What's actually happened here is she's spent the last few hours stuffing her face at Sugarcube corner, and her glasses fell off when she ran away after Di collapsed! Must be nice that you can replace something pricy like that straightaway, huh? Shame you can't replace friends the same way!"

Silver was lost for words at the orange pegasus's unexpected tirade, and so apparently, was Sweetie Belle. While the unicorn released Spoon unscathed that very moment, perhaps out of sheer surprise, Scootaloo continued to nudge the grey filly forward with a thrusting hoof, her anger as clear as the blue sky above.

"I used to feel sorry for you, you know..." the pegasus growled. "I saw how Di pushed you around, and how you seemed to regret some of the nastier things you did together. Don't think I missed your clapping on Family Appreciation Day. It was a plan of mine that maybe, one day, we could get you away from her, and see you as your own pony, not as a clone of her. Well, now she's not around, and everything points to you being as bad as she was, if not worse. You can say what you want about Di in the old days, but at least she never made somepony have a breakdown..."

Spoon had no idea why Scootaloo was referring to her best friend as 'Di' so much, possibly to mock her. All she knew was that the pegasus's accusations had the ring of truth about them, and despite being forgiven for her earlier actions by the pink filly herself, she couldn't help but leak a few tears again at her unacceptable behaviour that morning.

Seeing Silver show signs of remorse caused Scootaloo to hesitate a moment in her denunciation, allowing Sweetie Belle to step in to try and calm things down.

"Can't you see, she's upset enough as it is, without you getting cross at her?" The unicorn frowned at Scootaloo, who was beginning to look a little sheepish. "Before we started shouting, maybe we should have heard her side of the story first. After all, we've all got lots of time. I don't think Di is going to be released for another couple of hours at least, which still gives us chance to get to the hospital afterwards, and Silver's mom is in the school, waiting to have a chat with Miss Cheerilee after class is dismissed..."

Upon hearing this startling revelation, it was now Sweetie Belle's turn to be snatched up by an eager filly. "W-what?!" Spoon stuttered, completely taken aback. "W-who set up this meeting?! W-what's it about? I've got to get in there now." She went to brush past the two Crusaders...

Just before she was held in place by a glowing green aura. No prizes for guessing who that belonged to.

"Hold on there a minute..." Sweetie kept Silver from moving forward. "You're beginning to get as impatient as Scoots! First of all, you don't want to interrupt a parent/teacher conference. I've done it before, and got a major earful. Next, it was Cheerilee who went outside to invite your mom in, and she had a pretty serious face when they were talking, so it must be important. If you want to know what I think, you'll wait right here. I don't think they'll be long, the teacher also has to see Button Mash's dad about him sneaking in game machines to class again, Snips and Snails parents about them accidentally almost burning the school down..."

Hearing all this caused Spoon to rethink her options. She was already going to be in enough of a predicament later on with her busted glasses, without adding further fuel to the fire (pun not intended). Besides, it sounded like her mother was going to be quick, and she had a lot of explaining to do to the two Crusaders in front of her. Perhaps, she could delay meeting her mom, for just a little while longer...

DING DONG! DING DONG!

OUCH! The noise.That repetitive toll indicated the end of the school day. Soon she wouldn't be able to hear a thing for the presence of pushy parents, excited colts, raucous fillies...

Surprisingly, it was Scootaloo who came to her rescue. Tapping Sweetie on the back to inform her that it was alright to release her 'prisoner' from the magical barrier, she sidled over to Spoon to steer her off in a certain direction.

"I'm still not all that happy about what you did..." She said, taking the hoof of the short sighted filly and, accompanied by Sweetie Belle, leading her to the side of the building. "But, by the looks of things you have a story to tell, and I suppose I'm willing to listen. I hope it's a good one, to convince me you're telling the truth... This is the spot. Now, out with it."

Silver found herself in quite an expansive area, a far cry from the soon-to-be crowded surroundings she'd just departed. Squinting hard, she was able to see that an expectant unicorn and pegasus were already seated on the grass, and so she followed suit.

"Now then, where to begin..." Spoon wondered where to begin her tall tale. "For a start, I wasn't at Sugarcube Corner all afternoon. I think I'd find it very hard to be served by a tiny alligator..."

.......................................................................................................................


In a contest to see which pony had the most horrified expression on their face between Twilight and Applejack after they exchanged their respective news, it could in all honesty be declared a draw. Nopony could accuse either of lacking effort, though.

Twilight was most perturbed upon hearing about Diamond's epic tantrum in her shared bedroom that morning, her confirmed lateness to class followed by a fainting spell at school, not to mention Spoiled managing to spend a good amount of time harassing her daughter, in a complete breach of the injunction the alicorn had painstakingly drawn up. Regardless of her own problems with Tiara's despotic mother, she was also disappointed with Applejack, for letting so much befall her young charge not one day into her fostering. Maybe the pressure was too much for her farm friend, after all...

By the same token, Applejack was shocked at just how much contempt and loathing Spoiled seemed to possess for almost everypony, the exception being her daughter, who she wanted to take back the same way one might reclaim a stack of bits, rather than a living, breathing being. She was most disturbed of all by the hatred the head of the school board seemed to demonstrate for her little Apple Bloom, who to her mind had never had any real enemies, until today. If that grown-up was capable of feeling that much animosity towards a child, Then who knows what else she could do.

"Surely you're over-exaggerating, right?" The orange mare attempted to settle the gnawing sensation that was growing in the pit of her stomach. "I mean how on Equestria can anypony feel that way about my little sis? She's just about the nicest filly you could ever hope to meet. Come now, isn't it a possibility Spoiled could just be kidding around?"

Twilight firmly shook her head, dashing Applejack's hopes. "She wasn't." The alicorn sadly stated. "I like to think I'm quite intuitive about pony's feelings towards others, and I got the strong impression she really, really despises Apple Bloom, as unbelievable as it sounds. Possibly enough to do her physical harm, although she denied it. All the other ponies she complained about, I only felt a sense of mild irritation, as if she could ignore them and they'd go away. But with your sister... I'm afraid, if my initial thoughts were accurate, there is a genuinely worrying grudge there."

Applejack eyes widened a little, but being the rational pony she was, she still attempted to make light of the situation. "But, she's under lock and key now, right? So Apple Bloom should be safe. And there ain't no way she can keep her job as head of the school board, if she harbours these kind of thoughts towards a filly, especially one of the most popular ones in her class. So she's protected, yeah? I don't have to worry about her safety, and I don't have to give into Spoiled by hoofing Diamond back into another foster carer's house. The last thing I want to do is succumb to pressure from the likes of her..."

Twilight smiled upon hearing this. Her friend had summed up the situation rather well. "Well, yes. There will be a full investigation behind her breaking the terms of her restraining order, regardless of her protests that she only did it because she was worried about Diamond while she was sick. During that period, she will be held under my authority, so I'll do my best to make sure she's kept as far away as possible from your family. I also think you're correct in assuming that somepony who has such strong feelings of hate towards a child at their place of employment should no longer be working there. I'll talk with Mayor Mare soon, and it should be an easy decision to suspend her from that role..."

"Phew..." Applejack felt like she'd just unloaded twenty crates of apples from her back. "Well, that's a relief, at least. Thanks Twi. I owe you one. No, two. Now, as soon as the nurses here give us the all-clear, I can take these fillies home and we can all get some well deserved shut-eye... Why are you looking at me like that?"

The alicorn was giving her a fully raised left eyebrow, which in Applejack's experience wasn't a good sign. "Even though I'm sure Spoiled played her own part in today's events..." Twilight regarded her friend with concern. "I'm not sure you're entirely blameless, either. Diamond playing truant from school, throwing a fit, hurting herself with glass, ending up in hospital... A few initial setbacks I can understand, but this soon? And all in the same day? I hesitate to ask this... But are you still sure you're up to the task?"

Applejack frowned at the princess's apparent lack of faith in her, but saw where it was coming from. "For a start, she came to the clinic straight from the elementary, and what goes on in class is hardly my fault, is it? I rushed down here to see her as soon as I could... What more can I do than that? As for her little set-to this morning, why that was practically nothing! She soon fizzled out and was as right as rain. I fixed her hoof up just fine in the bathroom, and within ten minutes, we'd forgotten all about it. Besides, Rarity got a whole mess of free rags afterwards, didn't she? How is that working out for you, sugarcube?"

Shocked that she'd actually been invited to join in the conversation, after sitting around bored with her three other friends for quite some time, the unicorn snapped to attention. "E-er, y-yes, darling. They're excellent quality. A bit higher on the design chain than 'rags' though, it has to be said. I should be able to put the material to good use for future customers..."

"I'm very glad to hear that, Rarity..." Twilight furrowed her brow, thinking that Applejack was trying to dodge the subject. "But what I'm talking about is slightly more important than fashion. Basically, what I'm seeing here is a committed foster parent, a loving family... But one that might not be able to provide Diamond with the support and security she needs at this crucial time. So, I ask you again, Applejack...Do you think you're up to the task?

Applejack gave the question a little more thought this time around. True, the decision had been on a whim to take on the daughter of Filthy Rich, and she wouldn't exactly say it was smooth sailing since accepting the formerly stuck-up filly into Sweet Apple Acres. An extra mouth to feed, a tempestuous personality to deal with... And now, even an implied threat to the well-being of her precious sister, to hoof.

And, yet...

She'd seen the child start to grow in confidence and spirit under her tutorship already. As Diamond began to come out of her shell and talk to the orange mare one-on-one, she sensed that this was a special child with limitless potential, who could only truly blossom away from the machinations of her old life. It had been tough so far, it would no doubt get tougher still later, but...

Applejack felt she could do it. She felt she could give Tiara the love, comfort and home she deserved.

And, besides...

"Take a look in there." Applejack motioned to Twilight to sneak a peek inside Diamond's room, and the alicorn saw no reason not to.

There they were. Two former foes smiling and chatting with each other, as if they'd been friends from the womb. Completely different backgrounds, totally dissimilar characters, there was so much evidence as to why this pair should never get on, as the past would suggest...

Yet, sometimes the fantasy can override reality. Like, now.

"Do ya see?" Applejack imposed on Twilight, as the princess withdrew her head from the doorway, unseen by the occupants within. "If those two can get on so well in such a short space of time, I'm sure everything else will work out just fine. There will be hard days ahead, I don't have no illusions about that. But I'm certain, if Diamond Tiara is happy here, I'm happy to have her. Whatever threats her mother can throw at us. The Apples aren't ones to give into that kind of nonsense, mark my words. Apple Bloom would agree with me too, if you asked her."

Twilight paused for a moment to take all of this in, then nodded her head. "Okay, Applejack. I trust you, as always. Let's just say today was you working out a few 'teething problems'. I'll give you a bit of leeway with Diamond considering all she's been through, but I'll be visiting more regularly now, so be prepared for me to arrive anytime. As for Apple Bloom's opinion on the current arrangement, I'll find out that soon enough. I was going to have a word with her anyway, to discover what transpired in that room when Spoiled came to visit. While we're talking, I'll also ask her what she thinks about having a new family member, and I believe she also has a right to know about the threat..."

Applejack was about to argue, but eventually decided against it. "Okay, sugarcube, you're right, I guess..." She muttered. "You'll get your chance in a little while, when those two pause for breath. Maybe..." This was a very valid point, as the fillies had been so animatedly chatting with each other for the last hour, you'd almost think they were powered by electricity.

"No worries, I can hold on. Now, what does a Princess have to do to get a cup of tea, around these parts?" She said aloud with mirth.

This was presumably meant as a joke, but it was a very dangerous thing to say in a hospital staffed with royalists. A doctor overheard her, and told a nurse. That nurse in turn informed a radiographer, then an anesthetist, then a surgeon...

And soon, everypony who worked there wanted to fetch the Princess this oh-so-important hot beverage as if it would somehow change their life. Give them a raise. A promotion. An instant knighthood. The possibilities were endless, if they could only win her favour.

The problem with that is, when all of the professionals at a medical facility run around trying to make a drink, patients are being ignored. Operations are being stopped. The place descends into anarchy.

So, barely a few minutes after Twilight had uttered those immortal words, she found herself surrounded by ponies wearing white uniforms and scrubs, offering her steaming hot cups of tea, each one hoping their mug would be the one selected by the alicorn to quench her supposed thirst.

Meanwhile, in the background, screams of "Who's going to give me my medication?" "Somepony move my bed back to my room!" "Why hasn't my chest been sewn up?" Were ringing out from everywhere, as unhappy ponies waiting for treatment looked set to cause a riot.

Unable to move an inch due to the drink-wielding hospital personnel clustered around them, and finding it impossible to retreat because of the gathering pack of neglected patients up the corridor, Twilight and her friends nervously backed out into Diamond's room, before slamming the door and breathing a collective sigh of relief.

"It's like a madhouse out there, and I'd know!" Gasped Pinkie Pie.

"Oh dear. I hope those poor ill ponies are going to be alright..." Fluttershy contemplated.

"I've seen Diamond Dogs and Timberwolves behave with more decorum. Disgraceful!" Lamented Rarity.

"How are we supposed to get out of here, with everypony blocking the way?" Applejack mused.

"Sometimes, I must say, I miss my old life when I could just walk down the street unnoticed..." Bemoaned Twilight.

"Can't we just fly over the hoards, or give them a blast of magic?" Pondered Rainbow Dash.

Upon hearing this, the blue pegasus's friends turned to glare at her, leaving Dash with an uncomfortable grin on her face, as she spluttered "E-erm, I was just kidding around. You know me, always the joker. Ha ha..." You could see the wheels turn in her eyes as she backpedaled furiously.

"We stick together now, and no magic is to be used on innocent ponies." Twilight stated firmly, before feeling a little tug on her withers.

The alicorn looked down to see what it was, and was greeted by the sight of a confused looking pink filly. "Princess Twilight..." Diamond Tiara said. "What are you doing here, and what's that loud noise coming from outside?"

Twilight smiled at the child in front of her, and the fact that Apple Bloom had followed Tiara's every step to stand by her side. Those two seemed truly inseparable now. She was about to offer the pink filly reassurance, before there was a sudden loud knocking on the door.

"In case you haven't got the message by now..." Rainbow Dash, who had taken on guard duty, growled."The Princess isn't thirsty! That was just a slip of the tongue! Now, go away!"

"Pardon me Madam, but I don't really know what it is you are talking about..." A cultured, officious sounding male voice caught be heard from other side. "I'm here to see a Miss... Twilight Sparkle? I was told she might be in this room here? If so, then could you please let me in, because I fear I am in danger of being crushed to death where I stand now..."

Wordlessly, the six mares glanced at each other. Deciding this sounded important, they gave Dash the go ahead to swing open the door briefly, and a brown stallion with an expensive tailor-made suit and finely coiffured hair took the opportunity to dive in, collapsing on the floor and dropping his briefcase in the process.

"Thank goodness!" Said the stallion, picking himself up and smoothing his clothing down, as the door was slammed shut again."That was like being caught up in a herd of rampaging buffalo! What could have caused such a panic, in a hospital of all places? I'm going to have to get this suit cleaned again..."

"Never mind all of that..." Applejack interrupted him. "You said it was important. That's why we let you in. Now, do you care to tell us what this is all about?"

"Ah, yes. Of course Madam." The stallion switched to business mode at the flip of a switch, and turned to Twilight. "Hello, my name is Legal Eagle. I am a lawyer in the employ of the Rich family. I was hired this morning to represent them in a matter concerning their daughter, and I heard Miss Sparkle is the one who filed the charges. I believe that's you? I also have received information you're currently holding one of my clients in custody. A Mrs Spoiled Rich? Could I see her as soon as possible, please? I would also like to discuss a bail application..."

All ponies in that room froze, apart from Tiara and Bloom who were too busy studying the stallion's cutie mark, a bird of prey holding a gavel in one talon, and the scales of justice in the other.

Noticing the two fillies staring at him, Legal Eagle turned away from Twilight, who was busy reflecting at what a busy boy Filthy had been that morning before he set off on business, to look back at the youngsters. Curling his nose up slightly at Apple Bloom, but hiding it well, his demeanor took on a softer appearance when he noticed the pink filly standing next to her.

Even as Tiara tried to back away behind Bloom from the stranger, she still felt her mane being stroked. "You must be Diamond Tiara. I almost didn't recognise you without your little crown. Your Daddy has told me so much about you. Don't worry, we'll get you home real soon. After all, and this is just between you and me... I've never lost a case..."

Part 38: Choices

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Diamond Tiara was left reeling by Legal Eagle's confident prediction. Just when things had started to look up for her. Just when she'd finally found a home she could feel comfortable and safe in. Just when she thought she'd discovered that most elusive of novelties than so many other ponies took for granted.

Freedom.

The ironic thing was, the stallion who she loved most in the world, despite all his faults, looked to be the instigator behind this major setback to her newly desired lifestyle. He meant well, for sure, but putting her back in the old dragon's lair while he was rushing around Equestria was not what she wanted now.

Never again would her tyrannical mother dictate her life for her. She was her own filly now. She had friends she wanted to keep. She wanted to help other ponies. She just wanted to be herself.

All things that would never happen if this sleazebag of a lawyer got his way. Well, she hated to disappoint her Daddy, but this was the one time she was going to have to fight against him with every fibre in her little body. And, thinking about all the friendships she'd nurtured of late, she knew she'd have plenty of aid on that score.

In the meantime, Legal Eagle had turned away from Tiara and Apple Bloom to regale the assembled mares in that little room about what an upstanding citizen Spoiled was. "...Head of the school board for seven years, with an unblemished record. Helpmate for the entrepreneur Filthy Rich, perhaps the primary source of jobs and enterprise in the entire Ponyville region. A devoted mother, who balances her successful career with raising her beloved daughter. And you expect me to believe she said all of that?"

"It's true." Twilight emphatically stated. "She more-or-less outright told me she has no respect for anypony, not even Princess Celestia. I was there to hear every word, and there are plenty of nurses and patients who'd back me up on that. Plus, you should know that she practically threatened a child out there. I think you've got your work cut out for you, Mr Eagle, if I do say so myself!"

Legal Eagle looked slightly flustered for a second, but soon recovered his composure. "Well, if she did say anything offensive to your delicate sensibilities, I dare say you goaded her into it. Such statements are easily admissible in court. You might be a Princess, but your word is not absolute. We still have a thing called 'due process' in this fair land of ours, and I expect you to adhere to that."

Twilight bristled at this bullish response, and countered it with more revelations. "You do realise she broke the terms of the injunction against her barely a day after it was installed? Does that sound like the upstanding citizen you describe so vehemently? Plus, if you want my opinion, she doesn't really see Diamond as a filly to be loved and cherished at all, but as a status symbol she can bring up at parties or social gatherings. I also suspect she plans to transform the child into another version of herself, completely against Tiara's express wishes. And seeing how your client behaves, I can't really say I blame her!"

The lawyer stared back at the alicorn with a deadpan expression. "That's not really for you to comment on is it, though? I've known my main employer Filthy for many years, and he would never tolerate such mistreatment of his precious daughter. He told me himself that sometimes his wife can be a little strict, but it's what Diamond needs as she grows up in a competitive world. From what I hear, she's going to take over Barnyard Bargains one day, and to succeed in such an endeavour she needs to learn to be a little cutthroat, and not given an easy ride in life like some other ponies I could mention..."

Applejack, picking up on the side glance he gave her on the utterance of that final sentence, decided to enter the fray. "Why you..." She stopped herself just in time from saying something she might regret later. "Now, listen here Mister. My Daddy was working the fields long into the night, while you were just a twinkle in your mother's eye! Generations of Apples have cultivated the land, receiving little to no thanks from freeloading ponies like you, who probably had their high-class education paid for them by wealthy parents! I've had to strive for everything in life, whereas I bet everything you've received just fell into your lap! But just because you were born into money, it doesn't necessarily mean you're happy. Diamond here taught me that herself, just this very morning..."

At this point, Applejack took a moment to gaze with affection at her new foster child, and Tiara, who had been listening with great interest to the discussion at hoof, felt the warm sensation from their heart-to-heart talk earlier on pass through her being again. This cozy feeling was only escalated by Bloom deciding to take that moment to put a hoof around her neck, to show that appreciation for the pink filly was not just a one-way street.

This finally made Diamond sure about the announcement she planned to make in the near future, a decision she'd made as a direct result of the love shown to her by her new family, and the contemptuous actions of her mother, both before her reformation, and after she'd left the mansion...

She just had to find the right moment to speak out.

Meanwhile, Legal Eagle was not impressed with Applejack's defense of her lifestyle. "Poppycock!" He humphed. "How much effort do you have to expend to feed a few chickens, pick some apples and plant some seeds in a field? It's mindless, easy menial work, and that's why it's been delegated to the likes of you. I'd be embarrassed to have your cutie mark, myself. Just a personal preference, obviously. And, from studying the notes of the case, I see you've been selected as her new foster mother? Well, if that's the sort of choice Miss Sparkle is apt to make, I think we can all go home now, because the trial is already won! What will a special pony like Diamond Tiara, with future leadership aspirations, ever learn on a grotty little farm? How to pig wrestle, I suppose?"

If Applejack wasn't ready to lose her cool before, she certainly was now. "Why, you patronising, pretentious, ignorant little toad!" She bellowed. "There are so many things wrong with what you just said there, I don't even know where to start correcting you! Instead, why don't you spend a day at Sweet Apple Acres, doing all of our jobs, while we take it easy? My guess is: You'll be begging to go home after five minutes! You'd have a lot more to worry about than a dirty suit, that's for sure! And with us, Diamond will learn about the important things in life your clients have been sorely neglecting her in before now. Humility. Kindness. Empathy. Love. Those sound like much better traits for a future 'leader' than Vanity, Cruelty, Hatred and Fear, don't ya think?"

Legal Eagle put his nose in the air, and regarded the orange mare in front of him with disdain. "I don't know what you're talking about. Why should I expect any less from a farmer, anyway? I've come up against your kind in many a courtroom battle over the years, over land that should rightfully belong to the aristocracy, and I've always won. You working-class ponies are envious over those used to a higher standard of living, so you take every opportunity to discredit them. I mean, just look at how you've debauched Filthy Rich's precious little filly over there! Confined her to a hospital bed. Forced her to remove her lovely crown, and replace it with a tatty old bow. Even making her befriend common foals like that sorry specimen over there, who are so below her station, if would be funny, if it wasn't so sad..."

"That's enough! Don't say another word!" The words had already left Diamond's mouth before she realised they were out, and everypony in the room stopped whatever they were doing to stare at her in shock.

She covered her lips quickly, and turned to Apple Bloom, still standing by her side, looking as stunned as everypony else. It was the lawyer's barbed words aimed at her new roommate that had finally caused her to blurt out her anger, and now she had everypony's attention, she thought she may as well continue her spiel.

"How dare you insult one of the few ponies who made the effort to find the real me, and helped me to change into somepony much nicer and happier than I ever was before! How dare you belittle the achievements of the family who took me in and accepted me without hesitation, despite all the nasty things I did to them previously! How dare you praise my mother so much, when you have no idea how she's made me suffer, both in the past, and especially today. Most of all, how dare you assume you know what's best for me, when I've never met you before, and by the sound of things, regret ever having done so!"

Diamond paused for breath briefly, and glanced about at all the astonished faces around her. Good. This was exactly the reaction she was was hoping for. And, save for a growing hug from the farm filly who seemed to be glued to her side, she felt nothing aside from the need to continue.

"Furthermore." She stated plainly, preparing to drop her major surprise."After recent events, I no longer feel comfortable with my own name. Since the day I was born, I've been known as 'Diamond Tiara'. This title is further enhanced by the symbol on my flank, and the jewelry I have worn on my mane. There's not a lot I can do about my cutie mark, but if you look around you, the remains of my tiara are scattered all over this room. I would like to think of this as more than a coincidence. As soon as that thing, that I was made to wear by my mother ever since my cute-cenera, shattered on the floor, I realised my old life and identity had gone with it. I no longer wish it to be part who I am now. So, from now on, I will be known as..."

She closed her eyes, before speaking again.

"Diamond Apple. I know my father will be disappointed, which I regret sincerely. I know my mother will be angry beyond belief, which I honestly don't care about. But I need to do this, for me. Maybe, one day in the future, when I'm a stronger pony, I'll be able to look in the mirror and call myself 'Diamond Tiara' again. Until then, at least while I'm living under the same roof as the Apples, I want to feel like a part of them, to have what they have. If they let me become a full member of their family, even if it is only temporary, I would be honoured. I want to move forward, and the first step to changing what I am, is changing who I am. So, everypony present, I would appreciate it if you called me by my new name from now on. Thank you." The freshly titled Diamond Apple concluded her speech, and tried to gauge the reception from all those gathered around her.

Unfortunately, it's hard to see whats going around you with a red mane in your face. As soon as she'd finished talking, Diamond found herself being squeezed into submission by a happy-beyond-measure Apple Bloom, who exclaimed in a high-pitched voice "Oh, Di! We really are like sisters now!"

So, it was anypony's guess who these sentences belonged to: "Hmm, guess I'll have to change the text on her party invitations from now on..." "Darling! What an adult decision you just made! I'm so proud of you!" "Nice one, kid! I didn't think you had it in you." "As long as you're happy, that's all that counts..." " It might take a bit of work registering your new name with the mayor, but I'm sure it's within my capacity!" "...Sugarcube, I-I don't know what to say..."

Okay, so the last voice was somewhat easy. As was the next one, the only dissenting voice in the entire room, who seemed immune to Diamond's noted powers of persuasion.

"Sorry, sweetheart. But I don't accept that." Legal Eagle was clearly not amused by the pink filly's defiance. "I'll still call you by your proper name that your father gave you, which is Diamond Tiara, in case you've forgotten already. I'm glad you made this little announcement though, as it only furthers my case as to what an unhealthy influence your current foster family have on you. Ditto for them making you smash up your priceless jewelry on the floor, an heirloom that your father said you never left home without. Clearly your young mind has been warped by those around you, and the sooner we get you back into the loving hooves of your real family, the sooner we can repair the damage done to you, both mentally and physically, caused thus far. Now, Miss Sparkle, I'd like you to take me to see my client. I think I've seen enough for now."

With that, the stallion turned abruptly about to stride towards the door, looking back expectantly at being accompanied by a certain princess. Shrugging her hooves, but giving a nod of congratulations to Diamond on her way out (which the pink filly had to move Bloom's hair just to see) the alicorn joined Legal Eagle by the door, before quickly teleporting them both outside without opening it, no doubt to keep everypony inside the room safe, as well as avoid the still huge crowds still in the corridor.

The second the pair left, Apple Bloom pulled back her head a little from her overpowering hug so she was face-to-face with Diamond, although the force of the embrace was as strong as ever. "Di, that was amazing!" She gushed. "Wherever did that come from? Oh, who cares! You truly are one of us now! I'm so pleased, for both of us! I can't wait to tell everypony on the playground tomorrow about the new Apple! I'll even let you have first pick at next year's Sisterhood Social about who you want to go with. Me, Applejack or Big Mac! Granny would be up for it too, but I guess you shouldn't encourage her..."

Realising that sister sounded a lot better than auntie, Diamond Apple finally decided to accept her old enemy's new role. "Actually, when I was talking to Legal Eagle, I was drawing inspiration from you, when you defended me from Spoiled Rich earlier on. I kind of wish I'd been the one to have put her in her place, but obviously, I was sidetracked by you-know-what. Still, at least I got to give somepony what for...!"

The two fillies giggled together, and Diamond at last returned her new sister's elongated hug, as if to celebrate their new bond, created that very day.

"Sorry to interrupt you two siblings..." The duo's hug was cut short by Applejack trotting over to them. "But I'd just like to officially welcome the newest member of the Apple family to our little clan. I know it was a tough speech you made there, and frankly I'm still in a bit of shock myself at what you said. But if it's what you really want, then I'm sure me and the rest of my kin will be more than happy to call you one of our own, for as long as you feel is necessary. Of course, this means as soon as you're fully healed up, you'll be expected to do your fair share of chores around the place..."

Diamond Apple's intense feeling of joy came to a screeching halt at that very moment, and she stared aghast at her foster mother. She's talking about chores, already? Am I going to regret this decision?

Fortunately, a strong guffawing was soon heard from Applejack, and Bloom too, who had caught onto the gag almost immediately.

" Got ya again." Applejack chuckled. "That's another thing you'll have to get used to. Our weird sense of humour."

Diamond blushed at the giggling ponies in front of her, but she didn't feel like the butt of a heartless joke, the kind she used to play all the time, in the bad old days.

She felt like part of a real family, having fun with them, in a harmless prank. It was wonderful.

As quickly as the laughter from Applejack had began though, it subsided, and the orange mare began to look immeasurably more serious. "Another thing you'll learn about us Apples, sugarcube, is that we take honesty very seriously, and we always look out for each other. I say this, because I happened to catch a snippet of what you said to that lawyer. Something about Spoiled doing something really bad to you today? I can't help but feel, this is somehow connected with what made you lash out at your best friend, and also the secret you're keeping from me, with your new sister. I wouldn't usually be this insistant, but something tells me you really need to get it off your chest. Won't you please tell me what it is? I promise not to get mad, or think any less of you. I just want to help..." The orange mare gave her foster daughter the most caring look she could muster.

Apple Bloom bit her lip, and turned anxiously to Diamond for a response...

And the newest Apple had no idea what to do.
........................................................................................................................

"Here you go, Legal Eagle, the holding room where your client currently resides. Take as long as you need. Me and my friends will be here for a little while longer, to give Diamond chance to recover from her ordeal."

"I must say, Princess your parlour tricks are very impressive. I can't believe you managed to transport us past that unruly mob, just like that. I wish I had that kind of talent, to escape some of the friends and relations of those I've put away over the years. You should hear some of them carry on after the trial. They're not guilty, and you know it. How could you misuse your cutie mark in such a way, when you could be doing such good with it? What they don't understand is how irrelevant it is whether the accused party is culpable or not. I'm paid to a job, and I do it well. It's as simple as that."

" Well, that's a very... Interesting point of view. And thank you for the... Compliment. Speaking of that 'unruly' mob, I fear I am somewhat responsible for it's formation, so I have to go back soon and hopefully restore some order around here. I'll let you see her now, but as a precaution, I'll lock both of you inside the room. This is not a reflection on you, it's just that this particular mare has already breached her restraining order once already, so I don't feel I can trust her to stay where she is, even if she does have counsel now. Just bang on the door if you want to be let out, and somepony will hear you and notify me."

"That's absolutely fine, Miss Sparkle. That's one thing I think we have in common at least. We both have difficult tasks to perform everyday that impact the lives of others. The difference is, of course, is that I had to sit numerous bar exams for months and study long into the night to achieve my position. You got hoof-picked from an early age by our glorious ruler, and only had to solve a few 'friendship' problems to turn into the alicorn you are now. But, considering the rather simplistic circumstance of your rapid promotion, I would say you're doing a fine job! I refuse to listen to anypony who tells me differently, and believe me, I come across a fair few in my profession!"

"You do? Would you care to elaborate? I'm still new to this job, so I'm bound to make some mistakes. If you give me a few examples of problems your colleagues might have with me, it may help me out in my non-stop quest for self-improvement. After all, as I've learned over the years since I moved from Canterlot, there are some things you can't solve with books, as crazy as it sounds! You can keep your sources anonymous, of course..."

"Oh, nothing you need to worry about, Miss Sparkle! After all, you're the officially designated Princess Of Friendship! Your word is absolute! Why should you care if a few disgruntled ponies, who feel they have much closer ties to royalty than you, dismiss your elevation into the hierarchy as a fraudulent sham? And what does it matter if some dissatisfied voices tell me that spending half of your time cooped up in a castle doing nothing, and the other half flying around Equestria on the whim of a magical map of unknown origins, is a complete dereliction of your duties? I wouldn't pay their jealousy any mind at all. Just follow my advice, and ignore all petty criticism. If you know what you're doing, then what's there to worry about? Now, open this door, if you please."

"Um...Yes. Of course. And thank you for such an illuminating perspective on how others perceive me. I'll be sure to think about what you've explained in great detail. Here you go with the door. I'm sure we'll see each other again later on. I can't wait...."

CREAK!

"Excellent, Miss Sparkle. May I just say it's been a pleasure meeting you, and I hope you weren't too offended by..."

BANG!

"Oh dear. I fear I may have touched a nerve. Looks like I've jeopardised my only chance at ever getting a job representing the monarchy..."

"Darling, don't we pay you enough already? My husband and me? All you care about is bits, at least that's what you've told me on many an occasion..."

"Why, hello there, Mrs Rich! How are you doing? I mean, considering the of course trumped up charges that are about to be leveled against you, and your current less-than-salubrious accommodations?."

"Well, my dear, I feel a lot better now I know I have the support of the best lawyer this side of Equestria in my corner! Filthy really was true to his word. At least that old fool is good for something. Now, tell me... What's the current status with the 'Ward Of The State'?

"It pains me to break this news to you, but those farmers have really done a number on her. She seems the exact reverse of the filly you described, with no interest in power or wealth at all. Seems she's decided to 'turn over a new leaf' and help everypony in her new rustic community. It was a nauseating display of sappiness, let me tell you. She even destroyed the tiara you told me you purchased, and has decided to change her name to 'Diamond Apple' to further discredit herself from her illustrious heritage. I couldn't help but notice the connection she shared with another filly while I was talking to her, who I suspect judging by their closeness and the similar ribbons they were wearing, might be a huge contributory factor to your daughter's brainwashing. Let's see now... She had yellow fur... A red mane..."

"Don't talk about her!. Don't ever talk about her around me. You don't know the extent to what that little brat has ruined my life. When I get out of here, I'll make her pay, you just wait and see! Still, at least it proves I have the right stallion for the job, that you picked up on her unhealthy influence on my Diamond so easily. All my troubles at the moment, from our interfering 'Princess', to the nosy teacher at my school, are no more than symptoms. That 'Apple Bloom' creature is the root cause. And, mark my words, I'm preparing an antidote even as we speak. I've already got two unsuspecting goons helping me out to that end..."

"Er... Okay. Duly noted. Client confidentiality is in full effect here, of course. But what are you going to do about your offspring's unfortunate regression?"

"Oh, that? Pish posh. I had a solution in mind for that since yesterday. When I send her off to St Whinneans, I'll tell them about the way she used to be, and they'll restore her to her original factory settings, by any means necessary. I know myself how efficient they are from personal experience, since I went through the same process myself when I had a crush on a colt from a far inferior stock, and my parents sent me there to get fixed. Fortunately, their methods although they were somewhat... Brutal in execution, helped me to see the light, and made me the mare I am today. If I want my precious Diamond to shine with the same veracity as me, I need to win her back as soon as possible, and enroll her there to get her poor brain unscrambled. That's my top priority."

"Of course, we have to win the case first..."

"Well, that shouldn't be a problem, right? I mean, just look at who I'm talking to here! Mr 100%. I can see why my husband has signed you up under an exclusivity contract, why would we ever need anypony else for our legal needs? Of course, what he doesn't know is that's not the only department you give 100% in, right dear...?"

Smooch.

Part 39: Warring Thoughts

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"... So, as you can probably understand, although I wasn't happy with Silver's behaviour in the playground today, from her point of view, the stress from everything going on with her best friend was a major factor. I'm not going to punish her, but I think you might want to have a word with your daughter to make sure she's alright. It's been quite a day all round, for her, me and quite a few other ponies I could mention..." Cheerilee was busy giving Silver Sterling an assessment of Spoon's last few hours.

Mrs Sterling, with her light grey fur and cutie mark consisting of a silver coin, was surprised enough to have been called out from the school grounds to have this private session with her daughter's teacher, but having heard of some of the events of the day, she was beginning to feel slightly on-edge.

"What?!" She exclaimed. "Are we talking about the same pony here? My filly, Silver Spoon? Yelling at Diamond Tiara, in the middle of recess, to the extent that her friend fainted? There must surely be some kind of mistake. My little girl, as much as I love her, is one of the most subservient fillies around. Whenever Diamond comes over to play, Silver doesn't dare to say one word out of place, she just falls in line and does all the following. You expect me to believe my daughter confronted her friend, in front of the entire school, and verbally tore her to shreds? Are we even on the same page here?!"

Cheerilee flinched a bit on hearing this firm defense from the mother, but continued to maintain her stance. "What you've got to understand here, Mrs Sterling, is that there have been certain... events, going on in Diamond's life of late, which may have impacted her behaviour, and the perception of her from everypony around her. Some... things have come to light about private affairs, which were probably the indirect cause of the incident in the playground. As I said, they are so serious, I can't see how anypony wouldn't be altered upon hearing them..."

"...And yet, you won't even tell me what they are." Sterling was not happy with the uncooperativeness of the teacher. "How am I supposed to help my daughter overcome whatever's troubling her, if you won't even inform me what's on her mind? Is this 'vow of secrecy' really necessary?"

"Yes, I'm afraid it is." Cheerilee replied. adamantly. "I'm under strict instructions not to reveal anything about the ca-matter, unless any of the Rich family choose to bring it up themselves, or Princess Twilight and her friends give me express permission..."

Sterling raised an eyebrow at the mention of the alicorn. Princess, huh? Maybe this is a big deal, after all. "Well, I suppose you have your orders. Can't say I'm too pleased with being kept in the dark like this, especially if my filly is involved, but I guess there's nothing I can do for now. Where is the little one, anyway? I must admit. I'm in one mind to scold her, another to praise her for finally standing up for herself..."

"She's at the hospital, visiting Diamond." Cheerilee confirmed."I gave her permission to stay there, and she seemed quite repentant for her actions, and very grown-up for taking responsibility for them. I think you have a daughter there to be proud of, Mrs Sterling, and if you want to talk to her about the current situation with Diamond Tiara, she's allowed to tell you a lot more about than me. Just go and find her."

I think I'll go and do just that. "Okay, well thank you for trying to explain this morning's occurrences as best as you could, even if you did leave quite a few gaps..." Silver Sterling stood up to take her leave. "I'll head over there now. Please keep me up to date as to my daughter's progress at school, as apparently she shows a whole new side to herself here I'm not aware of! Goodbye..."

As the grey mare left the room, Cheerilee could only feel regretful that not all upper class ponies were as nice as Silver Sterling. Sure she could be a little snooty at times, not to mention dismissive of those under her on the social scale. But in terms of conduct and friendliness, she was on a completely different level to Spoiled Rich.

She also genuinely believed that this was one mother who would love their daughter unconditionally, unlike somepony else she could mention who she was sure she'd have more run-ins with in the future. Why couldn't Sterling have run for the position of Head Of The School Board all those years ago, instead of...

That's when an old idea from earlier struck her. And this time, there would be no cleaning ladies to get in her way. Wordlessly, the teacher finished off her coffee and put down the pen she was about to mark the test papers with, before making her way to Spoiled's office.

She knew where the keys were kept after school.

She was going to let herself in again, and have a proper look around...

And this time, without any distractions.
.......................................................................................................

"Boy, that's sure a lot to take in..." Scootaloo whistled to herself.

"Yeah, you said it, Scoots..." Sweetie Belle agreed. Her face, like her pegasus friend, was a picture of confusion.

Around the point where Silver Spoon reported she got smacked in the face by her best friend, causing the breakage of her glasses and the facial injury the Crusaders had noticed after grabbing her, all animosity towards the grey filly had gone.

And when Spoon got to the juncture where she'd overheard Spoiled's seemingly universal dislike for almost everypony else, her determination to get her daughter back at all costs and her almost psychotic hatred of Apple Bloom, alarm bells began ringing in the ears of the Crusaders, and they listened to the rest in abject horror.

"And I thought Upper Crust and Jet Set were bad enough..." Murmured Scootaloo. "This mare sounds like a totally new level of crazy."

"Apart from her insulting us the other day, outside the school..." Sweetie Belle recollected. "I've actually seen her at Carousel Boutique a few times. I always know it's her because she usually insists on being served first, never seems happy with the material she's offered, tries to get a discount from Rarity because of 'who she is'... I've never liked her, but I didn't think she was that bad..."

"That's not all..." Silver continued. "I'm really worried about Di. Something is making her not behave like her usual self. One minute she's in tears, and she's not even speaking to me. Next, we're sharing a laugh together, like the good old days... No offense. Then, when I tried to hug her, well, just look at me!"

Both Sweetie and Scootaloo focused on Spoon's outward appearance, which despite her disgust, wasn't actually all that terrible. The blood had been wiped off her muzzle, thanks to a unicorn filly's magic combined with a spare tissue, the cut on her nose was small enough to go mostly unnoticed and she actually looked kind of cute even without her trademark spectacles.

Not that either filly would own up to ever thinking that, of course.

"Yeah, that is kinda sad, about Di..." Scootaloo seemed deep in concentration for a minute. "But shouldn't we be more worried about Apple Bloom? I mean, that Spoiled is loaded! She could easily hire a hitpony to take out our friend, or worse... Have her buried alive..."

"I think somepony has been reading too many action and horror comic books..." Sweetie Belle sighed at her friend's immaturity. " I just wish there was an easier way out of this. Couldn't we try at least talking to Spoiled? I mean, we were only trying to help Diamond feel better about herself, that's why we got involved. She looked so sad, crying in town that day, she didn't just expect us just to leave her alone, surely?"

"Well, you can go and apologise to her if you want..." Huffed Scootaloo. "But I for one am not sorry one bit about helping her daughter. Anypony who meets her now can tell she's much happier than before, and as an added bonus, she won't pick on us ever again. Not that we're blank flanks anymore, of course..." She turned back to stare in admiration at her Cutie Mark. She'd never get tired of studying it, after waiting so long for it to appear in the first place.

Silver Spoon's options had been swayed by the two remaining Crusaders' views. Come to think of it, she thought to herself, I've never heard a positive comment about Spoiled before, either. Even if I don't know her all that well aside from her troubles with Di, and she is unfairly disliked by a lot of ponies like she claims, surely they must have strong reasons for harbouring such contempt for her? Perhaps even if I do have some misgivings about the abruptness of Di's new lifestyle and friends, it wouldn't be such a good idea to side with somepony with a reputation like that...

"So, the question is, what should we do?" Pondered Scootaloo, while Spoon was in her mental limbo.

"Well, we should go to the hospital like we were going to in the first place!" Said Sweetie Belle.

"Yeah, of course!" Scootaloo facehoofed painfully. "We'll take my scooter!"

"Oh, no we won't!" Protested Sweetie Belle. "I want to be a visitor there, not a patient..."

"Geez! What a wuss.." Scootaloo shook her head in pity. "Come on, Silver Spoon! Get your head out of the clouds, and follow me. We're about to take on the ride of a lifetime..."

"What?" Spoon emerged from her complex thoughts, wondering what was going on.

"Don' t do it!" Sweetie Belle squeaked. "It's a trap!"

"Ignore her. She just can't handle the grind..." Scootaloo took Silver Spoon's hoof, and guided her to her parked vehicle. " You'll love it, and because you won't really see where we're going as we're whizzing through town, it'll provide an extra layer of suspense!"

"I can barely watch. It was nice knowing you Silver, at least since the election..." Sweetie Belle stated, through her hooves.

"So, where are we going again?" Spoon asked, perplexed as to what all the fuss was about.

"Shh! The time for talking is over." Scootaloo hoofed her spare helmet to the grey filly. "Now, put that on and remember to hold on tight. Sweets, see you in about fifteen minutes, you weakling. Have fun, walking all the way!"

Having received the headgear from the pegasus, the reality of what she was expected to do next finally hit Spoon like a ton of bricks. "What?! You expect me to... in this... how could you possibly think... no way! And why is this helmet so wet?!"

At this point, Sweetie Belle stepped forward, a small blush apparent around her cheeks. "Um, that was kinda my fault, I guess." She confessed. "But don't worry, I ran it under the tap, and got it all off..."

"I told you not to eat before coming on board..." Scootaloo sighed, as she got into the driver's seat. "It's a good job Silver is a lot more sensible than you. I won't see her snacking between rides! Now, come on! You want to make sure Di's alright, just as much as I want to check in on Apple Bloom, am I right?"

But Spoon had long since dropped the offending headgear with an audible "Ugh" from her mouth, and even now was at least several paces away from it, trembling with disgust.

"You made the right choice..." Sweetie Belle reassured her with a hoof on the back. "That thing is a coffin on wheels."

"The main reason I didn't get on that scooter..." Silver riposted between clenched teeth. "Had nothing to do with that, and more down to the condition of the accessories." The grey filly stared at Sweetie Belle, accusingly.

"Oh, I see..." The white unicorn scratched the back of her head, looking somewhat sheepish.

"Great. Two foals for the price of one..." Scootaloo grumbled. "Does this mean I'm going to have to take this thing to the hospital alone? Who am I supposed to use as a witness, if I break my all-time speed record? You two are so selfish..."

"No, we just want to live..." replied Sweetie Belle.

"...And some of us want to wash our manes later, as opposed to now..." Spoon followed up.

"You're never going to let me forget about that, are you?" Sweetie sighed.

"Argh! Who am I going to get to go with me? It's boring driving by yourself, there must be somepony left over who's not a complete wimp..." She scanned the horizon, but pretty much all the other schoolchildren had already gone home.

There was just one adult remaining, who'd snuck up on the trio unexpectedly. "Well I would volunteer, but I'm afraid I'm a bit too old for such hi-jinx. Besides, I don't think my insurance premiums would pay for an accident on such a machine..."

All three heads spun round simultaneously, each one having a different reaction to the pony in front of them...

"Mrs Sterling!" Sweetie Belle politely exclaimed.

"Silver Sterling!" Scootaloo announced, informally.

"Mom!" Silver Spoon, of course the most enthusiastic of them all, ran over and cosseted herself in her mother's fur.

"Hello, dear. Sorry to keep you waiting. I thought you'd be at the hospital. It's a good job I spotted you over here." Silver Sterling hugged her daughter tenderly. "I would have asked 'Did you have a nice day at school' but I've just heard from Miss Cheerilee that things were a bit frenetic today. Care to talk about it?"

"Yes, mother. Just let me get my bearings..." Spoon inwardly groaned, even as she relished Sterling's touch. She'd have to retell the whole story again from the beginning. How tedious. And that's to say nothing as to what she'd do if she found out about...

Suddenly, the grey filly found herself unceremoniously lifted up, and her facial features subjected to a thorough once-over by an angry mare. "I thought I saw something off about you, when I arrived. Where are your glasses, darling? The expensive ones I bought you back from Manehattan, special limited edition, that you begged me for ages to buy? Come to think of it, what happened to your muzzle? Why is there a cut there? Is that a trace of blood I see? Have you been fighting?"

The questions came thick and fast, and Silver, dangling in the air, wasn't sure how to respond to any of them, without getting her or her best friend in trouble. So, unable to make any sense out of her daughter's mumbling, Sterling's attentions instead turned to the two Crusaders, who were watching this pantomime going on with barely disguised mirth.

"Oh, so you think this is funny, do you?" Sterling scowled at the two fillies. "Well, when you have little ones of your own, maybe you'll understand a little more how much a mare worries about her child, even when she's not around. I've just found out my daughter was involved in an incident which left her crying her eyes out, and put her best friend in a hospital bed! Now I find she's been injured as well, and missing her spectacles to hoof! I don't know about you, but I fail to see anything amusing about this whatsoever. Perhaps either of you might know the culprit behind this attack, or maybe one of you are responsible? You didn't take her for a trip in this thing, did you?"

Once again the Crusaders were subjected to a rant by an irate upper class mare, only this time there was no name calling, and the justification was a little more understandable, seeing as how Sterling was just looking out for the safety of her daughter. Sweetie and Scootaloo looked at each other, and were about to come up with some brilliant idea that could get Spoon off the hook. (Sweetie's method involved diplomacy, Scootaloo's way was more of a snatch and run. Of course.)

Unfortunately, the world was never destined to hear their genius. Silver spoke up, beginning to feel slightly queasy due to her prone position. "It was when I was running away from the school, that I didn't look where I was going and ran into a wall. My glasses broke, and I hurt my nose. Now, could you put me down? I feel like I'm about to do a Sweetie Belle everywhere..."

Upon hearing her daughter's request, but looking bemused at the meaning of the final sentence, Sterling deposited her back on the ground, but continued to hold her close. "Are you sure you're telling me the absolute truth?" the grey mare demanded. "Because if I find out you're lying to me..."

"No, no. honestly. That's what happened." Silver Spoon insisted, a few trickles of sweat visible on her brow. "One minute I'm galloping away at top speed, next minute, WHAM. I'm so sorry for being clumsy. I'll even pay for new specs out of my allowance..." She inwardly slapped herself for that offer. No ice cream specials for me for a while.

Her mother though, seemed a lot more forgiving now. "That's won't be necessary, my dear. I'm just happy you're safe! I just heard from your teacher what happened in the playground, then saw who your new friends are, and I assumed you were turning into one of those rough ponies that I read about in the magazines, the ones who fall through the cracks in society and become delinquents. I can't tell you how relieved I am on discovering that's not the case! And I apologise to your new friends too, for pre-judging them so harshly..."

"Er, That's okay. No harm, no foul." said Scootaloo, secretly liking the idea of being percieved as one of the 'rougher' ponies.

"Yes. No offense taken. We're good." Sweetie Belle murmured, wondering if she was ever going to live down her moment of shame.

"Phew... I mean, yes. My friends. That's who they are. Tee hee..." Silver was too caught up in worrying if there was any way her mother would see through her subterfuge later, to quarrel about the status of the fillies in front of her.

In any case, all this mollycoddling of her in front of them was beginning to get a little, or a lot, humiliating, so she took a step back, just as Sterling was about to speak again.

"So, anyway..." The older mare said. "I couldn't help but overhear, that you three are on your way to the hospital to see Diamond. That tiny motorcycle over there looks like a fine machine, but how would you like to really travel in style, on something that can accommodate all of you?"

Sweetie and Scootaloo shrugged their shoulders, while Spoon just rolled her eyes. Oh no, she would have to show off, by bringing that here, again. Just because daddy...

"...And her father got a promotion last month!" Sterling gushed at the thought of her beloved. "Now we can afford to pick Silver up by horse-drawn carriage every schoolday! Isn't that swell?"

"Yeah, brilliant! And it doesn't make me stand out from my peer group at all." Spoon remarked, waiting for the 'big' unveiling of the monstrosity to arrive.

Her sarcasm was lost on Sterling, as the grey mare shouted. "You can bring it around now, Serving Spoon!" as a large carriage appeared from the other side of the school.

Both Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle stood by in awe as the vehicle approached, driven by a grey stallion in his teens, and pulled by four other older males of various complexions.

"Wow, I can't believe you get to ride in this every day!" The orange pegasus was certainly impressed. "You must feel so lucky!"

"Yeah, it does wonders for my exercise regime..." Spoon's flow of sass continued unabated.

"If I was going around town in this, I'd never... Well, you know, ever again! It sure looks a lot safer than... Ow!" Realising that Sweetie was about to slur the good name of her ride, Scootaloo gave her a little nudge, which had the desired effect of shutting her up.

"Come on then, all aboard!" Serving Spoon smiled at the three fillies.

"Too right!" grinned Scootaloo as she ascended into her seat.

"Woo hoo!" hollered Sweetie Belle, equally excited.

"I guess..." Remarked Silver, still disliking all the attention. At least all this space inside was being put to good use for once, though. Usually, it was just her in the back, all alone and rattling around as the carriage carried her home solo. She hoped it would be more exciting this time, with company.

Her thoughts were interrupted by Scootaloo, who had a question for the driver. "Wait. Serving Spoon? And you drive this thing? Are you a member of the family? And if so, why are you acting like their butler?"

Serving laughed at the pegasus's inquisitiveness. "Gosh, you've got a lot of questions for a little filly. I think I'm going to like you. You seem a lot friendlier than that stuck-up pink meanie I see around my dad's mansion sometimes. Yes, I'm one of the sons of Sterling Silver over there, and I'm just getting a bit of 'work experience' before I go to college, by doing a few chores for my mother. Our family is well-off, of course, but we also believe in getting our hooves dirty before we start our big jobs in the city. Isn't that right, Sis?

"...Yes, that's right." Silver groaned at having to divulge a family secret so openly.

"Wow, that's great Spoon, getting a bit of the common touch before you settle down!" Sweetie Belle exclaimed, innocently enough, although it was wrongly interpreted as mocking by the listener.

"Yeah, you can do double shifts at Sweet Apple Acres, that'll give you a taste of what real ponies how to deal with every day!" Scootaloo chuckled. There was no mistaking the derogatory tone of that answer.

"Well, whatever." Spoon growled. "I'm only doing it for a month. I'm not going to subject myself to that sort of thing for any longer than that, unless I want to end up like my other brother, Tarnished Silver!"

"Hey, our sibling is a, er... Great stallion." Serving Spoon said from the front, with slight hesitation. "Just because he fell in love with his job at the sewage works and decided to keep it, doesn't make him any less of a..."

"So anyway..." Sterling seemed desperate not to talk about the black sheep. "I meant to ask you earlier, but I forgot. What happened between you and Diamond today? Did she push you too far this time? Because, i must say, I was shocked beyond belief at what your teacher told me you said to her outside! I'm torn between feeling proud of you for standing up for yourself, or disappointed that you reacted to her goading. I really don't know..."

"Mother, forget all that! It was my fault completely!" Spoon was desperate to set the record straight." You see, Di, had just been removed from the custody of her parents, and was feeling a bit low. All she was trying to do was make some new friends, and I was jealous..."

"Wait a minute. She's no longer living at Rich Mansion?" Sterling's eyes widened, as she cut off her daughter. " Let me guess. She's having a few problems with her mother?"

"That's right!" Spoon exclaimed, her hoof over her mouth. "How did you..."

"Let's just say, her reputation precedes her." Sterling scowled, while the carriage began to swing into motion. "And I see how she acts at the parties we attend. But, come now, you've piqued my interest, darling. Do carry on..."
.....................................................................................................

What should I do? Should I tell her? I feel so ashamed. And... Dirty. If I tell her, will these feelings go away? Or will they just get worse? I don't know. I just don't know.

She's waiting for me to say something. I think I will tell her. Yes. Applejack will make everything better. We can chat like we did in the bathroom earlier on, that warm glow will appear again and everything'll be alright.

Stop! Hold on there! Do you really want Applejack to feel sorry for you for the rest of your life? If she knows what happened, you'll be treated like a baby forever! Then, she'll tell all her friends, and they'll be the same way. Do you really want that?

Well... No. But I've got to do something. I don't want to feel worthless. I don't want to feel violated. I want to feel... Clean again. Right now, I don't even want to look at myself in the mirror. If talking to somepony could relieve that...

That would just make it worse! You think things are bad for you now? Just wait until word gets around town what happened. Nopony will ever respect your authority ever again. Some might even say you encouraged it!

They wouldn't! They'd understand! I'd explain what happened to me! I'd be safe from everypony who wants to hurt me! They'd be locked up! I could make a fresh start, knowing they could never harm me again!

Do you really think imprisoning all those ponies will make you feel any better? Because it won't. What happened to you will stay with you forever, and the only chance you have is by bottling it up and continuing as though nothing has happened.

But... I deserve justice! And what happens if Upper Crust does it to somepony else? How would I live with myself, if I knew I could have stopped that? What justification could I possibly have, to take that risk?

Yourself. You're the only one you should be thinking about. It's sad if it happens to somepony else, but what do you owe anypony? You were stuck in that mansion for years, being screamed at by Spoiled. Nopony rescued you, did they?

That's because they didn't know about it, not because they didn't care! I'm sure if the Princess and her friends knew what was going on, they'd have been round much sooner to collect me. My old mother was a cunning mare, keeping it a secret. Even from Daddy!

No, they just didn't like you. Nopony liked you. You were a stuck-up bully who everyone loved to hate. If they'd found out about your homelife, they'd have said you deserved it. Even now, I bet they're putting on a fake act of friendship...

Ha! Now I have you. There's no way somepony as nice as Apple Bloom, or as honest as Applejack would do such a thing. They genuinely are concerned about my well being. I can see it in their eyes, their words, their actions...

They believe in me. They think I'm special.

Special enough to be invited into their home, eat at their table, sleep in one of their beds and even now become a member of their family.

I'm not worthless. Other ponies do care about me. It wasn't my fault about what happened. There is a better future ahead.

So, you lose! Bye Bye!

....

It's gone. The negativity, the doubt...Hopefully forever. That's maybe just wishful thinking. But, what do I do now?

Applejack is still waiting for a response. Apple Bloom is tightening her grip on me.

I feel ready to tell her now. To let it all out. So that she'll understand why I'm like this. I know she won't think any less of me, and as my new foster mother, she surely has a right to know. Most importantly, it would make both of us feel better.

I open my mouth, in preparation for the reveal...

But then, another thought crosses my mind... This one far more practical than the negative one I overcame a minute ago.

The realisation of it causes me to snap my jaw shut again, and scan the room, beyond Applejack's warm smile.

There's the manic Pinkie. The brash Rainbow Dash. The fashionable Rarity. The sweet natured Fluttershy...

Fluttershy. Of course. I remember our productive talk before... Her words reaching out to me... Even the tone of her soothing voice made me feel tons better.

Perhaps the reason I didn't say so much to her before, was because the room was full of too many ponies. The pressure must have really gotten to me.

Well, not for much longer.

I clear my throat, and ask Applejack straight out politely, if she can leave the room for a moment with all of her friends, save for Fluttershy and Apple Bloom.

She casts an unreadable expression my way, a mixture perhaps of disappointment and surprise. I can't help but feel my heart sink a bit on seeing it.

It's all for the best, though. If I had my way, I'd be telling her the whole sorry story, from beginning to end.

But the truth is, she's got enough on her plate looking after me, taking care of her farm, dealing with Spoiled... And now, arguing with seedy lawyers.

To put another worry in her mind, the size of the one I could tell her about, would be nothing short of incredibly selfish. I know what it's like to live with that much pressure. And I certainly don't wanna put her through that. She doesn't deserve it. Not after everything she's done.

I've still gotta tell somepony else, though. Apple Bloom has been a pillar of strength for me so far, and hopefully will be long into the future. But I want to confide in an adult, too. Somepony with experience. Somepony who'll be able to connect with me. Or, has connected already.

I would've loved nothing more than that pony to be Applejack. But not today. Maybe in the future, when thing are a little less complicated.

She still looks at me sadly, as she gathers her party together to leave me alone with Fluttershy and my new sister. I'm sure Applejack respects my decision, even if she doesn't really like it.

Apple Bloom looks a little perplexed, too. I guess she had high hopes I was going to spill the beans there and then to the mare she idolises. Oh well, I'll explain everything later on. Seeing how well we've been getting on of late, I'm positive we'll see eye-to-eye.

Oh look, now Fluttershy is coming over here. Yes, you did hear right, Miss Shy. I do want to have a private word with you. It's fine if Apple Bloom stays. In fact, I need her to. I wouldn't be able to get through this without her.

You know we had that talk before, right? Well, it really helped me. I feel a lot stronger now. You have a real knack for this, don't you? Anyway, I want to add something onto what I talked about before. This time , I won't hold back, so brace yourself.

You know that couple that you asked about before? Well, a little more happened with them than I told you. It all occurred when one of them wanted to see my Cutie Mark, and...


Part 40: Confidence

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Fluttershy had dealt with many unusual maladies over the years. A porcupine with puncture wounds. A rooster with laryngitis. A dragon with a serious attitude problem.

But never, ever, had she heard of anything like this.

Yet here the pegasus sat, listening to the shaking voice of a little filly wrapped securely in both her wings and hooves, trying to coax the child to let it all out.

Diamond Apple thought she could handle it. She'd felt fine just a minute ago, ready to tell everything in a calm, collected way before moving on with her life. It had all been so easy in her head...

When she got to the part where she'd felt her tail being lifted up and what had ensued afterwards, all of her best laid plans came crashing down. The tears, which had been nowhere just a minute ago, had returned with a vengeance, and she constantly had to repeat herself just so Fluttershy could hear through her gurgles.

Apple Bloom of course, was a permanent fixture of comfort, stroking her new sister's mane, telling her to breathe slowly , letting her know that everypony was there for her, that she could substitute for telling Fluttershy the tragic story instead if Diamond didn't feel up to it.

But the pink filly knew this was something she had to do alone. She was not going to let her mother, or her powers of intimidation win the day. So she fought through the twin barriers of pain and trauma, she battled the uncontrollable sobbing that her mouth expressed and she pushed to one side any shame or embarrassment that might have cut short her testimony.

Fluttershy remained the patient and empathetic soul she always was, never interrupting the victim in front of her for one second, listening carefully to every single word, even when it had to be stated again due to muffling. And, together with Apple Bloom the other side, encasing Diamond in a warm cocoon that dried her flowing tears and let her know she was safe and protected.

Diamond eventually, through great powers of endurance she didn't even know were there, was able to tell all. The names of the perpetrators, who Fluttershy recognised immediately. The role of her mother in the crime, who just sat back and smirked as her daughter was molested. The tirade that Spoiled thrust upon her afterwards, when the pink filly was at her lowest ebb and ripe for manipulation. The heroism of Apple Bloom, who came to her new sibling's side just when she was needed, to drive off Mrs Rich before further damage could be done. Finally, the feelings of worthlessness afterwards which had almost overtaken her, if not for the thought of her new life with a loving family who actually had time for her, and where she could truly be who she wanted.

After all of that, Diamond began to feel a little faint, as her mental exhaustion from reliving the tragedy threatened to consume her. She'd done her part bravely though, and both Fluttershy and Apple Bloom couldn't be prouder of her. Letting her rest for a moment, Fluttershy turned to Apple Bloom with a look of clear admiration on her face.

"You know, Diamond is so lucky to have somepony like you around to support her." The yellow pegasus remarked. " The amount of commitment and compassion you've shown towards her is astounding, considering your past history. This is going to be the start of a long, difficult ordeal for her, but I can't think of anypony better to fight in her corner with her than you. I think we can honestly say, whatever else you do in your life, you've changed her fate for the better. And I'm sure she realises that."

Apple Bloom was about as humble as a pony could be, but the thought that she'd helped out Diamond in such an important way gladdened her heart for both herself and the pink filly. It was especially meaningful coming from the mare who'd successfully reformed and befriended Discord, so she was bound to know something about the subject.

"The problem is, though..." Fluttershy continued, a frown etched on her face. "What do we do next? I mean, my first instinct would to be tell Applejack, but we all must also respect Diamond's wishes. She sent everypony else out of this room apart from us for a reason. With you, I think it's because you knew her secret already, and she trusts you implicitly. With me, I'd say she realises I'll always listen to other ponies difficulties, and I'll always try to always be as patient as possible. I have to say though, I've never dealt with anything like this before..."

"I really wanted my big sister to be told too..." Apple Bloom agreed with the older mare. "But right now I'm kinda thinking I see it from Diamond's point of view. She rightly or wrongly believes she owes Applejack a lot, and doesn't want to weigh her down with even more stuff than she's got already on her mind. Plus, I know what her temper is like... It's second only to Rainbow Dash when it gets going. I don't know what would happen to Spoiled if my big sister caught wind of this before the court date, but I tell you this much: I think they'd be holding the trial in this here hospital, mainly for Mrs Rich's benefit."

This frank comment made Fluttershy hesitate even further in doing what she knew was 'the right thing', but she resolved to tackle it at a future date. Certainly during the upcoming case to decide who Diamond was going to live with if it made the difference between if she stayed with the Apples, or returned back to her former abusive environment. Maybe her devoted yet often missing father still loved her, but Spoiled would face the full extent of the law, whatever happened. The same with Upper Crust and Jet Set. Who'd have thought, at the time of Twilight's birthday, that these two snobs would later contribute to causing so much damage...

Fluttershy's musings were cut short by a tug on her wing, as Apple Bloom pointed to the now dozing form of Diamond leaning against the yellow pegasus's hind leg. "After all she's been through, she deserves forty winks..." She whispered to the older mare, while watching the gentle breathing of the pink filly. "I really want to do everything I can for her. To make her pain go away. To have her feel like a member of our family. To show her how good life can be. But I know now... I can't do it alone. We're going to need a strong group of as many ponies as possible. This includes your friends, my friends... And Silver Spoon. If Di knows that we're all around and rooting for her, I'm sure she'll pull through this! Are you with me?"

Taken aback that somepony so young could demonstrate such innate wisdom, Fluttershy stroked Apple Bloom's mane with her hoof. "Of course I am. Me and the others will do everything we can to protect your sister. It almost feels like she's a member of our little extended family already. There may be difficult days ahead, but one thing you can rely on is that we'll never stop caring about those we love, and doing what's right for them. Like now, I'd say it's a good idea for us to put little Diamond Apple here to bed, and for you to sit with her until she wakes up. What do you say?"

To the tune of Apple Bloom saying "I was gonna do that anyway", the yellow pegasus gently prised the napping child from her side, before carrying her over to the mattress and tucking her in. As the farm filly sat beside Diamond on the quilt, Fluttershy took the decision to give those cloistered outside a status report, seeing as both children seemed settled enough for now.

"I'm just going to talk to my friends a minute, 'kay?" She made her way towards the door. "You'll both be safe here. We'll be nearby, so if you need anything, just tell us..."

"You're really not going to say anything, are you?" Apple Bloom attempted to clarify Fluttershy's standpoint on the secret they were all now privy to. "At least, not until Diamond is ready to... You know..."

"No, I won't tell anypony else, if that's what she wants." Fluttershy replied, against her better judgement. "But there will come a time when your sister is going to have to make a decision about that. And I have faith, that even without our input, she'll make the right one. Now, I must go. They'll be wondering what we've been doing in here, all this time."

"Just one more thing..." Bloom stated, as the pegasus was turning away.

"Yes? What is it?" Fluttershy asked in puzzlement.

"This..." And with that the farm filly left Diamond on her own for a moment, and ran towards the pegasus to clench her in a firm hug. Initially taken by surprise, Fluttershy soon found herself crouching down to hold the smaller pony in her own hooves.

"Thank you for everything you've done, and for everything I'm sure you're gonna do for us in the future..." Bloom rubbed her head against Fluttershy's fur. "I was starting to doubt myself a bit, in whether I could really be the sister Diamond needs, but you've just given me the strength to know I can be. Applejack always tells me she respects your advice, after that thing with the bats. And now I know why."

Blushing a little, Fluttershy nevertheless tried to play down her accomplishments. "I'd say you're doing quite well yourself, without my assistance..." She reassured the farm filly. "But as I'm sure you already know, my door is always open to you and Diamond. Just be sure to knock around mealtimes, because my animals can get a bit cranky if their eating is disturbed. Especially my dear Angel..."

She stopped at this point, and realised something very important. As in: she'd left the most spoiled, petulant and vengeful bunny in town alone for hours. Without any food. Oops.

The first time this had happened, he'd kicked her out of the house (literally), which had led to her joining a minotaur's self assertion class, and in the events that followed nearly cost her two of her best friends.

The second time, having not learned her lesson, he'd unleashed all of her pets from their various homes, and she'd had to miss out on a fun picnic day with the others so she could gather them all up.

On this occasion, the consequences could be even more dire. Third time was most definitely not the charm for this rascally rabbit.

"Seeyoulatergottagomustflylookaftereachother!" Fluttershy was barely coherent, as she politely nudged Bloom away, got to her hooves and sped through the air and out of the door.

"What's eating her?" Apple Bloom was unaware of the irony of what she'd said, as she shrugged her shoulders before returning to Diamond's side. "Oh well, I suppose everypony's got a bit of Pinkie in them somewhere..."
.........................................................................................................

"Why Miss Pie! I'm surprised at you! don't you know it's rude to eavesdrop?" Rarity exclaimed, shocked at her friend's chutzpah.

The party pony, caught with a stethoscope pressed against the door that she'd 'borrowed' from a nearby room, froze upon being caught in the act. "I-I was only doing it to help D-Diamond..." She stuttered. " As you know, I hate to see anypony sad, and I felt if I learned anything, I could tell Applejack, and then they could both make each other feel better!"

Pinkie glanced over at the farm mare, who was feeling pretty down in the dumps about apparently not doing enough yet to earn her new charge's trust. Her hat was pulled over her eyes, with a glum expression cast on her face.

"I appreciate what you're trying to do, Pinkie..." Rarity approached the party pony to confiscate the medical implement. "But invading the privacy of a filly is not the way to go about it! All of us are trying to get Diamond to open up, but we have to be patient. How do you think she'd feel if we asked her about something she hadn't already told us about? She'd never confide in us again, and then how would we help her? Consequences, dear. Consequences..."

"Oops, never thought about it that way before..." Pinkie backed away, feeling a little embarrassed. " That's the trouble with me. Sometimes..."

"Yes, dear. You don't think. We have noticed..." Rarity gave the party pony a small smile. "But at least your intentions are always good. Just give her some space. She'll tell us when the time is right..."

"Are ya sure 'bout that?" Both ponies spun around at the sound of Applejack's voice, the first time it had been heard since they'd left the room together. "I mean, if she'd rather talk to Fluttershy, a pony I reckon she's barely exchanged a word with before today, than me, her own foster mother, who's supposed to be looking out for her, what chance is there of her ever telling me anything? If she can't even keep me in the loop about something this important, is there any hope to have any communication between us in the future?

Rarity went straight over to the farm pony to put a comforting hoof around her neck. "Listen, darling." She reassured her friend. "This is all very new to you, so don't lose heart. I'm sure she has her reasons for what she's doing. She's an intelligent filly that one, and maybe she doesn't want to worry you. Fluttershy has a knack for things like this, so try not to fret. You saw yourself how excited she is to live on the farm. Why, within a few months, I bet calling calling you 'mother' will be like second nature to her! Not that you have much competition with the current incumbent, but even so..."

"I know, I know, I'm whining about nothing..." Applejack continued to moan, not really hearing the fashionista's words of inspiration. "It just feels weird that I'm supposed to be her guardian, yet it's my little sister who's been doing all the 'guarding', so to speak. If a ten year old filly can do a better job then me, am I really cut out to be a parent? Can I really support all of Diamond's needs? Did I really think all this through before I signed up to it?"

"My dear, I'm sure you'll do a wonderful job." Rarity answered with confidence, turning her friend's head around to make sure she was actually listening this time. "You'll handle it the same way you do everything else in life. With efficiency, determination and most of all, tenderness. After all, I never tire of hearing you extol the praises of Apple Bloom, but who raised her almost single-hoofed into the model citizen she is today? Who taught her to respect others, the difference between right and wrong, and how to buck a dozen trees in record time ? That was you, darling. All you need to do is get to know your new daughter, pass those same valuable lessons onto her, and you'll connect easily! You might want to take it a little slower on the apple-bucking side, though..."

Applejack felt her spirits lift considerably upon hearing her unicorn friend's compliments, and rose to her hooves. "You're right Rarity. I don't know what I'm getting so worked up over. I already felt something special pass between me and Diamond during our little talk earlier on, and now she's whole-heartedly accepted Sweet Apple Acres as her new home, it won't be too long before we'll be able to share everything. As soon as this is all over, I'm going to host a big par... get-together, and invite the rest of the Apples to meet their new kin. If that don't make her feel like one of us, nothing will."

Rarity grinned: both at Applejack's renewed enthusiasm for the joys of parenthood, and her subtle avoidance at using the 'P' word, to avoid a shakedown by Pinkie. "That sounds great, darling. I'm sure you'll all have a fantastic time. Unlike now, it has to be said. Where is that Rainbow Dash?! The corridors are all clear now, so she should have been able to find Twilight quickly enough. What could be keeping..."

"Here I am! Here I am! Didya miss me?!" The aforementioned blue pegasus was flying through the air, once again disregarding the notices on the wall. Twilight trotted underneath, either because she chose to respect the rules, or she still preferred to walk, mainly due to her previous incarnation as a unicorn.

Rarity rolled her eyes at such a boastful display "Like a hole in the head, dear." She mumbled, unheard by anypony. Nevertheless, she went over to greet the return of her two friends with the others, eager to hear the news of how the princess had cleared the hoards of medical personnel from outside.

"Well obviously I tried talking to them." Twilight confirmed. "I prepared a long speech about how they were putting the health of their patients at risk, causing a ruckus that was putting the reputation of Ponyville at stake to visitors and even informed them that I no longer wished to even have a drink. I spent fifteen whole minutes talking to them, then..."

"It worked?" Rarity was impressed. The alicorn was an even more affluent speaker than she'd thought.

"...No." Twilight admitted, looking flustered. "I'm not even sure any of them even heard me, the noise was so intense. They just kept on coming. Their steaming mugs in hoof. Trying to pour them down my throat. You must try this, they cried. I felt trapped. Cornered. Too nervous to even remember how to teleport away! That's when Rainbow here arrived, and..."

"Ooo! Ooo! I'll field this one! It's the best part!" The blue pegasus flared out her wings in triumph. "I flew up as high as I could, and I announced that the hospital was due for an review that day, from the new inspector. Who got the job? A certain draconequus we all know and love..."

"... Really?" Rarity raised a skeptical eyebrow at this news. "I hardly think he'd be the kind of creature Celestia would assign to such a delicate task..."

"Yeah, but they didn't know that, did they?" Rainbow laughed uproariously, her sides about to split. "They rushed back to their positions so quickly, I swear I could spot speed marks in the air! Problem. Solved. Of course, I don't envy the cleaners afterwards, having to mop up all that spilt tea and clear away that broken china..."

"Rainbow, I don't mean to question your methods..." Applejack looked at her friend crossly. "But frightening everypony half to death like that. Doesn't that strike you as a little over-the-top?"

Before Dash could answer, Twilight stepped in to surprisingly defend her friend. "Usually I'd agree with you, Applejack, but in this particular case, other ponies were suffering due to my slip of the tongue, and my plans weren't working. So, in this one instance, drastic measures were possibly justified... As long as we don't make a habit of this sort of thing. I trust you won't, Rainbow?"

"Of course not, Twilight. This was strictly a one off. I would never dream about undertaking such an activity again, as saving your royal hindquarters. I bow to your authority in everything." The blue pegasus gave a giggling Pinkie a little wink, as Twilight wondered what she'd done to deserve such an unruly 'subject'.

"Anyway, apart from that..." The alicorn proceeded on. "I introduced Mr Eagle to Spoiled, back at the holding room. And may I just say, they make quite the matching pair. I don't think they'll be too many disagreements on their tactics at the upcoming trial, that's for sure. I've allowed them a bit of time alone to talk, and as soon as they've finished, I've notified Legal to inform one of the employees here to let me know, and then maybe we can finally think about leaving this hospital. Providing Diamond is all rested up, of course. Come to think of it, why are you all outside? And where's Fluttershy?"

Noticing Applejack's slight humph at her question, it was Rarity who answered the princess. "She's inside, dear, with both of the fillies, talking to them about whatever's bothering Diamond. Applejack here feels a little put out that her new daughter chose to go to Fluttershy first about her personal problems, but as I've already told her, she mustn't worry. Your child is in good hooves right now, with that mare..."

Seeking to expand upon Rarity's comforting words, Twilight approached her farm pony friend. "Listen Applejack..." She confidently predicted. "Diamond knows what she's doing. I'm sure this won't impact your relationship at all. And, look on the positive side. Your child couldn't ask for a more calm, level-headed, placid pony to confide in..."

It was at this point that the door burst open, nearly making Pinkie see stars in the process, as a yellow-hued blur swept past them to the strains of "HavetoleaveAngelprobablytearinguptheplaceinmyabsencetalktoyoulaterbye!"

The accompanying wind disappeared as quickly as it had appeared, leaving the remaining five mares in a state of utter confusion. And a very annoyed Rarity with a sudden fluffed-up mane crisis.

"Was that..." "Nah, it couldn't have been..."
...................................................................................

The coach arrived at it's destination, and all three fillies jumped out, ready to see their friends.

"Thanks, that was a great ride!" Enthused Scootaloo.

"Yeah, I can't wait to do it again!" Sweetie Belle agreed.

"It was okay, I suppose..." Silver Spoon was less impressed.

"I'll wait for you kids here..." Serving Spoon nodded at each one of his passengers. "Take your time. These four stallions need rest, anyway..."

"Hey, we do have names, you know..." One near the front growled.

"Yes, and I promise you, one of these days I'll make the effort to learn them..." Serving told him, possibly sounding more arrogant than he meant to.

The trio of fillies made their way to the stairs near the entrance, with Scootaloo and Sweetie chattering away excitedly in front, and a silent Silver languishing behind, wondering exactly what she was going to say to her best friend, or how Diamond would react to seeing her again...

"Hold on you three. I'm coming too!" Came a female voice back in the coach, as Sterling Silver hopped off to join them.

All the children were surprised at this decision. "What?" Silver sputtered. " I thought you were going to wait for us. Haven't you told me before how much you hate this place? The smell of disinfectant in the air. The tatty uniforms. The fact you can't even get a decent meal..."

"I don't think they're that bad, Spoonie..." Sterling called her daughter by her nickname. "Remember, you were born in one of these 'places'. Try not to make me sound that much of a snob in front of your friends. I just prefer to be treated at home, that's all. If you have the means, you might as well use them. And I want to see how Diamond is doing too, believe it or not. She might have caused you a lot of hassle over the years, but I still care about her well-being. Besides, from everything you told me in the coach, it doesn't sound like her behaviour was entirely her fault. I might even be able to help her out with her situation, too..."

"How?" Silver continued to be perplexed at her mother's sudden interest.

"Oh, you'll find out soon enough!" She gave a cryptic smile to her daughter, as she took her hoof to guide her up the steps. "Come on, let's go! No dawdling! We should be able to get you some new prescription lenses in here, as well. Not as nice as your old ones, but beggars can't be choosers, right?"

"Yeah, let's go... Spoonie!" Scootaloo was trying hard to hold back a smirk, without much success

"That's right! No dawdling... Spoonie!" Even Sweetie was getting in on the act.

Silver rubbed her already blurred eyes in frustration. Great, more ammunition for my former victims to use against me in the schoolyard. Couple that, with what sounds like a big, bulky new pair of glasses. Karma is certainly biting me in the...

WHIZZ....

Suddenly, a yellow flash darted past, in a blink-and-you'll-miss-it moment, along with a strong breeze.

All ponies present stopped for a moment, to ponder this strange phenomenon.

"What was that?" Sweetie Belle wondered.

"What was what?!" A myopic Silver squinted.

"Never mind, sweetheart. It's gone now." Sterling was equally nonplussed, but wanted to press on.

"I have no idea, either..." Remarked Scootaloo. "But if it's Rainbow Dash's new look, I'm going to insist that she changes it back. Yellow just isn't her colour."

Part 41: Memories

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Cheerilee opened the door to Spoiled's office with extreme trepidation. She didn't know why she was so cautious, considering the whole building was abandoned, with one obvious exception.

But, knowing the reputation of the mare who usually sat behind the desk inside, she was half expecting an alarm to go off, or a secret booby trap to unleash it's horrible contents. Fortunately, either Spoiled hadn't been there that day to set one up, or Cheerilee's coffee-fueled paranoia was getting the better of her. Again. Anyway, she got into the room unscathed. For now.

Breathing a sigh of relief, but shuddering a little at the sight of the empty seat where her nemesis usually resided, she tentatively trotted over to the filing cabinet where she'd began her fruitless search earlier. Opening up the drawer once more, on this occasion her sights were set on acquiring a specific pony's information.

Namely: The head of the school board herself.

Yes, the elementary had past history on everypony there, even the staff themselves. Cheerilee had spotted her own folder once or twice during her occasional snooping, but had managed to resist the temptation to browse through it. She didn't want to be reminded of her failing love life, and previous misguided career as a florist...

Ah, there it was. Poking out right at the end, a rather thin volume that nevertheless promised to be interesting reading. Cheerilee had no idea why she wanted to look into Spoiled's past. Just an inkling, she guessed. Having had no success with discovering Mrs Rich's no doubt nefarious scheme earlier by concentrating on the present, perhaps it was time to switch her attention to the past. It was a long shot, but one she felt was worth taking. Diamond Tiara, and all the ponies who cared for her, were counting on it.

Perhaps there would be some answers inside. Such as: What turned Spoiled into the tyrant she was today? What drove her to treat her daughter with such contempt, and heap such unnecessary pressure on her? Was this uncompromising, selfish figure of a public official ever different from the way she was now? Cheerilee intended to find out. Preferably, before it got dark.

She scanned the document inside. Date of birth. Blood type. Height. Weight. When she got married (Celestia bless his soul). Her daughter's birth. When she got her current job. Her hobbies, which included fine dining, fashion and... Disco dancing?

Cheerilee certainly wasn't expecting that. Future blackmail material, perhaps? No, the teacher was far too morally upright to engage in that kind of skulduggery. But, if the situation ever required it... She'd file this little tidbit away in her head anyway, and label it 'for use in case of emergency'.

She found other items of intrigue, such as evidence of her personally blocking a multitude of misdemeanors from her daughter, so it wouldn't end up on her little 'darling's' permanent record. This might have been helpful a few days ago, but right now she needed to get Diamond out of trouble, not in it.

There was also a few notes regarding her opinion of the other fillies and colts around school. To cut a long story short, she found the vast majority to be either too stupid, scruffy or just plain worthless. Barely any pony made the grade, in the perfect imaginary utopia of Spoiled.

The only pony to emerge with any credit from her extensive profiling was Silver Spoon, and even she was criticised for braiding her hair too tight and having fake pearls. But then again, who could live up to the paragon of beauty that is Spoiled Cheerilee found herself wondering. Oops. Bad teacher. Naughty.

She realised she was getting off the beaten track. She'd found plenty of material which offered a glimpse into the, to put it mildly, warped mind of Spoiled, but as of yet nothing to assist her in discovering what the head of the board was up to. She'd arrived at the last page...

And there was nothing there. It was as blank as the flanks of the youngsters she encouraged her daughter to ruthlessly mock. That was it. There wasn't anything left. All of Cheerilee's efforts had been for naught. Spoiled was going to get away with whatever vile connivance she was hatching, and that was that. The teacher shook the documents in pure frustration...

Something small fell out of the bottom of the folder. It fluttered through the air, before nestling at Cheerilee's feet. She looked at this tiny squared object with inquisitiveness. It must have been missed by her during her initial run-through.

The teacher very much doubted it was anything important, though. Something so minor and insignificant would hardly be of use to her at this crucial moment. But, short of any better options right now, she'd take a quick peek anyway...

She picked it up. It was a photograph, taken some time ago. In glorious sepia, it showed Ponyville Elementary in the past, before its numerous renovations. Standing front and centre were a trio of young ponies, two fillies and a colt. One filly was standing slightly to the side, looking on with a smile at the other two, who were...

Cheerilee dropped the picture with an audible gasp. She knew those three ponies.

They might look slightly different now (especially in one case), but there was no mistake. It was them.

She'd had no idea that...

And what's more, as the image had landed on the floor, she spotted something on the back of it. Writing.

Cheerilee picked up the photo again with a trembling hoof...

Only to let it fall again as soon as she'd finished reading the six lines of text scrawled on there.

Oh my Celestia. This might not explain everything, but I think I can see where it started.

And there was me thinking that this would be a wasted search...

I could kiss whoever took that picture.

But for now, I have to go down to see Twilight...

Without a moment's delay.

.................................................................................................................................

"Hello, how can I help you today?" Nurse Sweetheart sounded friendly enough at the reception, but you could tell she was somewhat on edge by her gritted teeth and the shaky posture.

"Er, hello. We're looking for the room of a Miss Diamond Tiara...?" Silver Sterling wondered what was bothering the medic, but decided that perhaps it was just down to the pressures of the job. After all, there must be some kind of stress from working such long hours with so little pay. She certainly couldn't do it, that was for sure.

Upon hearing the name of the patient, Sweetheart's discomfort was even more apparent "W-what?" She stammered, her eyes rapidly darting from left to right. "Y-you want to see her? I-I mean, of course you can. Ha ha. That must mean you're with Princess Twilight's group. P-please, come right this way..."

The nurse marched up the corridor hurriedly, and the three fillies and one adult who were supposed to follow her looked at each other with apprehension. Their first thought was that something serious must have happened to their friend, for their request to provoke such a reaction, so they quickly took after her.

"Excuse me a minute..." Panted Scootaloo, as she caught up to Sweetheart. "I have to ask. How is Di doing? Is she alright?"

"What...?" The nurse stopped for a second. "Well, Redheart was tending to her, and she told me your friend was fine, if a bit drowsy. But we haven't checked on her condition for a while, because we've been busy doing other things."

"Huh? What do you mean?" Sweetie Belle had drawn alongside now, and was equally as concerned as her fellow Crusader.

"Well, nothing you two fillies need worry about..." Sweetheart gave a rather forced smile to the youngsters surrounding her, unwilling to admit to her temporary loss of sanity while trying to win the favour of the princess via a hot beverage.

"So, what you're telling us is: You don't know how Diamond Tiara is doing, and you're telling us not to worry?" Sterling, with her daughter in tow, was somewhat exasperated at the nonchalance on display from the medic. "How are we supposed to feel better, if you don't know anything about her condition?"

"Oh, I'm sure if anything bad had happened, the princess or any of her friends would have informed us at the front desk..." Sweetheart reassured them, somewhat unconvincingly. "Anyway, you can see for yourself. Look, we're here now..."

The party following the nurse glanced around the corner to see a group of five familiar mares all gathered outside a room, and looking as though a hurricane had blown through the area. Sweetie in particular had never seen her sister looking so unkempt, while Scootaloo was just glad her suspicions of her idol's dye job were apparently unfounded, as Rainbow Dash was there, looking as cool and blue as always.

Those present were eager to meet up with the princess and her entourage, but not before they'd been stopped in their tracks by an anxious looking Sweetheart. "Sorry to be a pain..." She hesitated, as though she couldn't believe what she was about to ask. "But could you tell me: Are any of you perchance, a Chaos God in disguise?"

If the four newly arrived visitors weren't already freaked out by the nurse's odd behaviour, they certainly were now. "Er... Pardon?" Was Sterling's confused response, while the others just wore expressions of incomprehension.

Realising that she must sound just a little crazy, Sweetheart decided to withdraw her question. "Oh, er, never mind. Just a little bit of humour I sometimes try out with our guests. I'm well known for it. Ha ha. Must be getting back. Let me know if there's anything else you need. Cheerio for now..."

And with that rather strained farewell, the medic took her leave, silently cursing Loving Care for being lucky enough that her shift ended earlier, before all this nonsense unraveled.

Sterling and the others would've loved to delve deeper into that surreal confrontation, but they never had the chance. "Darling!" "Squirt!" Came the respective calls, as Rarity and Rainbow Dash spotted their two favourite fillies first, and proceeded to immerse them in warm hugs. Applejack and Twilight were surprised to see such a large group, but stepped forward to welcome them anyway, while Pinkie, always ecstatic to see so many ponies together, was rushing around, greeting everypony in sight. Multiple times.

After the initial hellos were out of the way (Pinkie took an extra few minutes), and awkward questions had been answered about how they'd all come to be gathered there, why the hospital seemed in such a state of disarray and what had caused the mares' manes to be so messed up, they got down to the nitty-gritty.

"So, how is Di, anyway?" Silver Spoon inquired, with a tinge of nervousness.

"Yeah, and what about Apple Bloom? Is she still in one piece, too?" Scootaloo also sounded a little frantic.

"Please. We have to know!" Sweetie Belle added to the chorus.

"Er, they're both doing okay, we think..." Applejack answered, a little perplexed. "You can go in and see them now, if you like..."

Scootaloo and Sweetie didn't need a second invitation. They dived for the door to Diamond's room together, each one opening it at the same time , and the sound of a happy Apple Bloom welcoming them could be heard coming from inside, before the entrance swung shut.

Oddly enough, Silver Spoon, the one who'd been most desperate to see her friend out of all of them, held back. She was still unsure whether Diamond even wanted to speak to her at all after earlier on, as she tried to pluck up the courage to follow the two Crusaders.

Noticing her daughter's reluctance, Sterling, who was in the middle of introducing herself to the mares she didn't know, looked at her with concern. "I thought you really wanted to see Diamond, Spoonie. I... Or rather your brother, drove you all the way out here, and now you don't even want to go in?"

"It's not that..." Sighed Silver, her head slightly bowed. "I'm just not sure what I'm going to say. You see, we had a bit of a falling out here, before I saw you today. And, I want to gauge her mood first, before I just barge in there..."

"Oh I see..." Sterling was starting to put a few things together in her head, the way any good mother should. "Well, that is a shame. I'll tell you what. I have an idea. Something we can enjoy together, while you figure out what you're going to do."

"And, what might that be?" Spoon suddenly felt a sense of impending doom.

"We can go and get you tested for new glasses, of course!" Sterling took hold of her daughter's hoof, and started to take her away. "By the time they've seen to you and we've chosen your pair, I'm sure Diamond will have calmed down or you'd have thought of something to tell her! Possibly, both. It was nice meeting you ponies! Especially you, princess! You must come to one of my candlelight suppers! Ta-ta for now!"

And with that, backed up by the futile protests of Spoon, Sterling and her daughter exited the scene. Those left behind looked at each other, trying to assess their opinion of this new pony.

"She's not bad..." Applejack remarked.

"A lot politer than Spoiled..." Twilight conceded.

"That's not exactly difficult though, is it?" Rainbow Dash said.

"I see her in my shop sometimes. She buys a lot of ballgowns..." Rarity confirmed.

"Hey! Maybe she can wear one to one of my parties!" Pinkie Pie grinned.

"Princess Twilight, Legal Eagle is ready to leave now..." Redheart stated.

What? Caught off guard momentarily by their animated conversation, none of the mares noticed the silent approach of possibly the most stoic nurse in the building. Out of all the medical staff, she was the only one not caught up by the hullabaloo around Twilight's supposed thirst earlier on, in fact she was the only employee around to keep the place ticking over while everypony else was losing their heads.

As far as the 'surprise' rumours of a visit from the new inspector, she just took it in her stride. Discord or no Discord, her first duty was to her patients, and nothing would distract her from that. Neither the petty needs of the royal family, or the threat of chocolate rain falling, would diminish her role.

And now, she stood there waiting expectantly, as Twilight flustered a little to regain her composure. "Er, y-yes. I'll be right there. Listen, girls. I'll be back in a moment, I just have to make sure Mr Eagle gets out okay, and Spoiled is still securely locked up. I won't be long. Take care of things while I'm gone..."

The alicorn followed Redheart back to the holding room, while those remaining wondered what they were going to do while their de-facto leader was away. They didn't have too long to think though, as suddenly a loud BANG could be heard from inside Diamond's room, which led to a competition as to how many fully grown mares you can get stuck in a doorway at any one time...

The answer: 4.

.............................................................................................................

Silver Spoon was standing at the reception with her mother, trying to find out where the optical department was, when Twilight turned the corner with Redheart. With a nod to Sterling and her daughter on her way to the holding room just behind the front desk, the alicorn flared up her horn, which caused the door to open once again.

"About time you got here..." Legal Eagle was not best pleased about being kept waiting, as he stepped through while buttoning up his suit. "Still, never mind. At least it was time well spent, because now I am thoroughly prepared for whenever you deign the trial to be. I wouldn't say this is quite an open-and-shut case, but I'm certain that come the date, we're the clear favourites to win. Of course it won't just be our victory, but Diamond's too. The sooner she's out of that unwholesome environment, the better. I'll see you again, princess. Good luck. I have a feeling you'll need it."

Rolling her eyes at the lawyer as he departed, while he only acknowledged Sterling and Spoon on the way out (after all, he only made money respecting wealthy ponies) Twilight still managed to hold her tongue. Peering further into the room, the princess decided to have a few words with Spoiled before she shut it again. Albeit, reluctantly.

"Are you alright in there?" Twilight asked, not very sincerely.

"Fine, darling." The trademark arrogant accent was there to behold. "That was a most productive meeting, even if I do say so myself. I can't wait to see the look on your face when I show you up in front of everypony on our special day in court. But that, as they say, is the future. Right now, I'm more focused on the present, and if I may be so bold as to ask, when are we going to leave? I trust you don't plan to hold me prisoner here overnight. Not that I'm one to complain, but I can imagine it gets a bit drafty in the evening. If I catch hypothermia, it'll be on your head, you know. Just thinking of your reputation, dear..."

Deciding that she'd had more than enough of Spoiled's patronising for one lifetime, Twilight picked that juncture to interrupt. "The reason why we're still here..." She said, irritably. "Is that your daughter is still recovering from the effects of whatever happened to her in this hospital not so long ago. I don't suppose you'd care to shed some light on that, hmm?"

"Darling, I'm sure I don't know what you're talking about..." Spoiled responded, with mock outrage. "If anything bad has happened to my precious Diamond, it's that bumpkin and her foul progeny you need to speak to, not me! I'd love to hear more details, though. Perhaps, it would give me even more ammunition to use in my case. Maybe you could regale me with them, during my stay at your palace. I trust that's where you'll be keeping me, since there are no hotels of any note around here. Now, this is the kind of room I would require..."

Twilight was about at her wits end. Her carefully controlled public image was about to shatter. She was going to turn the air blue with very long, very hard-to-pronounce profanities. Possibly, do something even more drastic with her horn. She was playing into Spoiled's hooves, but she really didn't care. The alicorn was just about to blow her top, when...

"Hello, Spoiled. I see you've up to your old tricks again. You always did have a way with words, didn't you?"

Twilight ceased her frustration for a moment to look around, to try and see who'd just spoken. Left alone at the reception was a slightly forlorn-looking Silver, wondering where her mother had gone off to.

The answer was, right next to Twilight. Sterling stood by the door, glaring at the occupant inside, a very unimpressed look on her face.

The alicorn was quick to chastise this unwelcome intrusion. "Mrs Spoon. You shouldn't be..."

It was the look on Spoiled's face, that stopped Twilight in her tracks. That omnipresent expression she'd always had, the one of smug superiority to every other living creature, was no more. The aura of one so far above the rest, she may as well have taken up residence on Luna's moon, had completely vanished.

In it's place, was the demeanor of somepony a bit nervous. Agitated. Vulnerable.

Twilight Sparkle relished every single second of it.

And a single second is about how long it lasted. Soon, the shutters were up again, the defences were manned, and the fortress of inconsequentialness was impenetrable once more.

Except, it wasn't. They'd been a chink in the armour. An Achille's hoof. A weak spot. It might have popped up oh-so briefly, but it was definitely there.

Twilight was so caught up in digesting this unanticipated turn of events, she couldn't stop Sterling from entering the holding room, and taking a seat on the opposite side to the head of the school board.

"Sterling, dear..." Spoiled stared at the grey mare with barely concealed malice. " How are you doing? I hear your daughter and mine are getting along splendidly. I 'm afraid we won't be able to attend your soiree in a few days though, as something rather pressing has come up..."

"Let's get to the point, shall we?" Sterling fixed her eyes deeply into Spoiled's, causing the other pony to flinch back a bit. "I know everything. You might have some of these other ponies fooled, but not me. I remember how you used to be, before what happened, happened. And now, you plan to put your daughter through the same ordeal. Is that what you really want for her? To end up like you? Broken, twisted, hateful inside? Do you feel that bitter, you're going to ruin her life, too? Answer me, Spoiled. We used to be friends, a long time ago..."

"Yes, a long time ago..." All pretense from Spoiled was now gone, and she was simply snarling at the mare in front of her. "Those days are long gone, thank goodness. And I don't care to revisit them. Isn't it enough that I let your brat hang out with my daughter? You should think yourself lucky I'm willing to go that far, after what you did..."

"What I did?" Sterling was taken aback by her former acquaintance's cheek. "Why, who stood aside to let you become president of the school board all those years ago, when we both know that if I'd ran, I'd have been elected by a landslide? And you know why I didn't run, and told everypony to vote for you? A sense of misplaced guilt. Without me, you'd have only got one vote, from yourself! When I think about all the children who've suffered under your tenure, I now realise it's them I should be feeling sorry for, not you, and what your parents did or where they sent you, which was nothing to do with me. Anyway, we both know who this is really about. Why you hate me so much. Why you lash out at almost every pony who gets near you..."

Spoiled's brow began to pour with sweat, while her face looked on the verge of panic mode. "I-I don't know what you've talking about. P-princess Twilight Sparkle, please remove this individual from my presence, post haste..."

"Oh, no you don't." Insisted Sterling, getting comfortable in her seat. "I'm not going anywhere. You and me are going to have a nice, long chat. This is for both you, and your daughter's benefit. I'm not sure at all the wisdom of trying to talk some sense into you, seeing how far gone you are already. But I'm going to darn well try. First up for discussion: The first colt you ever fell in love with. The one your parents disapproved of. The reason you were forced to spend years in that place. And, my husband. Let's talk about... Wooden Spoon."

..........................................................................................................................

The picture Cheerilee had dropped onto the floor before she left in haste was that of a trio of good friends, all the product of happier times. The two fillies were from a distinctly upper-class background, whereas the colt came from far more modest beginnings. The writing on the back, give or take the odd spelling mistake, read as follows:


OUR LAST PICTURE TOGETHER, BEFORE I GO AWAY FOR A WHILE!
MAMMA SAYS IT'S A LOVELY PLACE, WHERE THEY'LL TEACH ME HOW TO BE A PROPER LADY!
I CAN'T WAIT TO GO, BUT I'M REALLY GOING TO MISS YOU GUYS! WAIT FOR ME!
TO MY BFF SILVER STERLING, I'LL THINK ABOUT YOU EVERY DAY.
TO THE LOVE OF MY LIFE WOODEN SPOON, YOU'LL ALWAYS BE IN MY HEART.
THANK YOU FOR BEING THE BEST PONIES IN MY LIFE. SEE YOU SOON! SPOILED SWEET xx

Part 42: The Face Of Evil

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Despite his earlier confident, even smug demeanor in front of Twilight previously, Legal Eagle felt troubled. His usual air of confidence and haughtiness was intact, as he navigated his way back to the best hotel Ponyville had to offer (which, by his standards, wasn't much at all) but inside his head he was deeply, deeply conflicted.

He pondered what his latest client had just told him. It wasn't strange for him to keep all kinds of scandals hidden away, whether they be secret trust funds the owner didn't want to share, or fake injuries which had been invented for a higher payout in court.

This however, was completely different. He'd never been told anything of this magnitude before in private, and then expected to cover it up. It wasn't about a cache of money, or an over-exaggerated accident this time. It was something significantly more serious. In fact, one could say it hit him on a personal level. How could he possibly live with himself knowing...

"Hey, watch where you're going, fancy pants!" A guttural accent suddenly bought Legal Eagle out of his slumber, as he stepped right into the path of a fruit cart. It's purveyor, a rough looking stallion with a bunch of green grapes as his cutie mark, stopped for a minute to further harangue the distracted lawyer.

" You out-of-towners think you can do anything, dontcha?" The apple carrier rasped. "Well, here in Ponyville we have a little thing called 'roads' and 'crossing', and when you see a barrow such as mine, it's quite common to stop at the side of the 'road' until it's safe for 'crossing'. You know, unless you want to get run over. Hope my little lesson helped, and enjoy your stay here. Please hurry back as soon as you can."

With that, and a shake of his head, the stallion stormed back to his cart before trundling off without waiting for a reply, not even giving Legal Eagle to deny that he was Fancy Pants.

The lawyer tried to snap out of his self-imposed funk. This wasn't like him at all. Usually, he was unflappable during the build-up to a trial, dedicating his attention completely to the task at hand. Whether it was standing up in court talking to the judge, addressing the jury with a brilliant summation or accepting the hoofshakes of the wealthy ponies afterwards he'd inevitably got off scot-free.

But, try as he might, even as he approached the inappropriately titled 'Cozy Stables' hotel, he could not disregard what he'd been informed of that very afternoon. As he walked up the corridor to his room, passing a posh-looking yellow mare and grey stallion on the way, he again went through the sequence of events that led up to him being made aware of this startling revelation. During any case, you should prepare for the unexpected, but never in a thousand of Luna's moons had he been expecting to hear something like that...

.......................................................................................................

The lawyer had just finished getting amorous with Spoiled, and was snuggling up next to his lover/client in the tiny holding room, when the big bombshell dropped. The conversation however started amicably enough, with Mrs Rich complimenting Legal Eagle on his prowess at pleasing her carnally.

"Oh yes dear, that's just what I needed!" Spoiled whispered to him with pleasure."You don't know how long I've had to wait between lovemaking sessions with Filthy, while he travels across Equestria leaving me and my precious Diamond all alone. That stallion is the most selfish pony around, I swear. And then, on the rare occasions we do get together, I barely feel a thing! A blossoming lady like me needs somepony strong and virile to give me what I desire, not a washed-up old mule like my husband. The one good thing he's done of late is to keep you on retainer..."

Legal Eagle's 'additional services' were apparently pleasing his client, but the lawyer was a little confused by the language used by Spoiled. "Hang on there a moment. Isn't the whole reason you're allowed to burn through money the way you do precisely because your partner works so hard in earning it? I mean, whatever else you could accuse him of, I didn't think selfishness was one of his traits. He displays a work ethic even I can be proud of, and his daughter dotes on him, I'm told..."

At this point, the mare lying nearby began to stand up, and pushed him in the midriff. "Hey, wait a second!" She snarled. "Don't forget who the enemy is here. If he was better at his job, he wouldn't have to roam as far and wide as he does, so do not give him any credit for that. A mare of my grandeur and splendour should be treated like a lady as a matter of course, so he's doing me no favours there, either. And as for my Diamond, well let's just say she wouldn't be the hard jewel I've forged all by myself, if I let his soft-hearted ways get to her. Of course, all that's in danger now..."

"So you say..." Legal Eagle took his cue from Spoiled, and clambered to his hooves also. "Regardless, now we've got the fun and games out of the way, I think we need to actually do what the princess thinks we came in here for..."

"Came in here..." Spoiled couldn't hide her merriment. "That's a good one, dear. I'll have to remember that one for Blueblood's party. You might be surprised to learn that the glitterati do like the occasional dirty joke..."

"Yes, okay..." Legal Eagle was impatient to carry on after his unitentional faux-pas. "So, as I was saying, what we're going to have to do is start off by telling everypony that Twilight went way beyond her jurisdiction when she trespassed into your home late at night and took your daughter away. Then, we'll highlight the shoddy treatment Diamond has received since leaving your protection, which has inspired her to bunk off school and even have an extended hospital stay. Finally, we'll hit them with the big ones: The brainwashing demonstrated when she changed her name . The forced destruction of her tiara. The utter lunacy that an upper class filly could live on a dowdy little farm. I think, after all that, there can only be one conclusion, and my winning streak will remain intact ...

"Hmm, what was that, dear?" Spoiled had been so busy putting her dress back on, and making her mane look perfect, she'd completely missed what the lawyer had just said. "Oh, never mind. I'm sure you've got everything in hoof. I know we're going to win, that's a given. With you on my side, and all the facts speaking for themselves, justice will prevail. For now, what I'm really looking forward to is the face of that imitation princess when she gets beaten by us. What do you think it'll be like? I'm guessing the pout, with the lips around the gums. Won't that be a sight worth seeing? Bring a camera that day, won't you?"

"Er, yes. I'm be sure to..." A slightly exasperated Legal Eagle retrieved his suit from the floor. "But for now, as sure as you are that we're going to get the not-guilty verdict, you still have to play your part. When you're up on that stand, and you're being barraged with questions, you have to know what to say. If you'll just listen to me for a moment, I can help you to cultivate a positive image, as well as win the hearts of..."

"Oh, what nonsense!" Spoiled dismissed the advice with a waved hoof. "I intend to go up there to tell the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. That's all I'll need. I'll talk about how nopony loves my Diamond like her own mother, and how she's suffering every second she's away from me. I'll talk about the rotten state of the nation, that a bookish, childless weirdo can have authority over a fine pony of prestige. I'll talk about how those three little thugs, led by that uncouth yokel, have systematically been bullying my daughter into becoming like them. And finally, I won't forget to mention how disappointed I am that Celestia has let things get this far, and I'd like a private audience with her to air my grievances. I might even add a few tears, just to sway some of the doubters. What do you think, dear?"

"Um, well. It's a start, maybe a few less insults..." Legal Eagle was unsure of the effectiveness of Spoiled's plan, but he was loathe to criticise it, seeing as how much money he was being paid. "Tell you what. I'll write a few things down for you to study tonight, and if you like them, you can use them."

"Oh, very well..." Spoiled rolled her eyes, finally giving a bit of ground. "But I don't see how it's an improvement on what I've already got lined up. Let's just hope you're as good in court, as you are at satisfying mares in season..."

At this point Spoiled pulled in Legal Eagle for another big, sloppy kiss which caused the lawyer to flinch a little, but to his credit he did manage to keep his protest to a minimum.

"There's another thing I've been meaning to ask you..." Spoiled said, as she withdrew from the smooch. "Is it true what you told me earlier? About client/lawyer confidentiality being of paramount importance to you?"

"Of course." Legal Eagle, with no other option, swallowed the horrible taste in his mouth. "If I betrayed the trust of any of the ponies I represent, word would spread quickly, and my career would be dead overnight. So, whatever you want to say to me in here, won't go any further, guaranteed. Why, is there something you want to get off your chest?"

"Just a minor incident, that might come up if my daughter chooses to blab about it." Spoiled remarked, with a smirk. " I wasn't going to tell anypony, but seeing as how we're both in the same business of manipulation, and if you breathed one word of this to anypony your illustrious job would come to an abrupt end, I think I can trust you. You remember those two poor, naive boobs I told you I managed to coax into my web? Well, it all started when I told them a little story about my Diamond being the possible catalyst for a war between the classes..."
........................................................................................................

She hadn't mentioned any names, in case she needed the two culprits again for some other unseemly task. She hadn't said why she did it, other than what was in her mind, justified petty revenge.

What she had described, in great deal, was the pain and anguish apparent on her daughter's face, almost as if her own mother had relished her agony. Spoiled was doing Diamond a favour in teaching her that if you cross the bull, you get the horns. It was supposed to serve as a lesson for the future: If you want something out of life, you have to be ruthless, even to your own blood.

Except, Legal Eagle couldn't see it that way, no matter how hard he tried. The only mental image he had was that of a terrified filly screaming, as a strange mare's hoof was given free reign over her most intimate areas. The feeling of not being able to escape. The trauma that would last her for years.

But, what could he do? He couldn't breathe a word of it to anypony, or his life as he knew it would be over. It might be the most morally repugnant thing he'd ever been told in his entire career, but he still had a duty towards his client... Right?

Even if he was now sickened at the mere sight of Spoiled, and wanted to sit in the shower and cry all day at the thought that he'd slept with such a monster on several occasions, for just a few extra thousand bits. Now he knew what Diamond meant, when she'd told him in the middle of her rant that he didn't understand the horrible things she's done to me.

He tried to think optimistically. Even if he did keep things to himself, and the child had to suffer in silence forever, things could still work out fine, right? She could still live a full life. Physically, she was fine. And she seemed like a tough little nut, who could bounce back. She'd be alright, for sure. Everything would be okay...

All this rhetoric passed through his head, as he turned the key to his hotel door, in an attempt to salve his conscience.

It didn't work.
.......................................................................................................

"Why, darling... I'm sure I have no idea what you're talking about!" Spoiled Rich nervously laughed. "What does it matter, anyway? The past is the past. Whatever feelings I might have had for any colt back then are irrelevant. I'm deeply in love with my partner, you're happy with who you married, so why are you dredging this up again?"

"Because, it's necessary." Silver Sterling was determined to push the issue. "Everything you've done since you came back from St Whinneans and found out he'd moved on to me, I think is as a direct result of that. Yes, I know all about that place. I've heard the stories. Soon after you left, I found out what it was really like. Me and Wooden Spoon tried sending you letters, but you didn't respond. To this day, you've never told me what happened to you. Well, now's your chance. It's just the two of us, if Princess Twilight here is willing to give us both a minute..."

Sterling turned around expectantly for a positive response from the alicorn, who had already realised the gravity of the conversation by the brief exchange so far alone.

"Er, well, if you want five minutes alone with Spoiled, I can't really see the harm in that..." Twilight considered the grey mare in front of her far more trustworthy than the shady lawyer who'd just departed. "Me and my friends will be leaving soon, and we have to decide where we'll be keeping Mrs Rich for the night, so don't be too long..."

"That's fine. I promise you won't even remember I've been here." Sterling smiled at the princess. "In the meantime, could you keep an eye on Silver Spoon for me, please? I don't want her wandering off into the main street, and doing herself an injury. I want to take her home with a new pair of glasses, not in a wheelchair wearing a full cast. I'd be very grateful..."

"Consider it done!" Twilight was more than happy to fulfil this simple request. "Now, if its not too much of a problem, I'm going to lock the door again. I'll only be a knock away, so bear that in mind if you need me. See you in a little while..."

And with that, the alicorn let her horn flare up again, which denoted the inevitable closure of the entrance. She would have loved to hear more of Spoiled's mysterious past, but her curiosity must always take second place to her duties.

As soon as they were shut in, having regained her composure, Spoiled sneered contemptuously. "This is what I've been saying all along. What kind of princess worth her salt adheres to the request of her inferiors, to act as a glorified foalsitter?! If I was running things around here, I'd actually get some mileage out of the job. I'd be in the lap of luxury from day one, and making sure everypony knew I was the boss. If one of the peasants asked me to do something like that, they'd need somepony to help them look after their sprog alright, because they'd be spending the next month in my dungeon! What a disgrace she is, having the tools to get whatever she wants and just not using them!"

"...Or maybe, she's a kind, generous mare, who sees her role as working for everypony, and not just to benefit herself!" Sterling shot back, before pausing for a moment in thought. "Believe it or not, you used to be a lot like her, back when you were known as Spoiled Sweet. You always let me have first go on the swing. You always gave me first lick of the ice cream. We went everywhere together. We never argued. And then, when you returned after your time away at that horrible place, it was like you'd become a completely different pony. We've barely spoken since, and even at the parties we attend you seem to go out of your way to avoid me. I don't understand it. If our children can get on, why can't we? Why did you change so much?"

"My dear, I do wish you wouldn't bad mouth St Whinneans quite so much..." Spoiled leered at her former friend. "My mother and father, rest their souls, knew what they were doing when they sent me there. They whipped me into shape from a weak, pathetic little filly, into the strong, powerful mare you see today. As soon as I get my Diamond back, she's going there for an extra long stay. While I was there, I learned about the realities of life, that concepts such as 'love' and 'friendship' are mere follies put upon us by our lesser emotions, that are best ignored. What really matters is marrying well, and moving up the social ladder, by any means necessary. The best thing I ever did was ditch my old surname. Rich is so much more 'me', you know? And the reason I let your daughter play with mine, is that I believe the sins of the mother shouldn't be passed onto the child. Not that I care much now, but when I discovered how Wooden Spoon had cheated on me with you while I'd been gone, it sealed the deal on me never trying to get close to anypony ever again, unless I can gain something from it. How right my school's teachings proved to be..."

"We didn't mean it to happen..." Sterling tried to emphasise, her hooves in the air. "With you away for so long, we only had each other for company, and things kind of developed from there. Like I said, we tried to contact you on numerous occasions, but either you were ignoring us, or we simply weren't getting through. Either way, the fact is, we fell in love, and even though I felt as guilty as you can imagine, sometimes the heart can't be controlled. Regardless, haven't you got Filthy? If you tell me you don't feel affection for anypony, is that another way of saying your entire marriage is a sham, that you only got together with him for his wealth? What about your determined fight to get back your daughter? Is that just window dressing, too?"

"When are you going to learn, dear, that everything is a means to an end." Spoiled looked at the grey mare as if she was mad."I'm happy with Filthy for now, but let's just say a better offer came along. Don't you think I'd be a fool to ignore it? After all, you only live once. Unfortunately, one thing you can't exchange is your children, because I must say if such a program were in operation, I would be sorely tempted to trade in my current one, based on her latest behaviour. I don't think she's beyond help just yet, but I do need to get her down to Whinneans as soon as possible, before this strain of sickening niceness she's developed becomes terminal to both of our future prospects. When I think about what that accursed Apple child has done to her... I just want to... I'd best not say. And, to answer your question, I found out after I'd left the boarding school that all outside communication is banned. Just as well, really. It might have stunted my progress while I was there, to be constantly reminded of my former existence."

"Don't you see what they've done to you?" Unable to control herself any longer, Sterling got up and walked over to Spoiled's side of the table, to put her hooves over her former friend's. "Can you honestly you're happy with the way you are now? All you seem to do is seek to lie and manipulate others, even when you don't have to. You have no friends. Everypony I know would rather cross the street than talk to you. We all know what you're like. You say you're doing this for your daughter? Well, if your aim was to turn her into a social pariah, I would say you're doing a grand job! Her getting away from you sounds like it was the best thing that could have happened to her. And my husband must thank his lucky stars that he didn't end up with somepony who valued his monetary worth far, far more than his personal value. What happened to you was awful, but everything since then has entirely been your doing. You've never tried to seek help or counselling, which might have made all the difference. I'm giving you one last chance now, to pull back now from this mission of self destruction you've set yourself on. Please, if you just talked about your feelings, maybe I could understand..."

"What, like your precious little 'Princess Of Friendship' out there would, you mean?" Spoiled growled, as she pulled away. "The one who preferred to listen to the rumour mill of children, than an upstanding citizen like me? Don't bother. I decided on my life's course a long time ago, and it didn't include you, her, or any of these ponies who avoid me, simply because they're jealous of me and what I can do. As for your fake concern for my daughter, you can keep that to yourself, as well. I will get her back, I will raise her how I see fit and she will undergo the same formative years I did. Nothing will stand in my way. Because I haven't spoken to you for years, dear, I kind of forgot why we stopped being friends. Now, after talking to you extensively, I think I can see why. You can go now. I never wish to see you again. Inform Twilight to let you out."

Letting loose a few tears, more for the sake of the friend she lost years ago, than for the beast in front of her, Sterling realised she could do no more here, and hurriedly retreated to the door to give it three short raps. Just before it opened however, and before she could escape the insanity behind her, Spoiled had a final parting shot to offer.

"One last thing, dear. Tell Wooden Spoon that I regret nothing, seeing as I ended up with by far the better end of the deal. And, by the looks of things, so did Filthy. Oh, and as soon as I get my child back, your daughter is not allowed to socialise with her again. I've been far too lenient with the company she keeps up til' now. Bye bye, dear. Enjoy your mediocre life."

And with that, the two former chums fell out permanently, and as soon as a crack of light shone through the doorway, Sterling couldn't get out of there fast enough, almost falling into Twilight in the process.

Using her magic to simultaneously shut it again, as well as lift Sterling off of her, the alicorn hardly needed to ask, but decided to anyway just to be courteous. "So, how did it go?"

Glancing at Silver Spoon, who still didn't really know what was going on judging by her expression, Sterling confirmed the princess's suspicions. "It's as bad as I thought. Worse, even. Much worse. Still, she's chosen her path, and there's nothing I can do about it now. It's Diamond we really should be concerned with. If you need any help at any future custody hearing..."

Twilight gratefully nodded at Sterling's offer. "It would be good, to get the perspective of somepony who knows her well. I might just take you up on that. In the meantime, I think this filly here has been wondering where you've been. I need to get back to my friends again. If you need anything else before you go, come and find us. Thank you very much for your support, and I'll see you later."

And with that, Twilight trotted away, leaving Silver Spoon with a thousand questions (well, actually four). "Where were you, mom? Was that Mrs Rich you were talking to? Is she mad at us? Can I still play with Diamond?"

The answers were, in order:"I was having a discussion with Mrs Rich. Yes it was, but you knew that already. She is very cross, but we'll take that in our stride. And of course you can sweetheart, for as long as you like."
............................................................................................................................

Apple Bloom looked a little sad as her friends entered the room, but greeted them enthusiastically anyway."Hi, Scoots! Hi, Sweetie Belle!"

Scootaloo smiled in response. "Hi there!"

Sweetie Belle was also pleased to see her fellow Crusader. "Hello!" They shared a group hug, before Scootaloo thought of something.

"Where's Di?" The orange pegasus inquired. "Oh, never mind, she's having a nap."

" Lucky!" Sweetie Belle humphed. " I'd love to have an afternoon snooze."

Scootaloo sniggered at this. "You walk around half asleep most of the time anyway, so what's the difference?"

Sweetie Belle was not best pleased with the comment. "Hey, you take that back!"

"Nope." That was Scootaloo, defiant to the last. "So anyway, what's been going on?"

"Yeah, it feel like ages since we've seen you... "Sweetie Belle added.

Apple Bloom was silent, her eyes trained to the floor.

Scootaloo frowned with concern for her friend. "That bad, huh?"

Sweetie Belle was also worried. "Oh dear..." she muttered.

Suddenly, Scootaloo thought she had a great notion. "Tell you what, let's tell her our news! That'll cheer her up!"

Sweetie Belle was all for this. "Hey, that's a good idea! Who'll start?"

Scootaloo rolled her eyes, as if the answer was obvious. "Me of course, duh! Today I built a paper mache ramp in school, but it collapsed as soon as I put my scooter on it!"

Thinking back to the incident, Sweetie Belle found it somewhat amusing. "Heh heh, that was really funny!"

Crossing her hooves, Scootaloo began to get annoyed. "Well, at least I actually did something! Your pony colour changing spell was a complete washout!" She pointed out.

Sweetie Belle stopped chuckling to defend her magic skills. "Oh come on, it wasn't that bad. Something happened..."

"Oh sorry, I forgot. It drained the colour from all the flowers in the garden..." It was Scootaloo's turn to have a laugh at her friend's expense. "Green Hooves the gardener was not best pleased."

Sweetie Belle shivered at the memory. "You're telling me. He chased me around the entire school with that rake. Luckily, I managed to get away..."

Scootaloo pulled her up on this point. "No you didn't," She recalled. "The only reason he stopped running after you was because Snips and Snails were experimenting with matches in the toolshed. One little spark, and..."

"Oh yeah, there was that too..." Sweetie Belle also remembered the event. "So, everything worked out fine in the end, apart from a minor blaze. Are you feeling any better yet, Apple Bloom?"

The farm filly was not really in the mood for small talk, and continued to alternate between looking at the floor, and glancing at the pink figure in the bed behind her.

Scootaloo didn't like to see Apple Bloom in this frame of mind. "She still looks kind of low. What could it be?"

Sweetie Belle pondered the possibilities. "Maybe she's lost her bow... No, it's still there. Maybe she's thirsty... Nope, there's an untouched glass of water over there. Maybe..."

Interrupting the unicorn, Scootaloo had a flash of inspiration. "Oh, I know what it is! I've figured it out!"

Sweetie Belle's eyes widened. "What? Tell me!"

Scootaloo pointed a hoof at the ceiling, at a dodgy fixture. "See that light up there? It keeps blinking on and off. Obviously, the bulb needs to be changed. Now, I would fly up there and do it myself, but..."

Always the blunt one, Sweetie Belle simply stated: "You can't."

Scootaloo sighed at this comment, but knew her friend meant no harm. "Yeah, thanks for reminding me. But anyway, perhaps we can still reach it. If Apple Bloom stands over there... And Sweetie Belle, you go on her shoulders... Then I'll climb on yours..."

Apple Bloom was bought back to reality by the sensation of being shoved into position. "Girls, that's not the reason..." she protested.

Unfortunately, Sweetie Belle was too intent on the task at hand to hear her friend. "Ooh! That sounds like fun! Okay, Apple Bloom, let me get on top... And Scoots, you turn it off, and grab the spare..."

Scootaloo flipped the switch, and went to join her fellow Crusaders with the extra bulb in hoof. "Got it! Now, please don't wobble, this is difficult enough as it is. Stay still. It won't take a minute..."

Apple Bloom, feeling the pressure of her two best friends perched precariously on her, decided to put them straight."Girls, I really don't care about the light. I've got something to tell you, if you'd just step down..."

Sadly, Scootaloo was too eager to complete the mission. "Shh. I'm nearly finished. Now, all I have to do is unscrew this here..."

" Hurry up, my shoulders are starting to hurt." Sweetie Belle complained, before she had a sudden thought. "This would be a lot easier if Diamond Tiara was awake, to help us. Then we wouldn't have to strain so much..."

"Why didn't you just use your magic to reach it, Sweetie?" Apple Bloom rolled her eyes at the unicorn's forgetfulness. "Not that I'm really concerned..."

Sweetie Belle facehooved at missing this easy solution. "Oh no! Rarity's right!" She lamented. "I just don't think things through! When will I learn?"

Apple Bloom smiled a bit at the unicorn's self pity, then decided to reveal something else. "One more thing. It's not 'Diamond Tiara' anymore. It's 'Diamond Apple'. She's now, almost officially, my new sister."

Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle looked shocked, and looked at each other with open mouths. "WHAT?! How did that happen?"

Suddenly, there was a sensation of heavy movement, and Apple Bloom struggled to stay upright. "Hey, stop rocking! If you do that, then we're gonna..."

It was too late. Both Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle become too fidgety, and end up unbalancing Apple Bloom, and the three fall down with an audible BANG, the two bulbs shattering nearby. In the next second, four mares attempted to enter the room together, before getting lodged in the doorway.

"Ouch! That hurt." Sweetie Belle rubbed a small bump on her head.

" Sorry girls, I just couldn't hold on." Apple Bloom explained. "You were being too active."

At this outburst of noise, Diamond Apple woke up and rubbed her eyes. "Huh?! What's going on?! And why is it pitch black in here?"

Scootaloo surveyed all the chaos around her, before turning to Apple Bloom. "I think you're right..." She told the farm filly. You do have something to tell us. And, you better start from the beginning..."

...................................................................................................................

Legal Eagle opened his hotel room with a heavy heart. He had so much to think about. So much to decide. And not much time to do it in. He wondered over to the cabinet to pour himself a glass of wine, and mulled over his options.

He didn't have much chance to dwell on them though, as his wife Home Maker came in from the lounge. "Hello there, my love. Hitting the bottle a bit early, aren't you? Rough day?"

Legal Eagle looked up at his partner of five years. "Yes, you could say this is a particularly taxing case. Lots of moral ambiguities abound. Plus, a stallion's livelihood could be at stake..." He took a sip from his glass.

Home Maker walked over to give him a sympathetic pat on the back. "That bad, huh? Well, I'm sure you'll pull through, love. You always do. I'm glad you've returned anyway, as the little one has been bugging me all day. Now it's daddy's turn to keep her quiet. Libra Scales! He's here! Now give him a big cuddle, and tell him he's naughty for being away for so long. Quick, hide the alcohol. She's coming..."

Legal Eagle's very young daughter shyly looked around the corner for a minute, before almost creeping into the room. She had been out of diapers for about a year, and had only learned to talk in full sentences a few short months ago. In her hoof she held a piece of paper, which she held out to her father while blushing.

Scrawled on it, with fine marker pens, was a picture of him wearing his flowing court robes like a cape and clutching his briefcase like a superhero, while a couple of evil looking horses stood nearby behind bars. They did not look best pleased.

"That's you puttin' the bad guys away." Was all she could say, while her father stared at it, a mixture of pride and guilt pervading his mind. If only she knew the truth...

"That's... Great, darling. Whenever did you ever find the time to do that?" Legal Eagle attempted to compliment his daughter, while putting on a forced grin.

"Is boring here. Nothing to do." Libra Scales looked moody for a moment, her usually sunny disposition put on hold. "When can we go home. I miss you, when you're gone."

"Now, now sweetheart." Home Maker attempted to placate her daughter. "You know as well as I do that this trial is very important to your daddy, and we can't go back to Canterlot until it's done. It's one of the biggest he's ever had. And just think about what that poor mother is going through, having her darling daughter ripped from her like that, by a princess of all ponies! Honestly, it makes you think it could happen to anypony, if a respected mare like you described your client to be, can just have her removed under the flimsiest of evidence. It almost makes me fear it could happen to us..."

"What?" Shrieked Libra Scales, who picked up on things remarkedly well for somepony of her tender years. "I don't want to go! I want to stay with you, daddy and mommy! Please say I won't have to go!" She ran over to her father, to sink her head in between his forehooves protectively.

"Oops..." Home Maker was somewhat embarrassed at herself. "I'm so sorry. I probably said too much, and I've upset her now. Still, I can't help having an opinion. Just thinking about some of the horrible ponies you see every week, and yet the royalty chooses to persecute an innocent mother like that. It makes you wonder what this country is coming to. Still, I needn't worry. I'm sure you'll see justice is done. I'll go and prepare dinner. You stay here, and reassure our precious that she isn't going anywhere. Not as long as I'm alive and breathing, that is."

With that, she kissed her husband on the muzzle and walked to the kitchen, leaving Legal Eagle alone with his daughter and his thoughts. Picking her up to give her a loving cuddle, he pondered on the term that Home Maker had just used to describe their child. 'Precious'.

Funny coincidence it was, that it was exactly the same word Spoiled Rich often said when referring to Diamond.

There was a difference, though. In his wife's mouth it sounded pleasant, affectionate, loving.

Whenever Spoiled said it, it came across as hard, brutal, unyielding. Almost as if she was talking about a possession.

And if Home Maker ever tried to do anything to his daughter like Spoiled had done with Diamond, and called it 'punishment' afterwards...

Why, he'd probably end up murdering her.

The thing was, he'd been a hypocrite all his life in the courtroom, so it should come as no surprise.

Why though, in this one particular case, was he seemingly unable to separate his personal life, and his professional life? Why did it make him sick, just thinking about it? Why oh why...

His mind continued to bathe in turmoil, while Libra Scales fell asleep in her daddy's hooves, blissfully unaware of what was about to erupt in Ponyville.

Part 43: Checking Out

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It took quite a while to bring Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo up-to-date regarding the comings and goings of events since they'd parted ways from from their young friends at school earlier that day. For starters, before they even got to the point of the explanation, they had to assist in clearing up the mess on the floor, as well as aid a quartet of mares jammed in a door frame to get free.

It was a shame in a way, the Crusaders had already received their symbols of destiny, because otherwise they would have been a horseshoe-in for the 'creating havoc' cutie mark, if such a thing existed. This ability had seemingly been retained even after they'd discovered their unique talent of helping others to discover their own skills, making it kind of an extra-curricular one. Lucky them, not so lucky for everypony else.

In the meantime, there was Diamond Apple, at first still a little groggy from being unexpectedly awoken from her late afternoon nap, then in a complete reversal from her old ways, wanting to help her new sister and friends to sort out the problems they'd instigated.

But Applejack insisted she stay in bed, with the orange mare pointing out her new foster child had been through more than enough drama on that long day without getting involved further. So instead, the pink filly remained under the covers and sulked, a little fed up of the constant babying she was subjected to.

Eventually, when the last piece of glass and broken tiara had been removed from the floor, with all the adult ponies recovering from their unphysical crush on each other, Apple Bloom's tale began, and it was a humdinger indeed. Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle listened with rapt attention as the farm filly regaled them with a story of family, friendship and insanity (Spoiled pretty much covered the latter part) with Diamond interjecting at various points to say her piece, determined to prove that despite her recent ordeals, she could still contribute to the discussion at hoof.

Of course, the one thing the two new sisters left out was that incident, but basically everything else was covered. The big argument between Apple Bloom, Diamond and her old mother. The visit, and subsequent falling out with Silver Spoon, which of course Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle knew most of already. The appearance of the slimy Legal Eagle. And, a certain pink filly's life-changing decision to be fully integrated into the family she once despised.

It was certainly a lot to take in, and the two listeners stared at each other in awe as the tale reached it's conclusion.

"Whoo, that's definitely something, alright." Whistled Scootaloo.

"You're telling me! I'm still getting my head around Diamond being nicer. Now we're supposed to remember her new name, too?" Complained Sweetie Belle.

"Hey, it's no trouble for me..." Smirked Scootaloo. "If you have any problems recalling it, why don't you write it on the back of your hoof?"

"Hang on, so..." Sweetie Belle frowned. "If I changed my name to say, 'Sweetie Drops' tomorrow, you'd be able to get it right every time, just like that, with no slip-ups?"

"Of course!" Scootaloo nodded. "Though, you might want to pick a different name. That kinda sounds like a cough medicine. Also, there might be a pony called that already."

"No there isn't!" Countered Sweetie Belle. "That's just her nickname. Her proper name is something else..."

"You're wrong!" Scootaloo was clear in her disagreement.

"No, I'm not!"

"Yes you are!"

"Girls, girls! Enough already!" Apple Bloom was fed up as acting as peacemaker between her warring friends. "Give it a rest, will ya? Can't you see, Di is recuperating? The last thing she needs is you two yammering away like a pair of timberwolves..."

"Hey, I'm fine now!" As much as Diamond Apple liked the feeling of having a new sister, sometimes she did get a little overprotective. "If they're going to stop fighting for any reason, it should be because we don't want them to end up like me and Silv. I wish I could see her again, to say how sorry I am..."

Scootaloo and Sweetie Dro-Belle glanced at each other, before the orange pegasus spoke up. "Um..." She hesitated for a moment. "We kind of have some news on that front, as well..."

"Oh?" Diamond looked on with interest.

Sweetie Belle was the next to pick up the mantle. "Yeah, you see, she kind of gave us a ride over here in her coach. With her mother, who seems very nice. Her brother drove us. Not the smellier one, though, thank Celestia."

You could have heard a pin drop in that room the next few seconds, as Diamond processed all of this information. Then, taking everypony completely by surprise, the newest Apple jumped out of bed, ran under the legs of the mares near the door, and proceeded out into the corridor, barking "SILVER! SILVER! WHERE ARE YOU?!"

Taken aback momentarily, the filly was soon pursued by Applejack, while the rest of the adults followed suit, with Pinkie notably wearing a most inappropriate grin during the chase. Those running after Diamond were so wrapped up in their hunt that they even failed to spot a returning Twilight, who was almost spun one-hundred and eighty degrees by those rushing past.

Overcome by a slight bout of dizziness, the alicorn gathered her wits, before noticing the three sheepish-looking Crusaders emerge from the room. "W-what's going on here?" She stuttered.

"Er, Diamond decided to go for a little jog..." Sweetie Belle started talking.

"To clear her head of all of the cobwebs..." Scootaloo continued the sentence.

"And to find Silver Spoon by herself, to apologise." Apple Bloom was the last to speak.

"Oh, is that so?" Twilight mused. "Well, it's a shame she didn't stick around to ask me, because I know exactly where Silver and her mother are headed. This hospital is so big, it might be a bit of trouble to find them without knowing exactly where to go..."

....................................................................................................................

"No, I don't want those! They're hideous!" Silver was not best pleased at the latest spectacles laid out for her perusal, and promptly waved them away.

She'd tried on, or looked at, almost every pair in the building, and yet was far from being satisfied. Either they were too big, too small, too colourful, too dull, too reflective...

For every new set of glasses presented to her, there was always some excuse as to why they weren't good enough, and the optician, a naturally patient stallion by the name of Vision Express, was beginning to lose his cool.

"Are you sure, miss? I think that's the last pair we have in stock..." He said in a harsh tone that made Sterling wince, but was seemingly missed by her daughter. "So either it's those, or you go home blind."

"I'd rather walk into a bottomless pit than be seen with these monstrosities!" She yelped. "Take them away!" They were quickly put back into their box by the grey filly, who tossed them over her shoulder into the massive heap of unwanted lenses nearby.

"Well if that's the case..." Vision Express forced grin was plain to see. "May I just say what an absolute pleasure it's been serving you both today. Do have a safe journey home... And madam, you may want to hold your daughter close. Traffic can be quite hectic, at this hour."

"I'm so sorry. She's not usually this fussy." Sterling mouthed to the long suffering optician, out of the earshot of Spoon. "If there's anything I can do to make up for wasting your time..."

"Well, unless you want to stick around and help me reorganise all of these..." Vision Express gesticulated at the now huge mound of uncatalogued glasses that the grey filly's indecision had left in it's wake. "Then I'm afraid there isn't. But once again, lovely to meet you both. Do pop in, again. Maybe in a millenia, or two..."

Picking up on the server's surly attitude, Sterling proffered nothing in return but a slight blush, and was about to take her fickle daughter in hoof and leave quietly, when...

"Hey, what's that?" Silver Spoon had spotted something gleaming, in the depths of the spectacle storage cupboard.

"What's what?" Vision Express scoffed. "I told you before. You've tried on every single pair we have in stock. They're scattered all around you. Now, if you'd please go, it's going to take me all evening to..."

"No. She's right. I can see it too. A faint glimmer..." Even though her daughter had been very difficult, Sterling always stuck up for her when she was in the right.

"Huh?" The optician was curious enough to take a peek himself, and what do you know, he saw it as well.

Right at the back. The light catching onto something metallic. Vision Express went to check it out...

And there it was. One of the most beautiful spectacle cases you're ever likely to see. Made from the purest silver and engraved with the coat of hooves of the Equestrian royal family, it was almost too pretty to touch. But, the optician did anyway.

"Er, I believe you were referring to these, my lady..." Vision Express was as flabbergasted as everypony else there at the startling appearance of these hitherto unknown lenses. Maybe, they'd been blocked by so many other boxes over the years, it was only once the storage space had been cleared that they'd been spotted.

Perhaps, they'd been donated by a long forgotten member of the monarchy eons ago and been left there, waiting for a very special pony to take ownership of them...

In either possibility though, one thing was for certain in the optician's mind. It didn't matter how nice they were, the fussy grey filly was bound to find some minor fault with them, and tell him they simply weren't good enough. After all, her track record so far was roughly one-thousand pairs to nil...

"I'll take them!" Squeaked the voice of the high-maintenance smaller pony.

"What?!" Vision Express blinked out of his thoughts. In all the time he'd spent procrastinating, Silver had already snatched the case away, opened it up and tried on the glasses inside. If the box was ornate enough...

The spectacles were on a new level altogether. Gold rimmed, intricately carved, a perfect fit. But unknown to the two adults watching her, the item's true worth lie in it's efficiency. Wearing them for Spoon was like having perfect eyesight, with no magical enhancements or spells present. Just good old-fashioned professional craftsponyship.

"I can read that writing from all the way over here. No Griffons Allowed. And look mom, I can count all the wrinkles on Mr Express's head!" Spoon excitedly exclaimed, her joy making her a bit more insensitive than usual.

"I think we've found our match..." Sterling announced with a little smile, as Vision Express wished he'd worn his favourite cap to work that day, to cover up the scalp full of age creases he was sure the youngster had added to the last hour.

"It appears so. Will wonders never cease..." The optician muttered, while hurredly writing up the order. "Now, take good care of those. Something tells me we're not going to get a set like those in again for quite some time..."

"Oh, don't you worry. I will!" Silver Spoon was looking forward to showing them off in the playground already. Now all she'd have to do was reconnect with her best friend, and it would round off the day nicely.

In fact, it was as the grey filly was staring down the corridor, having donned her new glasses to admire how clear everything was, that she noticed a pink dot approaching her from quite far away. There seemed to be other dots in close proximity too: An orange one, A white one, a larger pink one and a blue one floating in the air.

Spoon watched these strange specks as they closed in and morphed into pony shapes, even as her mother was signing the paperwork for her new lenses. By the time the grey filly heard her name being called, and saw exactly who the lead pink dot was, it was already too late.

BANG! OOF! SHATTER!

Diamond Apple and Silver Spoon definitely did 'reconnect' that day, though not really in the way either one would have wanted.

In a flash afterwards, still in a daze from the collision, Diamond found herself being scooped up by Applejack, while Spoon received the same kind of treatment from Sterling.

"What were you thinking, wandering off alone like that, in the middle of a busy hospital..." Sterling told her daughter off.

"Yeah, and you shouldn't be running around like a mad mare either, not while you're still recovering..." Applejack also chastised her charge.

"...Sorry, mother." Silver sighed at her carelessness.

"Yeah, sorry mom..." Diamond's admitted to the orange figure holding her close...

Before noticing everypony staring at her, and wondering what all the fuss was about.

"... Huh? Why are you all looking at me like that?" The pink filly wondered.

"W-what did you just call me?" Applejack asked, a face a mixture of emotions.

"Well, I just..." Diamond retraced her short-term memory, before realising the gravity of her words. "H-hey, wait a second. I-I was only copying what Silver Spoon just said. D-don't read too much into that..."

All of the mares present chuckled at Diamond's obvious discomfort and subsequent blush, and even Spoon giggled a little at the scene. Their merriment however, was cut short a moment later, as an angry looking stallion cleared his throat out loudly next to them.

"Yes, that's very moving. My heart is melting at this precise second. Now, if you don't mind me interrupting this poignant scene, just what are you going to do about all of this?" Vision Express indicated the area around him, and as those assembled in the location began to glance about, they saw his point.

Everywhere, there were crushed boxes, with the glasses inside irreparably damaged. Everypony chasing Diamond had been unable to stop their headlong rush into the large heap of discarded glasses at the back of the shop in time. This was especially true for Rainbow Dash, who'd decided to put on a air spurt at the worst possible moment...

The consequences were clear for all to see. Well, almost all. Silver soon found the world a very blurry place to live in again. Putting a hoof on her nose, she realised in the melee her new posh eyewear had fallen off, and had joined the other spectacles in pieces on the floor.

"Oops, guess we shoulda looked where we were going..." Rainbow Dash apologised as best as she could for the unfortunate crash.

"Um, yeah. Our bad..." Applejack was still stunned by Diamond's term of endearment, and wasn't taking charge of the situation as she normally would do.

"Hey! It could have been worst you know... At least they weren't new glasses!" Pinkie was specifically referring to the destruction of Silver's antique lenses, as the party pony happened to be sitting on the now rather squashed silver box.

Looking at the unsavoury mess left behind by their thoughtless rampage, and noticing the optician's brown fur in the early stages of turning into a nice shade of red, Rarity decided it was time to employ her own unique tactics. Making herself look as presentable as one can after a crash of that scale, she approached the simmering stallion seductively.

"Hey, you..." She purred, battering her eyelashes.

About to unleash a volley of expletives, Vision Express stopped for a moment to ask. "Who, me?"

"Yes, you. I don't see any other handsome stallions around here do you?" Rarity asked, in a voice that could melt butter.

"No, I don't, but... Wait a second... You can't mean me. I'm old enough to be your..." The optician was understandably very confused.

"Oh my dear, that doesn't matter. That just means you have more experience..." She complimented, while giving him a little wink.

"Hee hee. Ha ha. Ho ho... Really?" Having had virtually no attention from the opposite sex for a generation, Vision Express was suitably flattered by such high praise, especially coming from such a gorgeous creature.

"Yes, indeed." Rarity kept up her impressive pretense. "And I was just thinking, maybe an intelligent, hard-working, understanding pony like yourself might be able to overlook this unfortunate episode, if we put it right ourselves. You see, me and my friends are personal acquaintances of Celestia..."

At this point. Rarity led Vision Express further away, for a more 'private' conversation, while the others just stared after them with open mouths.

"Well, I knew she had it in her..." Rainbow Dash pondered. "But I've never seen her do anything like that before..."

"I have..." Pinkie giggled to herself, remembering how the unicorn had bilked a nerd stereotype out of a piece of asparagus during market day for Fluttershy once, using very similar methodology.

"Well, anyway, I'm just glad everything looks to be taken care of now..." Sterling remarked, still holding a fidgeting Silver Spoon close.

"It's certainly been an incident packed day, what else could possibly happen, I wonder?" Applejack wondered aloud, also firmly grasping Diamond in the same way.

"I don't know, but if anything else does occur, I want it to be outside this hospital!" An authoritative voice sounded behind the group.

Turning around to see who it was, they saw none other than Nurse Redheart, looking more than a little fed-up and tapping her hooves in annoyance.

"On this shift alone..." Redheart frowned. "I've heard shouting coming from everywhere, flying in the corridors, ponies being knocked over in the halls, and a near riot over tea. Now, I find you responsible for the destruction of hospital property? If you were any other ponies, I'd be throwing you into the holding cell alongside Mrs Rich myself!"

An immediate panic took hold of the listeners, who were ready to grovel and beg to avoid such a terrible fate. Please, anything but that!

"Seeing as how some of your number, though..." Redheart continued with a sigh. "Are responsible for saving Equestria from total destruction on several occasions, I suppose we can overlook it this time, as long as you leave this establishment in the very near future. Judging by her vigorous run just now, Miss Diamond Tiara is more than ready to face the world again, and that hoof should be just fine with the fresh bandage. I fear though, that if you stay for very much longer, this hospital very much won't be. Please come to the front desk soon, and we'll get her checked out."

As Redheart sauntered away, everypony reacted to this announcement with mixed feelings. Some, like Diamond, were just glad to see the back of this place with all it's bad memories, while others, mostly the adults, felt a bit ashamed at the chaos they'd bought to this formerly peaceful clinic.

"I'll tell you what's not fair..." Pinkie fumed. "We're here to face the music, and Fluttershy, Rarity and Twilight get off scot free!"

To her surprise, the usually stoic Redheart laughed a little at this remark, and turned her head to address the party pony briefly.

"Don't be silly." The nurse explained. "We never lock up princesses..."

.......................................................................................................................

"But what am I supposed to do for school tomorrow?" Silver Spoon wailed about her lack of new glasses. "I won't be able to see a thing."

"Well, we can't do anything for now." Sterling replied. "You'll have to get somepony to read the questions for you. Or maybe, you can borrow that nice Twist girl's spectacles!"

"But mom!" Spoon complained. "She doesn't even talk to me any more. In fact, I can't remember the last time she said anything to anypony..."

"Well, it's either that, or you take a magnifying glass with you. There really is little else I can do. Sorry, darling..." Sterling told her daughter.

The pair were making their way out of the hospital alongside almost everypony else who'd been involved with Diamond's life on that very hectic day, having just left reception. Twilight was staying behind to find suitable arrangements for Spoiled for the evening (which didn't involve a sleepover at the castle) while the others were saying their mutual goodbyes.

The Crusaders found much amusement in discovering how much destruction the, for now, misleadingly titled 'Elements Of Harmony' had just wrought onto the medical facility, considering their own group's reputation for causing mayhem. Never again would the trio be able to be teased for their misdemeanors, considering what the so-called more mature 'adults' had just been culpable of.

Rainbow Dash, who was on weather patrol, said a heartfelt goodbye to Scootaloo, promising to hang out with her the next day. She also said she'd check in on her old flight school buddy Fluttershy on her way back to Cloudsdale, if just to see how much trouble one peeved little bunny can cause in a few short hours.

Rarity, having dealt admirably with the ire of Vision Express, to the extent that he longer wished to press charges, was also in a hurry to get back, mostly to pick up on the some of the brisk trading at Carousel Boutique before closing hours. Thinking that Sweetie Belle had aided and abetted in enough shenanigans for one day, she insisted her sister come with her, much to the younger unicorn's chagrin.

As for Pinkie Pie, she wanted to find out exactly how much business Gummy had rung up while she was gone, to see if he was worthy of trust for solo future employment opportunities. Unfortunately, Silver Spoon's actions just before leaving Sugarcube Corner meant that her results of her test would never truly be known. Oh, well.

Speaking of the grey filly again, she was currently weighing up the wisdom of going over to her best friend to try and clear the air a bit. Neither had much of a chance to speak in the hospital, after the events of their little fender bender in the hall.

She had also noticed her being called 'Diamond Apple' on several occasions, and wondered what all that was about. Well, there was only one way to find out. Plucking up her reserves of courage, she went to find the pink filly...

Only to discover that Diamond had similar designs on her too, as the pair bumped into each other en route. This time, with a little less force.

"Hey..." Diamond got the ball rolling.

"Hey." Silver Spoon responded in a similar monotone way.

"How's your head doing?"

"It still hurts a bit, but I'm more upset over the loss of those glasses. They truly were one of a kind..."

"Yeah, sorry about that, Silv."

"... It's okay. It was an accident. I'll manage somehow. You're far more important to me, Di..."

"Huh? What brought that on?"

"What do you think? Things have been awful for you, and I haven't been a very good friend. Well, starting from now I'm going to make it up to you. I won't leave your side ever again, just you watch..."

"Aargh! Don't say that, Silv! I got in enough trouble today with the Cutie Mark Crusaders stalking me! I don't want that kind of behaviour from you, too! It would drive me mad!"

"Oh, so all that stuff earlier on, about them staying close to you at all time and making you a member, Di? That was..."

"Totally their idea, yes! I mean, we might be friends now, but it would take a lot more than friendship to get me to join their goofy little clique! The only full time partnership I'm interested in is a duo of high class ponies..."

"Snips and Snails? Now, that is news. Which one do you fancy? I've always had a thing for buck teeth, myself..."

"Very funny, Silv! I mean us! I just hope our entire 'thing' wasn't bullying others. We did other fun stuff, too, like at the mall and parties. We just have to focus our efforts on enjoying each other's company, without hurting other ponies. I'm sure we can do it..."

"Di, that's all I ever wanted to do from the start. I'm not saying it was entirely your fault since I followed you into battle by choice, but a lot of the bad things we did together I always felt guilty about. The only reason I didn't abandon you is because I was afraid I wouldn't make any other friends, little knowing of course that you had your problems t-too a-at-h-home... *SNIFF*.

"There, there. Don't cry. Here, you can have one of the tissues I swiped from the hospital. The fact is, nopony knew what I was going through, so don't feel guilty about that. Spoiled made sure that I accepted the way she treated me as normal so I didn't tell anypony, while hiding what was happening to me from my father. She was very clever, but once my new friends got involved, there was only going to be one winner..."

"N-new f-friends? Di, I'm not sure if I'll be able to take to them as easy as you. I mean sure, I'm grateful to them for helping you to turn your life around, and exposing your horrible home life. But we're too different in a lot of ways, despite what you said earlier, and to be honest, I have been feeling a little jealous of the way Apple Bloom has been hanging around you lately. And, by the sound of things, you're almost sisters..."

"We are sisters now, as far as I'm concerned, Silv. I just feel that the Apple Family has got a lot to offer, in terms of teaching me about real life, hard work and sacrifice, things that I've been kept from for far too long. If I'm going to grow up to reach my full potential as a leader, I could do a lot worse than learn from them. Plus, I know I'll be a lot happier. Sure, I may have to forego a lot of the luxuries I'm used to, but it's a price I'm willing to pay. I'll still see my dad regularly, of course. Oh, and Spoiled, too... Hopefully, behind bars."

"Hee hee, I think we can both agree there. It just... Seems so fast, you know? One minute, we're calling them blank flanks, and laughing at how pathetic they are, next they're the toast of the town, and the one you hated the most is the pony you're moving in with, and calling 'sister'! Pretty crazy..."

"Yes, I suppose it does sound a little weird when you put it like that, but if there's one thing I've learned about Equestria, is that something odd happens at least once a week. I mean, think about it. Just lately, we've had unicorns turning into alicorns, weather factories blowing up, an invasion of property-destroying yaks and even Big Ma... Uh, my new uncle in drag almost winning the Sisterhooves Social! Can you really say what's happened with us and the Crusaders is that odd by comparison?"

"No, I guess not, Di. I'll try to follow your example and get on with them, but expect a few arguments along the way..."

"I'd expect nothing less, Silv. And although I'll be spending a lot more time with Apple Bloom now, you'll still be the one I'll come to for advice, guidance or just a good old sugarlump rump! Plus, I don't think my new sister would take too kindly to trying on clothes for hours, amongst other fun things only you and I do could together..."

"That's a comforting thought. Thanks, Diamond Ti... Or should I say, Diamond Apple. I think I hear my Mom calling me now. I appreciated the talk. I feel a lot better now. Speak more in the morning?"

"Of course. I'll always be here. And before I forget, I'm so, so sorry about hitting you earlier. I didn't mean it..."

"I know that. We can discuss it more tomorrow, but remember: All is forgiven. Have a lovely night with your new family."

"Thanks, Silv."

"Later, Di."

And on that sweet note: the duo parted ways. Silver Spoon (still feeling her best friend was holding something back) jumped on the coach bound for Silver Estate Inc, while Diamond Apple took the far more modest route on foot, with Applejack and Apple Bloom.

The farm filly (now one of two) still refused to leave Diamond's side, despite her frustration, while Applejack told both children there was going to be a 'serious family discussion' in the evening about the future.

Ulp.

And they were being watched...
...................................................................................................................

A very excited teacher ran into the hospital, waking up the receptionist in the process. Just when something approaching order had been restored to the place.

"It's here!" Cheerilee shouted, waving a photograph she'd run all the way back to school to collect after originally forgetting it, in her outstretched hoof. "The missing puzzle piece! I understand it all now! Twilight has to see this!"

"... Right, that's it, I quit. Ponyville is a nice quiet place to work, they said. Easiest job you will ever do, they told me..." The staff member muttered to herself, as she grabbed her stuff to exit through the door.

"Huh?" Cheerilee commented, unaware of earlier occurrences.

"If you're looking for the party of... Rowdies who were here previously..." Redheart popped in quickly to nip the situation in the bud. "Most of them left half-an-hour ago now, and you just missed Princess Twilight with her prisoner."

"Prisoner?" Cheerilee was temporarily confused, before a metaphorical light bulb appeared above her head. "Oh, yes! I know who you mean! That's perfect! If I hurry, maybe I can catch them! Thank you so much!"

"Don't mention it..." Redheart responded in rather a sarcastic manner, but it was too late. A coffee-powered Cheerilee had already sped off, almost knocking over the departing worker in the process, further reinforcing their decision to relocate somewhere less stressful... Like, Tartarus.

"With teachers like that..." Redheart shook her head, before going to place a 'Help Wanted' ad in the window. "It's no wonder..."

Part 44: That Night. Section 1.

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"What exactly are we supposed to be doing?" An elegantly dressed grey stallion following the trio of Apple family members inquired, as they made their way back to Sweet Apple Acres, while he hid in the shadows. " I don't think I'm cut out for this sort of thing..."

"Relax, dear." His wife, a similarly attired yellow mare remarked, as she followed closely behind. "Spoiled asked us to trace the movements of Diamond, so I'm afraid we'll have to follow those ruffians to that grotty little farm they live in. Honestly, forcing a child of that importance to live in such miserable conditions. Why, if she were my daughter..."

"Well, she's not, is she?" Jet Set wiped the expiration off his brow, as another stallion with an egg timer cutie mark trotted past, accompanied by a mare sporting a red rose symbol. "I don't know why you're taking such an interest in her. It's true, she has a great ability, but the way you're obsessing over that filly, you'd think she was our own flesh and blood..."

At this point, Upper Crust spun around, teeth clenched, to put her face directly against her 'naive' husband's. "Didn't you hear what that big-nosed freak said?" She seethed. "That child over there has the power to make anypony do anything. In the right hooves, she could change lives. That dirty farmer doesn't deserve her. She should be with the mare who fully knows how to unlock her full potential, and utilises it for maximum gains..."

Jet Set raised an eyebrow, as his partner seemed to go into a dream-like state. "By that..." He commented. "I'm guessing you mean her natural mother. Didn't you always say you hated children?"

"We'll see, we'll see..." Upper Crust sighed, caught in her trance, before snapping out of it with a start. "O-of c-course, o-of c-course, d-darling." She stammered. "Just having one of my flights of fancy, that's all. We're here to catalogue and observe, nothing more. Now, you go on ahead. Your duller fur seems to blend in better with these surroundings..."

With an audible groan, the long-suffering Jet Set once again heed his wife's call, and ventured ahead. As for his spouse, she paused for a moment, to stare at the pink filly in the distance she'd so brazenly violated earlier on.

In a twisted way, her actions with Diamond had somewhat, in her mind, formed a close bond between her and the youngster, and now she felt she should have a direct contribution to the filly's future. In what capacity, she didn't know. But to go to all this trouble, when she could've been relaxing in a first class seat back to Canterlot instead...

She better have more of a reward than the comfort of knowing she'd saved Diamond from the clutches of those toerags, and stopping the speculative war Spoiled had predicted between the slobs and the snobs, based on the child's talent for leadership. Upper Crust wanted a real piece of the pie, a genuine taste of what could be accomplished with this divine skill the youngster possessed.

"Hey, are you coming, or what?" Jet Set loudly whispered, trying to wave away a weird colt with a tractor cutie mark, who was regarding him with interest.

"Yes, darling. Just getting my bearings..." Upper Crust smiled sweetly at her husband, even as the gears in her head begun to spin.
.....................................................................................................

Applejack was tired. All the events of the day had knocked the stuffing out of her, and the orange mare was more than happy to walk home in silence. All the necessary talking could be done during the family meeting, after tea.

Diamond Apple was also in a non-communicative mood. She just wanted to marinade in her thoughts. So much had happened, she couldn't even begin to put it all into context. And just what was she going to say later on, surrounded by her new family, being urged to tell the truth...?

As for Apple Bloom, the contrast couldn't have been starker. She was constantly in her new sister's face, seemingly getting a kick out of saying 'Diamond Apple' as many times as possible as if she still couldn't believe it was actually true, and giving the pink filly a complete verbal layout of the operation of the farm and it's inhabitants.

Having neither the stamina to take everything Bloom said on board, nor the strength to tell her to be quiet, Diamond just continued to march on, nodding her head politely at various intervals, catching a reference to homemade cider here, an anecdote about Granny Smith there, until finally somepony decided to put a stop to it.

"Now, just hold on there..." Applejack frowned, looking back at her younger sister. "Don't you think Diamond has had enough stress for one day, without adding to it with your jabbering? I know you want to tell her all about her new life, but can't you save that until later? I mean, you're not exactly going to be short of time together, are ya? You're even gonna be sharing a room..."

Diamond smiled with gratitude at her foster mother, while Apple Bloom pouted a little. "Aw!" She moaned. " And I was just getting to the best part, too. About Babs Seed coming to visit next week. It'll be the first time we've seen her, since the last reunion..."

"What?!" Diamond Apple's inattention was completely shattered, as she literally grabbed her new sister to exclaim in her face. "W-why is she coming down here? W-when is this going to happen? W-what am I going to say?" She began to gasp for air.

Momentarily confused by the pink filly's behaviour, Bloom soon figured out what the problem was. "Oh, I see!" She giggled. "You're worried that once she finds out you manipulated her with your cutie mark to bully us, you're gonna get it. Well, don't worry about my cuz. Once we explain everything to her, and let her know that you're a member of the family now, everything'll be as right as rain, I promise. She might even give ya a nice mane cut, if you're lucky..."

Diamond released her new sister, to take a horrified step back,, while ruffling her hair self-consciously. "And what exactly is wrong with my mane?!" She roared.

"N-nothing. N-nothing at all..." Apple Bloom sheepishly reassured her, with her hooves in the air. "It's a great style, for a posh pony. If you're going to be living on a farm though, you may want to think about trying something different. After all, it's not like you're going to be washing it four times a day, is it?!"

Diamond was about to respond with a comment along the lines of we'll see about that before, once again, Applejack stepped in. "Alright, you two, break it up. I told you both, we can get into this later. For now though, you have more important things to consider. Like, washing up for tea. Go upstairs, and make yourselves presentable. I'll go and tell the others that we're back..."

Apple Bloom and Diamond Apple were surprised to say the least, that during their animated conversation they'd walked up the path all the way to their front door, without even noticing.

As Applejack went inside to inform her grandma and brother of their long-awaited return, Diamond found herself being grabbed by the hoof, and led upstairs. Apple Bloom took her to the bathroom, before shutting the door and running the hot water.

"Hey, wait a minute. Can't we take it in turns?" The pink filly muttered, wondering if Bloom had gotten amnesia about their earlier chat regarding 'personal space'.

"Don't be silly, Di." her new sister smiled, as she begun to scrub her hooves with soap while the sink filled up. "We're only washing up together. It doesn't exactly require that much privacy, does it?"

"No... I guess not. " Diamond sighed, willing to cut Bloom some slack just this once. " Just give me the soap when you're finished with it, okay?"

"Not necessary..." Was Bloom's only remark, before the pink filly felt her own hooves pushed into the water, as a determined sister began to clean them herself, with much more care than she had her own.

"Wait a second..." Diamond snapped, about to withdraw them from the sink. "This is going too far. Do you honestly think, that somepony like you, who's spent all of her life on a farm, could possibly have better hygiene standards than..."

"...I'm sorry, Di. What was that you just said?" Apple Bloom asked, too busy trying to build up a lather to listen.

Seeing Bloom's enthusiasm with the task at hoof changed Diamond's expression. "I-it's nothing..." the pink filly remarked, looking away with a slight blush, as her new sister continued her rigorous job.

I'll overlook it this once. Just this once...

..............................................................................................................................

"... And that's how I won the heart of Filthy, and became the luckiest mare this side of Equestra!" Spoiled had proven to be just as chatty as Apple Bloom during her jaunt across Ponyville with the princess to her new holding place, only about a thousand times more boastful. "What would you like to hear about next, our glorious honeymoon, or how I beat that miserable pretender Silver Sterling to the coveted position of head of the school board? Your choice, darling..."

Twilight who had secretly stuffed some of her wing feathers in her ears for the majority of the journey so far, looked up in surprise at her companion's sudden turn of the head. "Er... Sorry? What was the question again?"

Spoiled had just seen what the alicorn had been doing, but oddly enough didn't seem bothered by it. "My dear, you should have told me you were so jealous of my life, that just hearing about it was making you upset." She smirked. "At least now you can see there's so much more to the day than being stuck in a room, with a pet lizard and heaps of fusty old books..."

Twilight would almost have laughed at the older mare's misinterpretation of the alicorn's boredom, if she hadn't just gravely insulted a certain baby dragon. "Now, look here." She growled. "That 'pet lizard', as you so rudely describe him, is my lifelong friend and valued assistant. Spike also managed to save the entire Crystal Empire. So, for you to refer to him as that is nothing short of an insult, and if he heard you right now..."

"Why, what would he do. Blow smoke rings at me?" Spoiled tittered at her joke. "Let's be frank, dear. That creature is almost as much as a liability as you are. I was there, when he tried to destroy half of Ponyville because of his greed, and he couldn't even get that right! You expect me to believe he saved an entire country? Very funny, darling. That sounds like another set-up to me, to boost one of your worthless friend's reputations. And, that statue of him in the square is one of the most ugly things I've ever seen. Put me right off going there, for my next vacation. In my opinion, he's a failure as a dragon and a failure as a servant. He only just passes muster as a pet, too, so be thankful I didn't call him anything worse. Go ahead and tell him, I'd love to see his little face when he's angry. I bet he's kind of cute."

"Okay, I might just do that..." Twilight was not one for telling tales, but the pompous mare in front of her was really asking for it. "I think you may be shocked to discover Spike's secret powers..."

"Oh, you mean like sending letters and pictures to the Princesses, through the 'magic' of breathing, like your 'magic' of friendship?" Spoiled huffed, unimpressed. "Yes, I know all about that, dear. One such image that will live on in infamy is that of my Diamond posing outside that clubhouse belonging to those three miscreants, after they got their meaningless cutie marks. Filthy had a copy of it framed on his desk at home, needless to say, as soon as I saw my daughter posing with her inferior classmates, and that ditzy teacher, it went straight in the bin. Of course, you know what I'm talking about, don't you? You were part of that disgraceful photograph, as well. So tell me, how did you manage to cajole her to stand there and smile, ignoring my specific instructions that she should only do that for the society pages?"

Twilight was so annoyed at this point she stopped midstep, and turned around to berate the older mare. "You might not believe this... Oh, what am I saying, of course you won't." Twilight admitted. "But your daughter begged to be a part of that picture, to show her new kinship with her school friends, and they were more than happy to accept. She wanted to demonstrate that she thought of them as equals, after spending so long looking down her nose at them. She's a changed filly, Mrs Rich, and I'm not sure what your expectations of her were, but I don't think she's ever going to return to the child you were raising before. Which, may I just say, everypony is much happier about, especially her..."

"...And after everything I did for that ungrateful child, including having that stain-glass window installed at the school, a special statue commissioned of her likeness, and all those party supplies I ordered for her non-existent election victory..." Spoiled lamented, with a shake of the head. "Sometimes, darling I think you're right to remain barren and childless. They can be more trouble than they're worth, and so, so unappreciative..."

I'm pretty sure you did those things for your benefit, not hers', Twilight thought, but chose to keep to herself."Now, to completely change the subject, I'm about to explain the arrangements for your incarceration until the trial..."

"Dear, you needn't say another word..." Spoiled put a hoof up, almost as if she knew what was coming next. "Despite our many differences, I would be honoured to be a guest in your castle. As I said previously, the requirements for my room are not especially grandiose. All I require is a double bed, a large wardrobe, a professionally cooked meal three times a day, a decent view... Why are you laughing, darling?"

The older mare had been distracted by Twilight's response, which wasn't really a laugh, more like a amazed expression of bewilderment at Spoiled's vision and the reality. "Er..." The alicorn tried to find the right words of diplomacy, before deciding that bluntness was the way to go. "You're not welcome in my castle. My home is for guests, not prisoners. So, you can forget that idea. Instead, I've got an alternative location lined up for you. I believe you may be quite familiar with it. It's out at... Rich Mansion."

"What, you mean house arrest?!" Spoiled was most disappointed she wasn't going to be see the interior of the newly appeared palace she'd secretly envied from afar, but did her best to hide it. "Oh well, dear. Your loss. I just thought I'd be doing you a favour, by giving you intelligent, sophisticated, non-reptilian company for a while. Never mind. At least I'll be comfortable in my own room..."

Twilight's deadpan expression continued. "You're not going to be allowed to go to your room, apart from to maybe collect some clothes in the morning. I have another place in the mansion being prepared for you to stay in, even as we speak. Large enough for you to stretch your legs, but small enough that the ten guards assigned to you will be able to keep you securely locked up. You see, Mrs Rich, prisoners don't get to choose where they stay."

Spoiled grimaced at the thought of where she might end up, and decided this would be yet another topic to raise at the upcoming trial, that a lady of her standing should be expected to tolerate such shabby treatment. "You can't possibly mean... The lounge?"

"Guess again."

"The drawing room?"

"Nope."

"The study?"

"I'll be staying there, during your transition. You have quite a good selection of books, if I may say..."

"You wouldn't dare put me in the servants quarters, surely?"

"Nice try, but those are for decent, law-abiding staff, not potential criminals up against some very serious allegations."

"... I give up." Spoiled eventually conceded. "You must be imagining things, dear, if you think there's any other room in the mansion suitable for my detention. I designed the refurnishing of the building myself, by hoof. If that soft-hearted fool Filthy had his way, the hired help would've had their own kitchen, bathroom and sleeping area, and I wouldn't have the extra large swimming pool and jacuzzi we eventually got. So, you've made a mistake. There's nowhere else..."

"Actually, I do have another place in mind..." Frowned Twilight. "And I have to admit, I did have second thoughts over putting you there, but after what you've just told me, there are no doubts in my mind whatsoever it's where you belong. Seeing as you seem to know the mansion so well, let me ask you: What do you do during the winter, when the weather gets especially chilly?"

Spoiled laughed derisively, at this simple question. "Why, we send Randolph to get some coal, of course! We have this lovely, authentic fire you see, that warms up the entire..."

Waving her hoof to stop more tedious bragging, Twilight got straight to the point. "And, where exactly does all this fuel come from?"

Spoiled looked at the alicorn as if she was mentally deficient. "The coal cellar, obviously. It's the furthest down place in the whole mansion, with a hundred stairs between it and the floor above. I should know, because it takes that useless butler of ours one minute per step just to climb back up during the cold season, leaving me to freeze my tail off while he drags his useless carcass with the filled bucket from the depths. Really, that ancient stallion should have been put out to pasture..."

A sudden horrible thought occurred to the mare, which stopped her tirade in it's tracks and nearly turned her pale. "Y-you c-can't m-mean..."

Twilight, without a shred of humour, nodded firmly. "I do. You seem to forget, Mrs Rich, that in Equestria, when you're accused of committing a serious offense, you get treated the same way, whoever you might be. And that such ponies usually end up in a cell. You're lucky, in a way, that Ponyville doesn't have it's own jail, but not so lucky that your home contains the perfect substitute for one. Don't worry, as soon as your staff have cleared out all the coal and dust, you'll barely recognise it! I intend to explain the situation to Filthy the first chance I get. As long as you're not in any danger, I don't see how he could have any objections..."

"Y-you m-mean t-to s-say..." Spoiled's words were beginning to slur a little, as her head dramatically sagged. "T-that my servants, w-who have the honour of working for the most illustrious family in this town, k-know about this? A-and they're actually helping perpetuate this outrage? W-why, I'll sack them all the first chance I get! S-starting with that worthless fossil. M-my husband will back me up..."

"You'll do no such thing!" Twilight warned, scowling. "Or you'll have another charge pending, one of unfair dismissal. It's true that the request to empty out the cellar came from me, but once they heard the circumstances behind the situation, they were more than happy to help out. In fact, the most enthusiastic volunteer of all was that 'old fossil', or Randolph, as is his name. I must say, I don't recognise your description of him as a weakling either, as when I informed him of my plans earlier, he turned somersaults in the air! And, my contacts at the mansion assured me, he is by far the most productive worker in that mansion today, running up and down those steps, clearing away all that coal, as if he were Bulk Biceps himself! In fact, I'm thinking of temporarily giving him your room, as a reward for his endeavours, seeing as how it's going to be empty. We're already picking out new rooms for the rest of your staff, because their old tiny living space clearly goes against every regulation Ponyville has for their health and safety. As for Filthy, from what I know about him, I'm sure he'll follow the letter of the law, and back my judgement." It might even give him some peace...

"No, you can't do this to me!" Spoiled screamed, slowly backing away. "Those... Traitors! I refuse to live in such insanitary, cramped conditions! First of all, you deign to tell me how to raise my daughter, now, you dare to try and run my household, too? And this, coming from a charade of a princess? Congratulations, dear. You've made me reach my limit. I was perfectly willing to let the process reach it's predictable climax, with me getting back possession of My Diamond, and suing the Crown afterwards for infringing my rights. But this, this is just too much. We'll just see what my lawyer has to say about it..."

And with that, the older mare took off, running as fast as she ever did, for the first time ever being grateful that she was a 'dumpy' earth pony instead of those regal unicorns, so she could escape from the clutches of that fake royal all the more quicker on the ground.

Spoiled checked behind her, pleased to see the purple alicorn figure fading into the distance, not even trying to chase her. Yes, she thought, with a grin on her face at what a brilliant maneuver she just pulled. I really pulled the wool over her eyes. Now, if I could only get to Legal Eagle, maybe we could...

Unfortunately, her no doubt brilliant scheme was destined never to even reach the planning stage. For, as Spoiled was about to discover, the reason Twilight wasn't hot in pursuit had nothing to do with 'surprise' or 'speed'. It was because the princess didn't have to go to all that trouble. After all, she had alicorn magic.

Deciding that she'd let the taunting older mare get far enough after around twenty metres or so, Twilight looked distinctly uninterested as she flared her horn up. Spoiled, initially finding it laughable that anypony could cast a spell on her from so far away, was absolutely astonished to find herself covered in a lavender sheen of magic, which lifted her up into the air against her will, and floated her back to the princess, at a much faster rate than the pace at which she'd retreated.

"H-how did you... W-what was... T-that is to say..." Spoiled was caught between being impressed by the alicorn's amazing powers, and yelling obscenities at her.

"Did you forget what I said earlier?" Twilight put to her prisoner, who now was suspended helplessly next to the alicorn, as the pair began again their inexorable journey to Rich Mansion. "I thought that wasn't going to be the last time I used magic on you, and it looks like I was proven right. Remember, I'm in charge of your case, and if you try to escape I will use every resource available to stop you fleeing justice."

"But, that's not fair!" The mare in the purple bubble cried, for once not entirely happy at being given a free ride.

"I'll tell you 'what isn't fair'..." Twilight finally snapped, and decided to regale some home truths. "Having a wonderful daughter like Diamond Apple, and abusing her emotionally and verbally every day so she grows up to be selfish and cruel, something which hopefully, under the influence of her new family, will be a thing of the past. Having a generous, loving husband like Filthy Rich, who's done so much for the community here, and proceeding to treat him like dirt under your hooves. It makes me wonder what he'll do next, once everything comes out in court. Having loyal servants who follow your every command, no matter how trivial, and taking every chance to snipe or insult them, as well as giving them the smallest two rooms in the mansion to live and sleep in together. As I said, I intend to correct this travesty today. I also think they'll enjoy the use of your 'extra large swimming pool' and 'jacuzzi'. And no, I'm not asking permission."

"You... You... You..." Spoiled was as angry as she'd ever been in her life, to the extent she was unable to enunciate her words. But no matter how much she tried, she still couldn't break free of her magical prison, and so was powerless to stop Twilight from continuing to speak, while the alicorn guided her along.

"I'll tell you who I am, seeing as how you seem a little confused..." the alicorn stated, looking directly at Spoiled in a far more conciliatory tone. "I'm the Princess Of Friendship. That isn't a boast... It's a title given to me by Celestia herself. My job is to look for the good in everyone, and encourage them to befriend each other, no matter their background, species or creed. But I must say Spoiled, you represent one of the toughest challenges I've faced so far. Nothing you've said or done since we've met has showed me you have any intention of changing your ways, in fact you seem to be getting worse with every passing minute. But, you know what? I won't give up on you. I never give up on anypony... Even if sometimes, I'm sorely tempted. I'll tell you what I told Starlight Glimmer as she ran into those caves. I hope your time alone gives you chance to think about your life, and where you want it to go. Because as of right now, it's only heading in one direction. Downhill."

That terse speech there even had the effect of silencing the harsh Spoiled, who, against her distinct wishes, found herself thinking back over her actions since leaving boarding school, as a proud mare with a dream that was now near completion. What she's saying can't be right. I'm the wealthiest, most important, most envied mare in all of Ponyville. I've never put a hoof wrong, in my quest to be the best. I followed the blueprints given to me at Whinneans precisely, and they haven't led me astray yet. It's the rest of the fools, like this incompetent 'princess' lecturing me on matters she knows nothing about, that are the enemy. My job is to siphon out the white noise, and concentrate on what's really important, like raising our family's profile, at any cost, no matter what the consequences... Right?

Alas, the last part of her soliloquy was about to be in jeopardy, for guess which bunch of ponies were making a late journey home from the garden charity auction and party held the other day, waiting at the railway station Twilight and Spoiled were just passing?

That's right, most of the VIPs, including quite a few who were even richer and more influential than Spoiled could ever hope to be. These were the kind of ponies she wanted to impress...

And what do you think their reaction was, when they spotted the local princess trotting along, as casual as you like, with her extravagantly dressed prisoner in tow, being dragged through the air like a flying dog in a lavender prism?

Uproarious laughter, that's what. Especially considering the butt of the joke: A stuck-up, prissy, annoying mare who wouldn't leave any of them alone at the social gathering they'd all attended together, as she made up endless stories about her close affinity with Celestia, and how her and Luna were bosom buddies. It couldn't have happened to a nicer pony, in their minds.

Spoiled's out of character moment of soul-searching came to a screeching halt. She was humiliated. Embarrassed beyond words. Utterly ashamed. She'd never be able to show her face at Blueblood's party now, all of her plans for social acceptance among the elite were in tatters. And was that just her imagination, or was Twilight actually moving slower now, to prolong her ordeal, in front of all the gentry? That vindictive little...

That did it. She completely lost her cool. Swore for the first time in her life. Amongst other such unladylike expressions, such as how much she wanted to burn this stinking town to the ground, as well as unveiled threats against Twilight and Apple Bloom as soon as she got the chance, how pathetic those present finding her current predicament hilarious, were...

The posh crowd nearby stopped laughing, and gasped at the sheer effrontery of Spoiled. At last she thought, as they covered the ears of their children I'm getting noticed. Not quite in the way I wanted, but it's better than nothing. I don't care if I'm offending everypony, this is something I've been waiting to do for a long time. I've already burned my bridges with these particular upper class ponies, so it won't matter anyway. She prepared to launch into a fresh batch of profanity laden abuse...

Only to be abruptly stopped in her prime, by Twilight sealing up her mouth by magic. "I didn't want to have to resort to this..." The princess bemoaned. "But your shocking language in front of our distinguished guests has forced me to take drastic measures. It's a little tip I got from Trixie the last time she was in town, who may I just say behaved with far more decorum under the spell of an evil amulet, than you do without one. Think yourself lucky I didn't go as far as to remove your entire mouth. Now, let's get moving to Rich Mansion, and no more disturbances, please."

As if Twilight wasn't popular enough in Ponyville, now apparently her fame had spread worldwide, for at that moment a large ripple of applause could be heard coming from those assembled by the tracks, just as the train came in. To show how hospitable Ponyville residents truly were, the princess decided to stop for a moment to shake the hoof of each passenger as they boarded, assuring them that Spoiled's disgraceful behaviour was just an aberration, and the vast majority of the town was a warm and friendly place. They all seemed to agree, and waved to the alicorn as the locomotive pulled out, as well as shooting looks of utter disgust at the now quiet (but not by choice) magically imprisoned mare.

As if she wasn't mortified enough already, now she hadn't even had the chance to speak her mind, and only succeeded in degrading herself further. Spoiled felt truly broken, and a single anguished tear fell down her cheek.

Twilight was uncharacteristically unsympathetic, though. "You've got nopony to blame but yourself for the mess you find yourself in." She lectured. "And just to let you know, those threats against me and my friend's sister will be recorded for future reference. I also know that you did something to Diamond Apple back at the hospital, that was so bad she refuses to talk about it. Something else I'll be getting to the bottom of. Why do you do this to others, and yourself, Mrs Rich? I don't know if you're a lost cause, or there was ever any good in you, but..."

"There was, and I can prove it..." A panting Miss Cheerilee suddenly appeared, having snuck up on the travelling pair through the hiss of the departing train. "Take a look at this photograph, princess, then read the inscription on the back. I think you can draw your own conclusions..."

Before the alicorn could object, she found a picture being shoved into her hoof. She looked at the front. Then, at the back. Then at the front, then the back again. Front, back, front back... With a growing sense of incredulity, between glances at her prisoner, as if she couldn't quite believe the sour-faced mare in front of her was the same sweet, smiling, little...

Spoiled also spotted the image that she'd kept hidden away for so long from her prone position, and her eyes widened in horror. She would have done anything to escape at that moment in time. From her past, the two ponies in front of her, and herself.

But despite proportioning considerable resources to the effort, the purple barrier around her remained as strong as ever. Unable to take much more of this, she was on the verge of collapsing...

Until she felt a strong hoof lift up her chin, and the dreaded picture foisted in front of her eyes.

"Is it true...?" Twilight asked her, her tone sounding urgent. "Are you, Or were you, Spoiled Sweet? And, what exactly goes on at this 'St Whinneans'?!"
..................................................................................................................

"... And this is your new bed!" Apple Bloom proclaimed, as she gallivanted into the room her and Diamond now shared on a permanent basis.

The pink filly walked in, fearing the worst. She wasn't exactly expecting a luxurious affair, with a featherdown mattress like her last sleeping quarters, but she wanted at least something approaching comfort.

Her hopes were dashed the minute she got in there. For, Applejack hadn't just bought her a new bed, she'd also moved Bloom's old one out. To replace it with...

"Bunkbeds!" Bloom smiled, as she examined the construction closely. "D'ya know, my brother's a dab hand with a hammer and nails. He whipped this together in the time it took us to get back from the school and hospital! Don't you think he's done a great job? He even had time to clear away all the material and broken glass from the floor, with the help of Applejack too, of course."

As loathe as she was to admit it, under close inspection, Diamond had to say that yes, indeed, her 'uncle' had done a fine day's work, as she never would have been able to tell the difference between this impressive structure, and a store purchased one. Of course, the proof of the pudding was how soft it was...

"So, which end d'ya want? Top or bottom?" Apple Bloom remained as bouncy as ever, waiting for an answer from her new sister.

"Er..." Diamond Apple hesitated, being put on the spot a little. "Top, I think." She said in a monotone voice, not really caring either way.

"Okey dokey!" Spoke Bloom in a Pinkie Pie voice, as Diamond found herself unceremoniously hauled up there. About to protest once again, at her new sister's unrequested physical approach to everything, the pink filly was sidetracked by the feel of the bed on which she now sat.

Straw. No mattress. That was it. Besides, the pillow.

It was coarse. Rough. Hard to accept. A bit like the old her...

But she'd get used to it, eventually. Just like she wanted ponies to get used to the new her...

Her deliberations was cut short by Bloom popping her head up from the lower bunk. "BOO!" She shouted, making the pink filly, despite her best efforts, flinch a little.

"Ha ha, and there was me thinking Diamonds were unbreakable!" Bloom grinned, while Diamond got into a huff at being caught out so easily.

"Not funny..." She huffed, with her hooves crossed and her face creased up in a way reminiscent of when she was invited to the Crusaders clubhouse for the first time.

All of a sudden, the moody youngster found a conciliatory hoof on her back, as Bloom seeked to make amends. "I'm sorry, I wasn't trying to upset you. I was just trying to get your mind off..." She struggled to finish that sentence, before attempting to sound cheerful again. "Isn't it going to be great though? We can talk all night, have pillow fights, sneak downstairs for midnight snacks... You're going to love it here, Di. I just know it."

"If you say so..." Diamond was non-committal in her reply, but secretly she was somewhat liking the thought of having somepony friendly to be with into the wee small hours, other than an faceless servant she could pull a rope to summon.

Climbing up onto the top bunk, Apple Bloom began to get serious again. "Di, I think I know... Heck, I know what's bothering you. After all, I was there, and believe it or not, it affected me too..."

Diamond spun around upon hearing this outrageous claim, the shock clear in her eyes. "How, how did it affect you?" She hissed. "I'm the one she touched. I'm the one who has to live with the memory. You were safe in the corner, out of danger. How could you possibly feel as horrible as me..."

"BECAUSE I COULDN'T STOP HER!!" Bloom's cry of remorse brought her new sister's angry reply to an abrupt end. "I-I could see it happening. I-I could hear you screaming. I-I could see that awful look on Spoiled's face, as she watched you suffer. It was pure evil, Di. I was only a few feet away. But, despite trying with every bit of might I had, I couldn't budge an inch. And all the time, Seeing you in pain like that... Hearing you cry for help... Looking at the face of that awful mare, who I still can't believe is your birth mother. A-and knowing... I-if I'd just tried a little more... M-maybe I could have broken free of the spell... A-and saved you... I-it kills me. I-it eats me up inside. I-I can't get these thoughts out of my head, Di. I-I... C-can't..."

Then, it happened. Apple Bloom, the bravest, hardiest, most downright stubborn filly Diamond had ever met, began to cry. In great, big, extended sobs, too.

The pink filly stared at her new sister in amazement. There she was, annoyed at Bloom for being too in-her-face. Too clingy, Not leaving her alone...

And, now she knew why. Because, Bloom had been as affected by the 'incident' almost as much as she had. Only her trauma was caused by guilt. Which she was trying to salve by overcompensating with affection for her new family member...

Diamond felt awful. All this stuff Bloom had going through in her head, and the pink filly hadn't even noticed. She'd only thought of herself, and how irritated she was at Bloom's mollycoddling, not the reasons for it. Some great sister she'd turned out to be.

Well, maybe it was time to step up to the plate.

"Listen, Apple Bloom..." She said, taking on the unfamiliar role for a change of counselor. "There was nothing you could have done, believe me. Once a unicorn catches you in it's spell, unless you're a serious magician, you have no chance of breaking out. Didn't you see my struggles with Sweetie Belle's power, earlier? And she's hardly a top tier magic user. As for what you saw and heard, I don't know how to help you with that, other than to say I'm so, so sorry. I didn't realise how you might have suffered being there too, as selfish as I am. When I do eventually come around to telling everypony about what happened, maybe we can talk about it as one, and get help together afterwards, too. For now, do you think you can be strong? For me? For yourself? For both of us?"

"I-I'll t-try..." Sniffled Bloom, as she huddled up close to her new sister, and wiped her tears away. "B-but D-Di, when do you think you'll get to the point of letting everypony else know what you...W-what we went through? I-I m-mean, if you can tell Fluttershy, s-surely informing my big sis isn't that much of a stretch. I-I know you probably think that she's got enough on her mind at the moment, b-but I-I really don't think she'd care, a-and in the meantime both of us are d-dying i-inside..."


RING A DING DING!! "GRUBS UP! GET 'ER WHILE IT'S ON THE TABLE"

There came the call for tea from a raucous Granny Smith, along with the sound of the dinner bell, a noise that Diamond Apple reasoned she was going to have to get used to,. and pretty darn quickly.

Turning to her new sister apologetically, Bloom removed the last of the moisture from around her eyes. " Sorry for making you worry 'bout me like that. How does my face look? Red? Applejack will wanna know what's up, if she sees I've been cryin'..."

"No, you're fine..." Diamond assured her, feeling miserable herself that the farm filly need even ask that question, along with the unnecessary apology.

"Okay, then. Put on your happy face like I am, and we'll go downstairs together." She took Diamond by the hoof once more. "I appreciate that I might have been a little over-familiar with you since your arrival, but that's because I'm just so excited you're here! And I'm not about to stop spoiling you rotten now. Get ready for a large helping of Zap Apple jam, and an extra big serving of good old-fashioned Apple family hospitality!"

Diamond Apple knew perfectly well now this wasn't the whole reason for Bloom's cosseting of her, but nevertheless copied Bloom's example and pasted on a largely false smile as they jumped off the bunk as one, before making for the stairs.

Her mind was churning like a milkshake. And no amount of happy chatter from the other Apples downstairs waiting at the table, or the prospect of trying some more of that delicious Zap Apple jam, could remove the uncomfortable feeling from the pit of her stomach...

She still had the family meeting afterwards to 'look forward' to, later on, as well...

In her distress, she failed to spot two vague silhouettes peering into the room from a nearby window.

There was nothing unusual about their shape, really.

But their deeds, well...

They were the stuff of nightmares.






"

Part 44: That Night: Section 2

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Spoiled Rich couldn't believe how badly things were turning out. One minute, she was on top of the world, with a dream job that she'd harboured for many years, a subservient husband willing to acquiesce her every flimsy demand and an obedient daughter who she was molding into her perfect little protege.

Then, came a series of punishing blows, that were so devastating in their brutality that she might never recover. First, her hoof-picked successor that she'd trained from the womb, had been removed from her by force, supposedly because of 'concerns' over her treatment, when Spoiled knew the real reason was the outright jealousy other ponies had for the formidable powers her precious Diamond would wield one day. Not to mention, the despicable Apple Bloom's long-standing ambition to have a sister of a similar age, that now had been granted because of a mixture of brainwashing and the pull a certain Princess Of Friendship possessed. Now, the newly-titled 'Diamond Apple' didn't want anything to do with her old mother, thanks to their manipulation. It sickened her just to think how the pink filly would turn out now, under the tutelage of lower class ponies. It was essential Spoiled win her back. The sooner, the better. Before the damage was irreversible.

Next, she learned that her partner Filthy Rich, the stallion who was so useless in every department, apart from as a walking piggy bank, she'd been forced to take on the family lawyer as a lover, was starting to rebel from her control a little. That pathetic, loathesome little... After all she'd done for him. Gave birth to a beautiful daughter. Upheld the family name while he was away. Saving their money by driving away all the charity collectors. And yet, for a brief period that morning, he'd dared to accuse her of being partially to blame for the removal of their only child, because of her 'unreasonable expectations' of the youngster?! He'd even hinted, for the first time ever, that he felt their relationship was getting a little strained(!) Fortunately, she'd managed to set him straight with a long tirade about how insignificant he was, the consequences he would face for speaking out of turn so flagrantly and the fact that he could never do any better than the stunning mare in front of him. After that, he soon returned to the meek lickspittle she'd kind of grown attached to over the years, but that didn't mean the embers of rebellion still didn't burn somewhere in his system. She'd stamp them all out, eventually. After all, even the most loyal of dogs sometimes needs a kick.

The most present and clear danger though, and one she'd have to deal with right away, was Twilight and Cheerilee's unprecedented besmirching of that wonderful educational establishment known as St Whinneans. The strange looks the two ponies were giving her now were almost ones of pity, that she found very difficult to bear, considering the usual atmosphere of servility and compliance her presence conjured up. Somehow, they'd got the idea that her metamorphosis from feeble also-ran Spoiled Sweet to the strong, confidant mare Spoiled Rich was a bad thing, and now the pair felt sorry for her. Even though going there was the most rewarding experience of her life, to such an extent that she was planning on relocating her precious Diamond there for an extra long stay. It had taught her so many useful things, such as the benefit of intense pain when applied correctly, the humbling effects of extended isolation and oratory skills when you wanted to belittle and demoralise other ponies. Did they honestly think, the smiling filly in that picture would have grown up to be such a fine specimen, if she hadn't had the crash-course in reality that school had given her? Of course not. The way that disrespectful teacher must have gone through her personal things, to find that photo, it made her want to...

Say, now that's a good point. I'll make it right now. That'll wipe the look of compassion off of Cheerilee's smug little...

Sadly, the fact that Spoiled's mouth was still firmly shut off by magic had slipped her mind, so her words came out as little more than a gurgle. Eyes widening at what can only be described as baby talk, she frowned in annoyance, and rapidly jabbed at her lips to Twilight in particular in an attempt to get the spell lifted. Wasn't it enough humiliation she was floating around, like a glowing pinata?

Rolling her eyes at the 'delightful' prospect of having to tolerate Spoiled's dulcet tones again, but reasoning that now all the illustrious guests had left, she had less of an audience to harp on at, the princess reluctantly released the mystical bindings that tied her prisoner's jaw together.

Flexing her mouth muscles to make sure everything was intact and clearing her throat to recover her 'ambrosia' voice. she first made a pointed glare at her royal captor as if to say I'll get to you in a minute, before turning to the arrogant little upstart known as Miss Cheerilee.

"Nice to see you again, dear..." Spoiled narrowed her eyes at the hapless teacher. "Though, I wish I could say it was under better circumstances. Do you want to know something, darling? I've wanted to have you fired for quite some time, but was never able to think of a viable excuse to justify that decision in front of the governors. It was either oh, the children love Cheerilee or there's no better teacher in Ponyville, so despite the power I wielded, I was unable to reach a consensus with them for your dismissal. Well, thanks to your snooping, I now have the perfect piece of evidence to rationalise your long overdue termination. Trespassing into my office and going through my private things is a very serious offense indeed, and a very fatal one for your career. If I were you, I'd start packing my things as soon as I return to school, as well as study the unemployment ads in the local rag. May I suggest private investigator, seeing as you have such a knack for it..."

Spoiled finished off her outburst, expecting the timid educator in front of her to fall down on her knees in front of her. Beg for forgiveness. Assure the head of the school board it would never happen again, and that this one heinous act was unrepresentative of her general conduct. Of course, being the fine, upstanding mare she was, Spoiled would take the teacher's fervent apology in good grace, but tell her she was still getting the sack. Not just because of her blatant act of criminality, but down to the fact that she just didn't like Cheerilee all that much. She made the children too obstinately happy when they should be putting their muzzles to the grindstone, and she was planning to replace her with a firm disciplinarian to make the foals less recalcitrant towards authority. So... Bye bye, see you later, don't forget to pick up your severance cheque as the door hits you on the way out.

Shockingly though, whereas such dire consequences for her misdeeds would have left Cheerilee in floods of tears just the day before, now the biggest reaction they provoked was a look of confusion, and a raised eyebrow from the teacher. And instead of the educator responding, it was Twilight herself who provided the counterpoint, gently taking Spoiled's chin in hoof again and staring into her eyes..

"Don't you get it, Mrs Rich?" Twilight told the still levitating older mare. "All your power and influence is gone. At my behest, you were suspended from your current occupation, and after witnessing your behaviour today, I will do all I can to make that suspension permanent. As far as 'trespassing' is concerned I must say, you have a bit of a cheek to be lecturing anypony. After all, who was it that went to Diamond Apple's room, against her and my express wishes, in complete breach of a restraining order? If you were such a paragon of virtue, wouldn't you at least have respected that? And who knows what unspeakable things you did in there to make her cry so much? Frankly, this is an attitude unbefitting any pony, let alone one in such a position of trust! So, Cheerilee will continue broadening children's minds and making them smile, and your replacement, I assure you, will be cut from the same cloth. Now, going back to what I was discussing a minute ago..."

The lavender-tinted Spoiled visibly wilted under the gaze of the princess, but still remained defiant. It was an absolute disgrace that such an unworthy mare who spent most of her early life avoiding others should be elevated to the higher echelons in a role that was clearly way beyond her meager abilities. Add to that the fact that her long-time nemesis Cheerilee apparently no longer feared her, and instead seemed to empathise with the supposed ordeal she'd gone through at Whinneans, and you had a very sorry state of affairs indeed. She should be lording it over ineffectual ponies such as this, not taking orders or accepting their pity. This would require some very delicate thinking to get out of...

Then, it hit her. She'd use their own penchant for compassion against them. If she gave them the idea they could 'redeem' her, the way they 'redeemed' her daughter, then maybe they'd go easy on her. Show some weakness. Reveal a chink in the armour. Then, she'd strike...

"Oh, who am I kidding..." Spoiled sighed, putting on her most mournful face. " I'm just grandstanding. My life, as I know it, is over. I've lost my daughter. I've lost my job. Even my own husband won't want anything to do with me, when he finds out what I've done. I'm a hopeless case, and I have been for many years. I hide my insecurities behind my family name, and take my frustrations out on them, too. What else am I supposed to do, when I have no worth outside my income, and a cutie mark I've never understood? And that's not even getting into what happened to me at that... Place. Every time I think about it, the mere thought gives me chills, and sometimes I wake up in bed screaming. B-but you have to understand princess, that I'm a proud mare, and that's why I've never looked for help before to deal with my issues, b-because I know that everypony else will laugh if they hear the 'imperious' Spoiled Rich is a crybaby. T-they'll think it's what I deserved. T-they'll mock me in the street. I-I don't think I could take that kind of rejection. I-I'm not as self-assured as I appear to be, as hard as that is to believe. T-truth be told, I h-hate myself right now. A-and I d-don't k-know, w-what to d-do n-next..."

There then followed a long outpouring of largely crocodile tears. They were quite convincing ones too, not surprising if you consider the amount of practice she'd had with trying them out on Filthy whenever she desired a new bauble. Hopefully, the unsuspecting pair in front of her would be just as gullible...

To be frank, Twilight and Cheerilee didn't know what to believe. This unrelenting, unfeeling mare in front of them reduced to such a maudlin, quivering wreck in a matter of seconds barely seemed possible. This couldn't be the same Spoiled who'd ran the school with such a hardline fanaticism for years, routinely discriminating against children because of their backgrounds, blank flanks etc. while elevating Diamond to unprecedented heights and overlooking her worst excesses as 'part of her nature'. The same Spoiled who'd refused to accept the jurisdiction of the Princess Of Friendship, as well as insulting virtually every other pony around, even issuing threats against a harmless farm filly?

It was an impossible contrast to make. Yet, the sniveling, repentant figure floating around seemed a world away from the narcissistic monster the duo were more used to, and something twanged in the heart of both of them after witnessing Spoiled's brilliantly-conceived fake breakdown. Which of course, was exactly what she'd anticipated.

Hesitantly at first, Twilight wrapped her wings around Spoiled's despondent form, to softly whisper in her ear. "Shh. It's okay. I don't know what you've gone through in your life, or the extent to what it's affecting you now, but if you're really being honest about your feelings and want to talk, I'm always willing to listen. You're still going to be kept in confinement until your trial, and you'll have to pay for the misdemeanors you committed. If I feel that you're truly ready to begin the road to redemption though, and tell me in detail what made you the way you are now, I might start to think that you're not totally beyond saving. And believe me, I'd didn't think I'd be saying that a few minutes ago..."

"R-really?" Spoiled's red, tear stained eyes looked up from where they were pressed against the alicorn's fur. "Y-you'd do that, f-for me?.

"Really." Twilight confirmed. "You can start taking about it now, considering we have a ways to go before we reach the mansion. Cheerilee, you can go home, if you like. Thank you for coming down to deliver this photograph, and helping me to understand the situation better. I already knew you were a credit to your profession, but to go to these kind of lengths, to help somepony out you have every reason to dislike, shows true character."

"No problem. Although to be honest, I did it as much for Diamond Tiara...Or Apple, as you called her earlier, as much as anypony..." Cheerilee looked perplexed at the former bully's new surname, until a whisper in her ear from Twilight brought her up to date. "Aha, I see. Well, maybe it's for the best. Mrs Rich, I know we've had our differences, in fact most of the time together we've ending up bickering, or even worse. But, and I sincerely mean this, I hope you find whatever it is you're looking for. You have a true talent for organisation, and when you want to be, you can be quite the public speaker. I just hope you utilise those gifts for a better cause one day. I shall continue to teach the colts and fillies of Ponyville Elementary to the best of my skills, to stop them from ending up with the same mentality they must have pressed on you at St Whinneans. I'm sure Twilight here is planning on looking into that place at the earliest opportunity, and I suspect and hope it won't be around for much longer. Now, I'll be off. Good luck to both of you..."

With a slight nod, Cheerilee took her leave, trotting back to her sad existence as a lonely singleton, Spoiled noted. Still, a couple of things the foolish creature had said about the older mare held water. She would 'find what she was looking for', although what that was would certainly not be to the teacher's taste. As for utilising her talents at public speaking and organisation, she was doing that right now. Her charm and charisma were conning everypony into thinking she was remorseful over her actions and wanted to divulge her 'tragic' past, whereas the organisation part would be in full effect when she 'organised' her inevitable freedom from custody, with her daughter in tow. Even if it was the sympathy vote, she'd win whatever the cost. She'd play that jury like a fiddle...

Her private thoughts were cut short by the sensation of Twilight's wings being removed from her frame, as the alicorn looked at her in a softer way than before. "Are you okay to carry on, now? Sorry I have to keep you imprisoned with my magic, but I can't afford to take any chances. You can start to tell me about your life at boarding school though, if you're prepared. Cheerilee was correct, I intend to look into what goes on there very soon, but if I can get a few first-hoof experiences of ponies who've seen what it's like, it'll make it all the more easy for my inquiry. Plus, who knows. You may stop others from hurting the same way you've told me you did. This could be the start of a whole new life for you, Mrs Rich, if you let us in. Let's see if the old Spoiled Sweet is in there, somewhere. So, shall we begin?"

"Y-yes. I-I feel up to it. T-thank you, princess..." Spoiled started to remove the false tears from around her eyes, to smile at the naive alicorn in front of her as they resumed their journey together, even as she hid a metaphorical switchblade behind her back.
.....................................................................................................................................

"Getcha bones down here, and let me take a good look atcha!" That was the clarion call of one Granny Smith, as Apple Bloom and Diamond Apple shyly descended the bottom step together.

The table had been set, with a plate full of the last of the Zap Apple jam for each pony, and a bowl crammed with large hunks of bread in the centre, perfect for smothering the delicious concoction onto.

In terms of the seating arrangement, Big Mac sat one side, with Applejack and Granny at opposite ends, leaving Bloom and Diamond one side of the table all to themselves.

All those present were smiling vigorously, perhaps a little too much so, Applejack having informed her older relations in advance about their new family member.

Bloom didn't need a second invitation. Leading her new sister to the chair next to hers', she plonked herself down in sync with Diamond, before grabbing two pieces of bread for them both (notably, giving the largest one to the pink filly) and beginning to smear her slice with jam.

"Er... Ain't you forgetting something, sugarcube?" Applejack's firm words took the farm filly out of her routine, while Diamond just looked confused at the pace at which everything was moving.

"What?" A baffled Bloom inquired, about to stuff her face. "Oh yeah, I know. Hi everypony! Thanks for waiting for us. Good enough, Applejack? Now, back to the business at hoof..."

Having said all that, Bloom took her first big bite from the bread. Diamond, who was still not feeling all that hungry despite her delicious first encounter with Zap Apples earlier, glanced around in consternation at the other residents of the table.

'Uncle' Big Mac looked cross. 'Mother' Applejack was upset. Even 'Granny' Granny Smith seemed a little peeved. What could the matter be...

Her question was about to be answered. "That's not what I meant sugarcube, and you know it. I thought you, more than anypony would understand the importance of this day, and help us welcome our newest Apple into the orchard. Before we started eatin'..."

"Yup." came an unmistakable voice.

"You're darn tootin', Missy." Another recognisable sound.

The noises of dissent of course, came from Applejack, Big Mac and Granny Smith, in that order, and led to Apple Bloom turning almost as red as her mane/ribbon.

"Oops. I'm sorry, everypony..." She admitted, somewhat shamefaced. "I guess I've been around Di so much today, it doesn't feel like she's the new filly on the block anymore. She deserves a proper greeting from the rest of ya, at least. Do you want me to start again?" At this point, she began to remove the already chewed food from her mouth.

"No, no, that's fine..." Applejack remonstrated, with her hooves up. "You can swallow that piece. I don't think the filly sitting next to ya would really appreciate that..." She referred to Diamond, who was even now backing her seat away from her ill-mannered new sister.

"Oh, okay." Bloom swallowed, before waiting for her next instructions. "Sorry to you as well, Di. I guess you're not used to seeing others eat like that..."

"I'm 'not used to seeing others eat like that' at the zoo..." Diamond chided, earning a grimace from Bloom, a wry grin from both Mac and Granny, and a shake of the head from Applejack.

"Come on now..." The orange mare rebuked. "We had enough of this on the way here. Settle down, and we'll be able to tuck in before you know it. Now, as is tradition, I'm sure each one of us has something to say to commemorate this special occasion. Who'll go first...?"

"Ooh, ooh!! Me, me!" Apple Bloom's rapid hoof up almost knocked Diamond off her seat. "I've got something I wanna say... In fact, I feel it bursting to come out. Can I start, Applejack?"

"I've think you've spoken enough today to last you for the entire week..." Applejack gave Bloom a weary smile. "But if it'll shut you up, then go ahead. With any luck, we'll get some peace later on now..."

"Thanks, big sis..." Bloom made a point of winking at an aggravated Diamond at this point, knowing full well that she was two months older than the pink filly. In any situation that would make the newest Apple the little sis, something which must annoy her plenty more than she cared to say.

"As you all may know..." Bloom impressively orated, without notes. "Me and Diamond here have had our ups and downs. Mostly downs, it has to be said. I won't go into details as to all the times she got up my nose, because that's all in the past now. What I do want to say, and what I didn't realise at the time, was what was going on in her old home, to make her act out the way she did. Now I've found out the truth, I feel nothing but sympathy for her. And who'd have thought, one day, my former worst enemy would be my cherished sister? We're already friends, but one day I hope I'll love her as if she were a family member. Welcome to the Apples, Di. I'm sure you'll enjoy it here, just as much as we'll love having ya."

At this point, Diamond found herself being pulled into a hug, and her old jadedness ebbed away to be replaced by warm emotion. It was all the pink filly could do to return it.

There wasn't a dry eye in the house at this stage, as everypony was moved at the maturity and depth of Bloom's carefully chosen words. It was going to take something truly exceptional to break this moment...

Like, for instance, Big Mac talking in whole sentences.

"When I first heard you were coming to stay here, I must say I was quite reluctant..." The red stallion articulating himself was such a shock, it separated Bloom and Diamond there and then, as well as earning looks of surprise from the others. "I heard about what went on with you and that grey friend of yours, and I was not best pleased. In fact, if you'd asked me what to do with you recently, I'd have said a good reform school was the answer. But then I heard from my sisters about what was going on at Rich mansion, and how you were trying to change your ways. My initial skepticism was proven wrong, as this morning you showed me you could be polite, courteous and even regretful, when you apologised to Granny Smith. So, after a little consideration, I'm happy to let you stay here. Under one condition..."

Diamond gulped at what Mac was about to say next. His greeting had been more tempered than Bloom's, so his caveat could be anything.

"... That you help me out with my singing. I hear you've got a pretty sweet voice, from multiple sources around Ponyville, who heard you in town the other day. But let's try something more upbeat this time. Something the Ponytones might enjoy..." Big Mac ended his final demand with a wink, and Diamond's sense of relief was palpable. As well as gratitude for having a male role model in her life who probably wasn't going to skip across Equestria at a moment's notice.

"Okay, young 'un. Here's what I have to say..." It was Granny Smith's turn to lay it on the line. "The Apple clan has a rich and diverse history, from beginning to end. Not all of us were born into it, so you get any fears you might have had about being any less a member than anypony else right out of your head now. All we ask is that you work hard, stay loyal and love your fellow Apples, until the end. Do all that, and you're halfway there already. The other half is being happy with yourself. So, if you ever need anything at all, come and talk to your Granny Smith. I'm not just some 'kooky old lady' who has a depository of stories about how I made some spoiled brat's family rich, you know..."

At this pointed reference to the incidence on Family Appreciation Day, there was much hilarity around the table. It wasn't malicious in intent whatsoever though, as anypony could tell by the friendly glint in Granny Smith's eye. Diamond for one wasn't upset at all. She finally got me back. Way to go, old timer...

When the chuckling had subsided a bit, Applejack began to talk. The first words out of her mouth were so profound, they quietened the room almost immediately. "I must admit, I always did want to become a mother one day..." She began.
"But I certainly didn't think it would be this soon, under these conditions. Obviously, nopony would have wanted anything like this to happen to such a little filly, but now that it has, I won't just 'make the best out of the situation'. Diamond Apple, my new daughter, I want you to have a good life here. I want you to feel loved. Cared for. Needed. I want you to walk through that front door every single day, in or out, and think to yourself: This is my home. I belong here. This is where my family live. For as long as you're with us, Diamond, this is my hope for you. And I, along with everypony else at this table, will be doing our best to make that dream a reality. Welcome to Sweet Apple Acres."

Everypony in that room fell silent upon hearing this, with their heads bowed. They had nothing more to add, as Applejack had spoke for all of them. After a few moments of contemplation, it would all be over. They'd all had their say, and it was nearly time to eat. At least, it would have all worked out that way..

If it hadn't been for Diamond leaping off her chair, to navigate around Bloom, and grasp Applejack in a strong, loving embrace.

The words she'd just heard from the orange mare. Those beautiful, tender words...

She'd waited all her life to hear those words. She just hadn't known it.

Now that she had, the slight stirrings of comfort and support she'd experienced earlier had reached a crescendo, to become genuine feelings of belonging.

Which, for all her gaudy trinkets, obscene wealth and huge living area at Rich Mansion, she never got there. Only the briefest of glimpses, on the rare occasions her father was home.

Now, those warm sensations of being loved and learning to love back looked like they were here to stay.

Diamond never wanted to lose touch with them again.

She hugged and she hugged Applejack, as if the orange mare could dispense more love if the pink filly squeezed tighter, until eventually the mare had to object at the sheer pressure of her affection.

"Darling, you're crushing my throat..." She half-laughed, half-gasped for breath, quite surprised that a child with such little physical training could be so deceptively powerful. "I'm happy you're here too, and they'll be lots more cuddles and fun times ahead, mark my words. But for now, you better get something down ya. After all, from this point on, they'll be nothing but Apple related dishes on the menu for us. No bread, no cereal, no eggs. Nothing else. We only got all that stuff today because we wanted to get you settled in, and now it seems you are, we can take it away. So, best to make the most of it, while you still can..."

Diamond peeled back her emotions for a moment, to lift her head from her foster mother's chest and let out a mistrustful snort. "Yeah, as if. Did you honestly expect me for fall for that? You've conned me twice today with your 'Apple family tricks', so if you think you can fool me again, you're got another thing coming. Now, tell me the truth."

If Diamond had been attempting to call Applejack's bluff, there was no sign that was going to happen, as the orange mare looked around anxiously at the others there.

"She doesn't like apples? I never knew that..." Apple Bloom was quite perturbed.

"Well, either she eats 'em, or she'll starve..." Granny Smith seemed less amiable than usual.

"Yup". Big Mac had returned to his monosyllabic best.

Diamond, who'd been waiting for a punchline like the last couple of occasions she'd been caught out, suddenly began to sweat a little, soaking Applejack's fur. "What? But, I don't... I mean, I like apples, but... Every single meal?"

The stony faces and silence around the table continued. Diamond gulped with anxiety.

"I mean... Ha ha ha ha!!" The pink filly nervously giggled. "The jokes on you! I was just kidding about what I said! Apples are like, my favourite food! I just can't get enough of them! In fact, there's not enough in this jam! I want more, more, more! And, right now!"

Having begun her performance, Diamond had little choice but to continue it. She hopped off Applejack's lap, and to the bemused looks of all those watching her, soon returned with an hoofful of Apples, which considering who's kitchen they were in, weren't that hard to find.

"See, look! Yummy! Apples!" She began to shove one into her mouth after another, with half of the fruit falling out of her mouth in the process.

She'd about reached the sixth apple, causing a great deal of mess on the floor while doing so, when the penny finally dropped.

There was laughter everywhere again. Not a single Apple there had a straight face, as they banged the table with unrestrained mirth. They didn't say anything, as caught up in their hysterics as they were. They didn't have to.

Diamond saw that they'd got her. Again. They'd tried for the hat-trick, and got it. With ease.

"We're sorry, sugarcube..." Applejack was the first to recover from her joviality. "I guess you could say us Apples love an easy target to play our pranks on. For example, as much as we try to get one over on Golden Delicious, he never falls for anything, so he's a dead loss. Braeburn on the other hand, would believe you if you said the moon's reflection in the water was the real thing. He spent all night at the bottom of the lake, looking for it once. Be careful around the rest of our clan, darlin'... Or you might just find that they've found themselves a new target."

Looking around at the rest of the happy faces gathered around at this juncture, Diamond nodded sagely. Although, she really didn't feel offended at all. It had been a great gag, and a huge change to the usual mean-spirited activities she'd been privy to before. In fact, she'd rather enjoyed it. She was about to tell her foster mother as such...

Before the sound of incessant barking could be heard coming into the room, as Winona made her appearance, wagging tail and all. Usually a friendly dog, something seemed to be agitating her, and she glanced around the area with uncertainty, before continuing to woof frequently.

"Oh, silly me!" Applejack grinned upon seeing the pet who'd missed out on all the fun. "I forgot all about her! Never mind, she never was much one for long-winded speeches. C'mere girl, and say hello proper to the newest Apple! You don't have to chat away like the rest of us, just a lick of the hoof and maybe a scratch behind the ear will do. Get on a move on now, because we're all about to eat..."

But Winona for once, wasn't very interested in socialising, and ran straight to the back door, her paws pressed against the wood. Initially wondering what all the fuss was about, Applejack soon thought she'd figured it out.

"Oh, I get it. You need to go, don't you?" She said, with a half smile. "Well, okay then. Just don't leave too much of a mess this time, It took me two trips to pick it all up yesterday. I've gotta start laying down the law about Apple Bloom feeding you at the table, especially now we have another potential culprit..."

Opening the door so the canine could gain access to the yard, Applejack wandered back to the family meal, where everypony was ready to dive in.

"So, what was all that about?" Bloom asked, eager for a second bite of that delicious homemade bread.

"Ah, nothing. Just Winona wanting to do a number two again, I guess..." Applejack began to settle into her seat.

Upon hearing this, it didn't escape the orange mare's attention that Big Mac glanced at Granny Smith in a thoughtful way, and the veteran returned the odd look.

"What?" Applejack was intrigued at what she was missing.

"It's just a bit weird, that's all." Granny Smith spoke for the pair of them. "Winona did her business just before you came back. I know because Big Mac went outside, to dispose of it himself. Gee, for such a big stallion, he sure kicks up a stink sometimes..."

Ignoring whether her grandma meant to make that pun, Applejack raised a confused eyebrow. "Boy, that is a bit strange. She doesn't normally go with such volume. I wonder then, why she was so intent on..."

Her train of thought was cut by the sound of something tearing outside, complete with a couple of loud shouts, which drove away all thoughts from Diamond of how inappropriate the current discussion was, especially when they were about to eat.

The other Apples looked up in surprise, and despite their growing hunger from their much delayed tea, all bustled together as one, to see what on Equestria was going on outdoors.

Winona reached the entrance first. She seemed much happier now, running and darting around her family members as if she'd achieved some great feat.

"What's going on inside that head of yours, girl?" Apple Bloom reached down to pat her canine companion...

Before noticing something in her mouth. It looked like two strips of expensive material. One green, one pink.

Applejack spotted them too, and took them out of the dog's jaws,

"Now where in tarnation did these come from?" She pondered, scratching her head while peering outside, but seeing nothing.

Bloom and Diamond had a pretty good idea, and turned to look at each other in abject horror.

They'd seen two ponies wearing similarly coloured outfits earlier on, ponies that they'd never forget, ever again.

And, not for the right reasons, either.
.....................................................................................................................................

Rainbow Dash sped through the clouds towards Fluttershy's cottage at a rapid pace, even for her. She knew what a hoofful Angel Bunny could be, as result of their many, many run-ins together.

She also realised that rabbit genuinely loved his owner, but sometimes his attempts to build up Fluttershy's self-esteem went too far, and indeed achieved the reverse effect. At other times, he was just plain pernicious.

Put it this way: If Tank behaved as thoughtlessly as Angel did on occasion, Dash would have been tempted to kick him into the middle of next week.

Of course, the turtle was much more durable on account of his hard shell, and Dash in all likelihood would've just ended up with a bruised hoof. But even so...

The blue Pegasus cleared her thoughts as he approached the edge of the Everfree Forest. Looking down at Fluttershy's habitat, she was glad to see, from the sky at least, everything looked intact. That was a good start.

Landing near the front door, she knocked, and presently the yellow mare herself answered. Looking at her friend's expression, she could tell something was weighing heavily on her mind, but from glancing inside, Dash couldn't see any damage caused by a rampaging bunny. All the cages looked intact, and all the food was safely stored away.

"Er, how you doing, Shy?" Dash stepped inside as her friend made way for her, unsure why Fluttershy seemed so morose when apparently disaster had been averted.

"Sit down, Rainbow Dash..." The yellow mare simply put, as she closed the door before settling into an armchair herself.

This immediately set alarm bells ringing in the blue pegasus's head. She normally only calls me by my full name when something is wrong. I wonder what the matter could be?

Deciding to give her time and space to inform her what the problem was, and knowing how Fluttershy hated to be pushed, a few minutes elapsed.

Finally, from nowhere, the yellow mare piped up again. "Rainbow, can I ask you something?"

"Sure. Anytime, Flutters." Dash braced herself for the question.

"If I knew something serious about somepony else, and they didn't want anypony else to know, but you thought that it would be better for them if somepony else did know, but you'd be betraying their trust, what would you do..?" Fluttershy blurted her words out to such an extent, she was lucky that it was Rainbow Dash who was listening, as hardly anypony else would've been able to keep pace with her escalated words.

"Whoa there..." The blue pegasus got up to put her hooves on her friend's shoulders. "Let me see I can grasp what you're saying: This pony has told you something they don't want you to share, but you feel by sharing it it might help them out, even though it's against their wishes?"

Fluttershy was mildly surprised. That was quite an effective synopsis for Rainbow Dash, who wasn't known for her lateral thinking. "Yes. You see, I was told this thing in confidence, and made a vow to keep it to myself..."

"You didn't make a Pinkie Promise, did you?" Rainbow Dash asked out of concern, remembering how Applejack had broken one in Dodge Junction that one time, which had indirectly led to the party pony being stranded with Rarity in the middle of the desert on a hoofcart.

Sufficed to say the unicorn had not been best pleased on her return to Ponyville, and had given Dash the cold shoulder for a whole week in retribution for abandoning her there, as if she somehow blamed the blue pegasus for having the word 'chemichanga' imprinted in her consciousness.

"No, no. Nothing like that..." Fluttershy confirmed. "I'm just kind of weighing up the options of keeping somepony's trust, versus doing what I think is the right thing, and possibly losing their friendship forever..."

"Oh, I see. Well, that's a tricky one, for sure..." Rainbow sat back down again. "I don't envy your choices, Shy. It sort of sounds like you're screwed either way..."

Realising the error of such a stark answer as soon as the words left her lips, and seeing Fluttershy get more depressed as a result, Rainbow attempted to change the subject to get her mind off things. "Um... How's Angel? You were really worried about him smashing up the place when you left in a hurry, but everything looks fine. Could it be, that those relaxing yoga lessons are actually working?"

"No." Fluttershy replied, bluntly. "The poor dear strained his hind leg during the first session, and it took two weeks of constant meals and bed rest to restore him to health. By the end of it, I felt like the sick one. I must have gone up and down those stairs a hundred times. I should never have given him that bell..."

"Well, that sounds like him alright..." Dash replied with a sigh. "But tell me, if he's just as bad as ever, why didn't he break anything or steal any food while you were gone? By the sound of things,he was in a pretty awful mood when you left..."

"I believe I can answer that one..." An echoing voice sounded out from somewhere. "I decided to pay my good friend Fluttershy a visit earlier on, only to discover she was out. How inconsiderate of her, I'm sure you agree. But I did catch this little one in the middle of a rather unfortunate escapade involving a stick of dynamite and the food supply drawer, and just to show there were no hard feelings, I decided to put a stop to old fuzzy wuzzy's plan, as well as have some fun of my own..."

Rainbow rolled her eyes, while Fluttershy didn't seemed surprised at all. That arrogant tone. That mocking laugh. That weird plume of smoke that was starting to grow, and form into an amalgamated serpent-like figure. It could only be...

Discord appeared in front of them both, clutching a small bunny puppet on strings. "Don't give me that look, Angel. I promised your owner I'd have you back before sundown, and I was true to my word. Somepony needs to punish you, seeing as how your owner, as lovely as she is, is practically a doormat with wings. Besides, you've had a good time , haven't you? We've been for a nice walk in bracing Yakyakistan, performed in the park together in Fillydelphia and I've even introduced you to my good friend The Smooze. Sorry if he got you a teeny bit slimy. He does get kind of grabby, sometimes..."

Part 44: That Night Section 3

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"What do you see?" Upper Crust whispered to her husband, as she gradually lost patience with his reticence.

"For the tenth time, nothing!" Jet Set responded, as he stood precariously on the edge of a rusty bucket, looking into Sweet Apple Acres. "If these rubes would wash their windows once in a while, this would be so much easier..."

Upper Crust sighed at the ineptitude of her partner. "If you want something done..." She remarked, before pushing forward an empty crate to stand alongside him.

"Hey, wait..." Jet Set raised an eyebrow. "That seems much more secure than what I'm stationed on. Why didn't you point that box out to me in the first..."

"Quiet!" The grey stallion's wife hissed, as she attempted to peer inside the ramshackle building, shoving him aside so she could get a better glimpse.

Upper Crust couldn't believe what she was doing. Surrounded by the sound of grunting pigs, the swaying of apple trees and various shades of dirt and grime, this could honestly be described as a nightmare come to life for her.

But, as Spoiled Rich had told her, repeated surveillance of Diamond's activities was a very important matter. And, seeing as how Upper Crust and her husband had agreed to help her unconditionally, even the slightest observation could be crucial in getting the desired verdict at the upcoming trial.

Even if it meant missing the train back to Canterlot, sneaking around town like a common thief, and peeping into this most undesirable of addresses during late evening. All this, to help out an ugly mare who neither her or Jet Set had really known anything about before that morning...

The truth was, Upper Crust had no idea why she felt so obligated to follow Diamond around with such tenacity. There was nothing in it for her, save for the alleged kudos she'd get for preventing a somewhat speculative conflict between the rich and the poor, that the pink filly's cutie mark might start off, such was it's influence.

That lucky little... Upper Crust took a moment to glance at her own symbol of three money signs. A very nice one to be sure, which summed up her life's philosophy well enough. But just imagine having a beautiful crown emblazoned on there instead, and the ability to order anypony to do what you want...

Upper Crust had never wanted a family. She was quite happy to live on her family's accounts, as well as taking a little from Jet Set's side, too. But, she couldn't help but feel somewhat maternal whenever she looked at Diamond. She could imagine taking the youngster to various functions, and everypony there being impressed with the filly's manner and appearence. It would open all kinds of new doors for her, socially...

A sorry creature like Spoiled didn't deserve such a pretty filly. Especially as she'd known about her daughter's true talent for months, and had, as of yet, failed to exploit it properly even once. If Diamond was Upper Crust's child, things would be very different.

There would be no foolish talk of boarding schools, for a start. Upper Crust would act like a true mother to the precious youngster, by spending every waking hour with her. They'd wow the aristocracy together, as a perfect team. Between the filly's natural born gifts, and the older mare's knack at using them, they'd have the elite eating out of their hooves.

Oh, and Jet Set could help out too, of course. By staying out of the way

It was a shame all of these idealistic visions would never come to pass. Unless...

"Hey, can you hear me, dear?"

"Mmm, what is it, my servant?" Upper Crust responded, deeply entrenched in her mental wonderland.

"Servant? What are you talking about? I was just trying to let you know, that I hear somepony coming close from inside..."

"What?" Upper Crust broke out of her delusions, and realised it was her husband who was speaking to her. "Well, better late than never, I suppose. Now, let's see what we can find out about the target."

Whether the main focus of their attention was Diamond, to watch for any signs she might be suffering as a result of her unfamiliar surroundings, or Applejack, to see if the orange mare put one hoof wrong in the raising of her new foster child, neither pony knew. But anything incriminating, inflammatory or just plain indecent could blow the case against Spoiled wide open, and that's what the pair were crossing their hooves for.

Through the gloom of the murky glass, they saw two indistinct figures stroll past. It was hard to make out who was who through the poor lighting, but Upper Crust thought she had it worked out.

"Why, it's Diamond herself, and that Apple Bloom beast with her, I'd wager." She scoffed, to the confused expression of Jet Set. "I can easily tell them apart too, darling. Diamond carries around with her a certain pride and elegance in her gait, whereas the farm pony trudges around as if she's stamping on ants. Can you see? You really should try looking harder, dear."

"B-but, I am. It's just they're both wearing bows, they're both the same height, I can't make out their colouring..." Her husband tried to excuse himself.

"Perhaps I'm being too hard on you. It must be a thing only us sophisticated females can understand. Or maybe you just don't understand the fairer sex. I have to admit, that wouldn't be too much of a shock if it turned out to be true..."

"... There's no need to be that way, my sweet. I am doing my best..."

"Oh, and since when was that ever enough?! Now, I must insist you shut up, darling. I'm hearing snatches of what sounds like an interesting conversation..."

"B-but..."

"Dear, you don't want me to have to raise my voice again? Not now, of course, since I'm sure neither one of us wants to be caught by the rednecks. But it you want your next seven days to be relatively comfortable, you know what I suggest you do..."

"... I'll be good, I'll be good."

The pair eventually settled down to eavesdrop in peace for the next half-hour, and with it being a still night they were able to pick up on a lot of what was going on inside. Bloom and Applejack's heartfelt declaration of love towards Diamond made Upper Crust want to gag, and the rest of the dinner time chatter seemed pointless and arbitrary.

"Oh well..." She remarked with a sigh. "At least I know the good stuff is coming later on. Did you hear them mention something about 'a family meeting' on the way here? I bet that'll be a little more gripping than this tedious small-talk. Honestly, all they seem to care about is apples and playing stupid pranks. Isn't that right dear? ...Dear?"

Jet Set didn't answer straightaway. It was his turn now to be caught in a world of his own, as he heard what was going on inside the farmhouse. Not so much what was being said, but the other noises. The sounds of a happy family. Laughter. Merriment. Ponies talking to each others, instead of being ordered about. It was so different to what he'd grown accustomed to...

"Ouch!" The grey stallion felt something poke him in the eye, as his glasses were pulled up. "Sorry I had to do that dear." Upper Crust lamented. "But letting your mind wander when we have a job to do is simply not on. You should be focused at all times, not indulging in your private fantasies."

"B-but, you were just doing the same..." Jet Set bravely decided to point out.

"No time for that, darling..." Upper Crust cut him for what seemed like the thousandth time that day. "I think I hear something else..."

And, indeed she did. It was the sound of a door being opened, followed by a soft padding on the floor. Both ponies looked down from their vantage point, to see a brown and white dog staring up at them.

Upper Crust rolled her eyes upon seeing this common looking animal. "What's this flea-ridden mongrel doing here? It must belong to those Apples. I can tell, because it seems just as dirty and scruffy as the rest of those hicks. Run along, mutt. Can't you see we're in the middle of something, here?" She turned away, as if expecting the canine to obey her command simply because of who was stating it.

But the dog did not 'go away', as a still watching Jet Set nervously observed. Instead, a low growl emitted from it's mouth, and it began to approach the well-off duo cautiously, it's teeth bared. "Er, sweetheart..." The grey stallion began to shake a little, almost upturning the pail he was standing on in the process.

Sighing with annoyance, Upper Crust spun around once again. "I suppose it's too much to expect this riff-raff to be able to afford proper dog training lessons." She said. "Tell you what pooch. You get lost now, and I won't leave an anonymous tip to the authorities that there's a dangerous animal staying... YOWCH!"

Funnily enough, Winona was too determined to protect her family, then listen to any half-baked threats she couldn't understand anyway. Lunging forward, she bit Upper Crust in the midriff, going right through her fancy outfit.

Taken by surprise that such a lowly creature would have the audacity to chomp down on somepony of her prestige, the yellow mare's next reaction was to run around screaming, with the canine clinging onto her as if for dear life. "Jet Set, what are you doing, you useless donkey?! Get this thing off me this instant!!"

The grey stallion didn't act for a few moments. Somewhere, in the depths of his beaten sub-conscience, he was deriving a modicum of pleasure from seeing his wife be the victim for a change... But that soon passed, when he realised the folly of any delayed reaction. It would lead to at least two weeks worth of relentless nagging, apologising and gift-buying to make it up to his 'beloved'. He wasn't going through that again.

So, it was with a heavy heart he closed in on his panicking partner and Winona, to grasp the dog with both forehooves to pull her off. After a couple of yanks, he succeeded in his mission, although he got both the pet and a piece of his wife's frock into the bargain...

As well as the dog's jaws clamped around his own stomach.

OW! OW! OW! OW! Now it was Jet Set's turn to make a song and dance about the situation, while his wife attended to her dress.

"Upper Crust! Help me! I think I can feel the teeth piercing my flesh! This is terrible!"

"You're absolutely right! Just look at this red stain on my favourite traveling outfit. It'll take a day's worth of washing to get it out, and I'll have to find just the right tailor to fix the rip..."

"You're missing the point, here! I'm in agony!"

"Is that so? Well, you better get that creature off of you, then. I think we should go now, anyway. All this caterwauling you're making is sure to have attracted the attention of those reprobates inside..."

"I made? But you were just as... OW!"

Sigh. "Oh well Jet Set, it looks as though it's up to your smart wife to get you out of yet another mess. Really, how did you cope without me, for so many years is a complete mystery..."

"JUST GET IT OFF ME!!"

"Very well..."

Shaking her head at her silly husband's tomfoolery, Upper Crust sauntered over to him, before removing the dog in one swift movement.

Momentarily distracted by the suddenness of the action, as well as now having two pieces of posh clothing to munch on, Winona hesitated for a moment, allowing both snobs to gallop off into the night, with Jet Set taking the lead.

"Darling, can you mind where you're running? You're getting mud all over me..."

"UPPER CRUST, WOULD YOU JUST SHUSH FOR ONCE AND KEEP GOING!!"

"Wha..."

"YOU HEARD ME! WE HAVE MORE IMPORTANT THINGS TO WORRY ABOUT NOW THAN THE STATE OF YOUR FUR! NOW, STEP ON IT!"

"Y-yes d-dear."

Later on, Jet Set would ponder the wisdom of his brutish behaviour back there. His wife would remind him of it. In every little remark, stare and exasperated sigh. For the next two months, at least, he estimated.

But by Celestia, it was worth it.

........................................................................................................................................................................

"... Then, they attached electrodes underneath my hooves, and flipped the switch! All I did was say 'thank you for the lovely meal'! That certainly taught me the dangers of being polite to the cook..." A suspended, both from her job and quite literally in the air, Spoiled sobbed bogusly, as she was led to the mansion by the princess.

"Oh, my. I can't believe how much you've been through. No wonder it's hard for you to trust or make friends with anypony..." Despite trying to keep a level head, Twilight was almost in tears at her prisoner's brilliant playacting.

So far, Spoiled had spun tales of being slapped when she opened the door for another pony, whipped when she laughed during morning assembly and even waterboarded when she dared say that common ponies should be able to congregate with the wealthy. Needless to say, she didn't make that last suggestion again in a hurry.

But, aside from all that, there were the lessons. Always look after number one. How valuable nice ponies were, so they could be exploited and manipulated. Marry well. Look good. Know that you're better than everypony else. And a sworn commitment from all pupils, that if they had daughters, the fillies themselves would be enlisted there too, so they'd be ready for later life.

Just the thought of all those innocent minds being corrupted and little bodies being tortured was enough to make Twilight want to fly there right there and then to shut it down. She couldn't believe such a place existed in modern Equestria... Had any of the other princesses even heard of it? If not, what had kept it from the public eye for so long?

For now though, she had other matters to take care of. Namely, the pitiful mare floating in front of her, tears rolling down her cheeks, a complete turnaround from the aggressively insolent Spoiled Rich that all of their previous encounters had introduced.

"I'll tell you..." Twilight spoke softly, as the pair made their way up the steps to the entrance of the mansion. "What you've just described to me is one of the most horrific things I've ever heard. And you say, this has been going on for generations? Young ponies being taking from their home under the auspices of their parents, to be forcibly indoctrinated and abused in such an awful way? I-it doesn't even bear thinking about..."

Turning on the waterworks again, Spoiled nodded. "T-that's r-right, princess. T-the worst part was, w-whenever I went home for Hearth's Warming, I-I told my mother and father what went on there, a-and they laughed in my face! T-they said if anything, I-I had it too easy there! M-my dad told me there was a male equivalent boarding school for stallions, c-called Greybreyers, a-and apparently it's ten times worse! H-he a-actually said he was jealous of me!"

"WHAT!" Twilight exclaimed. "T-there's more than one of these places?!" A vision of where Blueblood might have picked up his discourteous behaviour flashed through her mind, but she quickly dismissed it. She was positive the royal family would never send any of their own to such a fate. Right?

"Yes, there is..." Spoiled confirmed, wiping her fake tears away. "In fact, both schools are very popular among those at the top. I barely got in myself, and mother had to sell half of her business to book me a place for seven years. I think I know why it's so expensive, because the school bribes a lot of other ponies to keep quiet about it, so the transition can go on..."

"Unbelievable..." Twilight shook her head in anger. This was going to take a lot more work than she thought. "So, tell me. Your parents. Are they still alive? And, if they are, I'd very much to have a word with them, too. Mainly to ask what on Equestria they were thinking, ruining your life like that..."

"You mean Mama Spoiled Rotten and Papa Sour Sweet?" The prisoner replied. "Yes, they're both fine. In fact, they were due to come for a visit soon, to celebrate their granddaughter's admission into Whinneans. If you really want to speak to them, all you have to do is wait until next week..."

"No, I think I'll talk to them a bit sooner than that. Like, tomorrow." Twilight stated, with determination. "And if I don't think their explanation for what they did to you is good enough, charges could be pending for them, too."

"Oh please, princess..." Spoiled begged, partly as a result of her performance, but also a little genuinely because she really did adore her parents. "They only decided what they thought was right, at the time. Their relations did it, and their ancestors past that... It's been a tradition going back as far as our family tree will allow."

"Well, it's a 'tradition' that'll be coming to an end soon, if I have anything to say on the matter." Twilight frowned. "And regardless with what happened in the past, your mother and father can't escape what they've done. It was their decision to send you there, nopony else's. But, I'm glad you spoke in their defense. It shows you have a heart, after all that they've done to you. Maybe there's hope for you yet..."

Spoiled caught herself beaming at the alicorn's compliment, but quickly caught herself before anypony could see. My plan appears to be working she thought let's see if the next phase can run as smoothly...

"So, here's what's going to happen..." Twilight continued, as she rang the bell. "You're going to tell me the exact location of both of these so-called 'schools', then me and the princesses will launch a thorough investigation. I would also like the home address of your parents, so I can discover the process behind how each child is picked, and why they commit to such an atrocity in the first place. In return, I'll come and see you every day during your incarceration, and we can talk more about what you think and feel, as well as design strategies to help you cope. I can't say I'm a trained counsellor, but I've read a few books on the subject, and that's better than nothing, right?"

The alicorn gave a hopeful grin at this point, to which Spoiled gave a similarly happy smile. But, inside she was thinking Oh, if only she knew the truth. I'm got her strung up like one of Octavia's prized violins. Who'd have though somepony so bookish could be so dumb...

Her thought bubble faded as the door opened, and there stood Randolph. "Oh, hello Miss Sparkle. And, hello to you too, Ma'am. I almost didn't see you up there. Miss Sparkle, your room in the study is ready for you. And Ma'am, the coal cellar in prepared for you as well. It's been cleaned up for your arrival. Do wipe your hooves on the way in. Of course, for those who levitated all the way here, that isn't really necessary..."

.........................................................................................................

Teatime had not been an especially pleasant experience for Diamond Apple. Or her new sister, Apple Bloom.

After Winona's confrontation with Upper Crust and Jet Set, Applejack had decided to probe further into just what on Equestria had made that loud noise outside, and had soon uncovered the upturned bucket and crate by the window.

Wondering why anypony would be interested enough in the Apple family to bother snooping, she nevertheless realised that the interlopers were long gone. She had her own thoughts about what their intentions could have been, but decided to leave them until after the meal. If she'd left it any longer, the bread would probably go stale.

Dinner was eaten in almost complete silence. This in itself would have been just fine for Diamond and Bloom, because they had enough to chew on already with the reappearance of a certain duo, never mind their food.

But, what really got to both fillies was the stares around the table. The looks that read You're keeping something from us and Why aren't you telling your family about it.

The focus on them was so intense, it was enough to make both fillies sweat throughout the meal, and almost achieved the impossible feat of ruining the delicious taste of Zap Apple jam in Diamond's mouth.

Almost, but not quite. She still managed a few strangled groans of contentment.

As soon as it was over, Diamond and Bloom were hurriedly ushered out of the dining room by Applejack, while Granny Smith began to clear away the empty plates, and Big Mac started the taps running.

Finding themselves in the living area of the house, both new sisters were obligated to sit down, while Applejack closed the door so she could address them in private.

"Now, this was going to be a family meeting..." The orange mare informed her charges. "But seeing all the other stuff which has gone on this evening, I kind of figure it would be easier for both of you to talk to me two-on-one, rather than have the others interrupt. After all, it's not like they fully understand everything yet, and I'd rather do the explaining when you two are in bed..."

Diamond and Bloom looked at each other with trepidation, unsure whether this was good or bad news. In the meantime, Applejack continued.

"So, first off I was kind of thinking to myself: Who in tarnation would want to spy on us Apples? We don't have any secrets, apart from our cider recipe. And I hardly think anypony would learn that by peeking through our window in the evening. Then, a thought occurred to me. What's changed since yesterday in this house, that could explain this oddness? I'll tell you what... It's you Diamond."

The pink filly gulped down hard, before glancing from left to right. "Me?"

Applejack nodded firmly. "That's right. Now I'm not saying me and my kin ain't happy to have you here. You're now an official member of the family, and we wouldn't have it any other way. But, and I think you realise this yourself, you do come with a lot of baggage, as well as a mother that seems set on winning you back at any cost..."

"But, she's no longer my mother!" Shouted Diamond at this juncture, jumping up and stamping an angry hoof on the floor. "You're my mother! I never want to see that awful pony ever again!" She growled defiantly at the orange mare, being returning to her seat in a huff, hooves crossed.

Applejack had conflicting emotions of happiness at her foster daughter's somewhat virulent exclamation of love, and worry over what exactly Spoiled had done that was so terrible it had made the pink filly hate her so much.

"Be that as it may..." Applejack remarked. "The fact remains, she doesn't see it that way. And I reckon she's the kind of mare who'd try everything in the book to get you to return. She might be locked up now, but I wouldn't be shocked to find out she had the resources to pull something like this off..."

"...P-pull s-something like what off?" Diamond seemed a little frightened all of a sudden, despite being comforted by Apple Bloom, who always seemed ready for an outburst from her new sister.

"I mean, having you watched." Applejack put it to her, bluntly. "There's plenty of ponies who'll do anything 'round here for an easy bit. In fact, I would say they might even have followed us home today. I did see something in the shadows out of the corner of my eye, but I just put it down to a trick of the light..."

"D-don't b-be silly, big sis..." Bloom commented, worried that the orange mare might be close to the truth. " Y-you're being overprotective again. Just like that time I made a mess in the kitchen..."

"Yes, yes. We'll save that for one of our story nights, I reckon..." Applejack was not eager to dwell on one of her worst moments. "In fact, I suppose I should warn you, Apple Bloom, you're included in this as well. Twilight told me earlier that Mrs Rich is none too happy with you, either. I would even say, you might be in either greater danger than Diamond. Which is why, if either of you know anything about what's going on, I think you should tell me now..."

Bloom visibly shrunk upon hearing about this implied threat to her life. When her fellow Crusaders had told her their fears for her safety, she brushed it off as a mere flight of fancy. My friends are over-exaggerating things as usual. Nothing to worry about...

But now, hearing her big sister say very similar things, without a hint of humour to them, She began to pale a little. Would Spoiled really go after me, just for befriending her daughter, and making her a better pony? The farm filly started to shake, and it was Diamond's turn to do the solacing.

Applejack hated to lay all this pressure on ones so young, she really did. But the pair had to know what was at stake here. If Spoiled was as ruthless as she suspected, then all kinds of stuff could happen between now and the trial. And, she wanted them to be ready for it. Of course it would help if they spilled their guts, too...

"Sis, I think I might know..." That was Bloom, in the hooves of Diamond, beginning a sentence. Clearly terrified by what she'd just been told, she was prepared to blurt something out. Applejack was all ears...

Until Diamond, looking absolutely mortified at what could follow, quickly put her hoof in Bloom's mouth to prevent the secret from being revealed.

Diamond followed this up by whispering something in her new sister's ear, quickly getting the farm filly to calm down. The pink hoof was withdrawn, and Bloom was able to give a more tacit answer: "I mean... I have no idea. Sorry."

Applejack was no fool. Despite the express denial of her little sister, she was now absolutely positive that this was yet something else they were keeping from her. And, she intended to find out what it was.

"Come on, you two. I wasn't born yesterday. I know something is going on. You're holding a lot of stuff back from me, ain'tcha? Between what happened at the hospital, and the disturbance outside, I think I deserve at least an explanation..."

"WELL, YOU CAN'T HAVE ONE!" Diamond was fed up of all this probing, and lost her temper without warning.

Applejack was so taken aback by the intensity of her foster daughter, she jolted back in her chair. Apple Bloom, still in a state from this suggested threat to her life, stopped sniffling for a second to glance at her new sister in amazement.

Sensing the stunned reaction she was getting from both sides, Diamond decided to reign it in a bit. "Er... What I mean to say is... I don't feel like talking about it, yet. I really appreciate all you're doing for me Applejack, and I want to think of this place as my new home. But I ask you, if it's not too much to say, have a little patience with me. I want to tell you everything, really I do, but please respect my wishes when I say I'm not quite ready yet."

Despite being disappointed with the secrecy on display, Applejack could not resist a wry smile at how mature the child sounded. She could see a shining future for Diamond, whatever she decided to do. "Very well, then. I trust you, sugarcube. But, I want you to promise me something. The very minute something like this happens again, or I feel any of our lives are in jeopardy. I don't want any excuses. You get everything off your chest. No ifs. No buts. And, that goes for you too, Apple Bloom. As much as I respect your privacy, there has to be some limits. And, endangering this family is one of them. Do you understand?"

"Yes." Diamond nodded. That seemed fair enough to her.

"....Yes" Apple Bloom seemed a little more uncertain.

"Good. Now, the pair of you can go upstairs and play." Applejack got out of her seat. "I'm gonna stay down here to help Big Mac with the washing-up. The big galoot is a great worker, but he's got two left hooves. In fact, he's liable to..."

SMASH! That came from the kitchen.

The orange mare rolled her eyes, as if she'd heard that noise all too often. "See what I mean? Talk about jinxing it. If I don't see you both before bedtime, I'll be up to tuck you in. You didn't have a story before you went to sleep, did you Diamond?"

"No." The pink filly answered sharply, as though it was the easiest question in the world.

"Ah, of course..." Applejack suddenly remembered who her old mother was. "In that case, this'll be your first one. I think all of us could do with a relaxing tale before we get some shuteye. Well, Catch y'all later. I'll be down here if you need me, cleaning the floor, most likely..."

With that, the orange mare took her leave. The next to depart was Diamond, who shot her new sister a dirty look before she ascended the steps. "Upstairs. Now. We need to discuss something." She said between gritted teeth.

Apple Bloom sighed at what she was sure was bound to follow, but complied anyway.

A couple of hours ago she couldn't stop talking.

If only it was so easy now.
........................................................................................................

Legal Eagle watched his daughter sleep for a long time that night.

He'd put her to bed an hour ago, but still couldn't pull himself away from her side. He watched her chest gently rise, gently fall, and he began to ponder.

Was she dreaming? And if she was, were they about him? What did she see in her head... A brave man, fighting in court for the little folk? If only she knew the truth...

Though he didn't want to admit it, that heroic caricature she drew of him earlier had stung more than he'd realised. It had bought home the huge disparity between his only child's admiration of him to the cold, hard reality.

And, considering what the vile creature he was defending had done, threw things into an even sharper contrast. How could he look his filly in the eye and tell her to be proud of him, when he could be getting a client off scot-free, who was culpable of doing unspeakable things to her own daughter. It just didn't add up.

Now, he had a decision to make. He could either do the right thing, and risk losing everything he'd ever worked for. Or do the wrong thing, and carry on as normal. Being the world's biggest hypocrite.

Of course, usually the choice would be easy. He'd been doing the 'wrong' thing all of his life. He'd told one lie after another in court, to convict the innocent and release the guilty. He'd made a very lucrative career out of it. He'd disposed of that useless thing called a 'conscience' long ago, and this time should be no different...

The problem was though, this time it was different, no matter how hard he tried to deny it. It was a subject matter that hit him especially close to home now, and one which almost drove him to tears just thinking about. He could no longer not declare a personal interest in this case, after what Spoiled had told him. And now, everything was on the line, depending on his decision...

"She's so cute when she's asleep, isn't she?" Home Maker's warm words from the doorway intruded on the lawyer's thoughts, and he hastily pulled himself together.

"Yes... Yes, she is." Legal Eagle smiled at his wife, before returning to his vigil. "Our little miracle."

"She worships the ground you walk on, you know..." Home Maker entered the room. "And with good reason, too..." She affirmed her point by giving her husband a peck on the cheek.

Legal Eagle went from feeling like a million bits to barely a single one in an instant. His head sagged, as he spoke to his wife. "Sweetheart, can I ask you something?"

"Of course, darling!" Home Maker went to his side, before putting his hoof through hers'. "It's nothing serious, is it?"

"No, no..." The lawyer fibbed. "It's just... Do you think ponies should fight for what's right in every situation, no matter how much they stand to lose from it? I mean, sure most ponies would choose good over evil in all circumstances, but reality is sometimes a bit more complicated than that. I wish I could explain it better, without going into a lot of detail..."

"It's okay, dear..." Home Maker continued to smile, as she massaged her husband's temple. "I think I know exactly what this is about."

"Y-you d-do?" Legal Eagle found himself stammering, for some reason.

"Yes, of course. You're saying that, because your opponent in court is a princess, you're worried about possible future repercussions..." Home Maker's voice took on a sterner tone. "I must confess, when you explained to me about this case before we arrived, I had my own reservations. But, when I see in my mind, the face of that poor filly being taken away from her mother by that wicked Twilight, I can barely contain my anger at the abuse of power she's demonstrating. So, do it darling. Stand up for what you believe in. And any problems that come our way, we'll handle them together. As we always have, and as we always will."

A single tear dribbled down Legal Eagle's cheek, upon hearing his beloved's pep talk. What did I ever do to deserve a wonderful mare like you he thought.

Suddenly, it was like his whole perspective on things had changed. Looking at his beautiful daughter curled up in her blanket, comfortable in her slumber. Seeing his faithful wife by his side, ready to stand with him no matter what.

Then, compare those two flawless elements, with him. A sleazy, downmarket, nasty piece of work, who'd squandered the numerous gifts that were given to him to upper class trash. How could he call himself a good father. How could he call himself a good husband. How could he look in the mirror...

He was going to do it. He was going to tell all. If he didn't, he would regret it forever. Only by doing that, could he even begin to redeem himself in the eyes of his family. Afterwards, they might not want to see him again. They may even disown him.

But, at least he'd be able to live with himself. That he'd put a monster like that behind bars. And that would be something pure he'd done right in his whole impure existence.

He looked once more at the love of his life, as the nightlight caught her mane perfectly. "Did I ever tell you..." He recited "How wonderful you are?"

"Oh, stop it!" Home Maker giggled, playfully pushing him away. "You're making me blush!"

"Well, it's true..." Legal Eagle said. "And, because of what you just told me, you may have just helped me to make the biggest decision of my life all that easier."

"Oh, well. Good! I guess..." Home Maker replied, slightly confused. "To celebrate then, would you like a cup of tea? I bought some of those herbal ones you like today..."

"Coffee will be fine, thanks." Legal Eagle responded. "I have a feeling I'll be pulling a late one tonight. I have plenty to prepare before tomorrow."

"Sure thing!" Home Maker was about to leave the room, but was stopped before she could do so.

"Whatever happens next, always remember... I love you." Legal Eagle words sounded a little corny, but based on what could happen next, they could be tragically prophetic.

"Err... Okay." Home Maker was charmed, but a little bemused at this unexpected outpouring of affection. "And, I love you too. But I'm not going anywhere, and neither are you. So, quit being so soppy, and get with your work. I expect you to win this case, then we can all go on that vacation to Manehattan you promised you would take us on months ago. So, stop slacking, Mr Lawyer, and do your duty!"

With that, she gave him another kiss on the muzzle and a friendly wink before she left him for real this time, humming a happy tune all the way down the corridor.

Legal Eagle watched her depart with a look of adoration, before glancing back at his still sleeping daughter with the same expression. If I have any regrets over what I'm about to do, it's possibly losing you two...

The lawyer stood up, to begin his evening's work. He would have to prepare an awful lot of paperwork, to indict his own client. Legal Eagle began to walk out of the room...

Before two pieces of paper suddenly flew out of his bag, to nestle on the floor. Odd. I'm sure I put everything away securely, when I left the hospital. Let's see what they are...

The first was the picture that Libra Scales had painted of him earlier. His wife must have popped it in his bag for 'inspiration'. Looking at the image now, knowing what he was about to do, he didn't feel so bad. He could still be her superhero. He could still be the good guy. He just didn't know if he could be her 'dad', that's all.

The second was a little more oblique. A large envelope, with his name written on the front, in nice, cursive handwriting. Baffled, he opened it up there and then...

Almost immediately, dozens of photographs fell out. Initially taken aback by their presence, the lawyers look of surprise turned to horror when he saw what was on them. And they were scattered all over his daughter's room...

With the world spinning, and suddenly feeling dry in the mouth, he swiftly picked them all up, before stuffing them back in the envelope. As he did so, he noticed a letter. Numbly, he read it there and then.

Dear Mr Eagle

Thank you for being the best lawyer a mare like me could possibly want, and more besides, as these pictures will demonstrate. I would like to say I hired somepony to take photos of our numerous trysts to keep as souvenirs, but sadly that wasn't the point. I especially like the graphic close-ups. My daughter means the world to me, and I am willing to go to any means to secure her release from her foul new environment. And yes, that includes blackmailing the corrupt lawyer, as ironic as that sounds. What you see here is just a small taste of the hundreds of images I've had developed, that even now are waiting to sent off. Where, you might ask? Well, let's see. Your address. Your filly's kindergarten. Your parent's house. Your head office. Need I go on? It would be safe to say, that not only would you lose everything, you'd be a public disgrace too. Did you really think I'd tell you such pertinent information today, if I didn't have a little something up my sleeve? Not likely. And, in case this little incentive isn't enough, a small reminder that I know people in high places who could do serious harm to members of your family. Yes, even the younger ones. I hate to use such barbaric practices, but in doing so I hope to impose upon you just how desperate I am to win this case. All you have to do is be a good boy, and do what you do best. It doesn't come simpler than that. As soon as my precious Diamond is safely ensconced in Whinneans, I shall burn all the original negatives, and we can all move on with our lives. You can't say fairer than that, can you? Once again, thank you for being the temporary hunky lover I've always deserved, but never got. It's a shame I can't keep you, but I'm sure they'll be others. Say Hi to Home Maker and Libra Scales for me. Tell them to stay safe. Even though, it's really all in your hooves.

Take Care
Mrs Spoiled Rich xx

P.S There are two other smaller letters in this envelope. One for my parent's house in Fillydelphia, the other to good old St Whinneans itself. Do be a dear, and send them off first thing in the morning, priority class, please. Remember, everypony you care about depends on it! Thank you, sweetums!

Legal Eagle read it again. And again. Each time, feeling just a little bit queasier.

This was a mare he'd slept with. That he'd shared some truly private moments with. That he'd agreed to represent.

And now... She planned to take everything from him.

That, he could live with. He'd already made his peace with that possibility.

But, to humiliate his wife and daughter too... As well as threaten their physical well being...

That was an entirely different matter altogether.

He ran out of the bedroom, to avoid waking up the filly with his cries.

Everything seemed so clear-cut just a few minutes ago...

Now, it looked like the world was collapsing again. With him at the epicentre.